Plan. Plan more. Follow the Plan.
Updated for typos and minor changes: 11/2/2009
All serious photographers tend to go on The Big Trip. What do I mean by "The Big Trip"? Well, for those interested in wildlife, an African safari, a Churchill polar bear expedition, an Antarctic penguin hunt, or a pilgrimage to the Galapagos would all qualify. For the scenic nature photographer, extended trips in Patagonia and Alaska are obvious candidates. But sometimes even something like a one-week tour of Utah's National Parks or the popular Yellowstone/Grand Teton combo might qualify. Or perhaps you're a fan of the basic "see Europe" style of travel (if it's Tuesday, it must be the place where they used to speak Belgian).
Whatever your choice, there are a few elements that make it The Big Trip:
- You generally don't do it extemporaneously. You plan for it, sometimes extensively.
- It lasts longer than a weekend. Indeed, it usually lasts longer than a week.
- You expect to come back with photos that you can make into impressive prints or slide show to exhibit to your friends, family, and colleagues.
It's the intersection of those things that are the problem. Logistically, The Big Trip is like sending a photographic army of one into battle. And it seems like the battle starts even before you leave home (hint: it does).
As many of you know, I go on The Big Trip all the time. At least four--and usually more--times a year. This coming year I have three multi-week workshops in foreign countries that not only count as a Big Trip for me, but for several dozen students, as well. I do so many Big Trips, and some of them are so big, that I have to plan them two or three years in advance. I've been dealing with The Big Trip for over 20 years now. Thus, I have just a bit of experience with what can go right and what can go wrong. And believe me, things will go wrong. The trick is to limit those to the random chance things you can't control and keep the things you can control from interfering with your enjoyment and photography.
Before I start get to the nitty gritty and throw out lots of details, let me repeat one thing I've written several times before: just before you leave on The Big Trip is not the time to go out and buy new equipment. And the day you pack for the trip is not the time to unbox that new equipment. And the plane trip to the trailhead is not the time to first crack open the user manual.
Many people use The Big Trip as justification for buying the new body, lens, or other photo toy they want: "Honey, I really need the SuperGizmo1000 for this trip--I can't guarantee that I'll get anything we want to show others with my WimpyThing100." Listen, I understand the tactic and why many people use it. I just don't condone or recommend it. I'll have more to say on this as we get deeper into the article, but let's just agree on this up front: The Big Trip is not the time to be trying to figure out new equipment. I'd go even further: The Big Trip is not the thing that should justify upgrading or adding to your equipment. Let me repeat that, then explain it: The Big Trip shouldn't be justification to upgrade or add to your equipment.
Again, I understand the spousal implications involved. But you're using The Big Trip as justification for something that shouldn't need justification. If you're a serious photographer and there's something you need, it goes on the negotiation list with your spouse, period. If you've got the right spouse, there won't be a problem with that. There's give and take in every good relationship. But if The Big Trip is the only way you can justify New Purchase X, I think you have bigger problems than planning for The Big Trip. Moreover, think of the implication in reverse: that means you are tacitly agreeing that your spouse can just pile on a faux demands to The Big Trip. New wardrobe, new luggage, new car to get to the airport…well, you get the idea: using The Big Trip is an excuse, a justification, and if you need those, then a bigger problem lies beneath the surface and you'll need more than a byThom article to help you deal with it.
Okay, let's carve The Big Trip into manageable chunks, and try to put some sort of order on it.
Be in Shape and Trained for What You'll Do
Bet you didn't expect that up front, did you? But it's true and in many cases it's the longest lead time item on my list.
In Patagonia, for instance, to get to the glacial lakes I like to shoot sometimes requires 18 mile hikes in one day, and with thousands of feet of elevation gain. I've got to not only get my camera equipment up to the scene, but a day's worth of food and water, plus some basic survival gear (mostly clothing layers, but sometimes something more elaborate). Depending upon the time of year and the light I seek, I might have to do substantive portions of that hike in the dark. Moreover, I don't have to do this just once, but sometimes many days in a row as I move around the various opportunities within the area. Fitness is not something I think about the week before the trip.
Back when I traveled with Galen, I had to carefully plan my training. Galen's trips, even his "photo tours," were often quite taxing physically. One day we climbed 5000' in the morning. Another we did 18 miles with nearly 10,000' of up and down vertical. "Up" was the most common descriptor, and "long" was a close second. The way I dealt with this was I trained and ran a marathon about two or three weeks before I left on any extended trip with Galen. That meant that I was training for six or more months. For a single trip.
More recently, I tackled Kilimanjaro on my 55th birthday. Prior to that trip I was running 30 miles a week, biking 15, and carrying more and more weight on at least one of my runs each week. And I started that training--yes, you guessed it--six months before I left.
So let's be clear on something: if your trip requires anything more than hanging the camera out the window of a bus, figure out what that is as soon as possible, and start planning to make sure that you can do whatever that is, no questions asked. Did you ask the Antarctic trip operator just how much walking you might do onshore, and in what clothing? Ever try doing that before hand? Really. Try it. Put on several layers and your thick parka, now see if you can get your camera pack on. Now try walking a half mile over a rocky beach and then getting your camera out. Not so easy, was it?
Going on that Utah National Parks tour I mentioned? Did you know you'll be at considerable elevation in some of the parks (as high as 9000'), that some of the trails you might want to walk are many miles long and some--say, Angel's Landing in Zion--involve a great deal of uphill (21 switchbacks at the Wiggles alone).
Some of you are saying "but I'm not doing any of that stuff, Thom, I just want to stop at the pullouts and take pictures." I have a couple of responses:
- Have you actually been successful at that in the past? Funny thing is, if all you want is photos taken mid-day at the easy places, I'm not sure why you're reading my site. My emphasis has always been on doing the best you can, not wimping out and doing what everyone else is doing.
- Are there really pullouts? I don't really know of any in Antarctica. Even in Yellowstone (which is at altitude) you'll want to get at least out on the boardwalks to see the geysers. Riverside is a nice twenty-minute walk (if you're in shape).
You don't have to run marathons to train. You don't have to climb mountains to train. But you should do something to make sure that you're not going to try to go from coach potato to active participant on your Big Trip. If you physically tax yourself on your Big Trip, your mental state goes down too. And when your mental state goes down, you simply don't take as good a picture as you would otherwise. You just don't think through the variables quickly or completely enough when you're tired.
I keep a pretty exhaustive set of lists for my trips. When I first start working on a Big Trip plan, I start a list. That list eventually includes everything I'll be taking. But when I first start, it might simply be a gross outline:
- Photo Backpack
- Travel Clothing
If it's an overseas trip, I immediately add "passport", which is going to be carried in Travel Clothing, which is going to include my Travel Vest, so almost immediately I have:
- Duffel (40 lbs)
- Photo Backpack (20 lbs)
- Travel Clothing
And I'll immediately check to see if the countries I'm traveling to have Visa requirements. If they do, yep, that goes under Passport in my list.
You can make your list on paper, on your computer, or on the iPhone (yes, there's an app for that). But no matter where you make the list, it needs to be accessible so that as you think of something, or learn something about your destination, you can make additions or modifications. Many big tour companies provide suggested packing lists, and they're a good place to start, but as a photographer, you're going to find that the photography-related things are really going to be things you have to figure out on your own.
If you're curious about what a complete list might look like, I've placed a PDF file for one of my recent trips here on the Web site for you to look at.
As I'm packing for the trip I'm using the list as a checklist. I should point out that sometimes you'll find that your list produces so much stuff that your weight won't comply with airline guidelines (note the weight annotations I added in the second outline, above). This is a critical step. In some cases, being overweight means that you don't get on the plane, period. In other cases, you're going to incur huge weight penalties. Thus, you may find that you need to adjust your list when you're packing (hint: have a scale handy). Most of us have a tendency to bring too much on trips, so this is a good time to get 100% realistic. Sure, I'd love to have my tripod, monopod, window pod, and group pod along on the trip, but realistically, which will get used? And which can I use in a pinch for the others? For example, the Kirk Window Pod can be used as a ground pod, too. I can extend one leg from my tripod and have a monopod. Bingo, two things off the list if I've got a weight issue.
And don't think that stealing some weight from your significant other's luggage is going to work. What happens when they do some shopping on the Big Trip? Ooops. You're overweight again.
Lists are important to bring on the trip, as well. If the airline loses your bag, you have something stolen, or some other trouble arises, you'll be surprised at how often you wished you had that list. But that brings up a subpoint: you should keep copies of your list in different places on the trip. I usually have one in my backpack or the hotel safe, another in my main bag. I also tend to keep a copy present in an email folder I can get to just in case everything goes missing on the trip.
There's an additional type of list that is useful, and I'd be neglecting things if I didn't mention it: the Ready to Go list:
- Hold Mail
- Stop Newspaper Delivery
- Set Security System
- Backup laptop
I call this the Ready to Go list because you're not ready to actually leave for the airport until you've done everything on that list. As with your packing list, start a Ready to Go list early and have it handy for additions when you think of them.
One final comment about packing lists: when you get back from the Big Trip, annotate your list. Cross off the things that didn't work or you didn't really have a need for. Add things you forgot or which would have been helpful. Now file that away where you can find for when you start planning your next Big Trip.
Bottom line: start a list early, add to it or modify it as you learn new information, and take it with you on your trip. The list is your core planning device.
Check Everything Before you Leave
There's nothing worse than getting to your exotic destination and learning that your camera or lens or tripod has a problem. Schedule a mock shoot with your equipment a week before you head off on your Big Trip, preferably two or three weeks. Note I didn't say "day before" or "a few days before."
The issue is this: what happens when you do find that something is broken or needs adjustment? You can't get something repaired or replaced at the last minute. Especially when you probably have a ton of other things you need to do at the last minute (that Ready to Go list).
So, if you're headed to an African safari in July, sometime in June you're going to head to the local zoo for a half day of shooting. Make sure you use everything you're going to bring on the trip. Just prior to this mock shoot is a good time to brush up on technique and camera settings. Get your camera set up properly before you go out on the mock shoot and use the shoot to test your camera's settings. Be thorough. Test everything. Try to test all scenarios (fast focusing, following action, etc.). If you find something isn't working during your testing, you still have time to have it fixed or replaced. If you find that you're still not comfortable with some camera function, you still have time to work on mastering that before you leave on the Big Trip.
If you did ignore my advice and buy something new for the trip, this mock shooting is even more important. This is your only chance to verify that it works and get any comfort level in using it before it goes into battle. Ignore this advice at your peril. I've leant lenses and cameras to people who didn't do this--don't be the next person I have to help out in this fashion. Of course, if I'm not around, you might not have anyone around to lend you some equipment. Bummer. That end-of-trip slide show is going to be awful short.
No matter how hard you plan, there's always the possibility that something goes wrong. That's why I bring backup bodies and sometimes lenses. The more you need to rely on something (e.g. camera body), the more important having a backup plan is important. If my tripod fails (and it will someday), I'm a little less worried about backup than if my camera body fails. Nevertheless, I usually have a backup plan for almost everything photographic. Some quick examples:
- Camera Fails: backup body. If no backup body, then a competent compact camera so that I'm not completely shut out of images.
- Lens Fails: multiple lenses on the trip, often with some overlap in abilities.
- Tripod Fails: VR on critical lenses, plus often a ground pod or tabletop tripod is along on the trip. Improvised support in an emergency.
- Battery Fails: multiples on trip.
- Card Fails: multiples on trip.
- Computer or card reader fails: either a Epson P-6000 or similar is along as backup, or I've got enough card storage to complete trip without downloading, preferably both (redundant redundancy).
- Computer hard drive fails: Macs are easy--I carry a duplicate drive created with SuperDuper I can swap in.
- Charger fails: second camera uses different battery type or second charger along.
I tend to have some redundancy in my clothing, as well. I tend to bring long pants that convert into shorts, for instance (zip off legs). I tend to build warmth via layers, so if I have to wear two t-shirts, a vest, and a fleece jacket to keep warm, so be it. My wardrobe usually is versatile enough to downsize or upsize depending upon the weather, just by layering.
That Thermorest pillow I carry? Works great as a bean bag for the camera (more tripod redundancy). Redundancy is good. Vive le Redundancy.
Know the conditions
Here's another one that catches some folk by surprise. For a Big Trip you should be monitoring long term weather and as you get closer to the take-off date, short term weather. This very well may change some things on your packing list.
Yes, I know Yellowstone is cold in the winter. But is that usual cold, balmy cold, or worst winter in history? The way I pack and prepare for that trip is going to depend upon that assessment.
Global weather seems more variable to me in the past decade. I don't know if that's just the places I've been experiencing an unusual weather pattern, or a real global change we need to worry about. What I do know is that I can't count on my experience in a place 20 years ago to predict what I'll need for the trip I leave on tomorrow, or next week, or next month. Even the out-of-the-way places I visit have more weather information than ever before, though I'd point out that trailing information is still more important than predictive information in areas that have poor weather forecasting. If it's been raining in Denali for the past month, I'll prepare for rain even as I hope for better (that happened in 2008, by the way: most persistent summer rains for quite some time, which happened to clear for my visit; nevertheless I was prepared for the worst, and temperatures were indeed a bit cooler than norm, so my preperation was not for naught).
Don't just think about conditions for you, think about them from your camera's standpoint, too. That may mean raincovers for your pack and for shooting. It might mean warm packs to keep batteries efficient. It might mean some dehudification packs. Be prepared.
This is one that most people don't do but should. Even if you're just wandering through the streets of a big European city, don't underestimate the problem that carrying photo equipment entails. My cardinal rule: be prepared to shoot in an instant. This means that the camera can't be buried deep in a backpack. Ever tried walking six miles with a camera strap around your neck? If you have, you're cringing right now. A three-pound D700+lens is going to make you a massage candidate real quick.
My own personal solution has always involved putting the camera weight on the shoulder straps of my backpack. This way it gets distributed correctly (along with the other weight in the backpack if you've got it set up right. I have two different solutions I use, one involving Op-Tech straps, the other involving ThinkTank straps. Which I use depends upon which pack I'm using. But the thing is, this isn't something I can improvise on the trip: you have to do your homework prior to the trip.
I covered a lot of this in my articles on bags: accessibility, protection, and comfort. You need accessible equipment, you need to protect it from time to time, and you need to carry it in comfort. Getting on the trip and discovering that the bag you bought at the last minute doesn't really work in any of those three categories is going to make for a very grumpy photographer. (Who should blame themself.) Thus: practice carrying. Do it with plenty of time before the trip so that you can make adjustments, if necessary.
Double check the airlines and connections
One thing on your Ready to Go list should be to do one last minute check on your airline flights and connections. This is doubly important for any International travel. Why? Because airlines change things seemingly on a whim. Within the US, this usually doesn't cause too much of an issue: there's usually another flight that'll get you there when your carrier decides at the last minute--as mine recently did--to reschedule a flight two hours later a day before the actual flight. I guess I should be lucky they didn't charge me a change fee ;~).
But when your connections are multiple and go through multiple countries or involve things like plane transfer to cruise ship, any last minute change by a carrier can totally mess you up. This is where we all miss travel agents: good agents did this check as a matter of course, verified everything, and did last minute swaps when things changed. But when you book your own tickets online, all bets are off. I recently found myself in Johannesburg trying to get on a flight to Cape Town that was, oops, cancelled the previous day. Luckily, there was another flight I could get on, but I barely made it before they closed the cabin doors.
While you're doing this check, make sure the baggage and carry-on allowances haven't changed, too. You don't want to be caught in the already-at-the-airport-but-now-have-too-much-stuff/weight trap.
Have the paperwork done
Technically, on International trips for US citizens, you need proof of ownership of things you bring back into the country.
Let’s start with the technical part. Customs doesn’t know what things you take out of the country and return with. You could leave with nothing and come back with lots of photo equipment you bought overseas and now are trying to evade paying duties on. Or you could have left the US with your personal equipment and are just bringing it back. The way to deal with this is to fill out Customs form 4457 (it’s a one-page sheet) with your photo equipment list (complete with serial numbers, and don’t forget to include your laptop and any other expensive electronics), and then go to your local Customs office (with the equipment, unfortunately) to have the sheet verified and signed prior to leaving the country. Sometimes you can manage to do this at your local airport on your way out of the country, but I’d advise you to do it before that if you can; you really want to have a photocopy stored elsewhere in your luggage just in case you lose the original. Moreover, some Customs offices are busy and can’t do this on demand; they ask that you make an appointment. So, find your local Customs office, haul your equipment down, fill out the form, have them sign it, then make a copy when you get home. Carry the original with your equipment and the copy in your luggage. Then, if you get stopped by Customs on the way back into the country, you just show them the form and you’re home free.
To find your local office use http://www.customs.gov/xp/cgov/toolbox/ports/. You may have to call a couple of offices in your area to find the exact one that can verify your 4457 for you, but there are locations that do that pretty much everywhere in the US.
Now the practical part. Customs mostly stopped challenging photographers years ago when it became clear that it’s actually cheaper to buy photo equipment in the US than just about anywhere else (the last time I was even remotely challenged by Customs was in the early 1990’s, but Art Morris was stopped coming from South America in 2007). Many pros were told by Customs to stop showing them the form; so most pros just stopped carrying it. It’s rare that you get challenged on this, especially coming back from Africa (not exactly known as a photo gear marketplace). Still, Artie was stopped coming back from South America, another not-known-for-photo-gear place, so I would suggest that you take the time to fill out the form and have it signed. Fortunately, you only have to do this once (assuming you don’t change equipment often)—the form is good for as long as it has the right information on it (you can fill out additional forms later if you get more equipment).
What happens if you don’t have form 4457 and get stopped? Possibly you can convince Customs that you didn’t buy your equipment overseas (note that US Nikon camera bodies have a serial number prefix of 30, for example, and many Nikkors officially imported into the country have a “US” before the serial number). If you can’t convince Customs that you bought the equipment in the US, you end up either having to pay a duty on it, or it gets temporarily confiscated while you go home and dig up the paperwork associated with your original purchase. It’s real pain in the butt to get your equipment back if Customs holds onto it. A backup plan, therefore, is to simply bring copies of invoices for your equipment (especially if they show serial numbers). However, with the amount of photo gear we’re carrying, that could be a lot of paper to carry with you; form 4457 is simpler.
Remember, too, that you're carrying a list of everything you took with you if you're following my advice. While this is sometimes enough to satisfy Customs, the problem is that you could have created and printed that list while overseas. I suppose you could have it notarized or something like that before leaving the US. So: best case is a 4457, second best are copies of invoices, third best is your detailed packing list.
There's one other piece of paperwork that's important to keep track of, too: visas. Know which countries do visas on the fly and which require to do it in advance. Verify this with the embassies of the countries you plan to visit. Doublecheck that answer on the Web. Here's my story: back in the 90's my girlfriend and I were planning a Big Trip to Australia. On the Friday evening before our Monday morning flight, my girlfriend was mugged and robbed of her belongings, including, you guessed it, her passport with the required Australian entrance visa. Fortunately, we lived in San Francisco and I knew someone with State Department connections. That meant that it was relatively easy (but still a huge hassle) to replace the passport on Saturday at the local SF office, but the problem was we also needed to get her entrance visa replaced and put into that new passport. Talk about your last minute problems. How we managed to get it done on a Sunday is a long, long story, but it was just barely possible and we made our Big Trip. Moral of the story: visas are very, very important. Don't dilly dally on getting yours, and don't risk losing it once you've got it. It's a key piece of paperwork that can't always be replaced at the last minute.
Bring a Bath Kit for the Camera, Too
One of my prepacked stuff bags is my Camera Cleaning Kit. In it I have everything I need to clean the sensor, lenses, crooks and nannies of the camera, and LCD. I've got some extra microfiber cloths and light drying towels in there, as well. At some point on every trip something gets dirty, muddy, wet, or exposed to things it shouldn't, like sea water. Most nights I do a quick "get things back to clean" routine. This also allows me to get equipment back where it belongs in my pack if I happened to pull it out and not put it back in its normal spot due to being in a hurry. At the start of this routine, I'm pulling batteries for the charger and cards for downloading. By the end of it, I'm usually putting the cards and a fully charged spare battery back in (the old main battery becomes my spare). In other words, I'm readying myself for my pre-dawn shoot (or whenever I head out first in the morning). I don't start the day with a dirty sensor, lens, camera, or tripod if I can.
Of course, some days I come back so late or so exhausted I'm tempted to skip my cleaning, recharging, and downloading routine. Most times that's happened, I've regretted it the next morning. A new day should be a new day, not a cleanup carryover of the previous day.
Significant Others Need to be Dealt With
I'm single, no current girlfriend, no children. So when I head out on the Big Trip I have an advantage over most of the rest of you: I only have to worry about myself and what I want to do. There was a time when this wasn't true for me, so I know how family travel goes. Plus, of course, I teach Big Trip workshops, and then I have a large bundle of grown-up children to deal with.
I said communication was important earlier; I'll repeat that here. Most of the problems that could occur when traveling with others start with poor communication. If your children want to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower and your significant other wants to go shopping, and you want to go to the Louvre, the conflict is only going to be resolved by communication. And often compromise. As in "if you take the children to the top of the Eiffel Tower while I try to get some shots of the entrance to the Louvre, I'll take them tommorrow while you..." Of course, you can't just play ping-pong with the children--there has to be all-together time and significant amounts of it if you're all together on the Big Trip. Nevertheless, you have to pick your battles. If you had your heart set on spending some time photographing the entrance to the Louvre, then you need a good chunk of the late afternoon and early evening to do that. Your family isn't going to sit idly by. So pick the things you just have to do photographically carefully, and arrange your compromises around those. Be reasonable, too. You can't disappear four hours every day to do photography. You can get away with an extra half hour somewhere every day, but if you need larger chunks than that, you'll need to prenegotiate it and spread it out.
Or, you need to make sure that you have a photographic Big Trip without your family. This introduces a different problem: how to make sure that your family gets to vicariously participate in the trip and doesn't feel like you just went out and deserted them. Yep. More communication (at regular intervals during the trip), a good slide show with stories after the trip, presents for all. Pre-trip, engage your children to help research where you're going and what's there.
I'm not a family pyschologist, nor do I play one on TV, so I'll leave the details to others here. The main point I want to make is that the Big Trip may be the Big Trip for you, but if others are along for the ride it needs to be a Big Trip for them, too. And if they don't accompany you on the Big Trip, you still need to keep them feeling involved. And loved.
What I don't want to overhear at the end of one of my long Big Trip workshps is a participant on their cell to their significant other saying "but honey, remember I told you I'd be gone for two weeks and back on the 21st and that you'd need to pick me up at the airport?" If I do, I'm going to bop you over the head with my tripod, pick up your phone, and tell your loved one "sorry your significant other has been a jerk; I'll be enrolling him in a Dr. Phil recovery program for you. But unfortunately you're still going to have to pick them up at the airport."
Okay, I'm running out of steam (and wanting to plan another Big Trip), so there you have a few of the things that'll make yours a more manageable and pleasurable one. Bon Voyage!
Some additional thoughts:
- International luggage allowances are different than domestic (US). Make sure you know which one is more restrictive and pack to that.
- Redundancy in shoes can be super important, especially in severe weather. You might need to let one pair of shoes dry out while you're out doing something else. I personally wear Goretex, fast drying trail shoes almost all the time to hold off such problems as much as possible, and I have short gaiters I use, as well, to keep light water from getting down inside the shoe.
- Another important redundancy for many of us is glasses. One workshop student on his own in Patagonia found out why it's called the Fabulous Fifties. A big gust of wind dislodged his glasses and they, yes, flew away never to be found. Without a backup pair in the lodge, he would have been in deep trouble. I've also seen people lean over the side of a boat and watch their glasses go plop. One partial solution is to use a neck strap: this makes it more difficult to lose them to random acts like these. For me, the redundancy is slightly hidden: my sunglasses are prescription. Thus, in a real emergency, I can just feign Hollywood Royalty status and wear sunglasses everywhere.
- Family planning: I suggested that you train for your trip. But if the family is coming along, the whole family needs to train, too. As one site visitor wrote: "a 4-year old can will hike 5 miles and like it if he can build up to it and learn some appreciation." Absolutely true. When I was the editor of Backpacker we had many on staff who hiked with their children (and still do). But they started them with shorter distances, took plenty of breaks, and found ways to help the children connect to the outdoors personally (i.e., not just accompany the parent).
- Take pictures of your items and bag at home prior to leaving. This provides another document that you can point to if challenged.