Baggage Autopsy: A review of the stuff I carry

I’m back in the US sitting in a makeshift office on a folding table in my parent’s basement amongst my boxed up former possessions. It makes a good opportunity to review the what, why and how’s of all the crap I carry with me. It normally isn’t something worth talking about, but the last few weeks has called it into question.

Everyone says you should pack light. I get that. All things being equal, I agree with the advice. However, for me all things are not equal. I travel for months (if not years) at a time and have to carry all my possessions with me. I’m not on vacation with a house full of stuff waiting for me at home. Everything I need I have to carry with me.

The last five months I’ve been carrying around three bags. A large primary backpack for shoes, clothes and my tripod. A small backpack for my computer and a small shoulder bag for my camera and lenses. By the time I hit Spain, my main backpack was weighing in at the airport at over 20kg (44 pounds). My computer bag was insanely heavy as well. It was getting so ridiculous that my back would hurt whenever I had to carry my bags, even over short distances. I knew I would be returning back to the US soon, so I didn’t bother to do an autopsy on my luggage until I got home.

Here are the results….

Backpacking Without A Backpack?

Backpackers use a backpack. It sort almost goes without saying. In talking to people and reading discussions on the subject, the only benefit I can see to using a backpack over a suitcase is that you can’t roll a suitcase if you are walking on an unpaved road or on a trail.

In over three years of traveling, I can’t say I’ve spent a ton of time in places where I couldn’t have used a suitcase. In fact, the more I think about it, there are a lot of advantages to using a suitcase:

  • It is easier to access the content of a suitcase than it is the contents of a backpack.
  • Rolling something is easier than carrying something.
  • There are fewer straps and buckles to get caught and torn off when going through an airport.
  • I think you can pack more efficiently in a suitcase than you can in a bag.
  • You can keep clothes reasonably nice and folded in a suitcase. Forget trying to do that in a backpack. This is important if you want to bring a dinner jacket or something, which I am now considering doing.

Yes, if I want to go up in the mountains a suitcase wont cut it, but I still have my backpack available to me if I want to do that. I’m 95% certain I’m not going to be using a backpack for most of my trips for the rest of the year. The backpack will be saved for trips which will require hiking or trekking. I’m going to start using a suitcase for everything else.

Too Much Crap

Going through my bags I was amazed at the amount of crap I had accumulated. Most of it was in the form of brochures, books and other schwag given to me by companies and hotels I visited. Some of it I should have just thrown away. The rest I should have boxed up and shipped back to the US via the cheapest means possible.

Other stuff accumulates as well. I had not one, not two, but three electrical adaptors in my bag. That was overkill. My video camera is now broken but I kept carrying it around with all its associated cables and accessories. I have stuff in a first aid kit I haven’t used in three years. It was a good idea in theory when I first packed it, but if I need ointments or pepto bismol I can just buy it wherever I happen to be.

I had a water bottle I’ve been carrying with me that I have never used. BAM…Gone.

My new rule is simple: if I don’t actually use something at least once every three months, there is no reason to carry it with me.

Computers, Cameras and Cords…Oh My!

If I wasn’t running this website, the amount of stuff I’d have to carry would be significantly less. This is what separates me from the normal traveler. Electronics and accessories easily constitute the majority of what I carry by weight. The problem is, I don’t have a lot of room to eliminate gear if I want to keep doing what I do at the level I do. Here is a list of the major technology items I carry with me:

  • 15″ Apple MacBook Pro with power cord and power brick. This is essential for photo editing and managing my blog. A smaller laptop just wouldn’t cut it for photos and video.
  • A small bluetooth mouse. Not essential, but it is small and lightweight and makes working so much easier than using the trackpad on my laptop.
  • Three external USB 300gb hard drives. These are essential as they are my primary backup for photos when I travel. If I should lose my photos, I’d be screwed. Online storage for RAW files isn’t an option as you can’t upload multiple gigabytes of data on a daily basis from most hotels.
  • Energizer 15 Minute AA and AAA Battery Charger. Total waste of space. It didn’t work with voltages outside North America. I have since purchased a small battery charger that works on any voltage and doesn’t have a huge, heavy power brick.
  • 6 port Monster Cable Outlets-To-Go. Not essential, but almost. It is small and lightweight the benefit of having it is worth the cost of carrying it.
  • Sanyo Xacti 1000 HD video camera. Somewhere along the line this was broken. I no longer am carrying this or any of the cables for it. One thing that sucked about this is that you had to put the camera in a dock to charge it and get photos off of it.
  • iPod Touch and iPhone. Yes, I carry both with me. The iPod Touch is an old one with a cracked screen. It still works, it is just that the screen is ugly. I carry it with me because it is lightweight and helps in a pinch. The iPhone is mainly in my pocket and I don’t count towards my baggage weight.
  • Nikon D200 with 18-200mm, 12-24mm and 50mm lenses. This is heavy and constitues the majority of the weight of my camera bag. I’m planning (and have been for a year now) to upgrade my camera, but that shouldn’t increase the weight of my gear unless I carry my D200 with me, which I very well might do. I consider the camera and lenses to be essential for what I do and am even considering getting more lenses.
  • Manfroto carbon fiber tripod and ball head. I pack this in my main backpack and it is by far the heaviest single thing I carry. I also can’t see trying to do serious photography without it. My biggest question for moving from a backpack to a suitcase is what to do with the tripod.
  • Cords and other doodads. I carry a bunch of other small things like a piece of Cat-5 cable, shutter release cable for my camera, extra camera batteries, iPhone cable, etc. Most of this falls into the essential category and are things I use on a regular basis.

What to do with all this stuff is a constant question for me. I’m considering getting a Pelican Case for everything and then just have a camera bag I can pack and use when I’m running around for a day. That would condense my stuff down to one large suitcase and one carry-on Pelican Case for my electronics.

Other than moving to a suitcase, I’m not sure how I’ll solve my packing problems, especially with all my technology. I do know that my current situation isn’t really something I want to continue with, but I also can’t really cut back on certain items which make it possible to run my website the way I do on the road. Thankfully, I don’t have to make any big decisions for a few months, which is when I next plan to leave the US.

23 thoughts on “Baggage Autopsy: A review of the stuff I carry”

  1. The thought of trying to edit with a 13″ gives me the heebie geebies. I don’t blame you for your computer choice.

    Same as you, I find the the bulk of my stuff is electronic. Since you like to read, consider a Nook. It has 3G capability, you can load a zillion books and I load all my travel docs or any docs for that matter. Now down to $199. I won’t go anywhere without it. Think out of the box on this one because it is easily accessible from your daypack and reading anywhere is great.

    I went to a spinner bag last year and can’t believe the difference it makes. No more dragging a wheelie around, struggling in the aisle of a plane, running into people/objects, and best of all – no strain on your back. Oh yah, I know, it seems little old ladyish. Try one. You may never look back. For the best deal on luggage, go to Marshalls or TJ Maxx.

    The Scottevest people have it down to a science. The jacket with the zip off sleeves is now my carry on. I can load it with a ton of weight when EasyJet only allows minimal weight in the carry on. It virtually eliminates my daypack/fannypack/backpack during the day. Best travel item I have ever purchased. It also pretty much guarantees the safety of my valuables. After being mugged in Rome and having my arm broken because he wanted my shoulder bag, I am particularly careful. It also is great for keeping lenses handy. I hate digging into a bag for them. Most of the time I now use an 18-250. It surprises the heck out of me and hasn’t disappointed me yet. Isn’t travel all about compromises? I want less baggage, more convenience and the greatest flexibility without losing my electronics and their full capability. Oops – was that a contradiction since I went to one lens? Guess so.

  2. Since you have an iPhone and iPod you might want to check out this solar charger

    It’s super easy to travel with and definitely more convenient to use because you don’t need an outlet to charge your stuff. I, personally, feel like I’m missing an appendage if my iPhone dies, and this thing is a lifesaver.

  3. Gary,
    Have LOVED the blog for quite some time… also been praying for you and yours getting back on track soon. It’s interesting that you are rethinking your gear situation. A 30” rolling duffle and lightweight Civita daypack is all I’ve needed for several-month trips. My cameras and lenses are cushioned in heavy stocking caps or socks and I’ve lived well-equipped from the daypack alone for over a month at a time. My experience is that I enjoy traveling as lightweight and unencumbered as possible. While not quite cutting my toothbrush handles off, I look for anything that pares down the bloat.

    As you know electronics, SLRs and their associated accouterments can be like dragging a shoulder-sagging anchor around. Like Ed said above, a travel tripod (with pro-style ball head) would be a less cumbersome solution. You’d also be pleasantly surprised by some of the new Four-Thirds camera gear out there… the GF1 in particular. Also, 3M Scotchgard, Ziploks and large plastic trash bags are still a great backup plan to keep the dust and rain out of your “water-resistant” luggage when it’s strapped to the top of that rickety old bus.

    Happy travels Gary!

  4. Hi Gary: I struggle with all the same stuff. About four years ago I converted to a medium size backpack and a 22″ rolling softsider suitcase. This works nicely for me, no matter how long I stay out, and I average 4-6 months at a time. I did get some comments about how I’m no longer a backpacker, but I left that for the garbage it was – backpacking is a lifestyle and a way of looking at things that’s not defined by the luggage you use.

    In any case, I carry a 13″ MacBook that handles all my photo and video editing needs just fine (I really don’t think I sacrifice quality by working with a 13″screen). I upgraded it to a 360 Gb HD and carry a 500 Gb external. I also have a SmugMug account that I upload to whenever possible, but as you say, that’s rarely possible from the road. I have a Canon EOS SLR, which I chose over the Nikon because it weighed so much less, but I have had nothing but problems with Canons over the last few years and I’ll probably bite the bullet and go to Nikon now. I couldn’t resolve the problem of a tripod so I’m going without, but would love to change that situation. I also took a video camera along on this latest trip but quickly realized I wasn’t capable of switching back and forth between the camera and camcorder, so went back to using the EOS for video. And for me, there’s also the need to carry heavy boots because of the hiking I do, but I wear them on days I move rather than packing them, even in hot tropical climates. Not comfortable, but better than trying to get them in the suitcase.

    All the equipment – cables and all, goes on my back on travel days. When I get to my destination, I take clothes out of the suitcase and put the laptop & other equipment in it and lock it up, carrying with me only the stuff I need during the day. With what I (we) do for a living, I’d rather give up more clothes than any of my essential equipment.
    Bottom line, it’s always a trade off, but I suspect you’ll be much more comfortable with the suitcase. Be interesting to read your take a few months after the switch.

  5. I totally agree with you on the suitcase vs. backpack part. For my two prior international trips (2 weeks each) I used a backpack. It was really convenient and easy to get on and off of trains, but I have a small frame, and there were times when my back was just killing me! Sometimes when waiting in lines, I had to just take it off and set it down. I recently invested in a nice roll-on suitcase that’s the largest size you can be to still be carry-on, and I took it with me on my recent 2-week Europe trip. It was perfect. Yeah, it was a little harder to get on and off of trains, but my back was so relieved! And it was light enough that it was easy to pick it up my handle when needed. I get that ‘backpacking’ has such romance to it, but you can still travel with that attitude and have different luggage. I hate that there’s the connotation that traveling with a suitcase is inauthentic.

  6. What kind of battery charger are you using now? I’m looking for a good small one…

  7. We went with rolling duffle bags, more specifically two duffles and one cheap suitcase. I was very thankful for the wheels.

  8. This is incredibly helpful info, since I’m starting my rtw in July. Right now I have an incredibly small REI backpack (smaller than carry-on size), but I’m thinking I might have to do something larger. I was exclusively looking at backpacks, but this makes me think I should explore other options too.

  9. A suitcase will definitely be better for your back…Sure sounds like you’ve had quite some burden on your back already

  10. Hi Gary

    When I travel I carry a tripod as well plus camera, couple of lenses and filters, cleaning kit and laptop. But eventhough I still feel I carry too much I think I am doing ok. I have a Nikon D90 which is not a full frame but is arguably better than the D300. Plus it incorporates HD video so there you go, 2 in one (only problem is that when zooming in the video does not autofocus, but that has only been an issue a couple of times). Computer wise I have ventured with a netbook and that has made a huge difference in weight. I have photoshop in it and can edit pics if I want to. Sure, it’s not the most comfortable way of editing, but if you’re on the road weight and bulky stuff are a major issue I think.

    The worst part is the adaptors. With 2 million different plugs out there it is ridiculous how I have to set up mine to work. I currently have 4 connected to be able to use it. And I know that the next country will have a different one

    By the way, I got a camera backpack that can fit the netbook too when riding a bus or plane, so I’m all set with 2 backpacks for the 1 year trip.

    Happy travels


  11. I agree with you about the backpack for the most part. Though, I’ve had a look at REI and they do have some that have access more closely resembling that of a suitcase. I have yet to find the perfect one for my needs, but the next one will definitely have easier access than just top load.

    Backpacks are also easier for thieves to get into I’ve found. All they need is a sharp knife and before you know it, they’re in and out. Sometimes while it’s on your back riding the metro!

    It’s also harder to pack stuff that might break in a backback. And if anything leaks in the bus compartment, your pack (no matter how “water resistent” can be soaked with the most vile of substances.

    I also carry Nikon gear (D300) Does everything I need it to but too heavy. I’m considering moving to micro 4/3’rds for dSLR stuff. For street stuff, still love my lil’ Panasonic LX3.

    Best to your pops Gary!

  12. When I was backpacking on my own rtw, I shocked everyone by not having a “proper” backpack- after which they all got jealous of my bag! In short I thought in advance like you did- most places in the world are perfectly fine for wheels, and the few times it would be seriously infeasible I would find somewhere to ditch the main bag a few days and live out of the smaller daypack. So I got one of those Eagle Creek bags that has wheels and can be converted into a bag with straps when needed, which turned out to occur about five times over six months (dirt road in Laos, room on seventh story in a hostel with no elevator, that sort of thing). And wow, I could not imagine doing it any other way!

    The other trick I realized that came in handy is you invariably fill any bag you have, so a way to cut down on clutter is go with a smaller bag. I had 60L total (40 for main bag, 20 for daypack) because I didn’t want to have a bag so heavy I couldn’t lift it comfortably over my head myself (I’m a girl and a bit of a weakling!), and I know six months isn’t like the time you’ve spent on the road but it helped a lot. And I too was amazed by the weight of all those accumulated ticket stubs and other paper rif-raf upon my return!

  13. Amazing website! I just found it by chance but I really like it! I am finding myself in a similar situation in terms of baggage for this summer! I am going to be travelling all around USA and I am wondering what to do with all the electronical equipment I want to carry! I am still thinking what to do with my SLR….
    In terms of backpack vs suitcase, backpack definetely wins! It is easier to fit it in places and to carry it around! As for the straps that can get caught in airports… why not to try a travelpack? (posh version of the backpack). I love mine and it has never given me any problem!!


  14. I think Amanda is spot on when it comes to the suitcase or backpack situation. A suitcase would be a lot better to travel with in most situations. I believe or need to blend in with the crowd and be a “backpacker” is the only reason we are still using backpacks.

    Still, how many times haven’t i caught my self laughing of the japanese “backpackers” in Europe, dragging along a 60kg pink suitcase behind them? I’m not ready to become one of them yet.

  15. First of all, I’d suggest not listening to the people telling you to ditch the 15″ MBP. For a 13″ MBP MAYBE, but not until they include decent video cards comparable to the 15″ and 17″ models.

    For hard drives, definitely cut down to 2. Perhaps 1x 1TB and 1x 500GB. I sometimes don’t follow my own advice, but doing two backups of photos is some times a good idea. Or even just carry 1x 1TB, install a 500GB drive inside your Mac (if you don’t already have one), and keep a backup on both the internal and external drives, only delete from your internal drive once you have burnt them to a CD/DVD, sent them home, and CONFIRMED they have been received.

    It’s probably also getting cheap and feasible enough to buy a 160-500GB hard drive every few months, back up all recent photos to it, and send it home. When you home and you properly archive the photos, you can reuse the hard drives or sell them or whatever. That may be a bit excessive though.

    With the tripod, you could consider a very heavy-duty Gorillapod. Or update your camera for something lighter, such as a M4/3rd’s camera, or a new SONY, whatever they’re called. The SONY’s have APS-C censors, so the imaqe quality will be just as good as even the pro D-SLR’s (until you get up to the 35mm Sensor cameras like the Canon 5D MkII, etc). The M4/3rds cameras are also just as good as many D-SLRs, although the sensor is a bit smaller.

    Also, upgrading to one of those, or a newer, normal D-SLR, will also give you HD (720 or 1080) video recording. For the best D-SLR, I’d suggest a Canon 5D Mk II, although a new one (Mk III?) might be in the pipes within the next 24 months…

    Personally, with this much equipment, I wouldn’t suggest giving up on backpacks completely. Maybe a briefcase/suitcase for clothes, but a smaller backpack for video/camera/computer equipment? Something that doesn’t look like your usual camera bag would be good.

    The annoying thing would be carrying two bags, unless you can fit your smaller bag entirely inside your suitcase when you need to.

    • 1) The hard drives are not an issue. They are small and lightweight. The 300gb ones I have are big enough for what I’m doing. I had a huge issue with photo backups about 2 years ago, but the USB drives have pretty much solved that problem.

      2) I actually have an SLR Gorillapod that I carry with me. It is not a substitute for a real tripod. It can work in some situations, but it really can’t do what a tripod does.

      3) I’m pretty much stuck with Nikon. My lenses and strobes are Nikon and buying a Canon body would require me to spend even more money on new lenses and flashes. Video on Canon SLR’s is better than Nikon right now, so I’ll either wait for Nikon to get better or just bite the bullet and get a D300s and deal with its video.

      4) I will have a small backpack. My current problem is carrying 20kg in my main bag then another 10-15kg of stuff in another small backpack and my camera shoulder bag.

  16. Replace the macbook with an 11″ sony vaio. Much smaller, ligther, and very powerful. Mine’s from October 2006, when traveling with a laptop attracted more attention than running around in a pink bunny suite, and even today, it lets me perform every task I need (internet, programming, photoshop, map programs like mappoint).

    Also, why carry RAW files with you all the time? RAW files are like undeveloped film. Make finished JPEGs, and mail the RAW files home if you so wish to keep them (this is also a safeguard against getting robbed – remember you’re carrying I’d say well over $5000 worth of electronics alone with you at all times – you have to be careful).

    Also, take a deep look at the hard drives you have – the new western digital passports have 1 TB of storage and a total weight of 200 grams, and that’s not the only option.

    The D200 with the battery is what, 900 grams, and the heaviest lens you have is like 500-600 grams, which means any combination of camera/lens yields you a setup no heavier than around 1.5kg – that kind of weight can be held by even the cheapest travel tripod ever. Get rid of that studio work monster and buy yourself a travel tripod.

    Get rid of that video camera. If you want to do video, buy a DSLR that does video. Anything else is a waste of space, and you just feel bad lugging around a video camera and taking no videos.

    • Data storage isn’t an issue for me. My current hard drives are the very Western Digital ones you describe, but smaller. That is not the problem. They get the job done.

      Prior to traveling I used a Sony Vaio as my primary laptop. there is no way I would want to do photo editing on an 11″ screen. Even 15″ is small compared to a desktop monitor. Because something theoretically can be done doesn’t mean it can be done well.

      I could skimp by carrying fewer lenses, a less powerful computer, a less sturdy tripod but then the quality of what I do would decrease as well, and that isn’t an acceptable compromise. My of what makes my site unique is that I put much more effort into photography than most bloggers.

      I’d rather carry more stuff (not on my back) to allow me to create better content than carry less stuff and have the quality of my content decrease.

  17. use the pelican case for debate tournament electronics – printer, extra laptop, cables, power strips, etc. it is awesome.

  18. I have actually gone to the 13″ MacBook Pro which works for me even for video editing.
    Which battery charger did you end up with?
    Have you thought about going the monopod route?

  19. I get it on the suitcase bit but “suitcaser” just doesn’t have the same ring to it as “backpacker”.

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