Tips for Backpacking with Camera Gear (ultralight)

Tips for Backpacking with Camera Gear (ultralight)

By David Cobb


I owned my first “real” camera before I took my first “real” backpacking trip, but they have gone hand-in-hand over the years, and my techniques with both have changed and improved over time. My backpacking and photography grew with long-distance hiking as I learned more about composition while taking thousands of images to document my backcountry trips. My backpacking grew by learning how to pack lighter and lighter over time as I walked further and further. For distance hiking, I needed to walk 20-40 miles (32-64 km) a day in order to complete a thru-hike of 2,500-3,000 miles (4,000-4,800 km). Now I’m returning to the places I only documented before, to re-photograph them in a much more artistic way and under much better light.

Fellow photographer and long-distance hiker Jonathan Ley took this on our walk across Iceland.

Whether it was a walk across the United States or Iceland , I tried to keep my backpacking weight below 30 pounds (13.5 kg) if possible, and closer to 20 (9 kg) when I could. First, let’s start with the pack: Many long-distance hikers use a homemade version saving both money and weight. My backpack of choice is ULA (Ultralight Adventure Equipment), I purchased one of their early models and haven’t needed another since. There is no internal or external frame to the pack, so you already begin 5-7 pounds (2-3 kg) lighter than most backpacks on the market. You may wonder if you need the added support those other backpacks offer? You don’t. You’re packing light, not packing the usual 50-60 pounds (22-27kg). For the internal frame I use a Z-rest, this also doubles as a sleeping pad when I’m in my tent.

My ULA Bag and my Z Rest doubles as a backpack frame.

I go lightweight on my tent too, using a Six Moon Designs Skyscape tent which is affordable and weighs in at 15 ounces (.43 kg). My ground cloth is painters plastic purchased from a hardware store. Some distance hikers prefer nothing, but others use Tyvek as a ground cloth. A Six Moon Designs prototype tent got me through a 1,100 mile (1,800 km) north-south walk along the Canadian Rockies during some pretty nasty weather, so I trust their gear.

Six Moon Designs Skyscape

I cook with a lightweight and homemade alcohol stove created from the bottoms of old pop cans. It cost me about a quarter to make, and weighs about as much. I pack my stove away in a small titanium cook pot to save space. The stove burns denatured alcohol which can be purchased at any hardware store and I carry this fuel in a small plastic water bottle.

My homemade alcohol stove and cook gear.

Food is a personal thing, but for me that too is lightweight, cheap, but also nourishing. I cook my own food during the winter, then dehydrate and vacuum seal it or I purchase it in bulk from a grocery store before vacuum sealing it. For this I save about $6 per meal, packing space, and weight. I’m also a firm believer that if you eat better, you shoot better. When I cook, I just boil water and add it to my dinner bag for rehydration, and eat. No dirty dishes to clean, so I can head out early to photograph a sunset. Clean dishes also come in handy when I’m packing through grizzly country. I’ve walked through large portions of Alaska, the Yukon, Northwest Territories, Alberta, and the U.S. Rockies and have never had a camp incident with a grizzly bear or any wild animal for that matter.

I carry as little water as possible to keep my backpacking weight down. Each quart of water weighs about 2 pounds (.9 kg), so the less water I carry, the less weight I carry, the easier the walking, the less water I need. Much of my packing is in the Pacific Northwest where water can often be found every 5 miles at the most. I don’t need much more than 12 ounces (.34 kg) of water for a stretch like that, so I carry a water bottle that can be purchased at any 7-11. I like the bomb-proof Nalgene bottles, but find them way too heavy. For extra water when I get to camp, I pack with an empty Platypus container, then fill it when I get near my camp destination. I carry a small water purifier, or sometimes just iodine tablets to save weight.

My sleeping bag is a packable Feathered Friends “Hummingbird” 20 degree bag coming in at 13 ounces (.37 kg). I have a liner in this which brings it down to a 10 degree bag. Obviously for winter camping your bag will weigh more as you carry warmer bag, but this is my 3 season bag. I wrap this in a garbage bag to keep it dry in case I fall in a stream or if my pack gets wet in a rain storm.

Since I pack less, I also wear less on my feet. I know some people need more ankle support and prefer boots, but for me the old adage that every pound on your foot adds 3 to your back holds true. I either wear tennis shoes on my feet, lightweight Merrels, or sometimes even Tevas while backpacking. The lighter my feet are, the faster I move, the better I feel.

I also carry a few toiletries, rainfly, headlamp, compass, maps and such to round out my camping gear, so let’s move on to camera gear. I first decide what kind of trip this will be, this limits the gear I’ll carry into the backcountry. Am I going to photograph wildlife only? Then I’ll carry a zoom. Will this be a landscape photography trip? Then I’ll carry my super wide-angle and wide-angle lenses. I’ll also carry my Kenko Pro 1.4x to add a bit of zoom possibility to my 24-70mm lens. I don’t carry my macro lens when backpacking, since I can usually find enough macro subjects when I day hike. I might however carry my Canon 500D diopter (or close-up) lens, this allows my 24-70mm to take close-up macro-like images if I get the itch.

So, let’s assume I’m on a landscape photography backpacking trip. I carry my camera over my shoulder (with lens and polarizer attached) in a small camera bag. My super wide-angle lens is packed away in a Think Tank lens holster. This holster adds padding and also attaches to my extremely small butt-pouch (I wear this pouch backwards when packing in, as it supplies easy access to map, compass, and water) that I use to day-hike to photo locations once I’ve made base camp. I carry extra cards and batteries in my shoulder camera bag, and rarely use grads in the backcountry, but instead I bracket while shooting to blend images later in post processing. For a tripod I carry a carbon fiber Gitzo 1128 Mountaineer Sport Tripod. There are a few lightweight ball-heads out there too: Fiesol and Really Right Stuff make them and fellow Photo Cascadia team member Chip Phillips swears by his Markins Q3 Emille  which at .83 pounds (375 grams) is the lightest ball-head I know of that can sturdy the weight of a good camera and lens.

Photo Cascadia member Sean Bagshaw took this image of Chip Phillips and I as we descended Sahale Arm in the North Cascades.

There you have it. I’m a firm believer that by packing lighter you get there faster, easier, and have much more energy to shoot once you get to camp. You have a few months now to get in shape for backpacking season, and to slowly collect some lightweight gear, so I hope this brings more enjoyment to your outdoor experience and allows you more time to “see” photographically along the way. Obviously these are just guidelines to ultralight backpacking techniques, and in the long distance hiking community there is the saying to “hike your hike,” so it’s certainly not my way or the highway here. If you’d like to pack a small chair for your bad back, then do it – just leave the axe at home.

~ by photocascadia on October 21, 2011.

12 Responses to “Tips for Backpacking with Camera Gear (ultralight)”

  1. This was really interesting to read. I’ve been looking forward to it since you mentioned in a previous that you were working on this article. I have to admit, it’s a bit intimidating for me only because my way of backpacking is completely different. I generally aim for 10-15 miles per day and assume that I’ll just “tank it” with regards to the weight load. But you’re right that I usually feel pretty wiped out at the end of the day, and the urge to sleep through sunrise the next day is often too strong to resist. You didn’t mention, but I assume you also stuff in some kind of fleece, hat, and gloves. Even in the summer the mountains can often get below freezing.

    I’ve been meaning to make the move to an alcohol stove at some point. Part of the reason I haven’t is that my usual hiking partner is a bit of a stickler to the conventional ways of hiking (this is also a good part of why I haven’t gone ultralight), and so we just use the pocket-rocket stoves. I’d love to make the switch because carrying around those empty canisters is kind of annoying. I’ve heard that there is something called a Trangia alcohol stove that is supposed to be very good.

    I also need to work on cutting down on the food I bring. I often find that at the end of a backpacking trip, I still have almost all of my trail mix or other non-meal snacks left over. Which means it was wasted weight. Truth be told, it’s rare that the standard 3 meals aren’t enough for me.

    I like what you mentioned about deciding on the photographic purpose of the trip. I kind of reached the same conclusion, that you pick either landscape or wildlife, not both. Carrying a wide lens and a good tele is just way too much weight.

    Thanks a lot for the article, tons of useful information!

    • Thanks for your comment Justin, and I’m glad you liked the blog post and found it helpful. I do carry a lightweight jacket and hat, but only carry gloves in the fall, winter, and early spring. ~ David

  2. Dave, Back in the day when we started back packing, I would have killed for such a specific list of recommendations. I don’t want to think about all the money we wasted on expensive, fairly useless gear (things weren’t so light then either).
    BUT, please add your camera gear and lenses to the list! That stuff is HEAVY.

  3. Thank you very much for this post! I wound up doing the Teton Crest Trail this past summer over four days with both SLRs of mine along with the usual-weighted backpack and kept thinking there had to be a better way. This is going to be a huge help for me next summer.

    Thanks again!

  4. David,

    What a fantastic post! I love backpacking and though I try to trim my weight as much as possible, I don’t get anywhere near what you have here as all my current gear is fairly conventional and not ultra-light. I can’t believe the current state of the art for this stuff, and I want to thank you for pointing out some specific products and brands. With the starting points you have here, I bet I could shave my pack weight by at least 10-15 pounds. Now if only I had the money to upgrade all my stuff. 🙂


    • Glad you found it of help Josh. Some things like the homemade stove are almost free, so you can start that right away. There are a few blogs pointing out how to make them and also a few videos on YouTube. Food prep will also save you weight and money. The tent I suggested is one of the lowest costing ones out there. The real spendy suggestion is the Feathered Friends bag. Good luck, and happy hiking! ~ David

  5. Hey David

    Your sleeping bag is a great choice, but weights 1pound and 11 ounces, NOT 13 ounces.

    Another great option is the anti-gravty gear insulated bowls, for dinner .. they beat the heck out of a plastic bag, esp in colder weather.

    I generally hike with a lot higher weights than you do, and I always bring lenses from an ultra-wide to a 200mm or 300mm f5.6 zoom along … I can’t bear the thought of missing something cool because I saved a pound or so. But I think next summer I’ll try a couple of lighter weight trips just to mix it up a bit.



    • Thanks Carl for the correction, I was looking at the fill-weight of 13 ounces, and missed the bag weight listed above. I’ll check out those bowls, I do like the packability of the bags however. Enjoy mixing it up! ~ David

      • Hey David,

        I hear you on the packability issue; when backpacking, everything is a trade-off, eh?

        Yes, 13oz of down fill is nice, but unfortunately it needs a few ounces of microfiber wrapped around it to be much help on a trip. 🙂 The Feathered Friends bags are great, and they’re good people at that company, too.



      • Agreed, great product and service at Feathered Friends.

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