2015 January 12     Weather   Survival How-To


Taking a nice photowalk can be extremely satisfying.   That is, until you get lost. 

Photographers like to concentrate on photo gear.  Other types of equipment can be an afterthought.

Humans don't have a natural sense of which way is north, south, east, or west.  If you can't see the sun, you can easily get lost.  It can happen so quickly that it would surprise you. 

Some people get lost almost within sight of their base camp.  Or, their vehicle.

You might be thinking your GPS and/or smartphone will save you.  But what if you lost it?  What if the batteries quit?  What if you can't get a signal?  

Or, what if you just plain left it in the car?

You need a backup plan.

A Quick Note

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In This Article

The Seasons

Off The Trail

The Right Footwear

The Vest Loadout

Simple Bearings


The Seasons

Getting lost could be hazardous in any season.  

When it gets cold, there's a hypothermia danger. 

"Nah, it's a nice warm day.  The sun is out!"

That temperature drops when the sun goes down.  Fall, spring... even summer:   nighttime temperatures can be cold enough to cause hypothermia.   This summer, a few locations reported lows in the thirties... Fahrenheit.

And the winter... well, you know how that goes.

Obviously, the best measure is not to get lost in the first place.  So let's talk about the basics.

Right now we'll use autumn as an example, but most of this will apply always.

Off The Trail

Late autumn is a special time.   Many of the trees have dropped their leaves, but some of the oaks are still colorful. 

While you were out driving, you saw the top of a nice red oak.  It was way off in the distance, peeking out above the rest of the trees.

Now that you've parked, you sort of have to guesstimate where it was. 

Marked trails?  What are those? 

Okay, so you head in the general direction of the tree.  And you find it.


Red Oak Leaves

October 20, 2014
Olympus OM-2 with Zuiko 50mm lens
Kodak Ektar 100

Or, maybe it's another oak tree.  By this point, who knows?

Hey, wait a second...  which way back to the car?   Suddenly the woods all look the same.

This is about where you'd expect someone to say "always bring a compass".  Yep, I'll get to that.  But before you even get one of these, it's a good idea to have some reliable way to carry it. 

Wear it around your neck?   Perhaps, but as a photographer you've already got one or more cameras there.  And when you're covering serious terrain, you're probably not going to go all casual-style with the camera slung over one shoulder.   That works on easy trails and flat, open ground.  Try it on rugged terrain, or when you're unpacking stuff from the car, and you'll knock your camera into something.  Probably more than once.

If it's rocky, slippery, or hilly, just sling the camera diagonally across your body.

To carry the compass, I would suggest something like this or this if you're a photographer.   Put the compass in one of the zippered pockets.   Stow your car keys there, too, unless you have some better way to make sure you don't lose them. 

It's also a good way to carry lenses if you don't want to carry a camera bag.

Don't stuff lenses in the pockets of your jeans, because sooner or later one of those lenses will fall on the ground. 

("How does he know that?")

The Right Footwear

Shoes really matter for a photowalk.  Loss of traction could ruin more than just your day.  Even if you walk away from a fall, you could break your camera or lens.

I haven't tried every shoe there is, but I know what kind of shoes not to get for a photowalk.

Avoid shoes with plastic soles.   There is a kind of plastic that is made to be pliable, like a synthetic rubber.  Often this is PVC.  When you see "man-made" or "oil resistant", there's a good chance you're getting a PVC sole. 

This material starts out OK, but it soon takes a polish.  That's very bad, because you will lose all traction on leaves or snow.   PVC soles are really more for walking on pavement, at least until they get worn flat.  Then, you might as well be wearing banana peels on your feet.

When in doubt, choose outsoles made of rubber, with deep treads.

Many people have said good things about this brand.  Get the rubber soles, not the manmade. 

I haven't tried this one, but it looks like the right kind of sole.  If you're walking on leaves or snow, go for deep-lug treads.   The only reason I can think of for not wearing these more often is that you'd track a lot of mud into the house. 

Here's another one and another with a good outdoor tread.  Again, rubber soles.  This one also looks to have the right type of tread.

It's tough to find the perfect hiking boot, but as a photowalker, you're probably not going to put the kind of wear-and-tear that's going to make boots fall apart quickly.   If you want to reinforce the stitching (most common failure point on affordable boots), try some of this.  I've used it many times.

Though I've never tried this stuff, it is widely recommended for neoprene repairs.

The Vest Loadout

Here's stuff to bring along on photowalks.  I don't always remember to bring all these myself, but now that I have this list I can refer to it also!

- Compass (I have a cheap one, but one of these would be better)

- Topographic map  (if you know how to use it)

- Car Keys

- Whistle (if you get lost;  works better than going hoarse)

- Extra film or spare memory card  (or both)

- Couple of filters (ND 0.6CPL;   maybe an Orange 21 if shooting B&W)

- Notebook and pen / pencil, because if you change course you should write down the compass readings.

-  LED Headlamp.  Here's a very popular one.  Most headlamps will turn on in your pack sooner or later and run down the batteries.  Here's what I would suggest.  Take the AAA batteries out and rubber-band them together.   Then rubber-band that to the headlamp.  Or, keep them in a resealable plastic bag.  Do this, because otherwise the unit will get switched on in your pocket and you won't know it.  Then when you need the headlamp it will be useless.  Whatever you do, though, make sure you're not installing batteries in the dark.  Drop them in the leaves, and suddenly things get interesting

Here's my review of one that's designed not to turn on accidentally. 

- A couple of these for some tasty energy (as long as you're not allergic).   When you're very hungry, you can get disoriented much more easily on a "three-hour tour".   (Voice of experience here...)

- One of these nets to keep skeeters at bay.  They're inexpensive and light-weight;  get two or three of 'em.

It also can't hurt to stuff one of these caps in one of the pockets of your photo vest.  Wool retains insulation qualities even if it's wet (maybe not when soaked;  but read this article.)  You lose a lot of heat from the top of your head.  There are a lot of people on ski slopes who don't think they need to wear any kind of hat.  If they were lost on a cold night after sundown, or stumbling around disoriented in cold drizzle, they would wish they had brought a hat.  And if you get lost on a photowalk, so will you.   There are some places where summer nights are cold enough to cause hypothermia.

If you do winter photo hikes, just bring one of these unless you have some objection to wearing real fur.  Bitter cold and windy, or stuck on the icy tundra... this is the hat.   But if you don't like wearing fur, these are made with polyester and are said to be good.

Simple Bearings

Rule number one:  don't walk away from your car, or any marked trail, without knowing the compass direction you're headed. 

You might want to read a book like this before you even go on a nature walk.  But if you don't, at least know how to tell which direction you're going. 

People think they can walk in a straight line by their innate sense of direction.  That is the best way to guarantee you will get lost. 

Use the compass to navigate from one prominent landmark to another, taking note every time you change direction.  Write it down, along with any landmark you could use as a waypoint.

Wherever you go, make sure you know what direction leads back to the car. 

Carry a spare compass in case you drop your main one.   They make miniature ones that safety-pin to your photo vest;  you might consider one of these.   Because it's a ball compass, you should test it against a known-good one at home, just to make sure it's accurate.  

The main thing with a compass is that you get what you pay for.  A cheap one can get you very lost, especially if you don't know it well.  (Bubbles are one reason why, but not the only one.)  If you have room, you're always better off carrying something like this one as a backup, rather than a ball compass or one of the ones you glue to the end of a walking stick.


I don't claim to be Cody or Dave, but I do know a couple things from dumb experience.

Humans don't have a built-in way to find direction.  Carry a compass.  If you're a photographer, get a good photo vest and save some room for non-photo gear, such as a headlamp and energy bars.  If you can deal with the weight, carry a water bottle, too.

And be sure to wear a good pair of outdoor shoes or boots so you don't slip on the leaves!

This has been a short look at photowalking and getting back to your car.  I hope you enjoyed it.  If you're interested in reading more about this topic, here is Part Two with more detailed thoughts on wool, synthetics, and avoiding hypothermia.

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