Spring Trail Tips

Don't forget the basics!

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California Poppies

As spring arrives, so do fresh photo ops, and some of the best are in places you can’t reach by vehicle. Hiking in wild places can lead you to lots of terrific wildlife and landscapes, but also to some hazards. As outdoor people, we know that, but it’s easy to forget after months or years of roaming out there. Since even a minor lapse can prove costly to body and gear, here’s a reminder of some things to keep in mind when you go hiking with your camera this spring.

1 When you’re walking, walk. If you want to take a drink of water or check your trail map or shoot a picture—stop! I’ve stepped off mini-cliffs, into rivers and almost onto a snake while trying to walk and read a trail map or compose a shot at the same time. Enjoy the scenery as you walk. But when you find something to photograph, stop, then look through the viewfinder. If you decide you should move to a different vantage point, check out what you’ll be walking across, then walk over there. Stop, then look through the viewfinder. Zoom your lens, drop down to one knee or climb up on a rock, but always pay attention to where you’re stepping, and don’t try to compose while moving.

2 On poor terrain, don’t put one foot down until you know where you’ll put the other if the first one slips. This is one of those hiking basics we tend to forget after a few months of thrill-free outings, but don’t let complacency claim you.

3 Check the bottoms of your hiking shoes for condition. Like bald car tires, worn-smooth boot bottoms are dangerous. If the bottoms are bare, don’t wear those shoes.

Enjoy the scenery as you walk. But when you find something to photograph, stop, then look through the viewfinder.

4 It’s best not to hurry along a trail with your camera. I took my worst hiking fall trying to go just a bit too fast on a well-traveled “easy” trail, landing right on top of my D-SLR (which, fortunately, survived the experience). That said, the late Galen Rowell, an expert at mountain climbing as well as outdoor photography, got one of his most famous images, Rainbow over the Potala Palace, by dashing along a trail in Tibet with his gear. It can be done, but you’ll have to determine for yourself if you’re expert enough. I’m not.

5 With Tip 4 in mind, it might be wise not to take your “good” camera to especially poor terrain. When I got my second D-SLR, I kept my older one specifically for rough conditions. And some of my best hike shots have come from a little cigarette pack-sized digital point-and-shoot camera. I wear the point-and-shoot on a bolo-tie camera strap around my neck and just tuck it inside my sweatshirt to keep it from banging on rocks when I’m climbing terrain that requires using hands.

6 While spring storms frequently bring beautiful photo conditions, they also make rivers and canyon bottoms treacherous. It’s best not to enter canyons or approach rivers during or right after rain. The resulting waterfalls and other photo ops generally will continue for some time after a storm, so wait until it’s safe before carting your camera in there. Photograph clearing storms from high ground until it’s safe to descend.

7 If you want to cross a river, first carefully study the water level and flow. Don’t enter if the water is moving rapidly or more than ankle-deep. It’s easy to underestimate current strength and water depth. And be wary of stepping-stones, as they’re often slippery or loose. After a couple of dousings (remarkably, the cameras survived both), I now avoid stepping-stones and just walk through rivers, wearing footwear that won’t be damaged by water and that has good grip. I prefer hiking boots; sneakers might seem a better choice, but they don’t provide good grip in water. It’s also a good idea to protect your camera with a waterproof bag anytime you’re moving in or near water.

8 Spring brings wildlife, from tiny ticks and nasty gnats to large mammals with young ones and sharp claws and fangs. Wear long pants and long-sleeved tops, preferably light-toned so you can see ticks. For the gnats, try various bug repellents (different brands work better for different people) or headgear with netting, removing the netting only to shoot. Repellent might also keep bugs from swarming in front of your lens, where they’ll appear in photos. Gnats seem to attack more ferociously when I stop, so I try to keep moving except while shooting. As for the bigger beasties, stay aware of your surroundings, and give moms with youngsters a wide berth. If you want shots of dangerous critters with their young, go with a group that includes an experienced guide/naturalist unless you have the requisite knowledge and experience yourself.

While spring storms frequently bring beautiful photo conditions, they also make rivers and canyon bottoms treacherous.

9 It’s always a good idea to hike with a companion. If you twist an ankle or slip down a canyon wall, a hiking buddy can provide or summon aid. And two or more hikers are less likely to be accosted by a mountain lion or bear—or camera thief. It’s best if your companion is a photographer, too, because non-photographer hikers find it annoying to continually stop for pictures. A cell phone is also recommended, although it won’t always find a signal in remote areas. That said, I like to hike alone and don’t own a cell phone.

10 Tell someone where you’re going and when you plan to be back. That way, people will look for you if you disappear and will know where to start.

You can safely take your camera into lots of great hike-in spring photo spots. In fact, I sometimes take two D-SLRs on such hikes—the one I’m testing for the magazine and my own for comparison purposes. Just keep the basics in mind, and take care out there!