Heavy Metal Rocks!
Refitting an Ammo Can as a Camera Box
By Tamia Nelson
June 23, 2009
I don't like carrying heavy loads any more than the next paddler, but I don't agonize over every ounce, either. I value durability and economy more than light weight. My favorite canoe paddle is made of ash, not a Kevlar®-carbon composite. The rucksack that houses my getaway kit is canvas, not nylon, and I've got a closet full of cotton duck Duluth packs. My camp cookware is steel and aluminum, not titanium. I've even been known to bring a cast-iron skillet along. In short, this is one sister who'll likely never be invited to join the go-light brotherhood.
That doesn't mean that I'm not open to new ideas, however. Take cameras. Two years ago I bought a small point-and-shoot digital camera. Not as a substitute for film, you understand. Just something to take along when I wouldn't otherwise bother with any camera. Uh-huh. Well, that was then. This is now. And today I'm a full-time digital girl. The only film camera I own is one I found alongside a portage trail, wrapped in a weathered daypack with no identification. It gathers dust on a shelf.
Going digital has made a lot of things easier, of course. But it hasn't eliminated the need to keep my cameras dry. (I don't own a truly waterproof camera. Yet.) So when I got my my first digital, a Canon A550, I started looking for something that filled the bill. Rain on the trail was no problem. A freezer bag or two did the trick. Easy water, ditto. My PFD has a pocket that's just the right size, and it's been a while since I've dumped while paddling on Golden Pond. That's a chance I'm willing to take. A freezer bag with a good seal is good enough for me. But rough water is another story. I wanted something more substantial—and more dependable—than a freezer bag. So I shopped around for a dry box, combing Paddling.net's Reviews and retailers' websites for information. And in the end, I chose an OtterBox®.
It was a good call. The box is tough but light, and it's bright yellow—easy to spot in the water and hard to leave behind when packing up. The OtterBox provides a generous measure of impact protection, too, cradling my little Canon cozily on a bed of foam. There's also room for a spare set of AA cells and an SD card. If I pack carefully I can even fit in a tiny pair of Tasco 8x21 binoculars. Nor is there any problem making connections. A lanyard tethers the box to pack or thwart, and if I want something more robust, I can easily thread nylon webbing through a molded-in slot.
Perfect? Pretty near. My OtterBox is great for a small camera. But when I bought a digital SLR and a telephoto zoom lens to go with it, I needed something roomier. A larger OtterBox seemed the obvious choice. Trouble is, I couldn't find one that was big enough. Then I looked at Pelican™ cases. Here the problem was cost. Don't get me wrong. Pelican cases have a good reputation, and they're used by many professional photographers. You get what you pay for, in other words. Still, I was loath to pay almost as much for a dry box as I'd paid for my first small digital camera. So I checked out waterproof soft packs. There are plenty to choose from, and a lot of satisfied customers. Unfortunately, I have vivid memories of a friend poring water out of a high-tech dry bag after we pulled his boat off a rock in the middle of a Québec river. A fine 35mm SLR and a pro kit of lenses went west that day, never to return. It's not a scene I want to revisit, and in the end my reluctance to gamble on the soft-pack option won out. Which brought me back to my starting point: I wanted waterproof protection, with equal emphasis on both elements, waterproof and protection. That says…
To me. Then I remembered that I owned several of the hardest hard cases you're likely to find anywhere: military surplus, stamped steel ammo cans. Admittedly, they're not much to look at. They're pretty drab, as a matter of fact. Well, most of them are, anyway. I once owned one that had an orange paint job, but it got lost in a move. And they're heavy. Very heavy. But they're sturdy. Mine have taken more than a few hard knocks over the years. One survived a capsize on the same river that claimed my friend's SLR, in fact, and I'm happy to say that the contents (my SLR, as it happened) came through unscathed. Despite having spent several minutes in the washing-machine tub at the foot of a lively Class III-IV rapids, not so much as one drop of water got in. That's a pretty good recommendation. True, it had been years since I'd fitted out an ammo can to hold a camera. In the decade before I gave up on film altogether, my old OM-1 SLR had been supplanted by a pocket-sized Olympus rangefinder, protected only by a freezer bag. Now, however, I had a new digital SLR. I wanted to be able to take it in harm's way—and bring it back intact.
First things first. I needed to be sure that the ammo can I chose to house my new camera was watertight. Gaskets crack, after all, and hard knocks sometimes distort the metal box enough to deform the seal. Rust is bad news, too. So I gave my collection of cans a good going over. All of them passed inspection. Now it was time for the final test: total immersion. I took the pick of the lot down to The River and chucked it out into the current, empty except for a red bandanna—but only after first making sure that it was securely tethered with a long length of strong nylon cord. Then I let it spin around while I took a few photos. Here's one:
I left it there for a good five minutes, during which time it shot through a chute and into a plunge pool, whirled round in an eddy, and submerged repeatedly. An empty ammo can is buoyant, but I'd picked a lively stretch of The River to make sure it got a good dunking. The can's inherent buoyancy was no match for the hydraulic forces at play in the snowmelt-swollen water. There was a bonus, too. The River was hand-numbingly cold—so cold that it immediately chilled the air trapped in the ammo can, reducing the internal pressure and partially collapsing the sidewalls. If the seal was ever going to deform and fail, I figured this would be the day.
Then, when the ammo can had tumbled about for long enough, I pulled it out and set it on a rock outcrop while I subjected my little OtterBox to the same trial by water. (I like to check any dry box or dry bag that I depend on at least once a year.) Notice how the bright yellow OtterBox stands out against The River's root-beer-brown water:
I left the OtterBox to its own devices for a few minutes and looked around, straining to locate the yellow warbler and American redstart whose songs I could just hear above the roar of The River in flood. But I had no luck, and after a few more minutes' fruitless search for the elusive songsters, I hauled the OtterBox in and placed it beside the ammo can, leaving it to dry in the sun. I didn't have to wait long. Soon the outside surfaces of both boxes gave no hint that they'd been for a swim in The River. I also noticed that the ammo can was no longer "sucking in its cheeks." So the moment of truth had arrived. I opened the ammo can first, and was delighted to see that my red bandanna was dry as a bone.
Then it was the OtterBox's turn. It, too, passed the test.
But that news, while more than welcome, was just a footnote to the day's big story. The ammo can had survived its trial by water. I had my "new" dry box. Now the only chore left was…
Refitting the Old Warrior…
For his new mission. And the hardest part of the job was tearing myself away from The River. Nevertheless, it had to be done, and there wasn't a moment to be lost. When I got back home, I assembled my materials.
The list was a short one:
- Camera Gear
- Closed-Cell Foam Pad
- Measuring Tape
First I removed the ammo can's lid, wiping off a few stray drops of water trapped in the gudgeons while I was at it. (The gudgeons form part of the external hinge. No water had found its way inside.) My foam came from an old closed-cell pad, long since retired. It had stiffened up a bit in the twenty-odd years I'd owned it—so had I, come to that—but it was still plenty resilient, and the pad's white surface would make finding things in the dry box a lot easier than if I used a darker color.
The next step was to pad the bottom of the can. I measured the interior dimensions, cut a slab of foam, and fitted it. Success. The long sides came next. I measured, cut, and fitted, allowing just enough space at the top to accommodate a foam cap. No problem. (The carpenter's maxim is worth heeding in all such tasks: Measure twice and you'll only need to cut once.) Then came the ends. Again, I allowed space for the foam cap. Here's how things looked:
I'd wondered if I'd need to glue or tape the foam, but I found that everything fitted snugly enough once the camera gear was in place, so I didn't bother. I did several test fittings, in fact, trying different arrangements until I had one I liked. This is it:
Four spare AA cells nestle under the camera lens, on the right in the picture. As you can see, I also have room for my compact binoculars. The camera rests on its side, with the grip uppermost. A slab of foam separates the attached lens from the spare batteries, which in turn support the lens. Everything but the binoculars is swathed in freezer bags. Out on the water, the binoculars will be double wrapped, too. I'm a belt-and-suspenders person.
Not much remained to do. I cut two small slabs of foam to wall off the accessory telephoto—it's on the left in the shots above and below—separating it from the SLR body and creating a shelf so my little point-and-shoot camera can nestle on top. (The additional square of foam on the right is an extra piece. It'll probably come in handy someday.)
Next, I cut another square of foam to fit on top of the small camera and folded the bandanna to make a wedge over the big camera's primary lens. Bandannas have many uses, and I carry plenty of them. In this case, the bandanna does duty as a rag to wipe mist and dust off both camera and lens bodies. (That's the bodies, not the optics!) I like to keep it in the dry box so it's handy.
Finally, I checked the foam cap to confirm that it fit flush with the sides of the ammo can. In effect, it's a liner for the ammo can's metal lid. I needn't have worried. It fit fine.
Then, just to sure, I put the lid back on the ammo can and clamped it shut.
Success! The latch slammed home with a satisfying, if unsubtle, THUNK, and my old ammo can was ready for duty as a waterproof camera box. Note that I've lashed a lanyard to the bail with a bowline and stopper and added a figure-eight loop on the other end. A carabiner joins the figure eight to a length of webbing tied around a thwart in the canoe, guaranteeing that the camera case stays with the boat in case of a capsize in quiet water. (I don't rely on the cord and bail in rough water, however. I lash the can in place with more webbing.) The lanyard is just long enough so that I can pull the case over to me as I kneel in my boat, but not long enough to wrap around my leg if I take an unplanned swim.
OK. I think you'll agree that my ammo can makeover was a success, but one weighty question still remains:
Just How Practical Is It, Anyway?
I won't try to kid you. Ammo cans are heavy. Loaded up, my new dry box weighs in at nearly 10 pounds. Some folks go out overnight with packs that weigh less than that, and it may be too much if you're contemplating a route with a nine-mile portage over a height of land. But I don't mind the weight. Security comes at a price, and most of the time I'd rather pay the cost in extra pounds than shell out extra dollars. That said, however, I'd be the last person to claim that an ammo-can dry box is always the best alternative. It's out of place in any kayak with a low deck, for one thing, and the ammo can's sharp corners are also pretty good cutting tools. If your favorite boat is a fabric folder or an inflatable, a dry bag is a much better choice. Still, for many boats—ABS and aluminum canoes, for example, as well as poly sit-on-tops—and for most trips, the ammo-can dry box is mighty hard to beat. It's battle tested, after all. And the price is right. That's enough in my book.
If you're searching for a waterproof case to protect your camera gear or binoculars or an expedition medical kit—a truly bombproof dry box that's as cheap as it is sturdy—look no further. The end of your quest is as close as the nearest military surplus outlet. An old stamped-steel ammo can may not be cutting-edge cool, and it's certainly not light, but it makes a great alternative to pricey commercial dry boxes. Heavy metal rocks! It's that simple.
Copyright © 2009 by Verloren Hoop Productions. All rights reserved.