Ultralight Packing List to Photograph the World with One Carry-On Bag

Ultralight Packing List to Photograph the World with One Carry-On Bag

How many bags do you travel with for landscape photography? Two or three depending on the trip duration? How about one carry-on sized backpack for a year of travel?

Especially among digital nomads, traveling the world with one bag is becoming more common thanks to high performance clothing and lighter tech. But for landscape photographers, squeezing everything — gear and clothes — into one bag is a challenge in its own right. Even photographers who have outwitted gear acquisition syndrome may be hard pressed to get everything into two bags, let alone one carry-on.

As a location independent landscape photographer, I travel indefinitely with one carry-on backpack — regardless of destinations — but getting down to one bag is only a recent achievement after years of honing my pack.

This guide focuses on the top packing optimizations, so if a few things seem missing, I’ve compiled an exhaustive, evergreen packing list down to socks and headlamp.

Why Travel with One Bag?

If getting down to one bag is so challenging, is there any value beyond the wow factor?

It’s tempting to focus on cost savings as the primary benefit, but traveling with one bag has a much weightier payoff: freedom. All the minor stresses of keeping up with several bags of equipment add up to subconsciously prevent us from pursuing spontaneous opportunities.

  • Flexibility: after driving an hour to a landscape destination, you may decide to stay for astrophotography. Didn’t dress warmly enough? No problem, you have everything with you.
  • Spontaneity: plane, train, bus, or last minute ferry, you can tour a city on foot and head for the next destination without making a return trip for your luggage.
  • Security: with some tuning, that one bag doesn’t need to scream “I’m a photographer with expensive gear!” And since that one bag will always be with you, it’s less likely to get snatched.
  • Ease: no checked bags, no transfers, no dragging a bag through rocky courtyards, and no fuss packing between accommodations. If your ride gets totaled, it’s one less stress to have only one bag to pack up before jogging to the nearest bus stop.

So if you don’t mind dealing with checked bags, lengthy check in / check out at hotels, the feeling of forgetting something, overweight fees, dragging around heavy bags, or inconvenience taking public transit, this guide probably isn’t for you.

Although traveling ultralight will save you money in some areas, it will cost a ton in others. The purpose of this guide isn’t budget travel: it’s about reducing anxiety, embracing freedom, and making travel easier so you can focus on exceptional landscape photography instead of the logistics around it.

Eliminate Before You Optimize

To get anywhere near one bag, you can’t just optimize all your gear: the real trick is learning what you don’t need to bring. These won’t be the same for everyone, so the key is to experiment and iterate. Take day trips and stay overnight with or without some equipment to see what goes wrong. Like preparing for a marathon, you need to practice these optimizations in your day-to-day rather than discovering the kinks in the middle of your next landscape photography trip.

Here are a few things I don’t pack:

  • Multiple lenses
  • Multiple camera bodies
  • Multiple pairs of shoes
  • More than two articles of any particular clothing

Some of these omissions may seem like a recipe for missed opportunities, but more often than not I find a workaround that doesn’t compromise the quality of my work. For example, traveling with one lens forced me to become more intentional about my compositions. Traveling without a telephoto hasn’t caused me to miss opportunities, but instead to trade them for opportunities better suited to the lens I have with me.

Ultralight Photography Gear

You might notice one thing missing from this list: a camera recommendation!

Look, your camera is expensive. You’re probably not going to switch to the lightest camera body on the spur. I still shoot on my 6-year old Canon 5D Mark III. If I could start over today with weight in mind, I would make a different choice, but like it or not I’m stuck with it for a little longer. So don’t worry too much about optimizing your camera body: focus on other gear that is easier (and cheaper) to swap out.

Tripod

Look for a 4 to 5-section carbon fiber tripod with twist locks, reversible legs, and removable center extension. Without ball head, the tripod should fold up shorter than 17 inches so it can easily fit in a carry-on.

Sirui has some phenomenal compact tripod options that won’t ruin your credit score. I love my Sirui T2205X Carbon Fiber tripod, but sadly it has been discontinued. The aluminum version is available with similar specs, but it might be worth browsing their other models as well.

To shave a few ounces, I removed the center extension and cut off the foam grips. Grams add up, but more importantly it’s easier remove the tripod from your bag without the grippy foam.

Ball Head

I use Really Right Stuff’s BH-30 ball head. It’s probably my favorite gear optimization of the last year: the knob version packs incredibly small, cuts down weight, and is a pleasure to operate in chilly weather with gloves on. You might prefer their clamp version, so give yourself time to experiment with the knob version before takeoff.

Camera Straps

Straps are a surprisingly powerful optimization. When it comes to weight and size, the standard neck strap is hard to beat; if it didn’t have the logo plastered everywhere, I’d probably still use it.

I tried some different shoulder straps, but wasn’t happy with how bulky they were. I recently took Peak Design’s Slide straps for a spin — phenomenally built, but the generous padding made them a bit hard to pack into the camera slot. Since I take my camera in and out of my bag constantly on hikes, it was a bit tedious.

Nowadays, I use Peak Design’s Leash strap. These are technically designed for tiny cameras, but I love using these straps with my Canon 5D Mark III and 16–35mm lens. They look slick, weigh next to nothing, take up no space, and work as a shoulder strap or neck strap. The strap is quite comfortable considering the size, and since my down jacket doubles as padding, the Leash doesn’t cut into my skin even during a lengthy hike.

Because these are so lightweight, I don’t even take the strap off when shooting long exposures. When setting up the camera in a precarious spot, I often detach one end of the strap and “leash” it to something in case a blast of wind tries to knock my camera over a cliff.

Optimizing Your Wardrobe

Now on to the often overlooked optimizations: your clothes. How easily can you hop from the toasty car to an intensive hike, followed by an hour of shooting at the top of a windy mountain? Do you feel presentable in the same outfit at a nice dinner later that night?

I travel for an indefinite amount of time with 3 shirts and 1 pair of pants, for 10–90 degrees. I do a sink wash one or two times a month. But I actually smell better after a month than most people do after a short walk.

Merino Wool Base Layers

The (not so) secret: merino wool, nature’s miracle fabric. Unlike regular wool, it’s incredibly soft. It’s a natural insulator that regulates your body temperature in warm and cold climates, and the irregular surface is naturally antibacterial, so you can wear the same shirt — hikes and all — for a month without a smell. The only reason I have to wash merino wool at all is to slim down the fabric and remove antiperspirant build up.

You can find merino wool base layers everywhere, but you need to pay attention to the grade of merino wool used. Cheaper merino wool is itchy, while the better grades are super soft — I personally stick with Icebreaker.

By layering these shirts, you can go from dressy beach weather to an arctic hike with the same wardrobe. I have one lightweight tee that doubles as an undershirt, one heavier tee, and one heavy long sleeve. They’re versatile, resilient, and compact for weather from 10 degrees to 90.

Merino Wool Gloves

Gloves are technically a base layer, so merino wool is the way to go. To date, I know of only one reputable glove designed for photographers: Vallerret. I got the Markhof gloves a couple years ago, and just recently upgraded to Vallerret’s Markhof 2.0 gloves. These are an absolute must for winter photography: they have a great weight-to-warmth ratio and flip tips so you can operate your camera or phone.

If you’re headed for sub-freezing climates, you can eke a bit more warmth out by throwing a pair of liners under the Markhofs, or take a look at the Ipsoot that is specifically designed for deep winter conditions. The one downside is they are a bit bulky, but provide more warmth than the Markhofs even with a liner.

Ultralight Travel Pants

The key with pants is to travel with a single pair that is appropriate for anything, whether you’re hiking in the winter or on a business trip. They need to be lightweight, easy to sink wash, resist odors, and look good. I have two recommendations depending on your preferred climate.

If you’re headed for climates above 45 degrees, the Tailored Chinos by Bluffworks are fabulous. These pants are quite literally tailored to active travelers: they are the best fitting and lightest pants I’ve ever worn, and come with subtle security pockets that are great in sketchier cities.

The Chinos breath unbelievably well during intense hikes, but that means in a colder climate, the chill goes right through the pant. The legs are cut short too, so ankles tend to be a bit exposed when hiking. All great for fashion and warmer climates, but not a great asset in colder climates.

Since I tend to hit chillier destinations, I wear a pair of Outlier Slim Dungarees. I’d heard about these many, many times in digital nomad circles. The first thing you’ll probably notice is sticker shock: these pants are not cheap, but you will literally own one pair for years. The weave is top notch with a Cordura exterior for incredible durability. I’ve worn them for ten weeks non-stop in Virginia, Iceland, and the UK. By non-stop, I mean for the entire 24 hours of the day: the lightweight fabric feels great for sleeping in.

These look fantastic once you find the right size. It took me a couple times to get the size right, because once they loosen up you shouldn’t need a belt. If you do, it’s a size too big.

The Dungarees have some minor liquid repellant: I spilled coffee on them and it rolled right off without stains. But they definitely aren’t waterproof — 5 minutes walking in a light rain eventually soaked through. But because of the weave and fabric, they dried out in 10 minutes of air conditioning. Try getting denim to do that!

Ultralight Jackets

Your mid and outer layers are the easiest place to blow any imaginary budget, but crucial for landscape photographers. Your mid layer, typically a down jacket, provides heavy duty insulation. Your outer layer needs to provide wind resistance and waterproofing without trapping perspiration that gets wicked from your base and mid layers.

It’s hard to match down feathers for their phenomenal weight-to-warmth ratio. Down feathers trap heat by “lofting” and trapping little pockets of air, so a higher fill power doesn’t mean the jacket has more down: it means the feathers are better quality and do a better job of trapping air. Generally you should look for jackets with a higher fill power, but there’s a lot more to comparing jackets — for example, fill weight indicates how much down is actually stuffed in the jacket. Switchback has a great in-depth technical breakdown of some of the top down jackets.

I travel with Patagonia’s Down Sweater Hoodie. The Nano Puff is also really popular for ultralight packers, but doesn’t pack quite as much warmth as the Sweater Hoodie.

Of your wardrobe, your outer layer will probably see the least use. Unless you habitually shoot in the rain, I recommend looking for the lightest rain jacket that fits your budget, keeping in mind that it will mostly be packed in your bag for inevitable downpours in the middle of a hike.

Nothing beats the Outdoor Research Helium II rain jacket for weight. This is my rain jacket of choice, though I opted for the pricier Helium HD (not to be confused with the Hybrid) which adds pockets and adjustable cuffs in exchange for an extra ounce.

Waterproof Hiking Shoes

Exceptional waterproof hiking shoes aren’t lightweight, but that’s okay since you’ll be wearing them! The trick is finding one pair of shoes that works for everything: urban exploring, hiking, and potentially a business trip.

I have a pair of Merrell Gore-Tex hiking shoes that keep my feet dry, grippy, and warm. The catch: they aren’t exactly stylish. Going with a lower cut helps, but I’m still waiting for something that looks as good in the city as it does in the mountains.

Ultralight Experiments that Didn’t Go Well

Not all of my optimizations worked out. In particular, I had catastrophically bad luck with my experiments in cutting down on all those stupid chargers.

I tried replacing every wall charger with a USB version so I could charge my headlamp, laptop, camera, action camera, and iPhone with one wall brick. It was a fantastic idea, and meant I could charge anything in the car without a power inverter. Unfortunately, my USB camera battery charger simply didn’t work. Like an idiot, I only tried it a few times to make sure it worked before leaving for a year of travel. I had to drive 3 hours back Reykjavik to pick up a big, beefy non-USB charger that cost 3 times as much.

The big wall to USB charger I purchased to charge all my gear seemed fine, but is spotty about charging my MacBook. Lesson learned: test your new charging equipment daily for a solid month before travel. The risk and cost are too high if they don’t work.

I’m looking forward to next generation charging technology like the recently released Innergie 60C USB-C charger, but for now it’s probably best to stick with the OEM chargers for your laptop and camera.

Never Stop Iterating

There is no such thing as a perfect pack, and if there was it would quickly deviate from the intent of ultralight packing: to get out of your way so you can focus on creating the best landscape photography possible.

So unless you have a stack of gift cards lying around, take it one step at a time and analyze how every optimization does — or does not — improve your work. That $950 tripod might be better spent on a 5-day photography trip and taking notes as you go about pain points with your current gear.

What are your favorite gear optimizations in pursuit of one-bag travel? Share your tips in the comments!

Less time spent packing + one bag accessibility = more time photographing at the best times of day + better photos by adapting for the best location and weather.

My top picks for ultralight travel pants. Who knew travel pants could look nice?

Mid and outer layers are the easiest place to blow both your weight limit and credit limit. Rather than have multiple jackets for different climates, pair a down jacket and no fuss rain jacket as needed.



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