How to pack light for Alaska Bear Adventures

It’s a common dilemma among photographers: hauling your gear to the extremes of the wilderness, while abiding by luggage specifications and weight allowances, all while protecting your camera gear and bringing along your choice equipment.

Limitations vary from place to place, whether you’re on a safari in Africa, trekking in Borneo or cavorting with Grizzlies in Alaska. But the latter often seems to be the most stringent due to the small bush planes necessary to land on gravel beds, beaches, small runways and oftentimes on the water itself.

In this article, I’m going to go with some of the lowest weight allowances out there, specifically as it pertains to Nat Hab’s new Bear Camp adventure, so that you can see how I personally choose my camera gear for such an expedition.

a family of grizzly bears walk along the shore

The weight allowances for luggage come in at 20 pounds for this Alaska Bear Camp expedition. So, the first thing I’m going to do is see how much of this 20 pounds needs to be made up of clothes—and how much can be pure photography gear.

For this trip to Alaska’s Bear Camp near Lake Clark National Park, we’re looking at three nights in the field, which means minimal clothing. At absolute most, I’m going to bring two sets of field clothes and one set of lounging/comfy clothes for camp in the evening. The rest I would recommend leaving in Homer with Nat Hab’s operations staff to collect when you return. Things that make it in this smaller “leave behind bag” would be airplane clothes, any extra books for travel days, etc.

In weighing these clothes, plus a pound or two for basic toiletries, I come in at five pounds, which mean I’m able to devote 15 pounds to my camera gear. This isn’t a lot, but it’s also a pretty good chunk I can make use of.

Here is my “critical kit” that I wouldn’t do any wildlife adventure without:

Canon 5d IV – 2 pounds

Canon 100-400mm – 3.5 pounds

Canon 24-105mm – 1.5 pounds

Extra batteries and charger – 0.5 pounds

7.5 pounds total

I don’t leave home without all this, and we’re coming in at about eight pounds.  That’s encouraging! So, I technically have nearly eight more pounds to play with.

a large brown bear walks out of a grassy meadow with a mountain in the background

If we get into the super telephotos, this weight gets eaten up pretty quickly. Adding a 500mm to the kit would be just about the rest of the weight. However, if you have it, it’s a wise way to use the extra weight!

However, one could make the argument that adding a 500mm might shift the balance of your kit anyways, perhaps replacing the 100-400. But as you may be thinking, it’s never that straightforward. It really comes down to personal preference and photographic style.

The other class of lens that’s missing from my above critical kit is the 70-200mm. This is indeed a great lens, and with its f/2.8 capabilities, it adds a very valuable tool to your kit. This lens comes in at about 3.5 pounds, so it would put us at 13 pounds out of 15.

Another piece of gear that you may be considering is another camera body. These can be quite handy, as they allow you to easily shoot with two different lenses, which can ultimately yield more shots of those extra special encounters. While not absolutely necessary, many pro photographers do like to bring a second body. For many others, though, a smartphone is a great second camera. With your main telephoto mounted on your camera, you have a fantastic landscape camera and lens at the ready via your smartphone. It’s getting downright incredible what they are able to capture!

So, if you bring a second body at two pounds, that puts you right at about 15 pounds, even with the 70-200mm.

You may be wondering, what about a tripod or monopod? This is where it gets tricky. Even the most lightweight tripods out there will run you about 3-4 pounds. Thus, you are putting a heavy premium on its use. If you are a tripod fanatic, then it might replace your second telephoto lens (e.g., if you are considering both a 100-400 and 70-200, or a 100-400 and 500mm).

However, if you are not a tripod fanatic, oftentimes a monopod may be an even better option, especially as they can weigh a pound or less. They don’t have the multi-leg support of a tripod, but they help to steady your camera as you sit and observe wildlife—and they take a load off your neck and shoulders!

A big question on all bush flights is “What can I physically wear on me while I weigh in for the flight?” 

That’s a great question, and it varies considerably across planes, states, countries and even pilots. Technically, they reserve the right to make you remove your camera before weighing. However, a great way to save a little pack weight is to throw some small camera gear in your pockets, such as your smartphone, extra batteries, etc. Additionally, since bush flights may be cold, it behooves you to wear an extra layer, like a jacket or windbreaker, and your hiking boots, which further saves weight from your pack.

At the end of the day, for remote wilderness adventures and wildlife photography, there are always some sacrifices. That sacrifice could be choosing a tripod vs. an extra lens, or focusing primarily on wildlife camera gear vs. landscape gear, or doing what I do and bringing very minimal extra clothes. (Field clothes get dirty almost immediately, so why not just re-wear them?) Of course, these are all small concessions for being shuttled into the great beyond and spending time with some of the grandest nature and wildlife on the planet.

If you have extra tips you’ve learned over the years, please share them in the comments below!


Court Whelan Signature