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Photography In The National Parks: Travel, Packing, And Luggage

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The road through Big Bend National Park / Rebecca Latson

About four years ago, I penned an article for the Traveler wherein I answered a number of questions regarding how I felt about various aspects of photography, parks I’d visited, and what I toted in my camera pack. I thought I’d revisit that luggage question.

I’m afraid I am one of those people who likes to include in my suitcase(s) not only the kitchen sink, but the oven, the coffee maker (literally), and the refrigerator. I truly believe it’s better to have it and not need it rather than need it and not have it, because I’ve experienced that issue before and it’s a total bummer. FYI, I do not hire a Sherpa for my expeditions and, yes, I do carry my own luggage. My packing reflects my travel style: flying, brick-and-mortar lodging, no camping, no backcountry hiking. My packing also depends upon weight restrictions, weather conditions, and trip duration (2-3 days vs. 1-2 weeks).

Texas is a large state to cross in almost every direction, and my annual vacation days are limited. Because of this, I fly, then rent a vehicle to get to my national park destination. I have driven to Big Bend National Park more than once from my southeast Texas home, and it’s a very long 13- to 14-hour drive (including rest stops and gas stations). I've also driven slightly over three hours to visit Padre Island National Seashore. For the most part, though, I fly. It’s more expensive and not necessarily easier, but it is quicker, and I’ll continue to go that route as long as I can afford it. At this point in time, flying is the means to my end of reaching a national park with time to spare.

Packing and Luggage

One week prior to any departure, I begin checking the weather reports. Forewarned is forearmed. This preparation helped me pack for cool-but-not-frigid weather during a three-day trip to Big Bend in January 2016. After packing cool-weather clothing and toiletries, my travel alarm, tripod, tripod head, and some other camera gear took up the remaining luggage space. Oh yeah, I also included my four-cup coffee maker with filters, ground coffee, and half & half pods. I’m serious. I drink a lot of coffee in the evenings when working on photos, and hotels never provide enough coffee packets, nor do I wish to ferret out housekeeping to ask for extra coffee and creamer.

Regarding luggage, I prefer hardside because it tends to be sturdier to withstand the “slings and arrows” of baggage handlers. I like garishly colored or brightly patterned suitcases because I can quickly spot my gear amongst the ubiquitous black, forest green, or burgundy luggage at baggage claim. 

Ready for national park travel with my suitcases / Rebecca Latson

My January 2017 trip to Glacier National Park also consisted of a short, three-day visit during the winter, yet I packed very differently for this trip than for the winter trip to Big Bend. The temperatures during my stay would be in the teens to below zero, and there was enough snow on the ground to warrant the inclusion of my snowshoes, which required me to utilize my largest suitcase. Again, I checked the weather reports a week prior to my departure.

Winter reflections at Lake McDonald, Glacier National Park / Rebecca Latson

In addition to snowshoes, snowshoe poles, and boot gaiters, I packed heavy winter clothing: fleece pants, fleece tops, thermal shirt, down jacket, warm hat, fingerless gloves, thick socks, and waterproof boots. I stuffed a few of those nifty handwarmer packets into the suitcase as well. Of course, my tripod found a spot in the suitcase, as did other items such as memory card readers, a small flashlight, and a travel surge protector for the hotel room … oh yeah, and my four-cup coffee maker.

For my three-day Padre Island trip, I took a small suitcase with a change of clothing, sunscreen, and a few toiletries in addition to my laptop bag and camera pack. Yes, the coffee maker accompanied me, as well as a cooler with drinks and food. Since I drove, I was even able to leave my tripods extended in the back of the car.

Longer Trips and Organized Tours

An example of a soft-sided case used for organized photo tours / Rebecca Latson

I’ll be traveling to Washington state in July for 19 days, nine days of which I'll spend in Mount Rainier National Park. I’ll also be flying back to Glacier National Park in September for a week. When preparing for a longer trip, I use my largest suitcase, adding a little more clothing. Sometimes, I even take two suitcases. 

Packing for an organized photo tour or workshop introduces limitations apart from the usual flight restrictions. In addition to weight limits, organized tours don't usually require, but do prefer, their guests to use soft-sided luggage because of space considerations in the tour van, shuttle or bush plane. It's easier to squish luggage together if it's all soft-sided.

The guest is responsible for lugging and loading all of their own stuff. For my February 2017 photo tour of Hawaii's Big Island (part of which was spent visiting Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park), I of course took my camera pack and laptop bag. I also packed a week's worth of items (including my tripod) into an Eagle Creek ORV Trunk 30 wheeled bag. This bag worked really well, made me think a little more about what I was packing, and had enough handles on all sides to make transporting it quite easy. No, I did not pack the coffee maker, as there wasn't enough room.  

Camera Gear and Accessories

The photo gear I lug - er - carry with me depends upon my focus for that particular trip. My backpack is usually very heavy because of my “kitchen sink” attitude, and it’s always carried on the plane with me and stuffed beneath the seat because I can't lift it high enough to stick into the overhead bin. Is it my imagination or do those overhead bins keep getting higher and higher toward the ceiling?

The only time my backpack has ever left my sight was during the Katmai National Park and Lake Clark National Park organized photo trips, when everybody’s camera gear was stowed in the rear of the small plane. Should laptop and camera carry-on bans ever be required in U.S. airports, I'll probably have a nervous breakdown - or I'll shell out the dollars for some sturdy pelican cases. Either way, the possibility of having to check tens of thousands of dollars of camera gear and a laptop makes me extremely nervous. I do not trust baggage handlers to work in my best interests. 

Regarding lenses, for Katmai and Lake Clark, I packed both a rented 500mm prime lens and my 100-400mm zoom lens. I knew I’d be focusing on the bears, so I carried lenses good for wildlife imagery. I also brought my 16-35mm lens for the occasional landscape shot.

For my winter 2016 Big Bend and 2017 Glacier trips, the aim was more landscape than wildlife, so I packed accordingly: 16-35mm, 14mm, 24-105mm, and 24-70mm lenses. I did stow away my 100-400mm lens, in the event I happened to see a little wildlife (which I did). I was a bit redundant with the 24mm zoom lenses, but the painful memory of totally destroying my two most-utilized lenses during my 2014 Hawai'i Volcanoes trip and having no real backups remains with me to this day.

A loaded camera pack / Rebecca Latson

As a rule, I bring the following for any photographic trip:

  • 2 camera bodies in case one gets damaged in the field (it’s happened)
  • Spare camera batteries already charged
  • Battery chargers – most camera batteries last through a decent amount of use; cold weather drains batteries quickly
  • 4-5 lenses in case one is damaged or destroyed in the field (it’s happened):
    • 16-35mm f2.8
    • 24-70mm f2.8; and/or
    • 24-105mm f4
    • 100-400mm f4.0
    • 14mm f2.8 or the 11-24mm f4
    • Sometimes I pack the 24-70mm f4 IS lens as a backup to the 24-70mm f2.8 lens, in lieu of the 24-105mm lens
    • Circular polarizing filters in both 77mm and 82mm sizes
    • Neutral density filters in both 77mm and 82mm sizes (for those silky water shots)
    • My Lee 4x6 grad ND filter plus a spare
    • My small flash and spare AA batteries (for fill light)
    • Lots of memory cards with 8GB–128GB memory
    • A couple of memory card readers
    • A rain covering for camera and lens
    • A spare rear lens cover and camera front cover
    • One or two spare front lens covers (I keep losing them!)
    • 2 portable hard drives (redundancy is my friend)
    • Laptop and all of the assorted cords
    • Cell phone and charger

That’s quite a bit to heft around, but I do this for every trip. I use a separate laptop bag for the obvious item as well as carrying a mouse, laptop electrical cord, portable hard drives, memory card readers, magazines, and bits and pieces of other items. Oh, I also wear my photographer's vest, which makes it easy for me to stow away, yet have quick access to, my wallet, passport, tissues, cell phone, and more bits and pieces of other items. You may notice a bit of redundancy regarding hard drives, lens covers, memory card readers, etc. Redundancy is a photographer's best friend.

What do you readers pack for your own national park photography trips? I’m curious and would love to know since that might provide a helpful suggestion for something I ought to carry with me on my next trip. I know many of you travel far more lightly with far less than I do, but I also know many of you travel in a camper or trailer, allowing you to literally take a kitchen sink with you … plus a shower, toilet, bed … and coffee maker.

P.S. After recently reading a comment on another article from a Traveler reader living on the East Coast who asked about tips regarding airports closest to a particular national park, I thought I'd add this little post script with some plane and rental car reservation advice.  

Upon deciding which national park I'd like to visit, I immediately go to Google Maps to find the closest cities and airports to the chosen national park, monument, or seashore. From there, I check out flight itineraries and prices.

If you have not done so already, I highly advise registering with each airline to join their mileage program. I tend to look first at the airline with which I have the most miles. I have actually taken a couple of first-class flights, paying for them all with miles, so the reward programs do work. If I don't see an itinerary or price I particularly like with that airline, I move on to the other airlines.

I have used Orbitz, Kayak.com, and Travelocity in the past, but now prefer to visit the actual airline's site. This is especially necessary if I wish to use an airline like Southwest, which doesn't show up on the other booking sites.

I feel like I have more choices by reserving directly through the airline's site and also believe I have better recourse to getting help should I encounter a problem with my flight. It's just a personal preference of mine, that's all.

Hey, while you are at it, add those airlines to your Twitter account. From personal experience, if I have a flight issue, I have always received an answer via Twitter much sooner than phoning to try and reach a real person, only to be put on hold.

Regarding getting the cheapest flight tickets, there are times when I get a great deal reserving a seat months ahead of time, and sometimes I get a great deal reserving two weeks out. There are specific days that tend to be cheaper than others when reserving a seat. Tuesdays and Wednesdays are said to be the best days to fly and save money, with Thursdays and Saturdays being the next-best days. Snagging a great deal may also depend upon the airport you choose.  

A word of warning: If you pay for a seat months ahead of your departure, you should periodically check your reservation online to make certain the airline hasn't changed something on you - something like a plane, seat, and/or departure/arrival time. This kind of incident happened to me for my Hawaii flight this past February. The airline is supposed to notify you via email, but sometimes that email apparently gets lost in the ethernet. The onus is on you to ensure everything is in order, with plenty of time to straighten out any issue you might have with your flight before the day of departure.

Since I fly, that means I also need to rent a car. As such, I have registered with each car rental company's rewards program for discounts and other perks. I've researched the rental car companies' reviews and, to be honest, none of them impress me that much. It all comes down to a matter of what car I want and what is the cheapest rate.

Whenever possible, I go ahead and pay for the car as soon as I reserve it online, rather than just reserve it and pay for it upon arrival. I save a little bit of money by paying ahead of time. Nowadays, though, that doesn't necessarily guarantee the rental company won't change the price prior to my arrival. Most rental car companies won't allow you to drive on unpaved roads, so make sure you read the fine print on the rental agreement.

When it comes to getting that extra insurance they all try to sell you - you may not necessarily need it. My insurance company covers those issues, and it saves me from spending that much extra per day (which can add up, believe me).

OK, I'm done. If you waded through all of this to the end, then you are indeed a Traveler Trooper, and I thank you!

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Comments

Great article and tips, Rebecca...there are probably about as many ways to choose and pack your gear as there are photographers! I visited 24 National Parks over the past four years (for a re-photography book project), traveling by plane/rental car or driving from home. I backpacked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon and the top of Half Dome a couple of times, among other long trails and day hikes. So I was always thinking about "weight" I'd have to carry for miles. I began researching the lightest possible camping/backpacking gear. I'm a Nikon guy (D610 currently), mostly shooting landscapes, so I chose slower lenses (18-35 f/3.5-4.5, and 24-85 f/3.5-4.5, occasionally bringing my 80-200 f/4) to keep weight down. These "prosumer" lenses would not be everyone's choice, I know, but they were perfect for my situation.

 

I used to have a "photography" backpack, but realized all that padding made it a little heavy even before I added my gear, and it was not great for bringing camping gear along. So I found a "Go Lite" backpack (27 oz., MyTrailCo) and put the camera stuff in individual padded pouches or bags, then into the backpack. Filters, batteries, etc. go into a big Ziplock where I can find them quickly. This leaves room for my 27-oz. tent (LightHeartGear.com; my hiking poles double as tent poles for it, I love it), 1-oz. alcohol cook stove and fuel, 4-oz. pot, 14-oz. mattress (compresses to pop-can size), 28-oz. down sleeping bag, 2.4-lb. MacBook Air, 3-lb. tripod (MeFoto RoadTrip CarbonFiber), freeze-dried lightweight food, small water filter, etc. Even stuff like choosing lithium (vs. alkaline) batteries for your headlamp cuts some weight. I never got around to cutting off my toothbrush handle or the like as some "extreme ultralight backpacking" people do but this methodology did work well for me overall.

 

I do a lot of advance planning for each trip or hike. You can pre-visualize a lot of your route  and "visit" new locations with Google Earth. It's almost like you've been there before when you arrive. Put the waypoints in your GPS app and you won't get lost or on the wrong trail (but bring paper maps as a backup).

 

I didn't list every item I carry but my point is, there is an evolution of light-weight (and yes sometimes pricey) backpacking gear out there now which made it possible for this 55-year-old photographer to safely trek or day hike to places I might not have done with heavier loads. My final and #1 tip is about hiking/trekking poles...I never understood them until I tried them. Then I realized they increase my ability to carry weight comfortably, they greatly reduce stress on knees and feet thereby extending your "range" whatever your ability, and most importantly they would "catch" me when I lost my footing on some backcountry trail, preventing a possible sprained ankle or worse. I use Black Diamond carbon-fiber cork-handled poles. (Be aware that cheap sticks from a discount store can collapse under stress, which is dangerous. Read reviews) Did I mention they also hold my tent up at night?

 

I hope some of this is useful to others here...keep up the good work!


Rebecca --

    (and Paul)

       I'm a true novice prosumer who questions everything I should carry from flights to dayhikes -- without as many options!  Still, these thoughts help me realize the the advance planning and equipment care make ll the difference.  Can't imagine that there are not more responses, but I am thankful!

-- Sue

 


Paul, it sounds to me like you've gotten your gear and travel planning down to a fine art.  As you, yourself put it so aptly:  "there are probably about as many ways to choose and pack your gear as there are photographers".  Thanks for your helpful comments.


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