Thru-Hiking Photography: What You Need to do it Like a Pro
You’ve finally decided to thru-hike the long trail of your dreams. Now, the planning phase is in full swing and your gear list is growing. As you research, you keep seeing beautiful photos of the wild places you’ll be trekking through. Maybe you begin thinking you’d like to bring your camera along to capture the magic of this life-changing thru-hike.
This is how the saga of packing up a thru-hiking photography kit begins.
The truth is, no matter how you swing it, bringing a decent photography setup on a thru-hike is challenging. From the final gear selection, dishing out the cash, and added weight and bulk of the hardware, it can get a little overwhelming wrapping your head around the effort required for hauling a camera setup over hundreds of miles.
Hopefully, this is where I can help. Over the past many years, I have backpacked extensively with my full wildlife photography setup. This includes two DSLR camera bodies, three lenses, lots of batteries, and a small ziplock bag filled with choice camera gear.
I have made some ridiculous decisions along the way (trust me: you don’t need a full-sized tripod) but over time, I have perfected my thru-hiking photography kit. Here, I’d like to impart some of this hard-earned wisdom to you, dear reader, so that you may have the best experience possible.
What Are Your Photography Goals
First, it’s important to think about your photography goals if you’ve committed to making photography a part of your journey. These will influence gear selection and the way you pack it all up. Below are the two most common focuses for on-trail photography.
Landscapes and Camp Life
If you want to capture beautiful landscapes and camp scenes, and maybe some trail shots or night photos too, your kit can be rather straightforward — a camera body and lens, with a couple of batteries and a way to charge em up. Most folks will fall into this category.
Usually, if I’m looking to capture solid landscapes and scenes from camp, I use a 20mm f/1.8 wide-angle lens. This allows me to capture photos night and day, and takes up only a small amount of space.
You can tell wonderful stories from the trail with a very basic setup. It’s simple, not too heavy, and having these memories to look back on makes the extra hassle so worth it.
If your dreams involve capturing glorious wildlife photos, your setup will be more complex and quite a bit heavier. But not to fear, you ambitious animal lover! It’s more than possible to successfully thru-hike with everything you need to capture quality wildlife photos.
Generally speaking, what makes a wildlife photography kit different from a landscape setup is a large telephoto lens. This is one of the main considerations when assembling your gear. Will a 300mm reach suffice, or will you need a more extreme telephoto?
For most folks, a 300mm lens is an ideal way to capture wildlife photos on an adventure. There are some great lenses, which I highly recommend, that offer a 70-300mm range. The versatility-to-weight ratio for this style is wonderful.
If you don’t feel that 300mm will get you close enough to your subject, I recommend sticking with prime lenses (one fixed focal length) beyond that. These will save you a lot of weight at these focal lengths. My always-with-me lens for backpacking and thru-hiking is a 500mm prime. It’s huge and it’s heavy. But when those perfect wildlife moments happen, it makes it worth the effort!
No matter your goals, or how zoomed-in you want to be, it’s important to choose a lens that isn’t going to be a nightmare to carry, even if this means you’ll be cropping in more during post-processing.
Ways To Carry Your Camera
When you’re on the trail with a fully-loaded photography setup, you’re going to need a comfortable solution for carrying all of it. This carry system needs to be protective, stable, and hands-free. Luckily, there are a handful of great ways to bring a camera along that fit the bill. How you carry your camera is a very personal choice. Here are a few of the best bets:
A camera cube is exactly what it sounds like. A padded cube with a few padded dividers for when you bring an extra lens or two. They come in all kinds of sizes and can easily be stashed at the top of a backpack. Camera cubes are also generally pretty lightweight and you can fill empty interior space by stuffing it with clothes. This also provides more padding for your expensive gear.
The downside is that you’ll need to take off your backpack to access your camera.
Probably the most popular option, a camera clip is a lightweight and simple device that affixes to the shoulder strap of your backpack. Your camera will have a matching mount that slides it into place, locking it to the shoulder mount.
Storing your camera this way keeps it super accessible it is a great choice if you plan to bring a camera with a short lens or a small mirrorless setup.
Hip pouch, top-loader, $120 camera pod… these are all the same thing — a small padded pouch that holds your camera. These bags usually go on the outside of your backpack, typically attached to the hip belt or across the chest.
Carrying your camera this way is pretty clutch. It will be highly accessible while being protected by some amount of padding. There are a ton of hip pouches on the market, so whether you are packing a tiny wide-angle setup or a 300mm wildlife setup, there is one out there to match your needs.
If you have decided to bring an ultra-telephoto lens on your thru-hike for wildlife photography, congrats! You’re a silly goose like me. With a big, heavy setup like this, I recommend carrying your system on your chest with a camera harness.
A camera harness allows immediate access to your camera and, therefore, the greatest odds of capturing a fleeting wildlife moment. It is also the only option out there for carrying your camera body with a huge lens attached. While I think that it’s totally worth it, thru-hiking with this setup is not for the faint of heart.
Essential Photography Gear For Backpacking
When you’re selecting the photography gear you’ll need for a thru-hike, rest easy knowing that you don’t need much. The key takeaway here is to choose wisely so that your photography kit will be as lightweight and compact as possible. This is likely the same approach you use for choosing all your backpacking gear.
I recommend everyone use a clear UV filter on all lenses. This is meant to protect the glass of your lens from sun damage and impact. This is especially important when you bring your expensive photography gear thru-hiking because your lens will be exposed to a variety of extreme conditions and might even take a fall. A very basic lens filter is an insurance policy for the glass of your lens.
Three is the ideal number of batteries to bring on a thru-hike. One in the camera, one charged and ready, one charging or ready to be charged. When in doubt, bring extra. Without a charged battery, all this bulky, heavy, expensive gear is completely useless.
The number of memory cards you choose to pack depends completely on how many photos you will shoot. Think about how often you will use your camera and what your storage needs will be, and don’t skimp. Deleting photos on trail, mid-sunset to create more space is no fun.
Each camera is different, and the settings can have a huge impact on image file size. Take a few test shots with different image settings to get an idea of how much memory each takes.
When you come up with the right number of memory cards for you, add one more in case of a card failure. They can and do fail. Sometimes right out of the packaging. Be sure to test out all memory cards prior to packing them!
A good battery bank is something you likely already own if you are planning a thru-hike. You’ll use this to charge up your camera batteries too. Usually, camera batteries are relatively small when compared to the one in your smartphone, so you might not need to upgrade or carry an extra battery bank.
However, it’s a good idea to consider all of your power needs when sizing your external battery. And make sure that your essential devices take priority over your third camera battery. That inReach is more important than your backup to the backup.
Also, if the trip allows, you can include a solar panel into your setup for those long stretches where you’ll need to recharge between towns.
READ NEXT — Are Solar Panels Worth It For Backpacking?
Extending Battery Life
If you think you might be in super chilly or very hot conditions, know that this negatively impacts the life of your batteries. You may have noticed that your phone hates cold more than your pinky toes. I have found it really helpful to stash mine in a temperature-proof pouch called a Cold Case during excursions in extreme temperatures.
In many instances, this pouch has made the difference between all my batteries going dead versus losing zero power overnight. It’s worth noting that this can also be useful for your phone and other electronics.
Thru-hiking with a photography kit is a great way to get your camera gear dirty. A simple air puffer is the most effective way to clean up without the risk of scratching or smudging the glass. These handy dandy air puffers are not all the same and you’ll want to bring one that produces a powerful gush of air.
You’ve gathered all your photo gear and realized that there’s a lot of stuff other than a camera and lens. Now you need something to put it all in. A regular ol’ ziplock or fancy drybag is just the ticket. Whatever it is, you want something lightweight and waterproof. I personally like something clear so I can see where everything is to reduce rummaging. For me, a quart ziplock is perfect.
Your camera will likely have some kind of mount attached to it, unique to whichever carrying system you choose to use. Be sure to pack the tools needed to ensure your mount stays tight. This could be a small Allen wrench or a basic multi-tool.
If you plan to bring more than one lens or a second camera body, you’ll need a way to keep these items safe and secure in your backpack. This can be accomplished a lot of ways, and the easiest is to put the lens or camera in a dry bag and wrap it up in extra clothing. There are also plenty of small padded cases on the market, but those tend to get heavy fast.
If you plan to carry your camera outside of your backpack, you’ll want to have a rain fly to protect it from moisture. A dry bag or gallon ziplock are both great options. Simply pull the bag over your system and seal it off with a rubber band or by folding it down and clipping.
Squat: Leg workouts are your friend. At a minimum, a photography kit will add around 7 lbs to your baseweight. At a maximum, it’s like you’re carrying a whole other backpack. Get those squats in!
Access: The best photography kit is the one that you use. If you bring a lot of camera gear, you will likely never use most of it. Keep it really simple. What you can access with ease you will use most.
Tripod: Lots of things can act as a tripod. From rocks to an upturned mug, get creative. You absolutely do not need to thru-hike with a tripod in order to get sharp long exposures.
Test: Play around with your setup. Test out different ways to pack and carry your kit. This will help you find what works best for you.
There’s No One Way To Do It
At the end of the day, there is no perfect way to pack a photography kit on a thru-hike. And there are so many factors that impact how you’ll approach this. Body shape, pack size, the gear you have… it all factors into the ways you’ll prepare to take photos on the trail.
The two most important factors to keep in mind when considering photography setups are a) how will you keep your kit padded and dry, and b) ensuring that your camera is accessible. Once you have that figured out, it’s just a matter of being open to the right opportunities, practicing patience, and pressing the shutter. Oh yeah, and there’s the whole hiking thing too. But that’s the easy part, right?
What Are You Excited To Capture?
You want to capture moments on your thru-hike for a reason, and I’d love to hear what you’re most excited to take photos of during your adventure. Please let me know in the comments section below!
Featured Image: Photo Deirdre D Rosenberg. Graphic design by Chris Helm.
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