Tips on Optimizing Your Photography Hike

Going on a hike? You’re taking your camera, right? Of course you are!

The trouble is: you have to consider weight. After loading up your backpack or fanny pack with water, food, a first aid kit, a knife, a sweatshirt and a couple other essentials, that 20-lbs pack will feel like hundreds of pounds after you’ve covered 10 miles in rough terrain. A camera, extra lens, and all the accessories add to that load (obviously).

After you’ve hiked 10 miles, sometimes it’s tough to muster up the energy and motivation to not only set up camp, but also to go shoot something.

long exposure of a mountain river at sunset
Yampa River at Sunset

Pare down your photography gear

Photography Accessories

Look for places to shave weight. Do you really need all those accessories? I would bet not. I usually take 2-3 lens, a wireless shutter remote, a spare battery, and maybe a lens filter. That’s about it. And extra SD cards, of course.

Eliminate the Tripod

Unless you’re doing astrophotography or shooting very early morning/late sunset, you don’t need a tripod. In deep shade or on an overcast day where you might need extra  stability, just find a rock or a log. You can even use your backpack as a makeshift tripod.

If you decide a tripod is essential for night pics, look for a lighter one (not a cheap one from Walmart!). Manfrotto’s carbon-fiber tripods are spendy, but you can sometimes find them used, and they’re lightweight without sacrificing stability. If you think you can get away with a mini-tripod, Manfrotto is making a mini that’s gotten good reviews. Although I’ve not personally tried this particular tripod, Manfrotto is a brand I trust.

Bonus: these are pretty darned cute, and you can get an adapter for your smartphone, too.

aspen forest in black and white
Aspens in Black and White

Camera Bag Inserts

These allow you to forgo an actual camera bag, and give your lens some padding in your backpack. I like the ones from Tenba, but they weigh 8-12 ounces. Doesn’t seem like a lot, but every ounce counts on a long hike.

If you’re comfortable with the idea of using your clothes for padding, grab a basic nylon one or use a dry sack to shave ounces off your total weight.

Aqua river running through foothills in Montana
A River in Montana

Plan!

Scout

It’s a pain, but start doing some homework before you actually leave on your trip. Most of us don’t have the luxury of wandering around for days in hunt of The Perfect Spot with the Best Light. Gotta maximize the time.

Apps/Tools

Photopill is a great app to use, I hear (I don’t own a smartphone, can’t confirm). It shows you where the sun and moon will be at a given time (its location at, say, 10 AM can be different depending on the time of year), calculates your ideal exposure in various light conditions (helpful if you’re using film or learning to shoot in Manual), and even has an augemented reality mode so that you can visualize what the scene will look like at night, or when the sun or moon are in certain spots.

woman looking at map
“Paper GPS” – a self portrait

National Parks by Chimani – Always take a topo map of your trail. Make sure you have a print version stashed in a ziplock baggie in case your phone dies. This app works offline. And know how to read and navigate using the map. There are too many stories about hikers getting lost despite having maps because they couldn’t figure out which way was which.

Flyover. If you’ve a drone, this app could be useful for planning your drone’s flight path. In the backcountry, you don’t want to waste a single second of your drone’s battery, which generally lasts only 15-20 minutes.

Instagram.  Use hashtags on Instagram to find pics other people took of your destination. Eg #maroonbells #colorado. If you’re not on Instagram, use Flickr’s location map to find pictures other people have taken of your destination. It will help you decide whether going on this or that trail is worth the time.

Offline Survival Guide. Not really related to photography, but I want you to survive your trip into the backcountry. If you run into trouble, you need to know some first aid basics, how to start a fire, and so on.

a mountain range in Montana, in black and white
A mountain range in Montana

Other prep

This is a common issue: you plan to go 10 miles in one day so that you can fit a 20-mile loop into one weekend. It’s doable. But here’s something to consider: if you’re not used to that grueling exercise, after carrying 20-30 lbs of gear over those 10 miles you’ll be seriously low on energy and hella sore. It’ll be tough to muster up the energy to get your butt up, set up camp, cook a hot dinner, and also go photograph.

You also might feel you don’t have time to stop at scenic points to take photographs if you want to make it to your campsite before dark.

I’ve been there several times. Solutions are:

Exercise Regime

Start a fitness program a few months prior to your hike. It’ll help you better adjust to the rigors of daylong exercise, and also by strengthening your muscles and joints prior to the trip, you’ll feel less sore which in turn means you’ll have more energy at campsite and on your breaks.

Shoes

failedboots
My poor feet

Make sure your shoes are in good shape. I always feel sore faster in my lower body if the shoes’ cushions are going to shit. And be sure to break a new pair in before your trip!

True story: While on a hike, I had a pair fall apart a few hours apart. I wasn’t prepared and used scraps of shoelaces to hold the sole together to get me through the rougher terrain. I now carry a strip of duct tape on all hikes. Handy stuff, that.

Pack Fit

backpack with a mapYou’ve got a proper pack with a padded waistbelt, right? Not the bookbag from your high school years.

As it turns out, different packs fit people differently. A tall, broad-shouldered man might be comfy in a specific Osprey model, while a petite gal will feel uncomfortable — and vice versa.  Visit your local outdoors store and try different packs on. If they don’t have sandbag weights to mimic a loaded pack, grab some dumbbell weights from the gym section.

If you already have a pack and have noticed that you’re excessively sore after wearing it for a few hours…it’s probably a bad fit for you.

Adjust your timeline

It’s a tough choice to make. But if you want to have the time to enjoy the hike, to enjoy the scenery, and to just explore…you’re going to have to adjust your expectations. There’s no magic solution for this; it’s just a choice you have to make. “Do more miles and risk missing out on a great photography spot or do fewer miles, add onto the trip time, but get great pictures?”

You could:

  • Start your hike on Friday afternoon instead of Saturday morning
  • Pick a slightly shorter trail. Instead of a 20-mile loop, look for a 15-mile loop. By shaving the miles off each leg, you’ll feel less pressed to reach your campsite.

Do you have other tips or advice? Let me know in the comments!

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pinterest graphic optimize photography hiking

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