Plan A National Park Road Trip

A seasoned pro shows you how to plan, research and pack for an efficient photo weekend
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Exploring a national park in a weekend requires good planning to make the most of your photography time. One of the very best things you can do is ask park staff about some of the areas you’re planning to visit. They’re dedicated people who know these places intimately, and they can be a huge help when you’re there. All of the photos in this article were taken during Larry Lindahl’s voyages in Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona.

Road trip!
Just about the sweetest two words you can hear if you’re a photographer. Add in national parks, and you’re talking about the official playgrounds for readers of Outdoor Photographer. They range in size, scope and variety and, of course, geographically they’re dispersed throughout the country. Most of us have significant time pressure, and we try to pack a lot into weekends (long weekends, if we’re lucky), so before we head on down the highway, a little prep time will make the “looking for adventure” part go down a whole lot better.

Research is key to versatile and nimble travel in and around national parks. Be a geek for a few hours and get your facts. Research your subject on Google images, Flickr and iStock. Get to know what’s been done and what’s available, and start conceptualizing your own approach. Saturate yourself with information: mileage, travel time, current multiday weather forecast, sunrise/sunset times, moon phase and road conditions. The Photographer’s Ephemeris is a popular app that you can consult when planning from home and when you’re on the road on your smartphone or tablet.

Gather together maps of the region. Calculate mileage and drive time between your destinations from a site such as MapQuest. Explore the region in Google Earth virtual reality. Get a feel for the territory.

Read the guidebooks. Photographer Laurent Martrés has an award-winning series of guidebooks tailored just to photographers. The books cover the national parks within the various regions, as well as locations outside of the park boundaries. If his books don’t cover your region, look for other photographer-related guidebooks. Give your local bookstore some business, or use Amazon.

Log images into your phone camera. Shoot photos off the computer screen, and from magazines and books. These portable images can serve as planning notes when you’re looking for a particular spot. When you’re in the park, try the visitor center or ask rangers at campgrounds and other facilities. Most employees of the National Park Service are passionate about these places and they’re often not just willing, but eager to share information and help photographers. Every so often there’s a story about a photographer being hassled in a park, but such tales are the exception, and we seldom get the whole story about what caused the unpleasant encounter.

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Gather The Right Gear
Quick and easy meals keep you more mobile. Pack a medium-sized cooler with sandwich makings, hardy bagels, avocados, tomatoes, onion, yogurt and fresh fruit. Eat light, but eat often. An overly full stomach can make you want to nap more than trek about looking for “the shot.”

Keep a cardboard box within reach for chips, beef jerky, crackers, granola, sardines and nuts, as well as a Ziploc® bag full of pecans, cashews, Tamari almonds, dried cranberries, raisins and M&Ms. Trail mix will keep your energy up throughout the day.

A multi-gallon water container comes in handy on trips in the Southwest. It’s a reliable source for refilling drinking bottles, hydration bladders and even cleaning abrasions.

For a coffee break, no matter where you are, stow a backpack stove in the car. Try Starbucks’ VIA Ready Brew or Folgers Coffee Singles for a quick caffeinated recharge.

Remember that you should always adhere to park guidelines regarding food and local wildlife. In many popular parks that contain bear habitat, an appropriate bear storage locker is a necessity, and you’ll see signs at trailheads warning hikers not to leave food in their cars. Pay attention to these signs!

For clothing comfort on the road, choose versatile layers. In winter, a ski hat preserves significant body heat. A lightweight, breathable rain jacket will help protect you from both rain and wind. Garments that incorporate Gore-Tex® membranes are renowned for their ability to keep you comfortable while hiking or waiting for the right light. There are plenty of other waterproof, breathable options, as well. T-shirts and button shirts of quick-dry nylon fabrics wick moisture and breathe easily. Medium-weight fabrics like synthetic fleece and SmartWool® also wick dampness, important after hiking to a site to avoid getting chilled when you stop to set up and shoot.

Cotton kills in winter, but it should not be overlooked for spring and summer hiking. In the low-humidity Southwest, a cotton shirt acts like an evaporative cooler as you sweat. A wide-brim hat may not always make an ideal fashion statement, but it keeps the sun off your face, ears and neck (you can always follow in the fashion footsteps of Ansel Adams with a Stetson Open Road). Sun fatigue can sap you of vital energy, so cover up if you’re out all day.

In the wide temperature variations that are common in the national parks in spring, winter side-zip nylon pants are a good idea. They should be loose enough to be comfortably layered with long underwear. The three-season nylon pants can easily be transformed into shorts without taking your boots off when the temperature warms up. Wear well-fitting waterproof, breathable boots to keep comfortable and to reduce the possibility of blisters. In the national parks of the desert Southwest, you’ll want hiking boots that breathe more easily, or wear sandals with hiking soles from makers like Chacos, Teva or Keen.

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The best opportunities for unique photo opportunities in the parks are away from the parking lots. While the parks are getting more and more crowded, you’d be amazed at how quickly the crowds thin out just a couple hundred yards up a trail. That’s partially because most visitors prefer the security of being close to roads and other visitors. Since we photographers want to get away from those very roads and other visitors, it’s necessary to be prepared for rapid changes in the weather. It’s a good idea to carry a backpacking tent, rainfly and ground cloth if you know you’re going to take a long day hike away from your car. You can get an ultralight emergency shelter to keep your load light. One-man tents can weigh just a couple of pounds, and they take about the same amount of space as a 70-200mm ƒ/4 lens. Motel rooms are great for a hot shower, recharging batteries and a good night’s sleep, but being self-sufficient will come in handy one day, guaranteed.

As the big day approaches, check the tires for proper air pressure. Check the fluids. Top off the radiator, oil and windshield wiper spray. Confirm that you have a working spare tire, and know where your car jack is located and how to use it before you need to…on a dirt road…in the dark…and the cold. Many parks have dirt roads that you can take advantage of to get away from crowds, but these roads aren’t well-traveled, they don’t have services, and cell coverage is spotty at best. The road to the Racetrack in Death Valley National Park, for example, is basically a dirt fire road and its condition varies at different times of year. In the rutted conditions, it’s easy to get a flat. It’s not a big deal as long as you have a good spare and a working jack. Otherwise, it can be a long wait while you hope someone else wanted to see the sailing stones on the playa. Take care of your vehicle, and it will take care of you.

Preparing for final departure, create a staging area for gear and then consolidate. An extra daypack can hold spare camera gear that you may not need in the field. Add to it a small travel kit bag with your sensor-cleaning swabs and solution, battery chargers, manuals and phone-charging cords, plus a folded reflector disc and a large flashlight. A small cardboard box kept handy in the car can hold guidebooks, maps, park brochures and a journal and pen for your travel notes.

Camera Gear
Now for the important stuff. A camera backpack should have what you’ll need to be out on a trail for several hours: water, snacks, rain protection and spare clothing, in addition to your camera gear.

Several companies make good camera packs. I use a Lowepro Photo Sport 200 AW on long hikes. It protects a DSLR and one spare lens, with plenty of space for extra clothing, food and other personal gear. It’s designed with a full-sized hydration system pocket and a built-in weather cover.

A carbon-fiber tripod saves weight without sacrificing sturdiness. I use the Gitzo 2541, which folds to 22 inches, and at 3 pounds, it can support up to 26 pounds. Mounted to my tripod is a Really Right Stuff BH-40 ballhead, which easily holds up to 18 pounds. Setup is quick and hassle-free.

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In the easy-to-reach top pouch of my camera bag is my polarizing filter, spare battery and a Ziploc® bag with several 16 MB memory cards. I also carry a Lee filter kit with 1- and 2-stop graduated neutral-density filters to balance the exposure of landscapes with bright sky. In the bottom of the bag is an insulating space blanket, a lighter and a simple first-aid kit, you know, just in case.

On the road, keep the bag in a ready-to-use location like the passenger seat or behind it. It’s good to have it all together, ready for hiking, but make it easy to grab a handheld shot by not keeping your gear too far away. At times, I leave the camera out on the seat while driving from one nearby location to the next.

I carry my laptop in a padded computer bag and use a memory card reader to download images. A backup can be saved to a ruggedized external hard drive. I use the LaCie Rugged Triple USB 3.0 with a 500 GB capacity.

A point-and-shoot camera that has a RAW mode can be used as a quick-draw camera for in-action hiking shots. A phone camera is particularly helpful for taking reference shots of interpretive signs at the various national parks. These photos can make captioning your photos both easier and more accurate when you return home.

Road Trip Gear
Clockwise from top left: The Photographer’s Ephemeris; Lowepro Photo Sport 200 AW; Really Right Stuff BH-40; MSR Twin Sisters minimalist shelter.

You can see more of Larry Lindahl‘s work, buy his books and sign up for his workshops at