Packing 101
September 23rd, 2010

I’m getting ready to pack for a photography trip (to Thailand and then Nepal for a WTF workshop); so I thought I’d take a moment to explain my packing strategy, which is to divide everything into three categories: 1) Carry-on or Bust, 2) Carry-on but Gate-checkable, and 3) Checked Luggage. The first two categories travel with me, while the third is checked.

Carry-on or Bust (aka, Vital and Breakable)
This category includes my laptop, lenses, and SLR bodies. These items never leave my reach. They go in the overhead compartment, under the seat in front of me or stay on my body. I’ll go from nice and polite to begging profusely on my hands and knees to keep these items from being checked into the caged-deathmatch of an airplane’s luggage hold. They have to stay with me, and everything is fair game for accomplishing that. This includes surreptitiously removing gate-check tags as I walk down the jetway if necessary. (Yes. I have. But you have to know for certain, better than the gate agent, that the bag will fit.) One way or another, these items are getting on the plane (that is, in the cabin of the plane) with me.

It’s because of these items that I don’t want gate agents to ever notice me. I want my bag to look like it fits into the watch-pocket of tight trousers on a skinny kid and weighs about as much as a dry hummingbird feather. I have to be very careful how I pack these items as I must be certain that they’ll fit on the plane. Meeting size restrictions for carry-ons isn’t enough to guarantee this as most of my trips begin on small commuter planes (ie, “puddle jumpers”). I check carefully which make and model airplane I’m on and pack accordingly. For some planes, one of my backpacks will work. For others, I have to divide these items into two smaller bags – one that will definitely fit overhead and one that will fit under the seat. Packing these items so that they stay with me on the plane has absolute priority.

Carry-on but Gate-checkable (aka, Vital and Not Excessively Breakable)
In an ideal world, I could check these items with my luggage. I’m not terribly concerned with these items breaking. My primary concern is in guaranteeing that they arrive with me. Items in this category include external hard drives (although these switch to category one, Carry-on or Bust, when full for the return trip), flash cards, card reader, battery charger(s), and some cables (all of which can become checked luggage for the return trip). I can’t check these items as there is a measurable probability that they won’t arrive. I’d estimate that about 3% of the time my checked luggage doesn’t arrive with me. That’s a problem. I have also had checked bags opened and items stolen. That’s an even bigger problem (and results in one hell of a fight with the airline). If airlines could solve these very real problems, then I would happily check all the items in this category. There are also some non-essential, in-flight comfort items that get put into this category (space permitting) because I’m willing to let them be gate checked. Those include noise-isolating earbuds (which I’m trying on this trip as replacements to my much larger, but very effective, noise-canceling headphones), a blow-up neck pillow (yes, it really does make a difference; call me soft!), a book (you know, a real oneā€¦ printed on paper), etc.

I only get one carry-on bag and one “personal item”, which happens to also look a lot like a bag. :-) Let’s call the latter the “computer bag” as that’s a permissible “personal item”. The stuff in these two categories tends to be mixed between the carry-on and the “computer bag”, which does sometimes have a computer in it (or it’s in the backpack). Usually stuff that I know I won’t need while traveling goes into the carry-on. It’s larger, and it locks. So I put it in an overhead bin and forget about it, while I concentrate on the pain and discomfort of modern air travel. The other bag goes under the seat in front of me, which fortuitously assists with my traveling discomfort. After all, who really needs a place to put their legs?

When I know that I’m going to be on a particularly small “puddle jumper”, like a small CRJ, then I plan for the items in this category to be gate checked. In those cases, I have to pack the vital and breakable items separately and in a bag (or bags) that will 100%, definitely, without a doubt fit in the cabin of whatever the plane is. (It helps to know planes well.) For puddle jumpers, everything in the “Carry-on but Gate-checkable” category goes into a bag that will be gate checked.

Checked Luggage (aka, Everything Else)
Mostly this is clothing, toiletries, etc., but I also put my tripod in my checked bag. It’s just too unwieldily to carry on, and I figure that should I try to carry it on sooner or later some TSA agent will decide that it looks like a potential weapon. The idea of then stuffing a carbon fiber tripod into a bin full of bottled water, nail clippers and other incredibly-dangerous, confiscated items really doesn’t appeal to me. So I pack it and cross a few fingers. Any strobe stands, light modifiers, etc. also end up in checked luggage. There are also a lot more various cables as well as lens and sensor cleaning supplies that go into my checked luggage. And, of course, the Leatherman has to be checked.

Over the last few years my checked luggage has usually been one or two Storm Cases. Unfortunately, they’re quite heavy. And recently, on every single one of my trips they have exceeded the maximum weight allowance for checked bags (usually by a pound or less but sometimes a bit more). Admittedly, stuffing one with nine liters of olive oil didn’t help, but what’s a boy to do? You just can’t get the really, really good stuff on this side of the Atlantic. I haven’t been forced to pay extra yet, but it’s just a matter of time. So I’ve changed luggage. I now have a ridiculously-expensive but exceptionally light polycarbonate suitcase. Empty it weighs 13 pounds (or nearly 6 liters of olive oil!) LESS than my Storm Case. That’s a huge difference; so we’ll see how it goes.

Well, that’s my strategy. It’s three categories, and a combination of bags that includes two carry-ons or one carry-on and one gate-checked, nearly carry-on and then one or two checked bags. I really can’t claim to have perfected it yet as it sometimes feels like performance art, but these are the strategies that currently work for me.

PS – My new computer isn’t yet connected to my photo library; so no photo with this post. I’ll sort that out when I get back, but I hope to post a couple of times from Nepal (and perhaps Thailand).

5 Responses to “Packing 101”

  1. Ed says:

    Ooof, so much to think about and organize. Sounds like a real job to do. Have a great trip though!

  2. The continuous travel odisy of the photographer :-)
    I take my camera gear is a small Pelikan case that fits overhead or under the cair.
    The problem is that it weighs 17.5kg and the limit the airlines allow is 7kg!
    I’ve used authority, begging and joking to overcome the obstacles and get it on board with me. I keep telling the ground staf that surely if I was 20kg heavier they would still allow me a 7kg bag and since I’m so slim they should simply let me go :-)
    I’ve been lucky so far and I hope that the fact that I read this post now does nor mean I will have a problem tomorrow morning on the small plane going to Manali on my way to Spiti.
    Let’s see. If something happens I’ll consider blaming you for the evil eye :-) )
    Have a good trip :-) Sephi

  3. Chris Ward says:

    How do you go about getting something gate checked? What size is it? Are you only gate checking this if you can’t take it on board, or planned to check.

    So total number? 4?

    1) Carry on
    2) personal item
    3) gate checked item
    4) check and pray item

  4. Jeffrey Chapman says:

    Chris, it’s one carry-on that is sometimes gate-checked and one personal item that is always carried on.

    Gate-check usually occurs in one of two ways. For planes that have a jetway, they give you a gate-check tag to put on your bag and have you leave the bag at the end of the jetway as you board the plane. When you disembark they return your bag to you on the arrival jetway. For planes that are on the tarmac (ie, you have to go outside), they usually have you deposit bags to gate-check (always with a gate-check tag) into a trolley. You retrieve in the same way (from a trolley next to the plane upon arrival). This is only done on small commuter planes. Basically they take your carry-on from you and put it directly into a cargo area of the plane and then return it to you. In an ideal world, it works smoothly, and they treat your bag with respect. In the real world they sometimes just throw them from the plane onto the tarmac, which, of course, is extremely hard and not very kind to the likes of lenses.

    Sephi, I swear that whatever happens it won’t be my fault, but I’ll cross my fingers for you as well!

    Thanks Ed.

  5. Jeffrey,

    I really, really wish I was worrying about packing to go with you right about now…Enjoy the trip!

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