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  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.


Yes, that's my self-portrait on the cover of the September 2000 issue of digitalFOTO magazine. The shot was taken in Torres de Paines National Park, Chile (in the area of South America referred to as Patagonia), while we were relaxing after a luncheon picnic. The picture was taken with an F5 and 20mm lens on Fuji Velvia, then scanned on a Coolscan III. My digital file from the Coolscan was used, with minor PhotoShop tweaking, for the cover. You read that correctly: an under US$800 scanner is quite capable of providing the resolution needed for a quality consumer magazine cover image.

What to Take

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:




Neck Strap

Simple, inexpensive, camera very accessible

Camera bounces and swings around with your movements, camera not protected, sore neck, look like a tourist

Waist Holster

Modest protection from elements and bumps, camera accessible

Requires you wear a belt (can be your pack’s), extra cost, limited storage

Camera Bag

Space for accessories, generally well padded and protected

Can be awkward/heavy to carry, some don’t keep camera accessible, extra cost, says “steal me”

Chest Pouch

Camera’s right where you need it, well protected, comfortable when used with right straps, comes in sizes big enough to house accessories

You look like a geek, extra cost, takes a bit of fiddling to rig right

Hire a Sherpa

You don’t have to carry any extra weight, just say “can I have my camera, please”

Rather pricey, generally only available in Nepal

So What Am I Missing?

Checklist time. You don’t need it all, but then again, sometimes you do. First the gotta-brings:

  • camera (duh)
  • memory card(s)
  • tons of batteries (get rechargeables!)
  • camera case
  • tripod (or monopod)
  • notepad and pencil (take notes, write down addresses)
  • small cloth to wipe water off camera
  • small zipper lock bag to protect camera from sudden rain
  • hiking essentials (see “Personal Survival”)

Then there’s the bring-if-you-cans:

  • filters
  • accessory lenses (especially wide angle)
  • reflector
  • gray card (manual exposure cameras)
  • drybag for water trips (see “Water is Your Enemy”)
  • the camera manual (doh!)
  • umbrella (surprising how it can keep you shooting during minor storms)

If you’re staying in civilization between hikes (read: hotels), you’ll want the following:

  • charger
  • laptop
  • camera-to-laptop cables (or cardreader for laptop)
  • camera-to-TV cables (for that impromptu slide show)

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: 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):

  • Stuff you don’t need ‘til beddy-bye goes at the bottom (e.g., sleeping bag, tomorrow’s underwear).
  • Gear you need to set up camp goes in the middle, heaviest items closest to your back up high as possible (e.g. tent, stove, dinner, etc.)
  • Survival items (and photo gear, which I consider a mental survival tool) need to be accessible and either in external pockets or the top of your pack (e.g., rainshell, water, first aid kit, light, etc.)

Loads need to be balanced from side to side, and be careful not to make yourself 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, so it’s 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 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 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


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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:

  • Get a drybag. If you’re going to be near (or in) bodies of water, keep your camera in a drybag when you’re not using it. These sealable, waterproof sacks come in a variety of sizes, and are an absolute must on canoe and kayak trips.
  • Keep a towel handy. Wipe splashes and light rain off the camera as soon as possible.
  • Learn your camera’s weak spots and protect them. Case seams, buttons, and input jacks are the primary ways water will sneak into your camera.
  • Bag it. A simple zipper lock bag can often allow you to continue to shoot in light rain or around spraying water. Either cut a hole for the lens to stick through, or make sure that the plastic is stretched tight over the lens to minimize distortion.

If you suspect that water has entered into your camera, you need to dry it out immediately. Perform the following steps:

  1. Remove the batteries and any memory cards.
  2. Open up all flaps, lids, and compartments.
  3. Wipe water off all surfaces you find. A cotton-tipped stick can be used to reach into nooks and crannies to swab up water.
  4. Use a passive heat source (e.g., sunlight) to dry out the camera.
  5. Pray to the God of your choice that this works.



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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:

  • Problem: Pull out your camera to capture a lunchtime picnic in Death Valley and your LCD will likely be the color of death: all black. LCDs just don’t operate when they get too hot, say 90 degrees F or more. Solution: keep your camera in a small cooler with a Blue Ice block (keep moisture away from the camera and take precautions against condensation, though). Only take the camera out when you’re shooting. If you shoot in heat all the time, get a camera that doesn’t require an operating LCD to shoot (example: Nikon Coolpix).
  • Problem: You’ve only taken two steps towards the North Pole when your batteries decide to freeze you out. Temperatures near or below freezing are guaranteed battery zappers, and you already know how fast digital cameras suck down AAs. Solution: use Lithium batteries, which continue to juice the circuits at temps where the bunny batteries are playing Popsicle. If the cold’s still giving your power frostbite, remove the batteries from your camera and trade them for the ones you’ve been keeping in your inner coat pocket. Not a solution: don’t keep sticking your camera under your coat to keep it warm between shots, or you’ll fog it up worse than the glasses of a geeky teenager who’s just stumbled upon his pop’s hidden porn stash. And fog equals condensation, and condensation is water, and water is what now class? (Your Enemy. You have been reading the article, haven’t you?)
Personal Survival Tips
  • Hydrate. The number one problem hikers and other backcountry users encounter is that they let themselves get dehydrated. By the time you think you’re thirsty, you’ll already be operating at a disadvantage. Carry plenty of water with you and drink it regularly.
  • Go synthetic. Cotton is a poor insulator when wet, and life-threatening hypothermia occurs at temperatures as high as 50 degrees F. Stop by your outdoor retailer and get a set of synthetic base layers to wear (undies, T-shirt, long-johns, etc.). While you’re at it, get a waterproof, breathable rain shell to keep you dry during that unexpected storm.
  • Pack the essentials. Water, snack, matches, compass, first aid kit, and light are probably the absolute minimum.
  • Be Informed. Before heading out into the wilds ask the ranger what to watch out for. She’ll let you know about hazards like fires, bear activity, and even things as mundane as the latest mosquito count. Plus, if you ask nicely, she might also tell about a field of wildflowers that are blooming, where the full moon will come up, or some other unusual and photographic event.

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):

  • Hypothermia
  • Heat exhaustion
  • Injury due to fall
  • Sprains, strains, and twists
  • Anaphylaxis (allergic reaction)
  • Insect bites
  • Sunburn


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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:

  • Get the Wide Angle adapter. Those landscape shots you’ve admired that were taken with film-based cameras were probably shot with a 20mm lens (think 94 degree angle of view) while your camera probably doesn’t go past the equivalent of 38mm (60 degrees). And when you do mount the wide glass over your existing lens, be sure you’ve got a subject in the foreground, that you’re using the smallest aperture for depth of field, and that you keep the horizon well above or below the middle of the frame.
  • Take a siesta. Your basic south-of-the-border stereotype would make a great photographer, since he sleeps during the worst time to shoot. Photographs, even the digital kind, are nothing more than the reflections of light off objects. Good light makes good photos and crummy light will have you reflecting over what went wrong. Midday sunlight is harsh, comes from the wrong angle, is overly blue, and produces terrible contrast. Avoid it.
  • Bolster the colors. Polarizers are well known for the way they darken the sky, intensify colors, and cut out unwanted reflections. Even if your lens doesn’t have threads to accept filters, get a polarizer and hold it in front of the camera—it’s worth the extra fiddling. While you’re at it, get an 81a (warming) and an FLD (fluorescent) filter and experiment with them, too. (Note: digital cameras have automatic white balance controls that will try to override filters; if you can set manual white balance, do it before using filters).
  • Stabilize. You have the calm hands of a Buddha and a camera that clicks off shots in nanoseconds, but you can still end up with user-induced blur. Pros use pods for virtually every shot. You should, too. If you can’t see clear stairstep artifacts on diagonal lines in your shots, you’ve either got one sweet camera or you need to invest in a tripod. I’m guessing it’s the latter.
  • Tell a story. A short story. I used to ask my students to describe what they were taking a picture of. More often than not I got long jumbled answers that had no clear focus. Guess what? That usually described their photo, too. Ask yourself what’s attracting you to make a picture. Now start eliminating everything else. Take a shot, and then see if you can eliminate something else in the frame. Take another shot. Repeat (lather rinse repeat). I’ll bet you that the last shot you take is your best. (Hint: concentrate on the edges of the frame. More often than not the things you need to eliminate are there. In fact, don’t be afraid to let your subject spill out of the frame).
  • Control the contrast. You can’t fix what you didn’t capture. There’s no useful pixel information beyond white, and none beyond black, so don’t let values go there. If bright areas are giving you problems, try using a graduated filter (truth in writing: virtually every one of my landscape photos was taken with one). If shadows are the problem, use fill flash or a lightweight portable reflector (makes you feel a bit like a Hollywood director: “uh, assistant, please angle the reflector to get a little more light into the left side of her face”).
  • Get closer. If the head of your subject only takes up only one pixel, it probably won’t be a very good picture, will it? We Americans have a cultural bias against invading other people’s personal space, and feel uncomfortable if we get too close to anyone but our lovers (and even then…). I never realized just how this was hurting my photos until I was forced to take portraits with a wide-angle lens. (Tip: bring breath mints.)
  • Learn what depth of field is and use it. Entire books have been written on the subject, so ignorance is no excuse. If you’ve got a camera that allows you to control the aperture used in each exposure, then take the hint and use that ability to make better photos.
  • Get wild. Put the camera on the ground and take pictures looking up. Hold the camera over your head and take pictures looking down. Use slow shutter speeds and intentional blur motion. Angle the horizon. Put your subject at the edge of the frame. Zoom as you press the shutter release. Try out a feature of your camera you’ve never used before. 
Take Shots That Answer These Questions
  • Where did you start?
  • What did you do?
  • What happened along the way?
  • Who did you do it with?
  • What did you see?
  • What surprised you?
  • What was the highlight?
Things to Check Before Pressing the Release
  • Is the horizon level?
  • Any unnecessary objects at edge of frame?
  • What’s behind people’s heads?
  • Where’s the focus point?
  • How much depth of field do you have?
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.



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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:

  • The Two Y’s: Yosemite has granite grandeur and a trail system so varied that I’ve yet to exhaust all the possibilities despite decades of trying. But do yourself a favor and avoid the crowded valley. Hikes in and around the Toulumne area are by far my favorites. And if you just have to see the valley, try seeing it from a different angle—Ansel Adams had the right idea when he took his famous moonrise shot at the end of the North Rim trail. The other big Y, Yellowstone, is a virtual funhouse of geologic and wildlife highlights. If you can’t take a good picture there, you can’t take one anywhere. Most of the best stuff in Yellowstone is all within the range of a dayhiker, so this is a good place to start if you’re not yet into overnight backpacking.
  • Glacier National Park: Fall in Glacier can be visually stunning if the trees cooperate, and the landscape is every bit as breathtaking as Yosemite. While you can whisk around to most of the highlights by car, do yourself a favor and plan a three or four day hike into the remote sections of the park. Be forewarned, though, this is tough place to take great photos. The most dramatic vistas aren’t at turnouts, as they often are in many parks (though Going-to-the-Sun road has a few heart-stoppers). Be prepared to work for your photos. 
  • Olympic National Park: The three coastal hikes in this park along the Pacific are among my very favorite hikes, and present the additional challenge of having to correctly interpret tide tables (the beach is the trail in many spots, and high tide can pin you right against the cliffs). While Shi-Shi is the best known and most used of the three, I like the less popular 17-mile hike south to the mouth of the Hoh River best. Keep that seawater and blowing sand away from your camera, though.
  • Pt Reyes National Seashore: Bird photographer’s spirits will soar here, and once again, there are so many trail options you could spend days exhausting them all, yet still pop into San Francisco for dinner should you so desire. If you’re up for a quadbuster, try an overnight hiking the hilly Bay Area Ridge Trail from the Golden Gate Bridge into Pt. Reyes—the views of the Farallon Islands from the flanks of Mt. Tamalpais at sunset can be sublime (or fogged in, unfortunately).   
  • Bryce National Park: I love all the Utah parks and monuments, but I enjoy hiking in and around Bryce the most. Just when you think you’ve stumbled upon the last possible hoodoo formation, you’ll find another variant that captures your interest. But here’s the twist: Bryce is amongst the very best places to hike in winter (okay, technically you’re snowshoeing or cross-country skiing). White snow on red rock with blue sky, what could be more American? Sounds like a photograph to me.
  • Denali: Only the truly adventurous need apply, but where else can you hike where you’re guaranteed you’ll be the only human within six square miles? If the weather cooperates, the sight of the Denali massif popping up as much as 15,000 above you will keep you mesmerized, while the state bird (mosquitoes) make you a candidate for a blood transfusion. This is territory for accomplished hiker/photographers with pro gear, though. You’ll need a long lens to capture the wildlife, a macro ability to do justice to the ubiquitous yet surprisingly varied yellow and purple wildflowers, and a wide angle to pull in the entire soul-encompassing views.

Digital Tips

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 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



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