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Sunrise at Floe Lake, Canadian Rockies

Floe Lake, Kootenay, British Columbia

I’ve done a lot of packing with cameras and gear over the years, and every year I carry less and less. This past summer I went on a three day trip with nothing but a Canon G11, instead of carrying my 5D and lenses. Once I got used to the limitations of the G11, it was a joy not to lug an additional 10 pounds of camera gear over rocky trail-less terrain. I often scramble around in the rocks, and do some climbing, so lighter is generally better.

I’ve almost never carried a full size tripod into the backcountry. I use mini-pods at times, and sometimes a monopod adapter atop a walking staff. I don’t use long telephoto lenses in the backcountry, either. Most of my backcountry work is shot with one or two lenses — a 24-85 or 24-105, a 16-35 and very occasionally, a 70-200mm or 70-300mm. And since I’ve moved to Canon L-series lenses, I probably wouldn’t take the 70-300mm into the backcountry. Just too damn heavy to carry unless there was a serious reason. Unless you are planning to do a lot of early/late shooting in golden light (admittedly a good reason to go into the backcountry), you may never need a full size tripod.

Numa Peak and Mt. Foster, Canadian Rockies

Numa Pass & Mt. Foster in the Canadian Rockies

The best strategy for carrying professional camera equipment into the wild is to pare your gear down to the bare essentials. And that includes the camera kit. On my first backpacking trip to the Canadian Rockies, I carried a SLR body, a 24-85mm lens, a 70-300mm lens, a full complement of graduated filters, polarizers, a bunch of film, and a small compact tripod. I also carried my own stove, tent, food, water and way too much clothing. All told, my load was close to 60 pounds for four days, and 20% of that was camera gear. Since then, I’ve gotten  the load pared down, and I can get along with about 25 pounds for a long weekend, with an additional 5-6 pounds of camera gear. Tailor the load to the assignment. If you plan to shoot golden light landscapes, leave the long zoom in the car. If you plan to shoot wildlife, leave the ultra wide lenses behind. It’s hard to stay focussed if you are too tired to lift the camera at the end of the day from carrying a sixty or seventy pound load up 4000′ of vertical trail. You may miss some shots if you don’t have the proper lens, but you will miss more shots wasting energy carrying gear you may only use once.

That said, to carry more than a single lens and a tripod into the backcountry, you will want a backpack that has good size wand pockets and lash spots or side compression straps to carry the tripod on the outside. Keeping the load centered is ideal, but a tripod cantilevered on the back of your pack will definitely tip you backwards. Carrying the lenses and cameras so they are accessible is another big issue. A good sized top pocket is usually the best option, but will make the pack top heavy and awkward to maneuver. Best thing is to experiment and find what works best for you. Take your gear into the store when trying out backpacks, and see what works.

One option is to carry the camera and working lens outside the pack, in shooting position. I have used a Zing case, but with today’s large glass, my old case doesn’t fit my camera. Anything that will relieve weight on your neck and keep the camera close to your chest for shooting will work.

Last Light, Mt. Robson, Canadian Rockies

Last Light, Mt. Robson and Berg Lake, Canadian Rockies

If you are an experienced backpacker, you’ll know how to size a pack for your anticipated itinerary, stamina and load. If not, Gregory and Osprey are great places to start. Backpacks have gotten lighter and stronger, and internal frame packs carry much more compactly than the old-style external frames. OTOH, external packs are very forgiving in the way that they are packed, and can carry huge loads. If you really want to carry a ton of weight, the Kelty external frame packs are tried and true.

Osprey makes very good packs, and my current weekender is a climbing pack with very few bells and whistles. It carries enough for a three day trek if you pack light, but it leaves very little room for camera gear. And it only weights a kilogram.

Look at the Kelty Tioga series for a great example of a classic external frame backpack. While I favor the internal frame style, this pack has stood the test of time, and is highly recommended by many people. If you are planning to carry heavy loads, this may be a better option for you. Try both and see.

One piece of gear that I’ve found incredibly helpful is the Cotton Carrier system. Basically a camera harness, it allows me to carry one or two cameras without the load hanging completely off the neck strap. Great for climbing, or any activity like backpacking where you need to have your hands free and the camera secured for part of the time, the Cotton Carrier holds the camera close to your body until you need it. This is a bulky piece of gear, but worth the extra load in certain situations. Backpacking with a full size DSLR and a heavy lens would be one of them. The Zing Action cases use the same idea — a strap that goes around your waist to keep the camera from swinging forward or from side to side as you walk.

Overloaded backpacker with loads both front and back

What NOT to do when backpacking! Byron Johnson attempts to load the back half of his 80 pounds.

Some tips for traveling light:

  1. Carry less water. With the exception of the desert, you can probably tank up at stream crossings, little ponds and seeps. Water is just about the heaviest thing you can carry, weighing in at 8 pounds/gallon. You can use Gatorade bottles instead of Nalgenes if you want to save an extra ounce or two. I like to use a hydration bladder so that I don’t have constantly fumble for the bottle while walking.
  2. Carry a lightweight filtration system instead of a pump. For years I carried a PUR Hiker filter, which added bulk and about a pound to my pack. Ultraviolet purifiers, such as the SteriPEN, can render water safe to drink, and take up way less space in the pack. Or you can resort to the tried and true iodine tablets.
  3. Carry the lightest backpack, tent, sleeping bag that you can for the conditions you anticipate. For more on ultralight backpacking in general, head over to backpacking.net.
  4. Learn how long your camera batteries will last. Carry only enough spares that you won’t run short. Nothing worse than having your batteries go dead right at sunset.
  5. Carry only dehydrated food on longer trips. The lightest food is the Backpacker’s Pantry type, although I personally prefer to cook gourmet style when on longer trips. But you pay a price in weight. General rule of thumb: 2 pounds a day is more than enough food to replace calories burned on long-distance walks. Energy bars, oatmeal, rice, pasta, dried fruit, nuts will keep you going. Consider a few packs of Emergen-C mixed with water to replenish electrolytes. And with careful planning, you may be able to carry less per day.
  6. Learn how to steady a camera without a tripod. With the exception of long exposures, you can make use of rocks, trees, even a trekking pole to steady the camera. Consider whether you will need a tripod for your shots, and balance the weight over the number of days you will be in the field. before adding it to your backpacking load.
  7. Don’t attempt to carry more weight than you have trained to carry! I can’t stress this enough. There is nothing worse than planning the trip of a lifetime, and then cursing the load on your back every step of the way. Practice gear triage. Before your trip, lay it all out, and eliminate everything that doesn’t have a definite use, or multiple uses. I have used an excel spreadsheet and a postal scale to weigh every single piece of gear, and to calculate to the ounce what I will be carrying “from the skin out”. FTSO refers to everything in your pack, plus your boots, clothing that you are wearing, and yes, that camera around your neck. 20%-30% of your body weight should be comfortable if you are in shape; 35% is not. Strive for less is more.

Happy Trails!