There is no disputing that some of the best, most unique images are created while backpacking. Why is that?
Well, for starters, not nearly as many photographers venture out far enough on foot to capture these rarely seen, pristine wilderness areas. It’s not as simple as pulling up to the next overlook in your comfy vehicle. You have to work for it. You have to carry everything on your back and walk miles upon miles to reach your shot.
So, aside from the obvious hurdle of energy exertion and being in good enough shape, what are the main obstacles to backpacking for photography? Well, simply put… weight. It’s the reason many pro outdoor photographers have made the switch to mirrorless cameras. Saving even ounces can really add up.
I have not yet mades the switch to the lighter, more compact mirrorless cameras. So I’ll be approaching this problem from the old-school perspective. But I believe I have some insight to give that will benefit both the DSLR photographers, and those who have gone mirrorless. The concepts for both are really one in the same. It’s all about saving weight anywhere you can.
First, you must try to accurately assess the location, and its specific gear needs/ requirements. I am including ALL gear here, not just photo related. If you can save ounces/ pounds with your general camping/ backpacking gear, that may mean the difference between taking a particular lens or not. For example, if you are backpacking the Pacific Northwest, you surely need to carry rain gear [waterproof jacket, pants, pack cover, tent fly, and camera cover(s)]. If you happen to be in the desert, leave most of that and simply bring the rain fly for your tent. If, in the off chance, it does rain, you can stash everything in the tent. There are certainly inherent risks in packing this way, but the reward may be that you save your back, and get the amazing shot you wanted. If you are new to backpacking all together, or just need some tips to pair things down, check out the godfather of backpacking, Andrew Skurka’s post on gear. It will prove insightful for both the novice and experienced alike. But keep in mind, he approaches this from a purely backpacking perspective, not photography.
Next, think through the possible shots you’d like to capture. This will take some research/ scouting. See my post on scouting for help if you are new to this concept. Once you have a detailed shot list created, this will help determine which (and how many) camera bodies, lenses, flash, tripod, intervalometer, filters, etc. you will likely need. Only bring what you really need to get the shots.
I have made the mistake so many times on excursions into the backcountry to take extra equipment that I thought I might need. This proved to be a waste of weight and energy exertion. I won’t downplay the difficulty in accurately assessing your pack list, but I also won’t downplay the importance to be as conservative as possible. If in doubt, just don’t bring it. Do more with less.
Make sure you have everything you need to survive, but be willing to sacrifice some comforts to get to a doable weight.
KNOW YOUR LIMITATIONS. I recommend doing some test miles with your pack fully loaded to see if it’s something you can even handle. Hike at least two miles to get a feel for it. The rule is, your pack, fully loaded, should not weight more than 20% of your body weight.
This is much easier said than done. My pack, when on a photo trek is frequently closer to 30% my body weight. I DO NOT recommend this. Stick to as close to (or below) 20% as you possibly can. Your body (specifically knees and back) will thank you as you get older.
It can be intimidating to head out into the wild with everything on your back, especially for the first time. But don’t let that stop you. The rewards far outweigh the struggle. A paraphrased quote from Teddy Roosevelt sums it up best… “Nothing worth doing is easy.”
In a world of the similar photographs from the same places, that everyone posts to social media, we must work a little harder to be distinctive. The unique experiences and photos you can create are everywhere. They are simply waiting for you to find your way to them.
If you are new to backpacking, and would like a helpful first experience, I am excited to offer a fully-immersive, guided backpacking and photography adventure in my favorite mountain range on earth, the Wind River Range in Wyoming. I have not officially announced it yet, but if you are interested, let me know, and I will put you on the “first notified” list. You will learn first-hand from me, as I lead you into the most beautiful wilderness area in the lower 48.