The Search For Affordable Protective Cases

These were/are Anvil ATA cases. They were big, heavy and expensive; made of plywood, steel and aluminum; and protected large, heavy gear exceedingly well.

I’ve had quite a history with flight cases for my gear over the years. Back in the day, when I was flying around the country with a lot of production gear, large crews and big budgets, it was all about ATA Certified Anvil and molded flight cases. These cases were big, heavy and expensive, but they were built to withstand the rigors of air travel and being thrown into baggage holds of airliners. They did their job very well but at the cost of weight. If you have the crew to help you transport gear, though, weight ceases to be a huge factor in your case decision.

Pelican Protector 1605 Air Case
As gear began to be smaller, lighter and more fragile, we switched to Pelican cases like this Pelican Protector 1605 Air Case. Cases like this were lighter than the Anvil cases but still cost similar amounts of money for the same interior space.

When Things Went Plastic

As budgets began to shrink, crews became smaller and the gear itself became lighter and less expensive, we reached a point where using ATA flight cases became more of a detriment than a benefit. Many of our ATA cases were Anvil cases and had wheels because they were too bulky and heavy to carry by hand. It was around this time that I discovered Pelican equipment cases. Pelican cases were much lighter than Anvil and molded ATA cases, yet still rugged. As a potential bonus, Pelican cases were waterproof and pressure equalized as well.

The lids had a rubber gasket and each case had a threaded purge vent that allowed you to equalize the pressure in the case so that when the case was taken to altitude, the lid wouldn’t become stuck. If you allowed in the nominal amount of air into the case at sea level and then closed the valve, the case would either float in water or at least be neutrally buoyant.

Pelican cases had several options for how you wanted to have the interior of the case laid out, from flexible, padded divider sections to pick and pluck foam, to harder foam that could be purchased and custom cut to fit any piece of gear. Pelican cases gained and still have a reputation as being very protective for our delicate film, video and sound gear and are solidly built. There were a few alternative brands to Pelican, but none of them seemed to dominate the market for video, film and broadcast gear in the same way that Pelican did. I still have a few Pelican cases and even though they’re scuffed and a bit dirty after more than a decade of hard use and being flown all over the world, they still get the job done. Those things said, Pelican cases tend to still be quite heavy in comparison to other alternatives and they’re not inexpensive.

We recently went hunting for a few affordable protective cases for some new pieces of gear for our live streaming business. We recently acquired the Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini Pro. To go with the ATEM, we acquired a new 22-inch Dell computer monitor. We also recently added two more Fujifilm X-T3 mirrorless cameras to our existing X-T3, so we now have a total of three cameras. We bought small, individual soft bags for each of the X-T3 cameras, but after using them for a while, we found that we always end up throwing the small individual bags into a larger bag or case for transport. Then, we end up having to unpack the cameras from their collective large case or bag and individually uncase each camera from its own bag. The whole process seemed a bit redundant and was simply adding time to the whole process that we didn’t need to waste.

Pelican Protector 1500
We took a look at the Pelican Protector 1500, a medium-sized case that would be the right size to transport our three mirrorless cameras and accessories.

Discovering A Bargain

After reviewing the latest offerings in molded plastic cases, I discovered that that Pelican now seems to offer at least two lines of cases that I was considering. They have the newer, lower-cost Vault line of cases—the V100, 200, 300 and so forth—and they still have their Protector series of cases as well. It was hard to divine the precise differences between the two lines, save for that the Vault line doesn’t look as rugged, heavyweight and beefy as the Protector series, and certain models of the Protector series are offered with wheels for running through airports or chasing down taxi cabs. I took a look at two affordable protective cases:

Pelican Case V300 
Interior dimensions: 17.5×14.2×7.1 inches
Weight: 6.69 pounds
Cost $79

Pelican Case 1500 
Interior dimensions: 16.8×11.2×6.1 inches
Weight 7.1 pounds
Cost: $149

Pelican Vault V300
The Pelican Vault V300 is similar in size and weight to the 1500 case but sells for almost half the cost. The Vault series is Pelican’s more economical offering for those who don’t need the absolute most rugged case, I think?

Either of these cases would work for my intended purpose of safely transporting three Fujifilm X-T3s, three AC power supplies and 10-inch USB C cables, three Swiss Arca tripod plates and a Fringer Pro EF to X-Mount adapter, all while still leaving some room for other small camera accessories. After researching these cases, I recalled that a friend had told me about some affordable protective cases that Harbor Freight was selling that were surprisingly good for the money. I took a trip over to my local Harbor Freight store with my tape measure to check on the specs of their cases. I also wanted to look at their build quality. Harbor Freight carries a lot of different gear and tools. I’ve bought several items from them over the years and the quality has ranged far and wide.

Apache 4800
The Apache 4800 case competes with the Pelicans at a significantly reduced cost, but ironically, at a significantly heavier weight. In my mind, the heavier weight implies that the 4800 offers even greater protection than the Pelicans, but I haven’t failure-tested any of these cases by throwing them off of a building.

The Harbor Freight Apache Case

As I explored my local Harbor Freight store, I came across the area where the cases were displayed. Upon taking a look, the Apache 4800 stood out as a good candidate for the use I wanted to consider it for. The build quality seemed very good and extremely heavy duty.

Apache 4800
Interior dimensions: 17.7×12.8×6.18 inch
Weight: 9.75 pounds
Cost” $54

Apache 4800
This image gives you a good idea of the relative size and scale when you see it packed with a DSLR and some larger lenses.

I decided that the Apache case seemed to be built with a quality that was somewhere between the Pelican Vault line and the Protector product but at a cost that was significantly lower than the equivalent Pelican product, so I bought the 4800. I also looked around and ended up purchasing the smaller Apache 2800 as well so I’d have a good, affordable protectivee case to store and transport the Blackmagic Design ATEM Mini Pro, its power supply and a few cables. The 2800 case costs $27 and is built to the same exact standards and build quality as its larger 3800 and 4800 siblings.

Harbor Freight Apache 4800
The Harbor Freight Apache 4800 case packed with our three Fujifilm X-T3 mirrorless bodies and AC Power supplies and accessories. The pick and pluck foam makes sizing quick and easy.

In Use 

So far, I’ve used the 4800 and 2800 cases to haul our live streaming gear to two shoots. They seem to provide really rugged, shockproof protection. Both cases have the purge valve like the Pelican cases have, which makes easy work of opening the cases when they’re transported to a higher elevation than they were closed at. The cases are definitely splash proof and waterproof and provide excellent isolation and protection. I still think the Pelican cases are a great product and will consider them for future purchases.

In the era of quarantine and reduced work and corresponding pay, I’ve been looking for bargains, and so far, there seems to be very little downside of these more affordable protective cases. I’ll report back if, after some considerable usage, the Apache cases show significant wear or cracks, failure of the hinges or latches. So far, though, they seem to be a very good value. If you’re in the U.S., consider checking out your local Harbor Freight store to pick these cases up for your valuable gear. I’m hunting for a case for our Dell HDMI monitor and stand, and the largest Apache case isn’t wide enough, so I may end up purchasing a Pelican Vault series for it. The challenge is, the Dell monitor was on closeout and only cost $169, so buying a $200 case for it seems counterintuitive. The search will continue for the right case at the right price.