Photography Adventures on a Budget? Go Camping

Photography Adventures on a Budget? Go Camping

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. 

Kelty Salida 2 Tent

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.

Milky Way and Meteor Over The St. Lawrence River

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. 

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13 Comments

Good article, but what do you carry all your kit in or do you just park up and sleep by the roadside? I cannot find a decent rucksack that will take all my camping and camera kit together. Let's not mention mindshift in this equation as I am 6ft 3 and clothes, mat ,bag, tent, tripod and food etc do not all fit in their 180 pro, which is really no bigger than a daysack.

JT Blenker's picture

Evening Paul, it depends on what I'm shooting and where honestly. Many areas in say Yellowstone are driving accessible and you are camping because you can stay in the park even during the busiest times. You just have to be ready to grab a spot between 10AM and noon though. The interior hotels and the closest hotels outside the park are booked out for up to a 10 months in advance so camping is a good strategy here. If you need to hike in to a primitive spot (and some require a permit depending on the area), I've used a mixed bag strategy. Basically I have an Osprey 70L backpack for my essentials, and I use a Tenba BYOB 13 inside this bag for my camera equipment. I'll put my tripod on the outside and I'm ready to go while still having a good amount of protection around my cameras and glass.

My solution is similar a 70li Macpac sack, with a waterproof lens insert (Amazon), tripod on the side and a lowe Nova 2AW ( instant/ready use kit) on the hip belt. A 3li bladder, on the opposite side, balances off the tripod. Thanks for your response and the affirmation that anything more than a day trip requires a real load carrier. Btw I am a European mountaineer and things are slightly different over here i.e the wilderness is often not quite as well groomed as it may be in some of US National Parks.

Josh Bryant's picture

You don't need to carry all your camping gear unless you're planning on doing a back country trek, which as JT noted typically requires a permit. I've done Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier, camping at one of the campgrounds in the park. All the camping gear stays at the campsite and I carry all my camera gear on the trails. It's a bit limiting, but I typically have my wife and 3 kids with me, who are only willing to hike so far anyways. Now that my kids are getting older, I am looking into a bag that can carry some camping supplies AND my camera gear, so we can do a back country trip with my oldest son. I may just have to make him carry the camping gear. ;)

Jeff McCollough's picture

Fstopgear has some packs that would work if they would only stock their own darn products lol.

Anonymous's picture

...because if you don't have a tiny car, camping sucks!? Sorry. I couldn't get past such a stupid comment but I'm sure the rest of the article was great. :-/

JT Blenker's picture

Evening Patrick, I'm confused by your reaction as what I wrote states an opposite statement. I think you're trying to state that the inference is any other vehicle is poor for camping? What I was inferring is that if you were driving a larger vehicle, you could just sleep in the back if it accommodated lay down seating or an area that you could lay flat. Small vehicles usually won't allow you to have your feet at the same height as your head much less to lay flat, and this is where being able to camp and having the ability to stretch out between adventures is a great idea.

Anonymous's picture

I still don't see your explanation reflected in your original statement but okay. I'm sorry for my harsh reaction.

Where did you learn English, Patrick?

Anonymous's picture

Everywhere. I've read thousands of books, studied at private schools through college and talked with English speakers, of varying levels, all over the world. Why do you ask?

Let's analyze the paragraph in question, shall we?

>If you have a tiny car, like me, camping is awesome!
Simple statement and can be taken either way but begs for an explanation. And the fact he mentions the size of his car, indicates a comparison, in some way, to larger cars.

>You get to avoid the gas guzzling vehicles
I fail to see how this statement can be separated from having a tiny car due to having immediately followed it. When you make an assertion, "If you have a tiny car, like me, camping is awesome!" standard practice is to follow it up with supporting statements. The fact he describes the vehicles as "the gas guzzling" seems to continue a differentiation between cars of various sizes. That doesn't make sense, though, since anyone can park their gas guzzling vehicle next to your gas sipping vehicle and if you're not near any cars, size is irrelevant.

>keep more money in your pocket so you can travel even more
This, of course, seems to be advocating camping but, having been placed in the follow-up sentence regarding tiny cars seems to indicate causation.

>and have the ability to choose the landscape you will wake up to every morning.
Again, poor placement.

Most people who aren't trained writers have difficulty with composition which is understandable. I misunderstood his point, he explained it in a way that would have been better done in the original article, done.

Any other questions? :-)

Geoff Thompson's picture

Great article. for those who are interested in shifting your gear around while on location, or camping, the "cart a lot" wagon is ideal. I use mine for when I am conducting photography training to get all my gear in and out of buildings and also when visiting outdoor locations. My neighbours have set up this business as per the link in Australia.
I am sure you have similar in America as well. http://www.cart-a-lot.com.au/home/

Spy Black's picture

Great article. I'd love to do something like this, but mosquitoes kill it for me. I recently did a short daytime hike for a photo project, and had to spray my shoes and clothing with picaridin in hopes of repelling mosquitoes and ticks, and organic repellent on my skin for mosquitoes. While it helped, I still got bit.

This, on a relatively short 2 hour hike. Going deep in the woods I would imagine would require dousing clothing and shoes in something like permethrin while subjecting skin to either picaridin or organic repellents (deet doesn't even remotely look attractive to me). This would become a real messy situation for me, especially if you can't wash for extended periods of time!

Of course wildlife is another issue, but for me mosquitoes is the single largest deterrent to camping, which is unfortunate, because there are so many great experiences, photographic and otherwise, out in the wild.

Anonymous's picture

Several years ago, I read a book about an expedition into a South American jungle. One of the members, who's repellant wasn't helping, asked their native guide what to do about the mosquitos. The native replied, 'There's nothing you can do about it. It's their home.' :-)