A rolling bag won't help you much if you're pulling your camera pack through a South American rain forest, but if you're sprinting to make a flight connection at LAX (or just sauntering along the sidewalks of New York), having wheels can save the day—and your back. When you're tired of toting that heavy load of gear, do what the flight crews do—pull it along behind you. There's a tremendous assortment of rolling photo bags available these days from nearly every manufacturer. There are a few things to keep in mind when shopping, but most of all remember—it's a bag first and roller second. Make sure it satisfies all of your camera bag requirements; otherwise, you might end up with a heavy refrigerator on roller blades.
If you're a frequent flyer, you already know that the size limit for carry-on baggage is 45 linear inches, generally configured as 22x14x9. Those dimensions will get the bag through TSA security and into the overhead storage compartment and, properly packed, will hold a surprisingly large load of gear. If your travel plans don't involve airports, you have more options.
The wheels are the defining feature of these bags. The distance between the wheels (wheelbase) is as important as the wheel type. A wide bag with a short wheelbase is hard to steer without wobbling—a definite negative when you're negotiating your way down the aisle of a crowded jet. In-line skate wheels, such as those found on Tamrac's line of rollers, are the best type, but any solidly made wheel that uses ball bearings to reduce friction will generally perform well. The other elements of construction you should examine are the same as with conventional bags. Look for heavy-duty zippers with metal pulls, sealed seams and a durable outer fabric. Also check the extendable tow handle. Inferior construction is usually easy to spot.
Some rolling bags have multiple personalities, and each persona offers a convenient carrying mode, depending on your mood. Some have tuck-away shoulder straps that convert the unit into a backpack. This is a great feature when the terrain changes from smooth to rugged. Be sure to check how much the bag weighs empty—bags that are inherently heavy can become unmanageable when filled with several pounds of camera and glass. And all bags should have a comfortable, padded handle. The importance of the lesser comfort features, such as zippered outside pockets, seam-sealed rain covers, adjustable tow handles and mesh-net water-bottle holders, are all matters of personal taste.
Ultimately, protection is the most important function of any bag. Examine the unit from the outside in. Does it include a rain cover? Are zippers flapped and self-healing? Is the structural shell durable enough to withstand the tortures of a baggage conveyor belt? Sooner or later, you'll be on a flight that limits carry-on baggage to one piece, and you'll have to decide between your briefcase and rolling photo bag.
The internal design normally includes moveable dividers that are held in place by hook-and-eye fasteners. Check to make sure that the dividers can be repositioned to accommodate the gear you commonly pack and that the camera cradles support bodies with lenses attached. If you often shoot with long zooms, you'll need a suitable configuration in which to store them. Padding can range from flimsy 1/8-inch thick, open-cell foam covered with nylon tricot to the exquisite Thermal Shield Technology material found in Kata bags. The rigid TST components are tough without being heavy, and the Super Nylon exterior material is waterproof, dustproof and abrasion-resistant. Inside, closed-cell foam protects against impact and shock and provides insulation against temperature extremes and moisture.
Last, but by no means least, appearance plays an important role. Many bags are selected solely because of their great looks, not their practical and functional attributes. Follow your taste, but make sure that the bag delivers all of the convenience, comfort and protection characteristics that you'll want to have at the end of the day.
Rolling Bag Selection
The Lowepro Rolling CompuTrekker AW takes portability to a new level by offering multiple carry modes. It's an ultra-lightweight, compact all-weather backpack (complete with a disappearing shoulder harness and a waist belt), plus it's a rolling bag with easy-rolling wheels. As a roller, it makes use of sealed bearing wheels to provide smooth, easy rolling and shock-absorbing comfort. The extendable tow handle is a single-tube design that's less bulky than its double-tube competitors and is curved to provide ideal balance. Inside, you'll find several pockets and compartments for storing camera equipment and accessories. You can safely stow a 12-inch laptop in the removable padded sleeve and still have room for a D-SLR, four or five lenses, plus a flash and other items. The adjustable padded dividers can easily be reconfigured to handle a wide range of camera body, lens and accessory combinations, while the individual pockets provide convenient storage for smaller items, such as PDAs or GPS systems. The Rolling CompuTrekker AW also includes Slip- Lock attachment loops for add-on accessories and a tripod holder on the backpack's face for hands-free carrying and balanced weight distribution. Estimated Street Price: $199.
From the Kata Global Digital Collection comes the OC-84 Photo Organizer. It will hold two to four D-SLR camera bodies, six to eight lenses and several large accessories, plus a 17-inch notebook computer. It offers superb protection, thanks to the application of advanced materials like TST (Thermal Shield Technology), impact insulation, cross-linked foam and synthetic thermo-rubber shock absorbers. There's a handy external pocket for small items and an internal accessory pocket arrangement for larger ones. And it has shoulder straps, a pair of nicely padded handles and two straps for attaching a tripod. The wide wheelbase provides rolling stability, and the outer skin resists moisture, UV light and other perils. Estimated Street Price: $200.
The Tamrac Compact Rolling StrongBox (model 651) and Big Wheels Rolling StrongBox (model 691) both feature ballistic nylon outer shells, ball-bearing in-line skate wheels, reinforced rails and industrial-strength telescoping handles. The 651 is the largest possible bag that still meets current airline carry-on size restrictions. It's built on a completely seamless ABS plastic frame that's lightweight, yet provides full impact protection. It's obvious the people at Tamrac build bags based on personal experience, addressing real needs and solving the real problems they've encountered when carrying equipment under a variety of outdoor conditions. The larger model 691 StrongBox uses Tamrac's exclusive Storage- Hatch multilevel storage system. The lower compartment stows flashes, cards and other smallish items, while the upper compartment holds two large D-SLRs (face down). It also features a foam-padded front pocket for notebook computers and the popular M.A.S. (Modular Accessory System) attachment slots that allow you to secure accessory pockets and pouches. Estimated Street Price: $275 (model 651); $329 (model 691).
Think Tank Photo designed the Airport Security rolling bag specifically for air travel to allow professional photographers to take the maximum amount of gear on board as legal carry-on luggage. Every detail has been carefully engineered. You'll find combination security locks, emergency shoulder straps, a security cable and replaceable wheels. It's one of the few rollers that will hold a 400mm ƒ/2.8 lens with ease, as well as multiple SLR bodies and other lenses and gear. It also has separate holders for a tripod and monopod, a stretchable front pocket and a seam-sealed raincover. All in all, if it won't fit into an Airport Security bag, you probably don't need it. Estimated Retail Price: $289.
Oversized wheels on a wide wheelbase combined with concealable shoulder straps and waist belt transform the Naneu Pro Goombah from roller to backpack. This airline legal luggage will hold a professional D-SLR with up to a 500mm ƒ/4.0 lens attached, plus up to 10 other lenses, a couple of additional camera bodies, flashes and more. Remove the padded camera insert, and you can use the case for general travel. There's a large, padded compartment for a notebook computer and two small padded pockets for accessories, plus a tripod mount and adjustable straps for attaching additional accessories. Estimated Street Price: $299.
A great bag with a long name, the Tenba AW-XMP Air Case Wheel Attache Extra-Large Multi Purpose rolling bag features the exclusive Datapanel identification system that facilitates shipping, tracking and identification by providing durable, high-tech label holders. The bag isn't designed to function as a carry-on; however, you can check this bag with complete confidence. Tenba's patented Air Case construction employs a multilayered shell of plastic panels, closed-cell foam and special framing components surrounded by a heavy ballistic nylon outer shell. It provides protection equal to a rigid case, but is much lighter in weight. This handsome case includes adjustable dividers that can be trimmed by the user to customize the interior. Estimated Street Price: $639.