I just returned from my seventh Grand Canyon hike. Each time my friends and I have hiked from the rim to the river and back up to the same rim or to the other rim on the opposite side. Each time I've taken my camera. In fact, I've never been on any hike anywhere without a camera. My camera and lens are hiking equipment as important to me as my hiking shoes and poles. Some of my favorite images have been made when on the trail or resting alongside it.
The canyon (and most hiking for that matter) packs a triple whammy that can wallop your camera and lens. Heat, dirt, and moisture can damage or destroy the heartiest of equipment. During my first hike into the canyon I was intensely aware of my camera's wellbeing. So, I left it secure and inside a small camera bag, taking it out whenever it moved me to do so. This was a huge mistake.
A camera must be available in order to be used. The repeated action of taking a camera out of its bag and then putting it back in again is annoying and wearying. After awhile it just seems easier to keep it tucked away. Many shots are missed and the whole experience can develop quickly into frustration. A camera must be right there in front of you in order for it to be used and to be used often.
I carry a Nikon D7000 with an 18-200mm zoom lens with me on my hikes. This makes for a heavy and cumbersome load hanging around my neck during strenuous treks. It requires constant attention to keep it from banging into rocks, getting scratched by thickets and brush, and being damaged by heat, rain, dirt, and sweat. The camera bangs and slaps against my side and my stomach and digs into my neck. It swings around precariously while boulder scrambling and climbing. The repetitive motion of moving the camera to eye level and then back to my side results in neck and arm pain.
Yes, the camera is a constant worry on hikes. Yet I cannot imagine being without it. A camera must be used and should not be babied. The risks I take with the camera are worth it to me. Still, I practice prudence and caution whenever I can and have the following tips to offer:
Lens Cloth: I keep a clean lens cloth in a convenient pocket at all times. Keep the lens and/or protective filter clean at all times. Be careful not to grind sand or grit into the lens or protective filter. I always gently flick the cloth at the lens to and blow on it to remove any large bits of loose dirt. After that I really clean the lens with the cloth with condensed breath and circular motion.
Lens Shade: A good lens shade will protect the lens from brush and branches. However, the lens shade for my 18-200mm lens constantly falls off while hiking. And it always seems to tumble into sand or muck, making its reattachment a bit dangerous to the lens. Lately I've been attaching it beforehand with some black tape to keep it affixed. I carry extra tape in my pack for later use. This keeps the lens shade clean and eliminates a lot of annoyance.
Waterproof Bags: I now carry several waterproof bags with me. Rain is always a threat but so too are the humid confines of a rubber-lined poncho. Sometimes I think it's better to subject the camera to rainwater than for it to be in constant contact with salty sweat. If the weather gets wet enough to don a poncho it's probably time to seal the camera in a waterproof bag and put it away deep in the pack. My good friend and hiking buddy, Karl Marek, uses an eVent Compression Dry Sack to keep his hiking gear dry and this would be a great way to protect a camera in adverse conditions. Sandwich the camera in soft gear and it will add impact protection as well.
Wet Wipes: When my camera gets dirty enough, I clean it with professional-grade wet wipes that are specifically designed for photo equipment. The longer dirt and grime are in contact with the camera, the more likely that gunk will work its way inside the camera body itself. Get it off as soon as you can!
Camera Bags: There is a huge assortment of camera bags designed for hiking. Many are waterproof. I might use one of these for a day hike but for serious hiking I already have enough to carry without worrying about a camera bag. I suppose if I were hiking solely for the purpose of making photos, I might consider a camera bag for hiking and I might carry more photo gear with me. But, I'd rather not, which brings me to the next tip.
Keep it Simple: The last thing I need on a serious hike is to lug a bunch of extra equipment with me. I take one camera, one lens, memory cards, extra batteries and the above-mentioned necessities. I choose a lens (Nikkor 18-200mm zoom) for maximum flexibility even if it is a bit cumbersome and heavy. And I protect my memory cards in waterproof holders. But, that's about it. I carry no extra lenses, no tripods and no extra filters. Maybe I'll stuff a Gorilla Pod into my pack on a future hike but on this past hike I took one look at the stuff I was lugging into the canyon and the Gorilla Pod lost out. It remained on the rim without me.
Sensor Cleaning: No matter how diligent I am, canyon hiking usually introduces some dust onto my camera sensor. And the cleaning mechanism of the D7000 won't clean it thoroughly. No, I don't clean the sensor during a hike but when I get back to the rim I use a VisibleDust Arctic Butterfly to do so.
Even though I carry only what I consider to be essential equipment, I still curse my camera as it bounces around me during a serious hike. I look at friends with their compact point-and-shoot cameras and long for the kind of lightweight simplicity. Small cameras get better and better and maybe someday I'll leave everything at home except a nice, small compact camera. But, that seems inconceivable to me at this point and my above-described routine works quite well. I have a camera harness that I'll test out to see if it eliminates some of the bouncing but I like the idea of having the camera on my side and out of the way most of the time—even if it is annoying at times.
When I look back on the early days of wet-plate photography and the heroic photographers who photographed Grand Canyon I realize how good we have it with today's equipment and technology. I try to remember that as my camera digs a hole into the crook of my neck. Yet, carrying a camera of any kind on a serious hike requires attention and care. Keep it simple, practice good care, and keep that camera ready for action.