My Training for Wilderness and Mountain Photography

My main partner in crime, Sy, enjoying a unnamed summit in the Chugach mountains.

My main partner in crime, Sy, enjoying a unnamed summit in the Chugach mountains.

A while back I wrote an essay on the importance of physical fitness for wilderness and mountain photographers. I was recently asked how I train for expeditions? So I figured I give a brief run down on how I train and how my “training” has changed throughout my twenty plus years as an outdoor photographer.

First off, I am not a PT, PHD, FT or anything for that matter, never even attended college, so please talk to a specialist before you go off and get crazy with training! I am not a professional athlete either, mid-pack at best.

I have always been a runner and a mountain biker. And when I was in my twenties, running a few days a week, biking here and there and hiking was all I needed to do to stay in shape and feel good when on photography expeditions. But now I am pushing forty one and random exercise without focus doesn’t really cut it anymore.

First off, quality physical fitness is a combination of three elements: Endurance, Strength and Flexibility. Endurance is the most important and the easiest to build and maintain; simply participate in long, steady cardio vascular exercise. Running, hiking, fast walking, XC skiing, biking and swimming are all great cardio workouts that will pay dividends in the mountains.

I run three days a week: One long, slow run, one hilly run and one short, quicker pace run. I also XC Ski and/or bike for one-three hours,  two or three days a week. One day, usually on Sundays, I spend all day in the mountains, climbing a peak or doing a long ski/hiking tour. That long day in the mountains is crucial training for my photography expeditions. It is important to mimic the conditions your training for. Swimmers train by swimming, Cyclists by cycling…(though ALL professional athletes cross train). So whenever possible, get out and hike, with a good sized pack. If your next photography expedition is off trail, do plenty of off trail hiking. Trail running is probably the best alternative to hiking if you’re not lucky enough to live near the mountains.

The older I get the more I find that just training for my expeditions isn’t enough. It’s really easy to get lazy when exercising with only a few wilderness trips in the back of your mind. The way to combat that is to find an endurance sporting event to train for. You don’t need to do back to back Ironman or anything insane like that, but signing up for a running race or a ski or bike race can really add focus to your training. The goal isn’t to win, it’s just a way to get you motivated, focused and to have fun. I usually do one or two “races” a year. I mix them up.  Some years I focus on cycling, some years running and sometimes skiing. I am currently on a running kick, training for a marathon.

Rest is also important, I don’t have scheduled rest days, I rest when my body needs it, usually once a week or sometimes more.

As we get older our physical strength and our flexibility reduces. This is how we get hurt while in the mountains, or even while doing random things like playing with our kids or doing housework.  As our muscle mass decreases,  so does our strength. It’s important to maintain strength around those crucial joints, like knees, to prevent injury in the field.  I hate the gym as much as the next guy but strength training will also help your cardio fitness, you will feel the benefits of strength training when humping those big loads of camera gear up the mountains. Find a reliable and qualified Fitness Trainer or Coach and tell them what you like to do and have them design you a nice strength training routine that matches your activities.

As we age our muscles and tendons become stiff and less bendy, making them very susceptible to tearing and straining. It’s important to stay on top of your flexibility. It’s not necessary to travel to Indian and train with a Master Yogi (though if you have the time..) but taking a regular Yoga class or developing a regular stretching routine will really go a long way to injury prevention.

One last tip: Train like the pros! I find great inspiration from world class athletes. A follow the advice of the world’s premier endurance runners, cyclist, mountaineers and xc skiers. And even though I will never be a competitive athlete, using the techniques and skills from seasoned pros that I respect make me a better athlete even at my mediocre level.


Importance of Physical Fitness in Wilderness Photography

Staying in great shape helps your photography and improves your adventures.

Biking through an ice cave, Knik Glacier, Alaska. Staying in great shape helps your photography and improves your adventures.

This is another one of those topics that the outdoor photography community seems to ignore. But when it comes to true wilderness photography, being in top physical condition is essential.

I like to ski, run, bike and lift weights but I am not an elite athlete, not even close. I am not fast, super strong or talented in any sport. However,  I have found that the better condition I am in, the more successful images I create when on expeditions. What? Yes, that is right, the better condition, the more successful images.

Below is a brief list of reasons why being in great shape helps your wilderness photography:

1. Less fatigue. Carrying heavy packs through rugged, off trail terrain can be really demanding work. But rarely are the great images taken during the hiking hours. Late in the evening, early in the morning, that’s when the magic happens. But if your too wasted after hiking 8-10 hours, setting up your tent and cooking dinner, then you’re missing the reasons you brought your high-end camera gear. After establishing camp I often spend another couple of hours scouting locations for evening shots and morning shots. It’s common for me to hike another couple of miles after setting up camp.

2. less injuries. It’s really easy to get hurt when carrying a heavy pack over uneven ground. Knees, ankles and your back are easy targets if they are weak and inflexible. Nobody I know likes the gym, but a basic weight lifting session, two or three times a week, can really help prevent injury and make you stronger in the mountains. You don’t need to become a yogi master, but some flexibility is also important.

3. Quality of the adventure. Suffering can be the name of the game when exploring remote areas. But how great of shape you are in directly determines the fun factor and the impression of the adventure. If you’re tired and hurt during the trip, you won’t have much fun and you won’t take many inspiring images.

4. long and happen life. I want to keep exploring and photographing wilderness for as long as possible. Beside having a long and prosperous career, being in great condition helps me enjoy life now. Whether its hiking with my son, biking with my friends or skiing with my wife, a high quality of life is what we all strive for.

Be warned though. The better shape you’re in, the less tolerance you will have for sitting in front of a computer, writing blogs and editing photographs! I am going skiing!