Editors Note: Photography and Backpacking | From Luminous Landscape was originally written by James Chow for Luminous Landscape and has been reproduced with permission.
Photography and Backpacking
The main advantages of backpacking are not only to get away from the crowds, but also to see rare or unique scenery one can’t find near the road. Everyone has seen and photographed the common sights near the road in national parks. Some parks are more conducive to photography near the road (e.g., Yosemite, Yellowstone, Grand Teton) while others have very few access roads (Sequoia, Olympic). There is a slightly different approach to photography while backpacking, though. You have to select your equipment more carefully, keeping in mind you’ll have to bring the essentials (food, shelter, clothing) for two or more days and for a variety of weather conditions. This means less photo gear. You also have to lower your expectations and not expect an optimum shot, as you often won’t have all day to wait around for optimum lighting. You can go in inclement weather for more interesting shots, but who wants to be tent-bound for one or more entire days with the hopes of getting one shot off once the downpours stop? One can easily go to Olympic NP for a week-long trip and see nothing but fog, as rain is the norm rather than the exception.
There are two types of backpacking trips one can take. One thing you can do is set up a base camp and do day hikes out of the area to increase your range without having to drag all the equipment. The second method is to do a different segment each day.
In many national parks, especially in the Northwest where there’s very delicate vegetation, back-country camping is only permitted in designated areas. Typically, these areas are located 1-2 miles away and 1000+ ft in elevation lower from the photogenic stuff. This means you really can’t expect to shoot morning or evening alpenglow, unless you intend to hike 1+ hrs in the dark or wake up at 4 a.m. Some areas have strict quotas. Either way, you have to obtain a back-country permit from the ranger station before embarking. This may require reservations for highly-impacted areas.
- Tent: 6.5-9 lbs (depends on the type of tent and the number of persons [assume 2 persons]).
- Sleeping bag: goose down is the lightest and most compressible (15 F 600 fill bag is around 2 3/4 lbs). A ground cloth will protect the bottom from sharp objects and keep your tent clean (10 oz).
- Sleeping pad: Thermarest ultralight 3/4 length (compact, only 1 lb)
- Gore-Tex jacket: This is key and probably your most important piece of clothing in the mountains. Excellent wind resistance and water-proofness (2 lbs).
- Fleece jacket: good as an insulator (1.5 lbs)
- Thermal underwear: top and bottom (6 oz each).
- Pants: If I’m critical about weight, I won’t bring jeans. They weigh too much. Exercise tights or lightweight shelled pants will give you added wind-proofness over the thermals. Avoid black if you can…mosquitoes love that colour (10 oz).
- Shirt: I use long-sleeve Patagonia Silkweight only now. It’s great for keeping you dry when it’s hot and you’re heavily perspiring, yet lightweight (6 oz). Forget cotton t-shirts…they soak up sweat, take a long time to dry, and weigh a lot.
- Stove: I use the MSR Whisperlite w/ 11 oz. fuel bottle (about 1.5 lbs). A small fuel bottle will last two persons 4 days if you use fuel wisely.
- Mess kit: I use the MSR aluminum (about 10 oz if you bring 1 pot and lid). Stainless steel kits are too heavy, titanium is the lightest, but pricey.
- Water filter: MSR miniworks (1.5 lbs). This is the one used by the US Marine Corps. It’s reliable and easy to service in the field, which I’ve had to do after filtering mucky water. One friend had the PUR Scout, which failed on one trip, almost leaving us with no drinking water. The Nalgene lexan plastic water bottle work best and are the defacto standard for mating to just about any water filter on the market. Avoid bottled-water bottles… they can get crushed easily. Bring a minimum of 2 bottles (figure 2 lbs for each bottle of water).
- Bear can (3 lbs empty): In the Sierras, bears are smart enough to know how to reach your food hung in trees. Some areas require bear cans.
- Food: I generally avoid freeze-dried backpacking food, as it’s not very tasty and pricey. You want to choose your food wisely for both caloric/nutritional content and speed of cooking. Remember, it takes longer to boil water at 10,000 ft compared to at sea level! Fast cooking food means you need not bring as much fuel, and you can spend more time on photography than cooking. If you must have pasta, I’ve found angel hair cooks in about 3-5 min. Other fast-cooking foods are parboiled rice, mashed potatoes, etc. For snacks/breakfast, etc., I often eat high-calorie cookies, energy bars, etc. Figure about 1.25-1.5 lbs per person for one’s daily allowance.
- Lighting: I use a single, folding aluminum candle lantern (6.5 oz) and a AA cell flashlight. Leave the C/D cell or 4-AA cell lights at home.
- Mosquito repellent: DEET works the best, but I avoid it, as it dissolves plastic! I find a full-brimmed hat helps protect one’s face and neck from flying insects, as they have a difficult time landing underneath the brim. In the future, I’ll experiment with mosquito coils, but this only works around the campsite.
- Boots: For all this weight, you’ll need medium to heavy duty boots (3.5-5.5 lbs). Wear moisture-wicking sock liners under thick wool hiking socks (don’t use cotton) and change everyday. You need not change the outer sock everyday, but have a spare pare in case it gets wet. So we’re already up to 25 lbs for just an overnight trip! Most backpacks empty weigh about 6 lbs, so that’s 31 lbs on your back.
Now figure the photo equipment. To select the correct equipment, you need to know what to expect to shoot. If you’re going to pack up to the high mountains, expect panoramas. If you expect to shoot flowers, you might opt for a view camera. Here’s the equipment I’ve brought on four trips over the past month.
Panorama configuration (11 lbs): Fuji 617 w/ 105/8 lens, Rollei 6008i w/ 90/4 Apo Symmar and 40/3.5 Super Angulon, and Pentax digital spot-meter (with lithium battery, not the stock alkaline, as it’s weak in the cold) in a Lowe Pro padded waist-pack, cable release, 95mm B+W Kaseman polarizer and 81C, 0.6 grad ND Lee filter.
4×5 configuration (10-11 lbs): Toyo VX125 monorail and box of Quickloads/quickload holder, waist-pack with two of the lenses I think I’ll need (usually a wide angle and normal lens will be sufficient). It’s better to ere on the wide side, as you can always crop. Other stuff includes the same filters and lightmeter as above, cable release, 4x focusing loupe. The Gore-Tex (or a dark, thin, shelled jacket) doubles as the dark cloth. A field camera is a lot more compact than a telescoping monorail, but doesn’t weigh any less, unless it’s the Ebony Titanium (money is no object) or a flimsy Tachihara (3 lbs). Use Linhof-compatible boards, as they are the smallest.
Barebones configuration (5 lbs): Rollei 6008i w/ 90/4 Apo-Symmar, filters, spotmeter. This lens can do it all, from macro to portraits to landscapes.
Tripod: Gitzo 1228 with Linhof Profil 2 head w/ B-2 adapter, RRS plates (4lbs).
Now, our total is 45 lbs of gear! No wonder you don’t see many medium/large format photos taken far from the car these days! My most useful bag turns out to be the Lowe Pro Nova 5 and the waist pack (or any small, padded box). My backpack is large (about 5400 cu in), so I can fit most of this gear inside. A hiking stick/ski pole makes walking much easier. Figure on 1 mi/hr uphill, 2 miles/hr downhill, and somewhere in between on the flats as the average hiking speed. This means one day’s limit is 6-8 miles. You don’t want to exhaust yourself pushing 12 miles in one day, only to find yourself too tired to get the shots! Pace yourself; it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
I sometimes shoot during a rest break if it’s in a scenic area. Don’t get into thinking that if you shoot midday, the photo will be terrible. Of course, it depends on the weather conditions. Even if it’s cloudless and sunny, unless you have an opportunity in the future to reshoot it, do it now. You can always use the shots for ideas for a future trip. Also, I usually try to get one shot in the bank early in the trip, just to make myself feel better. If you see something good, shoot it then rather than saving it for the end of the trip on the way to the car, as by that time, you won’t want to stop… you’ll just be thinking about removing your boots, taking a shower, and eating a hot meal.
Text and Photographs © 2001 James Chow
About James Chow
Jim Chow is a software developer by profession as well as a talented photographer and dedicated backpacker. He can be contacted here and his new web site contains additional photography as well as commentary on his work. Jim also has several additional portfolios on The Luminous Landscape.