Tips for Backpacking with Camera Gear (ultralight)

By David Cobb

I owned my first “real” camera before I took my first “real” backpacking trip, but they have gone hand-in-hand over the years, and my techniques with both have changed and improved over time. My backpacking and photography grew with long-distance hiking as I learned more about composition while taking thousands of images to document my backcountry trips. My backpacking grew by learning how to pack lighter and lighter over time as I walked further and further. For distance hiking, I needed to walk 20-40 miles (32-64 km) a day in order to complete a thru-hike of 2,500-3,000 miles (4,000-4,800 km). Now I’m returning to the places I only documented before, to re-photograph them in a much more artistic way and under much better light.

Fellow photographer and long-distance hiker Jonathan Ley took this on our walk across Iceland.

Whether it was a walk across the United States or Iceland , I tried to keep my backpacking weight below 30 pounds (13.5 kg) if possible, and closer to 20 (9 kg) when I could. First, let’s start with the pack: Many long-distance hikers use a homemade version saving both money and weight. My backpack of choice is ULA (Ultralight Adventure Equipment), I purchased one of their early models and haven’t needed another since. There is no internal or external frame to the pack, so you already begin 5-7 pounds (2-3 kg) lighter than most backpacks on the market. You may wonder if you need the added support those other backpacks offer? You don’t. You’re packing light, not packing the usual 50-60 pounds (22-27kg). For the internal frame I use a Z-rest, this also doubles as a sleeping pad when I’m in my tent.

My ULA Bag and my Z Rest doubles as a backpack frame.

I go lightweight on my tent too, using a Six Moon Designs Skyscape tent which is affordable and weighs in at 15 ounces (.43 kg). My ground cloth is painters plastic purchased from a hardware store. Some distance hikers prefer nothing, but others use Tyvek as a ground cloth. A Six Moon Designs prototype tent got me through a 1,100 mile (1,800 km) north-south walk along the Canadian Rockies during some pretty nasty weather, so I trust their gear.

Six Moon Designs Skyscape

I cook with a lightweight and homemade alcohol stove created from the bottoms of old pop cans. It cost me about a quarter to make, and weighs about as much. I pack my stove away in a small titanium cook pot to save space. The stove burns denatured alcohol which can be purchased at any hardware store and I carry this fuel in a small plastic water bottle.

My homemade alcohol stove and cook gear.

Food is a personal thing, but for me that too is lightweight, cheap, but also nourishing. I cook my own food during the winter, then dehydrate and vacuum seal it or I purchase it in bulk from a grocery store before vacuum sealing it. For this I save about $6 per meal, packing space, and weight. I’m also a firm believer that if you eat better, you shoot better. When I cook, I just boil water and add it to my dinner bag for rehydration, and eat. No dirty dishes to clean, so I can head out early to photograph a sunset. Clean dishes also come in handy when I’m packing through grizzly country. I’ve walked through large portions of Alaska, the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Alberta, and the U.S. Rockies and have never had a camp incident with a grizzly bear or any wild animal for that matter.

I carry as little water as possible to keep my backpacking weight down. Each quart of water weighs about 2 pounds (.9 kg), so the less water I carry, the less weight I carry, the easier the walking, the less water I need. Much of my packing is in the Pacific Northwest where water can often be found every 5 miles at the most. I don’t need much more than 12 ounces (.34 kg) of water for a stretch like that, so I carry a water bottle that can be purchased at any 7-11. I like the bomb-proof Nalgene bottles, but find them way too heavy. For extra water when I get to camp, I pack with an empty Platypus container, then fill it when I get near my camp destination. I carry a small water purifier, or sometimes just iodine tablets to save weight.

My sleeping bag is a packable Feathered Friends “Hummingbird” 20 degree bag coming in at 13 ounces (.37 kg). I have a liner in this which brings it down to a 10 degree bag. Obviously for winter camping your bag will weigh more as you carry warmer bag, but this is my 3 season bag. I wrap this in a garbage bag to keep it dry in case I fall in a stream or if my pack gets wet in a rain storm.

Since I pack less, I also wear less on my feet. I know some people need more ankle support and prefer boots, but for me the old adage that every pound on your foot adds 3 to your back holds true. I either wear tennis shoes on my feet, lightweight Merrels, or sometimes even Tevas while backpacking. The lighter my feet are, the faster I move, the better I feel.

I also carry a few toiletries, rainfly, headlamp, compass, maps and such to round out my camping gear, so let’s move on to camera gear. I first decide what kind of trip this will be, this limits the gear I’ll carry into the backcountry. Am I going to photograph wildlife only? Then I’ll carry a zoom. Will this be a landscape photography trip? Then I’ll carry my super wide-angle and wide-angle lenses. I’ll also carry my Kenko Pro 1.4x to add a bit of zoom possibility to my 24-70mm lens. I don’t carry my macro lens when backpacking, since I can usually find enough macro subjects when I day hike. I might however carry my Canon 500D diopter (or close-up) lens, this allows my 24-70mm to take close-up macro-like images if I get the itch.

So, let’s assume I’m on a landscape photography backpacking trip. I carry my camera over my shoulder (with lens and polarizer attached) in a small camera bag. My super wide-angle lens is packed away in a Think Tank lens holster. This holster adds padding and also attaches to my extremely small butt-pouch (I wear this pouch backwards when packing in, as it supplies easy access to map, compass, and water) that I use to day-hike to photo locations once I’ve made base camp. I carry extra cards and batteries in my shoulder camera bag, and rarely use grads in the backcountry, but instead I bracket while shooting to blend images later in post processing. For a tripod I carry a carbon fiber Gitzo 1128 Mountaineer Sport Tripod. There are a few lightweight ball-heads out there too: Fiesol and Really Right Stuff make them and fellow Photo Cascadia team member Chip Phillips swears by his Markins Q3 Emille which at .83 pounds (375 grams) is the lightest ball-head I know of that can sturdy the weight of a good camera and lens.

Photo Cascadia member Sean Bagshaw took this image of Chip Phillips and I as we descended Sahale Arm in the North Cascades.

There you have it. I’m a firm believer that by packing lighter you get there faster, easier, and have much more energy to shoot once you get to camp. You have a few months now to get in shape for backpacking season, and to slowly collect some lightweight gear, so I hope this brings more enjoyment to your outdoor experience and allows you more time to “see” photographically along the way. Obviously these are just guidelines to ultralight backpacking techniques, and in the long distance hiking community there is the saying to “hike your hike,” so it’s certainly not my way or the highway here. If you’d like to pack a small chair for your bad back, then do it – just leave the axe at home.

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