How to find the Best Carry-On Luggage for Camera and Video Rigs

Over the last few weeks I’ve been trying to wrap my head around a seemingly impossible problem – and I like solving impossible problems. Let me rephrase that – I like trying to solve impossible problems.

thinktank airport

What’s the best carry-on luggage for video rigs? That’s what I’ll attempt to answer in this article. But first, let’s get the obvious out of the way. There’s always a “cheat” to get things done. Here are a few:

  • Fool the person standing at the check-in counter,
  • Stuff your gear in your pockets,
  • Carry a heavy bag and pay for excess baggage,
  • Check in your baggage,
  • Hire an assistant or mule,
  • Get an extra seat,
  • Travel first class,
  • Buy your own plane,
  • Ship your gear, and so on

I’ve done the first five. I didn’t buy an extra seat, but convinced the airline crew to give me one for free so my camcorder (no bag) can have its own seat.

My point is, sometimes you will get lucky. However, as a general strategy it’s not very wise to rely on chance to save you. Better to be master of your own destiny…to whatever extent the airlines will let you anyway.

So, the goal of this article is to find a general overriding strategy to lug your camera gear as carry-on luggage. As far as I’m concerned, a good carry-on bag or case must clear these four hurdles:

  • It must fit the overhead space
  • It must be durable enough to withstand check-ins whenever carry on is not possible or allowed
  • It must keep your gear organized, and shouldn’t put it at risk.
  • It must allow easy access for security verification.

Let’s start with gear. What gear are we talking about exactly?

Types of camera gear and how to break it down

I’m strictly talking of video gear, and there are only three possibilities here:

  • Break down your gear into individual items
  • Have everything ready-to-go, or carry a shoulder camcorder
  • A little bit of both (not possible if you have one large camcorder)

And when I say ‘gear’, I don’t mean a camera body with two lenses. A full production-worthy rig can involve the following:

  • Matte box
  • Follow focus system
  • Filter sets
  • Large batteries
  • Cage
  • Monitor and/or EVF
  • Arms, mounts
  • Baseplates, rods
  • Top handle, etc.

Even a small compact rig can weigh upwards of 9 lbs (4 kg) easily. The upper limit is dictated by the airlines, so maybe now’s the time to know our limits.

The limits of carry-on luggage for international travel

Every airline is different, but – there are few aircraft models available for commercial travel, and there’s only so much overhead cabin space – especially in economy class. Here’s a list of major international airlines with their limits (click to enlarge):
AirlineBaggageAllowances

  • * Very Important: Do NOT rely on this information. It could be plain wrong. Many airlines have different rules for different routes.
  • **These airlines typically allow you to carry a second carry-on “personal” bag
  • ^There is no explicit mention of carry on weight
  • ^^I have no clue why this number is so large, but it’s on their website – I know which airline I’d pick!
  • Correction: The minimum breadth in inches is not 13, but 14.

Occasionally, you will travel in small airplanes where all the rules go out the window. Sometimes you will not be allowed any cabin luggage at all, but we must deal with these challenges on a case-by-case basis. Generally, I think we can safely assume if we’re buying luggage strictly for carry-on, then we can formulate our strategy around these limits:

EXTERIOR L W H
Imperial Inch 22 14 8
lbs 11-15 lbs
Metric cm 55 35 20
kg 5-7 kgs

However, these are the exterior dimensions. If you want to protect your gear somewhat, you need at least an inch of foam or padding around your gear on all sides. Even if you’re careful with your carry-on bag, it can still fall or be knocked about. The maximum interior size possible is as follows (in reality it will be lower due to thickness of material, shape, accessories, design, etc.):

INTERIOR L W H
Imperial Inch 21 13 7
Metric cm 53 33 18

So all that’s left is to find a bag that fits these specifications and we’re good to go, right? Wrong.

The problem of weight

The Sony A7s is a small camera, but it weighs about 0.5 kg (1 lbs). A 24-70mm f/4 lens weighs about the same. Add another lens and some accessories and you’ll be easily pushing 2 kg (4.4 lbs).

My A7s rig with cage, rails, follow focus system, 130Wh brick, baseplate, Atomos Shogun and accessories reaches 5 kg (11 lbs) excluding a matte box. With matte box, I estimate it will be about 6 kg (13 lbs). I could get rid of some accessories and bring it down a bit, but I need a bag or case that only weighs about 1.5 kg (3.3 lbs) maximum, including foam.

So, what’s the problem? Here are the weights of a few popular carry-on roller bags or cases:

Bag Weight (kg) Weight (lbs)
Thinktank Retrospective 30 (too small) 1.5 3.2
World’s lightest IT Luggage 2.2 5
Samsonite Black Label Firelite 2.0 4.4
Generic Carry-on roller 3.0 6.6
Delsey Helium Aero 3.4 7.5
Thinktank Airport International v2.0 4.3 9.5
Pelican Elite Carry-on (no foam) 4.5 9.9
Pelican 1510 without foam 5.4 12.0

Your bag or case is likely to weigh about 3 kg (6.6 lbs) at least, and that’s almost half of our gear weight. E.g., the Pelican 1510 with foam weighs 6.17kg (13.6 lbs). so there’s no way you can call it a carry-on case for international travel. Even the Thinktank v2.0, one of the most popular carry-on bags on the planet, takes up at least 4.3 kg (9.5 lbs) without padding or accessories. There’s hardly anything left over for your video gear.

It’s hard for any bag manufacturer to make roller bags under 3 kg and still make it super tough.

The problem of size

Weight isn’t the only problem. Here are the sizes of the same popular ‘carry-on’ bags against our external specifications:

L W H
Thinktank Airport International v2.0 53.3 35.6 20.3
Pelican Elite Carry-on (no foam) 55.9 35.1 22.86
Pelican 1510 without foam 54.9 35.0 22.9
Delsey Helium Aero 53.34 38.1 22.86
Samsonite Black Label Firelite 56.51 39.37 19.81
World’s lightest IT Luggage 53.3 35.5 24
Requirement 55 35 20

We all know sometimes you can make a bag fit in the overhead compartment, and only rarely do airline personnel actually measure your bag’s dimensions. The world’s lightest bag falls below requirements. But it is alarming how even the more established bags actually are well above the average specification.

Thinktank’s got it right, but too bad it weighs almost as much as my rig. I own a Retrospective 30, and I think Thinktank makes the best lineup of cloth-bags on the planet. If your rig is light then this might be your best bet.

But most camera rigs are not light.

Sigh, you can’t rely on anybody these days to guarantee carry-on compatibility. I was hoping a Delsey or Samonite might work, but they are too big in one dimension. Now you know why I consider this to be an ‘impossible’ problem.

The problem of physical disability…or laziness

There are different kinds of bags. Here’s a list of pros and cons of each type:

Advantages Disadvantages
Roller bags You don’t have to carry all that weight Too many parts that can fail, smaller internal space due to wheels and frame, larger external size due to the same!
Backpacks The most ergonomic bag to carry Much lower protection of gear, inefficient use of space, not easy to access gear, a pain for security checks
Shoulder bags Very efficient use of space, can be crammed into small cabins, trunks, etc. Probably the worst bag to carry for long – an injury magnet; not easy to organize gear
Hard Cases w/o wheels Better use of space, probably the most perfect bag possible in terms of efficiency; total protection Too heavy to carry, and no good ergonomic way to carry for long periods
Hard cases with wheels Combines the advantages of roller bags and hard cases without wheels Same disadvantages as roller bags, and too much case weight all by itself

To wheels or not to wheels? That’s the question.

There’s no two ways about it. If you want to carry video gear you need lighter bags, and arguably the least important thing on your bag or case are the wheels.

Many people love wheels, and the most common rationale for having them is “the long walk” in an airport terminal. But consider this: You rarely need wheels outside the airport. Sure you can use them in small stretches on streets or offices or studios, but is that a deal breaker?

Let me put it another way. If you’re healthy, you should be able to easily carry 7 kg (15 lbs) without any problem, for hours. Do you need wheels because of injury or disability, or do you need it because you’re lazy or out of shape?

The Pelican 1550 (no wheels and handle) has dimensions of 52.37 x 42.85 x 20.62 cm, and weighs 5.4 kg. Even though it’s too big for carry on, it weighs 15% less than the 1510. That’s almost enough space for an extra 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. It’s for you to decide what your priorities are.

Also, roller bags are not allowed on board many long distance buses (you need to store them in the luggage compartment underneath), so this might be something you want to consider as well. Finally, wheels and handles break, and even if replacement is possible or free you still have to waste time getting it done. What if something breaks during your journey?

Lowepro 500 AW

One shoulder or two?

Recently I hurt my back in a major way carrying my Thinktank Retrospective 30 all day – on the same side. I know better, but when shooting, you sometimes forget these things. For long trips, a shoulder bag is never a good idea. You’ve got enough to think about on a shoot, so why add posture to your list of troubles?

A properly balanced shoulder backpack is definitely the most ergonomic solution out there. One excellent example of a shoulder bag is the F-stop Loka UL, which weighs only 1 kg (2.25 lbs) and has a size of 22″ x 12.5″ x 11″. You can “crush” the bag a bit to make it fit. F-stop also claims their bigger bags can fit carry-on requirements, but then this is true of most cloth bags. Why I specifically like F-stop bags are due to their ICUs, which are basically self-contained cases that go into their shoulder bags. If your bag is too heavy, you can always pull out just the ICU and check-in the bag. Here are the weights of a few F-stop bags along with the largest ICUs they can carry:

Weight of Bag (kg) Weight of largest ICU (kg) Total (kg)
Shinn* 2.3 1 3.3
Satori EXP 1.85 0.93 2.78
Tilopa BC 1.79 0.93 2.72
Loka UL 1 0.76 1.76

*The Shinn is too big for carry-on, and the weight of the largest ICU (Cine) has not been confirmed, and is just a guesstimate. 

Notice how the total weight is almost half the Thinktank Airport, and three times less than a Pelican 1510.

Super-tough, Hard or soft?

This is not an easy decision to make. All of us want to protect our gear, so it would make sense to have the greatest amount of protection, right? But as we have seen, due to their weight, we just can’t have super hard cases as carry on luggage. Also, the tough cases tend to have thick walls, reducing interior space.

Pelican Elite

Probably the most gear-threatening aspect of super-tough cases is their indestructibility. If a case is indestructible, the force that it undergoes must be transferred to whatever is inside (Think: Will a falling elevator protect you? Or will you be safe inside a pelican case if dropped?). The case might survive, but your gear won’t. In many accidents, it’s better to let the case break and release some energy. Most times, your gear is protected by the thickness and quality of the foam inside, and by how much you have spaced your gear apart.

So, we’re left with two options:

  • Tough and durable cloth (like nylon), or
  • Tough plastic – like Polypropylene

Polypropylene bags have some cool features – they are scratch proof (somewhat, so bag-makers can charge you more for their fashionable bags), and they are indestructible (Samsonite asks you to stand on their bags). However, like super-tough cases, any force is transferred inside to your gear, so you’ll need thicker foam and more space between each item.

However, the major fail of cloth bags, especially backpacks, is that it’s heart-stopping to check them in. On airplanes that don’t allow any carry on, even the F-stop ICU won’t be much good, but this is a special case, and not what the average shooter will experience often. If you’re traveling in a small plane, chances are there’s not many of you, and maybe the handlers aren’t as overworked because the frequency of flights are low (otherwise they’d have larger planes!).

Still, there are some situations where this isn’t true. E.g., flights from Jammu and Kashmir in India (a major tourist destination) doesn’t allow carry-on luggage for security reasons, and the flights are still packed.

Aluminum case

What about custom aluminum boxes?

Aluminum boxes are what the majority of camera gear is kept in. It’s lightweight and durable enough for travel. You can create a box to exactly match carry-on specifications and your gear. So what’s the catch? Here are a few:

  • It’s heavier than plastic, so there’s no real benefit weight-wise.
  • It’s rigid, so can’t be crunched or expanded slightly.
  • It’s more expensive to manufacture a good-quality case. Cheap cases will fall apart easily.
  • Aluminum isn’t as tough as Polypropylene.
  • Most so-called aluminum cases have hardboards on all sides.
  • It’s tough to lug around, especially when it hits your ribs or joints every second step

What about cardboard boxes and styrofoam?

All said and done, there is something to be said of cardboard boxes. The gear that you buy came shipped this way. Lots of people wrap ropes around boxes to help them carry it from point A to B. You can also buy rollers like the Travel Smart for that added conconvience.

If you were to ask me what’s the most efficient and elegant method to transport gear, this would be it. You can choose the thickness of the box based on the weight of your gear. You can get custom foam and get it to fit your box precisely. You can get a box with almost the exact specifications you are looking for, so no centimeter of space is wasted. And even after all this, you have possibly the lightest and cheapest way to transport your gear.

In theory.

So what’s the catch? Here are a few:

  • The box is too easy to tear or rip apart.
  • It’s hard to open the box for a security check, so you’ll need to carry tapes…and some sort of blade.
  • Boxes matching your exact specifications are not easy to find.
  • Cutting out foam is time-consuming, and you’ll need to keep doing it for every gear change.
  • Moisture will ruin the cardboard.
  • Long term, the cardboard will start to fall apart structurally, so it’s got good enough for location work.
  • After all is said and done, the weight advantage isn’t that much greater over a Polypropylene bag.

Samsonite Black LabelWhat’s left?

After everything’s said and done, we need a bag with the following features:

  • Tough fabric exterior
  • Low weight
  • No odd shape or extra features or accessories to take up space. Basically a rectangular box inside
  • Some kind of external padding
  • Backpack design, preferably with lumbar support

Basically we need the equivalent of a Red Boxx Skytrain but redesigned for camera gear.

What kind of bag is best…for me?

Bags are extremely personal things. And I haven’t even gone to the fashion statements that they are either. I typically like bags that don’t scream “camera bag”. If you’re protecting your gear from prying forces and prying fingers, you might as well protect it from prying eyes as well.

I don’t like to draw any kind of attention to my bags. I know many people advocate having bright colored bags so you can pick them out easily on the carousel or conveyer belt, but in all my years of travel, I’ve never had a problem identifying my bag. It’s not hard to mark your bag in some way so it’s easy to pick out.

It’s not as if the bag is bright red it will jump off the carousel on to your lap all by itself.

Here are my needs:

  • A bag that does not draw attention
  • No need for wheels
  • No need for a hard case (if I really need it I’ll put it in my checked luggage)
  • Preferably a backpack (shoulder bags only if no other option exists)
  • Must have padding on all sides
  • Must have YKK* zippers
  • Must be weather resistant (not weather proof – it’s not going to rain in the plane)
  • It must weigh less than 3 kg, hopefully with foam
  • It must give me easy access to my gear
  • My local carriers only allow a maximum of 7 kg for all carry on bags, and that includes laptop bags, shopping bags, etc. So some space for a laptop, iPad or similar would be nice.
  • Must be reasonably tamperproof
  • If forced to check-in, the bag must be durable enough to withstand the forces of disgruntled employees
  • The price must be reasonable. A big such as this will last for many years, so I don’t mind paying extra. A 5 year+ warranty will be nice.

*YKK is the company that makes the best zippers, and if a bag has this, it’s a sign of quality (because it’s also expensive!)

Gear-wise, my needs are as follows:

  • Dimensions of rig: 18″ x 10″ x 7″
  • Weight: 6 kg (if I go overweight and can’t manage, the rods and matte box will go in my checked baggage)

Solving the impossible problem – what’s the best carry-on luggage for regular international travel?

Let’s circle back to our first point – the three types of camera gear:

  • Gear as individual items
  • Camera rig ready-to-go, or a large camcorder
  • A little bit of both

Gear as individual items

Even if I break apart my gear, it will still weigh the same. So the question is not really should I separate my rig, but how much of it can I afford to lose if my check-in luggage is stolen or misplaced?

For gear as individual items, here are some bags that meet my needs:

Backpacks

The Satori EXP holds the advantage because of the separate ICU.

Rollers

Camera rig ready-to-go

This is the ideal position I want to be in. Rigging a DSLR with all its accessories is a serious pain – not to mention a waste of time.

If you forget a hex key you’re undone. Sometimes it’s too hot and you’re sweating, or there’s no stable platform to work. Most of the time you just want to shoot quickly and move on. When wages are going lower you need to shoot more per day.

Anybody can tell you to keep your gear separate, but how do you keep it together and still in perfect shape?

Here are some bags that meet my needs:

Shoulder bags

Hard cases – many brands, for example the SKB 8M1711-01 (3.63, 8 lbs)

The backpacks listed above also fill this need.

A little bit of both..or just both, period.

This is probably the position I’m in. Obviously I need a carry-on solution for my ready-to-go rig. But there’s always more gear:

  • Audio recorder, microphones, cables, headphone, etc.
  • Hard drives, Card readers, chargers, SSDs, etc.
  • Additional lenses
  • Large matte box (if it’s too big for carry on)
  • Light meter, color charts, table tripods, sliders, etc.
  • Light stand, lights, etc.
  • Tripod and fluid head
  • Backup camera, miscellaneous gear
  • Your clothes!

Obviously the weary traveller must have a check-in bag for all of the above. If we can only carry 20 kg (44 lbs) of check-in, then we must get creative in our packing.

It’s not just a question of going through airline travel, but also what we’ll do once we get there. We still need to get our gear to location and back to base. We still need to protect our gear from thieves. I’ll always carry the Thinktank Retrospective 30 for my small gear, and it’s easy to stuff into any check-in bag. But that’s not enough.

Here are the actual weights of my gear:

  • My tripod and fluid head weighs 6 kg (13 lbs) – with bag.
  • For a 3-5 day trip, one can estimate about 5 kg (11 lbs) at least for clothes and shoes.
  • My audio gear weighs about 1 kg (2.2 lbs)
  • Miscellaneous items can weigh about 3-5 kg (11 lbs)
  • Total – 17 kg. Unfortunately, I’m only allowed 15 kg total for domestic flights. But if I were to allow for a 20 kg limit, I’ll have to look for a check-in bag that is only about 3-4 kg (7-9 lbs). The Pelicans and other super-tough cases are definitely out.

So either I’m looking to always pay for excess baggage, or hire an assistant.

I hope this long article will help you find your own sweet spot in terms of carry on luggage for video gear. If you know of any bags that fit the bill (I’m sure I’ve missed out on some, but you can only Google so much) please let me know.

What do you think? How do you manage carry on needs?

3 replies on “How to find the Best Carry-On Luggage for Camera and Video Rigs”

  1. This is supremely helpful and informative! Definitely gives me a lot to think about. Thanks!!!

  2. I’m missing solutions from PortaBrace, the premier provider of pro carrying gear for film and broadcast equipment.

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