Digital overload can get to the best of us. With information pouring from all sides, it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Sometimes, you just need to get away from it all, to disconnect. When you decide you’ve had enough, an off the grid trip is just the ticket. However, in an increasingly connected world, getting off the grid may be harder than you think. Unless you already live in a remote area, you’ll probably need to take quite a trek before you get disconnected.
Good thing is, that’s where the magic happens. Away from the reach of technollogy some amazing nature spots await. The farther you go from the crowds, the closer you will get to yourself. Far from the light polution of the city, you will enjoy the brightest stars and the deepest black the skies have to offer. Backpack all set, boots to the ready!
A trip like that is one to remember and cherish. But since you are here on Lens Notes, chances are you will also want to capture those amazing sights for posterity. Make sure you keep your photography gear clicking with these rugged pieces of kit.
When planning an off the grid adventure, there are several technical areas which you have to concentrate on regarding your photographic equipment. First and foremost, you need to provide adequate protection for your gear. Threading off the beaten path, you are bound to encounter some rough patches. Make sure you give your camera a fighting chance to survive them. So what do you need to keep your cameras and lenses safe and sound?
This starts with research. Even though it’s good to be prepared for almost anything, read up on what to expect in your destination. Protecting a camera from the blistering heat of the Death Valley is slightly different than making sure it survives a white water rafting trip. Knowing what you’re up against makes picking the right gear easy and effective.
How you go about protecting your equipment depends on two main things – how much gear you are carrying and how you are traveling. Naturally, packing a sophisticated large format view camera is a bit trickier compared to a compact point and shoot. Furthermore, packing gear for a 4×4 safari differs quite a bit from preparing for backpacking across the Appalachian.
The amount of gear also depends on the purpose of your trip. If you are setting out on a photographic trip, you might need quite a few more things than what find-yourself-journey snaps require. You can see how this can get complicated rather quickly. However, let’s have a brief overview of the different options.
Small Bags & Pouches
Starting small, let’s say you subscibe to a minimalist ethos and travel light. Maybe you’re backpacking with a small mirrorless camera with a pancake lens, for example a Canon M6II with the 22mm f/2. Or you’ve got a nice premium compact camera like the Sony RX100 VII or the venerable Ricoh GR. With the compact size of these cameras, it’s tempting to just shove them in a pocket and call it a day. However, going off the grid can be a bumpy ride, and there’s few things more dissapointing for a photographer than facing an amazing vista with a broken camera.
Even if you are traveling by foot and counting grams, a dedicated camera bag or a pouch can provide a lot of protection for it’s weight. It helps that padding is essentially trapped air. Make sure the bag or pouch you select is up to the challenges it may face (going back to the research point above). For example, if traveling by motorcycle, you will encounter much more vibrations than if treking, so you may need a bag with extra thick padding. With no particular threats in sight, you will most likely be fine with a good quality general purpose pouch.
We like the Lowepro Harside CS series for their minimalistic rugged design. The hard shells of these bags provide the most protection while keeping the overall form factor nice and slim. They are also adequately water resistant (albeit not waterproof!) and quite affordable. If you are only carrying the one camera with minimal accessories, you can probably make do with the smallest CS 20 model pictured above packing a Sony RX100. As these pouches are quite rigid do pay attention to size. Unlike soft sided bags, the hard shells of the CS bags do not yield much, so make sure your camera will fit within the stated internal dimensions.
Another thing to consider is what accessories your camera needs and where to carry them. At the very least, you will probably be carrying a battery charger, spare batteries and storage cards. If you are shooting film, you will be swapping those cards for film stock. Depending on your photographic goals, you may also bring along a bunch of other things like filters, macro rings, a remote shutter release or a flash. It’s up to you and your workflow whether you pack all your photographic gear in one bag or disperse the accessories throughout your luggage. Some kit is more delicate than other, so if you choose the latter option, do pay attention to the fragile pieces.
Backpacks & Shoulder Bags
If your trip is a dedicated photography expedition, photographic gear may prevail over other luggage. With a bit more gear to carry to a remote end of the land, you will need a bigger bag. There are two main options here – shoulder bags and backpacks. Whether you choose one or the other depends on your mode and purpose of travel and way of work. If you are hiking or treking, a backpack may be your best option. On the other hand, if you are traveling by car a shoulder bag may be easier to stack and work out of.
Again, the level of protection you seek for in a shoulder bag or backpack depends on what you expect to encounter on the road or trail. With anything off the grid, it’s better to err on the side of caution. To ensure your equipment’s survival, prepare for the worst. A good backpack to help you do that is the Lowepro Pro Trekker pictured above. If you expect to get seriously wet, you might also consider one of the few completely waterproof photography backpacks on the market, the Lowepro Dryzone 200 or the Inrigo backpack. These bags can quickly get heavy, though, so make sure you don’t sabotage your own trip by overloading.
Photographic shoulder bags come in a huge variety of styles, shapes and sizes. From messenger-style sachets through hardcore photojournalist canvas bags all the way up to huge, barely shoulderable tool chests. For rough overland travel, make sure you pick one with adequate padding and water resistance. We like the Lowepro Magnum and the Tamrac Ultra Pro series.
Hard cases are the ultimate in equipment protection. Solely reserved for vehicular adventures due to their bulk and weight, they are the weapon of choice for hardcore expedition travelers and film crews alike. Pretty much all of them offer vastly more impact and shock protection than any soft-sided bag, and most are completely waterproof. The market leader in this space is Pelican, with their Peli Storm line being our favourite due to it’s lighter weight and finger-friendly latches.
These cases come in many different sizes, colors and shapes, with rolling options as well. All manufacturers offer different systems for gear organization within like pick and pluck foam or customizable dividers. Some models like the Pelican 1510 above match airline carry-on dimensions, which is handy if part of your trip requires air travel. Even if your case is larger, hard cases can be securely locked and will easily take the abuse of airport baggage handlers.
After ensuring your equipment’s survival, your next order of the day is to provide it with power. Depending on your trip’s duration and equipment, this might be as simple as bringing along a couple of spare batteries. If you are going old school and shooting a completely manual film camera feel free to skip this part, but do bring a spare cell for your light meter if it uses one.
Modern cameras, however, are becoming increasingly power hungry with their EVFs and large screens. Unless you are disciplined and have plenty of spares, chances are you will be needing to charge your batteries at some point. Let’s have a look at what your options are.
With ever increasing capacity and diminishing weight, portable chargers or powerbanks are becoming a more and more popular accessory. Consequently, an increasing number of cameras now offer the funcionality of internally charging their batteries when connected to a USB power source. If your camera offers this feature, all you need to bring along is a suitable cable to connect the camera and the powerbank. If your camera of choice does not support charging over USB, fret not.
Aftermarket accessory manufacturers offer inexpensive, lightweight USB battery chargers for pretty much all camera battery standards out there. For example, this model can charge two Canon LP-E17 batteries using a single USB port. Paired with a high-capacity powerbank, this charger can keep your camera juiced for weeks on end. Some high-capacity models can even jump-start your car and provide full sized AC electrical outlets. Even if you are powering your devices using one of the other options we are going to discuss below, a powerbank is a useful addition to your kit nontheless.
Car Adaptors & Inverters
If traveling by car or a motorcycle, it would be a shame not to take advantage of the power source this gives you. Most modern cars now come equipped with multiple USB charging ports to take care of most of your gadgets. If yours does not, make sure to get a suitable USB charging adapter with enough power to feed a few devices simultaneously. The Anker model above, for example, can provide up to 4.8 amps or 24 watts of power across it’s two ports. With multiple ports, you can charge your camera while topping up the powerbank.
If you are traveling with equipment for which no USB charging options exist (like laptops for example), you may have to resort to using an inverter that converts the 12V DC vehicle power to 110V/220V AC. Due to the power losses that occur both in the inverter and in the charger you are going to be hooking up to it, this is only recommended as a last resort option. However, it’s a good backup solution to keep in the trunk, just in case.
A word of caution, make sure you only use these devices when the vehicle is in motion. With the engine off or idling, a load like this can quickly deplete the battery and leave you stranded. If you are motorcycling, make sure you don’t overload your bike’s electrical system. Even just the 24 watt load of the Anker adapter is a significant chunk of the average motorcycle’s stator output.
Solar charging is the ultimate off-the-grid power solution for your gadgets. With performance increasing yearly, compact lightweight solar panels can now easily feed power hungry devices even in overcast weather. The Nekteck panel pictured above weighs just over 480 grams (17 oz) while providing up to 21 watts of power. It is IPX4 waterproof and can easily be strapped to a backpack for charging on the go.
A solar panel is best paired with a powerbank to store the energy, which is why some models offer built-in power storage. There are also powerbanks with built-in solar panels, although the surface area of the panels on those devices severly limits their output. It’s a personal choice whether you go for an all-in-one solution or separate devices.