Prepare For A Photo Expedition

Tom Bol offers his insight on how to get ready when you’re going to be out for more than just a day hike

Tom Bol is a veteran trekker who logs weeks at a time deep in the backcountry. While we don’t all have the kind of freedom to backpack with a camera for such extended periods, many of Bol’s lessons and much of his advice are useful for even weekend treks away from home. Above: Float planes from above: Geographic Harbor, Katmai National Park, Alaska.

"ONE MORE STEP." This mantra is bouncing around in my brain as my body tries to follow suit. Normally taking one step wouldn’t be a big deal, but at 21,000 feet ascending an icy ridge with a huge pack strapped to my back, “one more step” takes on a new meaning. Of course, a lot of my pack weight is photography equipment I think I’ll need to capture a career-defining image. Isn’t backcountry and expedition photography supposed to be about pain and suffering? Not exactly. But one benefit of backcountry photography is the chance to capture an original landscape few others have seen.

My photography career started with documenting extended expeditions to the far reaches of the globe. One month I might be photographing a sea-kayaking trip in Honduras, the next month documenting a mountaineering expedition in the Himalayas. Packing for a two-month expedition is an art by itself. Clothes, food, climbing gear, camping gear, medical supplies and communications fill countless duffle bags. And then you start to pack your camera gear—bodies, lenses, backups of both, flash cards, hard drives, tripods, strobes, stands, batteries, filters, cases—the list is huge! But in the end, it’s worth it because you get so far off the grid that you know you’ll have original images.


Grizzly and cub: Geographic Harbor, Katmai National Park, Alaska.

Many of us don’t have the time to spend multiple weeks in the field to photograph. Nowadays I don’t either. Most of my trips are under a week in length, and that’s all it takes to find incredible images. Instead of thinking of a weeklong trip, try planning a weekend overnight adventure. Following are some planning tips for backcountry photography excursions. Don’t let a heavy pack intimidate you. You may be surprised at how light you can go, and the rewards are worth it! Just remember this one motto for backcountry photography: “Every ounce counts when you’re carrying it on your back.”

Embrace Camera Technology
On my early expeditions, I carried five or more lenses. Why? Because at that time, single-focal-length lenses were optically superior to zoom lenses. Times have changed. Now I carry only one or two lenses on weekend backcountry trips. Many zoom lenses today outperform single-focal-length lenses at the same focal length. I often carry a 24-70mm and a 70-200mm as my two lenses. These lenses will cover 90% of my needs on a short backcountry trip for general shooting. If I know I’m focusing on wildlife, I’ll carry a teleconverter or a 70-300mm.

Another variable to consider is the aperture of the lens. While ƒ/2.8 glass is very bright and offers great low-light focusing, ƒ/2.8 lenses are heavy. Lenses that have a variable aperture like ƒ/4-5.6 are lighter than their ƒ/2.8 cousins. Instead of carrying a macro lens, I carry extension tubes to achieve macro results from a lens I’m already carrying. Extension tubes are a lot lighter than a macro lens.

Camera bodies have the same considerations. Rather than haul a large, heavy pro DSLR into the field, I carry a midrange model instead. It’s much lighter, smaller and a better choice for backpacking. The midrange DSLR may not be as durable, but with a little care, it performs great in harsh conditions and saves a lot of weight.


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Guanacos: Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile.

I recently upgraded my smaller tripod to carbon fiber. Carbon-fiber models are significantly lighter than their metal counterparts. My tripod for use with small lenses and bodies is the Gitzo GT-1550T. It packs down to 14 inches and weighs just over 2.5 pounds with a lightweight head like the Really Right Stuff BH-30. If I’m shooting with bigger lenses, I use a larger Gitzo Mountaineer tripod.

Just Say No To Cotton
Okay, that may sound a little extreme. Who can leave on a trip without their favorite T-shirt? I can. When it comes to the backcountry, function always trumps fashion. While cotton is a comfortable fabric, once it gets wet, it sucks heat from your body, weighs a lot and is hard to dry out. In hot, sunny climates, cotton is okay, but if you’re going anywhere that’s cold or damp, wet cotton can lead to hypothermia and serious consequences in the backcountry. Better fabrics are silk, fleece and synthetics that are still warm when wet and dry out fast. Better yet, these fabrics are incredibly lightweight.

Down insulation is an excellent insulator and very lightweight. The only concern is that down loses its insulation abilities when it gets wet. So if you’re packing a down garment or sleeping bag, make sure it’s waterproof and air it out regularly to maintain the down’s loft and warmth.


Bald eagle: Geographic Harbor, Katmai National Park, Alaska.

Backpacking Gear Has Changed
Remember carrying the classic metal-frame pack with water bottles and sleeping bags strapped onto the outside? Then came the internal frame pack revolution, making it more comfortable to carry heavy loads. Now internal-frame packs have evolved even further by using lightweight fabrics for ultralight backpacks. Companies like GoLite produce multiday backpacks that weigh just over three pounds!

The same can be said for tents and stoves. Lighter, stronger fabrics, carbon-fiber tent poles and micro camp stoves take lightweight camping gear into a new dimension. MSR makes some incredible lightweight gear, including an 8.5- ounce stove and a 3.5-pound two-person tent. Numerous companies like The North Face and Mountain Hardwear make sleeping bags around 3.5 pounds.

Here’s a quick look at how much my camping gear weighs:

• Backpack
• Tent
• Stove
• Cook Set
• Sleeping Bag
• Clothes/Layers
3.5 pounds
3.5 pounds
0.5 pounds
1 pound
3.5 pounds
4 pounds

Sixteen pounds of camping gear, along with some food, fuel and camera gear, and I’m ready to head out on a weekend backpacking trip.

What’s On The Menu?
As many hikers can attest, happiness is a belly filled with warm, savory food. Rations can make or break a trip. You need nutritious food for energy and warmth, plus, good food just makes people happy. The challenge in planning rations for a backcountry trip is finding the right balance between weight and happiness.


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Guanaco and mountains: Torres Del Paine National Park, Chile.

I taught for years as an instructor for the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). A typical 30-day course started with issuing gear and packing food for the entire expedition. NOLS had developed formulas and recipes that could be nutritional, lightweight and tasty using whole grains, flour and sauce mixes. With these rations, we could make cinnamon rolls, quiches and falafel burgers. An excellent resource for planning your backcountry rations is The NOLS Cookery, edited by Claudia Pearson.

The lightest-weight food options are freeze-dried foods by companies like Mountain House. These meals weigh 10 ounces and only need boiling water to prepare. They’re more expensive than boxed macaroni and cheese, but if weight is your main concern, freeze-dried meals are the way to go.

If you’re planning a long trip—two weeks or longer—pay attention to your rations. Spending time in the backcountry requires a lot of energy. Your appetite will grow as you spend more time in the field. Also, if you plan to go to higher elevations, choose foods that sound appealing. Altitude dampens your desire to eat and drink. Everything takes more work with less oxygen at high altitude, and eating becomes more of a chore than a desire. We once brought thousands of energy bars on a mountaineering trip to India. Early on in the expedition, they tasted great. But as we got higher on the mountain, I began to dislike the bars. By the end of the trip, I could barely choke one down without getting nauseous!


Glenorchy, New Zealand.

How To Charge Batteries
Today, more than ever, we’re electronically connected with the world. Cell phones, iPods, laptops and digital cameras all need power. For a short trip, you only need to bring an extra battery for your camera. But what if you’re going on an expedition for a week or longer?

I have come to love lightweight, portable solar panels that roll up into a tube for transport. They come in a variety of sizes and weigh around a pound for the large version and 6.5 ounces for the small version. They come with a car lighter adapter; you just need to buy a car battery recharger for your specific camera battery. In direct sun, recharge times range from two to five hours, depending on the camera battery style.

Putting It All Together
Last summer, I helped teach a unique photo workshop. Unlike other workshops, this was a backcountry photo workshop where participants hiked with all their gear into a remote part of Alaska. I taught this class with Colby Coombs, the owner of the Alaska Mountaineering School, an authority on backcountry travel and a veteran of countless expeditions. We started the trip by outfitting everyone with lightweight camping gear and narrowing down our camera gear to the necessities. Our goal was to hike into the south side of Denali to find new, original angles of this often-photographed peak.

We started our hike with 35-pound packs and a slight drizzle falling from gray skies. After gaining some elevation, we established camp on a tundra ridge with small ponds in the foreground. Now we only needed the weather to cooperate.

On our second morning, we woke to crystal-clear skies and the mighty Alaska range stretched out in front of us. Denali was towering over the rolling tundra hills. We spent the morning creating images of Denali reflected in the tundra ponds. Later, a black bear wandered by camp. And the best part? We were the only photographers there, and our images were unique. Backcountry photography is well worth the effort.

The SPOT
If there’s one piece of gear that’s absolutely mandatory for any photographer trekking in the backcountry, it’s the Spot Satellite GPS Messenger. This compact device is easily packed and carried, and in the event of an emergency, it can send a message via satellite letting a predesignated contact know where you are and what your situation in. You can send an SOS, a message that calls for help but lets the recipient know you’re not in a life-threatening situation, an “I’m okay, just checking in” message or a custom message. The Spot also lets your contacts track your progress in real time by sending your position every 10 minutes for 24 hours or until you cancel it. It’s a truly indispensable piece of gear! List Price: $169. Contact: www.findmespot.com

You can see more of Tom Bol’s work on his website at www.tombolphoto.com.

8 Comments

    Good advice Tom. We take multi-week backcountry canoe trips with camera gear & also portage a 60 lb canoe, paddles & PFDs long distances so we don’t want to go back to retrieve a heavy pack that had to be left behind. Our dog carries his own pack, a large size set of saddlebags made by Granite Gear.

    More food advice: our butcher provides us with vacuum packed smoked meats like bacon, sausages and pork chops that will last a year without refrigeration. Cheeses, eggs & butter will keep for weeks without refrigeration. Almost everything else comes from Bulk Barn and is considerably cheaper than pre-packaged meals.

    You forgot to mention navigation. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re likely to end up someplace else. Carry a waterproof map & compass or GPS & make sure you know how to use them.

    Really enjoyed this article with one exception and that is the endorsement of the SPOT at the end. I speak from experience, not just simple opinion. The SPOT (over just a few years time) ends up actually costing you much more than a true Personal Locator Beacon (PLB), something the SPOT is not. On top of that, the SPOT has a record of not working reliably(just Google reviews on it). The SPOT has about as much power as a garage door opener. The PLB is much more powerful, built to stringent international standards, and has a long standing track record of excellent performance. I am not usually this vocal or critical, but we’re talking about peoples lives being at stake here.

    Tom’s long history of being a remote back country mountaineering guide has served him well. No other photographer has logged as many days in the field far from the road head carrying a big pack, forging rivers, glaciers, and climbing 5.12.

    I really enjoyed reading this article, although my trips are generally by vehicle to remote areas, resuting in the luxury of being able to take more equipment. One still needs to make decisions on what to take and what to leave behind. Often in very remote areas food and recharging is problematical, solar power seems to be the answer.

    I actually found this article a touch limited, and i really hate being critical of such an esteemed guy! For example; no mention of water? As one of the heaviest susbstances to pack, surely some information on quantities, perhaps filtration, would’ve been helpfull. Also making a list of the basic kit requirements leaves out a wealth of stuff that’ll make thing s a lot easier. Head torch – essential. You’re not going to get much sleep without some sort of sleeping mat. When you add all these items up all of a sudden your pack is heavy.

    It’s all very well encouraging people to hit the backcountry, but then to only half explain it seems to border on irresponsibility. Which is a shame because I agree with the sentiment wholeheartedly – theres nothing like waking up to a great location and just waiting for the soft light of dawn.

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