What to Bring on a Photo Tour (Updated for 2024)

© Ron Levy

Whether you’re going on a half-day or week-long photo tour, here is a handy checklist of items you should seriously consider on every trip.
Be it northern or tropical destinations, it’s vital to consider both warm and cold weather gear for any possible weather on any trip. Murphy will always be with you. Since we offer tours in Alaska, this list is slightly biased toward our area of the world, but you’ll find plenty of relevant ideas for anywhere you are considering. You’ll want to consider not just basic travel or survival gear, but other items that will be well worth their weight and bulk to keep you shooting as long as possible.
If you’ll be taking small charters or commuter flights, also keep in mind that they might weigh your carry-ons, and there is usually a limit of 15-20 lbs/bag, usually 2 bags allowed (you can leave all luggage with us). Also might depend on your weight as well (although they do this more in Europe and other countries than in the US), I’ve never felt it was fair to apply a standard carry-on weight limit regardless of the traveler’s body weight. Why should a thin healthy traveler be subject to the same carry-on weight limits as an obese person?. (Tip #7 under Photo equipment is worth its weight in gold)
I. Clothing:
Think in layers.
1) Gloves: 2 pairs: liners for shooting, and a heavier pair for weather and walking with gear (they can double as camera/lens supports on rocks).
2) Hats:  1) Sports cap for rain and sun (we have souvenir caps available with the “Bear with us…” design); 2) Flexible wide-brimmed nylon-type rain hat; 3) Wool-type stocking cap for warmth.
3) Pants:  For most folks, cotton quick drying pants (and/or a pair of zip-off shorts) will work well, with or without nylon shell (see rain/wind shell below). Not recommended for field use or rainy days are Levi denims as they are heavy in wet conditions and take forever to dry. My own personal preference in wet Alaska bush areas (like when we fly to bear areas) are 100% wool pants — dry in the rain and in tall, wet grass, yet comfortable and durable.
4) Socks: Preferably wool. (your socks will get wet at some point). Bring at least 3-4 pairs.
5) Long underwear: Top and bottom, cotton or polypro. Rather than 100% of either, best types have a blend of 50/50 – 70/30 (more polypro, the better) and/or some nylon or spandex. Light and flexible, these can breathe and keep wet outer clothes off your skin.
6) Rain/wind shell: Ideally Goretex type or other breathable yet waterproof top and bottom, with hood
7) Light boots (we do very little hiking) and/or tennis shoes. A pair of light sandals or flip-flops are also handy. Waterproof clogs or sandals are sometimes supplied at bear camps.
8) A few T-shirts (quick drying nylon and/or cotton)
9) A warm fleece sweater or lightweight nylon shell/synthetic fill jacket – no goose or duck down
10) Cloth belt: Lighter and more flexible than leather, can double as a rope around equipment, bags, etc.
II. Other handy items to consider:
1) Pocket knife or multi-tool with tiny camera screwdriver(s) (remember not in your airline carry-on bag!)
2) Sunglasses with retainer strap
3) Small daypack (~1500 cu inches), rain/windproof, or boat dry bag with backpack straps. See plastic bags/liners recommendation below.
4) Insect repellent; possibly a headnet (not required; only if you are really sensitive to mosquito bites)
5) Personal items (earplugs, eyeshades, sunblock, extra glasses /contact lenses & meds w/ prescription)
6) Water bottle
7) Clear plastic bags: Ziplocs for small items (batteries, liquids) + 1-2 small garbage bags to line inside of daypacks or put clothing/packs during transport)
8) Compact, preferably waterproof binoculars. My favorite are image stabilized.
9) Duct tape or electrician’s tape  — don’t take the whole roll. Roll up a few feet onto a smaller cardboard roll or something cylindrical
10)Pair of shorts – hotel hot tubs, emergency underwear, quick dip in a lake if you’re that type.
III. Photo equipment (see our page on Discounts from recommended dealers):
Single lens reflex cameras with long lenses are the best cameras to bring on specialized photo tours, especially for bears and wildlife. Mirrorless cameras save weight and bulk as carry-ons, fitting easier into vest pockets or backpacks.
1) 1-2 DSLR cameras
2) 3 lenses minimum: 24-80 or 28-120mm for aerials, people, scenics; 80-200m; 300mm or 400mm for wildlife. No need for anything bigger as the few times that it may be worth a huge 600mm may not be worth the sacrifice in not being able to bring other things because of weight limits in small planes, and space limits in vehicles, boats, commercial flights.
3) A top quality 1.4x tele extender (Nikon, Canon, Olympus, etc.) is also well worth its weight and cost. Better, lighter, cheaper for most folks than lugging a 500-600mm if you’re already bringing a 300/400mm lens.
4) A good point-and-shoot camera (in addition to your cell phone) — worth their weight for videos, wider angle shots, and as a backup camera if/when your main camera gets dunked or hurt beyond field repair.
5) A few back up batteries (AA, specialized camera batteries and flash) & charger
6) Extra media/SD cards for your camera in ziploc or sturdy zippered or velcro pocket case.
7) A monopod with ball head for longer lenses. This will work for 90-95% of your shooting. It is a good compromise over a tripod as you will be limited in some flights for space and weight, and may have to make choices for other belongings.
For longer lenses (400mm+) nice to have a sturdy tripod with ball head  (Gitzo, Bogen, Wimberely, Really Right Stuff, etc.) that can act as a monopod for most of your shooting from boats, vehicles and at Brooks Falls (sometimes crowded platforms). But again, those situations will possibly only comprise about 5% of your shooting. You will likely be much closer most of the time.
8) Photo vest – great for field use and taking carry-on gear on airlines and charters (not counted as carry-ons!). Get one you feel comfortable wearing with your outdoor clothes. Put heaviest, least bulky items in inner pockets. (I’ve never been asked to “weigh my clothes”). Some laptops can fit in back vest pocket. Camera bodies (without lenses) in front and inner pockets. If bulky, sometimes wearing a rain/wind jacket over your vest reduces your “footprint” to airlines. The only times this tactic may be a problem is with small charter flights (more of a space issue in the seats than weight) and international small charters that more typically weigh carry-ons. If asked for your body weight, be sure to include your vest weight to your number.
9) Filters: polarizing for saturation on nice days; graduated ND filters for scenes with dark/light areas
10) Detachable flash (mostly if you do close-up flowers, rocks, etc.) w/corded or wireless trigger
11) Lens cleaning microfiber cloth
12) Laptop computer w/software such as Capture One, Topaz, Photoshop, Lightroom,
13) External backup hard drive, card readers (SD, XQD or others), charging cords for phones, camera batteries, etc.
14) Sturdy camera backpack or flexible carrying case (no large hard cases (hard to work out of in the field and store on flights/vehicles).
IV. Optional
Wrist straps and tethers for cameras and lenses (cheap insurance, especially for aerials). PEAK makes some nice lens “cuffs” that tether your lens or camera to your wrist. Excellent “insurance” to accidental dropping.
Poncho, short umbrella or other rain cover(s) for camera bags, longer lenses and cameras on tripods
A Go-Pro or other small video camera for cockpit shots or other quick videos in the field.
Solar battery charger (Goal Zero is excellent and the industry standard, but there are other good brands)
A pdf copy of your camera manual(s) on your computer or phone. They can usually be found on the camera manufacturer’s website. Great to review on the plane, and could be a life saver!
Knee pads — (considered by some photographers as mandatory, not optional) Or other padded items you may already be bringing could be used as knee pads in a pinch.
Weeks before the trip, make sure your camera gear is clean and operating perfectly. If it has been sitting on the shelf or not in use for a while, dust and dirt may settle into lenses or sensors. You may still have time to to send it off or a quick repair/cleaning. Charge all batteries!!
Happy Travels and Happy Shooting!
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