Backcountry Photography: What Gear Should One Take Along?

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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.