Us mountaineers laugh about the rigors of hauling “65 pounds of ultra-light-weight climbing gear” through the mountains. Sure, each piece of equipment is optimized for performance and weight, but sometimes there sure is a lot of it! Of course this laughing usually takes place as part of the post-trip storytelling, not while the load is still on you back.
Such was the case on an 8-day backpacking trip traversing the Bailey Range in Olympic National Park. No real climbing gear, just a light weight ice axe and crampons. But plenty of camera gear to make up for it.
I thought I would share the photo gear I carried on this journey and how I carried it. This serves as a baseline for all my backpacking photo trips.
First a little more about the trip. Three of us were to hike approximately 53 miles over 8 days in a loop that included about 18 miles of rugged off-trail alpine/sub-alpine wilderness along a route known as the Bailey Range Traverse. The route is known for its mosquitoes, solitude, mosquitoes, ruggedness, mosquitoes, and spectacular alpine scenery. And that is exactly what we found.
We also found some extremely hot days with highs of 95 degrees (hot by western Washington standards). And then there was a forest fire, and two days of scrambling up and down very steep and grimy gulleys where a slip would likely result in serious injury or death. But the scenery was truly spectacular and the experience is one I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.
Our route started at the Sol Duc River trail head, proceeded up to High Divide, across the Bailey Range, down the Elwha Snowfield and down the never-ending Elwha River to Whiskey Bend trail head.
Here is a summary of the backpacking equipment we carried:
- Food for 9 days packed into three large carbon fiber bear-proof food canisters.
- Camping gear, including a 3-person tent, stove, stove repair kit (which saved the trip on the first night out), about 3 bottles of fuel, water filter, cooking pot, sleeping bags/pads.
- All the usual personal items: 10 essentials, clothes, water bottles, trekking poles (one of which is still somewhere in the Elwah River), toiletries, insect repellent, more insect repellent.
- Ice axe, crampons.
And then there was my photography equipment to add on:
- Canon 5D, Mark II with neoprene Tamrac camera strap
- Canon 16-35mm f2.8 L with polarizing filter
- Canon 24-105mm F4 L with polarizing filter and lens hood (usually reversed on lens)
- Canon TC-80N3 shutter release cable with timer
- Sunpak RD2000 compact flash
- Three spare camera batteries (though I actually only used one)
- One set spare flash batteries
- Three spare 16GB compact flash cards, plus one spare 8GB card
- Lens pen
- Singh-Ray graduated neutral density filters (2-stop soft and 3-stop hard)
- Lowepro TLZ1 Top Load camera bag with Lowepro TLZ Chest Harness
- Lowepro Lens Case 1S
- Manfrotto 3021BPRO tripod with Manfrotto 322RC2 Horizontal Grip Action Ballhead
All total, this added up to about 65 pounds of gear stuffed into or strapped onto my backpack, or worn on my person.
The next challenge is to figure out how to carry all this stuff while keeping it readily available for on-the-fly shooting on the trail. Here is what worked for me:
- The camera, 24-105 lens, Singh-Ray filters and spare compact flash cards were in the camera bag strapped to my chest.
- The 16-35mm lens was in the lens case Velcro-ed to my backpack waist strap and tethered to my pack with a small backup carabiner.
- The flash and lens pen were in pockets of my hiking pants.
- The tripod was strapped to the side of my backpack, with only a single quick-release buckle to release it.
- The polarizing filters were on their lenses nearly all the time.
- The shutter release cable and spare batteries were in a stuff sack in the top pouch of my backpack.
This system worked great. Lenses and key equipment were always at hand, and this setup has now become my standard backpacking setup.
When carrying less backpacking gear, I’ll also throw in a Canon 70-200mm F4 L lens and a Think Tank Speed Racer camera bag, which sits in the top compartment of my backpack. When shooting from camp, I’ll transfer all the equipment to the Speed Racer hip/shoulder bag for comfortable and light-weight shooting.
This is a lot of camera gear to haul around, which I am feeling even more as I get older. To help reduce the load, I have also been reducing the weight of my backpacking gear. Some recent moves include:
- Trading in my 20-year old tents for modern light-weight versions.
- Using aluminum ice axe and aluminum crampons on less-serious snow fields and glaciers.
- Switching to one of those spiffy Therm-a-Rest NeoAir sleeping pads that only weighs 13 oz and packs down to the size of a 1 quart water bottle.
- Sleeping in a 1 pound +40 degree hood-less Lite-Loft sleeping bag. I can wear a hat and those extra clothes I’m carrying anyway to extend performance to near freezing.
Hopefully some of these tips will be useful to you on your next back-country photo adventure.