Camera gear and hiking + thoughts on backpacking

The following post was supposed to be released early next summer. However there has been an interesting discussion going on in blogs and other social platforms about The Death of Ultra Light backpacking. Jaakko Heikka (a.k.a. Korpijaakko) and Hendrik Morkel (the author of the very popular blog Hiking in Finland) have both written thorough posts on the topic (see below). This seems as a perfect spot to throw in my ideas.

The Death of UL and Feeble Assumptions – Jaakko Heikka

Ultralight Is Not Dead – Hendrik Morkel

—Prologue—

I’ve done quit a lot hiking myself mostly around the 70th degree of Northern latitude give or take a couple of degrees. For simplicity lets just say that I’ve seen the best and the worst of the subarctic and (almost) arctic conditions. w/o taking a side (but I will take it later) on the discussion whether UL is dead or not going UL requires certain situation awareness.

Everybody should understand that in demanding conditions or doing serious work for that matter reliability becomes primary concern. And reliability most often means thicker fabrics, heavier tools and a wider variety of options. When you are more than a days work from safety, out of normal means of communication, alone in the wilderness or need to get things done no matter the conditions then you have to have tools to deliver.

Let’s take the extreme example right away. Whether to carry a light tarp or a heavy geodesic tent? Tarp will do IF you have the luxury of safety from high winds or other elements. Once your shelter is compromised you are in deep s**t. You can die. You have to be more aware of conditions while going UL. On longer expeditions this likely means more internet-time in the wilderness. In many places you will get there only via satellite phone. $$$. Worrying and constantly checking forecasts deviates from what UL is all about – being more out there. Changing conditions might also force changes in the expedition plan. For photography work in the tundra that is often not desirable. You’ll understand the meaning of trust after you have experienced the Arctic Ocean multiday downpour or falling wind walls around your tent in the Polar night. If your stuff can’t face bad conditions, you have missed some great moments out there. On this argument alone I could pronounce UL a miss fire.

I am aware of Andrew Skurka’s adventures around Alaska, but then I am also well educated about the Sami people and Inuit methods of survival. They certainly don’t have the lightest instruments with them but a handful of things that are simple and durable. I know that there are hikers that go around our fells in very light and technical equipment, but they usually do so in favorable conditions. And that’s where UL is at its best: under somewhat controlled conditions going relatively fast from point A to point B. If that is more being present or accomplishing things is a matter of taste. What is certain is that Inuits live on the North shore of Alaska all year round, Skurka passes by once in his lifetime.

I agree completely with Hendrik in that going light is fun and you certainly can adapt. On the other hand I agree with Jaakko in that you ought to “have enough kit”. I hate carrying stuff on my back and I have learned from experience to be reasonable while packing. Heavy load gets on your stamina. Still I operate mostly several day hikes from closest transport and I have to be able to adapt on the scene. Ill prepared people die every year on Samiland fells and others are being rescued from life threatening situations.

I’ll give it to the UL community for pushing the limits. The lessons learned are very valuable. Conditions dictate the gear you need to be safe and to be able to function. Today’s expeditions and hikers are pushing themselves into places where indigenous people retreat to more favorable areas during some seasons. They adapt to changing seasons. UL is the way to go in favorable conditions but up on the fells and tundra those conditions usually don’t last too long. It seems that the general use UL gear is more suited for the lower degrees of latitude and the more north you go the less suitable UL kits become.

— Original post begins here —

Hiking and photography is something you won’t find too much coherent information in the internet. In Finland we have a saying “Siperia opettaa” loosely “Siberia will teach you a lesson or too”. Here are some of my findings along the way.

HIKING GEAR

During summer(ish) months my gear ain’t even close to lightweight backpacking (see prologue) but during the traditional three other seasons (Samipeople distinguish 8 seasons) my “baseweight” is wwwaaaayyy out there. Simple because I must trust my equipment to be safe dictates that I can’t possible ever go out in any “light” category. Of course my camera gear eliminates that possibility completely. I personally try to solve this problemo by selecting few simple and durable pieces of kit that gets my work done. Like my 13 years old Arc’teryx 3-layer goretex jacket. Certainly not the lightest but stupid proof. And for all the nature photographers that always wonder why people wear bright clothes – if I ever need to be rescued bright red is golden.

You can do hiking in winter or in summer conditions. Since preparation differs remarkably for both I’m here just gonna talk about hiking in summer”ish” conditions. Maybe I’ll write about winter hiking later, but in the meanwhile you can check out if this is of any help.

Not like this. This will kill your morale.

Basically while hiking and photographing you must have two setups of gear: hiking and photographing. Going out in demanding conditions e.g. the fells of Scandinavia you have to bring necessary gear to stay in shape for shooting. A weeks hike in such environment requires a 50 to 70 liters of gear (food included) depending on your experience and comfort zone.  Add to that the camera gear and you may go well beyond 100 liters, which is already too much, but just to make a point here.

My basic setup is around 60 liters for a 7 to 10 days on the fells excluding a tripod but including all stuff I need for a solo assault including camera gear. But don’t take that as a measuring stick – my system is honed after years of experience.

The most important things you need to bring are

  • a water and wind proof outer layer of clothing,
  • comfortable and protective shoes,
  • a reliable tent,
  • a sleeping bag,
  • a sleeping mattress,
  • a reliable stove and a pot for cooking as well as water protected matches,
  • fuel
  • a water bottle,
  • food,
  • a communication device,
  • maps,
  • a compass,
  • a knife,
  • stuff for personal hygiene,
  • first aid kit, and
  • sun lotion and insect repellent.

Anything else is basically extra.

More like this.

If on the other hand any of your basic three (shelter, sleeping bag and stove) becomes inoperable your safety becomes an issue. In the southern latitudes that possibly won’t be a problem, but on a mountain plateau or tundra, you can be in serious trouble. Local knowledge and skills become super valuable. You can only learn your own capabilities and reactions when you have been in a potentially serious situation. 

Next camera gear. You can go out hiking with a point and shoot camera but lets assume that we are now interested in a camera system of some kind.

CAMERA LENSES

Practicality is the key in the field so drop the fixed focal length lenses if you don’t have specific needs for them. Zoom lenses cover a wide range of focal lengths, are practical to use and the best makes offer excellent image quality. A wide angle zoom lens and a telephoto zoom lens are the two key lenses while hiking. For versatility get a good quality telephoto zoom so that you can add a teleconverter to gain extra reach. Forget MTF-charts and brick wall comparisons. They ain’t nothing compared to actually being prepared.

My current lens setup is Nikkor 14-24 f/2.8, 70-200/2.8, TC-17EII and TC-20EIII. This covers the 35mm FOV range of 21-36mm and 105-600mm on a DX camera body. The two zoom lenses are heavy but 100% pro. Easily you could replace even both and be almost as set to go. In Canon lineup 17-40/4 and 70-200/4 plus a teleconverter would be a contender: little slower but lighter. Honestly the 14-24/2.8 is an overkill unless you own a pixel monster or need f/2.8. In any other case you could select something more practical.

I used to have a 50/1.8 there in between, but dropped it for little use. I also have a Canon 500d close-up lens to gain macro possibilities with the 70-200/2.8 lens but honestly I have been interested in all things non-macro so that lens has been used just once. The point is anything you bring just in case adds weight but brings next to nothing extra.

CAMERA BODIES

Bring two if possible. It is always much less hassle to work with dedicated bodies for wide angle and tele plus bodies also fail. The other one is a back up. With two bodies you can stuff the wide angle set up in the bag and carry the tele setup ready for animal encounters or the other way around. FX or DX doesn’t matter. Most important is that they fit your bill.

Weather sealing is naturally a big advantage. I can guarantee you that the camera gear will get wet while hiking at some point. A simple solution for protection is a small plastic cover for the camera. Simplicity that works.

MIRRORLESS WORLD

Mirrorless world doesn’t offer the speed and usability for wildlife photography quite yet. However for an outdoor lifestyle photography the mix of portability and quality of the Micro Four Thirds world is very appealing. The smaller dimensions and lesser weight make packing the equipment easier. Smaller back pack means you can go faster and cover a larger distance = you have more to shoot. Just don’t be fooled and pack extra – you’ll loose the advantage.

There is a draw back to ‘making things smaller’: mirrorless camera systems depend on electronic view finders and these things suck extra energy. It’s been tested so far that mirrorless systems are by far inferior to professional SLR-bodies in their battery life. Don’t underestimate the importance of a working camera 😉

I was also going to add the landscape photographers on the mirrorless fanboy list but then came along the Nikon D800 with 36 Mpix. There simply isn’t anything the mirrorless world could offer to match this output to weight ratio. The famous Swedish nature photographer Staffan Widstrand has said: “what you bring is what you get”. Right on.

METHODS

There is a limit what a person can carry w/o becoming unable to function properly. Knowledge is usually power and such is the case here. Understanding nature and the way animals behave and most importantly respecting the environment can go a long way around not having a 500/4 supertele slowing you drastically down in the field. The field practices set by the International League of Conservation Photographers is a good reference point to sustainable nature photography.

Get the knowledge what, where and how to photograph with animal safely as a first priority. It is possible to get good images with almost zero stress to the animals. E.g. don’t aproach a screaming lemming on the fells but let it come to you. Lemmings on the move usually follow certain paths and by placing yourself along one of these paths guarantees an abundance of willing models. The very same thing with all the other living models: wait and see, there is a way. The better prepared you are upstairs the lesser path your feed need to stumble.

See no need to scream. This photographer dude knows his craft!
Wait and enjoy the summer moment by the river bank. Things will happen.

Yeah you probably guessed that this same be prepared mantra comes up with landscapes as well. The digital world is full of more or less useful tools to check out locations virtually before hand so that you know in advance, what to expect and what to bring.

Be precise, know your subject and concentrate on getting the best visualization of your vision. Leave the hassle where the trek begins.

CONCLUSIONS

D300 + 70-200/2.8 VRII ready to go

My advice is: don’t bring everything with you into the field or dragging the stuff becomes a hindrance. However think hard what you drop. And lastly bring only gear that you can rely on.

These things can’t all be taught, you must practice. I.e. I have carried my camera in various different ways. I have placed all my gear into a single camera back and stuffed it into my hiking back pack. I have packed them separate, carried some in my back pack and some in a pack hanging on my chest until I have found out the best possible way for my use. See picture above: camera on my neck ready to go all the time resting on my palm and my arm.

Nothing can substitute knowledge of nature. Sitting on one side of a fell and watching an animal from a distance on the other side of a valley can carry miles and miles further than a big expensive bazooka and the mentality it brings. It can save you a penny to sit back, sip a cup of coffee and think before acting. In Finland we have quite a fitting phrase for this: “Kiireessä syntyy vain kusipäisiä kakaroita.”. Ask the next Finn what it means and you’ll learn the secret 😉

Enjoy!

-Antti

Insect repellent and sun lotion are the way to go.

FIELD PRACTICES BY ILCP – IN ENGLISH

LISÄÄ INFOA VAELTAMISESTA JA VÄLINEISTÄ – SUOMEKSI

RETKEILYN ABC – SUOMEKSI

PS: This blog has been very quiet lately since I am not at all satisfied with the WordPress platform. And I won’t have any time in the near future to tweak my settings. I’ll remain in the wait and see mode for the time being.

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12 thoughts on “Camera gear and hiking + thoughts on backpacking”

  1. Great post, Antti, and very insightful. I’d argue that given your aims of your trips you’re going as light as possible (even UL!). Happy I found your site, will dig a bit deeper when I have the time 🙂

    If you have the tech skills, take a look at Octopress as a platform (Scriptogr.am is another alternative). Works great & should be easy to get your content from here to there!

    1. Thx for the comment! There are definitely things I could do to go lighter. I’ve tried different backpacks (my current is JWS Trailhead II) but lighter too often means worse hauling capabilities or less durable materials. There are no satisfying ways currently to make photo gear a lot lighter so that sets some limits.

      Tripods could be of carbon fiber but then again one crack from a rock could render them useless. There is also always the question what is feasible. Spending several hundred extra euros to tripods might not bring added value in the end. Because days tend to get long, I try to bring stuff that I can be careless with.

      But definitely no, I can’t say that I am even close to UL. What I do is I bring only necessary stuff and they have to be practical. Their weight is secondary. E.g. my cook set is a Primus multifuel or a screw-on-top -type burner + a Tatonka 1.1L steel teapot (w/o the tea leaf holder) + 1 metal spoon. The teapot is very adaptable. I don’t need any extra Trangia-type holders and the teapot has a lid for faster boiling. I can use it with open fire. The opening on top of the teapot is large enough that I can cook and eat my food from it and after washing make a pot full of coffee in it. One teapot is all I need when I don’t need to melt snow. My kuksa is also quite small and the handle simple so that I can stuff it in my jacket pocket. Small things can make a big difference in usability.

      I’ll look into the platform issues later. Maybe not before next year.

  2. Another “Whoa! What a post!” for today. I seriosly missed something important as I had to read this…

    This is a very good post, though I would have liked to see even more tips and more detailed description of gear and technique on the hiking & camping part but maybe it’s wise to “let people do their own mistakes first”. The camera gear section was covered quite well and at least made sense to me. I think I’m going for a similar set (though with one body only for now) now that I have the 17-40 4, just have to get a 70-200 4 IS but don’t really want to give up the 24-105 4 IS to get the money…

    Now I’m just waiting for the first commenters to say that “DSLR is dead”. Should raise an interesting discussion here, eh? 😉

    1. Heh w/o going deeper into the “DSLR is dead” discussion, mirrorless cameras still have major limitations at least for my use. I am pretty sure that an old fashioned viewfinder kicks EVF a$$ when the temperatures drop down to minus 20 and beyond. At least if the camera back panels are of any indication in cold temperatures.

      Before going slower than f/2.8 with the whole photo arsenal one should first think what one wants to do with the gear. F/4 is frustratingly slow in mid winter or bad weather. If nothing else it affects AF. I had a change to play with a new Nikon AF-S 70-200/4 VRII and yes it is off the highest quality and small. Significantly smaller than f/2.8 VRII. I very rarely use f/2.8, but the AF uses it all the time. Canon 70-200/4 ISII is excellent and the focal lenght is the most important (debatable naturally) in photographers bag. A good choise but I would choose something faster to go with it.

      However I wanna point out that people tend to discuss gear too much. If used right most will produce outstanding images. On my recent trip my gear set included 18-55/4.5-5.6 VRII (a.k.a. suttutsuumi). It performed marvellous. I bet not many could tell the pictures from a 10 fold more expensive AF-S 24-70 lens when stopped down a bit. And it has VR, the prozoom doesn’t.

      -Antti

      1. I basically agree with everything you said.

        That said, weight of the camera gear does matter to me maybe more than for you as my intention is more on documenting my own trips (on a level I’m happy with). Just have to buy a body with super AF. 😉 If I need something fast I still have Samyang 14 2,8 (quite good one actually!) and Canon EF 50 1,8 II (somewhat underrated though the AF is quite bad).

        And then there’s the mundane limitation of money…

      2. Camera’s ability to focus depends on the ability of the lens to pass through information. Information is the amount of light. f/4 lens might not lock the focus even with an extremely good camera in dim conditions.

        That said many photojournalist favor ultra fast primes for their light gathering ability. Such lenses like 24mm f/1.4 and 35mm f/1.4. They are heavy and expensive. Photographing outdoor lifestyle might require good low light abilities also. Like shooting camping activities in the evenings or in the mornings. From my personal experience for general use I would suggest buying something faster than f/4 in the short end of lens gear. For purely landscape work speed doesn’t matter that much. I don’t have good suggestions in mind for Canon users. Canon has notoriously better tele than wide angle lenses.

        Samyang produces excellent optics. I have experience with the same 14/2.8 and also the 8/3.5 fisheye. And I have had both Canon and Nikon 50/1.8 lenses, but their build quality wasn’t very charming. The new Nikon 50/1.8 should be a good one though.

      3. True again. Canon has the EF-S 17-55 2,8 IS but I’d prefer something L (i.e. high quality and weather protection) but that would mean something like EF 24-70 2,8 L II (not really wide) or 16-35 2,8 II but both ridiculously expensive! I guess I’ll stick with the Samyang 14 2,8 and EF 17-40 4 L and get the 70-200 4 L IS later… And maybe some day I can afford wide and fast Canon tele.

        Oh, and the build quality and AF motor of the EF 50 1,8 II are actually lousy, but image quality is quite nice.

  3. I have tried to stay out the UL hiking is dead etc. debate. However, what the debate has thrown up is some gems of wisdom, that pertain to the outdoors experience, this site is one of them. I want to spend more time exploring outdoor photography and less time walking as I feel by doing so I will actually see more. You are now on my must read list. Thanks

    1. You are welcome 🙂 I know that this kind of information is hard to come by since I’ve tried for several years to find it out myself. I’ll keep posting and also Ideas for topics are most appreciated!

  4. The following in Finnish only sorry. It’s a copy of a post I wrote on a Finnish digitalphotography discussion forum as a reply to this topic.

    ———- börjar här ————

    Kameran kiinnittämistä repun viilekkeisiin en käytä, koska rinkka on käytännössä kaikkein nopein laskea selästä, jos mitään extraliikkeitä ei tarvitse tehdä. Rinkka kuitenkin painaa hartioita usein sen verran, että kuvausasento ei ole tukeva se selässä.

    Usein minulla on vaihto-objektiivi takin sivurintataskussa nopeaa vaihtoa varten ja/tai vaihtoehtoisesti pieni 2. runko kevyellä kiinteällä rinnalla tai rinkan läppätaskussa. Hieman sen mukaan onko matkalla vaikka maisemia odotettavissa.

    Toploader on turhaa lisäpainoa kesällä, mutta talvella sitä voisi käyttää. Olen kuitenkin huomannut yksinkertaiset muovipussit tai kamerapussit monipuolisemmiksi, koska ne ovat kevyempiä ja vaivattomampia. Ahkiossa minulla on Burtonin Zoom -reppu kokonaisena tai vain sen sisälaukku mukana, jossa kaikki oleellinen on yhdessä sievässä paketissa. Yksi vaihtoehto talvella on pitää selässä pientä reppua, jossa on kevyt kameravarustus ja loput ahkiossa. Zoom-repun sisälaukku on kätevä myös kesällä, koska se on kokoonpainuva, olkahihnallinen, muokattava, riittävän pehmustettu ja osin kovasuojattu ja kameravarusteet pysyvät nätistä yhdessä paketissa.

    Yleisellä tasolla koen kameroiden alkuperäiset hihnat riittäviksi niiden kuljettamista varten. Keskikokoinen DSLR akkukahvalla ja 70-200/2.8 -lasilla menee vielä niskan takana. Esim. Nikonin 70-200:n jalustapantaan saa kamerahihnan helposti kierrettyä s.e. kamera lepää mukavasti pystyasennossa rinnalla hiihdettäsessä. Muovipussi suojaa kameran viimalta ja lumelta. Jos hihnaan haluaa lisää potkua, voi siihen vaikka jesarilla teipata vanhasta makuualustasta lisäpehmikkeitä.

  5. whoah this blog is excellent i really like reading your articles.
    Stay up the good work! You understand, a lot of individuals are looking around for
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