Wild Camping Mountain Photography Friday March 10, 2017

Introduction

Wild camping is much the same as you do on a camp site and there are several reasons for doing it. It means you maximise your time in the hills without the interruption of walking in, walking out, and the chatter of people in a neighbouring tent. It’s free, which is a great feeling if you think, as I do, life in Britain is a rip off. It gives you photo opportunities you otherwise wouldn’t have including sunrise and sunset in stunning locations.

Glaramara in the Lake District:

I remember very well the first time I did it and how anxious I was and how I realised, this is in fact the same as a camp site. There’s more to think about in terms of safety, food, comfort, water and hygiene, but the ideas aren’t different so much as extended.

You’re out of doors and if you plan carefully and understand how to do it, there’s nothing to worry about. When I told a friend about it she described it as “scary camping” but it’s not scary. It’s a delightful way to enhance walking and photography.

Pic du Midi d’Ossau in the The Pyrenees:

Is it legal

In Britain wild camping is technically illegal except in Scotland and even there, new byelaws have been introduced to try and curb people abusing the wild areas. I’ll say more about that in a moment but for now, the point is this only applies in one very specific place, which is Loch Lomond.

Despite the illegality outside Scotland it’s not actually a problem and you don’t, as some outdated books suggest, have to get permission from a land owner to do it. There’s a gentlemanly agreement where the National Trust and others know people are doing it and it’s accepted. Quite frankly, they couldn’t stop it. It would be impossible to police the hills and tell people to vacate Red Tarn below Helvellyn, tarns in the Welsh Moelwyns, and such other places where I’ve wild camped.

The other part of the gentlemanly agreement is you respect a few rules. This means pitch late, leave early, and leave no trace. In other words, be discreet so you don’t impose on the environment or other people. It’s obvious, like basic good manners, and people mostly understand this.

So why do it

Wild camping is the best way to capture dramatic light and cloud inversions. You could climb the mountains setting off very early and leaving very late but that’s hard work and less fun. For me, photography and hill walking go together. I’ve pondered the question, many times, which comes first. The answer is neither. I have days where the walking is miserable but if I get one good shot it’s worthwhile. I have other days where the walking is superb but the views are not necessarily photogenic. I take shots as a routine habit, but might not bother with them on my computer back at home. If you spend day, night and morning in the hills, you immerse yourself in nature and maximise your photography, and it’s fun.

Breakfast coffee on the Carneddau in Snowdonia:

How do I prepare

Some experience of camping and walking will help. There are many skills you learn by trial and error which are more easily developed as part of less challenging adventure. Which is not to say wild camping is dangerous, it isn’t if you understand a few guidelines; but rather, it’s more comfortable if you practice and work up to it. You need to be reasonably fit and have some navigation skills. Carrying camping and photographic equipment is quite challenging if you’re used to easy day walks.

What camping kit do I need

This is a huge topic which people spend a lot of time refining and discussing. My advice is read and talk to experienced people, which you can do very easily and effectively on the internet. There are kit trends which suit some people but not others. There are cutting edge trends which it’s good to know about. For example, Cuben fibre tents are the lightest option but they’re also expensive. You don’t have to pay very much to enjoy wild camping, especially if you’re trying it out to see if you like it.

Be as light as possible is one of the guidelines but it’s a variable, not an absolute concern. Ten years ago there was a cheap Argos tent called a Pro Action which had good reviews. I bought one second hand for £15 to keep as a spare although I’ve never used it. The original price was about £20. There are similar tents now, weighing around 2 kilo which is relatively heavy but not unbearable. Most enthusiasts use tents, or possibly tarps, weighing around 1 kilo or less. Another variable however is how many nights you want to camp. If it’s one night, or two, weight is less important. If you are backpacking for two weeks in the Pyrenees, which I’ve done six times, weight is very important and you want to shed it wherever you can.

Below the Carneddau in Snowdonia:

The more you spend the less weight you get and the more comfortable you will be walking. Your tent must protect you in likely or possible conditions, however, and that is the crux of your decision. Manufacturers usually describe their products as three or four season protection and that relates to where and when you walk. Scotland for example, at any time of year, is a more serious proposition than the Lake District. You could use a light three season tent for a night or two in settled Scotland conditions – I’ve done so – but for an extended trip you need better protection.

My advice is find internet forums, or social media platforms, and join in kit discussions which are easy to find and usually very lively. Look out for Chris Townsend who’s been walking, camping and testing gear for decades while writing for magazines and books. He’s helped many people over the years, including me. I still use boots and a cooking pot he recommended many years ago: discontinued HiTec VLites and an AntiGravityGear model, neither of which were expensive. I have used expensive Scarpa boots but prefer the cheap VLites.

My tent is a Tarptent Rainbow which has been perfect for summer in the Pyrenees and similar conditions in Britain. It’s light, airy and spacious but I don’t recommend it for winter. I used it once in the Lake District at sub zero temperatures and it was barely adequate and I had one problematic night, in particular, high in the Pyrenees. In heavy rain, and if you need protection from cold air, the fabric is too light and there’s a mesh gap which is not ideal. A heavier tent like the Scarp 1 is suitable for four season use or the large and efficient Trailstar and Duomid are also popular options. With no ground sheet or bug protection they don’t cover every need and you find, with tents, there is no perfect model for all conditions.

I initially used a tiny gas stove which around ten years ago was the most efficient system for cooking and drinks. I now use a Caldera Cone, which is superb, making methylated spirits a highly effective fuel. It changed the stove parameters and in the last few years other models have appeared which are similarly efficient.

My sleeping bag is a PHD down model. Down is more thermally efficient, warmer for the weight than synthetic, but needs extra care with handling, washing, and if it gets wet. Sleeping bags have a temperature rating. If it’s warmer, it will be bulkier and heavier. I use an inflatable Thermarest sleeping mat but you could, if you found it adequate, pack a light piece of closed cell foam which is also far more durable.

You need a water purification system and I’ve used both chlorine dioxide tablets and in the last few years, the superb Steripen which purifies using ultraviolet light. For one Pyrenees trip this meant I didn’t carry water for much of the time, a huge advantage because it’s very heavy. I did this however by plotting on a map, very carefully, where and when I would encounter rivers and streams while assessing the possibility they might be dry in summer. That’s not advice I would give to beginners but it was a very effective plan for me. It meant I was carrying far less weight and when I reached water could use my titanium mug and, with the Steripen, have a good drink thirty seconds later. Chlorine dioxide tablets are far more difficult to use with a waiting time, and storage time, of about twenty minutes.

When you’re walking at high level you can often drink from streams even in Britain. You must be careful, however. I drank once from a Lake District stream and when I turned the corner I saw, to my horror, the water upstream was filled with foul looking, brown gelatinous muck. I don’t know what it was but fortunately I didn’t get any reaction.

I’ve used two lightweight rucksacks, the GoLite Jam which was one of the very first ultralight packs, and now use a ULA Conduit which is significantly more refined and efficient. There are other options, highly regarded, which is another choice you must make for yourself by asking questions and considering your needs which includes comfort. I would say however, consider packs without frames and padding. They are no less comfortable.

Clothes are another hugely complex subject and my advice, again, is ask questions on the internet. Gear shops can be good but not always. I’ve had both good advice and bad advice, and there is no guarantee the staff are knowledgeable walkers. I’ve worked in a shop myself and seen this from both sides. Here’s a review of my kit from a few years ago, which is not much different except I now use a Mountain Equipment Goretex Active jacket which is superb:

Photography

This is where I can be more specific because my experience and understanding is very specialised. I can say one brand is better than another, one camera and lens is better than another, and why. That’s very detailed however, and personally tailored, when people need general advice to begin with.

One of the first questions to ask is what you do with your photographs. If you post them on Facebook and e mail them to friends and family your quality needs are minimal to the extent that the camera on your phone might be adequate: albeit, that it won’t cope with challenging light conditions.

Blackbeck Tarn in the Lake District – my first wild camp:

The next step is a compact camera and sensor technology has developed such that these cameras are good for a huge number of people. The Sony RX100 series revolutionised compact cameras by squeezing a relatively large sensor into a tiny body. Other brands have followed the same idea, Canon for example, which means you are no longer crippled by a small camera, relatively speaking, and many people don’t need anything more.

Bridge cameras are the next step which are larger and pack in more technology, quality, and flexibility. Then you’re looking at micro four thirds, DSLRs either full frame or with APS cropped sensors and – my own preference – mirrorless cameras such as the Sony A7 series which are lighter and more compact than DSLRs with the same high quality. If you want to produce large art prints or sell stock photography, it’s that standard of camera you need.

With lenses you get better quality the more you pay and with a high quality sensor, the flaws of a lens will be harshly revealed. Good brands are Canon, Nikon, Zeiss, Leica, and Sony: although with the possible exception of Zeiss and Leica, all brands vary in terms of quality with each particular lens. As regards focal length I use a Canon 17-40 L Series zoom.

The same point applies as with your walking and camping gear, which is keep it as minimal and light as possible. As a photographer this is one area I won’t compromise but there are still weight and size savings to consider. I’ve mentioned mirrorless cameras, and I can also mention tripods and lenses.

Traditional photographers would tell you a tripod is the first accessory to buy. With film cameras there were technical reasons which meant you needed a stabilised camera for slow shutter speeds. Digital technology has changed this which means for hill walking and wild camping, where weight is problematic, you might rarely or never need a tripod. I never carry one. There is one exception which is special effect shots where you want to create an impression of silky water or capture stars in the sky, both of which need very long exposure. That is however very specialised, not inherent to mountain photography as such and with care you can hand hold shots for about 1/15 of a second which is what I used here in the Lake District:

I decided, years ago, my 17-40 zoom is the only lens worth carrying. I shoot 90% of my work at wide angles of about 17-20 mm and it’s not practical to carry my 70-210 zoom, for example, backpacking in the Pyrenees. It’s large, heavy, and I use it very rarely.

Lac de Rius in the Pyrenees:

Be aware of the battery needs of your camera and be generous with how many you carry. It’s disastrous, if you value your photography, if you can’t get the pictures you want. A few years ago in the Pyrenees, I shared dinner for a few nights with an Italian party. One of them was skulking outside the refuge with his camera and then, during dinner, the leader of the party exploded with anger and the lady I sat with translated. The camera chap didn’t have the batteries he needed and he kept moaning about it dragging down the mood for the rest of them. Italian anger is quite something. He went on for ten very loud minutes, smashing his hand on the table, saying huts were not hotels with electricity.

Make sure you have the batteries you need. You can sometimes charge your devices depending where you are but don’t rely on it. There are solar charging and portable power devices but I find it simpler and easier to carry batteries.

That’s an example of the thinking process you should apply to all kit, whether for walking and camping or photography. Some people use scales to measure the weight of every item. While I can see the reason for doing so – it’s a kind if discipline like following calories in a diet – it’s not something I’ve ever bothered with because weight is only one consideration. The point is to question all the kit you use and ask yourself do you need it, and is there a lighter alternative.

Hygiene

With my years of wild camping there are only a few occasions when I’ve felt dirty and sticky in my sleeping bag. Most of the time I bathe every day. No matter how cold the water I will strip and dip into it or pour it over me with a mug. I hate the feeling of being unwashed. Bodily functions are dealt with using dug out holes well away from water supplies.

Accessories

I carry guide books and novels on long trips. I’ve only recently acquired a tablet – a Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 – which I will use in future for reading material, maps, a GPS and for short trips where battery power is not an issue, for movies and documentaries I’ve prepared in advance. A map and compass are essential. There was just one occasion, in the Pyrenees a few years ago, when my map didn’t quite cover the area I was walking as I entered Andorra. It was a disastrous day wasting time, energy and my composure, and could have been dangerous.

Most people, in fact everyone I know, use walking poles. They aid stability, weight distribution, comfort and advance, especially when you descend. The most popular seem to be Pacer poles with anatomic handles but I favour some of the lightest you can get – Black Diamond folding poles. I previously used Leki poles and realised I could get a lighter alternative and I’d almost never used the length adjusting properties of the Lekis.

Heas in the Pyrenees. I stayed here for two nights with a rest day:

Ethics and philosophy

Wild campers are usually polite and responsible, suitable for the environment we love. The reason why Loch Lomond now needs a permit is because of ‘city’ types more interested in parties and beer than the sound of lapping water and birds in the trees. ‘Leave no trace’ is the phrase which summarises the right attitude, and ‘consider other people’ is another. If you go with a friend or two that gives you more security and conversation, but a large group is contrary to the spirit of a wild experience and not for me.

On extended backpacking trips the ideal balance, for me, is both solitary freedom and social fun. I want a wild experience but not so I feel on the edge of the world. I wake, eat, set off and walk according to mood and inclination. I take all the time I need to photograph and talk and make video, exploring views as I wish and the ideas in my mind. I like company in the evening, and I found this perfect balance in the Pyrenees 2014 eating with lovely groups from Canada and Germany. Another trip, in a very remote part of the Pyrenees, was too much for me. Days passed when I saw hardly anyone and I ate alone in my tent.

It’s an incredibly refreshing experience getting away from civilisation for a few days, immersing yourself in nature and detaching from the trappings of domestic and working life. Wild camping extends your hill photography and gives you greater memories than day walks.