Backcountry Photography: What Gear Should One Take Along?

Hello everyone and a special welcome to all the new “followers.” And thanks to WordPress for featuring the blog on their homepage – I appreciate the extra exposure!

Over the last few weeks I have been asked a few times about the gear I take along with me on backcountry trips. In an effort to make that info benefit more people I thought I would simply write a post about the subject.

As some of you may know I spend a considerable amount of time photographing trekking, mountaineering, camping and skiing outings which often take me high up or in the backcountry for extended periods of time. Once I leave the trailhead I don’t have the luxury of returning to my vehicle and I am committed to using only the gear I have on my back (and to carrying that gear!). Therefore it is imperative that I spend time thinking carefully about what to bring well before heading out.

“Passing Through”, Fay Glacier, Banff National Park, shot from summit of Mt Bowlen at 200 mm.

So what gear do I take along on backcountry trips? The short answer is “it depends.”

It depends on the duration of the trip, the location, how technical the terrain will be and on what I want to accomplish on that given trip.

Having said that, the following items always come along with me. I have become accustomed enough to carrying them around that I don’t think about the weight when I put them in the “definitely” pile:

  • Canon 5D Mark III body (860 g)
One of the best quality/weight ratios out there for backcountry purposes in my opinion. The Mk III also allows me to record the odd video, and performs great at high ISO for those trips where I would rather leave the tripod at home.
  • Canon 17-40 mm, f/4L USM lens (500 g)

This has been my workhorse lens since I started doing photography. I absolutely love its versatility. It is also quite sharp and relatively lightweight.

This is the lightest way I know of to keep the gear available at all times. This system is fully customizable and does not get in the way of climbing or skiing.
  • Lenspen (10 g)
A quick way to clean lenses and filters in the field.

“Himalayan Skies,” Ama Dablam, Nepal. 
Occasionally I enjoy “turning off” and going on photo-free adventures. However if I plan on doing any photography the items listed above go in the pack. There are also several other items that I might carry along if the trip warrants it:
  • Canon Zoom EF 70-200 mm, f/2.8L IS USM lens (1470 g)
  • Think Tank pouch (200 g)
If the trip is going to be less technical, or if I know we will have a base to operate from for several days I take along the big telephoto lens. I love using it from camp at the end of the day to capture details in the landscape such as clouds swirling around peaks, and wind action along high ridges. It can also be used on the move to make the mountains look huge behind other trip participants and give the place a sense of scale.
  • Gitzo GT 1541 Tripod with GH1780 Quick Release Ballhead (1250 g)
I have now used this tripod extensively for mountain and travel photography and feel like it is heavy enough for my purposes. I find it to have the perfect weight vs stability ratio. Absolutely essential for those night shots around camp and telephotos of first light hitting the peaks.
  • Singh-Ray LB Warming Polarizer (25 g)
I almost always take the polarizer along to eliminate reflections on lakes and to add contrast to the skies (particularly nice when later converting to black and white).
  • Genus Fader Filter (up to 10 stops)(100 g)
I only take the thick filter along if I know there will be a significant amount of time for long-exposure photography on a given trip. Again, this is a great tool to have for extended stays at a base camp when one wants to record a lot of cloud motion in photographs. Also very handy it waterfalls are on the itinerary.
  • Intervalometer  (100 g)
Essential for star trails and time-lapse purposes. Considering the minimal added weight, it is well worth taking along for overnight trips in my opinion.
  • Transcend 32 GB CompactFlash Memory card (11 g)
Typically I bring one per 2 days of shooting, perhaps more for time-lapse purposes.

 “A Daunting Sight,” Lyell Icefield, Canadian Rockies.
Lately I have been doing a fair amount of time-lapse photography for http://www.MountainsInMotion.ca. For that project I bring:

  •  Dynamic Perception Stage One dolly (4300 g)
  • Dynamic Perception MX2 Motion Controller (179 g)
  • Dynamic Perception 2700mAh battery pack and cables (200 g)
  • Up to two Induro Adventure AKB1 Tripod kits (1600 g each)

 “Domes of Light,” Around Dhaulagiri, Nepal.
For very long trips, I use:
  • GoalZero Sherpa 50 Adventure Kit (for recharging purposes)
  • Sanho Hyperdrive (for storage/backup purposes)

So all in all my lightest setup amounts to just over 2 kilos (about 5 pounds). Typically an overnight trip will mean about 5 kgs of photo gear (about 11 pounds), with time-lapse-oriented outings adding a considerable amount of weight. I know that these figures probably lie at the “heavy end” of the adventure photographer’s spectrum, but that is what has worked for me.

Thanks for reading. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on the subject and what has worked for you.

“The Mark of Winter,” Auyuittuq National Park, Nunavut.

18 Responses to “Backcountry Photography: What Gear Should One Take Along?”

  1. Matt Korinek

    Awesome post Paul! This is chock full of great info for people interesting in taking backcountry photos. Amazing photos as usual as well. :)

    Reply
  2. carolinebakker

    Great post again and loved your previous one, a well deserved spot on the freshly pressed page. Great that you share these practical things with us and I’m a big fan of your photos, good you! All the best. Cheers Carolinebakker.com

    Reply
    • Paul Zizka

      Thank you so much for your kind words Caroline! I look forward to following you on Twitter ;-)

      Reply
  3. Eric

    Great timing, I’ve been doing a lot of research lately with the intent of updating and streamlining my hiking/photo gear. Funny enough, I was eyeing that same Gitzo tripod yesterday, trying to decide if I should try that over my 5 lb Manfrotto.

    Reply
    • Paul Zizka

      Hi Eric. I absolutely love that tripod. In my opinion unless the winds are wild it is truly suited to most weather conditions. I have had to hang a pack on it a handful of times but overall I am pleased with the stability.

      Reply
      • Eric

        I chose the Manfrotto because I do a lot of beach landscapes, which is windy and the tripod often gets hit with waves along the lower part, so I like the greater stability of a slightly heavier frame.

        But I’m evaluating my gear and weight in preparation for my trip to your area in the fall, so I want to go as streamlined as possible :)

        Reply
        • Paul Zizka

          Makes sense. If you want to see the amazing locations well away from the road the Gitzo is a good compromise.

          Reply
          • Eric

            Thanks again for your input, I will have this on my list to buy!

            Although, there’s something to be said about lugging the heavier gear….my biceps look like I’m a weight lifter haha :)

        • Paul Zizka

          My pleasure Eric. Enjoy your stay in the mountain parks!

          Reply
  4. Damon McDonald

    Stunning work! I will be heading into Assiniboine Park this July for 5 days of timelapse work. I am currently in my planning stages, and I have this question: Base camp will be at the Naiset Huts at Assiniboine Lodge. I will be doing day/night treks in and out. I can use a separate camera pack that holds my laptop, lenses etc but considering weather conditions, I can also lug along my 60L backpack for safety. How do you manage carrying your camping gear and photography gear together?
    Once again, great work. Wonderful photography!

    Reply
    • Paul Zizka

      Hi Damon. Thanks for writing and for your kind words on what I do. Timelapse at Assiniboine eh? I like the sound of that!

      What I have been doing in the backcountry is I’ve been using the ThinkTank products to carry the camera body (with lens attached) and a second lens around my waist (nice to have those accessible on the hike in), with other photo accessories (those that are rarely needed on the go) in my usual overnight pack. The tripod was strapped to the side of that same pack. If I plan on doing night work I put the 24mm f/1.4 in the pack (as I typically don’t need it until we reach camp).

      Best of luck out there. Feel free to send your results my way – would love to have a look!

      Paul

      Reply
      • Damon McDonald

        Thanks Paul for the reply! I recently bought a 33L Kata bag but I’m starting to reconsider a waist carry option. It looks like I will be on the peaks of Wonder, The Towers, Nub, Windy Ridge and Mt. Sparrowhawk with a couple of hours for each TL. Wrapped up in a sleeping bag with a bivvy sac and a coffee should hopefully look after the exposure.
        As I’m just starting out into the world of Scrambling, have you had any difficult moments with your photography (technical/difficult climbs, temperature/exposure, equipment failure?)
        As well, I’m considering day/night TL from these peaks, which means descents in the dark. Any thoughts on scrambling with a headlight?
        Thanks again!

        Reply
        • Paul Zizka

          My pleasure Damon! You’ve got some exciting plans to say the least – can’t wait to see the result!

          I found the gear we used for time-lapse purposes to do amazingly well in adverse weather. Even high up in the winter. Therefore I wouldn’t be too concerned if I were you. That gear is made to be used. The main temperature-related issue we had was having the lens cover up with frost, but that can be avoided using heat packs and elastic bands.

          Re: scrambling in the dark, I guess that’s entirely dependent on your experience. It sounds like most of the peaks you referred too involve mostly hiking, so you might feel comfortable heading up those slopes before sunrise. I don’t know what you’ve done in the past so it’s hard for me too tell. You could always head up before dusk, shoot sunset/night/sunrise from the top and then descent in the morning.

          Reply
          • Damon

            Hi Paul,
            I wanted to show you the results of my TL at Assiniboine. Unfortunately I had a fall on the peak the first night which changed the game for me. However, I still managed enough footage to put together. Thanks for your help and advice earlier!
            https://vimeo.com/71045760

          • Paul Zizka

            Wow – great job Damon! A LOT of work went into that! Love that final Assiniboine cabin scene. Awesome work. Thanks for following up and letting me see it!

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