By Lori Janeson
Gearing up for the wildlife photography expedition of a lifetime? Or just heading out for a quick out-and-back overnight at the nearest national park?
Either way, you need to be prepared for the unexpected — and equipped to take memorable photos in virtually any conditions.
Don’t leave home without taking these essential items.
Gone are the days of carrying a different zoom lens for every type of photo.
“Think in advance about the type of shooting you’ll be doing — for instance, wildlife photography that requires high-detail distance shots necessitates more powerful equipment.”—Lori Janeson
Today, you can get away with two, maybe three, for the vast majority of nature photography applications.
Waterproof Carrying Case
This is an absolute necessity, even in arid climates and on trips that won’t involve water travel or crossings. You never know when a storm will spin up or you’ll lose your balance at exactly the wrong moment and plunge into a creek.
Lightweight, Sweat-Wicking Fabrics
With the possible exception of summertime excursions in arid climes, where your sweat is likely to burn off before it does much harm, you’ll want to trade in your cotton underlayers for lightweight, sweat-wicking synthetic or silk materials. The cost of these products has cratered in recent years, so stocking up won’t set you back too much. Remember, wet cotton isn’t just uncomfortable: at lower temperatures, it can be dangerous.
Each photography expedition is different. If you’re trekking through the desert during the summer, you’ll need a very different wardrobe than you brought on your journey into the high Rockies last November.
Beyond synthetic fabrics, you’ll want to prep for the warmest possible days and the coolest possible nights that you’re likely to encounter — particularly in areas without reliable weather forecasting, such as remote mountain regions.
Lightweight down jackets have improved to the point that they’re not much more than shells, and they pack down accordingly. Wool socks with sweat-wicking liners work wonders in cool, moist climes. Windbreaker jackets are crucial in exposed areas. Head protection — a wool cap, heavy-duty flapper with ear protection, or baseball cap, depending on the temperature — is a must for sun and weather protection.
Weatherproof Sleeping Bag & Pad
You can always unzip or writhe out of a heavy duty sleeping bag when you get too hot, so bring the coldest-rated bag you’re realistically likely to need. At altitude and high latitudes, for instance, you’ll want a bag rated to withstand freezing temperatures at any time of year.
How old is your tent? If you’ve primarily been a car camper up until this point, it’s entirely possible that you’ve had no reason to give up your ancient, bulky, heavy duty tent. It’s served you well, and you’ve returned the favor.
Unfortunately, old-style tents may not cut it out on the trail, especially not when you have extra photo equipment to worry about.
Compact Camp Stove & Cook Set
Unless you’re content with protein bars for the duration of your excursion, bring a compact camp stove and cook set to prepare your meals. Look for a model that offers just the essentials, preferably with a non-combustible power source.
Plenty of Energy-Dense Snacks
To bridge the long gaps between meals and keep your legs and mind fresh for the tasks ahead, pack plenty of energy-dense snacks: your favorite protein bars, trail mixes, nuts, and so on. Eat regularly — a few bites every hour, with proper hydration, will keep you going far better than larger, less frequent meals.
Safe Water Tablets & Spare Bottles
On longer trips, you can’t possibly carry all the water you’ll need for drinking and washing. Bring iodine tablets or comparable safe water products to treat naturally occurring water on the trail. Have a few spare bottles handy to stock up during the evening, as well.
External Power Packs and/or Batteries
Unless you’re hopping between modern campsites, you’ll want to have plenty of juice to charge your camera, phone and other essentials. Bring an external power back, spare camera batteries, or both, plus any accessories (power cords, adapters) you’ll need to hook them up.
If you’re planning to move around in the early morning, evening, or any serious low-light conditions, you’ll need a headlamp. Just remember to turn it off before you actually shoot.
Mind Your Weight
As you pack up for your nature photography excursion, remember to watch your weight.
Not your body weight — your pack weight. This is especially important if you plan to hike long distances on rugged or remote trails. The more you need to carry on your back, the slower you’ll progress, and the more vulnerable you’ll be to wind, fire, unstable ground, and other trail hazards.
Don’t assume that you can carry up to the weight for which your pack is weighted. If you’re not used to hiking with lots of gear on your back, you’re in for a steep learning curve. Failing to properly prepare for a long, weighed slog can lead to less-than-desirable consequences: back pain, shoulder strain, pinched nerves, even acute injuries like slipped disc or hernia. In the worst case, you could wind up incapacitated or in severe pain on the trail, necessitating a costly and potentially hazardous extraction.
It may be worth your while to take a few practice hikes before your big trip, or even rejiggering your plans to limit the amount of walking you have to do with a full load. There are plenty of amazing photo opportunities within a day’s walk of a drive-in campsite — you can leave most of your stuff there and just take the bare essentials in with you.
Ready for Your Wilderness Closeup?
Fortune favors the well-prepared. This is a comprehensive packing list to ready you for your next wilderness photography excursion, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for a complete roundup of everything you could possibly need out on the trail.
If you’re heading to a remote area, or expecting to spend multiple nights in the field without reliable cellular connectivity or road access, you’ll need to bring additional equipment: flares, satellite phone or emergency radio, extra rations. First-timers should always consult with someone more experienced than they — or, better yet, head out with a seasoned guide. The best nature photograph in the world isn’t worth your life.
Lori Janeson is a nature photographer living in Winnipeg, Manitoba.