Backpacking With Your Camera

I have gone on many backpacking trips in the past few years.  One thing that I always have to consider when I’m preparing is, what camera equipment should I take along? The following information doesn’t apply only to backpacking; it also really applies to any instance when you’re doing some sort of outside adventure and you simply want your camera along.

You may ask: Forest, why are you posting this information in the middle of winter?

You’re right. Fewer people go into the backcountry in the winter months, but for some of us, this is the time of year when sleeping bags get warmer (and of course, heavier) and having snowshoes strapped to the outside of your pack becomes a necessity. This makes taking along any sort of extra camera gear much more difficult and cumbersome. This is why in the winter months planning and packing become two of the biggest issues when photographing in the wild.

I see my gear choices over the past few years as constantly evolving.  As the equipment evolves and gets smaller and lighter, so does my pack.  It really is a win-win situation!

I want to make it clear that this article is about taking an SLR (Single Lens Reflex) camera backpacking, not a point and shoot. This is if you want to bring some real photographic power with you on your adventures (not that point and shoots don’t result in good photos, because they do). If you are looking for some tips on making your bag a little lighter next time you head out, then read on.

There are really two SLR systems that I have taken with me when backpacking – a normal-sized Canon SLR and the Panasonic micro four-thirds system. I know what you’re thinking: you’re going to be advised to buy a new fancy smaller camera just to take with you when you go backpacking and hiking. You would be wrong, as both systems have their advantages.

Which Camera System?

The Canon, Nikon or other brand full-sized system is, by far, the heavier of the two, but you’ll get the best possible image quality in your photographs. This is not to say that the image quality of the micro four-thirds camera is lacking; they just won’t perform as well in low light situations. To me, this is a great advantage of a full-sized system over the smaller cameras, especially in winter.

For me, many of the shots that I take while I am backpacking (forgetting the fun shots along the trail) are after camp has been put up and the fire is roaring well enough to keep me, and whomever I’m with, warm. In winter, this usually takes right up until it’s dark outside and in summer, due to increased hiking time, it usually does the same.

This means that many of the shots that I take while backpacking are at night or when it is pretty dark outside. This is the exact time when the smaller of the two camera set-ups does not perform nearly as well as the other, due to noise. Noise occurs when the sensor heats up and you begin to see speckles in your image, much like film grain. The smaller cameras also have smaller sensors.  This means that the density of pixels is greater, generating more heat and more noise. For more information on noise, be sure to check out my next article “Photographing Star Trails”.

However, due to the fact that the micro four-thirds camera is much lighter and smaller, it allows you to bring more lenses with you for the same weight as a larger system. This means that you will be able to capture that entire mountain range in one wide shot, or zoom in on that bird in the distance by carrying the same weight you would with a single lens on the larger system.

Now we need to look at another element in your backpacking arsenal: the tripod.

Bringing Along a Tripod:

To some, this may sound like bringing along a 50 pound useless piece of rock, but really, carrying a tripod can be well worth the trouble.

As I said earlier, many of the shots I take are of the campfire, tents at night and other things that happen when light is not at a surplus. This lends itself beautifully to bringing along a tripod; it simply allows you many more opportunities to shoot.

They are heavy, and that of course is the biggest drawback. My rule is, if you have extra space in your back, bring it along.  If not, forget it. If you do decide to bring one along, the lightest and best backpacking tripod I have found so far is the Gitzo Series 1, 4 Section Traveller tripod. It is incredibly light and small, and comes almost up to my eye level (I’m 5’10”). If you want the ultimate backpacking tripod, this would be the one.

There are other options when it comes to supporting your camera however. I am a huge fan of a small company in Canada that makes something called the POD. All this really is, is a beanbag that has a mounting screw on it, allowing you to screw your camera to the top of it.

Once the bean-bag is attached to the bottom of your camera, it allows you to put your camera any number of places. The beanbag does a fantastic job of conforming to the ground and you can actually do a fair job composing and taking a shot with this thing in pretty low light.

Now, it won’t allow you to take a clear 30 second exposure by any means, but it does help a lot to stabilize your camera when you’re outside, and protects the camera from wet or frozen ground They make a few different models, each one a different color. The one that you are most likely to want for your SLR camera is the green one. The best thing about the POD, the price: the green one will set you back only $28, a fraction of a new Gitzo tripod.

What I Bring:

Now that I have discussed some of the different elements and things to think about when you go backpacking with your camera, I want to list what I bring along with me.

I have two setups, one for winter and one for summer.

Winter:
Panasonic GF1
Mountain Smith camera bag
20mm f/1.7 Pancake Lens
14-45mm f/3.5-5.6
Interval Timer (for Star Trails and Time Lapses)
Green POD

Summer:
Canon 5D Mark II
Tamron 28-75mm f/2.8
Canon 17-40mm L f/4
Interval Timer
Usually I just wrap my gear in the clothes that I pack to save the weight of bringing a camera bag.

Photographing on the trail can be easier than many people expect.  It’s a great opportunity to capture beautiful and exciting photos of your adventures.

13 thoughts on “Backpacking With Your Camera

Mark

Nice article, Forest, plus great photos.

The Beanpod is similar to the POD and I find it helps not to have a screw mount.

http://www.Beanpods.co.uk

Cheers, Mark (UK).

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Forest Chaput de Saintonge

Thanks Mark, I have never seen the Beanpod before, thanks for the link!

Dave Carlson

Good article, Forest! I have also found that an Op-Tech camera harness is a big help while backpacking (and on long hikes). Allows me to keep SLR available for quick access while walking, but hands free for trekking poles, etc.

http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/197145-REG/OP_TECH_USA_5301422_Bino_Cam_Harness_Elastic.html

Al Greene

Would it be possible to discuss shooting in cold weather and the problems you could run into, and solve, when you move your camera from cold to warm and the possibility of condensation occurs.

Thomas Jay Oord

Forest,

I’m planning a 2-month long trip in Idaho. I’ll be hiking the Centennial trail, which moves through remote areas. I’m taking along the same tripod that you recommend, a similar lense, and my Canon 5D Mark II.

I realize that I will need to recharge various batteries over this time period. I’m looking into portable solar panels to charge my batteries as I hike. Do you have any suggestions along these lines? Are some panel systems better than others?

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Forest

Thomas,

That is one area that I have never had any experience in. I know about solar charging devices, but I have never used them or know the extent at which they can be used.

I would say your best be would be to go to an outdoor store and see if you could try using your battery charger with one of them and see how that works.

Sorry I don’t have the answer to that one,

Forest

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Grant

Brunton has a whole line of solar panel. I have one of their older folding models that puts out 12v and I connect it to a small third party chargers that would connect to a car’s 12v outlet. I’ve wired a plug so that I don’t have to carry the bulk cigaret lighter plug and socket setup.

John Moreland

Nice article…my wife has beanpod, but it weighs more than my Monfrotto tripod. She is able to use it sitting on ground with tripod on her knees. It is particularly nice in care, when she can rest beanpod on window ledge. John Moreland

Daniel Scott

Beautiful low light photos, Brief but informative atricle.
Question: Length of time on trail?

In the past I have done Boy Scout Philmont Treks, 10-14 days on the trail. I always used film SLR’s because rechargable batteries would not last unless you carried about $200 worth of extra batteries, as there was no where to recharge them. I eventually went to using a point and shoot with an eye level viewfinder that required AA batteries (the same as my Mag Lite), with a a wide angle to telephoto lens.

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Gail Edelen

I have been able to take well over a thousand photos on a 9 day backpack using one battery with my Nikon D80 by turning off the LED display and resisting the urge to review my photos while on the trip. I take just one extra battery just in case! I now have a D700 that I will be taking on a twelve day backpack in the Weminuche Wilderness in SW Colorado with two spare batteries. Hope they last as the trip ends by catching the Durango Silverton narrow gauge train in Needleton! I’d hate to miss those photos because my battery died.

Hailey

Great article as usual Forest!

Bill

Good article…the POD is a great idea, thanks!

Augusta Leaks

I like the helpful info you supply on your articles. I’ll bookmark your weblog and check again here frequently. I am rather certain I’ll learn lots of new stuff proper here! Best of luck for the next!

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