How to Pack a Pick-Up Truck (or Car) Full of Expensive Film Gear

How to Pack a Pick-Up Truck (or Car) Full of Expensive Film Gear

When was the last time you drove a car with $100,000 worth of camera gear in the back? This tutorial is for the down-and-dirty low budget realm -- those with grip trucks need not apply.

Sitting in the back of my truck in that picture above is six-figures worth of gear from when I first shot with ARRI Alexa. Standing on the back is my exuberant 2nd camera assistant (AC) making sure the camera, lenses, and other accessories would stay put on the New York City streets.

The drive through the city and on the interstate was stressful, but I wasn’t surprised one bit when every piece of gear arrived safely.

That’s because I knew how to pack a truck. And today I’m going to teach you how to do so as well.

Those with Grip Trucks Need Not Apply

This tutorial is for the down-and-dirty low budget realm.

I’m talking personal pick-up trucks, SUVs, and even your Mom’s mini-van. Packing your gear on a grip truck or in a camera truck with built-in shelving, straps, and a heck of a lot of space is easy — packing a camera package into the vehicle you normally use to cruise through the McDonald’s drive-thru is a different story.

Often on low-budget projects, production will ask you to pick up a camera package and transport it — yes, in your personal car.

Even if it’s not a personal car, production may provide only a simple mini-van, cargo van, or U-Haul truck. And those vehicles are designed for generic use and need to be adapted to carry the amount of value in your camera package.

But no matter what you’re driving, it helps to have experience packing because it’s highly unlikely any grips will be around at your camera prep to help you load everything up.

So that’s what we’re going to cover: how to transform a normal car, van, or truck into a safe, secure transport for all of your gear.

(Still, even if you’re used to shelving your gear on a custom rig, this article has some good information about using ratchet straps, theories on packing, and advice for loading up any vehicle with expensive camera gear. So I suggest you read on…)

Finding What You Need:

Packing a truck or van requires a few basic pieces of gear that you can find at any local hardware shop or big-box store:

  • Ratchet straps: for leveraging your strength to really pin down cases
  • Bungee Cords: for holding cases in place
  • Large Tarp: Only necessary if you are using a vehicle where the gear is exposed to the elements (i.e. a pick-up truck)

You may also choose to use rope instead of bungee cords if that’s your style and if you know how to properly tie a secure knot (despite being in Boy Scouts, I know no knots. Bungee cords bail me out).

Packing requires two major steps: placing the cases and Strapping them down. In effect, you’re going to position all your gear in the back of the truck and then secure it using a variety of methods.

Placing Your Cases for Maximum Space and Security

Positioning your gear the right way in your vehicle is crucial. Done right and everything will fit snug together with minimal shifting during transit. Done wrong and you risk sensitive gear being shaken a lot or sliding around in the bed or trunk of your car.

Here are some quick tips you can follow to make sure you fall on the right side of that spectrum:

1. The Most Valuable Gear Goes Inside the Cab (If Possible)

Before you pack the back of your truck, pack the front of it. If you’re riding solo, you have a passenger seat that’s most likely going to be empty. I highly advise you to put the most valuable gear such as lenses and cameras up here.

The cab provides safer transit because it isn’t open topped — protecting from the elements and any loose shifting — and you can keep an eye on it while you’re driving.

Sometimes, however, you may have a passenger or just not enough room to fit the large cases lenses and cameras often come in. In that scenario, fit what you can (that’s the most valuable) up front and don’t sweat it too much.

2. The Next Most Valuable Gear Goes Into the Corners

Anything else that’s valuable, but is too large or doesn’t fit in the cab should go in the corners of the truck bed or trunk. That’s because the gear will be pressed against two sides of the bed/trunk as opposed to being held together by other cases.

Further, as you’ll see in the next section, it’s easier to leverage ratchet straps and bungee cords to hold cases with more resistance against the walls of the truck.

3. Lay Everything Flat on It’s Widest Base

All gear should lay flat on its widest side — nothing should be standing tall. It’s harder to pack things securely when they are tall and they become top-heavy.

4. Place Your Heaviest Gear on the Bottom and Limit Stacking

In tandem with step 3, you want the heaviest gear to be on the bottom of the truck bed.

This is especially true if you must resort to stacking some cases — though it isn’t preferred, sometimes stacking can’t be avoided.

If you must stack cases on top of each other, do it so they rest against the cab of the truck (so they’re stacked against the wall of the bed behind the driver) so that you have a higher wall to secure them against. In cars or vans, stack against or on top of passenger seats so that the cases have something to lean against.

5. Don’t Leave Anything Loose — Secure It All

When you get up to highway speeds (or even modest country road speeds), anything left loose in your truck will find a way out and potentially onto the road. So make sure everything is sealed inside a hard case, soft case, or pockets of a bag (preferably with zippers or velcro).

You want to do this for two reasons (with an open-top truck):

  1. Prevent things from flying out
  2. Protect things from rain, sunlight, etc.

If you leave anything out, it will be vulnerable to wind damage, sun damage, and from being lost in the airstream of your truck.

(Even in cars, loose gear can take a quick hop and be damaged, so make sure you secure it.)

Strapping Your Gear Down Safely

Once you have all the gear packed in your vehicle, it’s time to start strapping it in and securing it.

I like to use ratchet straps to provide initial support and then several bungee cords as safety lines in case something gets loose. Finally, I throw a tarp over the top for long road trips where weather may become an issue and also to protect from the sun.

On shorter trips and in closed-top vehicles, a tarp isn’t necessary — especially since it adds quite a bit of time to rig it.

Like above, here are five tips for strapping down the truck:

1. Learn How to Use Ratchet Straps Properly

Before I stepped on a film set, I had no idea how ratchet straps worked. Even after my first few gigs, I still didn’t know since the grips would usually strap down cameras, gear, and other rigs.

It wasn’t until I had to put camera cases in my car that I asked a grip to teach me how to use them.

Learning to use ratchet straps is extremely valuable and an important skill for any below-the-line crew member to have. Once you learn to use them, you won’t trade anything for the powerful tension and secure placement ratchet straps guarantee.

Seriously, there is nothing more relieving than knowing something has been ratcheted down.

So watch this video below for a crash course in ratchet straps:

Once you put this into practice, you’ll laugh at yourself for ever being confused about how they work and amazed at the security they provide.

If you still have questions, just ask any grip during downtime how they work. They might tease you a bit and smirk at your question, but it’s better now than never to learn.

(As for bungee cords, well, I would hope you can figure those out!)

2. Always Loop Cords Through Handles as a Back-Up Plan

Whether you’re using ratchet straps, bungee cords, or ol’ fashioned rope, you want to loop the cords through the handles on the cases. I view this as a second measure of security and a back up plan if something gets kicked up.

When you strap something down, you want to strap it down vertically (over the top) and horizontally (against the side) — but this isn’t always perfect. Sometimes cords can shift in transit and there’s a slight chance a case, bag, or something else could slip through the holes the straps provide.

So it’s best to loop your cord, rope, or strap through the handles of the case (while still keeping the cord flush against it). This way if something gets loose, the handle catches on the cord and will keep the case from shifting too much until you reach your destination or are able to pull over and fix it.

3. Use a Bright Tape or Cloth for Protruding Objects

In most places in the United States, it’s illegal to drive a truck with something sticking out the back and no flag or brightly colored material to signify to other drivers the protruding object.

In all places, it’s just common sense to do this.

Whether you use tape, a bright plastic bag, or a piece of cloth, it’s important to tie something to any objects protruding beyond the gate or trunk of your vehicle to make other drivers aware of your load. The last thing you want is for them to hit you — it’d be your fault and it could damage your gear.

4. Use a Tarp for Longer Trips with Unexpected Weather

If you’re going to be packing an open-top vehicle like a pick-up truck, having a quality tarp is a must. This is especially true on longer trips where the weather can change over the course of a day and between the regions you are driving.

While a lot of film gear comes in weather-proofed cases like Pelican or Calzone cases, there is also some gear — like perhaps your toolbag or luggage — that is not weather proofed.

(Also, you don’t want to be drying off every single case in your camera kit if you don’t have to.)

Tarps are relatively cheap ($50 at the most) and, if it is a big budgetary concern, you would be justified in asking production to front the cost for it to protect the equipment they are presumably renting.

You don’t have to go with anything fancy — this one at Amazon will do the trick — but better tarps will last longer and tear less. You might also want to consider a tarp like I have that has built in hooks making it easier to throw on top.

And that’s the only catch with tarps — you have to secure them as well. It should be the last thing you put on the gear, but not the last thing completely — add extra bungee cords or rope over the tarp to make sure it doesn’t blow away.

Also, the tighter the tarp, the more protection it provides. If it is flapping a lot, rain is bound to get in.

5. Strap Each Case Vertically and Horizontally

As I mentioned above, you want to secure all cases (ideally) by strapping them vertically (over the top of them) as well as horizontally (on their sides). If you choose just one way, you risk the case shifting in the direction you didn’t strap it.

If you absolutely must choose only one way, strap lighter cases vertically and heavier cases horizontally. Lighter cases are more likely to get caught by wind or vehicle movement and bounce up while heavier cases generally let gravity keep them from doing so.

As a bonus, if you pack smart, you can strap groups of cases once horizontally and let them push against each other to hold tension and keep them inside the vehicle.

Easy on the Pack and Easy on the Gas

When it comes down to it, packing a truck full of gear is just one big Tetris game — you want everything to fit snug, in straight lines, and without any gaps.

And the best part is that it’s way easier than a game of Tetris.

As long as you pay attention to the details of safety — like strapping through handles, using ratchet straps for heavier gear, and packing smart — you will have no issues transporting your gear from the rental house to the location and back again.

It can be intimidating to have to take such expensive equipment and transport it, but a quality pack job helps relieve any stress of anything “flying out” the back.

Just make sure you go easy on the gas and even easier on the brakes!

  • Rick Moore

    One item that I did not see mentioned is insurance. Double check with your auto insurance carrier regarding the loss or damage of commercial expensive equipment. I guarantee that your standard auto insurance will not cover the loss without a rider attached for the commercial gear.

    Secondly, never leave the vehicle unattended anywhere during the transport. Someone stays with the vehicle at all times.

    I don’t agree with keeping the most expensive gear in the driver’s compartment. That is the most obvious and easiest to break into for a pro thief. Expensive gear in the center of the bed or trunk, tucked under random lesser gear and packed into soft lunch boxes or diaper bags.

    The most dangerous time will be headed home after the shoot. Everyone is tired and if you have been shooting in a public area all the gear has been scoped out and watched loaded. A good thief will follow you and hope you stop for a sandwitch or soda on the way home. Don’t leave the car/vehicle unattended.

    • Evan

      “I don’t agree with keeping the most expensive gear in the driver’s compartment. That is the most obvious and easiest to break into for a pro thief.”

      Perhaps, but I assumed when writing this article that the gear would be packed into the truck, transported, and then unpacked on arrival. I wouldn’t advise keeping the gear in a vehicle for any extended period of time without somebody there. Thus, I’m not entirely sure this is a real concern.

      In short, you shouldn’t be leaving a truck or car with that much valuable gear out of sight or unattended for long.

  • Paul

    One thing to keep in mind too is lens and filter cases. Always lay them flat on the ground and never stack them on top of anything.

    • Evan

      Most valuable stuff on the bottom. For sure.

  • Benjamin_Tubb

    Great post, Evan!

    On a similar note, it’s good to make sure you pack the camera cart in a reasonable way if you’re going to give it to the grips to put on a grip truck.

    I absolutely hate it when I’m a best boy grip, and the ACs deliver the camera cart with a bunch of top-heavy loose objects on the top deck. Isn’t it common sense that even when I secure the cart, that stuff is going everywhere? I often have to repack it myself, jamming some tiny pelican in the bottom deck or something.

    I think a lot of it is just common sense. I think that these ACs just have a mindset that once the cart gets to the truck, it’s not their issue anymore. I personally think that’s a sign of a TERRIBLE AC.

    • Evan

      Oh yeah definitely common sense. I don’t think any great AC would pack the camera cart poorly and pawn it off.

      The way I see it, it’s my job to make sure the camera gear stays safe and secure. If I’m leaving that responsibility in the hands of the grip, I’m not doing my job. And it’s not that I don’t trust the grips, but I trust myself much more.
      Usually when I put a camera cart in the grip trick, I stick around until I see them load it up and strap it in. That way if they need to move something or whatever they can just ask me what should and shouldn’t be moved.

  • jeff

    Interesting post – here’s an additional idea; I built a mat for the bed of my pick up with that indoor outdoor foam flooring you can get at home depot/walmart it puts together like jig saw pieces. Gives the equipment a tad extra protect from any of our well maintained none existing pot holes and helps cases from sliding