Photo Trek Prepping, Part 1

Landscape photographers all have one thing in common… they spend a lot of time in nature.  Out in the woods, up in the mountains, down in the deserts, etc.  It’s true that while some are serious back-packers and haul camping and camera gear deep into the “tall and uncut” regions, many never feel the need to get far from the road to find their imagery.  But sometimes, the side of the road is on a road that is, itself, far from anything else and far from help or assistance.

And yet one thing rarely mentioned among all of the articles on prepping your camera gear, including my own posts and videos, is prepping the thing you are relying on to get you in – and get you out – of that beautiful back country (or sometimes even the urban jungle): your vehicle.

Anyone who has gone with me on shooting treks, long ones or even shorter day-trips, may be aware of the emergency/survival gear I usually have on board the vehicle. If we’re going somewhere I think there might be some risk of emergency I usually give the rider a “tour” so they know where things are incase they are needed.  Otherwise I might not have mentioned it to avoid scaring some.

For inveterate city dwellers that may seem like pure paranoia. After all, modern cars
are increasingly reliable, you assume you’ll not be far from a commonly travelled
road, and besides nothing like that happens to to “normal” people… does it?

Well, first of all we’re photographers and in case you haven’t noticed, the term “normal” is a description that may not apply that perfectly to us anyway.   Still…

Why on earth would I usually have some “recovery” equipment, serious first aid kit, extra change of clothes, emergency food and water for 2 to ­3 days, and survival gearthat I could use for creating shelter, fire, etc. carried on board?  Recently someone took my prepping another vehicle as a sign that I intended to go live off of the grid.  I do like sometimes travelling off the grid, and honestly, sometimes the grid makes me crazy, but my life style and needs make completely rejecting it impossible: after all who living off the grid would need or want my images or my services or my teaching?  But if that’s not the intention, what is, and why would I choose to start writing about it here?

Back in Colorado in addition to landscape photo workshops I also conducted some mountain survival workshops.  And during that time I noticed something really interesting:  being well prepared is like sympathetic magic in reverse. Thinking
about the things that can go wrong and preparing for them often focuses you so that
you avoid them and they never happen. In those cases the emergency gear that was never used actually did its job before the need arose and in a preventative way.  All real martial artists know that the best way to deal with an incoming strike is not to be there when it arrives.  It’s the same for emergencies; preventing them is far better than dealing with them even successfully.

So here is my plan.  In this first post on “Photo Trek Prepping” I’ll show you what I typically try to have on board.  Then you can tell me: have I bored you to tears and need to get back on photo things directly, or would you be interested in the hows and whys of using that stuff when an emergency actually occurs?  I would like this blog to be of value to my photo friends and students so I’ll let you decide if this is a path of exploration to take… or not.

So here is the car-related stuff that normally just lives in my car vehicles.  Let me break it into categories because they is the way I stow it.  The most likely item needed should be the easiest to get to, then deeper in the pile is the stuff I think or hope I will less likely need.  But first here is a very, very strong suggestion: everytime you head out for a photo trek especially if you are going alone or with one vehicle, even if it is only a day trip but off the major beaten path, create a plan and let someone know where you plan to go and as importantly, when you plan to get back. And when you get back, let them know you are back so they do not call out the cavalry unnecessarily. Yes it may inhibit ad hoc spontaneous exploration.  But every year people die in the back country who could have survived and been rescued in time if only someone realized they were in trouble and then knew where to look for them.

The most likely kind of trouble you’ll run into unless you are really into serious expedition mode deep in the Amazon, is some form of car problem.  But if you are relying on your car to get you in and get back out, should something go wrong or break or a mistake suddenly leave you stuck in sand or snow or mud you can, in an instant, find yourself with more than an inconvenient problem, you can find yourself in a life-threatening situation you never dreamed about.  When your car is dead in the water and the blizzard starts or the desert temp climbs up over 100° the least of your worries will be taking more photos.

Tires.  Probably getting a flat tire is the most common of car problems.  Even for travelers sticking to the major 4-lane freeways, debris in the road can shred a tire if you hit it just right.  This is a potential problem no one is immune to unless you are running one of the new “run flat” tires and paying for it with the harshest ride of your life.  Assuming you have normal tires, then here are questions for you: Do you have a REAL spare (not one of those tiny pretend tires designed for a few miles at slow speeds on asphalt) that can get you back to the pavement should you have a flat 20 or more miles down a rutted, rock-strewn road such as the road to the “Race Track” in Death Valley or up to the Ancient Bristlecone Pines?  I ran over a pile of roofing nails in the Mojave Preserve once time.  Participants in my workshops to those places mentioned have had flats, so it can happen to anyone.  And it can happen anywhere.  Trust me, there is NO convenient place to change a tire…

And if you do, do you have a jack that can be used safely in soft or uneven ground?  Do you have a lug wrench with sufficient leverage to remove lug nuts put on with an impact wrench sent to a torque that would spin a battleship? Can you get to those items (spare tire, jack, wrench) easily and most importantly, do you know how to use them?  Here is a strong recommendation… practice at least once in your level driveway!  Do you have a can of “Fix-a-Flat” in your car?  Do you have a portable 12VDC air pump?

Fluids.  Do you check ALL engine fluids (coolant, oil, transmission fluid, brake fluid, power steering fluid, etc.) before you head out?  Do you have extra on board?  When you are out camping or on the road do you check it every morning as part of your pre-flight ritual before heading out?  Do you have extra coolant or even just water?  More than one car has overheated coming up the steep grades out of the desert or the steep climb up to Whitney Portal.  Having your engine overheat and seize up on the fringe of the desert is an expensive issue and, depending on where you are, could be life-threatening.

Mechanical. In the old days the analog engines and gauges would give you some warning a problem was surfacing.  The gauges were perfectly adopted for providing data to the driver, and as parts wore the engine ran worse, mileage dropped and you knew well in advance something needed attention.  Now, indicator (idiot lights) panels and computerized engines will happily tell you when something fails and the car is coasting over to the side.  The new computer-controlled engines run more or less perfectly… then they don’t run at all.

Do you check the engine belts in your “pre-flight” vehicle check (if they are worn or loose fix it now) and then do you carry extra belts for the engine in case one breaks?  Do you have the knowledge and tools to change out or put on a new engine belt should you need to do that?  There are places where AAA or any towing service is not just a call away (in fact, as unthinkable as this is to modern students, there are places where you cannot get ANY normal cell service) and you will be left to your own devices to get you, your car, and whoever might be with you, back to safety.  If you spend time out searching for photos, then go to your mechanic, tell him that, and ask him to show you how to deal with a broken belt or other likely car maintenance issues.

Electrical Power Failure.  Sooner or later it will happen, the battery in your car will die.  Do you have jumper cables and know how to properly use them?  Do you have any means to recharge the battery if only enough to get it to start the engine?  There are small solar panels that will do that in an hour or so.

Stuck and/or Stranded.  Until it has happened to you, you have no idea how easy it is or how fast it will happen to suddenly find yourself incapable of either forward or reverse movement.  Stuck in sand, in mud, having a tire slip off the shoulder, or as I was a year ago, stuck in a snow drift left over from a freak storm I was sure I could get through.  There you are moving along nicely and all at once you are not moving, your speedometer hits somewhere near Warp 6 but nothing is happening except perhaps you might actually be going DOWN.  There is no such thing as being a little stuck anymore than you can be a little pregnant; you either are or you’re not – you either can move away from the spot or you cannot.

If you cannot move, then you are STUCK.  The first priority is getting unstuck and back on solid footing.  Do you have the tools and equipment to make that happen?  Do you have traction mats or the equivalent or the gear to make them on the spot?  Do you have the tow cables or straps or winches to haul yourself out with another vehicle or by yourself?  Do you have a shovel and bladed tool (axe, hatchet, good working fixed blade knife) to make the climb out easier and the hole filled with stuff your tires can get a purchase on?

If you tell me you are interested, in a subsequent blog we can talk about what to do if you cannot extricate yourself and must settle in waiting for rescue but for now if you simply cannot get your vehicle free, the decision has to be whether to stay with the vehicle or try to go for help and you may need to make it quickly depending on time and weather.  Did you tell anyone your plans as I recommended?  If so then your best bet is ALWAYS to stay with the vehicle since you know that at least by the next day help will be looking for you.  If you did not, the decision gets trickier and depends on what ELSE you have squirreled away for emergencies in your vehicle.

So I’ll leave this here for now.  Even though this post is not about photography, per se, it IS about preparing properly for location based photo treks and getting there and back safely.  Perhaps it can start you thinking about these indirect or tangential issues you’ll end up better prepared and with that preparation never have a true survival need.  So if you wish more details, let me know.




About ndking

Commercial Photographer and Professor of Photography at San Diego City College
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2 Responses to Photo Trek Prepping, Part 1

  1. gene wild says:

    I like it.
    Reminds me…I need to refill/replace one of my coolant jugs. We lost close to a gallon climbing out of Borrego on Banner Grade last time. The rig never showed above 210, about normal for in the desert, but we made the mistake of shutting it down when we got to Julian. Should have let it run for a few minutes when we got there. As soon as there was no coolant circulation the temp made a momentary spike and dumped a goodly amount out through the overflow.

    • David King says:

      Good point. When the engine is already hot then shut down, the coolant stops flowing through the radiator and just sits there and percolates. It is always best, even if counter-intuitive, to let it run, at idle and no longer under a load, perhaps with the heater turned on full bore (which adds another small radiator and heat extractor) before shutting it down.

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