Originally published October 2012. Last updated in June 2020 with the addition of the LighterPack spreadsheet. Many of the product links are affiliate links, which means that if you purchase something after clicking one of my gear links, I will get a small cut of the payment and it won’t cost you anything more.
Backpacking into the mountains is a great joy of mine. It feels adventurous and liberating to venture into the wilderness with everything you need to survive (and even stay comfortable) on your back. By backpacking you have the means to “live” – albeit briefly – in paradisiacal locations that boggle the mind and soothe the soul. But, first you need to have the gear to do it.
As Terence McKenna observed, humans are probably better categorized as crustaceans, since we basically live our lives moving from one shell to another, whether it’s a house, car, office, or a tent. Which is to say, we can’t just wander off naked into the woods and expect to be one with nature! Fortunately for the modern adventurous crustacean we have an almost endless array of high tech, lightweight clothes, sleeping bags, shelters, and tools to keep us alive and happy while walking in the wilderness.
Recently I’ve received a bunch of emails asking me about my backpacking gear. I realize that it can be a bit daunting for someone who is interested – but not experienced – in backpacking to figure out what equipment they need to bring into the mountains for an overnight or multi-day camping trip. You need to travel light, but you also need all the stuff to keep you warm and dry. In this post, I’m going to list and explain all the gear that I use on backpacking treks. I will also include some helpful tips along the way.
You’ve probably seen the recent headlines about the careless behavior of photographers and “influencers” trampling poppy fields in southern California. This is just the latest example of a rising worldwide trend of careless outdoor behavior from people who seem only concerned about getting their shot, and either don’t understand or don’t care about the damage they may be causing in the environment or the negative examples they are spreading to their followers. Here in Colorado, I’ve witnessed people flying drones in wilderness areas (illegal), pitching their tents right on top of wildflowers meadows, building fire rings on open tundra grass next to lakes above treeline, and trampling lakeside vegetation.
In this Instagram era it’s becoming more and more difficult to deny that our photography might actually bring harm to the special natural places that we are intending to celebrate. Whether it’s due to our own careless actions in pursuit of the shot, or publicizing previously quiet and pristine places to the masses, nature photography has unfortunately become a potential nemesis of untrammeled nature rather than an ally of nature as it has traditionally been assumed. I’ve always thought it’s a good thing when my photography inspires people to get outside and enjoy nature, but if even a small portion of those people behave disrespectfully when they’re out there, then it may all be a net loss for the natural lands I wish to preserve.
In an effort to combat this trend, some fellow photographers and I have gotten together during the last year to form an alliance of photographers devoted to a more careful and mindful approach to nature photography which prioritizes the long term well being of nature over the short term desires of photography. The group we created is called the Nature First Photography Alliance. We have drafted a set of 7 principles which we all pledge to follow and promote. As nature photographers it is our responsibility not just to create beautiful images but to act as ambassadors for the lands we photograph. From our positions as active photographers we hope to leverage our networks of friends, followers, and associates to spread the word and hopefully turn this into a popular positive movement that spreads out into the broader culture.
If you are a photographer reading this, I invite you to read more about the movement at www.NatureFirstPhotography.org and to join us as a fellow member on the website. Even if you’re not a photographer I would encourage you to take a look and consider how you too can help to promote a more mindful approach to outdoor recreation.
David Johnston runs a great photography podcast called the Photography Roundtable where he discusses photography related topics with a variety of different photographers. David recently interviewed me via Skype and we discussed various topics including my background in photography, favorite places to shoot, processing techniques, gear and printing preferences, and more. Check it out here!
The article hits home for me, not just because I’m an avid backcountry splitboarder concerned about avalanches, but also because I spent the entire 2001-02 winter season working/bumming at Stevens Pass and have ridden the Tunnel Creek terrain many times. This article delves into the story in a much deeper fashion than the usual avalanche accident reports, providing background of the circumstances, the conditions, and most importantly of the people involved. The website also provides thorough multimedia integration to tell the whole story as clearly as possible. It was a truly tragic day, and the article is well worth a read for anyone who ventures into the winter backcountry.
One aspect of backcountry travel that the article hits on is the concept of group dynamics and how that can affect backcountry safety. A while back I read a very interesting and surprising report about this: Evidence of heuristic traps in recreational avalanche accidents, by Ian McCammon. “Heuristic traps” basically means poor decision making due to unconscious social reasons. The study is based on statistics compiled by the CAIC (Colorado Avalanche Information Center) from 622 avalanche accidents over 30 years. Here are the key points from the study to consider every time you head out into the backcountry snow:
• The safest group sizes tend to be 2-5 people, with 4 being the safest. Groups of 6-10 are just as hazardous as 1.
• For all levels of training, everyone tends to be slightly safer in unfamiliar terrain. Groups with advanced avy knowledge stand out as being the clearly the safest in unfamiliar terrain, and actually the least safe in familiar terrain!
• The mere presence of people outside the victims’ group correlated with a significant increase in exposure to avalanche hazard. Again, especially so with advanced-trained groups.
The group involved in the Tunnel Creek accident hit all three checkboxes: a large group of experienced skiers in familiar terrain with presence of outsiders (the place is a very short hike from the ski resort). The power of these heuristic traps is evidenced in the NYT article by some of of those involved who said that they had doubts and misgivings at the top, but didn’t say anything (because of the social influences of being in a big group).
“Traditional avalanche education places a heavy emphasis on terrain, snowpack and weather factors. While there’s no doubt that this knowledge can lead to better decisions, it is disturbing that the victims in this study that were most influenced by heuristic traps were those with the most avalanche training.” ~ McCammon
Tragedies like the Tunnel Creek accident underscore the importance of keeping a conscious attention to not only the snowpack behavior, but our group and personal behavior as well in order to maintain objective and rational decision making in potentially dangerous circumstances.
Photography Life, a popular Colorado-based photography website, just published a guest blog post by yours truly, titled “Originality in the Grand Landscape”. In the article I attempt to explain how creativity with grand scenic photography goes beyond just framing and taking the photos; it involves the entire process including researching unique locations, coming up with original ideas to shoot, and the adventures to get to the right place at the right time. To date this is my most comprehensive attempt to illustrate my own photographic strategies, motivations, and tips, and I hope that it will provide inspiration for aspiring landscape photographers.
I am in the midst of the worst snowboarding season I’ve experienced in my snowboarding career. With the super sketchy avalanche conditions here in Colorado this winter, I haven’t been snowboarding much at all, and I can’t help but reminisce about better times on the snow! Below are a few photos of me snowboarding at Engelberg, Switzerland last winter, taken by my friends Kevin and Jonas.
As you may know if you follow this blog, last winter I spent most of the season in Engelberg, Switzerland. It wasn’t exactly a big winter there either – at least statistically speaking. The season was characterized by occasional big storms followed by weeks of sun. At the time, I enjoyed exploring all kinds of new terrain in the spectacular Alps, but I was also thinking that, well, it just wasn’t that great of a winter. The thing is, when I was in the midst of it, during those weeks-long dry stretches I couldn’t help but think that way. I couldn’t help but think about how much better it could be, about how much more powder I could potentially have been riding on a more generous snow season.
Funny thing is, from my perspective a year later, looking back on my winter in Switzerland I can only remember it as nothing short of epic! This is a phenomenon I’ve experienced before, after other big trips. As time passes I forget about all the in-between downtimes, and all the highlights condense into what I can only recall as a fantastic series of experiences! Indeed, when I think about all the powder days and incredible descents I did score in the Alps last winter, it really does stand out in my mind as one of my most memorable winters.
I think it’s amazing how our memories do this – how they become refined over time, how the mundane stretches of time condense and settle into insignificance while the high points come together and grow in prominence in our minds. Yet I also wonder why it takes me a year or more to gain the perspective to see just how special those moments were as a whole. It’s a great thing to have memories that I can forever cherish and reflect upon, but it’s not good to only be able to truly appreciate those experiences through the rear view mirror. So, I think it’s important to strive for that perspective in the moment. Of course the highlights will be sweet while they’re happening, but it’s those in-between downtimes when I need to relax and see the bigger picture, instead of expecting everything to be awesome every single day and being disappointed when it’s not.
This last month and a half has been one big “in-between downtime” – not snowboarding much, not photographing much, not really getting outside much at all. But I’m not bothered by it. In fact I’m taking advantage of it. I’ve actually been having fun working on some big projects that I’ve had on the back burner for years; I wake up every morning eager to get back to work and get it all finished while I have this chance to focus. So while I know that this snowboarding season will be forgettable, I’m making the best of it in other ways. And in the meantime, I can still savor my memories of powder days past!
Panoramic view of Titlis and pretty much most of the terrain of Engelberg.
I look at this photo now and I recall so many sweet descents all throughout this incredible terrain. At left center where the radio tower is is the top of Titlis – it takes one gondola and two tram rides to ascend the 6,000 vertical feet to the top there. Below that is the Steinberg Glacier. At far left is the Laub, an incredible 3,000 vert slackcountry face. Behind that is Fürenalp, and way back behind there is the Surenen valley. In the center is Jochstock, with its great lines off either side. To the right of that, more great terrain.
Dave Showalter is an accomplished nature, wildlife, and conservation photographer. His dedication and relentless efforts shine through on his must-read blog Western Wild, which is full of inspiring photos and informative text. I recently asked Dave a few questions about his photography and his conservation efforts.
You’ve worked on a wide range of conservation fronts, most recently involving the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Can you explain in a nutshell what this project is about? How and why did you become involved with this particular conservation effort?
I was contacted by Barbara Cozzens, NW Director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition about their campaign to protect wild areas along the Absaroka-Beartooth Front. Barb understands the value of advocacy-driven photography and we agreed to develop a project with the support of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP). It’s called a “Tripods In The Mud” (TIM) where the three legs of the tripod signify the partnership of the conservation group, the photographer, and ILCP. The Absaroka Front TIM is a big step for any conservation group, and GYC deserves a lot of credit for thinking outside the box and partnering with ILCP. It speaks to their commitment to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE). We planned three photo expeditions in August, September, and November and I covered an enormous amount of territory in Cody Country.
The A-B Front forms the eastern boundary of Yellowstone, is often called “Yellowstone’s Wild Side” and includes a bewildering amount of truly wild country, the Shoshone, Clark’s Fork and Greybull Rivers, and important migratory and winter habitat for a lot of Yellowstone wildlife. The recreation and sportsmen opportunities, and associated revenue are enormous. It’s easily the wildest and most important landscape in the West, and it’s all threatened by oil and gas drilling, fracking. Our job is to illustrate why this land is so important to the GYE, steer energy development to more appropriate “brown field” areas, and get the A-B Front protected by convincing land managers and local politicians that it’s the right thing to do long-term. The timing is critical too, with both the Shoshone National Forest and the BLM drafting their 20-year land management plans right now.
Grant Dixon is a photographer from Tasmania who has trekked, climbed, skied, and photographed many of the great mountain ranges of the world. His online photo gallery is extensive, and relentlessly impressive. I asked Grant if he would answer some of my questions via email, and below are his answers. Enjoy, and be sure to put aside several hours at least for browsing his galleries!
You have experienced and photographed many of Earth’s great mountain ranges. Do you have any particular favorites, and if so, why?
Probably the Andes; not only is it the longest mountain range on Earth but its north-south orientation means it has a great diversity of geology and climate zones, and hence mountain form and environments. The Patagonian Andes are probably my favourite area – I could return there repeatedly.
The rather smaller Karakoram Range, often lumped with the Himalaya is another favourite. The mountains there are so steep & raw, and its been the scene of several memorable adventures, including a longitudinal ski traverse in 2004.
Every so often, I have vivid dreams about photographing an amazing landscape bathed in fantastic light. The dreams are often very thorough, including the events preceding the shoot, scouting the location, the actual photography with the camera itself, and the sometimes the stoke of successfully capturing the moment. In the more frustrating dreams, I’m confused and fumble with my gear, or I’ve forgotten some crucial equipment, or I’m too late for the light, rushing around trying to find my spot and missing the moment. Those are actually the forgiving dreams. The worst are the successful shoots, because I always wake up extremely disappointed that it was a dream and all my photos have vanished.
Norio Matsumoto is the most dedicated mountain photographer I know of. Every winter, he camps alone for months on end in a snow cave on Alaskan glaciers, and during the summers he camps on islands on the Alaskan coast, photographing whales. The result of his focussed efforts is one of the most spectacular mountain photo collections I’ve ever seen. Norio’s work has been a big inspiration for me for years, and I finally emailed him recently to ask him a few questions.
It sounds like you return every winter/summer to the same glacier/island. Is this correct? How many years have you been doing this?
There are a couple of glaciers that I go for winter camping, and in summer, there are many different places that I camp. I have been doing this for about ten years.