Alternative Documentation for Hikes: Leave the Camera at home.

Are you sick of hauling a camera, charger, cables, and cases all amounting to three or more pounds of equipment?  Sick of being anywhere near electronics? Absolutely hate looking at people’s thousands of insta-face posts in the tweet-space all the time?


ENOUGH OF THIS MADNESS! More Stories! More Sketches! Fewer Photos!

Welcome to the club! There’s something to be said for modern photography and communications, but there’s also a lot to be said against it. Most obviously, when backpacking, the first complaint is weight: You have to carry a camera (or a phone) which needs a wall charger, a portable charger, cables, and, of course, the cases to keep it from being damaged. This is an unnecessary weight added to your already heavy sustainment gear.

Second, you’re in the wilderness. Enjoy the time you have, and remember it as a time uncluttered by screens, electronic bleeps, and incessant text messages. Memories cost nothing, in weight or money, and you can tell your stories to everyone who wants to hear later, instead of now.

Third, is the money! Cameras aren’t inexpensive, nor are phones at this point. The chargers and cables and all might be cheap, but they don’t last well under field conditions.

Why go through all that expense and effort, when a notebook is cheap, and lighter than a single wall charger and cable?

This article will go over a few ways to practice a real skill to document your hike the old fashioned way, for near-free and no significant weight penalty.


Sketches are a simple way to document where you’ve been, and what you have seen. They take more time to execute than a photograph, of course, but can also be done from memory at the end of a day.

While sketching requires a little bit of practice, the investment is worth it. When you learn to sketch and draw anything, you will find yourself looking closer and noticing more of the details you gazed past before, relying on your camera to capture them for you.

I have taken up sketching, and though I am not good at it, I can still get across the point. The idea isn’t to get a perfect image, photographic quality. In fact, the opposite is true: You are putting down only what is important, choosing every line which strikes the paper to show the most moving and critical aspects of what you value most in the scene before you.

Further, you can normally sketch where photography is prohibited, such as in museums. A camera flash might damage artifacts, or a collection may be protected due to a number of concerns. However, if you talk with the staff, there are only a few circumstances where taking a sketch would be prohibited. For those interested in the visual arts, this is an invaluable skill.

Take a little time and learn this skill, you may find you like it far more than you think.


This is the terrain Sketch of Vicksburg. I have more, but this one was right at hand.Terrain Sketches are a sub-genre of both sketching and cartography. Essentially, they are a simple depiction of a small area of ground, showing slopes, significant features such as buildings, rivers, and so on. These were a principal occupation of military engineers until about the last century. The simple nature of the map generated is enough to show the salient features when discussing the area with those who have not seen it first hand. They are especially good at showing how tough ridges work together, where the lake was in relation to the campsite you chose, and so on.

Like regular sketches, these can be difficult to execute at first, but are worth the effort. Seen here is one of mine from the Vicksburg Battlefield National Military Park. With a little work, I bet you can figure out where it is off of Google maps.

For those who are cheating, it’s depicting the Stockade Redan from the two artillery pieces out in the field to the North.


Journaling isn’t really everything people try to make it. It’s just a set of notes to remind you of what you’ve done, what you were feeling at the time, and anything else you might want to remember later on.

I keep a journal of my hikes, and it’s not great writing. However, even seemingly low quality journal entries can remind you of things you would never be able to capture in a photograph. It doesn’t have to be poetry, fluid prose, or anything other than what it ends up as at the time. Don’t worry, you’ll remember what it means.

For example, I have a journal page here from 2014 which has only a date and the word “Ouch.” I remember everything about that fateful day, when I pull the page open:

I had a weekend free, and only recently moved to a large, malarial swamp for work. I really, really needed some time in the mountains, so I drove North for four hours, covering four states, in order to find some. I picked a trail in the National Forest, and went for it on a warm September day.

Well, it was warmer than it was supposed to get that day, so I ended up running short on water in a humid 87 degrees. To make things worse, the area was pretty dry that week, because of a month of below average rainfall, so the one stream I ran across was dry, which kept me from resupplying.

That was just the first half of the day!

The second half started when I got to the end of the trail, and figured out that I had missed a turn (hiked the same section later, and found the intersection isn’t blazed… Not entirely my fault) and was eight miles from my car, instead of at the end of a six mile loop. So, I decided to hitchhike from this other trail head back to my car, which seemed like a lighter slope on my map, and just about the same distance.

Well, It wasn’t. The slope was the same, and the distance was about 12 miles, not eight. Also, remember my water was running low at this point, too. In fact, I stepped off along the road with no water remaining, and an optimistic thumb extended to the waiting arms of {State names have been redacted to protect the guilty}’s motorists.

I eventually ended up filtering the water out of a bunch of littered water bottles along the road, as I walked the 12 miles back to my car in the hot sun. All the local drivers were ( and I assume still are) jerks who don’t understand what a thumb means… Or so I remember, after 20 miles in the day on desk-job legs. Most of what I felt was important about the day I wrote in the journal.

There were some awesome stories told about the hike when I got back home. I was hanging out with my friends at the weekly game-night the next day, and they still remember hearing about the ordeal some two and a half years later. Which conveniently brings us to….


Stories are awesome, as are tall tales, the embroidered folk legends of the Adirondacks being a personal favorite. Check out “I was on the wrong bear” by Harvey Carr  for some of the really great ones I remember from my childhood.

These tales from the trail, of course, can have their own series on this blog, if we really invested any time in their study. But, your own personal Tall Tales of your adventures, along with the true stories you decide not to edit too much, are a great way to document your hike. A wonderful example is the legend of the BearCat on the PCT.

Whether you write them down (recommended by all those in the history profession) or simply tell them from memory, they bring an innately and inseparably personal touch to how your hike is understood by others.

The art of storytelling isn’t difficult to learn, though it can take a decade or more to become a true master. However, in most cases, a master isn’t available, so whatever you care to contribute to the group will be much appreciated by those who value you enough to listen and enjoy.

A survey on Tall Tales on the trail can be found here, which will assist in a forthcoming series on Storytelling and Trail Culture.


Your camera might catch the same angle and light as someone else. Your sketches never will be quite the same as someone else’s. Nor will your stories and your notes. Why drag so many pounds of gear over such a long way, if a lighter, more versatile and wonderfully individual way to record you hike is available?

I personally carry a waterproof notebook and pen, both with blaze orange covers. It’s easy to lose your pen, if you are not careful, so an unnaturally bright color is important. The waterproof paper is not entirely necessary, but as some brands are archival quality paper, there are advantages to them. Your notes will be less susceptible to damage from both time and water, on the trail and off.

Further, if you compile Tall Tales from your adventures, check out the forthcoming series I will be working on. It may well spark your interest, and collecting these stories will help a lot in the future when we are looking back at trail culture.

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