Life at the Blackburn Appalachian Trail Center (Post #1)
A "shakedown" is when an experienced backpacker goes through another's backpack (with the owners permission) and offers advice on what to keep and (more importantly) what to take out.
I have performed dozens of shakedowns and while each is unique, often I find myself saying the same things. Here are a few of them:
"A thruhike (or long section hike) is NOT a multi-week expedition. Logistically, it is a series of three-four day hikes, repeated over-and-over."
This means that you should pack only what you need NOW. I often see people heading to GA, but packing things for "when they get to the Smoky Mountains." The beginning of a long distance hike is often the hardest, save yourself some anxiety and pack weight and deal with the immediate future. If you don't need it this week, mail it to yourself next week.
Similarly, you don't need to "stock-up" on staples (toilet paper, food, toiletries...) Carry what you need, plus one extra day, to get you to your next resupply.
Finally, don't stress-out and don't overthink it. You will almost never be more than three days from town in either direction! Be safe, but do not "psych yourself out."
"Rain gear is for hypothermia, not comfort."
I often see hikers (in mid-summer) hauling heavy rain jackets, rain pants, gaiters and water-proof boots. During my shakedowns, I ask these hikers a simple question.
"If you put on all your rain gear and walked up and down ONE mountain, how wet would you be from sweat?"
The answer is "really wet."
This is a delicate, but important point and it requires a bit of experience in the backcountry. Rain gear should not be seen as comfort items. It is safety gear. By itself, getting wet is uncomfortable, but not life-threatening. In conjunction with lower temperatures and/or wind, however, getting wet is a serious matter.
Rain gear is my first defense against hypothermia in the Spring and Fall. Remember the majority of hypothermia cases occur between the temperatures of 45-65 degrees F. Getting wet at these temperatures can be vary dangerous and proper protection can make a big difference.
With that said, if it's mid-summer and you are thinking, "I'm going to bring rain gear so that I don't get wet," think again. You will sweat and sweat is less comfortable than rain water.
The phrase I am intentionally avoiding is "NEVER bring your rain jacket in the summer." I AM NOT SAYING THIS. Weather is fickle and so is hypothermia. I am suggesting that you change how you think about equipment and gain some experience. You might just find yourself leaving three pounds of rain gear at home next time.
"If you pack it, you will invent reasons to use it. If you invent reasons to use it, you will think you need it."
Like #2, I think it's important to offer a disclaimer. There is no substitute for experience. Special care should be taken (especially in the fall, winter and spring) to ensure that you always pack "what you need." The fine line between "need" and "want" takes experience to find.
With that out of the way, it's important to understand that we are creatures of habit. This means that it's easier to avoid new, bad habits than it is to fix established ones. The upside being that beginners have the upper-hand when it comes to getting things right!
When I shakedown a backpack, I often make three piles of gear: needed gear, unneeded gear and questionable gear to mail ahead. Let's ignore the needed stuff (water purification and sleeping bags) and the unneeded stuff (hatchets and camp chairs.) We are left with questionable items (light down jackets in July and pocket knives.)
I have noticed that if you take these questionable items with you, you find yourself opening easy-tear packages with your knife or walking around camp wearing a down jacket fully-unzipped. In other words you will use these items, get attached to them and eventually think you need them.
My advice is to bump (mail to the next town) these items. You just might find that you don't miss them. After all, you can always open your Mountain House meal by hand and hop in your sleeping bag if you get chilly. If you follow this advice properly, the worst thing that can happen is that you have an uncomfortable night or two. The best outcome is that you will change the way you pack for years to come!
In 2014, I hiked the 2185.3 mile long Appalachian Trail. The most common questions I get are about gear/equipment. My backpacking philosophy mirrors my photography philosophy; the lighter your gear, the more you enjoy using it.
Lighten Your Pack Every Week:
Over the coming weeks, I will post ultralight gear tips on my blog. Some tips/resources will be from other sites, some will be of my own creation. Remember, every ounce counts!
Resource #1: HikeLight.com ("Only the Lightest")
This website not only sells interesting lightweight gear alternatives, but also posts some great resources on lightening pack weight. Here are two of their fast and dirty tip videos. Some of the tips and gear are a bit dated and the production quality is not great. If you can get past that, there is a lot to think about below:
Remember: Leave No Trace
When considering backpacking advice, make sure you think about your impact on your surroundings. The videos above provide many useful tips, but some are not appropriate in a backcountry setting (burning book pages, stashing water...)
This post is NOT out of date. While the Sony RX100 has seen several new editions, this commentary is less about tech specs and more about a way of thinking about photography equipment.
Max Mishkin IS NOT sponsored by Sony or any other camera company. This blog is based solely on his experiences and personal opinions.
"I want to take professional quality photographs, but I don't want to break my back or bank doing it."
For a full list of technical specifications, click below:
The beginning of a love affair
I set out from Springer Mountain, Georgia on March 28, 2014 in a cold, damp fog. My goal was to follow the famous Appalachian Trail for the next 2185.3 miles until I reached the storied summit of Maine's highest peak, Mount Katahdin. On my back, I carried a small day pack, containing everything I would need for the first and coldest 400 miles of my journey. Of my 4.5 lbs of equipment, a precious 7.51 oz were dedicated to my camera, Sony's RX100.
Over a year later, while on a photoshoot for Vermont State Parks, I flashed-back to that moment on Springer Mountain. Here I was standing in Vermont's beautiful Green River Reservoir, and all I was thinking about was not dropping my telephoto lens in the thigh-high water, while I changed lenses. On my back I carried over 20 lbs and thousands of dollars of camera equipment. As I paused and thought back to my hike from the year before, I was struck by the way that photography equipment can get in the way of actual photography.
Food for thought: Adapt to less, assess and adjust
Let me just say, right off the bat, that specialized camera lenses and equipment are a staple of most professional photographer's bags, often for good reason. When your livelihood is on the line, getting the best possible shot is very important. It is also important to note that many professionals are not carrying their equipment continuously from GA to ME. I am not criticizing others in their equipment choices. I am proposing that we make camera equipment selections based on "needs," rather than our "wants."
A great way to figure out what you need is to go without what you want. By limiting your equipment, you can determine what you can get away with and without. You often see this argument made by travel photographers. Unfortunately, the discussion often ends there and an argument for minimalist photography ends up sounding like a defensive justification for why someone DOSEN'T have a DSLR.
Less is more: Be a photographer, not a gearhead
The reality of minimalist photography is that you have less to worry about. I fully concede that there are shots that I miss. I also understand that (pending the purchase of a few thousand dollars of lenses, tripod heads and camera bodies) I could fill those gaps. What I do not miss is the immediacy of the moment. When I juggle lenses and camera bags, my world shrinks to the logistics and mechanics of "getting the shot." When I operate a fixed-lens camera, I am free to be part of the space that I am in.
It was accidental at first, but I soon came to appreciate the intimacy that a professional point-and-shoot allows for. My RX100 allowed me to capture the moments that I was experiencing. The result was evident in my images. Instead of rooting through a camera bag, selecting and changing lenses, I could simply turn on my camera (tucked in my pocket) and document the moment. The camera's quick and accurate autofocus and fully adjustable settings did the rest.
Image quality is phenomenal and the 20.2 megapixels give the latitude to print at large dimensions. This image has been shown in gallery spaces at sizes over 24x17"
Using the RX100 can be as easy or as technical as you want it to be.
Photograph taken by Mitchell Mishkin
Ultralight is more comfortable
I do not take camera or hiking equipment lightly. I enjoy researching and selecting the best possible options before making a purchase. I stumbled upon ultralight photography because I was limited by pack weight and size. I needed to walk over five million steps with my gear on my back and I intended to do so with less than 5 pounds of equipment. DSLRs and mirrorless cameras were out of the picture, so I chose the best "point-and-shoot" I could find.
Comfort was crucial. I needed to live with my equipment choices for 5-6 months. The RX100 fit my needs perfectly. I could take professional quality images, travel light and not worry about expensive accessories. My camera, like my other hiking equipment was a perfect reflection of my hiking mentality, "carry less, enjoy more."
A love that stands the test of time
Two years after my Appalachian Trail hike I still use my RX100. My RX100 has been with me for over 3600 miles of hiking and every ding, nick and scratch on its metal body represents another adventure together. While I now own a mirrorless body and a set of lenses, my RX100 is special. Even more special to me are the photographs I have taken with it.
On August 29, 2014, my RX100 and I summited Mt. Katahdin. For five months and one day, we traversed the Appalachian Mountains together through fourteen states. Together we documented that journey and those images have been seen and used across the country. In the end photographer Chase Jarvis was right, "the best camera is the one that's with you."
For more RX100 Images:
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Photography's Role in Outdoor Ethics
We have all been there:
That leaf is just so beautiful! That is one giant feather! That seashell is so perfectly symmetrical! Really, what's the harm in taking it with me?
Every outdoor enthusiast understands the powerful draw of memorializing one's journeys and adventures. The natural world is full of objects, animals and vistas that speak to us on a primal level. It is only natural to want to take such feelings and experiences back home with us. How does the conscientious and ethical outdoorswoman/man handle these moments of temptation?
The Answer: Photography
The outdoor recreational culture is being dragged (sometimes reluctantly) into the age of technology. While the proliferation of UV water-purification, GPS devices and smartphones is a contentious point among many outdoors enthusiasts and gearheads, I submit the digital camera as a piece of technology that we all can rally behind.
By photographing the natural word, we are able to preserve those qualities which most draw us to the natural world. Often it is an object's context that imbues it with life and beauty. By removing that object from its natural context, the backcountry visitor inevitably strips that object of its found charm. Photography allows us to capture context and give our backcountry souvenirs depth and meaning. Moreover, the recent explosion of digital cameras has made it easier than ever to memorialize more of your experiences.
The growth of camera options (smartphones, point-and-shoot, mirrorless and DSLR) gives everyone an equal opportunity to document our adventures and leave the natural world as we found it. Additionally, as the computer has replaced the darkroom in photographic post-production, the process of developing photographs has become far less resource-intensive (again, Mother Earth rejoices.)
I should say here that there is such a thing as unethical backcountry camera-use. During my work in the Appalachian Trail backcountry, I often see people get carried away and use their cameras in disruptive and disrespectful ways. Whether its the hiker who chases a deer through the woods, flashbulb blazing, or the day-hiker who takes unsolicited and intrusive portraits of grungy backpackers, camera use is often abused to the detriment of the entire community.
Not only do such "techniques" harass wildlife and disrupt other visitors, they also create distance and detachment between the photographer and his/her subject matter. I have found that my best photographic work is done when I am conscious of myself in a space. Often, the most emotionally charged aspects of natural scenes are those with the least photographer presence.
In other words, good backcountry ethics leads to better photography and vice versa. With the growth of digital photography and its increased accessibility, every backcountry adventurer can mitigate their resource impact by taking photographs and leaving what they find. So add a camera to next adventure's backpack; for your sake and mother nature's.
Max's Conservation Photography Shows
MAX MISHKIN is...
a conservation photographer. Max's passion is to show the intimate and majestic moments that define great outdoor spaces.