Safety Tips for Outdoor Photographers

May 24th, 2010 by Bret Edge

Most nature photographers enjoy escaping the hustle and bustle of city life by wandering through the wilderness with camera in hand. We peer through viewfinders, absorbed in perfecting a composition and often unaware of what is happening around us. We haul around hundreds or even thousands of dollars of valuable photography equipment. Our vehicles sit unattended at remote trailheads for hours on end.  We are, unfortunately, prime targets for opportunistic criminals.  In this article I’ll share several tips to help you stay safe while enjoying your photographic exploits in the great outdoors.

The first step to a safe wilderness experience is an easy, but often overlooked one.  Always tell someone where you are going and when you will return. Do a little research to determine what law enforcement agency has jurisdiction in the area you will be exploring and provide their contact information to friends, family or your significant other.  Fairly new on the scene are personal locator beacons (PLB) and SPOT personal satellite messengers.  These devices use satellite GPS signals to pinpoint your exact location and when triggered, automatically notify rescue authorities.

Statistics have shown that criminals more often prey upon people who are traveling alone. Though we often go alone into the wilderness to escape being surrounded by people, it also makes us more vulnerable. Take a friend into the backcountry and your odds for survival in the event of an accident increase dramatically.  And, by traveling with a friend, criminals automatically rank you a lower priority target.

Trailheads are notorious for vehicle burglaries due to their often remote location and the lengthy period of time your car sits unattended while you’re off hiking. Though there is no way to prevent a break-in there are things you can do to lessen the odds of it happening to you. Never leave valuables in plain sight. Stow your iPod in the glove box, carry your camera gear with you or leave what you don’t need at home, and hide cd’s, GPS devices and other valuable items out of sight. Even pocket change visible in a cupholder is enough to entice a hard-up criminal. Another option is to consider installing a lockable system like those produced by Truck Vault.

A popular ploy used by thieves is to hang out at the trailhead, act like another hiker and chat with you about your itinerary for the hike. In telling them your plans you are also disclosing how long you will be away from your vehicle. Watch for anything out of the ordinary as you pull into the trailhead, be it a suspicious person or a window that has been smashed out of another vehicle. Always lock your car, regardless of whether you will be photographing a few feet or a few miles from the parking lot.

Statistically speaking, cops who are fit, maintain a neat uniform and project confidence are less likely to be assaulted in the line of duty. The same theory applies to you.  In law enforcement it’s called “officer presence”.  In civilian terms, it’s “I’m not a target so don’t even think about it, punk.”

Police officers are trained to be hyper aware of their surroundings at all times. Doing so helps prevent them from being surprised by an attack and allows them to provide detailed descriptions of suspects. Make a mental note of people you pass on the trail. What are they wearing? What color and length is their hair? How tall are they? Do they appear unusually nervous, fidgety or interested in you or your gear? Do they have anything on or around them that could be used as a weapon? Notice and remember these details in the unlikely event that you might need to act defensively.

While it is normal for non-photographers to be interested in your gear and ask questions about it, you should be cautious about discussing the monetary value of your equipment with strangers. Someone asking odd questions or who appears to be sizing up you and the environment might only be interested in making your camera, their camera. I was photographing mountain goats on Colorado’s Mt. Evans with a 100-400mm lens when a vehicle stopped on the road below me. The driver exited and slowly moved toward me. I assumed he was interested in seeing the goats from my vantage point until he reached my position and immediately began to ask questions about my gear. He said, “I bet that’s an expensive lens.” I shrugged it off, saying “not really, there are lenses that cost 20 times as much!” Something about the guy didn’t sit right with me. I packed up my equipment and walked back to my truck, all the while looking over my shoulder and listening for hurried footsteps behind me.  Was he viewing the goats and simply making small talk with me, or did he have other dubious intentions?  Who knows, but when your sixth sense kicks in and something doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t.  Listen to your inner ninja!

As photographers we often find ourselves peering through viewfinders or with our heads under a dark cloth, completely oblivious to that which is happening around us. To a lion we would surely appear to be the weakest gazelle. Much of the joy I derive from photography comes from working compositions and losing myself in the moment. One need not forego this pleasure by constantly worrying about being attacked. Let your other senses pick up the slack while your eyes are busy. Listen for footsteps, be aware of changing odors and periodically lift your eye from the viewfinder to have a look around. You can quickly get back to the fun stuff once you determine there are no immediate threats.

For example, on a trip to photograph ice in the Colorado River north of Moab I stumbled upon a homeless camp tucked into a thick stand of tamarisk. The camp appeared to be unoccupied but signs of recent activity were present. Patterns along the riverbank and towering cliffs reflecting in a thin layer of ice caught my attention. I set up my tripod and explored the photographic possibilities, all the while listening for any sounds of movement and occasionally lifting my eye from the viewfinder to ensure the safety of my surroundings.  Other situations that demand an increased level of awareness include wandering into an area frequented by drug users or prostitutes.  If you find discarded syringes littering the ground it’s highly likely that you’re right in the middle of a “safe haven” for dopers.  Get out.  As you wander farther into the wilderness your concerns may change from nefarious people to marauding wildlife.  Educate yourself about local wildlife.  Know how to avoid them and what to do if involved in a confrontation with an aggressive animal.

It is doubtful that you will ever find yourself in a situation that calls for physical retaliation against an attacker. However, you should be mentally and physically prepared to defend yourself should such a situation arise. Police academies around the world stress the importance of a “survival attitude” to their recruits.  This consists of “when/then thinking”, or playing through hypothetical situations in your mind and deciding how you will react to them. In every situation it is critical that YOU come out the winner.

Most of us carry a dynamite weapon every time we go out – our tripod! Even a lightweight carbon fiber tripod is capable of inflicting serious injury upon an attacker. Other weapons are readily available in the wilderness, i.e. large stones and fallen tree branches. Be aware of what you have at your disposal so that you are prepared and can act swiftly to combat an attack, regardless of whether the aggressor is a human or an animal. However, you should only resort to physical force to defend yourself or another person from serious bodily harm. Should someone attempt to rob you of property or money your safest course of action is to simply hand it over to them. Gear can be replaced. Photography and outdoor gear is usually covered under renter’s or homeowner’s insurance. Lastly, using physical force to defend property may not be justified in your state.  Any use of force that results in injury to your attacker could result in you being sued civilly and/or criminally charged.  Learn your state law.

Since you located the name and contact information of local law enforcement before beginning your adventure, reporting suspicious activity will be a snap! Cops can’t be everywhere at once. If you don’t bother to report a suspicious incident, they have no way of knowing that a situation exists that requires their attention. You aren’t bothering them and your report just might save someone else from becoming a victim.

Keep these tips in mind next time you head out to burn through some memory cards.  You can confidently wander into the wilderness and lose yourself in the experience knowing that your enhanced awareness makes you a safer and more secure explorer.

Got a safety tip to share?  Please leave a comment!

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