Travel Lighter, Pack Smarter

I had to pack for a trip to Peru and the Galapagos the other day. I hate packing. What I hate even more is carrying too many bags, and bags that are too heavy. My goal for this 16-day trip was to not check any bags, to reduce what I had to carry around on planes, trains, cars, and boats, and to avoid any excess fees that airlines now charge for checking bags. But, with these extremely photogenic destinations, how would I get away with this? Spoiler alert: I still had to check a bag containing strictly my underwater camera gear. I tried my best to get the underwater case in my carryon but it was a lost cause.

Here are some questions you should ask yourself in the beginning of your packing process. Doing this reduces my ten-day gear-packing process to a mere five days (or thereabouts).

  • What kinds of subjects do I anticipate shooting mostly? Portraits, landscapes, cityscapes…?
  • Which methods of transportation will I be using and are there any restrictions? I would be limited to a daypack on the train to Aguascalientes and would need to carry one bag containing camera gear and a change of clothes; the flight to the Galapagos has restriction of 44 pounds per person and fines go up after that.
  • What kind of camera bag will I need on a daily basis? Will I be primarily hiking, walking around the city, jumping in taxis…?
  • What will the climate be like? Will I have any dust/rain/saltwater to contend with?

This trip provided a unique challenge for my “pack light” objective since I’d be shooting a mix of landscapes via day hikes, urban scenes, portraiture, and underwater photography.

For urban photography I don’t like to advertise that I’m carrying around some expensive camera gear. Think Tank Photo makes some great unmarked heavy-duty canvas bags that look like messenger bags from the outside, but have padded compartments on the inside for an SLR, a couple of lenses, a speedlite, and some miscellaneous odds & ends. I use this for my “personal item” on airplanes, and it’ll also hold a small laptop or tablet. They also come with a raincover. This bag was my go-to bag on dinghy trips between ship and shore for over a year and hasn’t shown any signs of rust or corrosion.

The shoulder bags don’t work well for hikes though. After an hour or so I have to switch shoulders and keep that dance going all day. I’d need a separate backpack-type bag for hikes and daytrips. F-Stop Gear has a line of sturdy bags that work great for carrying camera gear and personal items. I wanted to bring my F-Stop Gear Kenti bag but it wouldn’t be big enough to use as my carryon bag for all of my clothes. So I took the padded compartments out of the bag, stuffed it with clothes, and put all of this inside my larger carryon pack with remaining personal items. Upon arrival at my destination I could restore the padded compartments and move my camera gear into this bag, along with two days’ worth of clothes and toiletries for a side trip.

I always work from “what bags am I carrying” and then “what gear can I fit in there”, and rework if needed. I like this approach over “what gear do I want to bring” then “what bags will I need to carry all of this”. I find that I bring way too much gear that I don’t use if I don’t first limit what I can carry.


Go back to the questions you asked yourself earlier, about what you’d be shooting. Since I’d be shooting landscapes I wanted to bring my 17-40mm wide zoom. For urban photography and portraiture I packed with a versatile 24-105mm. I also wanted coverage with a 70-200mm for wildlife in the Galapagos, along with my 400mm lens, but this would put me over the top.   I’ve been happy with my 2x teleconverter, and I can use that with my 70-200mm if I really need it to get an equivalent 400mm. Just know that when you use this you’ll lose the fast apertures you’d otherwise have without it. If I were just doing portraits I’d probably bring a prime lens and leave the telephoto zoom at home.


I wanted to bring at least one speedlite for portraiture and use it for sidelight to give texture to walls of ruins. You’ll need a way to get the flash off-camera, so I packed my Zebra ETTL cord. A RadioPopper or other such remote device is good to bring if you’ll have the flash further from the camera, like in a different room. I limited myself to one speedlite, to force myself to get creative with available light. For light modification I threw in a packet of gels, gel holder, and a diffuser screen that a travel companion can hold by hand. Lastolite makes some collapsible softboxes but they’re rather bulky when traveling light. I use the collapsible Photogenic Chameleon diffuser screens. These screens come with a zippered cover to convert it into a silver or gold reflector.

Storage & Power

I’m going to burn through memory cards! I don’t ever carry cards greater than 8GB. If all of my photos are on one 32 or 64GB card, and I lose that card or it corrupts, then I’ve lost everything. So I carry 4-5 8GB cards. I transfer everything to my lightweight MacBook Air and then back it up on a LaCie Rugged portable drive. For power, I packed one extra battery and the charger. Today’s DSLRs have batteries that last for days and days, so I find it unnecessary to carry more than two, but it’s a good idea to have a least two fully-charged batteries.

I left the tripod at home because I wasn’t anticipating any low-light shooting or staged portraits. I did throw a Gorillapod in my pack just in case I needed to mount the camera to something. I’ve found these sturdy enough for a DSLR and medium lens.

And that’s it! It’s a learning experience every time. I learn to work with what I have, then take notes about how I might do it differently next time.  I suggest you work with the same approach.

What do you have to add?



This entry was posted by John Peltier.

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