Photo-hiking – safety and comfort

Everyone has their limits when it comes to how much discomfort they are willing to suffer in the pursuit of landscape photography. Personally, as long as I’m reasonably warm and dry, well fed and have the means to make a hot cup of coffee or tea whenever I want, then the world is a happy place. The fact that it might be -2C and frosty, or raining and blowing a gale, becomes secondary. The trick is to make yourself comfortable in uncomfortable conditions, and a big part of how well you do that will come down to the equipment you carry with you.

Safety is closely linked to comfort when you are out on the trail – if you’re happy and comfortable, you’re less likely to make silly decisions that put your wellbeing at risk. And if you know you have the means and knowledge to stay safe under a variety of circumstances should things go wrong, then you’ll feel more relaxed and comfortable with your surroundings.

The tips below have come together over quite a few years of hiking in the Australian bush. Most of my adventures have been in relatively warm conditions, although the winters do get pretty chilly on the New England Tableland in New South Wales and the Granite Belt in Queensland. The tips are only a starting point – you need to get out there and find out what works for you.

The clothes you choose to wear and carry with you have a big bearing on how comfortable you are going to be if the weather turns sour. You should be prepared for the worst case scenario but that will vary depending on your location and the time of year - it’s probably overkill to take your snow gear if you’re heading out in Queensland in summer. The standard hiking approach is to think in terms of layers of clothing that you put on and take off as needed to match the conditions. Layer definitions vary depending on who you talk to, but the basic idea includes;

  • base layer (eg. thermal longjohns) – close fitting layer designed to keep you dry and therefore warm by wicking moisture away from the skin. These are important in cold weather.
  • mid layer (eg. tshirt, nylon shirt, light fleece, pants) – comfortable, lightweight and good wicking properties. This is often the only layer you’ll need in the warmer months in Australia.
  • insulation layer (eg. warm fleece tops and pants) – your main insulation against the cold.
  • shell layer (eg. raincoat, soft-shell jacket) – your main protection against rain and wind.
  • accessories (eg. beanies, gloves, socks).

Cotton is generally not a good choice for hiking clothes as it absorbs moisture rather than wicking it away. Various synthetics do a very good job of keeping you dry and comfortable, and merino is excellent as it feels great to wear, wicks moisture efficiently and tends not to smell as bad as synthetics after you’ve been wearing it for a couple of days.

An approach I’ve found to work well in a range of conditions is to dress minimally for the hike (a brisk walk carrying a pack will warm you up very quickly), but always carry a fleece, raincoat, and in colder months, thermals in your pack. Modern hiking clothes pack away very small and are useful to wrap around your camera and lenses for extra protection. The benefit of carrying thermals in colder times was highlighted to me during a trip to Girraween National Park in southern Queensland several years ago. Despite the sub-zero pre-dawn temperature, an hour long hike to Mount Norman was enough to work up a good sweat so by the time I reached my chosen spot just below the summit, my shirt and light fleece were quite wet. As soon as I stopped to set up my tripod and camera, the cold started to seep in. So off came my shirt and fleece, which is an experience in itself at -3C high on a breezy hillside in the dark, and on went the long thermal top, spare fleece and raincoat – what a luxurious feeling! I spent the next couple of hours happily photographing to my heart’s content with little thought of the cold.

An important tip for any time of year is don’t go anywhere without a good raincoat, preferably made of gore-tex or similar breathable fabric. They’re quite expensive and might not get used very often, but are essential for comfort and safety if the weather turns bad or if your return is delayed for any reason.

Hiking footwear comes down to personal preference – anything from boots to sandshoes to sandals can do the job. From a safety point of view it's worth investing in a good quality pair of hiking boots with sturdy ankle support. A long hike carrying a heavy pack puts a lot of strain on your joints, and the more tired your muscles get, the greater the chance of rolling an ankle and finding yourself stranded a long way from home. Twisted and sprained ankles are probably the most common injury suffered by hikers and a solid pair of boots will go a long way towards avoiding this fate. It's not a bad idea to carry a pair of hiking sandals to wear when you arrive at your photo location or campsite in warmer climates. They are also a good option for creek crossings so your boots stay dry.

A flooded track can mean wet feet for the rest of the day - sandals are a great option for crossings
like this where the rocks are sharp.

Accessories like gloves and beanies are obviously a good choice in the cold, and a long pair of gaiters will help protect bare shins from scratches and possibly snakebites. Finally, a wide-brimmed hat is a must when you're out in the Australian sun. Hiking stores carry synthetic hats that are light, quick drying and can be stuffed in your pocket or pack when not needed.

Food & water
I get very grumpy when I get hungry – this has been pointed out to me more than once. When I’m out taking photographs and get hungry and grumpy, I get careless. Compositions aren’t given enough consideration, and correct camera settings and focus can get overlooked. If you can function efficiently on no food then that’s great, but I’ll always pack a ready supply of snacks when I head out hiking. Fresh fruit, dried fruit and nuts and muesli bars are my staple for day hikes, and dried foods will keep the weight down on overnight and multiple day hikes. Try the packaged dry foods you can buy in hiking shops – they’re surprisingly tasty after a hard day on the trail – and packet soups and noodles are nourishing and filling. A hot cuppa is also a welcome treat on any hike – a small billy, gas canister and burner don’t take up much room in the pack. I can recommend the MSR Pocket Rocket stove, but there are many other options available.

Great spot for a rest and a cup of tea.

Staying well hydrated is essential to your wellbeing. Even on shorter hikes in winter you’d be wise to carry a couple of litres of water, plus the means to purify water from a stream if the need arises. Unfortunately there aren’t too many places these days where you can be sure that stream water is free of nasties like bacteria, viruses and protozoans that are just waiting to give your stomach a working over. Various compact filters will remove most of these bugs from tainted water, or there’s the option of water purification tablets. An excellent alternative is the Steripen UV water purifier that will kill all biological activity, including resistant protozoan cysts, in a litre of water in around 90 seconds. The downside is that this is an electronic device so breakdowns are always a possibility and you’ll need to carry spare batteries just in case. Mine has been in use for several years and has never let me down – a well-charged set of batteries has kept two thirsty men hydrated for three days with plenty of power to spare. A final option is to boil any water before drinking – this can be a little slow and energy hungry, and hot water isn’t all that refreshing to drink, but it will get you out of a fix without the worry of picking up a stomach bug.

There are plenty of backpacks on the market targeted at photographers. A lot of these make poor hiking packs unless you’re going for a casual stroll down to the beach or to the corner shop. I know there are good ones out there, but my preference has always been for a good quality pack that is specifically designed for hiking, not for photography. A well appointed hiking pack becomes more critical as the weight of your load increases, but even a long day hike with a light load will reveal the flaws of a poorly designed pack.

Hiking packs are designed to distribute the weight of the load across your body, not have it all hanging off your shoulders. Most serious packs these days have an internal frame that includes vertical staves that should be contoured to fit the shape of your back. Shoulder straps should be curved, broad and well padded to avoid cutting into your shoulders. The hip belt is a critical part of the design and will transfer a large part of the pack wait off your shoulders and to your hips – it should be firm, broad and well padded to avoid pressure points developing as you walk. A chest strap also helps distribute the load and prevents your shoulders from being pulled back. Staff at a good hiking shop will be able to adjust and fit a pack to suit your body shape – it might sound like a lot of fuss, but your body will appreciate it after a day’s trudging with 20+kg on your back.

Purpose designed hiking packs are usually top-loading, but they will often have a couple of main compartments and a large lid compartment to help organise your gear. This can make your camera gear a little less accessible than in a camera backpack, but with some forethought and careful packing you can have everything you need pretty close at hand. It should still only take you 2-3 minutes to take off your pack and set up your gear if you want to shoot some photos mid hike. An alternative is to carry a good quality compact camera on your hipbelt for just those occasions – you can snap away without having to take your pack off.

Other useful features are external pockets for easy access to small items like filters and cleaning cloths, a splash cover, and equipment straps so you can easily attach your tripod to the outside of the pack. Whether or not you go for a hydration pack is down to personal choice – I’ve had a couple of experiences with these failing and leaking into my sleeping gear so I now use stainless steel water bottles.

Cameras and lenses should be packed in soft cases, and preferably cocooned in spare clothes or your raincoat at the top of the pack. Compression straps on your backpack will keep everything firm so nothing moves or bangs together as you walk.
I have three different sized packs to suit different types of photo-hiking and I’ve grown to love and appreciate all of them. A friend told me years ago that a serious hiker will form a close bond with his or her pack, and now I understand what he meant – a good quality pack can mean the difference between a happy and productive hike and a hard, painful slog.

I’ve never been lost while hiking, but I can think of at least one occasion some years ago when I became so disoriented that I didn’t believe what my compass was telling me – it’s not a good feeling. After that experience I vowed to improve my navigation skills and spent a good deal of time learning how to properly use a compass and topographic map. These days I never set out on a hike without both in my pack and without having spent some time poring over the map before leaving. No matter how simple a course looks on a map or on Google Earth, everything changes when you’re out there surrounded by hills, trees and the apparent disorder of a natural environment. Even on a well-marked trail, there is the potential to take a wrong turn especially if you’re hiking in the dark.

A handheld GPS is an excellent addition to your kit but don’t rely on it as your only means of navigation. Being an electronic gadget, it can break down and batteries can fail. Depending on the terrain you’re in, it can also have trouble locking into enough satellites to give you a good position. On the plus side, you can program waypoints or your whole course into a GPS using a topographic map before you set foot on the trail and then check your progress along the way. You can also use the GPS to record the location of photographs you’ve taken for later reference.

A third and sometimes underused navigation tool is your eye – or preferably both of them. When you’re hiking, pay attention to what is going on around you. You know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, so if your course is meandering through a forest, or switching back and forth as you climb a hill or descend into a gully, try and keep track of the direction you’re heading. If the trail forks or crosses an area of rocks where it becomes hard to see, stop and look around you and make a mental note that you’ll be able to call on when you’re returning. And keep track of the time – if you know it took you 25 minutes to walk from a track junction to your destination, keep this in mind when you’re returning so you’ll be on the lookout for the junction and won’t miss it in the dark. All of this is commonsense and will become automatic the more time you spend hiking.

First aid
A cardinal rule of hiking is never go anywhere without a first aid kit and the knowledge of how to use it. Compact kits are widely available and should include a good range of bandages and sterile dressings, antiseptic cream or wash, pain-killers, sticking plaster, a space blanket, scissors and tweezers. There are lots of books and websites that offer information on first aid techniques, but it's also worth doing a first aid course like those offered by St John Ambulance. There's nothing like hands-on practice with bandaging, resuscitation and how to respond in an emergency to  imprint these things in your mind.

In case of emergency
No matter how experienced you are in the outdoors, there is always the potential for something to go wrong – sprained ankles, broken bones, snakebites or just getting lost are all possibilities every time you venture out. That’s no reason to not venture out, but it’s a good idea to remind yourself regularly that you’re not invulnerable and that accidents and mistakes can happen. Your planned half day hike could turn into an overnight stay in the bush – how are you going to deal with that?

First and foremost, make sure someone knows where you’re going and when you plan to return. This could be a friend, family member or park ranger. Let them know that you’ll call or drop in by a certain time on your return. Carry a mobile phone – you won’t get service in a lot of remote areas, but you never know. Buy a Personal Locator Beacon and register it with the Australian Maritime Safety Authority. These devices aren’t cheap but they are potential life savers. The models with GPS capability can be detected by satellites within seconds, your location identified to within 120 metres, and the rescue authorities alerted. Alternatively, Personal Locator Beacons can be hired if you can’t justify the expense of purchase.

A word on solo hiking
Solo hiking is frowned upon by many, and I’d agree it shouldn’t be undertaken by anyone who isn’t rigourous about their safety preparation. On the other hand, as a photographer getting up at 4am to hike several hours, it might be difficult to find anyone to accompany you. And once you’re at your destination and taking photographs, if you’re like me you’d prefer to be alone with your subject rather than having a bored spectator waiting for you to finish. If you can find a like-minded photographer to hike with, that’s great. If you can’t, I’d say get yourself well prepared and go anyway. Statistics say that the chances of having a car accident on the way to the start of the trail are far greater than the chances of a well prepared and thoughtful solo hiker coming to grief. The stories we occasionally see on the news of people getting lost or injured in the bush can often be related back to poor planning, inadequate equipment and inexperience.

But as I’ve already said, accidents and mistakes can happen to anyone. If you’re not comfortable with the risks, then don’t do it. It’s your choice.


Digital Workflow
Photo-hiking – a short introduction


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Saturday, 03 December 2022

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