Disclaimer: Apologies for the length of this article. I will be spending a substantial amount of time discussing camping in the outdoors so feel free to jump below to specific sections of this post! I will highlight the sections that deal specifically with the filming aspect.
I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors. Growing up, my family would spend every summer exploring the depths of Saskatchewan, Canada from the dead south of Grasslands National Park to the far north of my uncle’s fly-in fishing resort. It would be safe to say that I have seen virtually all of Saskatchewan’s Provincial and Regional Parks.
Fast forward to 2001. My parents purchased a cabin/cottage at Wakaw Lake, SK. After having purchased the cabin/cottage, we stopped our yearly camping trips and instead spent every weekend and holiday working to improve the place, while also continuing to spend countless hours exploring the vastness of the outdoors. Although it was a lot of fun at the time, looking back, there is no way we would have tackled all the work we did! Ten years later and most of the heavy lifting work-wise is complete and it is now a place (the only place) where I feel completely relaxed. Having the cabin truly allows me to experience the outdoors much more than anyone I know. Whether it be snowmobiling, quading, or fishing, we are always outside when at the cabin.
It is safe to say that in conjunction with growing up in the outdoors, the 3 minute short film project helped me find my passion, which is filming in the wilderness.
Now to the nuts and bolts!
I am by no means an expert but hope that some of the points below will help in avoiding some of the mistakes I have made and believe me, I have made them! I know I am not the only young filmmaker that also has a passion for the outdoors and for those of you that are passionate about both, this post is for you.
Below is a brief look at some of the topics I will be exploring in this post. Feel free to jump ahead as this post is pretty long. By no means is it a complete list and it will change and adapt as I continue to explore the outdoors. I will also make mention of what kit I use when heading out but by no means am I recommending my kit as THE kit to take with you. It is simply what works for me! In the end, I hope you are able to take away a few points that may aid in your journey!
WHAT’S TO COME!
- How to pack
- How to set up camp
- The complete and not so complete camping lists
- Day trips
- Back-country filming - Mobile editing station
HOW TO PACK
One of the hardest parts of filming in the wilderness is deciding between the amount of traditional camping gear and camera equipment to take as you are limited in the amount of gear that you can bring with you. I tend to lean towards more camera gear because I would rather be cold and hungry then be confronted with a black bear and have no way to film it!
There are two ways you can camp (with a vehicle and back-country) but I am going to focus on the back-country aspect throughout this post as it requires much more fine tuning and pre-planning than camping from a vehicle (which I will touch on in the mobile editing section). The main limitation that exists when deciding how much gear to bring is the size of the bag and the amount you can carry.
TYPES OF BAGS
I have tried a variety of bags as the choices are limitless but have settled on four different types that fit my style when shooting in the wilderness. These are daypacks, shoulderbags, expedition packs, and traditional camera bags. Daypacks are small with little to no frame to support the load you are carrying. They are meant for shorter treks. These are perfect for location scouts when only carrying camera and lens. Shoulderbags are lightweight and easy to take with you on longer expeditions. Expedition packs have a capacity between 65-100L and are meant for back-country travel and longer expeditions. These are perfect for longer treks as they are built to carry more weight. However, there are no dedicated compartments to protect your cameras and are traditionally top-loading bags. As for traditional camera bags, they are focused on protecting camera gear but aren’t built to carry for extended periods of time and typically can’t carry as much gear.
Finding the best solution will vary as tolerance levels and body builds differ from person to person. One recommendation however, is that you should not skimp on the amount you spend on a bag as you will be able to carry more if the pack has a better build quality. If you are unsure what size or type of bag to get when buying hiking backpacks, it is always best to go down to the store and ask for advice as well as try the bag on to see if it fits your body type. I found that only a few brands actually fit my body build!
PACKING FOR DAY TRIPS
Packing for day trips is much more freeing than that of back-country camping as you only have to worry about the day ahead of you*. In most cases, I use my traditional camera bag, the LOWEPRO PRO TREKKER 400AW. This bag has a built in hydration system, a rain cover, lots of compartments, and even a whistle built into one of the straps ;). I find the size of the bag, the structure and placement of the straps, the added hydration, and the rain cover make it perfect for day trips that last up to 12 hours.
Rain gear, extra layers of clothes, mosquito spray, LOTS of water (water purification tablets if drinking from stream), and snacks are the key elements that must be part of your kit. Whether or not the sky is clear, these elements should ALWAYS be in your kit. In regards to snacks, I typically pack dried fruits, nuts and jerky and very rarely pack any substantial meals. If I am planning on shore lunches, I will bring an ice fishing rod and small cast iron frying pan (because of size) and catch my food rather than carry in. When using the TREKKER 400AW, I tend to keep these items, along with the food and water in the side and top pockets of the pack for easy access and all the camera gear in the main compartment. I will almost always have one camera out of the bag to capture any wildlife that I may stumble upon.
When it comes to camera gear, this is always changing and adapting as I buy new gear but the list below is part of the kit I took on my recent two week adventure in British Columbia, Canada. The crane was only taken on day trips.
- Canon 5D Mark II
- Canon 7D
- Canon 70-200mm 2.8L II IS
- Canon 50mm 1.2L
- Canon 14mm 2.8L
- Canon 24-105mm 4L
- Zoom H4N
- Miller DS20 SOLO 3
- Kessler Pocket Dolly v2 with Davis & Sanford Legs and Head
- Kessler Crane 8ft with K-POD
- Gorillapod Focus
- 2 x 13″ Macbook Pro’s
- Portable HD’s
* No matter how long your trek is, you should always plan for the worst and pack extra food and clothing in case you either get lost or get stranded due to the weather. Ensuring that you check-in with the local visitor centre or a trustworthy family member or friend is also recommended, no matter how long your expedition is.
PACKING FOR BACK-COUNTRY FILMING
As stated previously, packing for back-country camping takes much more finesse and care. For most trips when travelling by myself, I use my OSPREY ATOMAS 65. Because the bag is not built with camera compartments, you will have to wrap your lenses and camera bodies in clothes and then place them in ziploc bags (See image above). I keep all clothes, camera gear, and cooking utensils* in the main compartment and all food and water on the outer compartments. When packing the main compartment, all cooking utensils are at the bottom of the bag and all clothing and camera gear placed in after. Due to the top-loading nature of the ATOMAS 65, you are forced to take everything in and out of the bag when you are looking for things. However, the advantage of this bag is that you are able to carry much more gear AND it is built to support more weight. It also has dedicated straps for attaching a matte, sleeping bag, and tent. I tend to strap my sleeping bag to the outside of the bag as I find it takes up way too much room inside the bag, even with compression straps. If you choose to keep your sleeping bag attached to the outside, you should wrap it in a garbage bag to keep it dry. One of the worst things when camping is a wet sleeping bag! When packing for longer trips, I also normally have one camera out of the bag to capture wildlife that I stumble upon. I typically choose my 5D Mark II with 24-105mm lens attached.
The last part of the kit that I bring along is an over the shoulder style camera bag (THINKTANK RESTROSPECTIVE 30) for when I arrive at a desired location. I immediately take all the camera gear that was wrapped in clothes and place it in the bag for shooting around the area. I don’t carry the equipment in the bag while hiking as it is much easier to strap to the back of the ATOMAS 65 when empty. As for gear, on my trip to BC I took everything from the list above except for the Kessler Crane 8ft with K-POD. I do not recommend taking two full sized tripods as I did. You can get away with smaller photo style tripods if shooting with DSLR cameras.
One thing to keep in mind when packing is that it will take some time to find out the best way to pack your bags to fit your style of hiking. Keeping the items that you access most frequently in the outer compartments is key (camera, food, and water).
* I will touch more specifically on cooking utensils in the COMPLETE and NOT SO COMPLETE CAMPING LIST SECTION.
HOW TO SET UP CAMP
A camp is broken into four areas; tent area, cooking area, washing area, and toilet area. Make sure to set up your tent on well-drained, slightly sloped grounds, at least 100ft from any water source. Although it is tempting to set-up camp along a river or lake, it is best to set up camp near rocks and trees to protect you from the elements. All cooking areas, including fires, should be at least 30 feet from your tent and any prevailing winds should blow the ashes away from the tent. When not cooking, all food should be hoisted up a tree as to not attract bears or other undesired animals. The washing area is for washing dishes or bathing. All soaps must be biodegradable and should be used downstream from any water that you may be collecting. Lastly, any toilet area should be 100 ft from your tent as well as any body of water. You should also dig a hole at least 10 inches deep and cover when breaking down camp. As for camera and computer equipment, I always set up both inside the tent, away from the elements.
THE COMPLETE AND NOT SO COMPLETE CAMPING LISTS
The length of your trip is the main determining factor when packing. However, there are a few essential items that must be part of your kit, no matter how long you are headed out. I will go into detail about a few of the items but if you would like more information on recommendations or anything else, I am working on a more extensive write-up on 3minuteshorts.ca. This post is long enough as it is!
Comfortable and sturdy footwear are a necessity and it is another part of your kit that you should not skimp on. I would venture to say that your footwear is the most important piece of your kit — even more important than the camera as you need to get to your location in order to film it! Buy your hiking boots 1/2 a size larger than your typical shoe size as your feet will swell. Also, invest in a good pair of marina wool socks as they will help wick the water away from your feet if they are to get wet. On one of my first filming trips, I didn’t have the marina wool socks and ended up will a bunch of blisters from my feet being damp.
Clothing choices are very important. Many thin layers are much better than a warm sweater as you are unable to adjust to the climate in stages. If you have many layers, you can slowly adapt to the climate to avoid sweating. When it comes to packing, any clothes that you are not using to protect your camera gear should be placed in ziplock bags to keep them dry and compact. I am a fan of Gore-Tex clothing as it’s main function is to keep you dry. Like mentioned earlier, rain gear must always be with you. You can never predict the weather you will run into as it changes in an instant.
When it comes to food, there are many options that exist. Pre-plan your meals by doing a quick internet search to find solutions that work for you. Ensure you have lots of snacks that provide lots of energy. I tend to lean towards soups, dried fruits, nuts, jerky, and any type of trail mix bars. Water purification tabs are also very important. They are compact and allow you to drink water that you gather from fresh sources.
As for cooking, I always pack a cast iron frying pan (although heavy, it is indestructible and is great for both open fire and propane stove), a few utensils and a backpacking camp stove (lightweight device that screws onto top of propane bottle).
When it comes to setting up camp for longer trips, it is essential that you pack a tent, sleeping bag (with compression straps), sleeping matte, tarps, rope, and flashlight. I can’t count how many times I have set-up camp in the dark. It is not fun!
Other miscellaneous gear that I also bring along are mosquito spray, a hatchet, sunglasses, lip balm, a utility knife, a first aid kit, a compass, and most importantly, a map. I have been lost a few times while hiking and it is a scary feeling not knowing where you are! All the items listed above take up approximately 1/4 of my pack.
Now the fun part! Filming in the wilderness poses some challenges when it comes to gear. You are exposed to the elements and therefore are forced to protect yourself and your gear from any situation that you are presented with. The biggest obstacle is keeping your gear dry and safe from the elements. I will touch on power and data management in the MOBILE EDITING STATION section below. When it comes to shooting, make sure to pack twice as many plastic rain sleeve covers for your cameras as you think you will need. They are very inexpensive. You will be surprised how handy they will be! Another helpful tip when filming in heavy rain or heat is setting up a tarp above you to protect you from the elements. Tarps are easy to hang and make filming much more enjoyable. When shooting outdoors, no matter where you are, it is a little more challenging keeping your sensor and lenses clean so having extra cleaning materials will always come in handy.
I often find myself shooting a lot of timelapses when back-country filming as it is very freeing. I am sure you will find a style that works for you but for me, back-country filming without timelapsing is not back-country filming!
If you would like to view the COMPLETE CAMPING LIST that my parents have adapted over time, CLICK HERE. It is NOT a list for back-country camping. Definitely didn’t rough it when I was younger ;). It is a list for camping with a vehicle.
Above Video: Day trip to Goldstream Provincial Park
Hiking requires a high level of fitness and is very physically demanding. Like any outdoor activity, using common sense is essential. One of the most important things you need to do before embarking on day trips is research as well as knowing your limits. By doing a quick search, you can easily find a trail that is fit for you — virtually all trail information can either be found online or the local visitor centre. If you are unsure which trail you should be taking, always start at the shortest, well-maintained trails and work your way up. There is no shame in that. (I didn’t work my way up and found myself at the top of a mountain with no water left when filming Huckleberry Lookout!)
There are three types of trails; easy, moderate, and strenuous. The trail’s difficulty is determined by it’s mileage, terrain and altitude. The easy trails are well maintained and typically have a flat terrain. As for moderate, these have a gradual elevation and is more strenuous than easy. In some cases, you will notice deterioration of the trails. They are still maintained but require a higher level of fitness. Lastly, the strenuous trails are sometimes off trail hiking, through a creek or river crossing with rough terrain and significant elevation changes. If you’re like me and detest tourist attractions, you will rarely run into tourists at the strenuous level.
The advantage of day trips is that you are able to carry a lot more gear than that of back-country filming. However, no matter the length of the trail, be it one hour return or ten hour return, I always do a scout first. Carrying a day pack and camera in hard (no tripod) I run the trail first to observe any sections along the way that I may want to film at and create check-points along the way for myself when filming. I carry a camera to capture any wildlife I may run into and to take photos of different sections that I would like to feature. It is very important to establish checkpoints along the way, even if you don’t do a scout first so you make it back before dark. When I first started filming in the wilderness, I had a problem of either stopping too frequently and not making it to the end, or not stopping until the end of the trail and missing things along the way. I found that doing a scout first allowed me to actually enjoy the scenery first and then capture specific elements I found fascinating. Day trips are much more like any traditional shoot and you are less limited in your creative desires.
No matter the type of trip you take, it is key to drink lots of water and fill your body with nutrients. I CANNOT stress enough how important each of these are! Another problem with the outdoors are those pesky mosquitoes! Although there is no way to completely stop them from pestering you, there are a few things you can do to make them tolerable (besides applying spray). Avoid perfumes, hair sprays, scented soaps, deodorant, lotions, shampoos, and wear light colours.
Above Video: Back-country trek within Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park
Although back-country camping and filming allows you to access uncharted territory, it also comes with a few responsibilities. My biggest word of advice is to take your time. Create realistic check-points and do not carry more than you can handle. Before embarking on your trek, make sure to plan your route and learn about any park regulations. Many parks across Canada have special instructions to follow, and it is important that you abide by them. When I was planning to go back-country filming in Kokanee Glacier Provincial Park in British Columbia, I was required to take measures to protect my vehicle from porcupines (they eat your tires and brake lines).
One of the main reasons that I love filming in the wilderness is the feeling you get once you have accomplished something so physically demanding. Whether or not your footage is mind-blowing, the satisfaction you get from seeing something so unique is very gratifying. It is what keeps me going back.
Much like the experience of back-country camping, filming in the wilderness forces you to take risks. As a filmmaker, you are forced to find new ways of doing things that you many not be used to. I find that when back-country filming, I tend to take more risks not only with locations and techniques, but also camera settings. For example, when shooting the video above, I experimented mainly with the sharpness and contrast settings (cinestyle picture profile) to see how far one could push each when shooting in harsh sunlight. When editing, much like everything else on the 5D, I found that it can no be pushed far at all. You must capture an image as flat as possible if you hope to be able to control the image in post. In the above short, you can see what happens to the edges when the sharpness is pushed too far. I have experimented with picture profile settings on the 5D but wanted to play around with the cinestyle profile settings across both photo and video.
As for equipment, one of the major obstacles is camera support. You must learn to shoot in new ways using gear you would not normally use (lightweight tripods, gorrilapods, etc.). I have found that by limiting yourself, you learn techniques that you would not have learned if not limited. I have used both the lightweight and full-sized tripods and now always take two full sized tripods with Kessler Pocket Dolly v2 attached. I do not recommend this as it makes the trek much harder but also believe that with no pain comes no gain!
Another aspect of back-country filming is wildlife. Whether or not you are filming wildlife, you must be cautious and aware at all times. Before heading out, you should do some research to determine which animals are native to the territory and know how to protect yourself. Safety first, especially when traveling alone. No matter what animal you are confronted with, any sudden movements will startle them. It is always safer to move slowly. You are also more likely to get your shot if you make subtle movements.
Filming wildlife can be a daunting task and often frustrating. I have spent hours waiting in hopes of seeing something with no luck. I have also had trips where I filmed so much that I ran out of memory cards. It is very hit and miss and can be very, very frustrating. In regards to equipment, long lenses are a must. I often find that I do not get enough range with the 70-200mm II 2.8 L.
MOBILE EDITING STATION
One of the biggest challenges with filming in the outdoors is power management. Establishing solutions for camera batteries and media is easily solved by purchasing more of both but when it comes to power management of hard drives and laptops, that is where the problem arises. Further to this, solutions also depend on the length of time off the grid as well as how often you plan on using your computer. Below is a look at a few options as well as solutions that I have found to fit my needs.
For most people, editing while back-country filming isn’t a requirement but if it is, like it was when I was doing my 3 minute shorts, here are a few pointers. If you are planning to edit off of travel-sized drives, you will need a few back-ups as they are more prone to failures. I have literally had ALL my portable drives fail at some point as you are much more rough on them when hiking. For me, I have stopped using the portable drives all together and have instead turned to 3.5″ WD Caviar Black drives that have to be powered as they are able to withstand a little more disturbance (although still require care!).
When going off the grid during the shorts, I ensured that I had enough cards and batteries to allow me to film the entire week without dumping or charging batteries. During this week, I then only had to power my laptop. Editing takes much more processing power but I was still able to get three hours of use out of each laptop. To supplement the rest of the time I was off the grid, I purchased the HONDA EU1000i, which is a small generator. It lasts approximately 8hrs per tank and is under 30 pounds. You aren’t able to power your apartment from it but it works great for computers! I found that I was able to charge my laptops four times per tank of gas — which is pretty amazing! It is also super quiet.
Another option if you are only needing a few extra hours of battery life are the energizer battery packs. I have not used them with my macs as they do not have the right adapter but have heard good things about them. If you do a quick search, you can see what options exist as there are a few.
When at NAB, there were a few companies coming out with mobile editing stations with the batteries built right in but none of them were really light enough or compact enough to hall around with you when carrying everything else that you are already carrying. The generator was already pushing it! Although useful, and somewhat impractical, it did come in handy for the time I spent off the grid.
When producing my shorts last year, I was on the road for a majority of them and found myself tapping into my vehicle to charge batteries and laptops using an inverter. I would find myself leaving my car run in order to charge everything. Very impractical! This year I took a somewhat different approach. I drive approximately 60,000km a year so decided to purchase a 2010 Toyota Prius. Being that it is a hybrid, I can now charge all my equipment from my vehicle and the engine only kicks in every 25 minutes for approximately one minute! Although this isn’t a solution for everyone as these vehicles are a little pricey, it is a clear sign of what’s to come. I can’t see myself ever owning a vehicle that isn’t a hybrid anymore!
THE LOW DOWN
As stated earlier on, this post will grow/evolve as I continue to explore the outdoors. I am fairly fresh to back-country filming and continue to learn with each trip. Like anything, the more you do, the better you will get at it. If you haven’t explored the outdoors yourself, you are really missing out!
OTHER SHORTS FROM THE TRIP
I am slowly knocking off shorts from the trip and will continue to add as I finish them.