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
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.
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.
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,
- a water bottle,
- a communication device,
- a compass,
- a knife,
- stuff for personal hygiene,
- first aid kit, and
- sun lotion and insect repellent.
Anything else is basically extra.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 😉
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.