Wild camping offers many benefits to the landscape photographer. I have wild camped many times in Dartmoor, Snowdonia, Scotland and Iceland, and I am yet to regret a single trip. Not only have these trips been great experiences, they have also produced some of my best images. Below are a few reasons why you should consider camping and wild camping in particular!
Be on location at sunrise/sunset and at night and get more sleep!
Massive hikes before sunrise or after sunset can be a real issue, I should know, I’ve done them. In the summer its almost impossible to be shooting sunrise and sunset and get enough sleep and its even more of an issue if you are eating away at your time in bed because your location is miles from the car! I regularly set up my tent within meters of my planned shot for the following morning although on occasion I have still had a moderate hike.
Get unique images
Most photographs are taken at the road side, or on short walks. If you count the number of images taken at sunset on mountaintops there will be ten or one hundred times as many taken at the bottom. It can be a bit difficult being in the middle of nowhere at sunrise or sunset and as a result the majority take the easy route and spend more time in bed. If you are prepared to go camping and go the extra yard it will open up doors for your photography and you won’t be like the many hundreds of other photographer who only shoot roadside views.
Do it for fun
Camping can be a lot of fun, even on your own. If you’re a sociable person then go with another friend or photographer.
Save money (in the long run)
Camping gear can get very expensive, but if you regularly head away from home on photography trips the savings on accommodation can be significant. Even a youth hostel costs £20 a night and it doesn’t guarantee you a good nights sleep. If you only want to camp in nice summer weather then camping can be extremely cheap. £200 should buy you everything you need. My equipment is going on for 10 times as much, but that really isnt necessary at all, my early camping was all done with budget gear and I was perfectly happy!
Increase your understanding of the landscape and weather
It goes without saying that the more time you spend outdoors the more you will understand it. You might even grow to love it. When I started photography I loved spectacular views, but I wasn’t particularly enthused by nature itself. That couldn’t be further from the case now. I have no doubt that camping wild is largely responsible. There is something totally magical about camping out in the winter on a freezing cold starry night in total silence and solitude.
Streamline your camera gear
One of the photographers I chat to occasionally on-line recently informed me that he took 15kg of camera gear up Snowdon. You simply wont be able to take that much gear with you wild camping, but rather than being restricting you may find it actually helps you to focus on what is really important, the images. You will start to realise that you don’t need multiple overlapping zooms, or additional primes for that last bit of sharpness. 3 lenses is all you need, I usually take 2.
Obviously lugging camera gear and camping gear around on your back is going to get you fit and that’s a great way of banishing photographic laziness!
What camping gear do I need?
This really depends on where you want to camp and in what conditions! You will certainly need: a shelter, sleeping gear, rucksack, food and suitable outdoor clothing. The gear list below might set you back around £300-£400 (exc. clothing) but you can get almost the same performance for less money, particularly if you buy second hand.
Shelter – You can use either a bivvy or a tent. I have never used a bivvy so I will talk about tents instead! General factors to think about are weight (aim at around 2kg for a 1 to 2 man tent, or 3kg if it’s a mountain tent), internal space (most 2 man tents are only really big enough for 1!) and wind performance (you don’t want your tent to collapse!). If you are on a budget then in the UK Vango is a good brand to look at. I have an old Spirit 100, it’s a fantastic tent and I picked it up for £80 on eBay. I’ve used it in 50mph winds on top of a mountain before, and although noisy, it stood firm. Coleman also make some decent well priced tents. If you live in the US then you are spoilt for choice! If money is no object then Terra Nova and Hilleberg are pretty hard to beat. I use a Terra Nova Ultra Quasar when I camp with my girlfriend or sometimes with another photographer, it is fantastic even in horrific weather. It cost me £450 though, so it wasn’t cheap in the slightest!
Sleeping Gear – Make sure you have a sleeping bag that is warm enough for the expected overnight temperatures. I would give a strong recommendation to Alpkit bags, if you can get hold of them. They are the best value bags out there. I have used my Skyehigh 1000 in temperatures which froze the water inside my tent solid! It’s not the lightest bag in the world at 1.8kg but it’s a great bit of luxury to have. In future for my summer camping I will be picking up a bag from Peter Hutchinson Designs to half the weight. Sleeping mats are just as important. I use thermarests, but you can now buy excellent inflatable mats from vango and alpkit for around £30. The cheapest of all is the rollup closed cell foam mat, but these are only good as a supplement to inflatable mats in my opinion! In the winter you may need 2 mats, good ground insulation is critical in the winter.
Rucksack – If you don’t care to much about the latest and greatest you can save a lot of money here by buying a second hand bag. I used an old lowepro bag that cost £40 on ebay for 4 years, and never had problems. I have since upgraded to an Osprey Aether which saves a bit of weight and carries a little better, but there isnt much in it!
Food – You aren’t going to get luxury meals when you go camping, but food never tastes better than when you have earned it. A hot meal at night is great. I usually have noodles (from a Chinese supermarket), pasta (which is more of a pain to cook) or couscous (which is very very quick). If I am just doing an overnighter then I will sometimes carry dinner from the night before to reheat. Of course, if you want a hot meal then you will need a pan and stove. For a long time I used a simple lightweight aluminium pan and a ‘can stove’ which I made at home. It’s a great way to go and ultra cheap. The stove is made from aluminium coke/beer cans and burns meths. There are lots of designs online. It does take longer to heat the food that the gas stove (MSR pocket rocket) I use now, but it never let me down. For breakfasts I eat muesli. For lunches I usually have salami, cheese and crackers. For snacks I have nuts, dried fruit and sometimes chocolate. As a general rule I bring more food than I think I will need and I always manage to eat it all!
Water – Water can be a significant weight, if you are happy drinking from unpurified mountain streams then you may be able to save a couple of kilograms, but obviously there is a level of risk that you could get ill (I haven’t yet). To purify it you can ise iodine or chlorine, or you can bring a filter along. Please research different purification methods because they don’t necessarily make the water completely safe! I use empty plastic bottles as water containers.
Outdoor Clothing – This is a tricky one because photographers aren’t doing the same activity as most hikers/campers. Standing more or less in the same place for an hour in a biting wind to take a photo will mean you need more insulation than an active walker would! Most of the year you can get away with a baselayer, microfleece and waterproof shell to keep your top half warm, although you may need 2 fleeces! In the winter you will almost certainly need a down jacket (or down vest at the least) as well. Alpkit make cheap down jackets that are worth considering. Baselayer wise you can get away with almost anything that isnt cotton! I swear by merino wool now, but it is extremely expensive. You need a hat for sure, even in the summer, and in winter you will also need gloves and a scarf/buff. Trousers wise I use the same standard hiking trousers year round. I put fleece trousers underneath in the winter from time to time. Footwear is worth investing in. My Meindl Vacuums cost £160 but they have lasted 4 years or heavy abuse and are still going strong and have never let a drop of water in. You will need good hiking socks, wear lines socks as well if you are worried about blisters.
Other things you might need – Don’t forget first aid, toothbrush, something to do, eating utensils, a lighter, etc. Make sure you really figure out what you need. Don’t bring things that arent useful!
Camera– You probably arent going to buy a new camera just to go camping but it might affect your future buying decisions! Obviously you don’t want to compromise image quality just because you are going camping. There may however be a significant weight difference between two cameras that take more or less the same quality of image. In my case there was a point where I could choose between a 5DmkII and a 1dsmkIII, apart from the price difference the lighter weight of the 5DmkII made more sense from a camping perspective.
Lenses – Less is more here. I usually only take a 17-40 and a 70-200, both f4 lenses. Faster f2.8 zooms might seem like a better choice but the weight difference could be significant. You might be wondering how I fill the gap between 40 and 70mm…..On the rare occasion where the old ‘foot zoom’ technique doesn’t work, I just shoot a panorama or vertical frames with the 70-200 and then crop to get the final shot. I don’t bring my 400mm because I rarely use it. If I am going to use it in 1/4 trips then it doesn’t warrant a place in my bag. That said I will bring it if I expect to b able to use it!
Tripod – Don’t compromise too much to save weight but really you should be looking at a sub 2kg tripod and a 500gram head. I use a Gitzo Explorer and a RRS BH40. It’s a lightweight combo that gives me massive flexibility in camera placement.
Extras – I am sure you can figure out what you need here, but its amazing where saving can be made. I actually left my camera pouch at home on a recent trip to Iceland. Instead I used my fleece hat with an added drawstring as a camera bag. It worked great and saved a massive 500g!!
Where to pitch your tent
Anyone with a level head on their shoulders can work out where to pitch a tent but think about the following things:
- Can you get the pegs in?(you cant set up your tent if you pegs wont go into the ground! Geodesic tents are better in this regard because they require fewer pegs to stay standing)
- Is the ground dry? (groundsheets should be waterproof but don’t test them unnecessarily). Don’t pitch in a dip that could fill with water overnight!
- Are you sheltered from the wind? (even on top of a mountain you may be able to find good shelter)
- Is the ground level? (if it isn’t make sure you set up the tent so that your toes point downhill, maximise your chances by looking for flat ground on the map before you set off!)
- Are you near your planned location?
This set of criteria might be hard to meet sometimes and you may need to compromise. However I have always managed to find a good pitch more or less where I expected to find one, although on a couple of occasions it has been tricky!