Originally published October 2012. Last updated in July 2019 with lots of new gear selections and a new section on sun protection. 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.
I have a knack for spotting good backpacks. Just by looking at pictures I can usually tell if a backpack is going to be a good heavy hauler or not. So when I stumbled upon Seek Outside’s website and studied the pictures of their backpacks, I was practically salivating — they just looked good. Really good. And they’re based in western Colorado, an extra bonus.
So I emailed them asking if they’d consider custom making a panel loader for me. I’ve written about panel loader backpacks before and why they are the best type of backpacks for hiking photographers. Panel loader backpacks have a big zipper that wraps around the backpack, enabling easy access to the main compartment. A photographer can place his or her padded camera case inside and have quick access to it, rather than having to dig down through the top like most backpacking backpacks. And unlike most photography-specific backpacks which fail miserably for serious hikers in the ergonomics department, a backpack from a real outdoors company will almost always perform much better on long hikes and backpack treks.
Well, I heard back from Seek Outside and was delighted to discover that not only are they based in Ouray, the same town I live in, but I also already knew the owner Kevin Timm! Why I didn’t realize all this before I cannot say; I must have been hiding under a rock (which is kind what living in Ouray is like, come to think about it!) I was also delighted to hear that Kevin had already been thinking about producing a panel loader and was eager to hear some of my input. The end result is the Seek Outside Unaweep-Exposure panel loader backpack, a lightweight heavy-hauler and quite possibly the ultimate backpack for the backpacking photographer! Read on to find out why I am so enamored with this backpack. Continue reading “Seek Outside Exposure: The Ultimate Panel Loader Backpack for Backpacking Photographers”→
This last weekend we drove out to Cedar Mesa, Utah for one last desert camping trip for the season. We arrived a few hours prior to sunset, found a nice spot to car camp, and eventually lit a little fire to enjoy. After being glued to the computer the last few weeks, the fire, stars, and open space were balm for my soul! The next morning we would wake up early and embark on a three-day backpacking loop through Fish Creek and Owl Creek Canyons.
For this trip I decided to leave my workhorse Canon camera and lenses at home, instead opting to travel light with only my new little Fujifilm X100S large sensor compact camera. These three days in the canyons provided a good opportunity to get to know the X100S. Since it’s a popular new camera I will write a “mini review” of my first impressions below, and this post will be more of a camera report than a trip report. All these photos were taken with the X100S, but please note that some are stitched panos and most of them are adjusted in photoshop to some degree.
On backpacking trips longer than about three days, especially on solo trips, I like to bring a book along. I hardly ever get bored just relaxing and soaking in the views, but still it’s nice to have some extra brain food.
Because of the demands of backpacking, any good backcountry book needs to meet certain physical criteria. It must be compact and lightweight – so it must be a paperback, ideally with small condensed print. I had a brilliant idea once of publishing little “backpacker” editions of books, on thin Bible paper with really small print and perhaps a little companion dry bag. But for now, regular thin paperbacks will do.
Subject matter is also important to consider. Novels can be a poor choice because of the danger of ripping through the story too fast. You don’t want to haul around a book for five days if you’ll only get to enjoy it for one or two. Some novels can also seem like a petty distraction compared to the magnificence of nature around you. If I wanted petty distractions, I’d stay at home and browse YouTube.
I also try to avoid bringing books that have a singular disturbing topic; Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer is good example of this. Interesting book for sure, but the last thing I want to do for five days in the mountains is immerse myself in the world of fundamentalist Mormonism.
In my opinion, the best backpacking books are non-fiction, in particular philosophy or spirituality related books. The subject matter can be every bit as profound as your surroundings, perhaps even leading to a deeper connection with the surrounding landscapes. Philosophical books demand closer concentration and slower, more deliberate reading than novels. One chapter can often provide enough food-for-thought to digest all day long, and being out in the wilderness provides the time and focus to do so. These books can also withstand multiple reads; sometimes you can even get more out of it the second time through.
Here’s how it works: If I had an accident that left me unable to walk out of the wilderness, I extend the antenna and press the button to activate the help signal. An internal GPS receiver acquires my GPS coordinates and the PLB transmits them along with my personal identification code through satellites to an NOAA station (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). The NOAA station then calls my emergency contacts (friends and family phone numbers that I’ve registered beforehand) to ensure that I am indeed out in the wilderness and it’s not a false alarm. They then contact the local Search and Rescue team, which would initiate a rescue operation – knowing my exact location.
This weekend my friends Momo and Pavel drove up from New Mexico to go winter camping with me. Our plan was to try out this new Igloo making tool that I recently bought. The tool is specially made for constructing igloos – it is basically a curved box attached to a pole which is staked in the center. You rotate the box around the center radius and keep packing snow into it to form perfect blocks, spiraling up layer upon layer and adjusting the pole to preset lengths as you go, eventually forming a perfectly egg-shaped igloo. Simple enough in theory.
We hiked up about 1600 feet above Ouray and at 2:30pm started building the igloo on a flat ledge with a nice vista to the west. The manufacturers claim a 3 hours build time, so just to be safe I was planning on 4 hours (after all we had three people). Well, long story short, it took us 8 hours to build this damn thing! It was pretty nerve-wracking when we realized how long it was taking, since we were depending on the igloo shelter for our warmth in the bitter cold night. Plus we were never quite sure whether it would really work or not. We could have always just packed up and followed our tracks back down to the truck, but we were pretty exhausted from the hike up, and were determined to make this thing work. Well, with headlamps and a large dose of stubborn determination, we finally completed the entire igloo at 10:30 at night.
Though the igloo took a surprisingly huge amount of effort to build, it really was pretty awesome when it was done. Outside was blowing snow, with temps in the single digits, but inside the igloo was calm, peaceful, and relatively warm. Too bad we didn’t have much time to enjoy it, as we all pretty much immediately got into our sleeping bags and crashed for the night.