Gear For A Photographic Hiking Expedition

My quest for dramatic landscape images of the Drakensberg mountains involves hiking into this mountainous wonderland with a heavy backpack. Every trip I take, I learn more about my equipment and I learn more about what to take and what to leave behind and figure out new ways of cutting weight. Weight is a very important factor to take into consideration on a backpacking trip because it can make or break your experience. Only take what you need! The equipment I use largely depends on the season in which I am hiking, together with weather forecasts and also the length of the hike. For this blog article, lets assume I am going on a 3 night / 4 day hike during November (rainy season) on one of our Photographic Workshops to the Drakensberg Amphitheatre.


BACKPACK & HYDRATION

Total Empty Weight - 2,590 kg
Total Weight with 2.3L Water - 4,890 kg

All of my equipment gets packed into a 65 liter backpack. Nothing is stored outside of the bag besides a tripod. The hydration pack fits inside the backpack in a dedicated pouch, and the pipe goes through a special hole in the bag and connects to one of the straps on the outside of the pack by the shoulder area for easy access. I use a Kway Advance 65L backpack and Kway 2L hydration pack (bladder). Not seen in the image below, I also take a very light 500ml coke bottle. I use this to make an energy drink like Game (isotonic drink) as a change to the plain water from the hydration pack. Before I leave for a hike, I fill the hydration pack with about 1.8 liters of water, as well as the 500ml coke bottle. You can also use a bigger water bottle if you don't own or don't want to use a hydration pack.

The backpack and hydration pack I use for hikes.

The backpack and hydration pack I use for hikes.


PHOTOGRAPHIC EQUIPMENT

Total Weight - 5,453 kg

Choosing what camera gear to buy and take on a backpacking trip can be tricky, as camera gear can be very heavy and cumbersome at the best of times. The gear below that I have chosen is versatile for most applications in the mountains. I would like to add a small 70-200 f/4 lens as well for those long distance scenes, but at this stage I will make do with what I have, as we all know how expensive gear has become. My full photographic equipment list includes,

  • Nikon D810 camera with L-Bracket (including a battery and 1 x 128gb SD card and 1 x 64gb CF card)
  • Nikon 14-24 f/2.8 lens
  • Nikon 24-120 f/4 lens with circular polarising filter
  • Cable release
  • Lightning trigger release (for those dramatic storms)
  • Redged TSC-428g Tripod and Redged RNB-2 Ball Head (try not use a bulky, heavy aluminium tripod. If you can afford it, get a carbon fiber tripod).
  • Small F-stop ICU (internal compartment unit)
  • 2 x spare camera batteries
  • Microfiber cloth
  • Camera "Storm Jacket" (to cover the camera in rainy conditions)
  • Big dry bag (to cover the ICU in rainy conditions)
  • iPhone for snaps and videos along the hike

All of the above equipment is packed into the F-stop ICU, apart from the tripod and ball head. The ICU also has extra space for my personal items. I usually keep things like a GPS, Satellite phone and charging stations inside the ICU. I pack the ICU near the top of my hiking bag to make it easier to stop for a photo opportunity, and also in the event where I slip and fall. The bottom of the hiking bag will take the initial impact, therefore my camera equipment is safer at the top of the bag. The pack may be a bit top heavy, but for me this top "heavy-ness" is not a big enough deal to pack the camera gear lower in my pack.

Something I also like to do is pack the small ICU inside a dry bag inside my pack when I know I may encounter heavy rain, or when crossing rivers. The dry bag gives that added protection from water if you accidentally fall into a river or get stuck in a heavy downpour. For me, rain/water protection for my photographic gear is paramount, and worth carrying the extra 150g for that.

My photographic equipment for hikes.

My photographic equipment for hikes.

All of the above gear packed into the small F-stop ICU - note the extra space for personal items.

All of the above gear packed into the small F-stop ICU - note the extra space for personal items.

VARIATIONS FOR A LONGER HIKE - I would add more spare camera batteries, as well as extra memory cards for the camera.

If money where not an issue, I would like to invest into a smaller mirrorless camera system from the likes of Sony, Fujifilm or Olympus. I don't have any experience with these systems and I don't know what the quality is like, but the lighter system for landscape shooting is very appealing and is something I am researching for the future.

My recommendations on focal lengths for hiking,

  • 14-16mm as a starting point on the wide end, something like a 14-24 f2.8 or 16-35 f/2.8. The 2.8 is great for nights shots too, so it's worth the extra weight for a 2.8 lens.
  • 24-70 or 24-120 f/4 (Nikon) or 24-105 f/4 (Canon)
  • 70-200 f/4 for the longer shots. The 2.8 version is too heavy and the 2.8 aperture is not needed.

You may also prefer to carry your camera around your neck when walking, so a camera strap will be needed. I don't like to do this in case of an accidental fall. I prefer to use my iPhone for snaps along the way. The quality is obviously not as good as my Nikon D810, but the iPhone model I have (iPhone 6S Plus) can shoot RAW DNG files so the quality is not terrible. Its a good compromise for easy image taking along the way. I keep the phone inside a small soft padded case attached to my hiking pack strap.

A NOTE ON FILTERS FOR HIKING : I use a set of Lee Filters for my landscape work, but I don't take them on a hike for a number of reasons,

  • Expensive to replace
  • Stock levels always an issue so availability is not guaranteed if you need to replace damaged filters
  • Difficult to pack and protect, especially if you use the bigger SW150 filters like I do
  • I like to keep things simple on hikes and prefer not to use filters

Having said the above about filters, I do use a 77mm Circular Polariser which I leave attached to my 24-120 f/4 lens. Its protected on the lens by a lens cap, and takes up next to no space.


COOKING EQUIPMENT

Total Weight - 700 g

My cooking setup is ultra simple. I prefer to keep things on a hike as simple and efficient as possible, using the least amount of equipment. My cooking equipment list includes,

  • Jetboil (to boil water and is self-igniting)
  • Gas cannister (stored inside the Jetboil system - not seen in the image below)
  • Spork
  • Small knife
  • Small dish scrubber (to scrub sticky oats away from the X-mug. I don't worry about detergent on short hikes)
  • Sea To Summit X-Mug (fold up mug or bowl that I use for coffee, oats and noodles)

I keep the X-Mug, spork and small knife inside a zip-loc bag which I store on the lid of my backpack for easy access, together with my small personal items such as first aid-kit, sunscreen, tooth brush and tooth paste etc. The dish scrubber fits into the top of the Jetboil system.

My cooking equipment for hikes.

My cooking equipment for hikes.

VARIATIONS FOR A LONGER HIKE - I would carry an extra gas canister, although modern gas canisters do last a very long time. I will carry a small detergent as well to properly clean the X-Mug.

For some boiling systems, you will need to use a pot to hold the water and boil from. You may also prefer to use a small stainless steel mug instead of the X-Mug.


SLEEPING & SHELTER

Total Weight - 4,061 kg

The 3 basic essentials you need when preparing your sleeping gear for a hike is a tent, a sleeping bag and mattress. I have chosen a lightweight 3-season 2-person tent which weighs a total of 1.7kg, but have chosen a very warm sleeping bag to counteract the loss of cold protection when using the 3-season tent in colder conditions. The mat chosen also uses thermal technology for heat generation in cold conditions. Although I like to sleep on my own in my tent, I have chosen a 2-person tent. I like to have a small bit of extra space for my equipment, which most 1-person tents don't have. If you are choosing a tent for yourself only, choose a 2 person tent. The extra space is well worth the effort of carrying a slightly heavier tent, and on those rainy days the extra space will make things a lot more comfortable. My sleeping and shelter equipment list includes,

I keep all the sleeping gear (not the tent) inside the dry bag. I want to keep this dry if hiking in rain or if I fell into a river by accident. A down sleeping bag is useless when wet. I store the sleeping gear and tent at the bottom of my hiking pack.

My shelter and sleeping gear for hikes.

My shelter and sleeping gear for hikes.

VARIATIONS FOR A LONGER HIKE AND DIFFERENT WEATHER - For warmer weather I would take a lighter, warmer rated sleeping bag. For colder weather I would add a thermal sleeping bag liner, to add more warmth in very cold conditions. For colder snow hikes, I would take a different tent. I have a Kway Kilimanjaro 2 Tent that I would use, although it does weigh 3.5kg but is better suited for colder conditions.


ELECTRONICS

Total Weight - 1,137 kg

As far as electronics go, I use the following for navigation, safety and communication. I like to keep a satellite phone purely for emergencies. Its a small amount of extra weight I may never use, but on the occasion where you have no cellphone signal this will be a life saver. My electronics list includes,

  • Headlamp
  • Garmin Etrex 30x GPS
  • Satellite phone
  • Powermonkey Charger
  • iPhone Cable
  • Spare batteries
  • Cellphone (not included in the below image)

The electronics are kept in a small dry bag, to prevent water damage from rain and rivers.

Electronics I use on hikes.

Electronics I use on hikes.

VARIATIONS FOR A LONGER HIKE - I will take along solar panels to charge up the Powermonkey charger, as well as extra spare AA and AAA batteries. A good compass is also a must if you have no electronic GPS. Electronics do fail, so I will normally take a manual compass along as a safety precaution if my GPS does fail.


PERSONAL ITEMS

Total Weight - 570 g

My personal list of items include,

  • Microfiber Towel
  • First Aid Kit (ultralight kit)
  • Medication (pain killers, muscle-strain (anti-inflammatory), nausea, tummy problems, anti-histamines, personal medication and vitamins)
  • Toilet paper
  • Tooth brush and tooth paste
  • Sunscreen
  • Lip Ice
  • Pouch to hold personal items
  • Face cream
  • Water purification tablets
  • Wet wipes
  • Small tub of vaseline
  • Air mattress repair kit
  • Thermometer (to see how cold it really gets)

VARIATIONS FOR A LONGER HIKE AND COLDER WEATHER - More toilet paper / tooth paste / medication / wet wipes. I would also recommend hand warmer sachets for extremely cold weather. On longer hikes where I want to wash, I will take bio-degradable soap. 


CLOTHING

Variable Weight

When it comes to choosing clothing for a hike, there are many factors to take into consideration - temperature, weather forecast and the length of hike. Don't take any clothing made from cotton - cotton takes far too long to dry. Depending on the factors mentioned above, I will choose from the following list of potential clothing,

  • Underwear (I wear one pair for 2 days)
  • Long Socks (I wear one pair for 2 days)
  • Short Socks (I wear one pair for 2 days - I wear a short pair of socks under a long pair to eliminate blisters)
  • Dry bag to keep clothing inside
  • Shirt
  • Zip-off long pants (the type where the legs can zip off and turn into shorts)
  • Pair of hiking boots
  • Down Jacket
  • Outer shell Jacket
  • Beanie
  • Gloves
  • Buff
  • Thermal underwear
  • Waterproof pants
  • Flip flops (for walking around camp and for getting up in the night)
  • Fleece jacket or hoody
  • Sun glasses
  • Hat

When buying clothing for hiking, look for technical clothing. Staff at most outdoor shops will know what materials are best for expeditions, so call on their knowledge when making your purchases.

As part of my "clothing" list, I will also take a pair of trekking poles. These are great for helping with transferring weight onto the arms, and also assist in adding more contact points with the ground when traversing uneven terrain and crossing rivers.


FOOD

Total Weight - 900 g per day

Hiking food won't win any prizes for being the healthiest choice on the planet. I don't worry about eating healthy when out hiking. I am mainly concerned in taking in enough calories to replace the burnt energy during the hike. It is recommended to take in at least 3500 calories per day for an average sized man. The trick is to find foods that are super light, but high in calorie count.

I have done some basic research on food items and have devised a basic menu that I use per day on a hike. On a short hike I don't really vary the food items much, but if I did a longer hike I would mix things up a bit, and try a different menu each day to eliminate boredom.

Make sure to take in enough food each day. You may not feel hungry on a hike because of the physical exertion, but don't let this prevent you from eating. It is very important to replenish your body with the energy and nutrition it needs. Your body needs food to recover efficiently from a hard days hike.

My basic menu per day (3500 calories at a weight of 900g) is as follows,

PRE-BREAKFAST : 1 x Future Life bar when I wake up. Usually each morning I wake up and go out to shoot sunrise straight away. Having this bar takes the edge off of the hunger.

BREAKFAST : 2 Servings of Instant Oats with Sugar, made with boiling water. I will sometimes also have a cup of coffee or hot chocolate.

LUNCH : 2 wraps filled with processed cheese and salami. I pack these the morning before I leave for the hike.

DINNER / SUPPER : 1 packet of 2-minute noodles, 20g of grated cheese and 50g of biltong. Noodles cooked with boiling water. 4 pack of Oreo biscuits for dessert. (Dehydrated meals are available that people take hiking, but I am yet to try these). I will sometimes also have a cup of coffee or hot chocolate.

SNACKS : Per day I take the following snacks (I eat these between meals whenever I am hungry) - 1 x 50g Biltong, 2 x 50g snickers bar, 1 x 36g packet of Salt and Vinegar chips, 1 x Peanut M&M's, enough Game (isotonic drink) for 2 x 500ml bottles daily.

This is just a rough guide on what I like to take and eat PER DAY. Obviously food choice is very subjective so check the back of your favourite food items and calculate your calories to equal roughly 3500 calories per day and at the same time being as light as possible.


FINAL THOUGHTS ON GEAR

Lets look at our total weights for the various sections above,

Backpack & Hydration = 2,590 kg (excluding water)
Photographic Equipment = 5,453 kg
Cooking = 0,700 kg
Sleeping & Shelter = 4,061 kg
Electronics = 1,137 kg
Personal items = 0,570 kg
Clothing = lets estimate 1,500 kg

BASE WEIGHT TOTAL = 16,111 kg

  • Add 2.3L (2,300 kg) of water
  • Add 3 days worth of food (3 x 0,900 kg)

FINAL CARRIED WEIGHT = 21,1 kg

I always try and aim for a pack of around 20-22kg maximum for a 3 day hike. (20 to 25% of your body weight as a rule of thumb). More than this and things will start to become uncomfortable. It may sound OCD, but invest the time into weighing each of your items and find out just exactly how heavy things can be. Find ways of cutting weight, find multiple uses in items and research lighter equipment. Spend the time thinking about your gear, and you will be amazed at just how much weight and bulk you can cut down. Think as best as you can about what you choose to carry and only take the real essential items. Before your next hike, try and better your fitness levels as well. No amount of weight saving on your gear will trump good fitness. Enjoy the experience of hiking, being self-sufficient out in nature is something you will never forget.