(© Ian Plant) A reader recently asked for a recommendation for a good travel photo bag, something that could carry a lot of gear while at the same time being overhead bin friendly for international airline travel. As luck would have it, I had just gotten my hands on the award-winning Gura Gear Bataflae 26L. I had a chance to test the bag two weekends in a row on my Smith Island Photo Workshop, putting it through its paces in the humid-buggy-sunny-sandy-salty environment of the Chesapeake Bay. Bottom line? I'm really impressed with this smartly designed bag, which is built like a tank to stand up against the elements. And, not unlike Doctor Who's TARDIS flying time machine, it's "bigger on the inside": this pack absolutely swallows photo gear, so much so that I'm convinced the pack's insides are—as Whovians would say—dimensionally transcendental. I enthusiastically recommend the Bataflae 26L as a general photo travel bag. And although (alas) it won't allow you to zip through time and space—at least any faster than normal Earthbound modes of transportation currently allow—it should make air travel with a ton of photo gear a bit less of a hassle.
The Bataflae 26L is Gura Gear's second largest Bataflae bag (the largest is the 32L, whereas the smallest is the 18L). At first glance, the pack didn't really seem all that special. Sure, I liked the bright blue zipper pulls, but otherwise the pack seemed rather non-descript. Which is actually a good thing—when traveling, you don't want a pack that screams "EXPENSIVE PHOTO EQUIPMENT INSIDE PLEASE STEAL ME NOW!" The drab, boxy exterior doesn't attract a lot of attention, making it a less noticeable target for airport thieves, but I must admit I wasn't very excited looking at it for the first time. With this pack, however, one quickly learns that the little things make a big difference.
As I inspected the pack, I became increasingly impressed with the clever and useful details: the adjustable harness for strapping the tripod either on the side or the back of the pack, the small pocket in the front which holds a seam-sealed lightweight rain cover, sturdy zippers, the stow-away harness system, and the hefty carrying handles on the top and the side of the pack. The pack materials seem very sturdy and water-resistant. And there is no shortage of pouches, pockets, and compartments to stow gear (note: the 26L doesn't have a dedicated laptop compartment, but many of the other Gura Gear packs do, including their smallest Bataflae, the 18L). Things got really exciting, however, when I started to load my equipment into the pack. But allow me to digress for a moment to properly drive this point home.
A few years back, I did a review of F-Stop Gear's Tilopa pack, which I still consider to be one of the best photo packs for hiking and other outdoor adventure. What I like about the Tilopa for long-distance outdoor hauling—it's stiff interior suspension system, tall and narrow design which helps keep weight off the shoulders when using the pack's hip belt, and top loading design (along with a handy rear-entry zipper for easy access) allowing for packing lots of miscellaneous stuff one might want on a long hike (such as extra clothing, food, and a water bottle)—doesn't exactly make it ideal for travel. The Tilopa isn't quite regulation size for overhead bins (although I can usually stuff it in anyways), and its tall/skinny design makes packing a lot of bulky camera equipment a little tricky. Where the Tilopa falls down, the Bataflae stands up (in one sense, quite literally, as my Tilopa has a habit of tumbling over when stood up on end, whereas the Bataflae stays upright). The Bataflae has a more traditional short/fat camera pack design, making it easy to fit lots of gear inside, as well as making it a bit more overhead bin friendly. Although the Bataflae is smaller than my Tilopa, I was able to pack more gear inside my Bataflae!
For example, on my recent trip to Namibia, I had trouble stuffing all of my gear into the Tilopa (in fact, I ended up with some overflow which I left in my luggage). When I returned to the U.S., my new Bataflae was waiting for me, so I did an experiment. I completely unpacked my Tilopa, gathered up the overflow equipment from my luggage, and stuffed everything into the Bataflae. I had no problem getting it all into the Bataflae, and I even had some room to spare, so I stuffed even more into this gear-gobbling pack. It doesn't make much sense, as the Tilopa is bigger than the Bataflae, but my guess is that the Bataflae's broader girth makes it easier to optimize positioning of bulky gear to take advantage of every nook and cranny of the pack. As you can see from the image below, there's a lot of space and plenty of customizable dividers inside.
Here's a picture of my Bataflae fully packed. I was able to easily stuff the following items into the pack: my Canon EOS 5D Mark III Digital Camera, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS Lens, Canon 1.4x EF Extender III (Teleconverter), Tamron 70-200mm f/2.8 SP Di VC USD Zoom Lens for Canon, Tamron SP 24-70mm f/2.8 DI VC USD Lens for Canon Cameras, Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L II, Tamron 90mm f/2.8 SP Di MACRO 1:1 VC USD Lens for Canon, and the Tamron 17-35mm lens—as well as a flash, media card wallet, and several other photo accessories. And this is only the inside compartment! I still had plenty of room in the outside pockets for my back-up camera (Canon 5D Mark II), filters and holders, and a few other odds and ends. In fact, even with all of this stuff crammed into the Bataflae, I still had room for a few more items—pretty impressive, if you ask me.
One of my favorite features of the Bataflae is its "butterfly" opening system, allowing you to open only one half of the bag at a time. The butterfly opening, according to Gura Gear, "is ideal for working in tight spaces and helps protect your gear from the elements." I think this is a fair assessment. Basically, you can easily rig the pack so that each half of the front lid can be opened individually. Being able to open one half at a time helps protect equipment from dust, rain, and debris. I was able to pack my 500mm and other accessories for wildlife photography on one side of the pack, and all my "landscape" lenses and camera on the other side. This made finding what I needed for any given shoot a bit easier, something which comes in handy when working in fast-changing outdoor conditions. You can easily switch between the butterfly opening and the traditional full opening, allowing you to customize the pack to fit your needs.
While the Bataflae is optimized for travel, it isn't ideal for long-distance hiking. I suspect it would be comfortable enough with a light load, but with a heavy load the pack weighs on the shoulders, even when using the hip belt. This is common with most photo packs, which generally aren't tall and skinny enough to really get the weight off the shoulders. A few more inches in height might do the trick, so maybe the Bataflae 32L would be more comfortable—but these packs clearly aren't designed as backcountry haulers, so I still think that long-distance comfort would be compromised. You probably wouldn't want to do several hours of hiking with a heavy load inside the Bataflae 26L, but a few hours killing time in an airport would be just fine.
Gura Gear also has a number of other bags. The Bataflae packs are built for demanding photographers on the go. They also have another design called the Kiboko (available in 22L and 30L sizes), which seems slightly more beefed up for rough-and-tumble adventure. They also sell the Chobe, a camera bag which doubles as an overnight bag and triples as a laptop bag. Or is it a laptop bag which triples as a camera and overnight bag? Any way you look at it, the Chobe is a smart looking bag, seemingly perfect for short trips. Gura Gear also sells a number of useful accessories, including Et Cetera pouches which are great for organizing random photography odds and ends, and the Sabi Sack, a compact bean bag perfect for stabilizing your camera when shooting from a car or at ground level.
At $399, the Bataflae 26L isn't cheap—but then again, most good camera packs aren't, and compared to some other options on the market the Bataflae comes in at a very reasonable price point. Is it worth the cost? If you spend more time in airport lounges than at home, if you own more glass than a window store, and if you don't have an army of luggage Sherpas available to tote your kit around for you, then I unreservedly say yes. The Bataflae 26L is a great pack, and I suspect you won't be disappointed.
Here's a list of pertinent specifications for the Bataflae 26L, courtesy of Gura Gear.
- 420D dia square nylon w/ 2x PU backing
- 100D robic diamond nylon lining w/ 2x PU backing
- YKK RC-FUSE zippers with water repellency
- N/500D Spandura reinforcement
- Woojin (WJ) hardware and pullers
- Padded air mesh
- 70D 190T nylon w/ 2x PU backing
- Patent Pending butterfly multi-access system
- Stowaway harness with removable waist belt
- Lightweight design utilizing high quality materials and techniques
- YKK RC-FUSE zippers with WR coating
- Fits the overhead compartment of most commercial aircraft worldwide
- Seam-sealed rain fly / ground cloth
- Fully riveted handles
- M.O.L.L.E. compatible attachment points with quick-hook side straps
- Multi-point tripod / monopod configurations
- Color-coded zipper pulls
- Lockable main compartment
- Fail-safe shoulder strap buckles
- Full-length front pockets for accessories, jacket, travel documents, etc.
- Maximum interior capacity for large camera bodies and long lenses up to 500mm
- Water bottle pocket
- Expandable exterior mesh pocket
- Multiple interior mesh pockets
- Interior zipper garages
- Fully adjustable divider system
- Velcro strap keepers
- Key fob
- Subtle branding treatments
- Custom-fit dust bag for storage
External Dimensions: 14 x 18 x 9 in (36 x 46 x 23 cm) Internal Dimensions: 13 x 17 x 7 in (33 x 43 x 18 cm) Weight: 4.0 - 4.9 lb (1.8 - 2.2 kg) Volume: 26 Liters