Remote wilderness offers a unique venue for the outdoor photographer. Quiet solitude combined with the intimacy of a single place elevates photography from mechanical process to immersive experience. Experiencing remote wilderness is one thing. Getting there, however, can be quite another. In addition to photography equipment, one must contend with the burden created by camping gear, foul-weather clothing, cooking supplies and enough food for several days. Pack weights can easily balloon to 60 pounds or more, limiting the distance you can travel in a day, how remote you can go and how long you can stay in one location photographing your objective.
I've spent the better part of my career disseminating information and education about helping people experience remote places with a lighter pack. The outcome has been the development of a style of wilderness travel known as "lightweight backpacking" that uses skills and equipment to achieve less pack weight, more comfort, more distance and more fun.
The Guiding Principles
The benefits of carrying a lighter pack are numerous, but three, in particular, resonate with my own desire to be a better outdoor photographer:
1A lighter pack allows me to cover more terrain and see more sights. This opens up additional photographic opportunities that I might have missed while traveling slower with a heavier pack.
2A lighter pack is easier on my aging body. Less fatigue when I arrive in camp means I'm more enthused about the need to "work" hard during the magic hours at dusk and dawn.
3A lighter pack means less equipment to keep track of and maintain, freeing my mind to focus its mental energy on photography, rather than fiddling with piles of backpacking gear.
Lightweight Equipment And Techniques
I've listed it first, but you should consider it last. Replacing your current pack with a lightweight model that may not be able to carry the weight of your existing gear may result in pain and torment that will hijack your road to enlightenment. That said, packs that can carry 40 pounds comfortably now weigh less than three pounds, which is a dramatic reduction from the 8- to 10-pound "expedition" packs I see most outdoor photographers carry.
Light: Hyperlite Mountain Gear 2400 Windrider, 1.8 lbs., $275, hyperlitemountaingear.com Lighter: Gossamer Gear Gorilla, 1 lb. 9 oz., $195, gossamergear.com Lightest: ZPacks Blast, 13 oz., $239, zpacks.com
CLOTHING AND SLEEP SYSTEMS
Wear clothing to bed to boost your sleeping bag comfort, allowing you to take a lighter bag. Replace fleece with down or high-loft synthetic materials such as PrimaLoft for more warmth at less weight. Limit your "extra" clothing to that which you can wear all at once in the worst conditions.
Double-wall tents are both small and heavy. Consider replacing your tent with a tarp-tent (single wall, 1.5 to 2.5 pounds), a pyramid tarp (floorless, one to two pounds) or a tarp (overhead only, 0.5 to one pound). Look for shelters made with "silnylon" for cost-effective weight savings or "Cuben Fiber" for space-technology lightness for a bit of extra cost.
Most hikers carry too much water in response to the fear that they will run out between water sources. How often have you crossed a creek carrying full bottles of water? Water is heavy (about 2.2 pounds per liter), so use a map to identify prospective water sources and plan accordingly. Figure on drinking about a liter of water for every two hours of hiking time (adjusting to a higher intake during warm weather and on more strenuous routes). Further reduce the water you need to carry in your pack by "tanking up" in the morning and at stream crossings. If you start hiking fully hydrated, you'll need to drink less while you're actually hiking, which means you'll need to carry less between water sources. Save further weight by replacing your one-pound, pump-style water filter with a three-ounce UV pen or water treatment chemicals, and consider casting off that heavy hydration bladder "system" with collapsible bottles that weigh only an ounce per liter of storage capacity.
FOOD AND COOKING
Most backpackers have a lot of extra fuel left over at the end of their trip, so know exactly how much fuel your cooking system requires, and don't take too much extra. Save fuel by cooking out of the wind, using a windscreen, operating the stove below its maximum output and bring meals that require only boiling water to rehydrate, rather than frying or simmering. To maximize the efficiency of your food weight, include foods that are high in caloric density. In addition, most people bring too much food. About 1.5 pounds per person per day of caloric-dense, dry food usually provides plenty of calories for the average adult.
THE ART OF SMALL PORTIONS
Do you really need a four-ounce bottle of sunscreen, an entire roll of toilet paper and a year's supply of bug dope for an overnighter? Consider repackaging every consumable item into a portion-sized package (or bottle, jar, etc.) so you have just enough for your current trip. Mini-sized portions and containers are often available in the trial size departments of outdoor specialty retailers.
Not having to tote an 80-pound pack means you no longer need to saddle your feet into "mountaineering" boots. Trail-running shoes are the norm for lightweight backpackers carrying 50 pounds or less. The greater flexibility, traction in wet conditions and better all-day comfort afforded by trail shoes will transform your backpacking experience more than any other single piece of gear. The best part: You're already wearing your camp shoes for hiking, so you can leave your second pair of shoes at home!
The Lightweight Philosophy
The lightweight philosophy can be broken down into six core principles:
1Take Inventory. Pack your pack as you normally would for an expedition, including food and water, and weigh it. You may be shocked! Then, take each item out of your pack, log it (I use spreadsheet software) and weigh it. Knowing what you have, how many things you have and how much each item weighs provides insight that will allow you to eliminate unnecessary items and lighten up your essentials.
2Take Less Stuff. A common misconception about backcountry travel is that you need to be prepared for everything. This causes gear bloat. I once inventoried my pack and counted more than 400 individual items! Be ruthless—the best weight saved is the weight of the non-essential stuff you can leave behind.
Specific Considerations For Photographers
Extra batteries are still a lighter option for short trips, but portable solar panels are evolving rapidly, becoming lighter and more efficient. Consider solar power for photo expeditions longer than a week where battery weight becomes prohibitive.
Camera And Lens Selection
Saving weight on a wilderness trip requires some discipline. Apply this discipline to your selection of cameras and lenses. I shoot primarily with a Panasonic GH3 kit, and I know I can't bring two bodies and six lenses with me when I'm backpacking. I limit myself to one body and one lens (35-100mm/2.8), relying on a second compact camera (Sony RX100) for wide-angle shooting, as a backup and for on-the-fly shots while hiking. I leave the heavy video tripod at home and rely on a short, but sturdy enough Gitzo 0531 Carbon.
3Take Lighter Stuff. Lightening up your Big 3—pack, sleeping bag and shelter—can save pounds of pack weight. Do you really need a 0-degree bag for a summertime trek? Or an expedition mountaineering pack if you're only toting 40 pounds of gear? Is that four-season tent a necessity during July? Once you lighten up your Big 3, apply this principle to the rest of your gear.
4Consider Multi-Use Gear. Creative possibilities are endless when it comes to using one item for multiple uses. Trekking poles can serve as structure for your tarp-tent, insulating clothing can be worn to bed (allowing you to take a lighter sleeping bag), and extra tent stakes can be used as pot supports over a cooking fire.
5Limit Your Contingencies. There are risks with wilderness travel, including storms, food-stealing animals and getting lost! But limit the number of impossibly dramatic outcomes so you aren't packing extra gear in anticipation that they'll all come true! Instead, invest your energy into learning more skills (see #6).
6Increase Your Outdoor Skills. Knowing how to build fires in wet conditions, manage medical problems with first-aid skills, build emergency shelters or even cook a meal in stormy weather without wasting fuel—outdoor skills provide the best foundation for reducing your pack weight and giving you confidence for remote travel with less gear.
Ryan Jordan is the founder of Backpacking Light (backpackinglight.com.), an online community dedicated to promoting lightweight backcountry travel. He lives in Bozeman, Montana, with his wife and teenage son. Connect with Ryan online at Twitter or Instagram (@bigskyry) or on his personal website at ryanjordan.com.