Travelin’ Light

My basic backcountry and travel camera kit – light and flexible. a. Lowepro Toploader zoom 50 AW bag b. Nikon D7000 DX DSLR with Kirk L bracket and Nikon 16-85mm zoom c. Lightweight Gitzo tripod, ballhead, and QR clamp d. Eagle Creek bag with Singh-Ray split ND filters, 3-stop ND, and Circular polarizer e. Optional Nikon 70-300mm in a OR insulated water bottle holder.

After posting “Walk Among Giants“, I received an email from a friend that I’ll call Jed. Jed is flummoxed about what gear to bring on an upcoming international trip that requires a bunch of other gear. Jed is looking at his full frame DSLR setup and all of the sexy pro lenses, asking “what if I need the 14-24?” I just put my 14-24mm lens on the scale and it weighs a whopping 2 1/4 lbs. The short answer is for travel and backcountry travel, you can’t afford the weight penalty of this specialty piece of equipment or any of your heavy pro lenses. Too harsh? Let me explain:

Years ago, before a trip to Wrangell- Saint Elias National Park in Alaska, I weighed the significance of the epic trip against what gear I’d be willing to carry to capture the images I had in my mind’s eye. My choice was to take the kitchen sink: a full-sized Bogen 3021 tripod, three or four lenses, including a 400mm lens, filters, a huge bag of film, and of course my full-sized backpack with bear box and all of the gear one needs in Alaska’s outback. Our bush pilot lifted my pack to strap it under the wing and couldn’t believe that I’d carry 80 pounds with that giant tripod. The trip was amazing, but in hindsight would have been better with a much lighter rig – and I didn’t use all of that stuff.

In the early ’90’s, the late, great adventure photographer Galen Rowell was advocating traveling light. Galen was capable of amazing athletic feats like running up the Grand Teton for a sunrise shoot, and would carry a single amateur lightweight SLR and lens, his choice for minimalistic travel. It took many back-breaking trips for me to connect what I was doing with Galen’s remarkable backcountry photo sorties. I’m not sure when the light came on, maybe I wondered on a fourteener climb why I needed a big tripod and a bunch of lenses that simply went for a tour on my back. Whenever it happened, it was liberating to make that hard choice of one lens and a lightweight tripod to go make the best images I could. I was still carrying more gear on top of the regular stuff that is actually needed (Marla and I took a harder look at that stuff too.), but a few pounds at 14,000 can set you free!

I’ve modified the approach and setup through the digital transition, and I always begin with the gear pictured here. A basic body with a workhorse wide to mid-range zoom, the same lightweight tripod that’s as well-traveled as Johnny Cash (I’ve been everywhere, man), a few filters, memory cards, and extra battery. Sometimes I carry the 2 lb. 70-300mm, but find that I rarely use it. In places like Yellowstone or Denali where there’s toothy predators and a real possibility of a quality wildlife opportunity, I will consider the 80-400mm. At 3 1/4 pounds, that’s like putting a brick in your pack. I carried Nikon’s first generation 18-200mm for a season and really loved the range before exchanging that lens for the 16-85mm. The 18-200mm enabled me to make a couple of images that turned into big sales because I had so much range at my fingertips. And there’s the key: lightweight and ready. Today’s gear is so good that you’re not even sacrificing much quality by downsizing.

Here’s how it works: Lightweight backpackers start with a credo that the combination of pack, tent and sleeping bag should not exceed 10 pounds. My approach is that my camera gear should not exceed 8 pounds. I put everything on my postal scale and I know exactly what it weighs before it goes in the pack. I’ve made the mental shift from “frontcountry” to “backcountry” and all of my choices are nuances from the base kit. Whether we’re hiking hut to hut in Norway, climbing a fourteener (do I really need the extra battery for a day trip?), or backpacking in Colorado it’s the same kit. I’m more free to make all the other decisions about gear while packing too.

In the field, the Lowpro camera bag goes around my neck and under an armpit, so it sits to the side of my chest (and serves as a point and shoot while hiking). I have a polarizer and memory card wallet in the camera bag. My backpack goes over the Lowepro bag and holds the filter bag and tripod. Simple. I’m currently carrying the excellent D7000 DSLR, which is also a 1080p movie camera while watching technology changes closely. The upcoming D600 may allow me to switch to full frame for backcountry and travel without a weight penalty. Some photographers are using micro 4/3 setups or sophisticated compacts – I’ve chosen to just limit the gear I already own and use for other stuff. For Jed and others who’ve traveled the rugged path with a heavy load, make a simple philosophical choice and free your mind!

5 thoughts on “Travelin’ Light

  1. I’ve gone to the light side several years ago, with a bad back it was essential. I use the DX format but will consider the D600. I have no heavy lens, with the exception of the 70-300m VR. If headed for a sunrise or sunset image I take two lens, both zooms. I walking the streets I carry a 35mm, 50mm and maybe a 17-50mm zoom. For portraits, I’ll add an 85mm and flash. I agree with Galen’s philosophy, keep it simple. Thanks, for sharing, Dave.

  2. Almost identical to my set-up, Dave, and like you I often leave the tele zoom behind, though I do always bring along my 12-24. I am finding, though, that the over the shoulder LowePro is increasingly causing me problems when worn with a serious pack, namely neck chafing and unpredictable muscle aches. Have you found any good tricks for dealing with such things?

    1. Thanks for chipping in, Jackson! I’ve had a softer, padded shoulder strap on my previous Lowepro bag,and like oyu, I’m not in love with wearing it over my shoulder. On our last trip I wore a zip t-shirt with a really small collar – just enough to prevent chaffing. It was a happier experience, but there’s still the bio-mechanical problem of wearing ~ 5 lbs. on one side of the neck with another ~ 40 lbs. or so on your back. It’s a chiropracter’s dream. I’d like to come up with a system that makes the camera available, almost like a point shoot, and nearly weightless. There should be a way to use existing D-rings and the belt loop to creatively attach the bag without crushing one’s neck. Seems like a good winter project!

      1. Yeah, I want to do some experimentation also and see if I can find a practical way to transfer at least some of the shoulder bag’s weight to the pack suspension instead of my neck. And maybe something like a homemade fleece sleeve around the strap could help with the chafing.

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