Backpacking & Photography Pt.1 – Why?

In Articles On Friday, April 6, 2018

Wild camping is a fundamental part of my approach to photographing mountain and wilderness areas. I have camped in a wide variety of landscapes from the snow covered Scottish Highlands, to the high Drakensberg Escarpment. Without exception these trips have been hugely rewarding both in terms of imagery and experiences. Here are some reasons why you should consider backpacking with your camera.

On location at sunrise/sunset and overnight

Reaching a location for sunrise or sunset is no problem if it’s easily accessible. Unfortunately (or fortunately!) many fantastic locations are several hours hike from the nearest road.  In the summer season in particular, when nights are short, a hike after sunset and again before sunrise leaves little time to sleep. Backpacking allows access to even the most remote locations. You can be there when the light is at its best and stay through the night. If you want to try mountain top astrophotography then camping is often your only option.

Camped on the summit of Suilven from where you have 360 degree views

Access new locations

Going backpacking opens doors. If you are looking to capture more original imagery then a good first step might be to visit a location that is little photographed. You can even go completely off trail (in areas where this is legal!) to find something totally new. This has the increased benefit of seeing a location for the first time ‘in the flesh’ something that can be difficult with the increased social media exposure of iconic locations.

A ‘new’ location I explored in Iceland. Getting here for sunset without backpacking is essentially impossible. See the tents on the left!

Photos of Experiences

Many of my best and worst experiences have been backpacking trips. A few years ago I was caught out on the summit of An Teallach in Scotland in gale force winds. We were forced to make a treacherous descent down an icy mountain side only to find the tent destroyed by the wind and buried in snow. On a much more enjoyable occasion I was camping in the Greenland wilderness cooking freshly caught an Arctic Charr on the campfire – it’s a memory that still brings a smile to my face. All these experiences are captured on camera – they come back to me with a new freshness when I view the photos. Whilst to the casual viewer a photo might be beautiful, interesting or thought provoking, to me they capture a depth of experiences. Whether good or bad these are memories I treasure and constantly remind myself of.

A memory to cherish – cooking Arctic Charr in Greenland

Connect with nature

Modern lives are somewhat different to what they once would have been. We travel to work in cars, stay in warm dry buildings and largely avoid any run ins with the natural world. Backpacking, particularly on longer trips, is an immersive experience where nature becomes your world once more. Your sleep patterns fall back in line with daylight hours, you start to notice changes in the weather. Wildlife catches your attention, you see the shrubs changing, the seasons changing, clouds building, the variations in the rock beneath your feet. All these aspects go largely unnoticed in the developed world – noticing them again is a wonderful experience in itself.

Swimming in the Drakensberg – one of my all time favourite days.

Build friendships

I rarely backpack alone – it’s never been easier to find people to backpack with. Many of my photography workshops are backpacking based so in many cases I have just a week to get to know people. But when you’re hiking all you can do is walk and talk – you get to know people quickly. Some of my best friendships are built on the back (pun) of backpacking trips. You see each other at your best and worst, through elation and hardship, failure and success. Needless to say if you are lucky enough to find a partner who is like minded you can create some fantastic memories together.

My first backpacking trip with Emily in the Icelandic Highlands. Awwwwwwww

Improve your understanding of light and weather

I’ve seen thunderclouds form, lenticulars grow over mountains, skies light red at sunset and sunrays cut through mountain ridges. I can now predict a lot of those events. I am there when the conditions are at their best. Clients sometimes think that I have  special insight, but I don’t. I’ve just spent more time outside.

An hour before sunset I told some Americans to hang around on the summit (left). I soon regretted it with howls of “Hell Yeah That’s Beautiful” breaking the silence!

Commit

When you head out for a backpacking trip you are committing in every sense of the word both physically and mentally. You’re also committed to being outside whatever the weather. Whilst that undoubtedly has its drawbacks (no one really enjoys walking in the rain!) it can also provide immense reward because it puts you in places you wouldn’t normally be in weather conditions you might usually avoid. Some of my best images have come during hazy days, or low cloud or even after a day of heavy rain. These are moments I routinely miss when I’m staying in accommodation. In short – if you’re outside all the time you don’t miss anything!

A moment from nothing, but if you’re outdoors a lot you massively improve your odds!

Save money

The best backpacking gear isn’t cheap, but you don’t need the best gear. My first setup (tent, sleeping bag, matt, backpack, cook kit) cost a little over £300, less than a professional camera lens. You’d only have to camp for 10 nights to have recovered your cost. Even with quite expensive equipment it doesn’t take too long to make your money back and for most people this gear would last a lifetime. Once you own the kit photography trips suddenly become very affordable. I can go camping anywhere for a bit more than the cost of flights.

My first setup was cheap second hand gear but ultimately withstood very severe weather.

Streamline your camera kit

Do you really need all those filters? Do you need a 14mm, 16-35mm, 24-70mm and 70-300mm? Do you need a shutter release or that fancy panorama head? Your answers start to change when you realise you have to carry it all up a mountain. There is little that can’t be achieved with a camera, a wide-angle zoom, a telephoto zoom, a polariser and a tripod. Reducing your gear limits faff and could help you enjoy your photography more. Personally I have found restricting my kit to be a creative freedom, I dont agonise between switching lenses or struggle to find what I need at that crucial moment. Of course you can cut down your kit anyway, but backpacking forces your hand! Maybe the money you save can be used to pay for backpacking kit…

Get fit and strong

Although I’m a professional photographer with a love of backpacking, my day to day life, is, I suspect, pretty similar to many other people. I spend most of my days sat at my desk working and only occasionally exercise either by walking the dog or going for a run.

The benefits of exercise are well understood and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that backpacking for 3-6 hours day on day might be good for you, but nevertheless it’s by far the best exercise I get. Many people also underestimate their ability to backpack. I get plenty of worried emails from potential workshop clients scared that they won’t be able to do a particular hike, but its more of a mental challenge than a physical one (for sensible distances!) –  you just have to keep walking.

For those of you looking to lose a little weight it’s possibly worth mentioning that hiking puts your heart at the perfect rate for fat burning. I lose weight on every trip….and then eat far too poorly afterwards….

Tired? Nothing worth having is easy.

Earn your images

The satisfaction from capturing a hard earned image is hard to match. Personally it’s an addiction. I actively seek out images that are hard to achieve almost regardless of their ultimate value, I just enjoy the successes too much. Of course that has the drawback of making the failures gut wrenching in equal measure, but that, strangely, is just as addictive, it makes the wins even better!

An image that was incredibly hard to achieve but with all the satisfaction that comes with it!

Leave the digital world behind

I won’t talk to much on this subject but I have an unhealthy attachment to my phone, social media and online distractions. Unplugging even for a week gives a welcome reminder of the things that matter! Now go outside….

Ahem! Okay sometimes we use our phones…

13 Comments

  1. Hey Alex,

    A great article, with great images. This post has definitely inspired me to get to a location I’ve been wanting to go to for a long time but I’ve been putting it off – not to find the time :/

    Although I don’t necessarily do much backpacking, I do know that when I put the effort to get to a location with all my gear I will appreciate the moment and the image much more!

    Looking forward to part 2!

    • Thanks Tyler – of course not everyone wants to go backpacking but as you point out a lot of this applies to harder to reach destinations regardless of whether you camp or not!

  2. Risna Knouwds 6th April 2018

    Enjoy your foto’s/comments/nice following your experiences of hiking/backpacking/ fotography/
    my passion.

  3. Andrew Wilkin 7th April 2018

    Another great read as usual Alex.
    “Shhhhh we are supposed to keep this backpacking thingy a secret :)”

    Cheers

  4. simon cunningham 7th April 2018

    So at the top of the mountain the sun broke through a gap in the clouds and the burning commitment and effort of getting up there was truly rewarded. Not only a special moment but a great confidence builder. Never felt closer to the land when wild camping, there is something very zen about combining it with landscape photography. Great article!

    • It’s hard to beat that feelin of satisfaction for sure. Hopefully we’ll get some nice light in Snowdonia!

  5. I couldn’t agree more with your observations. It was reading about your ‘expeditions’ that partly inspired me to go out and do it myself. Now I wild camp on top of the Scottish mountains in all weathers, climb mountains in mid-winter in the dark and have had some magical experiences. My fitness and stamina levels have improved considerably: you are right, ‘sheer determination is the determining factor’.

    • Wow it’s great to hear that I had an influence in getting you out into the mountains John. I see you’ve been getting some great results too- just reward for the effort!

  6. Kenneth Muir 23rd April 2018

    Hi Alex,
    Brilliant article, inspiring as always. Brings back many great memories of wild camping before I was into photography. Plannin g my first solo summit wild camp next month – Will probably have to ditch the 5.5kg tent first! Look forward to the rest of the articles.

    Kenny

    • Hey Kenny. Thanks! Yeah anything over 3kg is a bit much for 1-man but weight isn’t everything! Have fun out there

  7. Hello Alex,
    Your post has just inspired me to go out there and click as many as I can click
    Thanks for sharing the post.

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