Some tips for backpacking with a camera

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!

Souvenirs of the Southwest

I’m writing this on WordPress for iPhone, so by necessity it’ll be short. Wanted to post a couple of shots from the Vulture Mine. Like my pal Art says, it’s a “target rich” environment.

Interior of the Assay Office/Manager’s quarters

Another Interior

The Assay Office

Click on an image to view full size

A Tale of Two Peaks

View towards Payson

View towards Payson, Pass Mountain peak

While in Arizona for a couple of shows, I had a few days to nose around in the mountains. Monday was cloudy in the morning, and I spent most of the day just driving. First it was to Sky Harbor to drop Karyn off for her flight back to Detroit. Then I got turned around on the exit ramps and headed east on the 202, so I just drove northeast towards Payson. I grabbed a shot of a windmill I’d spotted the previous week, but photographically, the day was pretty much a bust. Coming back through Globe and Superior, I did see a peak that was picturesque and climbable. Picketpost Mountain is right off Highway 60, and there is a trail that goes to the top. I added that to the “someday list”, along with Picacho Peak, between Tucson and Phoenix.

Vulture Peak

The start of the Vulture Peak hike

Vulture Peak

Tuesday I headed out towards Wickenburg. I got up early (4:15) in hopes of catching the sunrise, but it was not meant to be. The day dawned cloudy with barely a milky sun. The moon was just setting in the west as I pulled into Wickenburg and gassed up. On a whim, I headed out to the Vulture Mine, which I’d heard of via Art Skopec, a local Phoenix photographer and friend. But it was too early to tour the mine (they open at 9 in the winter months). So I killed some time by walking up Vulture Peak. There is a rough campground at the base of Vulture Peak, with a mess of RV’s seemingly parked permanently there. I was put off at first, as it looks like a prime ATV spot, with many tracks running down washes. I parked Blutan the Truck and loaded up my bag with camera, food and water, and set off across the desert. The trail is well worn, and there was a maintenance crew camped at the trailhead. No problems finding or following the trail. It starts out as a pleasant ramble through saguaro, barrel cactus, ocotillo, teddy bear cholla and the usual Sonoran suspects. The grade is easy, and I took a few shots as I walked.

Vulture Peak

The top of Vulture Peak

After about a quarter mile, the trail crosses a big wash which is 4WD accessible. There is a trailhead closer to the peak that you can drive to, but that seems to miss the whole point of the desert experience. The 4WD road follows this wash for a bit and eventually meets up with the trail at the base of the peak roughly a mile in. The last half mile is pretty much uphill all the way, switchbacking gently up the slope to a saddle, where the maintained trail ends. I met the maintenance crew up on the side of the hill, busily cracking stones and clearing drainage ditches. The trail showed obvious improvements where they had been. Spent a few minutes exchanging pleasantries with them before struggling up the last few feet to the saddle. It was windy up there, and I was glad I had a jacket to stop the breeze. To get to the peak proper, an obvious use trail heads up a gully to the left. Some scrambling is in order, but it’s pretty easy stuff, with no exposure. After a couple hundred feet of mucking about, I was on top, with 360 degree views. Some jerk had spray-painted her name on a boulder at the top, and I spotted two USGS survey markers. Also a used condom. Come on people, clean up after yourselves! I made a few photographs and added my name to the battered summit register, in an old ammo box set in a concrete anchor.

Assay Office, Vulture City

The assay office, constructed of stone from the Vulture Mine

After reaching the bottom, I wandered over to the Vulture Mine. That will get its own post, as it is a wonderfully preserved (not restored) and cared for gold mine. Marty and Roma Hagen run a small souvenir shop and let tourists wander the workings and ruins on their own. I really enjoyed the mine, and recommend it highly if you are in the Wickenburg/Phoenix area. They are closed in the summer months though, due to the high desert heat. Phone ahead.

Wind Cave Trail

Yesterday, I went over to Mesa to Usery Mountain Regional Park, to hike the Wind Cave Trail. My doctor, Mark Florek, had mentioned that this hike had been a favorite of his father’s in years past, so I had wanted to check it out. The Usery Mountains are right next door to the Superstition Mountains, just northeast of Mesa. Access is easy, and the park is open most days for nature walks and camping. It’s $6/day per vehicle to get in.

Pass Mountain

Pass Mountain, Usery Mountain Park (lefthand arm of saguaro points to caves)

The Wind Cave trail is very popular, being close to a major population center, so don’t expect solitude. I met a lot of people walking, trail running and many of them were older, fat , out of shape, or all three. I felt right at home. Lots of dogs, too. The trail ascends gently through typical Sonoran desert scenery. Lovely views towards Phoenix, with saguaro, ocotillo, cholla, prickly pear, palo verde and beautiful barrel cactus. The approaches to these quick peak bags are often the best part of the hike, and the easiest, especially later in the afternoon, when the light gets low.

Wind Cave Trail

Wind Cave Trail, with barrel cactus and ocotillo

The trail gradually gets steeper, and switchbacks steadily up to the headwall of Pass Mountain, where it traverses the base of the rocks. After about 1.5 miles, you reach Wind Cave, a large undercut recess in the limestone. It’s not really a cave, but it is cool and shady. And yes, windy, too. The breeze felt good in the afternoon heat. This hike faces west, so I imagine it’s a great spot to come for the sunset. Plan about an hour to get to the cave. The trails do close at sunset, so you would want a headlamp to come down after dark. (I don’t think they’ll kick you out if you’re already on the trails.) Watch your step!

Wind Cave Panoramic View

Panoramic view from Wind Cave, Usery Mountain Park

At the cave, a sign warns that hiking beyond the trail is dangerous. Indeed, the footing is loose, and there are dropoffs. I walked across the cave to the north and ascended an obvious gully, where three tall saguaros seemed to mark a path. There is no trail here, so experience and prudence should dictate your own passage, should you choose to pass this way. After ten or fifteen minutes of scrambling, I reached the ridgeline. Traversing the ridge towards the summit, I found a well-worn use trail, complete with white blazes. It sort of took the fun out of my bushwhack, but it was going where I was going, so what the hey.

Pass Mountain Peak

The Superstion Mts, from Pass Mountain

I followed it to the top, and was rewarded with fine views of the Superstition Mountains to the East; Four Peaks to the North, and Phoenix, Mesa and Apache Junctions spread out on the other side. Well worth the extra effort to get to the top. And I was the only one up there. Most tourists stop at the cave, warned off by the threatening sign. I stayed on top long enough to take a few pictures, then followed the use trail back to the cave. At one spot, the trail forked, and seemed to head off in the wrong direction, so I headed right. A small headwall required down-climbing, but mostly it was easy going to reach the bottom of the headwall. Rounding a corner, I was once again back at the “Danger, Will Robinson!” sign. Hmmm…. didn’t seem all that dangerous to me. Again, your mileage may vary.

Sonoran Desert

View towards Phoenix with desert flora

When hiking in the desert, always take a map, water, some emergency eats, a compass, a flashlight, clothing for extra warmth should you get caught out at night. Let someone know where you are and when you expect to be back. I found that texting my wife with my whereabouts works extremely well, in areas with cell coverage. Since I don’t always know where I’m going to end up when I leave my accomodations, this works better than leaving a note. I don’t advise leaving a note on your windshield when you park your car, as it can alert thieves to the length of time you plan to be away from the vehicle. And remember: when your water is half-gone, your hike is half-done. Turn around and head down! I learned this the hard way, on the Flat Iron. But that’s another story.

Both of these hikes are described with great accuracy on Todd Martin’s wonderful hiking page. His beta was very useful to have, and as a consequence, I had a trouble-free, very enjoyable experience. His web site has a plethora (don’t you just love that word?) of information on southwest and desert hiking. One of the best I’ve found.

Today, I’m too tired to get up and go hiking, so I’m writing about it instead. This afternoon, I’ll be setting up for the Carefree Fine Art and Wine Festival, and I’m hoping the weather holds up as nicely as it has this week. Till next time: Happy Trails!

Off the beaten track

This video must be making the rounds — hadn’t seen it before, but it’s pretty darn scary. Not the heights, but the fact that the cameraman is taping as he balances above the chasm! At first I thought that he had on a helmet cam, so as to keep his hands free, especially on those sections where the concrete path has disintegrated completely, but looking more closely at a spot where his shadow is visible, it’s obvious that he’s just HOLDING the camera. My god, nerves of steel.

This short article on Wikipedia has a bit of background on the trail, a via ferrata, called El Caminito del Rey. It’s in Andalusia, Spain, and the cliffs of El Chorro are very popular climbing destinations. Like I said, a bit off the beaten path. Thanks to Val for sending on the link.