It’s been five years since I’ve last touched on this subject and I must admit a lot has changed since then. Backpacking has grown into an even larger part of how I create images, and the desire to go deeper into the wilderness while having the miles wear me out less has required more than a few “tweaks” to how I do things. I typically like to rewrite blog posts with new information over the years, but I have decided this time to leave the old one in tact while starting anew so that the differences can be seen. We all grow with our experiences and my journeys into backpacking are no exception.
Why would someone decide to lug a large format camera into the wild? The words “large” and “backpacking” rarely go together and immediately make featherweight hikers wince and squirm about in their space-blanket sleeping bags. One of my biggest reasons is solitude. I work and create best in places where I can photograph alone, or occasionally with a good friend who understands the pace of hiking with a photographer. Chances are that if you’ve heard of a place on the internet and it’s relatively easy to get to then it won’t be a place where you’ll find solitude. When I pull out a topo map and scout out a new spot, or stand on a dirt road vista and wonder, “what’s over there, past that mountain saddle?” - that’s when the backcountry beckons. These are places where I will certainly find solitude along with a fresh take on a mountain range. Most of all, these are places where I can pull out a wooden 4x5 camera without someone walking up to me and asking “Is that a Hasselblad?” That question happens more often than you’d think…
Over the last couple of years I’ve come to the realization that large format cameras and the required additional equipment do not have to be overbearingly heavy. If you look at the last post I made on this topic, my basic strategy was to bring absolutely everything I would take on a typical day hike in my f-stop camera bag, then strap on all the additional backpacking gear. Tent, sleeping bag, pad, food, and clothing all went onto the outside and overloaded the bag while also giving the illusion from a distance that I was carrying a bouldering pad on my back. It was quite an unfortunate - though probably entertaining to watch - event if I ever had to walk through a pedestrian opening in a cattle fence (common at some wilderness boundaries) only to find that my pack was too large to fit through.
My new strategy is to pare down the equipment to only what I will absolutely need. Two lenses instead of four, five or six film holders instead of ten, a lighter-weight wooden 4x5 Intrepid Camera, and a much smaller tripod. These choices were made carefully, I realized that my 75mm and 135mm were my most used lenses when backpacking. The 90mm and the 210mm had to go which saves about 3 or 4 pounds. Reducing five film holders also helped drastically as that weighs more than the wooden 4x5 alone. Don’t worry, I still carry extra film and a changing bag for trips over one night but it does result in a reduction in the variety of film on hand. It can be hard to part with lenses and film types when each has their special purpose, but the sacrifices meant a significant drop in weight which means I can go further to see more dramatic landscapes and feel more mentally and physically fresh upon arrival. There is also the old argument that limitations in gear can actually spawn creativity as you’re “forced” to find a solution instead of whipping out another gadget. In the past I had been literally weighing myself down just because it was too difficult to make these decisions.
The other big change is to use an actual backpacking bag, designed to carry large loads comfortably for days on end. This can be a real challenge as nearly all traditional backpacking packs do a great job at making gear completely inaccessible. They are built around the premise that the user will hike into a location and then turn the bag upside down and dump everything out at the campsite, only needing access to water and small snacks during the hike itself. We photographers are not like that, we need to be able to safely hold a variety of fancy stuff and we want easy access both during the hike and once we reach camp. Recently there has been more “panel loading” backpacks showing up on the market, which essentially open up like big clamshell and allow people to get to stuff in the bottom without pulling out all the stuff on top first. These did not initially come about for the sake of photographers, but one company in particular has caught on to the demand. Seek Outside - out of Grand Junction, Colorado - got together with another hardcore backcountry photographer, Jack Brauer, to create a magical pack that does just what we need. On top of that, the price is not much of a premium over most high-end backpacking bags.
The pack is called the Exposure 5000 and it’s plenty roomy for large photo kits and multiple days worth of backcountry stuff, yet it feels quite light on your back even with a large load. The suspension system is adjustable in seemingly endless ways and allows you to transfer the weight to where it’s supposed to be - your hips and not your shoulders. I’m not sure this will ever be possible with a pack that opens up f-stop style. Don’t get me wrong, the more camera-specific packs are great for day hikes but once you overload them they get uncomfortable quickly as the miles wear on. Where it used to be necessary for me to strap my sleeping bag, pad, food, and clothing to the outside of my pack, I can now fit everything inside and only the tent (and tripod, of course) get strapped to the outside. This also allows the pack to be much more organized so it's easier for me to take photos while the pack is loaded, or to access snacks or my water filter.
It should be noted that this pack itself does not come with anything to actually hold the cameras. They designed the pack to hold the f-stop ICU (internal camera units) that have become rather standard in the photography industry. There are also many other manufacturers of adjustable padded camera inserts that would also likely fit.
These changes have made backpacking much more comfortable, with distant treks far more possible. I no longer shy away from locations that require a ten mile (or more) hike in a day because I don’t feel like my shoulders are being cut off by a backpack. The weight reduction in the kit also plays a major role. I never did weigh my old camera kit, but since I figured this question would come up I went ahead and weighed my current backpacking 4x5 gear: 15 pounds, that’s it. That includes 2 lenses, 5 film holders, the camera, filters, extra film, accessories, and the tripod. Just being a little smarter and more selective with equipment went a long way, which means that now I can go a long way. I have not (and likely will not) weigh the entire loaded backpack because that varies with each trip significantly. Extra days require more food and fuel, and cold weather means heavier clothing.
I hope this helps people understand how possible it is to go backpacking with a large format camera, or really any camera system out there. Once you find yourself deep in the wilderness on a multi-day trip it will likely completely change your approach to photography. If you’re new to backpacking in general then there’s only one way to try it: strap a bag on and hit the trail! Don’t worry if your kit of camping stuff isn’t ideal, or the most lightweight. These tweaks in one’s kit take years to perfect and even I am constantly making changes to my packing strategy. Make sure you have everything you need as far as safety goes (warm clothing, enough water, food, knife, maps, bear spray, rope, lights, etc), but beyond that it takes time and practice to make backpacking a comfortable and photographically productive experience. How has backpacking worked into your photography? Leave a comment below and start the discussion!
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