It’s genetic, I’m sure. Not only did I inherit a love of travel from my parents, but I’m sure I got my penchant for planning from my mom as well. On family vacations, we had a daily itinerary with details of each stop determined long before we all piled into the station wagon.
My sister inherited it, too. She’s heading to Greece this spring, and already she’s devoured multiple guidebooks, checked out numerous DVDs from the library, spent hours checking websites, and watched every pertinent episode of Rick Steves and Anthony Bourdain. I’m sure she’ll have her bags packed a good two weeks before take-off.
When I locked in a trip to Peru recently, I immediately started planning and researching. While I’m more than willing to go with Serendipity during my trips, and doing so has often resulted in fun adventures and great photos, I always want to start out prepared. And yes, I was a Boy Scout (motto: “Be Prepared!”).
So, here are some of the ways I’m preparing for my trip to Lima, Cusco and Machu Picchu (bucket list!), what tools I’ll use for research, and what gear I’m planning to take. Each of these items is on one of several checklists that I refer to when I’m getting ready to travel.
As a guidebook writer/photographer myself, I normally start my trip research by looking at several guidebooks and buying the hard copy or download an ebook of the one I think looks best. This trip is part of an SATW meeting where most of my itinerary is set by the hosts and I don’t have to find lodging or recommended restaurants, but I know that a good guidebook will have in-depth information on history, culture, and environment in addition to listing Must Sees and where to find the best local cuisine.
A visit to the website of the official visitors organizations for my trip destinations is usually my next step in research. The CVBs usually have in-depth information about sights, culture, climate and activities as well as lodging and dining options. They often have a gallery of photos showing highlights of the area; more and more the quality of the photos on these websites is very good and the images bear studying. Independent websites and blogs are great for getting information from fellow travelers with real world experience from personal visits. A quick Google search will likely turn up tons of those for every popular destination.
Searches on Google Images, Flickr, and stock photo agencies like Getty Images and Alamy give me more ideas of what to put on my shoot list. I don’t intend to copy what others have done, but seeing what’s out there helps me be prepared for when I’m on location making my own images.
When I find something like an important landmark or a building with great architecture in my research, I’ll go to Google Maps or Google Earth (or a guidebook or website map), pinpoint the location, and note which direction the the landmark or building faces. Is the best light going to be in the morning or afternoon? I can even try to determine more precisely the best time for photographing the location by using an app like The Photographer’s Ephemeris (TPE) to show not just the time of sunrise or sunset, but the exact direction of the light on the day I’ll be there.
For the cities I’m going to visit, I’ll try to find a good street map on a destination website or use Google Maps, then make a print and mark the locations of places I want to visit.
Climate and weather are going to determine what clothes I bring, and to some extent the photo gear I pack, so I check websites with long-term climate data and average temperature/rainfall, and as the trip approaches I’ll check current forecasts. The Intellicast weather app for the iPad/iPhone is excellent for the latter.
I still have some clippings, brochures, press releases, etc. in analog filing cabinet drawers, so I’ll check those, as well as digitally stored docs of the same sort.
Lastly, friends and friends of friends on social media can offer help and suggestions. A post in a Facebook Group for travel photographers, bloggers, writers or PR/DMO people can net some very useful information.
When I’m doing a road trip, I pretty much pack everything, including the kitchen sink (nicely, that’s built into my VW Westfalia). When the journey involves air travel, however, I need to carefully consider each piece of gear in order to stay within weight limits.
My Peru trip is limited to Lima, Cusco and Machu Picchu. With the latter two destinations at high elevation, I’m really aiming to keep down the weight of what I’ll be carrying around all day. This trip won’t take me anywhere with opportunities to shoot wildlife, so I don’t have to pack my long telephoto lenses or even the tele-converter. Here’s what I will take:
- 2 Nikon DSLRs. One full-frame and one 1.5x crop frame.
- 14mm, 12-24mm, 16-35mm, 18-200mm, 24-85mm and 70-200mm lenses (with lens hoods for all).
- Polarizing filters to fit the lenses. If I was going to an area with waterfalls or I knew other moving water would be one of my important subjects, I’d also take a neutral density filter.
- Canon 500D Close-up Lens. Combined with the 70-200mm lens, this gives me excellent close-up/macro capability. Nikon makes similar quality 5T and 6T close-up lenses, but for some reason, not in the 72mm size.
- Tripod. Word is they are not allowed at Machu Picchu, but I use a tripod whenever I can, and I plan on doing some night photos in the cities. My Gitzo tripod + Really Right Stuff ballhead are small and light enough that I can and will carry them all day if I think I might need them. And if I use the tripod, I’ll most likely be using a remote release for the camera as well.
- Memory (SD/CF) cards. Enough of these that I can go for at least several days without having to download and re-format. The price of these cards has come down so much now that many photographers bring enough of them for their whole trip. I always go with the higher-end cards from SanDisk or Lexar, and will start the trip with them freshly formatted in each camera.
- Extra batteries and charger for the cameras.
- On many trips, I’d be bringing an on-camera flash and diffuser, plus extra batteries and charger. I’m debating whether to bring those on my Peru trip and may leave them behind as I almost always find ambient light sufficient. My cameras have a pop-up flash that I sometimes use if I need a little fill.
When I’m going to be doing things like walking around a marketplace and don’t want to be encumbered with a lot of gear, or be an obvious target for thieves, I’ll just take the small DSLR body and a couple of lenses in something low-key like an old Domke Satchel shoulder bag. Most of the time however, I want to be prepared for anything (Boy Scout, remember), so I use a LowePro Fastpack 350 photo backpack that holds not only the above gear (minus the battery chargers) but also:
- LensPen and microfiber cloths for cleaning lenses.
- A few yards of black gaffers tape (superior to duct tape) wrapped around the allen wrench that’s needed for my tripod quick release plates.
- A bright red cotton bandana. Comes in handy for drying equipment and eyeglasses that get wet from rain or waterfall spray (or for body parts after a dip in a mountain lake or river), for shading the neck in all-day outside walks, another layer of warmth around the neck or on the head when it’s cold, etc. So far I haven’t had to use it as an emergency signal, but that’s the reason for the color.
- Pocket pack of Kleenex tissue.
- Ziploc bag for trash.
- Large plastic trash bag. When the ground is wet, I can sit or lay on it, or put my camera gear on it to keep it dry. Can be used to improvise a pack cover when it rains.
- Poncho – one of those cheap, thin, plastic things that fits in a sandwich size ziploc. They’re big enough to cover me even when I’m wearing the backpack.
- Op/Tech Rainsleeve to put over the camera and lens when it’s raining. A large ziploc can be hacked to do this, but the Rainsleeve is much better and easier to use, and they’re not expensive.
- Small collapsible umbrella that I can stash in the water bottle pocket of my backpack. If it’s not windy, this can be a lot easier than shooting with the Rainsleeve on the camera. On bright, sunny days, it can shade a small area or a person’s face for close-ups with less contrast.
- Hotel shower cap. These also work fine as rain covers for small camera+lens combos. I put one over the ballhead on my tripod when walking around with it in drizzle and rain.
- 4″x6″ memo book, customized with pockets to hold business cards, model releases and photo tips/reminders. This, and a pen, will most often be in my pants pocket when I’m out shooting, for instant note-taking access.
- Energy bar. I’m partial to Clif Bars and Nature Valley Chewy Fruit & Nut. When I’ve been on the go for hours and am starting to lag, snacking on one of these really perks me up.
- Small bottle/tube of hand sanitizer.
- First Aid/Emergency kit. Carried in a quart size Ziploc bag: several bandaids of various sizes, alcohol swab, a couple of Benedryl (antihistamine) tablets, half dozen Ibruprofen, safety pin, enzyme-based digestive aid. For foreign travel, I add a couple of anti-diarrheal and anti-gas caps. Depending on where I’m going, I might include a very small container of sunscreen and/or bug repellant. When I’m on a road trip and doing any hiking, I also include a Bic lighter, emergency whistle, and Mylar “Space Blanket”.
- Elastic knee brace. The old knees aren’t what they used to be, and in particular don’t like the prolonged pounding of a downhill descent with the added weight of camera gear, so I always have these in my backpack. Trekking poles help immensely, but I anticipate the only time on this trip the knee joints might need help is at Machu Picchu, so I’ll leave the sticks at home this time.
- Water bottle. Whenever possible I try to avoid buying and using the ubiquitous small plastic bottles of drinking water. I’ll either bring my own bottle, or buy one at the beginning of the trip and refill it. The water at the hotels I’ll be staying at should be safe, and I’m planning on having a SteriPen to treat questionable sources.
- 12″x17″ sheet of white closed-cell foam, ~1/2″ thick. This lives in the slot in my backpack intended for a laptop (which will also still fit). Makes a comfy, and dry, place to sit or kneel, and can used as a reflector/diffuser for close-ups in bright light.
- Swiss Army Knife. Actually this always lives in my pants pocket, but I’ll include it with the camera stuff here. I’ve carried my large Victorinox with 15 tools and blades every day for many years. It lacks pliers so I’ve been tempted to trade it for a lighter weight multi-tool, but I’ve not seen one of those that includes toothpick, tweezers, and corkscrew – all essential and used frequently. I do have to be very careful and remember to put the knife in my checked luggage for flights; I place a note on top of everything in my suitcase to remind me.
The Lowepro Fastback is an extremely well designed and constructed photo backpack, and itis comfortable enough to be worn all day on a hike. I bought the blue and black version because it looks more like a regular daypack, and doesn’t broadcast the fact that I have a lot of expensive gear in it. Several similar photo backpacks have built-in rain covers, which would be a very good idea for this trip.
Computer and other electronics
Whenever I pack for air travel I’m amazed at how much computer and related electronic gear I’m taking. Then I remember that I used to have to pack 100-200 rolls of film, a whole lot more lens filters, and a heavier tripod. On recent trips, I’ve been really tempted to try and get by without a laptop and just go with an iPad, but I’m not quite there yet. Here’s the list:
- MacBookPro. A recent version with 15″ Retina display is both my travel and desktop computer. I’m willing to carry the weight for its capabilities. Charger and cord go with it, of course. I’ll likely pack the Magic Mouse too, as I find it much easier, quicker and precise than the trackpad for navigating the computer, especially when editing and processing photos.
- iPhone. I resisted a cell phone for a few years, now don’t know how I could get along without it and the v.6 is a wonderful tool. Earphones, USB plug, and charging cable for that as well. Loaded with all kinds of apps. Which reminds me, I need to download the LAN app, since I’ll be flying that airline to, from and within Peru. I’m thinking of picking up a set of Olloclip lenses for the iPhone 6 for more options with Instagram photos.
- iPad Mini. This might seem superfluous with the laptop and phone, but I use it for reading books in place of a Kindle, and much prefer it over the phone for email, maps and apps like the above-mentioned TPE. When I get a new camera, or if I’m instructing someone in use of theirs, I download the owners manual to the iPad for use in the field.
- Western Digital MyPassport hard drives. I’ll pack two of these, one with Time Machine for a complete backup of my MacBookPro system plus space to download the photos I take on the trip. The second one will be used for the second backup of any photos I take and download during the trip (with the HD on my laptop and two externals I figure I’m pretty well backed up – certainly way more than I was in the days of carting around rolls of exposed film). The WD Passports are quite small, have proven to be reliable, and the 2TB version has enough capacity that I can bring all almost all of my important files with me. When I’m on extended road trips in the US, I bring additional drives with several years of raw shoot files and an archive of processed images in case I get requests for images with a short deadline.
- USB Flash Drive. Very handy for transferring files when sharing, giving presentations, etc. The price has come down so much on these, and the capacity has increased, such that they’re viable for backing up photos.
Camera memory card reader. Not going to need one on this trip, as both cameras I’m taking use only SD cards and there’s an SD slot built into the MacBookPro. Your mileage may vary, as they say.
- International voltage adapter. On my last overseas trip I picked up a very compact adapter that works just about anywhere. Sure was nice to get rid of the old brick with a bunch of attachment plugs.
- Triple-tap AC adapter. How many times have you been in an airport waiting area, cafe or hotel room with all the electrical outlets already in use? Some travelers pack a multi-outlet power strip; I find the triple tap sufficient plus it’s small and light enough that I include it in my carry-on so I have it available at the airport. If you’re going to buy one of these, make sure to get one with the grounding prong and slot.
- Extra AA batteries and AA/AAA charger. If I bring the flash unit, I’ll also bring rechargeable AA batteries and a compact charger.
Almost of the above will go in my carry-ons. With the photo gear in the backpack (just barely carry-on size) and the electronics in a satchel-type shoulder bag, I can fit my tripod, clothing, toiletries and miscellaneous other stuff in a soft-side 26″ wheeled suitcase. Once I’m on location, any of the electronics that I don’t anticipate using during an excursion with be left in the hotel room, either in a room safe or in luggage that is locked and secured (see below).
I’ll be visiting two quite different climates on my Peru trip, and while the weather will not be extreme anywhere, I need pack for both hot, sunny days and cool, rainy periods. February is the dry season for Lima, with temps in the 80’s (F), humidity about the same, and lots of sun. In contrast, it will be the wet season in Cusco and Machu Picchu, with daily high temps in the 50’s, and rain likely much of the time (Sounds just like Oregon in early Spring, so I’m not going to have much trouble adjusting).
With all the camera and computer gear I travel with, I need to minimize clothing to keep within baggage allowances. Pants, shirts and underwear will mostly be lightweight nylon or poly fabrics that can be rinsed in Woolite in the hotel bathroom sink and hung to dry overnight. Here’s what will go in my check-in luggage:
- 1 pair nylon travel pants in basic trouser style so they can work for evening functions where cargo pants would be considered gauche.
- 1 pair convertible nylon pants with cargo pockets. I know a lot of people hate zip-offs, and I agree they’re kinda ugly, but they’re oh so practical. I can wear them for swim shorts if hot-tubbing and au natural is not appropriate.
- 2 short sleeve T-shirts, high-tech fabric like the REI Sahara or Nike Dri-Fit. I prefer the feel of cotton, but the other fabrics work a lot better in humid climates and dry much quicker when they get wet.
- 2 long sleeve button front shirts, nylon or blend, at least one of which is suitable for slightly dressy occasions. After many years of living and working in sunny Hawaii, my arms have taken all the UV they can handle, so I need to keep them covered as much as possible. Even when it’s warm, I prefer to wear a lightweight long-sleeve shirt to repeatedly having to apply sunscreen.
- 2 pair underwear, ExOfficio or similar drip dry fabric.
- 2 pair lightweight SmartWool socks and 1 pair DarnTough light hiker quarter socks. Both of these have excellent cushioning for walking around all day.
- 1 pair shoes that are nice enough for upscale restaurants, etc., but also comfortable for walking.
- 1 packable, Gore-Tex (waterproof but breathable) shell jacket. Layering a T-shirt, long sleeve shirt and this jacket should be plenty of warmth for the early morning Machu Picchu visit, and if it’s not raining as the day warms up I can stuff it in my photo backpack.
- Wide-brim, water-repellant hat. Both to keep the rain off my eyeglasses and the sun out of my eyes. With chin strap for windy conditions or to let it hang on my back if it gets in the way while shooting.
- Pick-pocket proof wallet/passport holder.
In addition to those clothes, I’ll wear on the airplane some comfy cotton canvas pants, a long sleeve T-shirt plus long sleeve button up shirt (I’m often cold during flights), low-cut waterproof trail shoes, and a braided nylon belt. The plastic buckle on my belt, and my plastic watch band, won’t set off the Xray machine, so I usually get through security without that extra touch from TSA. The nylon belt has more than once saved the day during a trip by securing gear to a raft, holding a broken suitcase together, etc.
I tend to go with dark clothing because light and bright colors cause too much reflection on the LCD screens of my cameras, iPad/iPhone, and computer. Dark colors are also better at hiding dirt. The one exception I make is my rain jacket because I often wear that in dim conditions and it makes for a nice color pop for selfies or to throw on someone else who volunteers to model.
Other stuff that will get stuffed in either the check-in bag or my “personal carry-on” (AKA purse equivalent):
- Sunglasses and an old pair of prescription eyeglasses in case something happens to the ones I wear all the time.
- Toiletries, the usual; meds and vitamin/mineral/herbal supplements, aloe vera, plus a couple of homeopathics like Apis, Arnica and Traumeel. Several days worth of Wellness Formula, an immune system booster that I consider magic and start taking immediately if I feel a bit out of sorts.
- Small plastic bottle of Woolite for washing clothes.
- A few Zip-loc bags of assorted sizes. They always come in handy.
- Ear plugs. Indispensable. Not just for sleeping in noisy hotel rooms but to at least partially block the constant din inflight if I don’t want to listen to music.
- Sunscreen and insect repellent in larger sizes, to refill the mini bottles I keep in my backpack.
- Waterproof pouch case for the iPhone. I don’t anticipate needing it this time, but you never know. Boy Scout, remember, Be Prepared!
- Camera sensor cleaning kit.
- Extra model releases and business cards.
- More Clif Bars and granola bars.
- Starbucks VIA instant coffee. Almost always better than the hotel room packets. If there’s room and I’m not otherwise overweight, I’ll bring a coffee cup.
- Pacsafe (the original wire mesh kind that could swallow a backpack or small suitcase) and wire cable with loops on ends (like a bike lock cable but only about 1/8″ thick) to lock my suitcase to something immovable in the hotel room.
That’s about it. Based on years of experience as a photographer and traveler, I’m pretty sure the above kit will have me prepared to take maximum advantage of my time on this trip. In addition, wearing the backpack and looping the handles of the shoulder bag on the extended handle of my wheeled suitcase, I can manage everything without the need for luggage carts or assistance when navigating airports and transfers.
Unlike my sister, I won’t be packed two weeks in advance, but neither will I leave it til the last minute. As part of final prep I’ll charge all the batteries, including spares, for all cameras and electronic gear, and I’ll re-format all the memory cards for the cameras (after making sure any images on them have already been downloaded and backed up). Lenses will be checked for dust and smudges; cameras tested for dust on sensors. If necessary, I’ll dump some files from my laptop to make room for the new trip photos. If I haven’t done so recently, I’ll scan my passport, drivers license, credit cards and medical insurance card, and email myself those files in case they get lost.
A couple of days before I leave, I’ll call my credit card issuers, or visit their websites, to let them know I’ll be traveling, so that I don’t suddenly find my account blocked due to the bank trying to prevent fraud.
Just before leaving, I’ll snap photos of my suitcase, backpack and shoulder bag with my iPhone, to help ID them if they get lost.
One last thing, actually one of the very first things I’ve done to get ready: I’ve made it a priority lately to get out and get more exercise. I’ve been spending too much time in front of the computer lately and I’ll be doing a good amount of walking, at altitude, while in Peru. I’m making it a point to do hill climbs on my daily walks and hikes. I definitely don’t want to be lagging when there is going to be so much to see and do in a short time.
As always when travel time again draws near, I’m getting excited. Have I left anything out? What do you pack and how do you carry it? What other resources do you use for planning your trip? Please share your tips in the Comments below.