“Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” John Muir
Multi-day Backpacking can provide an immersive experience into the wonders and mysteries of nature providing a powerful source of inspiration to the photographer that is rarely available in trips of shorter duration. What I have noticed on my many multi-day trips is that it takes at least a couple of days to disconnect from the concerns of the day to day world and tune in to the subtle heart beat of nature’s calling. At day three the wilderness almost seems like an extension of oneself, and this is soon followed by the realization that we too are nature. The American Transcendentalist Emerson established nature as the liberator of our creative self.
“Nothing divine dies. All good is eternally reproductive. The beauty of nature reforms itself in the mind, and not for barren contemplation, but for new creation. Ralph Waldo Emerson (Nature – Chapter 3: Beauty, 1836)
Walking into a Dream: This view is looking out to the patrol cabin and Mt. Rainier from Indian Henry’s Hunting Ground, one of my favorite places along the 100+ mile Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier National Park. Although it is possible to do this trip in five days, for photographers I recommend a minimum of 10 days. I did the trip in 11 days and wished I had more!
Our true nature is that of creativity, but often it is difficult to hear its calling when we are following instead the drum beat of our jobs, societal expectations, and desires to be popular on social media. What better way to cut loose from these muffling sounds, and listen instead to the still small voice of nature? Tune out to all this clutter and noise and tune in to nature and creative renewal as part of a multi-day backpacking trip! The rewards of this experience will pay dividends once you are back navigating through the day to day concerns of your life and will be spiritually transforming. Although we cannot all realistically spend most of our life immersed in the wilderness, we can carry this experience back with us through the renewal of our spirit. This spirit can be creatively renewed again and again through annual pilgrimages to the back-country with multi-day backpacking trips.
Tda-ko-buh-ba Sunrise: Beautiful pasque flowers gone to seed and Image Lake awaken to a rosy sunrise underneath Washington’s most remote volcanic peak, known by the Suak Indian Tribe as “Tda-ko-buh-ba”, but also known as Glacier Peak. This location in the Glacier Peak Wilderness comes as close to heaven on earth as anything my imagination can possibly conjure up. Looking out across the meadow and lake to Glacier Peak one feels the pure essence of a wilderness area, an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by people, and where we are just visitors who cannot remain in a place of such unspoiled beauty. We reached this location on the third night of our backpacking trip making this trip an obvious choice for a multi-day backpacking adventure.
In this blog post I will discuss the following: (1) Why a Photography Oriented Multi-day Backpacking Trip, (2) What to Carry, (3) Camera Gear, (4) Getting in Shape, (5) Selecting a Team, (6) Finding Your Photographic Vision, and (7) Destinations. The chart below contrasts a typical backpacking trip with a photography oriented backpacking trip.
Photography backpacks are much different from a typical organized backpacking trip. The pace and tempo of this trip is centered around photography. This means frequent stops along the trail and organizing the schedule to be at the right places for at least a two to three hours window around sunrise and sunset. Breakfasts on photography backpacking trips are usually eaten late and dinners early because it is important to keep the mornings and evenings open for photography. Most movement from place to place will occur during the middle of the day arriving at the next camp well in advance of the evening hours which means keeping daily backpacking distances reasonable where possible.
Rivers Bend, Eagle Cap Wilderness Area, Oregon. To properly experience the vast Eagle Cap, a multi-backpacking trip is essential. This particular valley originally looked quite unremarkable to me and I struggled to come up with a compelling composition. This area of Eagle Creek is not typically thought of as an iconic site. But as I explored further down the valley I saw this bend in the river that caused me to think back on Ansel Adam’s image of Oxbow Bend in the Grand Tetons. I attempted to photograph Oxbow Bend a few years ago but I felt I was recreating someone else’s composition. But here in the Eagle Cap, I had no such concern. The same emotional impact I felt when viewing Ansel’s Oxbow Bend image I now felt with even greater intensity and this helped to provide the creative energy I needed for this image.
What to Carry
Maintaining a good comfort level on a multi-day backpacking trip has everything to do with keeping weight of the backpack at a manageable level of between 35 and 45 pounds. This challenge is especially hard for us photographers because not only do we need to carry a full array of backpacking gear, but also we need to carry camera gear including a tripod. For a multi-day backpacking trip, we will of course need the ten essentials, but will need to go far beyond this if the trip is going to be an enjoyable and a worth while experience.
(1) Navigation (map and compass)
(2) Sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen)
(3) Insulation (extra clothing)
(4) Illumination (headlamp/flashlight)
(5) First-aid supplies
(6) Fire (waterproof matches/lighter/candles)
(7) Repair kit and tools
(8) Nutrition (extra food)
(9) Hydration (extra water)
(10) Emergency shelter
The following heirarchial criteria will help guide us to the selection of the right equipment.
(3) Light Weight/Ultralight
For every item that we pack one must ask if this item is needed and what function does it serve? If there is no need that has to do with protecting us and keeping us safe from the elements, that item may need to go into the nice to have but not necessary list that we keep to a bare minimum–for example camp chairs, bulky and heavy solar chargers, etc. Although it is important that equipment is light, it is also important not to be so obsessive about reducing weight that one compromises a basic need and function. For example, taking a minimalist first aid kit for a group of six people for a week or more in the wilderness is not a smart idea. Accidents can and do happen even to the most prepared and an appropriately sized first aid kit will be required. The same goes for backpacks. It often takes weight to carry weight. One of the most frequent complaints I have heard from ultra light backpackers with camera gear is that their backpack is so uncomfortable and is disproportionately distributing the weight to their shoulders rather than hips.
Here Comes the Sun: On a cold, cloudy and misty day in the middle of October, the sun likes to tease us, occasionally with breakthroughs, instilling hope, of a clearing to come. These hopes are usually dashed but I love the drama, and would go to the Enchantments again and again to experience it! The Enchantments are best approached as part of a five to eight day Multi-day Backpacking Trip. When in this much beauty, why would anyone want to leave sooner?
It is not only important that the equipment be light but also of low bulk. This allows us to use a smaller backpack that is typically lighter and better balanced on the body. Light and ultralight equipment can be expensive but sales can often be found at the REI Garage and Backcounty.com. Although style is a consideration, style needs to flow naturally from need and function if it is going to find a place on our equipment list.
Every time I get prepared to go on a major backpacking trip I methodically go through this list before the trip and gather all the equipment together, checking off items one by one. At the end of the trip I do a post trip analysis of what items I did not use and consider revising the list for the next trip.
Awakening: While camping on Copper Ridge I woke up to this sunrise with the fog quickly rising from the valley below. A few minutes later the entire ridge was engulfed in fog. Copper Ridge is located in North Cascades National Park and is typically reached as part of a 4 to 7 day backpacking trip that also includes Whatcom Pass. This area receives a large amount of rain and fast changing weather even in the summer months which presents its challenges but also some great photographic opportunities.
My recommendation is to take only two lenses and at the most three. The lens that I find most useful on most multi-day backpacking trips is a wide-angle zoom closely followed by a macro lens that also doubles as a telephoto lens. On my last trip I brought a Sony A7R3 mirrorless camera, a Zeiss 16-35 4.0 lens, and a Sony 90mm 2.8 macro lens. The wide-angle will work great for including important foreground details in the grand landscape composition and the macro telephoto works perfectly for flowers, small area compositions, abstracts, a compressed perspective, and wildlife at a relatively close range. With the Sony A7R3 one can easily switch to cropped mode making the macro lens effectively a 135mm telephoto. One may want to substitute a 70-200mm 4.0 zoom for the macro lens and perhaps bring a small fixed focal length 2.8 manual focus wide angle for stars, but do not fall for the temptation of bringing any more than 2 or 3 lenses. For more on the use of wide and telephoto lens perspectives in the field check out my blog post: Going Wide, Going Narrow, Creating Layers of Beauty
My entire system including the Induro Stealth carbon fiber tripod weighs less than seven pounds. Bringing a mirrorless system brought the weight and form factor down considerably . If I brought my much more bulky and heavy Nikon D810 DSLR and equivalent lenses I would have easily carried an additional three pounds. It is noted that it is not just the weight that one needs to keep at a minimum but also the bulk of items, because with less real estate one does not need as big of backpack to carry all the equipment. As previously mentioned, bigger backpacks tend to be heavier and also do not balance weight as good as a smaller backpack. Mirrorless cameras and most lenses designed for mirrorless are much smaller than their DSLR counterparts. The chart below compares the weight of the newest Sony A7R3 and Nikon 850 cameras for equivalent systems.
Lozier Lake, Wind River Wyoming. Honorable Mention and in the Top 100 finalists for Natures Best/Smithsonian Wilderness Forever Contest. Wyoming’s Wind River Wilderness Area is one of the best locations for planning a major Multiday Backpack that I know of.
I recommend that you store the camera, lenses, and accessories in a small F-stop ICU. This fits perfectly into the Kangaroo pocket of my Gregory Baltoro 75 backpack. I do not recommend backpacks specifically designed for camera equipment and gear from companies such as F-Stop, Lowe Pro and others because they do not carry multi-day backpacking loads nearly as well as conventional backpacks from Gregory or Osprey.
My Sony A7R3 with 16-35 4.0 Lens and 90mm macro in a F-Stop Small ICU
The Gregory Baltoro 75 Backpack: Notice the large Kangaroo Pocket on the front that easily accommodates a small F-Stop ICU.
There are two very important photography equipment requirements in multi-day backpacking that I have found many people do not think about until the need becomes apparent. The first requirement is that you will need a camera available at all times while actually on the trail backpacking. The second is that once at camp you will need some means to conveniently carry your full frame camera equipment and tripod around.
Maroon Bells Secret Garden: A flower meadow basks in the glow of the warm evening light at dusk somewhere below Buckskin Pass in the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness Area, Colorado. Although most people know the Maroon Bells primarily through the post card image of Maroon Lake, the wilderness area actually spans a large area that offers multiple opportunities to frame a unique composition. You will need to go backpacking, however, to find these spots. I took this image as part of a seven day backpacking loop trip over four 12,000 foot passes. This was one of the best backpacking loop trips I have ever taken and mid July is excellent to experience the flowers in full bloom.
Photographic opportunities abound on a multi-day back trip while actively backpacking on the trail, but to take advantage of these opportunities you will need quick access to a camera. Although there are many ways to carry your interchangeable lens camera while backpacking, personally I have found all of these ways somewhat awkward and inconvenient when carrying a multi-day backpack. I have also noticed that when backpackers use such devices as a holster, a chest pouch, or a shoulder mounted peak one, the use of these devices is typically only temporary and then the user gets tired of their awkwardness and into the main backpack the camera goes. What I recommend is to carry a second camera: a high quality and light weight point and shoot camera that fits easily into a pocket, such as the Sony RX100. This is the camera you use while hiking from point to point while carrying your multi-day backpack. It only weighs 8 ounces, has the full array of both manual and automatic controls, and is capable of capturing excellent images and raw files. As the saying goes, the best camera is the one you have with you! Once at camp of course you will use your larger full frame camera. Although an I-phone or the like is good for an occasional snapshot, especially those that include people, the ability to manually control the RX100 along with its much larger sensor size coupled with malleable raw files, makes this camera a better choice for most applications.
Many backpacks now come with a secondary built in day pack that can be used to carry a full frame camera, lenses, tripod, and a few essentials once you are at camp and in the field. I pack my camera in a small F-Stop ICU that fits in a Kangaroo Pouch of my Gregory Pack. Once at camp I take the ICU out and put it into the pack within a pack that is included with the Gregory. For an even better option, Marmont also makes an excellent ultralight pack called the compressor that weighs 8 ounces that can accommodate an F-stop ICU, lunch, extra clothes and gear, a water bottle and a tripod. Although some people just empty out their larger pack and use it as a day pack, in my opinion this is awkward, limits mobility, and also forces one to put all unneeded gear now somewhat disorganized inside the tent.
Getting in Shape
Many people are very surprised at the difficulty of the trip once they embark on their multi-day backpacking adventure. This multi-day backpacking trip requires extensive prior conditioning if you are going to enjoy the trip in comfort. Before beginning your journey take multiple day hikes that involve elevation gain in the range of two to four thousand feet, for example in the Seattle area: Mail Box, Granite Mountain, and Mt. Washington. Also before launching off, go on a couple of overnight backpacking trips of six miles or more and two to three thousand elevation gain with a backpack in the range of 35 to 45 pounds. There is nothing like actually hiking and backpacking for conditioning, and although time spent at the fitness center helps, this alone will not prepare you for the Multi-day Backpacking experience. The getting in shape experience also includes trying out some of the equipment you will be using in the field ahead of time, especially items like Hiking Boots that need to be broken in and a Tent that you need to be able to pitch quickly without the need to follow written instructions.
Ediza Lake Sunrise: The Ansel Adams Wilderness Area, approached from the Eastern Sierra, affords splendid opportunities for multi-day backpacking. But be prepared for a variety of challenging circumstances including river crossings, the elements, and some cross country travel. On this trip I encountered one of the worst hard driving rain storms in my life that finally passed over shortly before taking this image.
Selecting a Team
For multi-day backpacking trips I recommend keeping the number of participants at a small number, at the most five or six, to make sure each of the photographers has a quality experience and participants are not stepping over each others toes trying to get the image. Keeping the team size small will also help reduce the footprint on environmentally sensitive areas–as always our motto is to tread lightly and leave no trace. For more on the potential impact of photographers on the environment see Wilderness Gone Viral. Participants should also be carefully screened as this is physically challenging, and not everyone may be in sync with the pace, rhythm, and goals of a photography oriented backpacking trip. Non-photographers can participate in the trip and there are even some advantages of having their presence. They can offer a counterbalance to the often overly driven demeanor of photographers, reminding us to slow down, and appreciate the natural world for what it is, without always trying to immediately shape the experience into an image. Non-photographers can also provide needed logistical and other support to the photographers, but as mentioned, they must be OK with the trip being primarily oriented around photography.
Colorado’s expansive Wemminuche Wilderness Area home to some of the best Mult-day backpacking.
Finding your Vision
Although a multi-day photography trip is oriented around photography as one of its primary goals, finding your vision for the area will require that you meet nature on its own terms. Before even reaching for the camera, take a deep breath, look around, engage all of your senses and imagination in tapping into the heart and soul of nature. What are the elements of the scene that you find most interesting and how do they effect you at both mental and emotional levels? What feelings, memories, and perceptions does the scene and these elements bring to the surface? This is not an activity that spans just a few moments of time but is a meditative state that can span hours. Be sure to arrive at the scene well ahead of time to do this necessary inner work before launching off on a photo tirade. This meditation will provide the necessary support for giving your personal vision expression in a photographic image. More on this can be found on my blog post “Finding your Photographic Vision and the Search for the Authentic Self” and a related post Forests in the Mists: Windows into the Active Imagination.
Morning Mist: First light over a misty Lake Lacrosse, Olympic National Park. No matter which route one takes, this lake is about a 20 mile plus hike, making it suitable only for a multi-day backpack for maximum enjoyment. I approached this area as part of a east to west trek through the park involving the use of a shuttle service.
There are many excellent destinations for a Multi-day backpacking trip and I have provided images of many of them throughout this blog post. Two that I highly recommend and I have written blog posts about include Visiting and Photographing the Enchantments and Visiting and Photographing the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area: Spider Gap – Buck Creek Pass Loop. The Enchantments are best accomplished in about a five to eight day trip to fully immerse yourself in this awe inspiring area and assimilate its beauty. I recommend going in fall when the Larch Trees turn gold. The Glacier Peak Wilderness loop trip is best done in early August when wildflowers are at their peak and you will want to have a minimum of seven days scheduled and ideally more to experience this heaven on earth. Be sure to visit the blog posts above for more on these areas.
Goodbye My Friend: The Enchantment’s Leprechaun Lake as we were leaving an approaching snow storm. Fall time backpacking in the Enchantments involves extra preparations for cold weather and the use of microspikes to safely walk on potentially slippery surfaces.
Ripples along the Lyman Lake Shore. This image is from my multi-day backpacking trip to the Glacier Peak Wilderness Area in August. What a beautiful and restful place to camp after going up and over Spider Gap and the Lyman Glacier!
Multi-day backpacking can be a powerful source of new found inspiration with complete immersion in nature for a week or more, an opportunity to temporarily disconnect from the day to day routine and distractions, and connect to Nature, one’s Authentic Self, and source of all creativity.
“The grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere, the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling, vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.” John Muir-Sierra Club Founder.