Monday, March 26, 2007

Sharing a Spoon and Other Desert Ultra-Marathon Tips

My first experience with the lightweight philosophy came in 1986, when my partners and I set off to climb the Northwest Face of Half Dome in Yosemite. Tim van Gelder, one of my partners, wouldn’t let me carry my SLR because it was too heavy. Instead, he offered to load my Kodachrome into his tiny Olympus XA. As we scrutinized the massive amount of gear needed for our climb, we whittled away at the weight, eliminating all non-essential equipment, down to the three of us eventually having to share a single spoon during our 3-day climb.

When my team participated in The Gobi March 2005, a 7-day 250km footrace across the Gobi Desert, our packs weighed among the lightest in the field. My backpack weighed just 16lbs including my sleeping bag, clothes (for temperatures ranging between 7 and 50 degrees C) and all the food I would need for the next 7 days (water and tent excluded as they were provided by the race organizers). We kept our packs light with the same philosophy and careful selection of all our equipment.
Whether you are racing on foot across the Gobi Desert or trekking the Annapurna Circuit, being lightly loaded allows you to move faster, more efficiently and have more energy at the end of the day. It is more than just buying lightweight gear; it is a change in mindset. It was difficult for me to accept having to share a spoon with two relative strangers on Half Dome, but I’ve learned to live with discomfort and accept sacrifices to reap the benefits of going lightweight. Here’s a list of the stuff we used and some other tips:

Backpack
We tested out Gregory’s Advent Pro and Salomon’s Raid Race 300. Gregory’s pack is available in different sizes but weighs more than the Salomon. Either pack would have done the job well, but we elected to go with the Salomon Raid Race 300 because it was the lightest on the market (and we were sponsored by Salomon and the pack was given to me). I wouldn’t agonize over this one. Lightweight packs are devoid of frills and they are all pretty much the same. Just make sure it fits, and it comes from a manufacturer with a solid reputation so it is (hopefully) less likely to fall apart on you in the middle of the desert.

Shoes
We only considered trail running shoes manufactured by Salomon or Montrail. Both manufacturers have solid reputations. We wore Salomon XA Pro 3D shoes because Salomon sponsored us and that’s what we were given. If we had to do it again, we would recommend getting the goretex version to help keep the sand out.

Sleeping Bag
A Japanese company called Montbell also sponsored us. This company manufactures equipment of the highest quality. They have a store in Colorado that you can order stuff from. We chose their Alpine U.L. Down Hugger #5, an 800 fill down sleeping bag that weighs just 1lb 1oz. Other sleeping bags under consideration were Marmot’s Hydrogen and Western Mountaineering’s Highlite. The Montbell regular size fits people up to 5’10’’, and so is a better fit for shorter people. The other regulars fit to 6’.

Clothing
It is hard to beat Marmot’s Driclime Windshirt for its versatility. It is lightweight, packable, windproof and warm for its weight. The current version is, unfortunately, a little heavier than the earlier version we were using. We also carried a Montbell U.L. Thermawrap Vest. Believe it or not, this puffy synthetic insulated vest with was lighter than our tee shirts! Their U.L. down jackets are even lighter and I’m currently replacing my vest with one of their down jackets.

Tips from Ian Adamson, world’s best adventure racer:
- Bring a lightweight inflatable pillow for sleeping, and use your backpack to prop up your legs while you sleep to prevent the blood from pooling into your feet;
- Dried ramen noodles are an outdoor staple. Crush the bricks of ramen and transfer the crushed bits into a ziplock bag so it takes up less space in your pack;
-Don’t bother with the built-in electronic compass on your outdoor watch. Instead, clip on a small compass to your watchstrap – it’s quicker and can be more accurate.
-Bring more food than you think you will need. Double or triple the rations. You will be burning many more calories than you do back home.
-Get a Buff (pronounced ‘boof’), a tubular piece of microfiber. You’ve seen the girls wearing it as a tube-top in the reality TV show ‘Survivor’. It will pass as a hat, neckwarmer, and in case of a sandstorm, cover your face to filter out the desert sand.

Training Tips:
- The ultra long run. Walk or run a trail longer than marathon distance. Spend about 8 hours on your feet, or a distance of about 60km. Make sure you build up to this one. It should be done near the peak of your training cycle.
- Consecutive long runs. Build up to do three consecutive days of long distance runs. We tried to run three consecutive marathons, but ended up doing a run of 42km, then 30km the next day, then 20km the day after that. Make sure you get enough recovery rest days after this.
- Do most of your running off road, preferably on hilly terrain, and wear your pack for all runs. Try to find some deep sand to run on, and some boulder hopping to build strength and agility.
- Bring multi-vitamins or supplements. I don’t think there’s all that much quality nutrition in freeze-dried food or instant ramen.
- Buy a pair of shoes a half-size bigger than you use for training. By the end of day 1, your feet will fit into it. Bring thick socks and thin socks to adjust the fit.
- Try out all your gear, and food, before you leave home.
- The best knife is the mini swiss army Victorinox SD Classic. The tweezers are great as a screwdriver for your sunglasses, toothpick for cleaning your teeth, the scissors for opening packs of food and the tiny knife for skewering those blisters!
- Forget about the Camelbak. It takes too much time to fill up the bladders at the checkpoints. Learn to use the bottles they hand out.
-Lastly, don’t bother bringing cups or pots. Heat up your freeze dried food in the packs they come in, and then re-use those packs to heat up your crushed ramen. Use your knife to cut one of the issued bottles in half to use as your cup at the camp. Throw away and cut up a new one at each camp.
- Trekking poles – bring them if you think you’ll be mostly walking. Forget it if you want to be competitive and will try to run as much as you can.

Good luck to Garrett and the rest of the Gobi March 2007 competitors!

Photos:
Top: Tim van Gelder on the Northwest face of Half Dome, Yosemite.
Middle: Running the Gobi Desert 2005
Bottom: Ian Adamson dispatches words of wisdom with a smile

Friday, March 9, 2007

Traveling Light: How many lenses do you really need?

I’m of the opinion that the fewer the number of lenses you can get away with, the better. Not only is it lighter to carry fewer lenses, it also simplifies my choices and clarifies my vision. A ‘standard’ zoom lens like the Canon 17-85mm, Nikon’s 18-200mm or any of the 17-55mm f2.8 lenses make an excellent ‘one lens’ solution for when you need to go really light.

Zooms are much easier and quicker to work with at the expense of image quality, weight, and resistance to flare. I hardly ever carry primes these days. Primes are most useful for maximum sharpness on subjects that don’t move, like landscapes. In travel or documentary photography, primes don’t offer enough flexibility and are too slow to work with.

At the moment, my basic travel kit consists of my Canon Rebel XT/350D and 3 lenses: the Canon 10-22mm f3.5-4.5, a 50mm f1.8, and a 70-300mm f4-5.6 IS USM. The 70-300mm is great for nature photography but for shooting people, it is just a touch too long at the short end, and the maximum aperture isn’t shallow enough for selective focusing. When I don’t need the range, I’ll be substituting both the 50mm and the 70-300mm with the new Sigma 50-150mm f2.8, thus reducing my basic kit to just 2 lenses.

Most people think of wide angles for landscapes and telephotos for portraits. But really, you can use the unique perspectives of each type of lens to your advantage. Telephoto lenses like the Sigma 50-150mm compress the perspective, which makes it a flattering portrait lens. The compression effect is also useful in landscapes, making distant features seem closer together.

Wide angles, like the Canon10-22mm, are the most interesting to use. Not only are they able to take in a lot with its wide perspective, making it the only lens to use in tight spaces, but also, by tilting the lens slightly away from the vertical plane, you can use its distorted perspective to emphasize a part of the scene. For example, by getting in really close and slightly above some wildflowers, you could point the camera slightly downwards and really make the flowers standout as the wide perspective pulls the background away.

Photography is about creativity. The equipment is there to help you achieve your vision. Carry only what you need and be careful about carrying too much equipment. It can get in your way, sap your energy and stifle creativity.

Photos:
Top: Taj Mahal, India, taken with Nikon FM2, 75-150mm lens.
Middle: Desert Sandboarding, United Arab Emirates, taken with Canon 350D, 10-22mm, polarizer, fill flash.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Limitations of Canon's Rebel XTi/400D XT/350D

If I walked into a camera store and handled a few cameras, I would probably walk out with a Nikon D200. It looks and feels like it means business. But, when I make my 8th trip back to Nepal for trekking, I’d prefer to have my lightweight Canon 350D. We outdoor photographers have been asking for a compact, lightweight body, and we got it with the 400D/350D. Its strengths of high quality images in a lightweight and compact body come with some limitations.

Ergonomics
Compared to other modern bodies, the ergonomics of the 400D/350D are poor. I’m used to Nikon’s rugged, lightweight film SLRs like the FM2, which has worse ergonomics than the 400D. It had no molded grip so you couldn’t just pick up the camera with your right hand the way you can now with many modern DSLRs. I carry my Canon XT/350D the same way I carried my FM2, by cradling the lens with my left hand or lifting it up by the lens. Anyway, after a while, I think most people will get used to it, and its light weight will be a big advantage in many situations. When weight doesn’t matter, I can attach the optional BG-E3 grip, which improves the ergonomics, look and feel greatly.

Manual Mode
The camera simply isn’t set up to be used in Manual Mode. It has only one control wheel, which makes it cumbersome if you have to change both aperture and shutter speed manually. If you need to shoot in manual mode, you can still do it, although a different camera will probably serve you better.

This camera is excels if you are shooting in a semi-automatic mode, and it is quick and easy to adjust exposure compensation to get the results you want. I generally leave my XT/350D set at –2/3EV for higher contrast shots outdoors, maybe 0 for lower contrast indoor portraits and I’ll wind it down to –2EV to create silhouettes. Check the LCD screen to ensure you are getting the results you are after.

Metering
If you need spot metering, this camera doesn’t have it. I’ve learned to use Canon’s 35 Zone Evaluative Metering in conjunction with exposure compensation. It is not as foolproof as Nikon’s D200 Matrix Metering as the 350D Evaluative Meter is biased towards the selected AF point. So If you like to use the center AF point to focus and then recompose, you’re probably going to get some inconsistent exposures. Either use Exposure Lock or select the closest AF point to your subject and then recompose slightly.

Viewfinder
I held up a Nikon D200 to my left eye and my Canon XT/350D to my right eye to compare viewfinders. I found the viewfinder of the 350D to be slightly smaller and a little dimmer than the D200. Like everyone else, I prefer a bigger, brighter viewfinder. There’s no getting around this one, either get used to it, or get another camera.

LCD Screen
It is small and it is dim. I use maximum brightness on my LCD screen, and it is barely useable outdoors. This is quite a big limitation, as you need to use the LCD screen to change settings, like White Balance. Some guys memorize the various positions of the different White Balance settings. I prefer to leave WB in Auto (although that also has its own limitations. See my earlier post on Optimizing Your Canon Rebel XT/350D).

Power Management
The good news is that the XT/350D uses very little power. With original Canon NB-2LH batteries rated at 720mAh, I’m getting about 500 shots. I haven’t tried these, but I hear with third party batteries, rated at 1500mAh, can give up to 1000 shots per charge. Worth a try for my Nepal trip, I think.

Durability
Outdoor photographers need reliable, dependable equipment. In the wilderness, 5-days from the trailhead, there’s no store to run to pick up another camera if yours fails. That’s a big question and one to which I have no answer. DSLRs are, like all electronic equipment, fragile and highly hydrophobic. Nikon’s D200, with its weather seals and metal chassis, appears to be a more rugged and durable tool. But it is heavy. My 350D has been dropped, covered in dust, and sweated on. But it keeps on clicking. I am looking into getting a D200, but I will carry my light (and lightly built) 350D, for as long as I can.

Photos:
Top: An Artist Paints Lake Phewa in Early Morning Light, Nepal. Taken near the end of the round Annapurna Trek with a Nikon FE, 24mm lens, Fuji Slide Film
Bottom: Walking on Sunset Beach. Taken with Canon 350D, 17-85mm, Exposure Compensation -2EV.