Backpacking for photographers

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Part One: The titanium spork

The titanium spork is marvel. A curious symbol for the pursuit of weight loss among backpackers everywhere, an acknowledgement of the fact that you really have no idea why your backpack is so heavy. You aren't carrying anything heavy. You have a few choice essentials chosen for their extreme lightness and suddenly the pack weighs 70 lbs. How did this happen? Maybe it's the weight of the fork and spoon. If you could discard those two utensils and replace them with one ultra-light spork, maybe your pack would be light again. This is the reasoning of a backpacker. This madness originates from the fact that there are 16 ounces in a pound. What follows, is that if you can shave 2 ounces off of sixteen items in your pack, you have just lightened your load by 2 pounds. It's quite simple, but it leads one down the road of the $11.00 spork.

My bivy above Turquoise Lake • Lake Clark National Park, Alaska
There are two schools of combining backpacking and photography. One group is out to backpack first and foremost; they may take some photo along the way. For these people the answer is easy: a digital point-and-shoot; these days it is easy to find something with more than 10 megapixels in a package that fits in your pocket. The other school is made up of people who want to make photographs, but unfortunately the photos they want are down some distant path on the other side of some high ridge. It is these people who are always asking the question: how can I possibly carry my camping gear and photography equipment without sacrificing either my safety or the quality of my photographs? It is for these people that I offer one particular way that has worked for me. ###The Pack### My basic strategy is to use a large internal frame backpack and eliminate enough weight to allow me to carry a medium format camera, tripod, and a few essential accessories. Since my primary interest is photography and not a vacation, I am willing to sacrifice some comfort along the way. Unfortunately, this means I won't be baking scones in the backcountry—I've seen it done. Makers of camera bags will be of little or no help. There are countless photo backpacks on the market but none are appropriate for more than day hiking. They aren't big enough and they don't offer a suspension system that will support the weight comfortably over the course of a long hike. There is no way around it; you will be carrying a lot of weight. You will be happier if you start with a pack designed for backpacking and find a way to make your camera gear fit. I carry a Gregory Palisade pack, although there are countless other packs that will work just as well. It weighs a little over 7 pounds, and at 4700 cubic inches it is just big enough for my needs. It has straps in the right spots for lashing on a tripod and the arrangement of pockets fits my needs. The most important aspect of any backpack is the fit. You absolutely must go to a dealer that will fill the packs with weight and let you try several on. Many packs come with interchangeable straps allowing you pick the correct size for your frame. When a pack fits well you will be amazed at how much weight you can comfortably carry because it will transfer almost all of the weight through your skeletal system rather than forcing your muscles to carry the load. You end up carrying most of the weight on your hips. This will be a revelation to those of you accustomed to giant photo packs that put the weight squarely on you shoulders. Although you don't need to buy the most expensive pack on the market, this is not the place to skimp. About twelve miles down a trail in the Smokies we ran into a man whose poorly-designed pack had started to come apart. The straps were sewn onto the body of the pack in a fashion more fitting a book bag. The few threads holding all the weight of the pack had given out and there he was, separated from his car by twelve miles of difficult terrain, stuck with no practical way to carry his gear. But what caught my attention was that the pack looked new. What a mess. Luckily, my hiking partner had a stash of diaper pins (something I had never though to carry) that served as a temporarily fix.
Tarns near the High Divide • Olympic National Park

Part Two: Shelter

This is where I skimp. Even the smallest tents weigh about five pounds and take up too much room. I have found that I don't mind sleeping in a Gore-Tex bivy bag when hiking alone. This is basically a waterproof sleeping bag cover that has a dome over your head. The North Face makes one that weighs two pounds and takes up about as much room as loaf of bread.

This is not exactly a night at the Ritz. I feel a bit like a sardine and it's difficult to set up in the rain. There is also not much room for gear inside so you will need a pack cover to keep your things dry in foul weather. A cheap poncho makes a fine pack cover, although if you are fashion conscious you might prefer a pack cover designed to match your pack. One reason I like a poncho is that with some creativity and some rope you can string it up like a tarp and make a shelter effective enough to keep you dry while you get in and out of the bivy. I have slept in a bivy in conditions ranging from summer downpours in the south to frigid winters in Voyageurs National Park and have never been unhappy with it. The Gore-Tex breathes well so, except in heavy rain, it rarely feels clammy. It is completely waterproof. In good weather it is downright fun. I watch the stars as I fall asleep and I'm not separated from the environment like I am in a tent. It is an incredible feeling to wake with the weight of several inches of snow from an overnight storm pressing down on your body. Inside the bivy I have a therm-a-rest pad and a down sleeping bag. The therm-a-rest may seem like an indulgent luxury; I consider it essential. I can't imagine sleeping without it on rocky ground and in cold weather it adds a needed layer of insulation between the ground and me. Most packs have straps on the outside for sleeping pads so it doesn't need to take up any precious space inside. Which sleeping bag I use depends on the weather .The Marmot Sawtooth 20 degree bag serves my needs for most of the year and it's 2lbs., 14oz. is manageable. For winter use I carry a Marmot Col -20 bag. This is a huge bag but it packs to an amazingly small size and weighs only 4 pounds. Marmot's temperature ratings are very conservative. I have used the Col in Yellowstone and Voyageurs National Parks in January and have never been uncomfortable. In fact, I look forward to my first night out on winter trips because I know I will be sleeping in luxury. For my purposes down is the only way to go because a down bag is more compact and lighter than a comparable synthetic bag. But be careful if you are in a wet environment; a wet down bag is useless.

Lake Nanita • Rocky Mountain National Park

Part Three: Essentials

Now that I have a place to sleep, the rest of my needs are associated with keeping myself fed and safe. If you are like me, this is no small task and all those pesky ounces really start to add up so I try to keep it simple.

Water filter
I imagine that you could safely drink most of the water from mountain streams with no ill effect, but the park and forest services warn about Giardiasis at every opportunity. This is a gastrointestinal disorder caused by the flagellated protozoan, Giardia intestinalis. In reality you stand a much greater chance of catching this in a public pool, but the symptoms sound uncomfortable enough that you really, really, don't want to catch this in the backcountry. You could boil your water before drinking it, but this takes a lot of time and you end up carrying so much fuel that you don't save any weight. There are many filters on the market and most specify what they will and will not filter on the packaging. My filter is made by Pur and filters out everything imaginable. It was expensive, but I've never been sick while backpacking.

Stove, cookware, and food
If you really wanted to, you could live on powerbars for a long time but after a while they become very unsatisfying. I will normally eat a bar for breakfast (they now come with caffeine for us coffee addicts) and as a snack along the way, but for dinner I prefer something more substantial. I pack dried backpacking meals, not because they are good, or cheap—although the mountain chili is quite decent—but because they are easy, light, and last forever. Several brands even come in metal bags in which you can cook. No dishes. This is great if you hate doing dishes, and more importantly, it makes practicing good camping ethics easier. You can pack everything, including bits of uneaten food out with you. Cooking dried meals requires a stove, a pot for boiling water, and fuel. This is a lot of unavoidable weight. You can buy mini fuel bottles that are lighter and will last a single person quite a while. My stove is a MSR Dragonfly. It is light, always works, and boils water quickly. What really sold me, however, was the list of fuels that it will burn. If you feed this stove something mildly flammable it will work. You can even use jet fuel. Who uses jet fuel when camping? I've often wondered where on earth you are where you can't find Coleman camp fuel, yet you have easy access to jet fuel. If you shop around, you can find a small pot (these come in titanium to match the spork) that will accommodate the stove and cookware inside allowing you to save space.

I pack as little as I can without sacrificing my safety. I always bring rain gear (strapped outside the pack), extra socks, hat, and a fleece pullover when in unpredictable environments like the mountains. You can get away with very little extra clothing in the summer. Today's hi-tech fabrics are light, breathe well, and most importantly, dry incredibly quickly. You don't need to pack three pairs of pants and three shirts for a short trip. During most of the year the only spare clothes I pack are socks and a light polyester tee shirt in case I fall in a stream. I stay away from cotton: no cotton shirts, pants, socks, or even underwear. Cotton gets wet and stays wet which can occasionally be dangerous and is always uncomfortable.

Other Essentials

  • First aid kit. I've never needed more than a bandage from mine but never leave without it.
  • Rope. Especially in bear country so you can hang you food.
  • Flashlight. I prefer the little headlamps to keep both hands free.
  • Compass and map, waterproof matches (in the cooking pot), knife.
  • Water Bottle. The pack has holsters for them.

Snow and trees • Chugach National Forest, Alaska

Part Four: Photography Gear

So now that you've decided to sleep in the camping equivalent of a ziplock bag, wear the same clothes for days on end, and eat mushy, taste-challenged food, you should have some extra room in your pack. The challenge is to squeeze your gear in the remaining space of your pack in such a way that you don't need to remove everything to get to it. Since I am primarily after landscape photos I don't worry too much about having instant access to my gear. I have the luxury of removing my pack and taking my time while I decide how I want too shoot a specific scene.

I stuff everything I'll need into a medium sized fanny pack from REI and then put the fanny pack inside the backpack on top of everything else. It just fits. I strap the tripod to the outside of the pack. Although heavier, this arrangement has the advantage of allowing me to take side trips without my entire pack. I will frequently set up camp, hang my food bag and take a hike to a nearby location with only my tripod, fanny pack and a little water. I like having all the necessary gear together so I don't do something silly like walk off without my film or meter. Fanny packs are available that are reasonably waterproof which adds some extra protection to my gear if my pack gets wet.

Like everything else involving backpacking, I make some concessions. I only carry one body and two lenses. The body is almost always a Pentax 67 (without the wood grip) and the lenses are always a 45mm (wide angle in this format) and a toss-up between the normal 105mm and the telephoto 200mm depending on the type of shots I predict. I also bring a couple of filters (warming, polarizer, and neutral-density grad), a spot meter, and film. To save space and weight I use the waist-level finder rather than the very heavy prism finder. My tripod is a carbon fiber Gitzo 1227. This, like the titanium spork, is one of those objects that costs four times as much as you would expect because it is a few ounces lighter. But it is a few ounces lighter, and as sturdy as a tripod twice its weight. I try to take a little extra care with the backpack because the gear is not very well protected from bumps. This is the area where the Pentax 67 excels. This is a tough camera. I have had some minor problems associated with rough handling, but nothing that I couldn't fix with a small screwdriver. For a little added protection I stuff the lenses into hiking socks to keep them from bumping together during the trip. If I could be happy with 35mm slides, this affair would be much simpler. I could probably get by with a system of small bags that attach to the waist belt of the pack. Although my feet may hurt a little more, I know when I get back to the light table this will have been worth the effort.