Documentary Photographer and Filmmaker

How to pack for the road less traveled

on November 13, 2010 with 0 and 0 in category Filmmaking, Travel tagged as , , , , , , , , ,
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I take for granted and and enjoy the constant motion and chaos of travel.  For the last 18 years I have moved every two years and lived outside the United States for 14 of those years.  Even when based in one location for a while, I use it as a launching pad to go on trips to other places.  For example when I lived in Pakistan for a few years, I traveled to Nepal, India, Thailand, Afghanistan, United Arab Emirates, Kenya, Peru, Ecuador, Galapagos, France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, Luxemburg, Switzerland, and England. Packing and unpacking has become the norm for me.

I was at PDN Photo Plus in New York this year and had someone ask me how I packed for trips.  Some people were “surprised” that I carry “fancy” camera equipment to inhospitable places.  I realized packing had become second nature and that I give it little or no thought.  I had become numb to many people’s greatest concern of “What do I pack?”  I took a step back and realized that I have developed an unwritten formula for my traveling.

I decided to look at how different friends and photographers pack for their trips.  Joey Lawrence (better known as JoeyL) and I met up with close friend and conflict photographer Guy Calaf to help him pack for a two month photo assignment in Ethiopia.  JoeyL has also taken multiple trips to Ethiopia and recently had a documentary filmed about his most recent trip into Ethiopia called “Faces of a Vanishing World.”  Between the three of us we have over six years combined time in Ethiopia, and Guy and I have over three years in Afghanistan.  Both Guy and JoeyL are going to be shooting unrelated photo projects in Ethiopia in November/December.   I wanted introduce Joey and Guy in New York so they could keep in touch while in Ethiopia.

We joked that the older we get the more equipment we take with us and the more dependent we are on roller bags.  Guy and I both have started to shoot HD video in addition to our still photography projects.  The addition of video has doubled, if not tripled, the weight of what we carry.  The ability to take one camera body and one lens into the field is one thing I love about photography.  On Joey’s first trip to Ethiopia, he packed only a PhaseOne 645 camera, a PocketWizard and a single Profoto 7B studio strobe.  Unlike still photography, I learned quickly that you can’t consistently shoot great HDDSLR video with the SLR camera alone.  The addition of external audio, shotgun mics, rails, follow focus, tripods, fluid heads, all stacked around your Canon 1D Mark IV, or 5D Mark II, make the once nimble devices look like a family’s station wagon on the way to Walley World.  But damn, the Canon 5D Mark II can take some amazing video footage!

I think the romance of a photojournalist dashing in and out of Landcruisers in the Middle East is rapidly getting replaced by full film crews with cases of gear to stream live multi media events to you.  If you are working on a commercial film production or television advertisement, then you carry even more gear with you.  I was recently out with my friend Vincent Laforet while she shot a TV commercial in New York.  His most recent assignment has him traveling from New York to Barcelona to Shanghai.  When on a commercial assignment, you need quality and redundancy.  My motto is “Two is one and one is none”.  For Vincent’s travels he is taking over 800 punds of kit with him!  Thats 22 Pelican and Kata cases that his assistant Marcus (Good Dude), has to drag in and out of each airport.  If you are going big, then make sure you have an inventory list.  I recommend keeping a list of all gear broke down by case.  Before backing each case, ensure all items are present and accounted for.  Before you leave a location count your cases to make sure you have them all.

Vincent Laforet’s gear for a week long trip to Spain to shoot a TV commercial.

Go light, go fast, go low profile (If you can)
I love Pelican cases and Kata bags but I rarely use camera bags when traveling to remote areas.  In my opinion these custom camera cases are way to heavy.  I find the biggest problem these cases is that they look like camera bags and they bring too much attention to you.  I try to never pack more than I can carry myself.  My rule of thumb is that I have to be able to drag all my stuff for at least two miles (4 kilometers) without any assistance.  If traveling to a very remote area I carry one small backpack that works as carry-on and a large expidition backpack.  I also bring one large duffle bag.  For carry-on I use a Tumi roller carry on bag and pack clothes around my camera kit.  I love the Patagonia Stellar Black Hole Bag because it is rubberized and waterproof, and it does not have huge logos like a North Face bag.  As I stack on the weight, I use the Eagle Creek ORV Super Trunk.  The bag is long enough for tripods, stands, etc. Often, I just put my large Arcteryx backpack in it to wheel through airports and to the hotel.  I try to take cameras and very expensive items in the airplane cabin with me.  If I have to belly load some camera gear, I put it in a smaller Pelican case, then inside a duffel bag.  This conceals the “steal me” box and protects the gear.  Having an extra cheap duffle bag has been a life saver at the airport because I can break apart an overweight bag to distribute weight.
7 Step Bag Problem
For full disclosure, I should tell you I have a serious bag problem.  I have over 15 backpacks, 8 roller bags, Pelican cases, Tenba Air cases, and to count any more will only make me realize the magnitude of my problem.  Several of the cases were custom made by the manufacturer for my precise gear requirements.  I even have a backpack that you can swim with.  For a year in Afghanistan, I lived in a conex box and my tables, chairs, and furniture were all Pelican cases.  I like having gear fit in its own custom home, but I often use clothes as packing material for cameras. For each trip I take a bag that is just the right size.  I have bags and cases from most major manufacturers, as well as many custom shops to choose from.

Packing for trip to Moab Utah

My quick Rules for packing international:
  • Passport (Get a second passport so you can have it processing for visas while you are traveling on the other one)
  • Two Photocopies of your passport and visas (Great to have if your Passport is lost)
  • Shot Records with Yellow Fever stamp
  • Emergency phone numbers of family and Embassy of places visiting (On paper not on iPad, iPhone or other electronic device)
Communication Equipment:
  • Always have a 3G international phone (buy a new sim card in each country for cheap local rates and to have a local number)
  • Get a Google Voice phone number and have it forward voice mail to your email/SMS
  • 15″ MacBook Pro and two G-tech 1TB portable Firewire 800 Drives
  • For remote travel, always carry a Thuraya satellite phone if traveling to Africa, or the Middle East
  • Explorer 110 or Sabre Inmarsat BGAN if your are traveling to remote or conflict areas.

Tents, Solar and Photo Gear packing for Mount Everest

Travel Tips:
  • Have your bags look like crap, but dress very well (sports jacket) on the plane and in the airport. Being well dressed gets you better service and often upgrades.
  • Belong to a frequent flyer club with gold status or better:
    • It allows you to use the business lounge with internet, shower, food
    • Authorizes you additional weight and extra baggage on most international air carriers
    • Shorter lines when you check in
Clothes:
  • 1 expedition hard shell Gortex jacket (I like Arc’teryx but Mountain Hardware and North Face is just as good)
  • 1 expedition hard shell Gortex pants
  • 1 soft shell jacket
  • 3 pair pants
  • 5 sets wicking boxers
  • 6 pair Smartwool socks
  • 4 wicking shirts
  • 1 Smartwool long sleeve shirt
  • 1 pair Vasque Boots
  • 1 pair Keen sandals
  • 1 white dress shirt
  • 1 blue blazer

Medical

  • Tourniquet
  • Israeli Bandage
  • Cipro (antibiotic)
  • Flagyl (Anti Parasitic)
  • Ibuprofen
  • Doxycycline (anti malaria and general antibiotic)
  • Zithromax Z-Pak (antibiotic for bronchial infections)
  • Katadyn Micropur water purification tablets

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