So you want to create images and travel to gorgeous and beautiful places but how are you going to afford to travel several days or weeks and still pay for food, a roof over your head, and the costs to go from point a to b, c, d, e, etcetera? Well, do you like to camp? For those photographers where money is tight or who just want to have the most flexible arrangements possible, camping is one of your best options to get to out of the way places and still get some rest in between your photographic pursuits.
I focus on astrophotography and many times it's easier to stay in the outdoors to capture the best images in amazing areas. Other times, it's just plain easier and more cost effective to be in a tent then getting a hotel several hours from where I want to shoot. First things first, you have to be ok with sleeping outside and the idea of camping in the first place. I know there are people that can’t imagine not waking up from a set of bed sheets and taking a shower before starting their day. Some are content with showering once a week and living out of their car to be ready to take the photo of their dreams. You have to know what you are comfortable with, but I would stress that getting uncomfortable (as I’ve written about previously) will allow you to have chances and opportunities others simply won’t allow themselves to have. That personal choice may be the difference between an epic, once in a lifetime experience and image, and an experience that’s just okay.
If you have a tiny car, like me, camping is awesome! You get to avoid the gas guzzling vehicles, keep more money in your pocket so you can travel even more, and have the ability to choose the landscape you will wake up to every morning. First, you need to decide what kind of tent you want to use and if it will be normally for just you or maybe your significant other or good friend will be your traveling companion. A 2-person tent is really like a 1-person plus snuggle room, so make sure you are happy with having someone else in your personal space otherwise get a 3-person if you will have someone else with you.
A quality tent is a big deal and skimping on certain details and build quality may lead to an unhappy night without sleep because the tent wasn't able to stand up to a downpour or two. If you need to fly to get to your destination (renting a small car is always cheaper than a larger vehicle) then size and weight will still be a big concern. How about needing to hike into your location? Not only will paring down your photography gear matter, but anything to bring your pack weight down is worth its weight in gold. Ounces equal pounds and over several miles will add up on your feet so this will be another factor in your decision. Make sure that the length of your tent is six inches or longer than you are tall when pitched. You want to avoid touching the tent walls over night because anything touching those walls will be wet in the morning due to humidity overnight and the air you exhale.
Lastly, are these things that you may not be comfortable doing today but maybe later this year or next year, and it will be a decision you want to be able to have without more money out of your pocket. Buying a good tent today will last you for years to come. I still use a Muir Trail 2-person three season plus tent from Mountain Hardwear that is now almost 15 years old. It’s heavy but for winter camping it still holds up amazingly. Good tents from quality manufacturers will normally range from $150 to $600 and I think everyone should look at it as an investment. If you can pay twelve dollars at a campground or camp on BLM land for free instead of paying for a hotel, you are going to make out within a few days and are now able to travel longer and farther for the less. I would personally recommend tents from Marmot, Big Agnes, Mountain Hardwear, Kelty. Many times I personally choose the Kelty Salida 2 as there is extra space, it's easy to set up even in the dark, and it's pretty cheap. There are many other great manufacturers, but I have limited knowledge and personal use of their tents.
Now that you have a tent, how are you going to stay warm at night? You have blankets but a decent sleeping bag is going to be a better choice. They will pack down much smaller and will be warmer than that knitted comforter from your great aunt Aggie. If you are camping primarily during the spring, summer, and fall just get a sleeping bag that is close to your height. You’ll notice they come usually in a six foot or slightly smaller length. or a 6’6” size and unless you are really that tall, this is only a waste of material, weight, and may get wet easier if the sleeping bag touches the wall of your tent because it’s so long. If you’re 5’ 10” or taller and plan on camping during the winter, get the longer size. You can use the extra space in the bottom of the sleeping bag for your water bottle, batteries, and boot liners. Come morning you can put on your boots and not have frozen toes for the first hour.
Sleeping bags come in two varieties: either they are down filled or synthetic filled sleeping bags. Down is generally warmer, lighter, and can compress into a smaller space than synthetic filled bags. Down will also keep its loft (the air spaces that retain the warmth of your body) longer over many years than a synthetic bag. Synthetic sleeping bags are normally cheaper and will be able to get wet without losing their ability to retain their loft. Basically, if you will be camping in a very humid or rainy place, get a synthetic bag because staying warm is a bigger concern over anything else.
An all around bag for spring, summer, and fall would be a 15 (F) degree rated bag. This should get you through most of the year but if where you will be camping and the nightly temperatures will go near or below the freezing point regularly, I would look for something warmer like a 0 (F) degree bag. I’ve used Marmot sleeping bags for over 15 years but there are numerous other brands that offer great options as well.
The ground is not a great place to sleep and it’s not because of it being hard or rocky, it’s because your body warmth is primarily lost through contact with the ground in a process called conduction. You need a sleeping pad to not only be more comfortable while taking a well-deserved rest, but also to insulate your body from the ground. A simple roll or fold out insulation pad will do for most people and they are fairly inexpensive. If you want to be more comfortable, an air-filled sleeping pad is another option that I personally prefer. They are very comfortable and may have an even better insulation rating than a roll/ fold out sleeping pad. Therma-Rest has been my preferred sleeping pad for a number of years now but there all always other manufacturers.
Camping along the St. Lawrence River allowed me to have a few chances to capture the Perseids meteor shower in 2015. It was a great experience and I came away with an image that I still can't believe I was so lucky to capture. If I didn't get out there in the first place I would have missed out on the experience and the photography.
You may be thinking to yourself that the upfront costs for the equipment is more than you want to spend, but if you want to travel more while doing photography, and you're on a budget, this is a great way to look ahead and save your cash for a trip that you want to experience over a hotel room. Not everyone can physically or mentally be able to camp and that’s fine because we all create imagery within our own limits. If you see yourself as being able to stretch outside your comfort zone and possibly have a more intimate experience with nature, then camping is a great idea for your next photography trip.