Camera Gear in the Backcountry

By Matt Pritchard

Patagonia Sunrise

I'm a latter day convert to photography. My life as a backpacker began several years before I picked up an SLR and began obsessing about alpenglow. Being a backpacker first and a photographer second helped when I started working out a system to bring my photo gear into the backcountry. Typically, a backpacker's gear priorities read like this: weight, durability, and ease of use. These are all qualities that support the principle of efficient travel by foot. These priorities don't necessarily jibe with the systems of more traditional landscape photographers. Twenty-pound shoulder bags and super-duty tripods may be standard equipment for the roadside photographer, but a new philosophy is in order if you're going to venture more than a few miles past the trailhead.

Having drank the Kool-Aid of the lightweight movement, we've been consistently shaving pounds off our base pack weight over the last few years. Some days it's hard to justify hauling along eight and a half pounds of camera gear when the rest of my gear (pack, tent, sleeping bag, etc.) only weighs twelve. Then I take a look at my photos - places we've been deep in the backcountry, where a point-and-shoot just isn't going to cut it. I quit my whining and start planning my shots.

The kit I bring backpacking is pretty basic, pared down for the sake of weight and simplicity. In my experience, too many options hurts rather than helps my photography; I want to spend my time thinking about light rather than lenses. My basic kit looks like this:

  • Camera: Nikon D200
  • Lens: Nikon 18-200mm DX VR
  • Filters: Polarizer, Neutral Density Grad, Neutral Density .3 & .6
  • Media: SanDisk Extreme IV (8-16GB depending on the length of trip)
  • Extras: spare camera battery, Lens Pen, small notebook, pencil

If I decide to shoot film, the kit looks like this:

  • Camera: Nikon FM2
  • Lenses: Nikon 28-105mm, Nikon 20mm
  • Filters: Polarizer, Neutral Density Grad, Neutral Density .3 & .6
  • Film: 4-6 rolls of Velvia & Provia for a 2-3 day trip
  • Extras: Lens Pen, cable release, small notebook, pencil

Either way, it's a relatively small kit, so a large bag isn't necessary. I have found that a chest-mounted, top-loading bag is the most appropriate for backcountry use. This type of bag doesn't interfere with my backpack and it allows easy access to my camera. I can take quick, hand-held shots without dropping my pack. The only downside I have found with a chest-mounted bag is downward visibility. If you are climbing or scrambling in dodgy terrain, it does compromise your ability to check foot placement. In this type of environment a backpack or rear-facing waist pack is probably most appropriate.

My research led me to the LowePro Topload Zoom AW. It fits my gear with room to spare. The all-weather cover has been used everywhere from the Lost Coast to Patagonia. I made a few small modifications to help integrate it with my pack. Each of the four D-rings on the bag received a length of shockcord with a clip attached to the end. The top two cords attach to the D-rings on my shoulder straps, and the bottom two cords attach to the loops on my hip-belt. My new pack (GoLite Infinity) did not have D-rings on the shoulder straps, so a couple of simple accessory cord loops fill in nicely. The shockcord suspension is very cool - it really does make the load seem lighter. This system keeps the camera snugged up against my body and it comes off in a few seconds when it's time for a break. I've taken some pretty big tumbles with this bag while skiing and my gear barely seemed to notice.

My tripod is a Gitzo Mountaineer 1137 with a Kirk BH-3 ballhead. This combination strikes a nice balance between weight and stability. Unfortunately, it's a pricey system, so I make every effort to protect it from damage while hiking. Each leg is wrapped in pipe insulation foam; it's cheap, durable, and barely registers on a scale. When not in use, the ballhead gets covered by a Snoot Boot - a neoprene sleeve designed for lens storage. The whole tripod slips inside custom made tripod case that Jody sewed together. It has a smart roll-top closure and daisy-chained webbing down either side. There are a number of ways I can carry the tripod, but I usually slip it under the compression straps on the side of my pack. Bright orange fabric makes the case easy to find when I hastily remove the tripod and start moving around for a good shot.

What To Do When it Gets Really Wet

In Patagonia and other wet locations, I've used a few techniques to provide another level of protection for my gear. Before any serious water crossings, I seal the camera body and each lens in two layers of Ziploc-style bags. The whole kit goes into the LowePro and the all-weather cover goes over top. In the Virgin River Narrows—where we had three mandatory swims—I brought a standard river dry bag, dropped the LowePro inside and strapped it to the outside of my pack; it was awkward, but it worked. Since constant humidity can mean bad things for optics, I usually spent some time at night wiping down each of my lenses with a chamois and sealing them in a Ziploc with a packet or two of dessicant.

The tripod case—with its rolltop closure—is fairly weather resistant on it's own. Some extra time spend seam-sealing this case could make it nearly waterproof. I found that lining the case with a compactor bag did a pretty good job keeping water out in the Virgin River Narrows.

More to come...

Shock Cord & Clips

Shock Cord & Clips

Suspension Helps

Suspension Helps

Accessory Cord Loops

Accessory Cord Loops

Tripod Case

Tripod Case

Roll-Top Closure

Roll-Top Closure

Tripod Protection

Tripod Protection

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