Monday, August 11, 2014

Canadian Rockies gear recap, volume 1

My June 2014 trip to the Canadian Rockies was the first time that I needed to travel by air with a large amount of photographic equipment. In the aftermath of the trip, I wanted to reflect on which items “earned” their space on the trip, and which I could have left at home. This series of posts collects my thoughts on the topic.

This first installment deals with equipment that is less strictly photographic in nature. Each item will get a letter grade based on its value on the trip. I want to emphasize that there’s some gear that I love and use frequently, but which happened not to be so useful on this trip. A low grade should not be taken as a general indictment of the product.

Three friends, my wife, and I flew to Calgary, and stayed for 6 nights  in a rental condo in Canmore, a short drive from Banff. The focus of the trip was general sightseeing rather than photography. We shared a rental SUV, and spent each day driving from the condo to various points of interest, doing short hikes, and so forth. On three mornings, I got up before dawn (which is quite early in Canada in June) to photograph the morning light before heading out as a group.

  • Verizon iPhone 5: A. I knew I didn’t want to use my Verizon voice or data plan in Canada, because of the risk of incurring substantial charges. Fortunately, the Verizon iPhone 5 comes carrier unlocked, which allowed me to buy and use…
    • Similicious Canadian SIM card: A. I bought a 1 GB data-only plan and SIM, and told my family not to contact me by SMS or voice, but to use email or Facebook Messenger instead. The Similicious card operated on the Rogers HSPA+ network and worked great. Coverage was fast and solid in Calgary and Canmore, and very good in Banff townsite and Lake Louise. It was patchy but often usable in Banff National Park between Banff and Lake Louise. The coverage pretty much evaporated at the periphery of our explorations (Kootenay, Yoho, and the Icefields Parkway). I checked my usage at the end of the trip, and I would have been fine (barely) with a 500 MB plan, but I was happy to pay the small difference for the 1 GB plan and not worry about it.
    • Dropbox app: A. I used Dropbox to share itineraries and such with our friends before the trip, and relied on the iOS app during the trip for access to these documents. The key for travel is to add your important documents to Favorites (that is, star them), which makes them available offline when you don’t have a data connection.
    • Motion-X GPS app: A. When I’m out photographing, I use this app to record a GPS tracklog (GPX file), which I can then email to myself and import into Lightroom for geotagging. I simply started recording a track at the beginning of each day, and saved it at the end of the day. Worked great. Before the trip, I also downloaded some offline maps of the area, which provided some navigational context even when there was no mobile data coverage.
  • Darwin Wiggett’s photo guides: A. I bought Banff National Park, The Icefields Parkway: Spring, Summer, Fall, and Icefields Parkway: Wildlife Edition. As a newbie to the area, I found the guides very useful for planning, especially for my early morning outings. I kept them in my Dropbox favorites so they were always available. They’re a bit hard to read on a phone, but it’s way better than nothing. When my friend Katie joined me for an early-morning outing, we found our intended destination, Pilot Pond, inaccessible due to road closure. Having the guides handy let us redirect to to Two Jack Lake with fine results.
  • Calumet BP1500 backpack: A. Leading up to the trip, my largest photo backpack was an original Lowepro Mini Trekker, which was too small to hold my current complement of gear, and which doesn’t distribute the load well. I knew I needed a better pack, and when I saw this one on closeout, I was impressed with the reviews. It lives up to the reviews, and I feel lucky to have bought it when I did.

    Because it's so big, and heavy when full, I used it as a transport bag, not for hiking. Its size is exactly the current United carry-on limit. My one worry was that all of my flights were on regional jets, which have limited cabin space. Full-size carry-on bags often need to be gate checked, which I really didn’t want to do with my camera gear. The pack was indeed too large to fit in the overhead bins, but fortunately I was flying with my wife, and we had seats together on every flight. The backpack will fit under the seats of an RJ, as long as you can put it under two seats. (I also learned that the airline employees who try get people to gate-check their bags have a blind spot for backpacks. They never asked me to gate check it.)
  • Fanny pack: A−. I used an old REI fanny pack to hold a couple of smaller lenses on hikes. It worked fine, but it’s not padded and I didn’t have anywhere to put a large lens like the 70-200/2.8 when I put a small lens on.
  • Binoculars: C. My wife and I took two binoculars, my big and heavy Canon Image Stabilized 12x36 and her Bushnell 8x42. We used them very little. The smaller binocular would have been more than sufficient; a compact binocular like an 8x25 would have been better yet.
  • Cigarette lighter USB adapter: A. For keeping my phone charged while we were driving around.
  • Lenmar Helix 11,000 mAh battery pack and charger: B. Recording GPS tracks on the iPhone uses a lot of power, so I wanted a battery pack that I could take on the trail with me. This one works fine, but we never hiked long enough to need it, so the car charger would have been enough. But this battery pack did come in handy for charging during flights.
  • Skooba Design Cable Stable: B. This was kind of nice for keeping things tidy. It’s pretty big, and held the battery pack and all my chargers and cables.
  • Headlamp and flashlight: B−. I took my LED headlamp and flashlight to help light the way before sunrise, but I don’t think I ever needed them. Even well before sunrise, there was enough light to see. It seems prudent to keep one or the other on hand, though.
  • Leatherman Supertool: B−. I don’t think I needed this, either, but it’s not too big and might come in handy. Needs to go in checked luggage since it’s a knife.

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