A Beginner’s Guide to Backpacking for Photographers

With a new and exciting venture I didn’t want to just be an amateur in travel and outdoor exploration. I wanted to become an expert in that field. To achieve that status I started off with building a strong foundation with backpacking. Hauling a lug of weight up an uneven terrain has proven to open up windows of optimal timing opportunities to be at the right place at the right time for photography. I’m not talking about going to the places that you drive up to, park and step out of the car, and then take the same photo as everyone else and their cell phones.

No, for me it’s not enough to take a snapshot –even without the studio setting, the lights, or the production team, for my own creative integrity I have to have put in actual work into making an image unique to my tastes. Getting out into the wild did require overcoming a few learning curves. The primary and most obvious one being the what to pack/equipment one. Allow me to break it down for you. Heads up I’ll address the camera part last, you’ll see why soon.

What to Pack:

Backpack

My Gregory Deva 70 fully loaded for a 4-day winter trip
My Gregory Deva 70 fully loaded for a 4-day winter trip

Since your backpack is going to be your best friend while on the trail you should be sure to pick on that fits what you need to bring and more importantly fit your body type.

There are some that prefer a smaller pack for weight-saving reasons, but if you’re planning on bringing camera gear I’d option for a bigger pack. Keep in mind that you mileage will vary with each pack. What you can bring will be limited to what you can physically carry, what can fit physically fit, how many days you’re planning on staying out, and will vary depending upon ever-changing conditions.

 

Living Arrangements

MellyLee-LivingArrangements

Ok, so now that we’ve assumed that you’re going out into who knows where we need to figure out what you’re going to live in.Which shelter you should use is determined by many factors such as: weather, environment, and level of comfort. Your options are:

  • Tent – If I want the maximum amount of comfort and the most shielding from the elements the obvious choice would be to use a tent.
  • Bivy Sack – If the terrain makes it impossible to anchor my tent in and/or I want to save weight I’ll go with a bivy sack.
  • Hammock – If conditions are absolutely going to be splendid with no signs of heavy rain, heavy wind, cold temperature, hoards of mosquitoes, AND there are enough trees (but not near the summit where lighting would strike) I’d love to just hammock it.
  • Tarp – If you’re really going minimalist you could just anchor a tarp across trekking poles.
  • Nature – Forget about having a roof over your head, just take your sleeping system outside and sleep under the stars (would only recommend this in good weather)

 

Clothes

clothes
Left: Me in 105°F                                                                               Right: Me in 15°F

Whatever you wear please just stay away from cotton. Cotton is terrible, it’s heavy and holds onto sweat. What you should wear varies depending upon where you’re going, what weather conditions are like, and how your own body can handle changing temperatures. The photos above are selfies taken in vastly different environments and therefore different apparel. On the left image I’m enduring a 2-mile hike in 105°F in White Sands National Monument and the right images I’m bundled up on a windy day in Bryce Canyon.

Base Layers

The trick to what you should wear for backpacking is layering. Starting off base layers are going to be the first thing that touches your skin. A base layer is simple shirt or tights made from polyester or merino wool. In warming conditions I usually just wear my running shirts and shorts (assuming there are no bugs) and hiking pants. In colder weather I’ll opt for thermal shirt and wear tights underneath my hiking pants.

I’d also like to point out to my ladies out there never go backpacking in yoga or running tights. I learned this lesson the hard way. Since those pants are skin-tight mosquitoes will love to give you bites all over your legs. Yes, they can bite through clothing. I thoroughly hate them.

Mid and Insulation Layers

These are the layers that keep you warm. Just to let you know insulation layers don’t make you warm, they keep you warm and lock in your own body heat. Growing up my Mom would always try to get me to wear the puffiest jacket possible to stay warm. It turns out that puffiness doesn’t equate to insulation. The coldest I’ve been to this date is in -22°F with wind chill in Zion National Park. Below is a photo of my backpacking pals and I on our way out to the valley. You see we’re not too puffy or bloated from our layers.

Chasing Horizons and I in Zion National Park
Chasing Horizons and I in Zion National Park

My layers for my torso will consist of a polartec fleece as a mid layer, a synthetic down jacket as an insulation layer, and followed by a rain shell (cuts the wind.) My head will be covered in a beanie and I’ll rarely be seen without my ninja mask aka neck gaiter. Usually I’ll also wear a pair of polartec fleece gloves, but recently I’ve picked up a pair of Outdoor Research Centurion Gloves. These gloves keep my terrible, poor circulation fingertips lively, warm, and the best part is that I can operate my camera with them on! Taking off my gloves to change a setting on a camera is the worst. The camera is cold, all the heat that’s built up inside each glove dissipates, and in extreme conditions my tripod can give me first-degree frost bite (it’s happened before.)

Shells

Shells slick water and snow off of you and keep you dry. It’s important to find a good one that also breaths and vents otherwise it’s going to get very humid and steamy underneath. When you’re moving around and carrying a pack your body will start to build up heat and if your shell doesn’t vent well you’ll soon find yourself uncomfortably sweaty with sweat-soaked clothes. Find a good rain shell at times it can be your life line. It cuts the wind chill and keeps your insulation layers dry and working. Imagine if your warming layers got soaked from the rain or snow. That wouldn’t be good. Shells come in a soft and hard/technical form. Soft shells are generally lighter weight and more budget friendly in comparison to hard shells. However in harsh conditions where you’re physically getting beaten up by the elements you’ll want a hard shell.

Shells aren’t just limited to jackets. You can also find them as rain pants and covers for your pack. I even picked one by Peak Design that’s a dedicated camera cover.

peakdiesgn

Tips on picking rain shells:

Footwear

Be nice to your feet! They do the majority of the work on these crazy hiking trips. Wear a good pair of hiking boots that will provide you with protection and support. This also means that you should be wearing a decent pair of socks to go with your boots. Socks should be comfortable, moisture wicking, and keep you insulated in cooler temperatures. My currently I sport pair of boots are the Salomon 4D GTX (there’s a men’s version too) with Smartwool PhD crew socks for the Spring/Summer and the ski versions for winter. These shoes are durable, waterproof, and have survived going through the rocky terrain of the High Sierra and through mountains of snow.

MLEE-20160107-YoseSnow-109

Before I was wearing boots I used to wear trailrunners for their weight and comfortably. This quickly ended when I unpleasantly discovered that my toes will go numb during the evening when I would be photography stars. My current boots keeps my toes wiggling, which means I can stay out longer to secure my shot.

 

Sleeping Layers

Also known as pajamas! Although I’ve never actually heard anyone refer to their sleeping layers as pajamas while on trail. You want to have a separate set of clothing for sleeping purposes because by the end of the day the clothes you wear while on the go will be soaked in sweat and filthy from dirt and kicked up dust. It’s preferable to keep all that out of your sleeping bag since wearing dirty clothes to bed will increase the rate in which you have to wash your sleeping bag. When your sleeping bag gets wet and dirt it gradually begins to lose its loft, which will result in loss of insulation.

Sleeping bag on the left shows significant loss of loft compared to the bag on the right. Photo by Chasing Horizons
Sleeping bag on the left shows significant loss of loft compared to the bag on the right. Photo by Chasing Horizons

In warmer weather I’ll snooze in a t-shirt and pair of shorts. In colder weather I’ll be in a long-sleeve merino wool shirt and tights.

 

Sleep System

MEL_2836
From my first backpacking trip to Havasu Falls

Getting a good night of rest is just as important in the backcountry as it is back home in the city. It helps our bodies and minds recoup and perhaps most importantly help us acclimate to altitude change.

I learned the importance of sleep the hard way. During a what should have been 4-day trek into the Vogelsang area of Yosemite I pulled an all-nighter trying to finish up retouching work before I left Los Angeles. When we got to the first day of camp the winds were beating the tent walls at 30mph. Tossed and turned all day. By day 2 early symptoms of high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE) kicked in. I wouldn’t wish altitude sickness on anyone. Do yourself a favor and prioritize sleep. It’s not hard here are your basics:

  • Sleeping Pad – this insulates you from the cold floor and gives you some comfort
  • Sleeping Bag – insulates you, shields you from the wind, and your bed away from home

It should be noted that your sleeping bag is one of the bigger items that you will be packing. Their soft squishiness can be compressed, but only to a certain degree. Since this is an item that you can’t do without (well technically you can -I just wouldn’t recommend it) you might consider investing in the pricier models. What you’ll end up paying for is a balance between warmth, weight, and size.

Also yoga mats are not an acceptable alternative to sleeping pads. Yoga matts are meant to the yogi to feel connected and feel the ground. They’re not meant to insulate you from the cold ground nor provide a comfortable night’s rest.

 

Cooking

MLEE-20160107-YoseSnow-128

Cooking is easy.

  • Stove
  • Pot
  • Lighter
  • Eating utensils
  • Fuel
  • Water Bladder
  • Water Filter
  • Meals

IMG_0876

It’s also in good practice to prep your meals before actually going on your trip. You have options of dehydrating your own meals or purchasing premade freeze dried ones. There’s plenty of trail recipes available online with a single Google search. My current go-to is trail.recipes

Oh, and one more thing you’ll need for your food …the dreaded and yet oh so necessary bear can!

bearcan
What a cutie! Just don’t feed him… Original Source: youtube.com/watch?v=sn7oayAaf4k

What’s a bear can you say? It’s a bear proof vault that keeps bears and other animals from stealing your food and learning to associate humans as a food source. Most places require you to have one on trail and here’s a harsh truth. Bears that get into human food are usually killed once they’re captured. It’s to prevent them from teaching fellow bears that humans are a good source of food. I like to keep my bears cute, fluffy, and alive –please use a bear can.

For the sake of debunking myths:

This item is what I like to call the packing nightmare because it destroys any hope I have of packing additional camera gear. A bear can filled with food can weigh up to 10lbs and to properly carry that weight it should be situated close to the middle of your back.

At this point your backpack should look something like this from bottom to top:

IMG_5515

Sleeping bag > bear can > shelter > cooking supplies > empty space

Camera Equipment

Once you’ve figured out how much space you have left in your pack you can then determine what gear you have the luxury to bring. I personally like having enough space at the top of my pack to place my camera with a lens attached on.

You could also plan your camera gear first then pack your backpacking gear. This route might be more expensive though you’ll find yourself seeking higher end camping equipments that are lighter weight.

From here on out what you want to shoot will determine what gear you should bring.

Camera Body

Camerabody

To me it really doesn’t matter what camera body you should bring. I’ve taken everything as big as a Mamiya RZ to something as small as a GoPro HERO4.The camera that you’ll end up taking along with you is one that accommodates the situation and features you’ll need to make a specific photo. For instance my main body now is the Sony A7R II because it’s lightweight and performs well in low-light situations. Here are some factors you should keep a few things in mind when choosing a camera:

  • Weight – How much are you will to lug for miles with elevation?
  • Low Light Ability – This is especially important when you’re photographing stars or other moments when light is scarce.
  • Weather Ceiling – Honestly you’ll never know when the weather will change, best to play it safe.

Lens

IMG_5139

Unless you have porters or really nice friends that will help you carry all your precious lens, your best bet is to pick 2 lens you and stick to them. Bring one lens to be the main one that would be attached to the camera body and the other for a specialty shot OR as a backup in case something unfortunate happens to the first lens. My lens selection is based on of the subject matter I want to shoot.

For something that going to be general use and most likely going to be attached to the camera body for the majority of the time it may be wiser in the long run to choose a light weight lens. When my backpack is fully loaded there isn’t actually any room to store my camera. Therefore my camera kit is typically hanging of a shoulder sling while I’m hiking. The lighter the lens the more comfortable my shoulder and neck will be after miles of trekking.

For images in which I’d like to pick a certain area to focus on I’d prefer to shoot with a longer lens such as a 70-200mm/2.8. Longer lens will eliminate any distortion that results from shooting with a wide-angle lens, produces beautiful bokeh, and will help fill the frame more when photographing a far away object. Keep in mind zoom lens can be significantly heavier and bulkier, therefore if you’re planning on bringing one out be mindful and conservative of how you’re packing the rest of your gear.

Currently my backpacking setup is

Sony A7r II + 28mm/2 (general use/walking around lens) + 14mm/2.8 (for astrophotography –if space permits)

Camera Support

camerasupport

Your camera support or accessories are going to be items that you’ll need in order to take the shot. A few standards I found necessary for any backpacking trip are:

Optional accessories you might consider bringing if you have the space or find them necessary:

 

Final Thoughts

There’s a lot to take in when you’re first getting into backpacking. However it shouldn’t be an intimidating process. I approach each trip in the same manner as I approach producing a photo shoot. Starting off with working backwards from what’s the final image I’m looking to capture to what’s the necessary equipment that’s going to allow me to make that shot. The only real difference is that the necessary equipment is now going to include a tent and sleeping bag.

Let me know in the comments below if there’s any topic that you’d like me to go more in-depth on in future posts and good luck with your next adventure!

 


SUPPORT THE BLOG

If you find content like this helpful or enjoyable, please consider purchasing gear from B&H or any of my other my affiliate links. Anything you purchase after clicking through these links helps keep the lights on for the blog –and you get to treat yourself to a new toy!

Tags from the story
, ,

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *