So You Want to Film Your Thru-Hike? (Part II)
This is part two of a two part series outlining how to document your thru-hike. Read part one here.
Audio: Having a background in film, I knew that if you don’t have good audio, you got nothing. The moment someone in the crowd whispers to their friend “what did they just say?”, they are distracted for the next part. I opted to go with a Rode mic. It’s big, bulky, and delicate. It was not only a challenge to add that much mass to a camera rig, but also tricky to remember to turn the damn thing on when it counts… or to turn it back off for that matter. Both of those scenarios played out plenty of times but at some point you get in the habit of constantly checking. Another thing about my Rode mic(they have fixed the problem since then), it was held in place by 8 small shock-absorbing bands. They broke constantly. I recall I remedied the problem with small orthodontic type rubber bands until I realized that after being exposed to the smallest amount of humidity or moisture, they became extremely and noticeably squeaky. Eventually I found a trick with small o-rings from the plumbing section of stores that were slightly more durable. But places like the Mahoosic Notch, I only had about four bands holding onto the mic and the audio sounded terrible. This mic also wasn’t cheap. It was difficult to pack up when the camera needed to be fully broken down due to rain. Which leads me to my next subject:
Rain: Hold that rain thought. It’s valuable to know the accessibility setup I went with to understand some of the difficulties of rain.
Accessibility: I have the camera. I have the microphone. How do I put those together and get them in an ready-to-shoot-anytime spot? I saw many people who carried a DSLR on the Trail have to take off their backpack and rummage through their stuff before they got to their camera. How do you get the shot of a bear slowly walking off when you have so many steps between you and your camera? Again, after much research, the CamCaddie was my decided upon easy-access tool. It’s a camera accessory shaped like a capital U. I attached my camera on the bottom. For my situation, I planned on using the hot shoe on top of the camera to attach a V-Splitter and attach the microphone to one side and a light on the other(I sent the light home with the batteries in Hiawassee). Of course, I needed an adapter from mini hot shoe to regular hot shoe to attach the V-Splitter. This adapter broke many times. Also, I drilled holes into the V-Splitter and attached strips of velcro in order to secure the camera and the load it’s carrying better to the CamCaddie. Without the velcro, the U shape would bow out as it is just a light piece of plastic. I wrapped the velcro around the handle and the solidity of the camera felt right. I supposed this part is easier to understand through a picture.
I took an old shoe-lace and attached two carabiners to the CamCaddie; one on the handle and one on the base. I clipped the top carabiner to my chest strap of my backpack and clipped the bottom one to my right arm’s lower strap. This way, if something needed to be filmed immediately, I didn’t have to dig through anything. I just unclipped and was ready to shoot.
Despite the threat of rain and light sprinkles, this moment could not go un-filmed.
You can see the camera strapped to the chest. What it lacks in comfort, it makes up for in convenience.
This setup was not without it’s flaws. First off, the top clip wondered across my chest all the time and I had to constantly readjust. That was relatively maddening at times simply because the natural motion of my walk and movement of my trekking poles wouldn’t allow for it to stay in one place. The convenience offset the frustration. Another issue was sweat. The metal piece that attaches my mic to it’s baseplate is disgusting. It got severely rusted due to the mass amounts of sweat I poured from my face and beard. In the film, you’ll see I wear my bandana around my neck. That was not a fashion statement. That was a necessity in order not to water damage my camera. Something else, you are constantly showing everyone what you have. I never felt unsafe, but when you are in town and don’t feel like carrying your camera and all you have is a tent for security, like at Trail Days, you just have to hope no one wants it. Understand that news spreads quickly on the Trail and if a hiker takes another hikers large piece of equipment like that, it’ll probably come back to you. They don’t want to carry the weight either. Also note that when hitchhiking or walking around town, it sorta looks like a gun. It was also a good conversation piece if I felt like talking. Other times it was a nuisance to talk about the obvious elephant strapped to my chest. The worst part about this relatively impeccable setup: rain.
Note: I attached a wide angle lens for the camera. It stayed on almost all the time. When zooming, remove the lens(and hang on to that lens cap!). When you want a gorgeous close-up shot, unscrew half of the lens to where only the macro lens remains.
Rain: Rain sucked most of the time. Unexpected rain was the worst… which was most of the time. Before we began our hike, we enquired the help of Ringleader. She was the maker of Beauty Beneath the Dirt. I won’t go into that film, but she was kind enough to give me a few tips on camera care on the Trail. She recommended two layers of bubble wrap, a dry bag inside a larger bag. So, that’s what I did. It was hard to predict just when it was gonna start and stop raining. And when the camera was packed and jammed into my already extremely full backpack, I wasn’t able to film at any moment. Let’s say I was walking down the Trail. I hear thunder. Do I pack the camera up now? YES. Did I want to? NO. Many of the screws and pieces attached to the CamCaddie setup were stubborn and small. It roughly took 5-8 minutes of frustration and hope that it doesn’t start pouring before you detach everything and get them safely in their appropriate wrappings and get them into the backpack(then get the backpack cover on). That’s often times how I broke many of the before-mentioned microphone bands. I carried a light “camera bag”/in-town bag. It had chargers and batteries. But when it rained, I took my camera, wrapped it with two layers of bubble wrap, then placed in two large zip lock bags, then into one dry sack and nestled safely in the “camera bag”. The mic was less compact-able but was wrapped with two large zip locks and gentle placed in the same “camera bag”. A lot of the time, the weather would mess with me. I’d break down the camera and put it up for a short light sprinkle thinking it would rain for days. Other times I assumed it was going to the a short lived storm, I’d put a clear bag over the camera as a temporary solution, but it would turn out to rain all day. Which, by the way, was an alternative trick. A thick large bag and rubber bands can be used to wrap the camera up while still strapped to the chest. Because of the placement of the carabiners, it’s no easy task to make it secure and not leave a large hole where rain can get in. That’s when the rubber bands come to play. That option is not fail-proof. Be aware.
I knew we’d be up against the elements. I got a warranty. For about $120, I got a SquareTrade warranty that covered pretty much everything that can happen to a camera for 3 years. This includes droppings or water damage to the camera. GOOD THING. I was only worried about my camera’s well-being once before it broke. That was when it snowed on us in the Smokies. The LCD screen wasn’t working properly. Fortunately, it must have been the extreme cold and started working correctly when it warmed up. Months later, we opted to summit Franconia Ridge in the Whites during white-out conditions. Well, it wasn’t so much of a choice rather a situation that snuck up on us and there weren’t many other options. It seemed to me at the time that we were against more heavy winds than anything else. However, there must have been a bit of moisture in the high winds that accumulated inside my exposed camera. Immediately after the intense ridge crossing, I got severely sick and we had to get off the Trail for a few days to recover. I happened to glance at some of the footage and found the audio board was fried. I tried rice and a few other solutions but it was finicky about acting correctly. I called SquareTrade. I told them the situation and before I even sent the now-defective camera back, they refunded my money. Good people there. I highly recommend them. I ordered a used one off Amazon, had it overnighted and was ready to go again the next day. I made that all seem easier and less stressful than that entire process actually was, but it worked and I was ready to film again.
This rig even worked for the occasional slackpack.
Dog Camera: This one probably won’t apply to anyone but it was important me. Our dog, Chaser, a Catahoula, is a working dog. He turned 4 years old on the Trail and loved that he had a job. His trail name was appropriately “CamDog”. He caught some, albeit more often than not, unusable but interesting footage. Lot’s of it was very shaky. Go figure. However, he did catch a few gems here and there. His camera setup was a constant work in progress that I won’t go into details with. It took a specific kind of dog backpack that was modified and required nonstop fixing. Not to mention how many times I turned his camera on and forgot to turn it off(no, it was not remotely controlled) wasting media space and depleting the battery.
The last thing you have to think about is what you are gonna do with all this footage. Do you plan on making a movie or going straight to YouTube? If it’s the ladder, you don’t need the setup I had. I would recommend something like the Nikon Coolpix AW100 or GoPro. Waterproof, small, compact-able on a trail like the AT goes a long way. If you do plan on making a movie like The Climb to Katahdin, take my advice and make it short and concise. I turned a 6 and half long adventure and 100 hours of footage into a 98 minute long movie. Doesn’t seem bad when you hear the time put into it, but attention spans are short nowadays and film festivals are choosey about the length of films they show. Obviously if you are planning a thru hike, you’ll watch the entire thing. But many people who aren’t into hiking watch the first half. This is disappointing because from a personal standpoint, the second half is the best. I say this because when you first start hiking, you are learning to hike and live in the woods. Recording isn’t the number one thought. Not to mention if you have a girlfriend and dog to worry about too. Therefore, the first month or two of recording respectively suffered to an extent. But by mid-Virginia, I was really getting it down. I was no longer that weird hiker who always carries the camera around that no one knew. I was Spiral ready to record at a moment’s notice in case something awesome was happening.
It takes time to learn and get into the swing of the AT. The camera certainly complicates things but the footage that I came back with and didn’t make it in the film, most likely, no one else will ever see is priceless. It took me almost a year to edit The Climb to Katahdin. I may’ve gotten completed a little sooner if it weren’t for outside issues such as music. I was fortunate to meet many hikers that offered help for the soundtrack. I’m incredible grateful for that and it saved the film. Royalty-free music from the internet is the worst. I think 90% of the music in TCtK works perfectly. But when music doesn’t help carry gorgeous shots and an adventure to compliment it, it’s noticeable. These are all things one must think about before they buy a camera for the Trail and think they are gonna make a movie. Distribution is a pain in the ass. Screenings are fun. I live for Q&A’s. But that’s all a part of the followthrough commitment of making an independent film.
I went on tour for 7 weeks in the fall of 2013. I had a projector(coincidentally given to me by a fellow hiker, Gerber, who passed through Louisiana months after the AT), a sound system, a portable 10 foot projector screen, a movie, and a dream. I set up my route to not only visit trail family to get to see them again, but also hopes that they might bring in a crowd too. After all, surely their friends and family would like to know more about what they left half a year to go do. Setting up the tour involved cold-calling outfitters, small theaters, and colleges. I’d explain that I’d have all the gear to show the film, I just need them to help provide a crowd. I made specific flyers for each and every screening(you can see them at www.TheClimbtoKatahdin.com). Sometimes things worked out, sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes the outfitter or trail family came through in a big way with a crowd of 200+ people. Other times, the word didn’t get out. Neither did the flyers. Or it rained or coincided with a football game and 5 people would show up. I only charged for three of the 20+ screenings(ranging from Southern Florida up to Maine and back down through Tennessee). Most were on a donation basis. People would donate a lot of money sometimes. More than they’d give if they were charged $5 or $10. It was like a whole new adventure based off the Appalachian Trail adventure. People loved the Q&A’s. Many people laughed and a few cried. The tour alone was worth making the movie for. Note: I didn’t have DVD’s or blurays available at the time of the tour. It was supposed to build hype. It built some hype but, boy, do I wish I them available at that time. I had tshirts, USB soundtracks, and watercolor prints by Reverie(my wife) of the Trail as merchandise.
One last note. If you do make a film, take my advice and don’t make DVDs or blurays. Just go straight to streaming. I made a lot of bonus footage for the blurays. Not enough people have a bluray player for it to be justified to distribute them. I guess DVDs are still hanging in there but as a filmmaker, it breaks my heart to downgrade HD material down to standard definition(the down-conversion is also a huge challenge).
I appreciate you taking the time to read this article. I hope it helps the next Appalachian Trail film get made. The process should become cheaper and easier as time goes on and technology gets smaller and more waterproof. As I have done many time already, if you have any questions, comments, concerns, or just need some inspiration for your journey, I’m happy to help. The Appalachian Trail has entirely altered my wife and myself’s lives. We just moved to Chattanooga, TN for reasons derived from the Trail. Between screening the film here, our buddies, Patch, Belch, and Nancy live here. Plus we are closer to the very mountains that we love.
Keep an eye out for the next article: how to hike with a camera AND a girlfriend AND a dog. From preparation to hiking to camping to town to Katahdin. All shall be covered.
If you would like to find out more information about The Climb to Katahdin, head over TheClimbtoKatahdin.com(facebook.com/theclimbtokatahdin) and AdventureitusProductions.com(facebook.com/adventureitusproductions). There have been many more adventures filmed since the Appalachian Trail including kayaking from Nova Scotia to the Gulf of Mexico, hiking, biking, and boarding the PCT, boarding the Natchez Trace, and we will soon be filming the oldest man known to ever thru-paddle the entirety of the Mississippi River.
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