Stranded in the Forest? Simple Tips for Photographing Nature Safely

Stranded in the Forest? Simple Tips for Photographing Nature Safely

Recently, a hiker in Hawaii ended up lost in the forest for 17 days, highlighting the danger behind even short hikes. There are a number of simple things that nature photographers can do to stay safe in nature.

That specific news story highlighted a few common misconceptions about good practices when it comes to the outdoors, including what to bring and what to do.

What to Bring

The essentials will vary based on where you’re going and how long you plan to be out. Backpacking for a week in Alaska will set significantly different expectations than an afternoon out-and-back hike in Zion.

Universally, you’ll need water. Bring more than you’ll expect to need, and make sure to actually drink throughout the hike. A basic guideline is a half-liter per hour in moderate conditions. This can scale quickly with heat and activity. If you’re out for a longer time, you’ll also want to replace electrolytes, along with consuming water. For longer hikes, consider bringing a water filter or treatment.

Navigation is also important. For this, a topographical map of the area can serve a double purpose for both navigation and planning certain shots. Printed maps won’t run out of batteries or break, making them an important backup to any GPS or phone.

For solo or backcountry hikes, consider buying a personal locator beacon. This GPS and satellite based device can get a message out to family or emergency services without any need for a cell tower. A popular option would be the Garmin inReach Mini, which is capable of two way text messaging, SOS alerts, and weather forecasts, all via satellite.

Other supplies like shelter, sun protection, fire starters, and extra clothes need to be determined based on what and where you’re hiking.

What to Do

Telling someone who isn’t hiking with you where you’re going is one of the simplest measures to take. Letting them know what trail you’re taking, where you plan on parking, and when you expect to be back can all help direct first responders to the right place.

Stick to the trail. While this may clash with a photographer’s desire to find a new angle on a classic subject, leaving the trail is the first step to getting lost. In just a few minutes, you can be hundreds of feet from the trail, making it difficult to pick back up.

If you are lost, resist the urge to wander. As mentioned, it’s very easy to be headed in the wrong direction, and since rescue services will check the trail you were on first, staying nearby makes it easy to be found.

Some of my absolute favorite photographic experiences have been in nature. While there is an element of risk to any outdoor activity, taking simple steps can ensure a safe and enjoyable experience.

Is there anything you pack for a hike that you consider a must have?

Alex Coleman's picture

Alex Coleman is a travel and landscape photographer. He teaches workshops in the American Southwest, with an emphasis on blending the artistic and technical sides of photography.

Log in or register to post comments

If you are confused, check with the sun, carry a compass to help you along...

One of the most helpful things you can have with you in the event you get lost is a flashlight. The sun always moves faster than you think. I woke up for sunrise one morning to hike a ridge and found
a group of 4 perched at the top of the ridge all night because the sun went down faster than they could.

Also, don’t underestimate the value of a good pair of hiking boots. I always see people wearing sneakers or tennis shoes. Proper hiking shoes/boots will change your life and are well worth it for traction, comfort and protection.

I know you stated it, but:


They're a great idea. More people should have one. I'd love to see a model that is purely focused on rescue- basically a "rescue me" device, with the goal of getting the cost as low as possible, so everyone could get one.

bring your brain and an emergency blanket. no matter where in the world you are and what season it is, it will get cold enough overnight to make you hypothermic because you dressed for daytime temps.

know the general direction you're setting out on. if you get lost, go back the way you came. if unsure, reference the sun's position in the sky to get your bearings. if all else fails, the sun sets on the west and water flows downhill; if you headed uphill in a generally southeastern direction as the crow flies, return by proceeding northwesterly and downhill. or just drop breadcrumbs because a map is useless if you don't even know cardinal directions, your current or starting location, or the original direction you set off toward.

if you insist on relying on a smartphone, use an app that allows you to download and store the maps. the google maps app allows you to do this. pack a battery to give your smartphone more life; even if you lose cell signal, the accelerometer, magnetometer and barometer can still record your movement even if you don't have a GPS fix, showing you where you've been so you can backtrack. the easiest way to do this is to hit the "parked car location" feature before you set off. the best way is to buy a quality app with accurate, downloadable maps and tracking with waypoints. there's an abundance of them on either app store designed specifically for offline use.

when all else fails or is just too much trouble, bring blaze orange duct tape and use small bits as markers as you go along, like breadcrumbs. if you decide to yell for help, yell in all directions, not just one. "help, I'm injured" will likely attract attention if someone is within earshot. "help, i'm lost" will likely attract laughter.

if you have zero sense of direction, don't know how to use a map and compass, cannot be relied upon to mark your map or mark your track as you make progress, stay on the trail if you insist on going alone or bring someone capable with you. an EPIRB should be a tool of last resort, not your first or only.

Tell someone where you're going and when you plan to be back.

Definitely- telling someone where you're going is probably the easiest measure to take.

These are all valid points when taken in summary, but assuming that you understand them in practice because you read an 11-paragraph article is like saying you're an experienced photographer because you read an 11-paragraph "best photo-hacks" list. Being an experienced hiker takes years and like photography, there's so much more to it than gear.

Best advice: don't assume you're suddenly going to up and traverse the wilderness because you read an article that says you should pack a map and water. People don't get in trouble because they don't have map. They get in trouble because they assumed they could do something they weren't prepared for: mentally, physically, and emotionally. Like anything else, study, practice, and work your way up.

These are all good practices for anything from a half hour walk in nature to a multi-day trek. I'm not suggesting this prepares you for the Appalachian trail, but instead readers should consider these as best-practices for any time in nature.

If your pack doesn't have a whistle bring one, much better range than a human voice and it can go all day long.

Whistles, mirrors, and flashlights are all great signal options. Good suggestion!

This is a good article Alex, thanks.

I'm a nature photographer, but I only go on day hikes. That being said, in my photography pack I have a multi-tool (pliers, knife, screwdriver, etc.), a different multi-tool (compass, matches, signal mirror, flashlight, whistle, etc.), a couple of space blankets, a couple of disposable ponchos, paracord with carabiner, an old CD for a signal mirror, insect repellent swabs, about 50 feet of bright orange surveyors tape and more.

I've had Mother Nature surprise me with rain, snow and wind. Having the above mentioned items has me pretty well covered for anything I may encounter.

Have Fun,

Hi Jeff,

Thanks! I'm happy you enjoyed the article.

Sounds like a pretty thorough list- I think it's great to be well prepared like that. I know my multi-tool has come in handy to fix my tripod, even if it was meant for an emergency situation.