Few experienced travelers, photographers, or scientists would dispute that the ubiquitous Pelican case is the ultimate traveling container when the contents absolutely, positively have to stay protected from impacts, crushing, and dust and moisture incursion. I certainly wouldn’t argue (see here). I know someone who had to move several large Pelican cases full of equipment across an arctic inlet—by sea kayak. He simply rafted the cases behind the boat and towed them across. No problem. If you can deal with the relatively high weight of the empty Pelican, and the just-so-so volumetric efficiency, nothing will give you as much peace of mind when the equipment inside is worth quite literally 40 or 50 times what the case cost. It’s the cheapest kind of insurance.
But you can’t just toss your photography or video equipment inside a big plastic box, however sturdy. You need interior padding and organization. And that presents a bit of a dilemma.
The Pelican can be equipped with either of two options from the factory. The “Pick N Pluck” interior comprises an open-cell foam filler that is partially pre-cut into small square sections. You tear free the sections you want to create pockets to fit camera bodies, lenses, or other items. The result is snug and secure; however, once done you can’t re-organize to accommodate new or replacement equipment, and you must leave at least two cube-widths of the soft foam between items or the structural integrity collapses. That reduces available room significantly. Also, with constant use the open-cell foam degrades rather quickly. I’ve found the Pick N Pluck interior best when a case is devoted to one very expensive or fragile item, such as a monster 600mm F4 telephoto, where the tight fit and thick cushioning provide excellent impact resistance.
The other Pelican option is a set of padded, nylon-covered dividers, which rearrange and connect via hook-and-loop strips. This interior can adapt to new contents, but it’s quite limited in configuration and thus tends to waste space, and the hook-and-loop material is fiendishly efficient at collecting and holding on tightly to all sorts of debris, which eventually reduces its grip on itself.
Aftermarket options have been around for a long time, but every one I’ve used—such as the otherwise superb Lowepro Omni Pro in the link above—wastes a lot of volume due to redundant lids and straps, and dividers that are actually over-padded. How often I’ve wished for a thinly but densely padded divider system that wouldn’t rely on Velcro, had more structural integrity than open-cell foam, and could be re-organized easily to “suit the mission.”
Thanks to, of all things, Kickstarter, I may have gotten my wish. A new company called TrekPak has (rather spectacularly) defied recent odds on the crowd-sourced funding site and made it into full production with a modular divider system designed to match several sizes of Pelican cases, as well as a couple of high-quality daypacks from Deuter.
Georgia Hoyer, the president of TrekPak, sent me a kit for a Pelican 1550, one of the most versatile mid-sized cases in Pelican’s lineup.
At first glance the pile of foam slabs in the box doesn’t seem very impressive. It’s not until you start assembling the unit using its clever U-shaped steel clips (with bright red pull tabs) that it gains form and, it turns out, superb function. The secret to the TrekPak system is the corrugated plastic core sandwiched between the layers of closed-cell foam. That core adds structural rigidity as well as the means to configure the kit to suit your equipment. The TrekPak kit contains enough sections of varying length to accommodate most needs, but, unlike the hook-and-loop-style dividers, if you need a shorter bit to create a suitable compartment, you can easily trim one with a straight edge and razor.
I laid out the camera gear I wanted to fit in the Pelican 1550, and began experimenting with the provided TrekPak sections. Eventually, after some trial and error, I fit the following into individually padded compartments: A Canon 5D MkII body with attached 24-105 F4L lens, a 5D body, further lenses comprising a 70-210 F4, a 15mm fisheye, a 100mm macro, a 300mm F4, and a 17-35mm F4, a 1.4 converter, and two EX550 flash units. Not bad at all, and there was room left over for batteries and CF card wallets. The dividers are easy to align and connect with the clips. It’s up to the user to attach or leave off the little red flags on each clip—they add a festive note and make it much easier to remove the clips, but aren’t necessary.
I could have used one extra full-length divider—the kit comes with two—and I had a few short sections left over. I’m hoping the company will eventually offer individual sections for sale to allow complete individual customization. Some customers might whinge at à la carte pricing for extra pieces, but many won’t need them, and the versatility would be worth the cost for those who do. My 70-210 lens, on its side, left enough room above it for another skinny lens; it would be nice if TrekPak offered thin foam without the plastic core for the user to fabricate bi-level compartments (not that I can’t easily find such material on my own; it’s just nice to have it all available from one source). With a little more configuring and a bit more material, I could have constructed a T-shaped compartment for the camera and attached lens, which would have been slightly more space-efficient than the square I wound up with. However, all in all I was extremely impressed with how much gear fit in the case, thanks to the just-right thickness of the TrekPak dividers. And the ease of reconfiguring to suit changing equipment is a bonus.
So how does the Pelican case/TrekPak combination work in the field? As a transport case it’s brilliant. You don’t need any more padding than this system provides as long as your equipment fits reasonably snugly inside. And, as we already know, one’s confidence in the waterproof/dustproof security of all that expensive gear is unmatched. (There aren’t many other camera cases I’m willing to stand on to gain a little height for a photo with all my gear inside.)
As a user case—that is, to be at hand for a shoot when you need to access lenses, cards, and batteries—the Pelican/TrekPak is far, far better than my old Pelican/Lowepro Omni Pro combination, since there is no internal lid to get in the way. However, it’s obviously a vehicle-dependent setup—you wouldn’t want to go on a walking safari with this thing (look at those Deuter day packs if you carry a lot of equipment on hikes). And you’ll need an entire seat to accommodate the 1550 if that’s the model you choose. I’m planning to try a kit for the (smaller) Pelican 1510 rolling carry-on case I want to use for managing photo equipment on international flights.
While I suspect the vast majority of TrekPak kits will be used for photography or video gear, the system would be equally versatile for many types of delicate equipment used by those working in the field: spotting scopes, satellite communication devices, radio-tracking receivers—you name it. I’m planning to devote an entire Pelican case to all the impedimenta one accumulates when using the Canon 5D MkII and III as a video camera: external microphone, follow-focus unit, suction mount for exterior vehicle shots, stabilizer for hand-held tracking, LCD viewfinder—a ridiculous amount of stuff.
Let’s see—1550 camera case, 1550 video equipment case, 1510 carry-on, all with TrekPak divider systems.
I guess I’m a convert.
TrekPak kits start at $65: TrekPak