Packing for Hidden Dunes, Death Valley, California

Preparing for Hidden Dunes

Thoughts on packing for an overnight photography backpacking trip

This weekend is the first of several short backpacking trips I’m organizing for the next couple months. I’m planning on building a new and fresh body of work for this site, a collection that really captures what lonely speck will really be all about: creating unforgettable photography experiences for explorers at heart.

On March 22, Diana Southern, Cody Smith, and I will travel to Death Valley National Park where we will hike to Hidden Dunes in the central part of Eureka Valley, just northwest of the much more well known Eureka Dunes. The Hidden Dunes were named by Michel Digonnet who says “When I think of the most isolated places I have visited in this desert, the Hidden Dunes often come to mind first” in his guidebook Hiking Western Death Valley National Park, which is the best guide I have been able to find so far about the area.

The dunes are hidden from sight in a smaller basin on the west side of Eureka Valley, a small set of mountains obscures them from view. Ever since I read about these dunes, I’ve wanted to visit them. The last trip I made out to the area was to the Panamint Dunes which proved to be an amazing experience. This time I’ll be returning to the National Park with a little bit more experience and a clearer idea of how I want to capture the place for others to see.

“When I think of the most isolated places I have visited in this desert, the Hidden Dunes often come to mind first.” – Michel Digonnet

Last time, Cody and I probably packed about 70lb each. That’s way more than the rating of our packs. Even though it was a nearly flat 7 miles to our camping spot, it wasn’t easy. We wanted to bring all the camera equipment, tripods, lenses, timers, extra batteries, extra SD cards, and intervalometers. Now, all told, I think I used all of my camera equipment, every single piece until I was down to the last memory card and the last battery. On top of all the imaging gear, we also had a substantial amount of camping equipment. More than we needed and certainly more than we used. A lot of it ended up being dead weight that we carried all 14 miles and never used. We might as well have been packing lead. And don’t forget the 3 gallons of water we packed out too.

This time around, we will be going lighter. We still have high ambitions in the photography department and will likely have a bit of equipment there but some more careful thinking is going into the rest of the things we bring along. My goal with packing is to be able to unload nearly everything from the packs when we get to our base camp and have nothing extra sitting stored in the packs. This must mean that everything is deliberate, everything has a purpose. I want to make sure that I use each and every item I pack (save for the emergency first aid kit). This means planning meals, activities and water usage. As I write this, all my proposed camping gear is laid out on my bed and I’m questioning each item, “am I going to use you?”

Some of the things I’m avoiding this time around are things like wood cutting tools (last time I had a saw even though there are no trees where we went), a substantially heavy Gerber folding shovel (which I’ve replaced with a simple garden trowel), canned foods (heavy), and too many extra clothes. This exercise really makes appreciate the thinking people like Kelly Sutton or Colin Wright must go through to keep their total number of possessions to around 100 items or less.

The newest addition to my setup will be my astrophotography setup which includes an equatorial mount called a Vixen Polarie, a tripod and mounting hardware like a quick release ball head, as well as the newest addition to my camera arsenal, the Fujifilm X-E1 and XF18mmF2 Lens. That setup alone weighs 8.4 lb, most of which is the mounting hardware. Overall, I hope to keep my complete setup, with water to around 30-40lb total. I’m not sure that’s possible, but we will see.

4 Replies to “Packing for Hidden Dunes, Death Valley, California”

  1. Hi Ian,
    I’m going to do a few two or three night hikes focusing on astro-photography. Do you have any tips or a current check list?

    1. Aaron,

      In a nutshell:
      -good boots
      -warm clothes, gloves, jacket etc.
      -headlamp + 1 set of extra batteries
      -your fave astro lens
      -extra camera batteries (at least 1)
      -extra memory card
      -fully charged smartphone with night sky app
      -sugary snacks

      That’s honestly the minimum you will need if it’s just an out and back with no camping. I recommend only using one lens per night/hike and not bringing an extra one. Concentrating on one focal length is always a good practice anyways. Bring a friend if possible, it’s always more comfortable with company and can be helpful with things like focusing. Good shoes are a must and watch for nocturnal critters like scorpions etc.

      It’s always good to set out with a goal in mind. Maybe your goal is to shoot a particular panorama, maybe it’s to capture a self portrait, maybe it’s to capture a timelapse. Set out with some inspiration, perhaps try to emulate a certain look or composition that you enjoyed from another photographer. Having a direction and a goal will help your shooting immensely.

  2. Great stuff! I’m highly interested in a similar trip out there over the next two months before the heat becomes unbearable. Lots of useful info.

    One thing I will state though is that you pack way too much stuff. I spent over a year traveling with no more than 35lbs of stuff, ever. The more you go out there the less you will need. Especially if it’s only a few days consider the difference between comfortable and tolerable.

    1. I learned about the weight thing pretty quickly. My pack weight 35lb this time around but since it was death valley we also had to pack water. Basically, the hike out was a bit tough, the hike back much easier. I don’t regret taking so much this time around to sort of test stuff out but I think I’ve learned a lesson for the future! I think I’ll be returning to Death Valley real often! Thanks for stopping by Rafael.

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