What to take on a nature photography hiking excursion

Dec 22, 2011 05:12 PM EDT

Nature photography is one of my favorite summer activities. I really enjoy going for a hike and trying to capture the beauty of the landscapes and wildlife. This article will explain some of the things you should consider taking with you, when you're in the backcountry shooting pictures of nature.


First and foremost, you're going to need water. If things go badly in the outdoors, you can survive for quite a while without food, but you're in big trouble if you don't have any water. I use a Camelback that contains 2 liters of water, and depending on the length of my hike, I usually take 1-2 water bottles filled with ice, but no water. I usually fill them about 3/4 of the way full of water the night before and freeze it. This helps keep the Camelback water cool, and it slowly melts so that I'll have cool water throughout the day. Of course, this is assuming the weather is somewhat warm. If you're hiking in snow, skip freezing your backpack water. You'll be plenty cold as it is.

In addition to carrying water, I have an empty water bottle that has a water filter in it. I also keep some dry supplies in this water bottle to conserve space such as iodine drops. This way, I have options. If I run out of water, I can always refill it in a nearby stream. The filter gets rid of most germs and the iodine takes care of the rest. Otherwise you risk getting giardia, which will give you diarrhea for a few weeks. If you don't have a filter, your safest bet is to drink from water that is seeping out of rock because the rock acts as a natural filter. The next best option is to drink from a running stream, and the worst is to drink from stagnant water. Look for dead animals nearby. If you see any, the water is most likely contaminated with giardia or worse.

You can create a makeshift filter by making a cup with your shirt, fill this with dirt, dump water in it to make mud, and then squeeze out the water through your shirt. This isn't the best situation, but it's better than nothing.


Take food that is high in protein and boosts your energy. My favorites to take are Clif bars because they are small, taste relatively good for an energy bar, and are packed with protein and other good stuff. I also like to take trail mix consisting of peanuts and other nuts, raisins, and M&Ms. Granola bars are another good choice. In a pinch, take a couple packs of Pop Tarts.

Stay away from anything greasy or anything that is going to quickly pass through you for obvious reasons and because you don't want to lose extra water because you ate the wrong food. Since it takes energy and water to digest food, you want to eat sparingly. Small amounts more often seems to work better than a large meal all at once. It's also a good idea to research what plants are edible in your area, but this is less important than acquiring water. A few granola bars can keep you alive for a few weeks, but you'll need water every day.


It's good to have a decent pair of walkie-talkies. I bought a set that works for 12 miles and has a channel to get weather broadcasts on sale for about $35. These can cost up to $200, so keep an eye on the clearance rack at your local sporting goods store. It's good to check in on the weather to make sure a storm isn't coming. A far off storm can cause a flash flood, so it's good to know what's happening with Mother Nature in your area especially if you're in high mountains or a desert because the weather can change really quickly.

First Aid:

You'll want to have a basic first aid kit that contains a few band aids, a bandage you can wrap around a twisted ankle or knee, some tape and gauze, a snake bite kit, sunscreen and bug repellent, an emergency blanket, flint and/or waterproof matches, and a knife. This is all very light and won't take up much room in your pack. Much of it can be stored away in your empty water bottle.


Even if you know the area, you need a map. It's easy to get disoriented in the backcountry, and a map will prove invaluable in such times. I got lost during a hike once because it snowed and my trail was covered. Get a good map that shows the topology as well as landmarks. It's a good idea to have a GPS system because when you get lost, you'll be able to find your exact location on the map or to tell somebody over your walkie-talkie where you're at if they need to rescue you. Also, carry a whistle. The sound from a whistle will carry for a distance with little effort on your part. If you're injured and weak, a whistle may very well save your life. Also, carry a compass. If your GPS batteries die, you'll still have your compass to navigate by. Another good idea is to keep track of landmarks such as a unique mountain to help keep your bearings. Study the lay of the land before you go out. In some places, streams may run a certain direction, snow is usually on a certain mountain face and moss grows on a certain side depending on where you're at in the world. Do a little research to figure these things out for your specific location before you set out so that you're not totally dependent on your tools.

Camera Equipment:

I talked about all the other stuff first, on purpose. Being safe is more important than getting a good picture. However, now that we've established the basics to keep you safe, let's talk about camera equipment. A point and shoot digital camera with as many megapixels as you can get is a good choice. It's small, lightweight, and you can use the back screen to shoot your pictures instead of looking through the viewfinder. This makes it easier to get a horizontal picture of a flower low to the ground.

For SLR cameras, weight becomes a hindrance, so you'll want to keep your equipment down to a minimum, if possible. Before you go, decide what your goal of the day is and only take the lenses that will help fulfill that goal. Landscape photography is dominated by wide angle lenses, wildlife photography requires a telephoto lens, and flower photography ideally calls for a macro lens. I'd consider bringing a dark neutral density filter if you want to shoot waterfalls, and make sure and bring a second battery and a second memory card. It's a long walk back to the truck if your battery dies. Because of weight, I'd take a maximum of two lenses, and usually this would be a wide angle and telephoto. You'll also want to bring along a monopod, which can double up as a walking stick. Tripods are much too cumbersome to try and deal with out in the field, but a monopod will give you enough stability to get a good shot.

Hiking Techniques:

When you add up the weight of water, food, first aid kit, navigation items, and camera equipment, your backpack is going to weigh you down. This is a necessary evil because the consequences of not being prepared can result in your death. People die every year in the mountains near my home because they weren't prepared and something unexpected happened like a flash storm, animal attack, freak accident, or whatever. Combine extra weight with fatigue of walking long distances and potentially high altitudes and you're going to get tired much faster than normal. However, there are ways to limit this. First, take many breaks and don't walk so fast that you're panting or your heart is racing. If you're walking up hill, expend the leg that is lower on the hill all the way. This way, your muscles aren't supporting you all the time. When your leg is extended, your muscles can relax while your bones take on the weight. Stretch before starting your hike, and don't sit in any one spot so long that your muscles get cold. If they do, walk a short distance to warm them up and then stretch again. Take your time. You're not in a hurry. One of the reasons I enjoy nature photography is because time ceases to matter, and the stresses of city life melt away. Besides, by taking your time, you'll see many more photographic opportunities than otherwise.

Stick to the trail, unless you really know where you're going. I have a hard time with this one when I see a deer or other animal. I want to follow the animal and try to get a photograph of it. Usually though, by the time you've scared it off, it's too late. Write the animal off as gone, and keep walking on the trail. You might get lucky and see another one. But if you leave the trail, you will get lost very quickly. Believe me on this one. I've been lost a few times in the woods and it's really scary.

Sometimes you'll have the opportunity to use different modes of transportation such as snowmobiles, ATVs, horses, or whatever. This obviously changes the weight requirements and other things, but you can't use these everywhere. The only things you can depend on are your own two feet.

Have Fun:

Most of all, getting in the outdoors can be a fun and sometimes religious experience. There's a reason people call the wild "God's Country". Don't be in a hurry and simply enjoy yourself. The photo is only half the experience.



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