11 Tips For Eco-friendly Trail Photography

11 Tips For Eco-friendly Trail Photography


A Guest Post by Aaron Barlow from Delineations of Eye.

Are you thinking of hitting the trail for a grand adventure? Want to fill your camera with hundreds of beautiful shots of the great outdoors? I have some tips to keep that adventure eco-friendly and help ensure you have locations to photograph for years to come.

Image by Rick Harrison

Let’s start out with something that everyone has heard before but can’t be said enough (mostly because it’s catchy)

1. Take Photos, Leave Only Footprints

Of course! Simple enough, right? Essentially don’t leave with anything you didn’t come with.

2. Make a List

Make a list of what you will be taking. Making a list puts those items in your mind and helps you not forget anything you may need. That’s the obvious. However, it also helps you remember everything you brought with you! Leaving a lens – God forbid – a filter, or any other equipment behind is not only bad for the bunnies; it’s probably expensive and let’s not forgot frustrating! 

3. Leave It Cleaner

Leave the trail cleaner than you found it. For me, this normally means bringing a spare grocery bag strapped to my pack for callously discarded bottles, cans, and various other refuse. It sometimes takes a bit extra work depending on the gear I have with me, but getting hi-fives from other appreciative photogs and hikers is well worth it.

4. Remember The Snacks

If you’re going out on any trail for an extended period of time, it’s always a good idea to bring a snack. Just remember snacks have packaging that can end up on the trail. I can’t tell you how many times I have seen wrappers blown right out of people’s hands. I recommend using reusable Tupperware containers. No wrappers, easy to pack and handle, and you are far less likely to leave it behind. 

5. Bottles

You should always take water on the trail. ALWAYS. This tip though is more of an odd one that is just my personal preference. I find it better to take reusable bottles. Why? Well, why pay for a bottle of water when it’s FREE from the tap! Not to mention, just like the Tupperware, you’re less likely to leave it behind.

6. Man’s Best Friend

If you take your best friend… the furry one. OK, if you take your dog with you on trail, keep it leashed and by your side. Dogs left to roam unleashed can cause pretty serious unseen damage to the trail and surrounding eco-system. Not to mention it can be stressful for some to come across a strange unleashed dog. Oh, and please ensure you clean up after your friend. Add doggy bags to your list!

7. Look Out For Hitchhikers

This is probably the number one thing many hikers and outdoor photogs do not think about. It is a sad fact that these days there are many invasive plants in locations ripe for photography. These plants love to hitch a ride on your boots which you may inadvertently transplant someplace else. Always inspect your shoes (including underneath), socks, and other gear before leaving the trail.  If you brought a pet with you, and even if you followed tip 6, It’s a good idea to inspect them for hitchhikers also.

8. Watch Your Step

Watch your step! That plant or flower you just walked on could have been another photographers dream shot, or at least an inspiration. This is usually achieved by staying on trail. I know, as a photographer you may have the urge to run off with the perfect shot in your mind, just remember to look down!
Many of the locations I go shooting are often environmentally sensitive areas, so even stepping on one plant can have a major impact. In many locations you can also get slapped with a steep fine for going off trail and damaging the landscape.

9. Animal Interactions

Keep your interactions with animals to a minimum, especially the big ones! Photograph them; enjoy their presence and natural beauty, just leave it at that. Wild animals are wild, keep them that way. I suppose it may be tempting to try novel approaches at getting that shot – like the guy who was recently arrested for baiting animals – be smart, don’t try that. If one decides you look tastier than the bait, don’t say I didn’t warn you!

10. No Smoking Please

Don’t worry, not going to preach about its health effects. I will say though that smoking on a trail is potentially dangerous when you think of it as a major fire hazard. It’s better to wait till you’re someplace less susceptible to fire.

11. Keeping Water Clean

This means that you or your best friend should not have any emergencies within 40 yards of a water source. Strange tip right? Well, think of it this way; animals drink that water and depending on the water source, you may eventually as well.
I hope these tips help you when you’re out in the wild on a trail, and remember, if you have any tips of your own, please share them in the comments below.  We always love learning something new!

Check out more of Aaron Barlow’s work at Delineations of Eye.

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Some Older Comments

  • Sarah Sertic August 27, 2011 09:30 pm

    Have to say great article. I do a lot of nature photography and this summer went out to Padre Island. A lot of these things are just common sense preparedness and basic camping tips that anyone should follow. Above and beyond that I think it is great that someone has put it up there for others to see.

  • boowwet March 17, 2011 01:55 pm

    Holding a cigarette while taking a photo isn't bad and is not good either.

    Most if not all parks in this planet specifically state not to contaminate the water (rivers, streams, brooks, whatever). Some parks even state not to camp or cook at so and so radius from the stream. Why didn't these regulations include not contaminating the air also? I couldn't help but think that the people making these regulations are smokers or have a stake in the smoking industry..

  • twoinchgroup March 14, 2011 02:48 am

    Other than the admonition to take out what you brought into the bush this article is embarrassing. Your eco-croud is populated by you cult-ish types that don't think before you speak/regurgitate your mother-earth tag-lines.

    FOR INSTANCE: "Look out for hitchhikers". The hitchhiking capabilities of these plants is how these plant germinate/proliferate. Either they will do so on your pant-leg or they will do so on a four-legged. 99% of it is done via animals. ITS NATURAL. I know you don't like this fact but it is what it is.

    The other points are so pathetically contrived that I won't even bother to waste my breath.

    People, at least spend some real time (a child-hood would be good) in the bush. It would help to balance your understanding and keep you from swallowing whatever the tree-huggers among us try to feed us.

    So, here is another crappy article from DPS...jeesh.

  • Phil March 11, 2011 10:38 pm

    I'm not being selfish at all, how am I? I ALWAYS clean up after my dog, doesn't matter where or when and I hate it when other dog owners don't. Maybe I had misread your point there, I was thinking more along the lines of a number 1 rather than a number 2.

    Your comment about not knowing if a dog is friendly or not is a fair point and I can understand how non dog owners would feel about it, to defend my "selfish" reasoning here though, I have complete control of my dog on and off leash no matter where we go as he is a trained gundog. I always carry a leash with me so if we do meet people that don't like dogs I could either call him back to heel or put him on a leash to give them peace of mind.

    Finally to your comment about how my dog doesn't belong in the wild....? I don't understand that at all, a dog is as much an animal as any OTHER animals out there, just because he has become domesticated doesn't mean he doesn't belong in the wild. What's he going to do? Leave chewing gum wrappers on the floor?

    Again I iterate, these are purely my thoughts on the matter and I am not trying to cause any offence here. There is nothing more pleasureable than going for a lovely walk on a lovely day with a lovely trained dog, however this is a photography website so lets get back to snapping pictures :)

  • Albanus March 11, 2011 06:54 pm

    As the green revolution takes toll, photographers too must be part and parcel of the paradigm shift to eco-friendly practies as they conduct their business on a daily basis.

  • JesseAdams March 11, 2011 02:28 pm

    Good post, and I agree there is more to photography then just taking pictures. Always good to respect the environment and your surroundings.

    Here is a shot I took of a little lighthouse you can find down a long path through the woods in the Kootenays.


  • Marty March 11, 2011 08:59 am


    When your happy unleashed, well-exercised dog comes bounding up to you after meeting his pal Mr. Skunk, please post an update here and let us know how that's working for ya!

  • B March 11, 2011 07:05 am

    Great article. I think some of the good-intentioned criticism above is valuable. Some of the rest, not so much.

    On #5: Bottled water is basically the worst ever thing ever. Most of it comes from the same sources as municipal water supplies, but it's not held to the same rigorous testing standards as municipal water. Very few bottled water companies use plastics free of BPA, which has a range of effects on humans -- look it up if you want to freak out about pretty much everything you've eaten in the last thirty years. And, from themanufacturing process to distribution to disposal, the plastic bottles themselves are have a huge negative environmental impact. There are plenty of reusable, BPA-free, bottles that cost about the same as a couple of movie tickets, so you'll end up saving yourself money sooner than later.

    And I'd like to add, if there's a trail sign-in sheet, use it! This is not only for your own safety -- if you do get lost or abducted by aliens there's a record of when and where you entered -- but nature management agencies use the data for all sorts of purposes, from the basis for funding to proper care of individual areas. When they know how many people visit and how often, they know which areas will be impacted most and need the most attention.

    Anyway, great post, I think taking nature photos without being knowledgable about the subject -- including your own impacts -- is the same as with any other genre. If you don't care about the subject, why should anyone looking at your photos?

  • A.Barlow March 11, 2011 04:25 am

    @ walther grube

    Thanks! I'll keep that in mind!

    @ Mark

    No prejudice - ex-smoker here. I completely understand. If you must, that is the best way to do it. I've employed that myself on the times I couldn't convince myself to just wait. You know how it is, lol. I just figure it's best not to in the first place and not take the chance.

    and about the tap, your right. Filter it.

  • Walther Grube March 11, 2011 04:10 am

    I liked this post a lot!
    This guidelines are the basics on every trip you make. As a speleologist I learned and use the following rule: "In a cave you leave nothing except footprints, you take nothing except pictures and carry with you only good memories".
    Then working in environmental projects I learned more rules, dogs are not welcome in every place, so keep them on a leash, it's for their safety and for the safety of the wildlife. They are hunters by nature... In certain parks they are even forbidden to enter. Stray dogs in reserves must be killed in some cases, so if you won't your furry buddy to get killed leave him home...
    Non-organic litter you have to take with you, no question. Organic matter can be buried.
    Always leave a place cleaner than you've found it, no matter if it wasn't you that made the mess... We are all responsible for the environment. If you see people trashing the place, speak to them calmly and explain the problem, if they don't hear you, call the authorities, don't try to argue with stupid people they get dangerous, my experience! The most dangerous animal on the planet is the man, the other will try to flee first if you give them a chance. All animals have a safety distance, don't try to get nearer than it, you can easily be killed.
    Respect the animals, don't get near bird nests just for a picture, don't take animals in your hands for no good reason, be aware that some animals leave their breed behind if they sense human scent on them. Don't interfere with animals unless it's necessary.
    On a trail, keep your eyes open, mostly directed to the ground to avoid snakes, but don't forget to look up sometimes, or you'll hit your head. Also, there are snakes on the trees too! So KEEP YOUR EYES OPEN! Learn about the wildlife you are about to visit! Your life can easily depend on your knowledge of the place.
    A safety rule that must be followed at all costs is: never go alone if you don't know the place. Even if you know the trail, three persons is the right number to be safe. If one gets hurt, the other can carry the person. If the person can't be carried because of the injuries, one person can stay while the other goes back for help.
    Maps, GPS, compass, survival kit, a good knife, fire starters are essential, always be prepared for anything, but try to keep your equipment as small and easy to carry as possible.
    If you plan a trip to Brazil I'll sure welcome you and be you guide to some beautiful places I know. With safety!

  • Mark March 11, 2011 03:46 am

    regarding point 5: I am glad for you that you can trust your "tap water". I do not in my area, so everything I consume is filtered. And I ALWAYS take my container with me AND bring it home.

    regarding point 10: Your prejudice is showing!!! I hike many trails in Missouri, USA and beyond. I am always aware of conditions and am very careful about my smoking so their is no reason to abstain. I also "field strip" my butts as the military calls it. Nothing hits the ground except ashes and a tiny bit of tobacco at the end. The butt and paper go in my pocket and are disposed of when I get home. If things are VERY DRY, I will wait until I am near water to smoke, but to totally abstain is unnecessary. Being aware and considerate is absolutely good enough!!!!

  • A.Barlow March 11, 2011 02:49 am

    @ phil

    Thanks for the comment.

    I'm sorry that you are missing the point completely with this. Let me explain. In many cases those wild animals you mention should be and have a place in that habitat. It is true that without proper management or a heathy eco-system one group or another can end up causing damage - mostly the deer due to over grazing. Your dog doesn't belong there however.

    Also, if I'm on a trail and I come across an unfamiliar dog, I do not know if it is friendly or not. It might be. It might now. What if your dog perceives me to be a threat and I get bitten? I can tell you what would happen, and that's exactly what this tries to prevent.

    To your last point, it's about being cognoscente and/or cleaning up after your animal. If everyone had the mentality of "it's negligible so why should I care", it's sad to think where that would lead us.

    Try to be a little less selfish.

  • kelehe March 10, 2011 09:53 pm

    Michael Says:
    I will put my Dog on a leash once Cat owners start doing the Same.
    Cats do more damage to an environment than a dog. not to mention they go feral and bread like the rates they chase. Cats are more invasive than dogs there are wild again (feral) cats in every country and almost every town. So please kill your cats, if you must have one please Fix it. and stop letting your cats poop in the kids sand boxes. Its a toy not your cats bathroom.
    Who takes their cat out to the wild or a park? Be a responsiblle dog owner and leash your dog.

  • Phil March 10, 2011 08:48 pm

    I read this site often, and enjoy the majority of the articles on it however this one has struck a nerve with me. Point 6. "...keep it leashed and by your side. Dogs left to roam unleashed can cause pretty serious unseen damage to the trail and surrounding eco-system." What's the point in walking with a dog on the leash? What exercise can it get from that? How can you take a photo with a dog leash in your hand? What damage does a dog cause that's any different to other wild animals like foxes, badgers, dear, wolves, coyote etc depending country, don't cause themselves?

    Also, point 11 ..."This means that you or your best friend should not have any emergencies within 40 yards of a water source. Strange tip right? Well, think of it this way; animals drink that water and depending on the water source, you may eventually as well."

    By definition if it's an emergeny I'm not going to look around and run more than 40 yards away from any water source, neither is my dog. Plus, I ask again, how many wild animals think "Hmm i best not go here in case it contaminates the water supply". The amount of water to "pollutant" ratio would be negligable anyway.

    These are my personal opinions and I'm sure some people got something worthwhile out of this, I didn't though.

  • chew March 10, 2011 12:17 pm

    Thanks for these reminders. It's good to be reminded at times.

  • Kerensky97 March 10, 2011 10:43 am

    I wanted to re-iterate Doug's comment about cryptobiotic crust. Overall it's just a great idea to try to stay on established trails as much as possible. Even in non-desert areas the flora may be very sensitive and while your one foot step alone may not be damaging, thousands of people thinking the same thing will cause damage. Not to mention that when people see that one person went off trail they'll be more likely to follow the footsteps and make it worse.

    As for Photography specific tips:
    1. In cold weather get fingerless gloves that have a foldover piece that turns them into mittens. Then you can keep fingers warm except for a bare "trigger finger".
    2. There is lots of cool tech to augment your hike. Geo-locating pics is good, but using Google's "My Tracks" allows me to record a hike then upload the exact path online to so people can follow where I went and see the sights for themselves.

  • Kiran March 10, 2011 06:47 am

    Great tips but I am so unadventurous when it comes to trail photography. Some day, perhaps :D

  • Matthew R Potts March 10, 2011 05:50 am

    scottc - many people gained something from this article, including me. If you didn't find it interesting, then move along. the internet is not custom tailored especially for you.

  • A.Barlow March 10, 2011 05:01 am

    @ scottc Thanks for the comment and to certain extent I understand where you're coming from.

    Just remember, there is more to photography than just getting behind the camera. "Where" you get behind your camera matters too. That aspect is what I tried to express in this article.

  • ScottC March 10, 2011 04:39 am

    Not to disagree with or bash the article, but I view DPS to read about photography. There's nothing about photography in this article.

    From a "paved" trail, and not ecologically oriented, early in the morning:


  • K Whitney March 10, 2011 03:53 am

    Thank you so much for mentioning leaving only with what you brought! I lived in the American Southwest for years, and even walking within town I found all sorts of artifacts. Hiking in the desert can bring you across actual archaeological sites, where hefty fines can be incurred for taking artifacts out of the area, yet people do it all the time. As an archaeology student, the importance of conservation and preparation have been drilled into me for years, and it's such a shame to see ancient and historical sites destroyed because people want a memento of their trip. We're photographers here; take a picture. Chances are, it will last just as long as that piece of pottery, and more people will get to see both.

    And an extra desert tip (Doug's were great): bring tweezers and/or a comb. Once a cactus catches onto your pants, if you pull it out with your hands, it won't end up back on the ground. If it's big enough, a comb will pull it out well. If it's smaller and in the skin, it can get infected if left there, so tweezers work just great it getting them out.

    One more note on archaeological sites: depending on where you're hiking (such as BLM land), you can be fined for simply being on a site. If the rangers or Fish and Wildlife Department find you and you didn't know what your feet were on, they will generally let you go with a slap on the wrist, but not always.

  • A.Barlow March 10, 2011 02:29 am

    @ Doug Sundseth Great Tips Doug. #2 is very very interesting.

  • Michael March 10, 2011 02:13 am

    I will put my Dog on a leash once Cat owners start doing the Same.
    Cats do more damage to an environment than a dog. not to mention they go feral and bread like the rates they chase. Cats are more invasive than dogs there are wild again (feral) cats in every country and almost every town. So please kill your cats, if you must have one please Fix it. and stop letting your cats poop in the kids sand boxes. Its a toy not your cats bathroom.

  • Doug Sundseth March 10, 2011 02:03 am

    Out here in the desert southwest of the US, even walking on the dirt off trail can cause long-lasting environmental damage:

    1) By definition, in the desert it doesn't rain much. When it does rain, though, the rain can be locally very heavy. Damaged soil is much more prone to erosion than undamaged soil; even boot prints can cause gullies the next time it rains.

    2) In some parts of the desert, the "dirt" is actually a cryptobiotic crust that grows very slowly and is very susceptible to damage. A careless footprint can destroy hundreds of years of growth.

    Off the topic of environmental damage: When you plan to trek into the wilderness, even for a few hours, have a plan for what you will do if you get lost. Even a three-hour tour* could put you far enough out that you can't find your way back. Your plan should include clothing that will withstand a night outdoors**, water for an extra day (at least), and a bit of food.

    * 8-)

    ** In the desert at night, the temperature can easily drop 50 degrees F (28 degrees C). This can be more than uncomfortable if you're not ready for it.

  • Danny March 10, 2011 01:20 am

    Some great tips. The only thing that comes to my mind that could have been added to #9 is to look out for poisonous snakes (especially in Florida) either on-trail or off. The rattle snakes are hard too see, and they don't always rattle off a warning... if you stumble across one, just slowly back away from it the way you came and you can both be on your merry way. Also, if you're going it alone, let somebody know where you plan on hiking and a rough estimate on when you'll return ... just in case mother nature deals you a bad hand, at least somebody will have an idea of where to look.

  • PHugger March 10, 2011 12:56 am

    Nice article. You may want to reword #1 -

    1. Take Photos, Leave Only Footprints
    Of course! Simple enough, right? Essentially don’t leave with anything you didn’t come with.

    I don't believe it says what you mean........ (c8

  • Mei Teng March 10, 2011 12:51 am

    Over here in this part of the world, don't forget mosquito repellent and watch out for leeches. Sustained a leech bite last month while trekking a forest reserve.