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Hiking For Photographers

by Skip Spitzer

Hiking For Photographers
Canon 6D, 24-105 f/4 L @24mm, f13, 1/10 sec., ISO 100

Adding backcountry chops to your photography skill set can make you a much better wilderness photographer. Here’s how.

Better hiker, better photographer

Being a better hiker can get you deeper into the backcountry, to more—and more engaging—subject matter. As John Muir put it, “Along the river, over the hills, in the ground, in the sky” nature is “unfolding, unrolling in glorious exuberant extravagance.”  Put a little of that in front of your lens.

Find a little of nature’s glorious exuberant extravagance.
Five exposure, non-tone mapped blend, Canon 6D, 24-105 f/4 L @35mm, f13, ISO 100.

Improving your hiking abilities can strengthen your connection to your subject matter. If you want to tell a nature story through your images, your relationship with nature is what really gives you a story to tell. Being really capable, safe, efficient, and comfortable in the backcountry are key foundations for really sensing and experiencing the natural world.

Even better, being a better hiker can make you more creative in the telling. This is because being capable, safe, efficient, and comfortable allows you to calm down your thinking brain. Psychologists describe how in creativity ideas “incubate,” or simmer, outside our awareness, where notions recombine in novel  and unpredictable patterns, in ways that go beyond words. We get in an unconscious “flow state,” where surprisingly beautiful things can happen. But you can’t get in the zone unless your skills can meet the ranging, willful, and uncompromising demands of the environment you are in.

woods image

At ease shooting in the rain, in a creek, deep in the forest.
Canon 6D, 24-105 f/4 L @ 67mm, f16, 15 sec, ISO 100.

Also, being a better hiker means hiking more, which fosters greater health and wellbeing. That’s worthwhile all by itself of course. Photographically, it could easily manifest in more vital images too, and image-making over a longer lifetime.

Hiking: Not just a walk in the woods


Skills required

It’s tempting to think of hiking as something simply intuitive, something we just do if we’re willing to get sweaty. Yet there is a wide range of skills and experience needed to really earn your hiking boots. Here are just a few examples of the power of hiker know-how.

Hike smarter

A little form goes a long way in making backcountry travel efficient, comfortable and safe. One aspect of form that can make a tremendous difference is staying mostly aerobic.

There are two basic ways we produce energy to power our muscles:

  1. Aerobic metabolism uses oxygen you inhale to convert carbohydrates, fats, and protein into fuel. The aerobic way is good for endurance because you can exhale its waste product, carbon dioxide, while still pushing on.
  2. Anaerobic metabolism creates energy without oxygen (utilizing carbohydrates exclusively). The anaerobic process is good for short, high-intensity bursts of activity, but its waste product, lactic acid, accumulates in your muscle cells and blood, causing intense fatigue. That’s that nasty burning sensation you get in your legs. The only way to get rid of the waste is to slow down or stop. The problem is that it’s easy to reach a compromised state from which you’ll only adequately recover after your hike. That’s a bad turning point while still in the backcountry.

You can affect how much your metabolism is aerobic or anaerobic. When you move so intensely that you that you can’t take in enough oxygen for aerobic metabolism, you’ll start going anaerobic.

To avoid trashing your muscles with too much anaerobic activity:

  • Stay slow enough to stay mostly aerobic—even if others with you are going faster than you.
  • Keep intense bursts short and then slow down to dissipate the lactic acid (slowing actually reduces lactic waste better than stopping).
  • Take breaks, but well before you have no choice but to stop.
  • Fuel your body by eating balanced snacks. Recall that aerobic metabolism requires carbohydrates, fats, and protein. Sugary snacks are full of “empty calories.” They don’t have the other nutrients you need for aerobic power.
Gear right

One way to integrate your hiking and photographic gear

Hiking gear is another meaningful area of backcountry proficiency. For example, you might choose to slip on a nice light cotton shirt for a hike. Yet cotton is generally a very bad choice for hiking. It doesn’t wick perspiration well, nor dry quickly, leaving you hot, moist and possibly chafed. It also doesn’t insulate much when wet, leaving you cold in the chilly summit breeze.

Wear a performance (or “technical") hiking shirt made of synthetic fiber or light-gauge wool. Long sleeves, even in hot weather, is also a great idea: It won’t be appreciably hotter than a short sleeve, if at all, and will better protect you from sun and bugs.

Hiking gear and how to use it is a wide terrain. Take some time to learn about things like bug management, navigation, hiking pole use, hydration, wilderness first aid, and ultra-light hiking, among others.

Gearing up skillfully is especially important for photographers, because you’ll also be hauling a load of photo gear. Think twice about photographic gear bags, which are typically poorly designed for backcountry travel. Best to modularize your kit and integrate it with a proper hiking pack and other backcountry resources.

Your relationship with nature is what really gives you a story to tell
Canon 6D, 24-105 f/4 L @24mm, f7.1, 1/80 sec., ISO 100
Know how to avoid and respond to hazards

Understanding and knowing how to deal with the environmental and wildlife hazards you face in the wilderness will help keep you safe. Just as important, it will help keep you at ease, since you will be prepared for the risks that exist and won’t be thinking about those that actually don’t.

For example, with the high incidence of Lyme disease, many people are preoccupied with ticks. Yet ticks inhabit only particular areas, many species of tick rarely attach to humans, and most do not transmit the spirochete that causes Lyme or other diseases. Even if a Lyme-transmitting species attaches, most are not infected and only the nymph and adult female are significant in spreading the disease. If a transmitting tick attaches, the spirochete is rarely transmitted if the tick is attached for less than 24 hours.

The idea is to identify what actual hazards you’ll actually face (falls, drowning, lightning, falling objects, bears, lions, snakes, etc.) and learn how to manage those risks.

In the case of ticks, find out the incidence of disease-transmitting ticks in the area you plan to visit. Then make sure you know about prevention (for example, avoiding brushy vegetation and doing self inspection) and response (for example, proper removal—“trick” methods are not effective).

Building wilderness chops

Getting To The Landscape: Backcountry Hiking For Photographers

Hopefully the value of hiking expertise inspires you to get more ninja. One great way to learn more is to hike with more experienced hikers. Hike trips on and through environmental groups like the Sierra Club are really good opportunities to get out on the trail with others.

That said, other hikers often have experience that serves well for the good times, but not necessarily the broad formal insight that really fosters ease and competence in the backcountry. So it also really pays to get a little more direct in your learning. Books, articles, workshops, and classes on hiking are as plentiful as trees in a forest.

One good resource is the online class “Getting [to] the Great Landscape: Backcountry Hiking for Photographers,” developed by myself. Through concise, entertaining video lectures and handouts you can learn about backcountry light, hike and shoot planning, hiking gear, photography gear, conditioning, pre-and post-hike details, responsible backcountry travel, hiking form, environmental and wildlife hazards, more advanced skills you may want to pursue, and what overnight backcountry travel is like.

As a Luminous Landscape reader, you can enroll in Getting [to] the Great Landscape, for just $10. You can also purchase the course on DVD 

Skip Spitzer is an outdoorsman, educator, and photographer. He has been hiking and backpacking for more than 35 years. Skip teaches wilderness education in Portland, Oregon, U.S.A..

New ways to cool off at the end of the hike
Panasonic FZ-28, 15mm, f6.3, 1/160 sec., ISO 100

July, 2014

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Concepts: Metabolism, Cellular respiration, Hiking, Anaerobic respiration, Lactic acid, Hiking equipment, Oxygen, Muscle

Entities: Portland, U.S.A, carbon dioxide, Sierra Club, Skip Spitzer, John Muir, Luminous Landscape, Oregon

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