It's the start of shoulder season here in Alberta. Snow is melting (although the mountains got 25cm in 24 hours last week), and that means more people will be out exploring with their gear for hours on end. We'll be in the mountains, the badlands, in cities, in cars (and maybe, eventually at some point this summer, planes and trains again). But lots of us will be out exploring! And while that is exciting, it can also be exhausting and a bit daunting to think about taking your gear with you.
Because, honestly, as photographers, we can't get away with carrying less weight than our travel companions. We will always have an extra 10lbs of things with us when we want to bring our gear. So how do you do this as comfortably as possible? That's what we are talking about today. Five tips to make you more comfortable while out exploring. Now, these are tips for physical comfort, not emotional comfort. Just an FYI there.
So, this list is geared at you being able to explore unencumbered. There will be days where it is unavoidable that you will need to carry every bit of gear you own. This list is not meant for those days. These tips are here for when you want to get out and explore freely. How do we do that and still bring along the right camera gear to get the photos we want. I find exploring comes down to having fewer extras, less weight, and the freedom to move. So this list certainly skews towards active, lightweight exploration.
Alright, let's get going.
Tip #1 - Be Prepared for Your Explorations
This is so important to having a great day out exploring. Regardless of if you're hitting up city streets or mountain paths, you should be prepared for the day ahead. I have witnessed far too many people doing things they were not prepared for, and I could tell they hated their life at that moment. I've watched people go down ankle-high scree in flip-flops that will leave some lasting marks. I've seen people in shorts and t-shirts on mountain tops shivering and hiding from the wind and driving snow because they weren't prepared for a weather change that happens the higher you go.
If a friend asks if you want to hike whatever route, look up the route and the expected weather. Get to know the route before heading out the door. Just get yourself prepared by understanding what you are doing that day and then bringing the necessary pieces of clothing and gear. Sometimes this will mean packing multiple outfits. On days where I'll be exploring a lot from my car, I'll pack changes of clothes, a small chair, food, and extra water. I'm sure it looks like I'm heading out for a few days. But I do this so I'm prepared for the weather changes that will happen on that day and so that I can keep my strength up and keep going. A few weeks ago, my wife and I left the house at around 11 a.m. We aimed to go for a hike, then shoot sunset in Canmore, and then head out and shoot the aurora. When we left, it was about 10 degrees Celcius. But we knew when the sun set, and we were sitting beside a frozen lake shooting the aurora, we would need clothing that was good to -30. So we had multiple changes of clothes, extra food, everything so we could explore for the whole day. When you are headed out the door, be prepared for what is coming.
Tip #2 - Avoid the 'What If' Trap
To go along with being prepared, don't be over-prepared. This list is about you exploring freely without being encumbered by things you likely won't be using. Think critically about the gear you will actually use. This makes a difference in your ability to go and do. Even if you're wandering city streets, having fewer things to worry about, a lighter bag gives you more mobility and lets you go for longer without needing to hunker down somewhere to rest. I have travelled far too often carrying gear I never once pulled out of my bag 'just in case I needed it. This gear ended up stealing my energy and space and never once being put to use. So think carefully about what you will need to explore. For me, when I'm hiking not too arduous or dangerous routes expecting to be able to take some interesting photos, I bring a wide-angle lens, a short telephoto, a 2x extender, a lightweight tripod, and some small accessories. That's it. For bigger days or routes where the slightest shift in your gear can throw your balance off and put your life at risk, I bring even less. I've done some hikes with just my cell phone and a circular polarizer for camera gear to eliminate any excess weight. If you find yourself going, oh, but I may need this because of… whatever. Stop. And critically analyze the situation. Decide if it is actually a necessity for what you are going to shoot.
Tip #3 - Pack the Right Bag
This is a pet peeve of mine, seeing people out hiking with bags that are overflowing, poorly packed, or just simply wrong for what they are doing. Pick the right bag to go with you for the day and the situation you will be in.
Generally speaking, if you're carrying camera gear and hiking, you will want a bag with an internal frame, a hip belt and possibly a chest strap. These all help shift the weight in your bag onto your body better, making it easier to hike and move. Don't take a shoulder sling bag hiking. You will ratch your back, and it will get in the way as you try to move around. And don't use those skimpy frameless bags. They will put all the weight in your bag on your shoulders and upper back.
If you're exploring in the city, a properly packed sling bag may work great (although I still prefer a backpack). Tote bags with camera inserts are great as well in the city.
And think carefully about the size of your bag. The bigger the bag, the less freedom of movement you will have. I have four different sizes of backpacks that I use; a 22L, a 35L, a 50L, and an 85L. By far, I move the best wearing the 22L bag and the worst using the 85L. This comes down to the amount of stuff you are carrying and how the bag hugs your body. If I'm exploring and bouncing up and down things, I prefer to have my 22L backpack with me because I can move faster and lighter.
In fact, I had one experience on Heart Mountain where I was using a 60L backpack filled to the brim with gear, and the wind picked up so much that it was using the backpack almost like a sail on my back. I had to hunker down against a rock to try and recover before the wind knocked me back down the scrambling route.
On top of this, make sure your bag is packed correctly. This will depend greatly on the size of the bag and what you are bringing, but I would try and avoid having one heavy object on one side and lighter things on the other (like a tripod hanging off one side with nothing to counterbalance it on the other way). Try to pack the heaviest objects right against your back and lighter things further out; this helps maintain your centre of gravity, making it easier to move around.
So look at what you are bringing with you and the size of the bag you want to bring. And make sure that that bag is appropriate for where you are going and what you are doing.
Tip #4 - Get Good Shoes
I mentioned the flip-flops in tip #1. Sadly, that isn't an unusual experience. I see loads of people trying to hike challenging trails in flip-flops or other terrible footwear. Flip flops aren't great for walking around a city; why are you on a 12 km hike in them? Don't do it. Get the right footwear for the day you are out.
And I've got the terrible footwear experience down pat. I only had one pair of shoes with me in Italy in the summer, a pair of Gortex hiking boots. I walked all over in 30 degree plus heat in these boots, and that was a terrible choice. So, I now check out my footwear and ensure I've got the right kind for what we will be doing.
In the city, on dry days, I love lightweight, breathable running shoes. For hiking, I've come to love trail running shoes. On wet days, a pair of Gortex ankle-high boots.
If you aren't expecting to encounter anything wet, avoid the Gortex or other waterproof membranes. They don't let your feet breathe nearly as well.
And while you are at it, invest in good socks. I love socks that wipe away sweat and help my feet breathe while also protecting them. Darn Tough, Icebreaker, Stance, these are all fabulous sock brands that I own quite a few of. Don't just get the 12 pack of cotton socks from Walmart. Go and spend a few dollars more on good socks. Your feet will thank you.
Tip #5 - Food and Drink
My wife and I have this terrible habit of not eating enough while we are exploring. Recently, we had a three-day excursion in Banff where we were all over the place and realized we only ate three meals in 2 days. That's not enough food when you are moving nearly constantly. And this isn't the first time we've done that. When we're travelling, food sometimes becomes a tertiary thought.
So, don't forget the food and drink. You will have a much better day if you have these things.
The critical point here isn't just to remember to eat, but to understand where you are getting your meals. If you're in a city, grabbing water and other things isn't too hard—most of the time. I wasn't prepared for this while we were in Paris, not understanding that most restaurants have set hours for meals there. It took us a good 45 minutes of walking to find a place that was open when we finally realized we needed something to eat. But this was at 2 in the afternoon. So between lunch and dinner. Because we were in a city, I thought it would be easy to find a meal. Turns out, it wasn't.
If you're hiking, this becomes much more difficult. So don't forget to pack what you need for as long as you will be out.
For water, I'd suggest bringing a water bottle that you can refill. This saves you needing to spend a lot of money on bottled water. And if you are hiking for a long distance, instead of bringing four or five litres in your backpack, I'd suggest picking up a way to pump and sterilize water and carry a couple of litres. This is, as long as you are in a place where you can get access to water.
You can follow along with Robert’s adventures on Instagram @RobertMasseyPhotography.