Why You Have to be Bit of a Lunatic to be a Backcountry Photographer

The hike in is grueling. You’re way behind schedule and you realize that you’ve severely underestimated the terrain you’re trying to traverse. After all, it never looks that bad on the map! To compound the matter, it’s freezing. You can’t seem to reach a balance between staying warm when the harsh wind cuts through the forest and not sweating like you’re standing before a firing squad when you’re moving.

The pack you’ve slung on your back is heavy. You can’t help but think, do I really need all this gear?

Finally, after hours of trudging through mud, crossing frigid streams, and pushing your body to its limits, you arrive at your destination. You take the time to find a composition, set up the camera and snap the picture.

Now it dawns on you… you have to get back to the car. You’re only halfway done! This is when you make the hard realization: you have to be a bit of a lunatic to be a backcountry photographer!

Creation Falls, Red River Gorge, Kentucky.
Creation Falls, Red River Gorge, Kentucky.

What is a Backcountry Photographer Anyway?

So what exactly am I referring to as a backcountry photographer you ask?

After all, simply googling types of photography will reveal a myriad of different genres. You’ve got your wedding photographer and landscape photographer. There’s the real estate photographer and the product photographer. We, of course, mustn’t forget the adventure photographer and the underwater photographer. The list goes on and on.

What I am referring to as a backcountry photographer, however, is any photographer that operates in the backcountry – areas that are remote, undeveloped, and generally hard to get to. This largely encompasses landscape and adventure photographers, but I’m sure there are others that could fit in this category as well.

And you want to know a secret about us backcountry photographers? We are all just a little bit insane.

Don’t believe me? Just check out these reasons!

The Gear

Regardless of the genre of photography we talk about, there is a plethora of gear involved. This is no exception for the backcountry photographer. The thing is, out in the backcountry, gear has two big disadvantages:

  1. We carry a lot more of it. Not only do we have the typical gear you’d expect to find on a photographer (cameras, lenses, etc.), but we also have the necessary gear to traverse the backcountry. This could be food, tents, sleeping bags, or even crampons and ice axes in the winter. This equates to a lot more expense and, more importantly, weight.
  2. We have to carry our gear a long way. Very rarely will you be able to get away with doing backcountry photography without making a long trek carrying all your gear. Usually on your back. Over rough terrain. While dealing with whatever mother nature decides to throw at you.

The Physical Effort

Remember how I said we have to carry our heavy gear over long distances in remote, undeveloped regions, often times in less than favorable conditions?

Well, let me tell you, such activities can really take it out of you! The physical effort required to be a backcountry photographer is much higher than that required for most any other types of photography. Trying to stay in the best shape possible is just part of the game!

Don’t believe me about the fitness aspect? Just try doing a 17 mile day carrying 35 pounds of gear over rough terrain in the freezing cold!

Sometimes, as a backcountry photographer, you have to bear the elements.
Sometimes, as a backcountry photographer, you have to bear the elements.

The Mental State

Backcountry photography is hard! The long miles, the isolation, the physical effort, and dealing with mother nature can really wear you down mentally.

Just imagine driving 6+ hours to a location, hiking a couple of miles in, and getting camp set up before sunset. During the night you have an unexpected ice storm (the predicted temperatures were in the 60s), 60+ mile per hour winds, and bears wandering into your camp. On the way back from said trip your car breaks down and you’re are stranded waiting for help for over 9 hours (This is actually a brief account of my last trip to Dolly Sods).

This sort of thing can really break down your mental state!

One of the many amazing views from the Dolly Sods Wilderness, West Virginia.
That Dolly Sods trip I just described was hard, but man was it beautiful!

So, Why do We do It?

After going through all this, the question arises: why on Earth do we continue to do backcountry photography?

The answer, I think, is different for everyone, but I will give you my take on it.

The Experiences

In doing backcountry photography, you are experiencing something that fewer and fewer people get to experience. As more and more cities pop up, we have less of a chance to experience nature at its best. You really can’t even begin to understand the immense beauty of mother nature until you are out in it. The experiences you gain by being “out there” can never be replaced.

The Images

Hey, at the end of the day we are just photographers. As such, we love getting a great image. What could possibly compare to the breathtaking beauty of our own planet!?

The Drive

At the end of the day, those of us who participate in backcountry photography have this drive to do it that we simply can’t explain. Sure, we can rattle off a few random reasons why we do it, but, when it’s all said and done, there’s just this thing inside of us that compels us to get out there and shoot the backcountry.

We can’t explain it. I’m not even sure exactly how to put it into words, but, for some of us, there will always be that constant voice inside our head telling us to get out and go photograph an adventure.

This brings me to my original statement: Backcountry photographers are all just a little bit insane (and proud of it)!

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2 Responses

    1. I think the last bit shows that this post isn’t about complaining, but more about explaining some of the mindset behind the people that enjoy doing a type of photography that some would consider to be slightly insane 😉

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