7 Tips for Backpacking with your Camera
- Where is your gear going in your backpack
- Bring enough power
- Shave down the weight
- Do you really need that or do you just want it?
- Be prepared for your hikes to take longer
- Make time for sunrise and sunset photography as well as eating breakfast and dinner
- Where will your gear live while at camp?
Spring has sprung, and summer is on its way in Canada. And just last week, backcountry reservations opened for Banff National Park. I've gone on a few overnight expeditions with my camera gear on my back, but not nearly as many as I would like. Hopefully, I can change that this summer. But, in those trips, I've learned a few things about backpacking with your camera gear. With the non-winter backpacking season here, I want to share some of these tips for how to get your camera gear into the backcountry with you
Before we get going, a few caveats. These are general guidelines and things to think about. There are many determining factors as to what and why, and how you should bring something. Like the length of the trip, the difficulty level of the hike, and your own fitness. I'll do my best to try and address some of those as we go through each tip.
Secondly, this is mainly meant for people going backpacking for their own fun. Not people who will be out there for work-related things where you will need a bunch of different gear. Like creating a documentary, or crafting images for a brand, or something like that. In those cases, you will likely need two or three extra sets of people to help carry all the gear plus the necessary backcountry stuff. For this episode, I'm talking about you carrying everything yourself.
Alright, let's get straight into it.
Tip #1: Where is your gear going in your backpack
This is the single biggest difference-maker in backpacking. You need a good backpack with the right features that also suits your body. I use an 85L Gregory backpack that, while it fits my body perfectly and is comfortable to carry, is missing features for carrying gear.
I found out quickly that size matters in backpacking, especially with the added equipment in camera gear. I used a 50L on a couple of overnight trips, and that wasn't nearly enough space. I tried loading up a 70L and, while it worked, it was tight, and seams were bulging. So I landed on an 85L bag. This is a bit excessive for one-night trips, but it means I can carry whatever gear I need on almost any trip, anywhere. So, for starters, you need to think about the size of the bag you will need. If you are only planning one-night rips, then a smaller 70L backpack may suit you fine, but anything more extended, and you will start wanting that extra 15L of space to fit in your gear alongside extra clothes and food.
Next up - features. There are the obvious ones we've talked about before (like fit, straps, and belts). But, there are also camera-specific ones that you need to think about. How will you store your gear securely but still have access to it? This is a big one. On my first overnight trip, I didn't have room in the bag for an internal camera unit and the backpacking gear I needed, so I carefully set the camera on top of everything at the top of the pack. Ya… not the best way to care for my gear, but I couldn't think of what else to do. Since then, I have learned. Thankfully. I use a top-accessible camera bag in my current setup that is the final thing to be packed. This bag stores my camera, extra lenses, and most of my accessories (like batteries, memory cards, and filters). This is essentially a fanny-pack/sling-style bag that is the exact dimensions of the top of my bag. This is great because it works in two ways. If we decide to go exploring when we hit camp, I've got a bag to bring gear and water. Then, it also protects my equipment while it's in the backpack. And it's top-accessible, meaning I don't have to take the case out if I want to shoot something on the trail. I just pop open my backpack, and there is all my gear.
I also use a Peak Design Capture Camera Clip to have my camera hanging on the backpack while I hike. That way, I don't need to take the pack off to get at my gear. There was one problem I ran into, though. Where I wanted to mount the camera wouldn't work because of the thickness of the straps and a lack of mounting options elsewhere in that area. Simply put, the clip didn't go big enough to be able to mount on the shoulder straps. This was an important lesson. I've made it work since discovering this, but if you use a system like Peak Design's Capture Clip or PolarPro's Traverse Strap Mount, make sure it will mount where you are comfortable with it on the bag. I'd suggest bringing it with you when making your decision on backpacks.
Next question you need to ask yourself. Where is your tripod going? I have kicked myself more than once for not bringing a tripod or the right tripod because it was too heavy or didn't have anywhere to go. So, look carefully at your backpack and decide where the tripod can be mounted securely and won't get in the way of any access points. Make sure you take into account the length of the tripod when looking and the diameter. I thought my tripod would fit perfectly into one location until I realized that folded down, it was too big for where I wanted to mount it. So, when you go looking for a backpack, take your tripod with you and try strapping it into a few places to make sure it works.
Tip #2: Bring enough power
Unless you're carrying a solar panel with you, you won't be able to charge up your batteries indefinitely. So, make space to bring enough power with you. This can be done via camera batteries, where you should always have at least an extra one on hand. A nifty change with newer cameras is the ability to charge your camera battery in-camera via USB-C. This makes it much easier to plan what power sources to take. As you can bring one sizeable external battery and re-charge both your camera and your phone (and any other USB-charged electronics), rather than a bunch of different power solutions for all your devices.
My preference is now to have four batteries on hand so I can switch them out quickly, as well as a significant power bank for charging everything. I currently have a battery pack that can re-charge my iPhone 11 8 times fully before it dies. Giving me more than enough power to re-charge my camera and phone multiple times on a two-night trip. And with the extra batteries, I've never come close to running out of juice.
Whatever you choose to do, make sure you bring enough power with you, so your camera doesn't become a brick in the bottom of your bag.
Tip #3: Shave down the weight
Weight and space are the two biggest issues in backpacking. You can't carry a 100 lbs backpack for days on end (and you really don't want to). And you can't fit everything into a finite space. So you'll have to find a place to shave some weight. This can be done in a couple of ways. Firstly, with your gear. Think carefully about what you are expecting to shoot and what you need with you. And leave the large primes at home. You are much better off carrying a couple of moderate zooms than five or six prime lenses covering the same focal length. Yes, there is an image quality difference. But, you need that weight and space for more important things like food and shelter. Prioritize having enough food, rather than one more lens. Ideally, my backpacking kit includes two lenses:
- An RF 24-105 f/4. This is the everyday walkaround lens that's a good mixture of weight, size, and image quality.
- An IRIX EF-mount 15mm f/2.4. This is for wide-angle shots and night photography. This is a manual lens, so lots of weight savings not having the autofocus gear. And it has specific astro features and low light shooting features which are very nice. I'll replace it with an RF version if the company releases one.
You could go with a 16-35 f/2.8 and a 24-105 f/4. But I like the weight savings that the manual focus prime offers. Plus, I shoot a lot at that 16mm focal length, so 15mm works really well. If I have the extra space AND the trip isn't too arduous, I may throw in my 70-200 f/2.8 with a tele-extender for wildlife and compression shots. But that's only happened once, and that trip was only 4kms in and on mostly flat ground.
If you're heading in somewhere looking for wildlife, of course, this changes things. But that is a particular use case, and then you will really need to think about where the rest of your weight and space is being dedicated.
I'd also argue that you should leave the second body at home. Unless, of course, you are doing a once-in-a-lifetime kind of thing, but, once again, that's a special use case and should be considered in your packing and planning process. If this is a pretty standard, fantastic backpacking trip, leave the second body at home because it falls into that 'what if' category.
If you are still looking to shave ounces, then look towards the rest of your gear. I still have some bulky things (like a synthetic-filled sleeping bag rather than a down-filled one and a hodgepodge cooking setup) that I could streamline down. So streamlining these options could be a great way to reduce your pack weight while also giving you more room for camera equipment - which, I guess, negates the weight savings. But, hey, more camera gear!
Tip #4: Do you really need that or do you just want it?
I think the header says it all. And reiterating what I've said previously here and in other episodes. You need a reason to bring something with you, and not a vague 'oh, maybe this will happen' reason.
An actual reason that has an actual probability of happening.
Believing you may get to see bigfoot, possibly, perhaps, because you know there's always a chance. That doesn't mean you get to bring your 400mm 2.8 lens. Be realistic and honest with yourself.
Tip #5: Be prepared for your hikes to take longer
You should know this one already, being that you're a photographer that hopefully hikes if you're thinking about backpacking. Your trips will take extra long. It just is what it is with photographers. So plan for that extra time. Typically, backpacking trips take most of a day to get into a location, hiking 12-15 km with a lot of weight on your back. This can be a slow-moving process.
And it gets slower if you are shooting. But, this shouldn't stop you from shooting. You should be taking lots of photos. Try to plan ahead on the trail and give yourself an extra couple of hours to get to your campsite. Also, look at what features are on the path that you may want to stop at. Say there is a waterfall that you will walk by, and you will want to get some long exposure shots of it.
Take that into account for your hiking time. But don't stop yourself from shooting; just be ready for it.
Tip #6: Make time for sunrise and sunset photography as well as eating breakfast and dinner
Alright, so, I've done this a few times where I've wanted to get up and shoot sunrise, but we also needed to get going earlyish. So, I skipped breakfast to go shooting. This seemed like a great idea while the sun was rising and the images were being taken. But, this was a BAD idea for the middle of the day. I was all kinds of hangry and tired and in just a generally not great mood. So, make sure you take proper care of your artistic craft and your body by scheduling time to have both.
This MAY mean getting up extra early to grab something to eat before sunrise hits (definitely done this one). Or, you may need to plan a breakfast you can eat while you're taking some long exposure shots (done this one too). But, just make sure you are getting the nutrients you need for being on the trail. Hiking is a lot of work.
Hiking with camera equipment is even more work. Hiking with your home, clothing, food, and camera gear on your back is a ton of work. And your body needs the energy to do it.
Tip #7: Where will your gear live while at camp?
This may be a pretty easy answer for some and a much harder answer for others. If you are camping in a dry, warm, wonderful climate. Then leaving your gear just tucked beside your tent is an easy answer. I have done this a couple of times. Or if you have a large enough tent that you can get your gear in it with you, then this is an easy answer. BUT, if you have a small one-person tent or your two-person tent is taken up by two people, then you may not have enough room for your gear inside with you. Are you ok leaving it on the ground outside overnight? Is there snow on the ground, a chance of rain? Is it really wet out there? Then leaving your gear outside isn't the best option. You don't want it sitting in something wet all night, even if it's inside a protective case. You may need to think of creative solutions to keep your camera gear safe while backpacking.
I've stored gear inside bear lockers overnight, keeping just the batteries and memory cards with me in my sleeping bag, so they stayed warm. I've used my hard-sided camera case as a pillow (thankfully, not out camping but in an airport, but I'd imagine the principal is the same thing). One of my favourite solutions I've seen with other photographers is a gear hammock inside the tent. This would hang from the ceiling and eliminates pretty much any ability to sit fully up, but it gives you somewhere to put extra gear, hang things, etc. I love this option because it makes excellent use of space that isn't really well used unless you need to hang out inside your tent for hours on end. Just make sure the hammock and the tent can both take the weight of what you put up there.