|Take a Hike
Originally appeared in digitalFOTO Magazine, September 2000
(alas, digitalFOTO shut down in February 2001)
Things you need to know when you take your digital camera for a walk in the woods.
What’s that you say? You plunked down nearly a C-note for a digital camera but you’re afraid to take it into the woods for fear you’ll end up with a wad of useless plastic? Or maybe you’re not afraid of the Blair Witch gobbling up your camera, but are simply having problems getting results anything like what you see in National Geographic.
Well, if those are the problems that are troubling you, relief is imminent. Sit back, gobble up the following tips, and you’ll find you’re no longer roughing it with your pixels.
A picture, dummy! Oh, you mean what to bring along with your camera on your re-creation of Little Red Riding Hood’s walk.
Carrying Your Camera
I have a simple rule when out in the woods: if your camera isn’t accessible, you won’t take the picture. Put your camera deep in the bowels of your pack and odds are that’s where it’ll be for the entire trip, especially when Bigfoot crosses the trail in front of you. Sure, your gear stayed safe from bumps and other threats, but you might as well not even have bought it. And your megapixel rendition of Sasquatch won’t be gracing the cover of National Enquirer anytime soon. Pick one of the methods below to keep your camera handy:
So What Am I Missing?
Checklist time. You don’t need it all, but then again, sometimes you do. First the gotta-brings:
Then there’s the bring-if-you-cans:
If you’re staying in civilization between hikes (read: hotels), you’ll want the following:
One word of advice: if you’re traveling overnight into the backcountry, keep it simple and try to limit the number of things you carry. On dayhikes, I’ll carry as much as 30 pounds of photo gear. On long wilderness trips, I’ll lug a third that or less. Besides the obvious weight reduction, it also gives me fewer things to keep track of (somewhere in the depths of Patagonia you’ll find a $150 filter that managed to walk off on its own).
How Much Can You Carry?
A rough rule of thumb is to carry no more than 20% of your bodyweight (includes food and water), but I try to get by with less, even on four-day backpacking trips. For spring-through-fall hikes, I get by with a tent, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, pack, and stove that total all of 12 pounds (one manufacturer that specializes in light gear: www.golite.com). Remember, many of the premiere hiking locales are at significant altitude (Bryce is at 8000 feet; much of Yosemite is, too), so your performance may already be compromised.
How to Pack it
Every hiker I know approaches stuffing their gear into the backpack differently. If you’ve got a top-loader, you’ll look like you’re holding a trailside garage sale every time you need something out of the pack if you don’t get your pack order down. That’s why many serious hikers prefer packs that have multiple compartments and pockets. Personally, I love the Osprey line of packs, since you load them up just like you do a burrito (stuff in some more beans, uh, I mean gear; don’t worry, you can make it fit!).
Seriously, find a method to your packing madness and stick to it. We longtime trail users have learned the following (often the hard way):
need to be balanced from side to side, and be careful not to make
top-heavy (though generally you want the weight up high in your pack;
just not too high!). Yes, even I packed my load too high once, enough
so that I lost my balance on a tricky traverse and went tumbling off
the trail. Sure did look silly, but fortunately, no one saw it,
only a mental video I carry around to humiliate myself with from time
to time. If you’ve got your pack adjusted correctly, the load will
be carried mostly by your hips (via the waistbelt), not your shoulders .
Where Do You Put All the Batteries?
If you’re smart, you don’t. Before I got smart, on one month-long trek I carried 60 AA batteries. Holy Nicad, Batman, that’s enough alkaline to make a small lake salty, and I was using a rather power-efficient film-based camera at the time. As you’re probably well aware, your digital camera eats batteries like Cookie Monster devours Chips Ahoy, and all those pesky little 1.5 volters you need add up to one heckova load you’re just not going to want to carry. To the solarmobile, Robin!
Zap! Pow! Zowie! A quick trip to www.realgoods.com--a great place to buy all kinds of environmental friendly goods (yes, I buy their 100% post-consumer waste toilet paper, which is just as butt friendly as Charmin, but saves a few trees in the making)--will net you the $20 Battery Saver Travel Pack. This 8 oz. power wiz can recharge four AA’s in about 12 hours (and it holds another 4 so you can keep one extra set at the ready). That means that for most of us, we can get by with three sets of rechargeable AA’s (one in the camera, one charged and ready, the other charging). Their $40 Battery Saver Power Pack not only charges AA’s, but many laptops, as well.
Now wait a second, you say? Where do you put a solar charger for 12 hours if you’re hiking from point A to point B? Well, if you’re hiking in the Sierra above treeline (or in the Southwest redrock country, or anyplace else that isn’t under tree cover), all you have to do is figure out how to strap the charger onto the top of your pack (I knew those two-thousand foot Sierra switchbacks out in the blazing sun would eventually turn out to be good for something other than dehydration and sore quads). My pack just happens to have two tool loops sewn onto the top lid, which makes for an easy anchor point. Just don’t expect a full charge in 12 hours of walking, though, as you won’t always have the cells pointed for maximum efficiency. And make sure that during rest breaks, lunch, and other stops, that you take the time to properly orient the solar panel. In practice, I find it usually takes me two days to fully charge one set of batteries.
Of course, solar power won’t work very well if your backcountry adventure just happens to be a late winter event like the Iditorod, or if the weather gods dictate a week of rain, so you should bring along some emergency juice, too. Most of the newer top-end digitals allow you to use external power sources, and I’m playing around with using a reconfigured lithium battery belt originally intended for portable video as my alternate power source (check out www.bandhphoto.com for video power alternatives—B&H stocks virtually every battery combination ever made). But it’s still too early to tell whether this system is worth its weight. You’ll need to check your camera to see what it requires. My Nikon Coolpix 950 wants 5.5v, and requires the positive voltage on the inner pin (as opposed to the outer shell), so I just asked B&H for battery choices that could provide that. I ended up having to rewire a cable, since I couldn’t find any preexisting units that met both requirements. You may be luckier and find something that works without modification
Water Is Your Enemy
Perhaps you’ve heard the old adage: if you drop your camera in the water, just keep it in a bucket of fresh water until you can get it to a repair shop. Forget that advice, as it’s as out-of-date as the shows on Nick at Night. Today’s sophisticated cameras—film-based cameras included—use so many waterphobic chips and silicon doodads you won’t even get back to the trailhead before the damage is done.
Your best hope is avoidance. Once water gets inside a camera, the odds are against your saving it. Fortunately, most manufacturers do a decent job at weatherproofing their products, giving you a fighting chance against casual water. Light mists, sweat, or even a splash from that whale you’re stalking via kayak probably won’t be a problem. Still, you’ll want to follow these tips to play it safe:
If you suspect that water has entered into your camera, you need to dry it out immediately. Perform the following steps:
Hot Flashes, Cold Spells
Hidden in small print in the back of the manual that came with your camera is a specification that might give you pause: the temperature range your camera works at. For you basic fair weather shooters, just pretend you didn’t see it, but for those of you ready to follow me into the wilds, you’d better pay attention:
Personal Survival Tips
If you’re really roughing it by heading off deep into the wilderness, realize that emergencies are a lot different there. In a suburban emergency, transport to a hospital within 15 minutes gives you an excellent chance of surviving all but the most gruesome injury. But backcountry rescues can take days, not minutes, and even relatively benign injuries like dislocations can become life threatening. Don’t rely on your cell phone to call in help. While mobile phone towers are virtually everywhere these days--including the wilds--signal reception is notoriously poor and inconsistent in wooded and mountainous backcountry, and your batteries will die at the wrong moment, anyway. If you’re a backcountry regular, consider taking a Wilderness First Aid class. In the meantime, memorize these: Shelter, warmth, hydration, all required to survive, generally in that order (you can go without food for days). Airway, breathing, circulation (bleeding, too), are the first things to check in medical emergencies, absolutely in that order.
Primary Backwoods Health Hazards
Snakes almost never bite unless you try to handle them. Bears rarely attack humans. Molten lava isn’t likely to pop out of the ground. No, your primary backcountry enemy is your own stupidity or lack of preparation. Here’s a short list of the most likely hazards you’ll encounter (every one of which is preventable):
What to Shoot
Why Your Shots Don’t Look National Geo’s
Okay, you didn’t really expect to match the quality of a pro who probably spent six or more months to get that one perfect shot. But you still can’t quite understand why every picture you’ve taken looks no better than Uncle Henry’s vacation slides, which put you to sleep at the last family reunion. Fortunately, with a little work and a few extra goodies, you can wake yourself and the family back up. Here’s what you’re missing:
Take Shots That Answer These Questions
Things to Check Before Pressing the Release
Getting My Goat
We saw them cross the road and head towards us as we came up the last part of the summit trail in Glacier National Park at dusk. Anticipating where the mountain goats were headed, we got there first and sat still and quiet to wait for them. Within minutes we were in a shootfest of goatdom. As I snapped away I suddenly realized I only saw four of the five goats. I whispered over my shoulder to Marc and Kelly the question “where’s the other goat” and they started giggling. Only when I turned around puzzled by their reaction did I learn that the other goat was serenely chomping down on the plants at my heels. Doh! Lesson: Always be aware of everything around you. Don’t get fixated on what’s in front of you; the best shot may be behind you.
Places to Backpack with Camera
Go West, Young Man
Every trail has its own rewards, but in my wanderings through the US, a few places in the Western US stand out in my mind as the most unique and photogenic:
Not so smart media: if you’re still looking for a camera and you’re into the great outdoors, buy a beast that uses Compact Flash, not Smart Media. Rationale: you need the biggest removable data storage you can get, as you’ll be long intervals between computer uploads. A handful of 48MB Compact Flash cards usually keep me shooting for at least a couple of hours (I’ve been known to average 20 rolls of slide film a day on many of my trips).
Snatchproof: using a camera carrying case and afraid it’s screaming “steal me”? Stick your leg through the strap when you’re sitting in the restaurant or waiting for the tour bus. Really worried? Buy a portable travel alarm that works on motion detection and use it religiously. But once you’re in the backwoods, you’re not likely to encounter thieves (except perhaps those marmots that keep grabbing your lunch).
How Many Batteries? My Coolpix 950 gets about 225 pix on a single set of batteries (at normal resolution), less if I’m using lots of flash or spend inordinate amount of time fiddling with settings. Do you know your camera’s EPB (exposures per battery)? If you do, you’ll know how many batteries to carry. Of course, if you’re only carrying one 8MB memory card, extra batteries probably won’t be what stops you in the field…
What Resolution? For those once in a lifetime shots, crank it all the way up. An eagle flying through alpenglow with a full moon rising over Half Dome isn’t going to repeat itself often enough for you to get a second chance. On the other hand, you can be more aggressive with compression on those around-the-camp and people shots. Think about how large you’re likely to print the result: 8x10 requires every pixel you can squeeze out of your toy, while snapshot-sized 4x5’s can look quite good with half the resolution today’s megapixel cameras are capable of.
Flower close-ups: The trick to achieve flower power is in the backgrounds. Use your camera’s widest aperture for a shallow depth-of-field and look for backgrounds that have no clutter (some pros bring along a black or colored card to create a plain background). Oh yes, that card can help keep wind from blowing your shot.
Leave no Trace: America’s backcountry is precious and fragile, so help keep it unspoiled by practicing low-impact recreation. Stop by www.lnt.org for details, or ask a ranger for an explanation of what you can do.
Hot spots: when you look at a photograph your eye almost always goes directly to the brightest point of the scene. If it’s not your subject, oops! In landscape photography, bright skies, light colored rocks (or scraps of paper), reflections off water, and other bright objects have a way of distracting from your subject. Take a moment to look for bright objects in your frame and eliminate them if they’re not important to your shot.
Those pesky LCDs: outdoors, it’s sometime hard to see the LCD clearly. I wear a wide brim hat to help shade the camera (the Outdoor Research Seattle Sombrero has huge brims you can adjust and is waterproof, as well), and have been known to drape a small black cloth over the camera, too