Traveling can be a pain under the best of circumstances, with cramped airline seating and luggage that gets bounced around. For a working photographer, that can translate into costly equipment damage that can slow you down.
A lot of gear means heavy travel cases. But to travel light, or just keep a backup digital SLR and lenses close by, a backpack can be great. Even then, the padding is meant to keep lenses and bodies from knocking together, not to keep something from crushing in at right angles from the top or bottom. And what do you do about a computer, particularly if you get caught in a heavy rain or get splashed?
The Pelican S130 Sport Elite Laptop/Camera Divider Pack can be a great, if not perfect, solution. Best known for its hard-sided waterproof cases, Pelican has built a backpack that can carry a DSLR, a few lenses, a small flash, a thin computer (like a MacBook Air or Ultrabook, or a tablet) and even a couple of days worth of clothing. Even better, the computer sits in a watertight, hard-sided vertical case at the rear of the backpack. The front lower padded section that holds the camera equipment is sandwiched between the rear computer case and a polypropylene shield at the front of the backpack, and together these provide better impact protection.
The S130 has padded shoulder straps, hip padding, a chest strap and a removable belt to better distribute the load. Wearing it was comfortable, and I’m a big guy, so it should adjust to fit you. Pity there isn’t padding on the belt front, as you could cinch it tight and place weight on your hips rather than your shoulders.
The lower section with a front zippered flap holds a padded insert with a separate zipped cover (you leave it open when the insert is in place) and repositionable dividers to configure the space to your liking. The upper section has a top flap with snap fasteners. You can pull the insert out through the top to more easily configure it or use the S130 as a normal bag. There are two side pouches for water bottles or gear, and a front zippered pocket at the top.
The back of the bag has a hard-sided watertight compartment, rated at one meter for 30 minutes. I tested the watertight feature by putting paper towels into the computer case, sealing it, and placing the S130, back side down, into a filled tub with a weight on top to keep it submerged for half an hour. Removing the pack, I dried the exterior and opened the case: the paper towels and interior were completely dry. If this puppy goes overboard and sinks into 60 feet of water for hours, your computer may be soggy toast. However, you’ll be fine in heavy rain, splashes or a drop into a deep puddle. But, unlike some of Pelican’s other backpacks, the camera section is water-resistant, not watertight, so depending on the conditions, you might need to consider another solution.
There is also a pressure equalization valve so you won’t fly to a destination at a different altitude and suddenly find that you can’t open the case.
The pack’s exterior dimensions are 18.5 x 13 x 10 inches (L x W x D)—technically under the 45-inch linear dimensions carry-on limitations for domestic flights and even within the range of many international flights. Pelican calls the S130 “Under Seat Convenient,” and that should be a selling point. Run into a full flight with no more overhead bin room (or a commuter plane with the smaller bins), and you’ll want the option to put the bag under the seat rather than checking it and trusting in the tender mercies of airline handlers. Unfortunately, there is one inch of exaggeration in the claim: under-seat spaces typically are nine inches high and the S130 is ten inches deep.
I did find a workaround. Press the lower section and you squeeze out another inch. Run a compression strap (a strip of nylon with a buckle) from an outdoor supply store around the bag and cinch it up. Voila! You have a nine-inch deep pack. If push comes to shove, you could literally do that: push down on the lower part of the bag and shove it under the seat. Of course, it would better if the hip padding was removable or a compression strap for that section was included.
According to the company, removing the divider section lets the pack fit “a few days worth of personal gear.” This estimate is conservative. With the divider in place, I fit trousers, a belt, two shirts, and two sets of socks and underwear into the top compartment with enough room left for toothbrush and deodorant. If your checked baggage gets lost, you’ll be thankful for something clean to wear in the morning. Or, you can always use the room for other items.
There is a second problem with the S130: its weight. At 7.14 pounds, it weighs double—or more—what a typical camera backpack might. That’s understandable given the protection, but it makes carrying the bag somewhat of a chore. Also, when talking about airlines, particularly on international flights, there can be strict weight restrictions. The more the bag weighs, the less allowance you have for gear and clothing.
The Bottom Line
It’s heavy, but the S130 is sturdy, offering a higher than usual amount of protection for camera equipment and a solid waterproof case for your computer. With room at top for a change of clothes, it could be a smart carry-on choice.
Pros: Made for travel; provides better-than-normal protection for camera equipment; solid water-tight case for a computer and still has room for a change of clothing
Cons: Heavy; bottom section is too thick to fit under an airplane seat without compressing it
Price: $305; www.pelican.com