Winterland

I am just three days away from my around-the world move back to the United States, so I've been busy packing, sorting, organizing, and freaking out! But I'm going to surface from my moving-induced panic to share a few more photographs from our last trip to Finland.

As part of our overnight dogsled adventure, we trekked through deep Finnish forest, seeing a wilderness untouched except by winter. I could have spent hours photographing all the landscapes, but that wasn't an option.... I was riding on the back of a dog sled! So to take any photographs, I had to balance on the sled, take my hands off the steering, and hope to time up a good composition. And that's what I did.

I carried my Leica M240 under my heavy down jacket to keep it warm, retrieving it whenever I saw a photographic opportunity ahead. I used the 28mm f/5.6 Summaron lens, which was a great choice given it's small size to sit under my jacket, wide field of view, and large depth of field. Rattling off snaps as we whooshed past on the dogsled, I hoped there was something in focus and well composed in the mix!

Focusing a rangefinder is already a two handed task, and it's certainly complicated when a dogsled is involved, but I was able to zone focus and get sharp images--- much to my delight! 

Review: RNI All Films 4 Pro

Over the past few years, there's been a resurgence in film photography- folks are going out to buy vintage film cameras and put them back to good use. Two years ago I joined the ranks of photographers returning to film and analog photography techniques. Since then, I've studied printing in darkrooms and explored a variety of film processing and development techniques.

As consumers flock to buy old film cameras, companies are joining in the movement by offering "easy out" film photography.... that is, film photography without the film. One such company is RNI (stands for Really Nice Images), a London-based company selling film presets for digital Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop.

Two weeks ago, RNI approached me asking if I would review their "All Films 4 Pro" software suite, which retails for $122 US Dollars. Full disclosure, they provided me a free copy of the software in exchange for my review- though I have reviewed this with the mindset that I had just shelled out my hard earned cash for the software personally. This lady can't be bought with free software (but maybe for cars).

Anyway, I downloaded the software and began the installation on my MacBook Pro. While they offer the features for Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw, I only tested it for Lightroom as that's where I now do 90% of my editing.

Essentially the software is a suite of Lightroom presets designed to make your digital images look like they were taken on film. So if you aren't awesome enough to rock some film and learn a little development, this is how you can get the "look" with your digital files.

The installation of the software was relatively uneventful- RNI provides detailed step-by-step instructions for installing all of the presets and features, and it took me only a few minutes to complete. The software package took approximately 100MB of hard drive space.

After the installation, I restarted Lightroom and saw that I now had hundreds of new presets in the development module. So many presets that I stand no chance of capturing them in one screenshot...... 

When RNI says the software includes "All Films" they are only slightly off.... it includes presets for the most common films, and then a healthy stock of more obscure film. There was only one film I love to use frequently missing from their list, which is the Adox line of film, specifically the Silvermax film.

Anyway, I had a bit of shell shock seeing the list of film choices. It's actually overwhelming! To help with the organization, RNI has folders for each type of film, as follows:

  • RNI Toolkit (contains features like frames, vignettes and lens effects)
  • RNI Films 4 BW (Black and white films)
  • RNI Films 4 Instant (obviously, instant films like Polaroid) 
  • RNI Films 4 Negative (negative color films/ films developed with C-41 chemicals)
  • RNI Films 4 Slide (color slide films / films with development in other chemical combos)
  • RNI Films 4 Vintage (a selection of films that aren't produced anymore)

Ok, so I haven't come close to shooting a 10% of the films offered in these presets, so I stuck to presets for films I have used - Kodak, Ilford, Fuji, etc. As noted previously, my beloved Adox Silvermax is missing from the preset list.

Test 1: Finland Window

I took this photograph on my Leica SL Type 601 in Finland a few weeks ago, and the colors and textures are a good subject to explore the various film presets with. We'll start with the original image as I edited it, then go through a list of presets. Read the subtitles for each to get the film preset name, and click on the files to see an enlarged version.

My original file - edited without any RNI presets

Color Negative Film Presets

Kodak Ektar Preset

Kodak Portra Preset

I don't shoot much color negative film, but when I do, it's either Kodak Ektar or Portra, so those are the presets I can fairly judge. Before applying either preset I thought about the films, what I know about how they render colors, and formed my expectation for how the preset would look, then clicked the button. For the Kodak Ektar, the resulting image is pretty true to my expectation - colors are bright and vibrant with strong black tones. The Portra, however, was not what I expected. In my experience, Portra renders nice pinks and red hues, which is why it's popular for portraiture. But the reds and pinks in the wood became muted and the black looks wimpy. 

If I am judging these presets based on my experiences actually shooting these films, then the Portra comes up a bit short, while the Ektar meets expectations.

Black and White Film Presets

The true test is black and white film. I shoot a LOT of black and white film, specifically Ilford Delta 100, HP-4 and Adox Silvermax. Since Adox wasn't a choice, I experimented with Kodak T-Max, a popular film, but one I don't shoot as often.

Ilford Delta 100

Ilford FP-4 Preset

Kodak T-Max Preset

From my experience, these three presets are fairly true to expected performance, particularly the Delta 100 and HP-4 presets. I have shot hundreds of rolls of each film, and the preset looks pretty true to the tonal composition, contrast, and detail of those films. The T-Max preset is maybe a little heavy in contrast, but I have only shot a handful of T-Max rolls, so I am not the expert on that film.

Other Presets (Slide & Effects)

As previously mentioned, the RNI film presets pack includes some slide and vintage films, plus some effects. I have only shot one roll of slide film before, and it was such an epic disaster to develop that I quickly gave up and retreated to the safety of C-41 color negative film for those times I want color. 

Here's our starting image, again from the Leica SL Type 601. This is Esa, a Finnish man who leads dogsled teams.

Esa, our dogsled guide. Original image from the Leica SL Type 601

I first played with the Fuji Velvia preset, which is the only slide film I'm remotely familiar with. But as mentioned, my experiment developing it at home resulted in a lot of green film, so the RNI preset was sure to be better!

Fuji Velvia 50 preset

Sure enough, nice pop in the colors and beautiful saturation. This is what Velvia is famous for, and the preset delivered. Next I took the same image and played with some of the effects filters. There are a billion effects, from vignettes, contrast, etc.... but I went for "Vintage Lens 4."

Velvia + Vintage Lens 4 Preset

Apparently "Vintage Lens" means reduce sharpness and add a vignette? Because, as far as I can tell, that's what this effect did.

Choices Galore

RNI All Films 4 is full of film preset choices - so many choices that I couldn't possibly begin to represent an opinion on all of them without a heavy amount of BS'ing involved. And I was overwhelmed with choices before opening the camera profiles, at which point I ran for cover. If you want an endless selection of choices, this is your software, but I'd have to start deleting some of the presents I don't like to de-clutter my workspace.

The Problem....

On the surface, RNI All Films 4 offers a lot of presets in their package, which is good considering it's moderately pricey software at $122 US Dollars. But thats the problem. There is other software with film presets (albeit not as many choices) that you can download for free. So you have to be pretty dedicated to wanting almost every film emulsion known to man to shell out the money, and I suspect many folks won't know the difference. If you've never shot film, would you know the difference between the dozens of black and white film emulsions available? Doubtful. 

Which brings me to the next question - who is the target audience? Surely someone who shoots film regularly will just shoot film and bypass the filters. So I am assuming that RNI intends this for a digital photographer who wants to give their images the film look and feel without actually shooting film. But again, so many choices - are there that many Nikon-Shooting-Joe's who know enough about film to appreciate all the film presets?

RNI has a solution for this - which is the Lite version of the software. For $59, you get a smaller subset of the film set, which I expect will appeal to most photographers. If you are enough of a film die-hard to know the difference between HP-4 and HP-5, then you probably shoot them, and don't need a preset.

Sidebar: This Isn't Film Photography

I need to detour away from the RNI product for a second to explain that film photography isn't this simple. I don't just load some film into my camera, snap away and voila. There are two other chemical processes after I take the photograph that determine the look of the final product - development and enlargement. I won't attempt to expand upon this too much, but let me start by explaining that Ansel Adams wrote three very long and detailed books about this process.

To click a preset button in Lightroom - no matter where that preset came from - is disingenuous to film photography. A film photographer goes through three different chemical process to produce a print - it's not just a button click. I can make a film that is light on contrast have more contrast in the final print by changing how I enlarge the negative. I can lighten or darken a negative by extending development by a matter of seconds or changing the water temperature. 

If you want to make film photographs, buy a film camera and learn about film photography. Using presets won't give you the same experience, and your hands won't smell like fixer!

RNI Mobile Apps

RNI also offers a suite of mobile apps for applying these sorts of presets to images and then sharing them on Instagram, etc. To be honest, this is probably the most interesting application of these presets for me personally - I don't use one click filters for most of my photography, but I will use a quick filter if I'm sharing some cutesy selfie on my personal Facebook page. 

I was not given a trial of the RNI mobile apps to review, but based on the photos and videos on their website and Facebook page, I think RNI has built a nice platform for Instagram'ers to modify and share their iPhone images.  

In Summary

The good:

  • Lots of presets to choose from
  • All major film emulsions represented, including a nice selection of vintage films
  • Easy installation
  • One-click use. Easy for any Lightroom newbie to use

The bad:

  • The full suite is pricey, particularly given some of the free choices on the market
  • Adox Silvermax is missing
  • The number of choices can be overwhelming to someone not familiar with film photography

Would I Buy It? Would I Recommend It?

Personally, I would not buy RNI All Films, though that doesn't have anything to do with the product RNI offers. I already shoot film, and if I want the look of film, I'd just grab a roll and go. Some of the features, like the vintage lens presets, are a bit gimmicky too. Not to sound like an elitist, but I shoot Leica cameras - I spend a lot of money to have my images look good and don't have any intention of introducing flaws to a photograph on purpose. 

Would I recommend it? Hum. Depends. I probably would tell someone looking at the RNI films software to start with one of their cheaper and smaller scale products to see if they like the presets before diving into the deep end with preset mania. Had I used the pro version before becoming familiar with film photography, I think I would have been very intimidated by the number of choices. If you don't know much about film photography, start with one of the Lite versions and upgrade later if you like it. RNI lets you upgrade at a discount, and that's where I'd start. 

If film photography does interest you, then also consider spending $50 on a cheap film camera and a roll of film. You'll learn something and have a ton of fun - more fun than you'll have clicking preset buttons in Lightroom!

Have you used any of the RNI products, like their mobile apps? What was your experience? Leave me a comment!

A Night Amongst the Dogs

Join Scenic Traverse Photography for a ride through the wilderness of Finland on an overnight dogsled safari. 

Have you ever had an experience so incredible that when you sit down to write about it or tell your friends about it, you are at a loss for the words to tell the story?

That’s the predicament I find myself in now…. I am going to attempt to capture in words one of the most incredible experiences of my life, and I’m going to fail miserably. But I appreciate your willingness to give me a chance at success.

Right now I should be packing my bags to spend three weeks in Thailand; however, when I found out that I needed to quickly move back to Washington, DC for work, I had to abruptly change plans and cancel that trip. Eager to have one last European getaway before we left the continent, we booked a week in Finnish Lapland to see the aurora one last time. While some of our trip included the usual staples of nighttime snowshoe hikes and sky gazing for the aurora, we decided to get really adventurous and spend two days on a husky safari. This overnight trip would take us deep into the forest along the Finland / Sweden border, where we would make camp in a rustic cabin and care for our dogsled team.

We were both a bit nervous about this trip - we have previously done 15km dogsled rides, but this was going to be a trek unlike any previous. As we packed out suitcases, we added liberal supplies of snacks, wet wipes, and extra thermal underwear specifically for the unknown that an overnight dogsledding trip brings.

Our trip to Finland started with a bang as we had two great nights of aurora viewing, but we kept thinking about Friday, when we’d meet our dogsled teams and head into the wilderness. When the time came, we packed our overnight bag with a variety of warm clothing and equipment, and set out to meet our guide, Esa.

Our guide for the trip, Esa

Esa is a Finnish man who has been working with dogsled teams for over 20 years. So he knows a thing or two about this adventure. Esa spoke English, though not as well as the Dutch mother / son team who also joined our safari, and gave us basic commands for gearing up and getting ready. 

The first stop was to the equipment shed, where he gave us sleeping bags and liners. Loaded down with even more gear, we trekked into the dogsled pens to meet our teams. 

Mike, the Photo Sherpa, would bring up the rear of the line with his team. I was third in line with my team of four dogs - Celina, Palvy, Oden, and Chicko. As we approached our teams, we saw all the equipment we needed to rig the sleigh waiting for us. First is the sled itself, which had a canvas zipper bag mounted in the frame for carrying our gear. Next were the four harnesses for the dogs and the lines and cables that connect the dogs to the sled. That’s it.

Ropes for rigging our team to the sled

Rigged and ready to ride!

I know I made it sound like a lot of equipment, but at its core, dogsledding is a minimalist sport. It is only when you take into account the wood for a lunch fire, food for the dogs, spare harnesses, food for humans, axes, etc that the sport becomes more gear intensive. Anyway, Esa showed us how to put our dogs into the harness and we built our teams.

Each team has two leaders - mine were Celina and Palvy. These dogs are more ‘mature’ - they are more experienced and you could argue the sleds are self-driving because the dogs know where to go and how to ride these trails. Celina became my pal - her charisma and attitude was addictive. The other two dogs are the muscle. They follow the leaders and help pull the weigh of the sled, though they just follow the dog butt in front of them and don’t need to think about the journey like the leaders.

My team - Palvy, Celina, Odin, and Chicko

Celina was definitely the boss during this whole affair!

Before we get any further we need to discuss the human job in this whole affair. Esa taught us the basics of working the sleigh, but you learn best by doing, and that also applies to dogsledding. The majority of the sled is for hauling gear and cargo- the human cockpit is only a small bit at the end of the sled. There are two runners - wooden slats covered in a rubber grip material, that you put each foot on, and a handle that you cling onto for dear life. 

Between the runners is a metal paddle with two spikes called the brake. When your foot isn’t in contact with the brake, springs keep it retracted and out of the way, but when you need to slow the sled, you move one foot off the runners and onto the brake, pressing down to dig the spikes into the snow to slow or stop the sled. There is no accelerator or gas - you are either braking or you are going. For longer stops, you can deploy a snow hook, which is a fancy looking boat anchor, and tie the sled to a tree so the dogs don’t pull it away. The dogs really don’t care if you are attached to the sled and ready to ride - if they can run, they will, so brake discipline is one of the first things a driver learns…. 

With my team - and two feet on the brake!

There is no steering wheel. Steering the sled is done by 1) praying your dogs won’t have the idea to run head first toward a tree and 2) leaning your body weight between the runners to counterbalance the sled. It works like a motorcycle - you have to lean into turns and curves so the sled doesn't tip over.

Driving basics out of the way, it was time to set off. I stood at the back of my sled, both feet on the brake, nervous with excitement. I won’t lie, when the snow brake and ropes had been removed, I felt a bit like someone had tied me to a rocket ship….. the only thing keeping me from blasting into space was that foot on the brake.

Driver's eye view. Shot while we're riding - and after I'd gotten a little more confident!

Go! Time for mistake #1. We had been told to ease off the brake, but having never experienced that before, it didn’t go well. Easing off was more like “let go” and the dogs rocketed out of the pen at full speed. If you have ever ridden the ‘Rockin’ Rollercoaster’ at Epcot - that’s what it felt like. I had just enough time to hear the other kennel staff yell “BRAKE” before flying out the gate, eyes bulging and knuckles white as a clung on for dear life. 

Oh shit, what have I done? These dogs love to run, and the second they are free, they explode forth. I tapped the brake, trying to get a feel for the right speed, and hoping I would survive until my next birthday. Every time I touched the brake, the sound of the spikes scratching the snow caused one of my dogs to turn and give me a look of disgust. He was probably saying “can’t you see I’m working here” and frustrated I didn’t have more respect for his efforts.

I had a few minutes of riding relative flat to collect my nerves before the next endeavor - hills. On an uphill, you need to kick like a skateboard to help the dogs up the hill. More on this later. On the downhill (with the gravity assist), the sled is faster than the dogs, so you have to brake as the sled can go so fast that you’ll run over the dogs. All of this sounds good on paper, until the execution. Going uphill sucks because it’s slow and requires me to run uphill too - something I’m not good at during the best of situations, never mind when I’m wearing 10 layers of clothes and its snowing. But downhill, which inevitably comes after the exhaustion of uphill, is where death awaits.

On our first downhill, I was convinced I wouldn’t make it to dinner without loosing a few bones and limbs. The track we were riding had been made by snowmobiles that leave the snow bumpy. When I say bumpy, I’m not fooling around. It was like a downhill slalom course covered with a million speed bumps. So here I am, still trying to find my way around the sled, being bounced down a hill trying to keep the sled from running over the dogs.

Remember when I said you have to put a foot on the brake? Putting a foot on the brake - thereby preventing the brutal crushing of your dogs, requires removing one foot from a runner. The result is that your body weight is no longer evenly distributed over the sled, so now the whole contraption wants to lean slightly to one side. 

Dogs doing what they did best!

Please form the mental image of me hanging onto the back of a sled for dear life, with one foot on a runner covered in slick snow and ice, one foot on the brake, leaning slightly and bounding down a bumpy hill. Yikes. I arrived at the bottom shocked more than anything - shocked that not only was I still alive, I still had all four dogs!

In addition to being exhausting, uphill also gave me a chance to dread downhill. On these climbs, my team would often stop pulling, turning to look at me with faces that said “could you have gone on a diet before this trip lady?” I would get off the sled and kick and jog to help push the team up the mountain, still clinging on for dear life in case they had a burst of energy that sent the team shooting up the mountain without me.

My team stopped for a break and tied up to prevent a runaway sled

We experienced a huge diversity in the scenery as we rode - some spots were densely wooded and required keen attention to make sure the dogs didn’t send you flying into a tree, while other portions of the ride took us over frozen lakes, where we could let auto-pilot-dog take over and enjoy the scenery. Likewise, the snow conditions changed as we rode - in places it was nice and flat and well compacted. Other spots were deep and soft, so the dogs looked more like they were swimming than running. These patches of soft deep snow were another death trap in disguise. 

Riding over the frozen lakes

To cool off, the dogs will take a bite out of the snow and rub their face in snow as they run. The best place to find fresh snow for eating is on the edge of the path, where the snow is a little higher from the ground. My team was all too happy to push that even further, forging their own path in the high snow so they could more easily snag a snow snack. If you have ever walked in snow and had your foot sink down further than expected as you step, then you know what is about to happen. Led into the soft snow, the sled starts to tip, and you have to lean with all your weight and might to keep it from flopping unceremoniously off the hard snow track.

Our team pulled us deep into the forest, past trees covered in fresh snow and ice, before arriving at our first stop - a small shelter for having lunch. These shelters are spread along the wilderness and are designed for communal use - they have a small area for sitting out of the weather, a fire pit, and usually an outhouse. I had been so pre-occupied with staying alive on the back of my dogsled that I didn’t realize my own hunger until we stopped at this shelter. After securing the sled dog team, we built a fire and dined on “Finland Hamburger” - a slice of pork, ham and cheese cooked in a cast iron skillet. Remarkably delicious meal, made even better by the surrounding scenery……. 

Lunch and coffee over a fire in the middle of the wilderness

As we ate, the dogs relaxed and cooled off in the snow. To my surprise, they were fairly quiet and mellow during this break - when the dogs are geared up and tied to the sled they get really animated, jumping and barking with excitement to go. Anytime we paused on the trail to re-group the dogs would immediately start howling and barking in protest, but as soon as the brake was released, a blissful silence fell over the team. So to hear the dogs be so calm while we ate came as a surprise, but I quickly learned they are smart enough to understand the immediate potential of running. When we were finished and packing up, they became animated again, knowing that a run was in their future.

Some of the incredible landscape we rode through

We set off down the track, which had turned into a mostly flat frozen lake at this point. All of my senses were in overdrive. I took in the soft sound of pitter-patter paws running in the snow and the smooth crunch of the snow running under my sled. I smelled the ice cold air, which has been tested as some of the cleanest air anywhere in the world. I felt the light undulations of the sled below my feet and realized I was getting more comfortable driving. After 20km of riding, I finally felt like I was in my groove.

After almost four hours of riding, we turned off the frozen lake and into a small piece of property situated on the snow covered banks. I parked my dog sled team and tied off to a tree before looking to Esa for instructions.

The first rule of overnight dogsledding is that you take care of your team before taking care of yourself. Human dinner would come only after the dogs were attended to and fed. We took our stuff off the sled and started to untie our team. It took about 30 minutes to get the sled dog teams broken down - harnesses off, dogs secured, and gear unpacked. These steps were pretty easy - it was a reverse of the process we’d done earlier that day. 

Caring for our team at the end of the day riding

Celina had exhausted from a day of running

Esa summoned us to follow him into the sauna to get “water for dogs.” We followed and were promptly handed a sled, two large buckets, and one smaller bucket. Pointing out toward the lake, Esa said “water for dogs.”

It was a command. Go fetch water for the dogs. Um? We looked at each other bewildered. We had just ridden over the lake - I’m fairly sure it’s frozen….. and there is no running water in the cabin we were staying at. “Do we put snow in the bucket?” we asked Esa. He scowled at us with a look of “no stupid, I said water.” Seeing that we were stumped as to where we should source water that was in a form other than snow, he pointed to the lake again and said “water for dogs.” This didn’t help. One of our teammates asked Esa if there was an axe for us to cut a hole in the ice. Again Esa frowned. Clearly that was wrong. One last time he pointed “water for dogs.” 

At this point we decided to just start walking with our empty buckets - maybe a source of water for dogs would become apparent if we started walking. Uncertain of how we were going to complete this seemingly simple sounding task, we embarked out toward the lake. Then we saw it. On top of the lake, a few feet out from the shore was a metal lid sitting on the ice. Someone had previously drilled a hole through the frozen lake, and we just hadn’t been able to see the access point until walking out to the water. Lifting the lid, we saw a thick layer of ice on the top of the lake, with a hole big enough for us to stick a small bucket through and scoop out water. Got it - water for dogs.

"Water for dog"

We plunged our hands into the freezing water to pull out enough buckets of water to fill our two larger pails. Fully loaded, we worked as a team to haul our water back to land. We chuckled at how stupid we must have sounded to Esa as we questioned his instruction of “water for dog,” but realized then that our instructions didn’t include a destination for our freshly collected water. Knowing the water was for dogs, we decided to haul it to the dogs….. We guessed wrong. A moment later Esa came out yelling that water had to go to sauna, around the other side of the cabin. I wish there had been a camera on my face that instant, because the look of confusion would be worth a million bucks. We had just gotten water for dogs, here are dogs, why are we going to the sauna?

We followed Esa’s instructions and carried the water into the sauna, where he told us the water was going to warm to make “soup for dog.” Equipping us with an axe, he sent us back outside, now to hack at a frozen slab of meat. This slab, which is chicken and pork, is literally a frozen block of meat. So we took turns hacking at the slab with the axe to pull apart the meat into smaller frozen chunks. We placed a small amount of the meat into one bucket and the remainder in a second bucket. Sensing our our confusion, Esa told us that the dogs got a two course dinner - first was “soup for dogs” then came the main entree, which is what most of the meat was for. But before the entree could be served, the now hacked meat needed to defrost in the water that was now warming in the sauna. Things were coming full circle for us, and Esa’s madness started to make a lot more sense. 

Chopping the meat block to make "Soup for Dog"

“Soup for dog” is really a generous term for the meal, as it’s mostly water mixed with a small amount of the meat and some dry kibble. Each dog got one ladle of soup into a bowl, and it quickly struck us as ironic to prepare soup, because dogs didn’t want soup. Almost all of the dogs used their nose, mouth or paw to unceremoniously dump the soup onto the ground, picking out only the kibble and meat slurry. This also explained why the snow in the area was so discolored - it wasn’t urine from dogs, it was dumped over soup from previous dog teams that had frozen. Clearly the dogs are rebelling to soup!

Before the main course, the dogs needed time to digest the soup they didn’t eat and for the main course meat to melt. So Esa gave us another task - chopping firewood for the sauna and fireplace in our cabin. The wood stored on the property was too big to put in the small sauna and fireplace, so again we were handed an axe and given something to chop. We filled the sled with wood, then dragged it to the sauna. I just made the wood chopping process sound fast, but it was slow at best. None of us have a career as a lumberjack waiting for us…..

Firewood - one of the many chores

The chores were never ending, but I found them to be the most fun chores I’ve ever done. At some point Esa handed me a large jug and again pointed to the lake, telling me to get water before adding “safe for drink.” Oh, right. The hole where water for dogs came from is the same hole where water for human would also come from. My confidence in Esa’s statement that the water was safe for us to drink wavered as I eyed the light brown tinge to the lake water. Thankfully Esa would mix the lake water with a juice mix, giving it a red hue and making it easier to forget the origin of the water.

At last the main course was ready, so we hauled the meat stew out to the dogs, who sensed the meal they really wanted was upon them. They howled and stood on their hind legs, jumping with excitement. The main, which had the consistency of a stew, was quickly devoured by all of the dogs. As we finished picking up bowls and cleaning up for the night, the dogs got ready for bed by curling into little balls and laying in holes in the ground covered with straw. According to Esa, even though it was below freezing outside, it was still warm for the dogs, and that made me feel better about having them sleep outside all night.

Stomach full, ready for bed

With the dogs tended to (we kept saying “soup for dog” and “water for dog” all night), we finally retreated into the cabin for some human rest and relaxation. The cabin is rustic, but very nice. There is no electricity or running water, but it had separate bedrooms, a large dining table, a kitchen, and an out house in the back. For me, the out house was the low point, but not because I’m a germaphobe. Using the toilet meant having to brandish bare skin in 20*F / -8*C temperatures! Thankfully waste in the toilet freezes quickly, which helped control any ode. The other problem with using an out house was that it took a lot of work to use the bathroom, so we all tried to wait until the last possible moment before bed to pee, else we had to don 20 layers of clothes for a middle of the night trip.

We sat around the candlelit table socializing and sharing tales of our adventure while Esa cooked up a meal of mashed potatoes, reindeer meat, bread, cookies, crackers, cheese, etc. It was a feast - there was nothing rustic about our dinner! As I reached for a second portion of reindeer meat, I could envision my dogs looking at me the next morning when we got to the first hill - no doubt they would be able to tell that I’d had seconds! 

With a full belly and exhausted from a day of dogsledding, we were ready for bed. I crawled into my sleeping bag and laid down to great dismay. Mike and I had chosen the bunks with the world’s thinnest mattress. In hindsight, we should have gone into the main room where there were more bunkbeds with reasonably sized mattresses, but exhaustion over took me, and I laid down. It wasn’t a very restful sleep - anytime I got cozy, the dogs would start howling outside, jerking me back to reality. By the morning, my back was pretty sore from the non-existent mattress, and back pain coupled with howling dogs only complicated the issue.

The following morning Esa told us that the dogs were unusually loud - as he put it: “Dog no sleep, I no sleep.” That makes two of us. At 2 o’clock in the morning, Esa went out to check on the dogs because they were being so noisy, and he attributed it to one of the dogs in the group that he usually doesn’t work with and belongs to another guide. This dog would start to howl, which got the rest of the dogs feeling animated. But when Esa emerged to make sure everything was okay, the dogs all fell silent…. for a few minutes. 

I was groggy from a very restless sleep, punctuated by sore back and shoulders, but dogs and dogsledding doesn’t wait for the weary! We had another feast of a breakfast and then went out to tend to the dogs before cleaning up and setting out. The dogs need time to digest their morning soup before running, but since we were seasoned pros at making “soup for dog”, it was much faster to serve than the night prior. Again, most of the dogs dumped their soup onto the ground. We moved amongst our teams, patting the dogs on the head and checking that everyone was ready to embark on the day.

Getting geared and ready to ride for Day 2

My team was exceptionally well behaved, though all of the dogs were friendly and personable. The exception was Celina - my leader. She wasn’t just personable, she had so much personality that she might have been part human. Whenever I got near her, she jumped up wagging her tail and with eyes wide hoping you were coming to scratch her ears. She loved to shove her head on my leg and lean against me in a sign of love. She’d stand on her hind legs to greet me, and was always sweet and affectionate with me. Celina was the leader of the team, and I loved having a lead dog that I could bond with so quickly.

Celina (right) was the boss

We cleaned up the cabin and started to pack our sleds to depart, which the dogs recognized. They became more animated and excited seeing us pull out the ropes and harnesses, and were happy to get suited up for the ride. The really smart dogs, like Celina, would even lift their paws as you put the harness on so you could more easily slide it on them - they were experienced pros!

We built our teams again - muscle dogs in the back were connected first, followed by the leaders. In the few minutes between building our sled dog team and the start, the dogs jumped and howled with excitement. The forest echoed with the sound of 20 dogs eager to run. At last, we picked up our snow hooks, let off the brake, and were off. The silence was immediate - the pitter-patter of paws was the only sound.

Esa told us that we’d take the same route back that we took out, because he thought the dogs ran better in the woods and forest than over large open lake, which was the alternative route. I gulped knowing that meant we’d face some of those bastard hills again, but felt far more comfortable on the sled than I had the day previous. Keeping my knees bent and hips relaxed, I absorbed the bumps gracefully, almost having fun with some of them as it started to remind me of a roller coaster. I think this is the key to dogsledding - if you are too rigid and tight, you’ll feel every bump and will be more white knuckled. But if you relax and let your body roll with the sled, it is far more enjoyable. 

Of course there are times you still have to use your body to drive - again my dogs found a high snow drift and brought us dangerously close to tipping as we caught the soft snow. I had one particularly close call with falling off the sled, which happened as I went to move my foot back from the brake to the sled runner. The rubber grip section where my foot normally rests had a big patch of ice on it, and when my foot hit the ice, it slid off. I was in the middle of redistributing my weight back to that foot, so my whole body gave out and I had to hang onto the sled with my arms as I regained my footing. For a brief moment I thought I was going to loose my grip and fly off, but I managed to recover….but if there had been a bump in the snow around that point, I almost certainly would have fallen off on the bump. As it was, Esa remarked his surprise that none of us ever fell off our sleds, and no one wanted to be the person who ruined that record!

On the way back we again stopped for lunch in a shelter, this time enjoying some pork and reindeer sausages over the open fire. We were only a few kilometers from the kennel when we paused for lunch, and the dogs knew it, so they were more restless than before. In their minds there was no reason to stop here, we were almost home! And more doggy soup awaits….

I was filled with sadness as we pulled into the kennel. I could have trekked for several more days with my team - the peace and serenity of being that deep in the forest is a sensation I rarely experience, and I wanted to savor it forever. But my dogs were hungry, and after two hard days of hauling my butt up and down mountains, they deserved some TLC.

Pulling into the kennel, the other dog teams went straight, while my team turned hard right. They have pretty good autopilot, so I let them go for a second thinking they must know another route to get to the kennel. Nope. Turns out one of the dogs on my team belongs to another guide, so he lives someplace else, and he had vetoed the other dogs and was leading us to his kennel. It took a few minutes to get sorted out and untangled, but alas, we were back.

At this point there was no doubt in my head about the intelligence of my dog team, but it was once again put on display as we took them out of their harnesses. They didn’t need to be guided back to their dens and houses - they knew where they lived. We let them out of their harness and they went home naturally. We followed behind serving a last round of dog soup and patting them on their heads for a job well done.

It was with a heavy heart that I said goodbye to my team, especially Celina. As I approached herkennel to say goodbye, she ran over and stood up with her paws on the fence, putting her paw on top of my hand to say farewell. I got a little choked up we linked paw / hand through the fence, and thanked her for taking such great care of me during the past two days.

The whole experience, which has taken almost 8 pages to write up, is one of the most memorable of my life. It was incredibly surreal to experience Finland and the Arctic like that, and the relationship and bond I made with my team in such a short time will stay with me for the rest of my life. 

The photos that appear in this entry were taken with the Leica SL and Leica M 240 camera (with 28mm Summaron lens). I was able to tuck the Leica M into my jacket and pull it out as we rode, snapping some of these photos on the go.

I booked my trip through Artisan Travel: https://www.artisantravel.co.uk

Finnish Architecture

I 100% do not consider myself an architecture photographer - but I do like to capture little details in a local culture that tell you something about the place.

Finland is a fantastic country with so many incredible places to see and explore. The people here are also unlike any others I've met anywhere else in the world - bubbly, optimistic, friendly, and nature lovers. My kind of people!

Anyway, these photos were all taken on a farm - the same farm, as a mini expose into how Finnish homes look. I think seeing these little bits of the architecture tell you more about the culture and the people who live here than a zoomed out photograph of the whole farm. 

What do you think? Can you envision their farm?

To Hell And Back: How Durable is the Leica SL?

In the year and change that I've owned the Leica SL Type 601, I've taken it around the world and tormented the camera in dozens of cruel and unusual environments. From the scorching heat of the Jordanian desert to the -20*C of Arctic Sweden (and then -10*C in Finland), the camera has seen it all.

I recently returned from the Scenic Traverse Road Trip, where I spent a month living in a van and photographing the American landscape with the Leica SL. While it never got as hot (though it did get nearly as cold) as some of our previous adventures with the Leica SL, this trip was the true test for the durability of the Leica SL.

I do not believe in babying a camera. American street photographer Jay Maisel once gave me the following advice when asked the best way to improve as a photographer:

Always carry a camera, it’s easier to take pictures that way.
— Jay Maisel

His advice is dead on, which is why I don't carry my Leica SL in a bag. I don't even use the lens cap. I took the lens cap off the Leica 24-90mm lens as soon as we got to Los Angeles for the start of the Road Trip and I didn't put it back on for 30 days and 3,682 miles. I expect my camera to be ready to shoot when I'm ready to shoot, and I am not going to coddle it along the way.

I don't even use a strap all that often, though that's partially because I don't like the strap attachment points on the Leica SL. There were days where I didn't use a strap to protect the camera from accidental falls and drops.... even when I was hiking in the middle of the river (the Narrows hike in Zion National Park). 

Look ma! No strap as I carry the camera through the famous Virgin River hike in the Narrows. Also, this drysuit isn't the least bit flattering. Photo by Seth Hamel, http://www.zion-photography.com

This is all to say that, despite the camera and lens combination running upward of $12,000, I don't baby it or treat it any nicer than I would a $100 camera. The camera is a tool, designed to be used, and I can't be afraid of it getting a little beaten up.

Here's a quick snapshot of the abuses subjected upon the Leica SL during the Scenic Traverse Road Trip:

  1. Extended exposures to temperatures well beyond the operating range recommended by Leica Camera.
  2. Repeatedly soaked in heavy rain, without any protection or removal of collected rainwater.
  3. Banged against rocks, scraped against rocks, and otherwise brutally impacting rock.
  4. Rolling around the floor of the camera van as we drove, with no protection on the front lens glass.
  5. Completely submerged in fine sand in Death Valley's sand dunes.
  6. Caked with coarse salt in the salt flats of Badwater Basin.
  7. Coated in a fine dust from Arizona / Utah desert sands
  8. Splashed with ice cold river water while hiking the Narrows

Oops..... Hiking in Death Valley, I slid on a sand dune and landed camera first in the fine sand. The camera was 100% submerged, and this was taken while I'm still laying on the ground, but just after digging the camera out. A little shake off and we're back in business. 

So how does the Leica SL hold up to the abuse? In terms of camera function, perfectly. The Leica SL has never once failed to shoot, slowed with startup or experienced any other issue. It is rock solid reliable. You want photo, you get photo. Done.

Arguably it is the function of the camera we're most concerned with. A camera that fails to turn on, stay on, or gets upset by a little weather isn't what a landscape photographer wants to use. So where it matters most, Leica delivers. The weather sealing is remarkably good. I have accidentally dropped my camera in water and totally buried it in sand, and none of that has penetrated the outer protections of the camera body. We spent an hour shooting in a heavy downpour - where the only protection I gave the camera was to use my hat to cover the lens between photos to keep water spots off - and still, it performed perfectly.

It was pouring - really pouring - in Malibu, California as I shot long exposures of waves. I had to use my hat to cover the front of the lens between shots to keep it from getting coated in water drops, but the SL stayed on and exposed the whole time. No problem. 

But that's not to say it's perfect....

Considering how much the Leica SL costs, I am rather disappointed by the durability of the finish. I have lost a ton of paint, including white paint in the 'C' of the "LEICA" logo on the front. There are huge gashes on the side of the body and several dings that expose bare metal. Every edge of the camera has a heavy silver from loss of paint. And today I discovered some of the rubber on the grip is starting to peel and tear. 

I have attached some photos showing the dings in my Leica SL as a reference for what you can expect if you are a user of your cameras. I converted them to black and white to help with the contrast of black paint vs exposed silver metal.....

For comparison, I owned a Nikon D800 for several years and never had the finish on the body get damaged. I didn't treat the D800 any better or worse than the Leica SL, but I was able to resell it in great condition. I have had the Leica SL for 13 months, but it looks like it's been 13 years.

I don't know what Nikon and Canon do for a finish that is different from Leica, but this painted aluminum needs to be revisited before the SL 2.0 is released. The paint on my Leica M240 (black paint) and Leica Monochrom are both holding up better than the SL, so Leica's engineers need to revisit the finish. 

Would I still recommend the Leica SL? As long as you understand this camera will look used if it is actually used, then yes. But if you want a camera that can be put in a box a few months down the road and be sold for "like new" despite some use, then this isn't your camera.

Those who value performance in all weather will find it with the Leica SL. Those who value looks ought to keep shopping.

Cold Days, Geomagnetic Nights

It's time for one last European adventure!

We had to cancel our three week trek through Thailand to support our ongoing move back to the United States, which is why you haven't heard much from me lately. I've been breaking apart my studio and getting the rest of our house in order - my car gets loaded onto a boat next week and our first load of movers is just days away.

But we couldn't leave Europe without sneaking away for one last adventure. So we called the Aurora Zone and asked about being slotted last second into one of their trips into the Arctic. This is a popular time to head north, as it's peak Aurora viewing season, but we managed to snag a week in Finnish Lapland.

There will be lots of photos to come, but I'll start with the highlight, which is the Aurora. We have been very lucky this week to witness several spectacular showings of the Aurora Borealis. The northern lights are the result of solar gases hitting the atmosphere (ok, that's the overly simplified science) and aurora activity can be forecasted several days in advance by monitoring solar winds.

For the layman, scientists use the KP scale to describe the intensity, with 1 being weakest and KP9 being the best. Before this week I had only ever seen KP2/3 displays, which are most common and still pretty spectacular. But this week we had two nights of high intensity activity registering KP5! At KP5, it's considered a minor geomagnetic storm.

In the photos it's hard to tell the difference, but it's very obvious to us as spectators. An Aurora at KP2/3 is nice and green, but not as fast moving, big, or dramatic. At KP5, almost the entire sky is covered, and I have to keep moving my head and camera to where the action is most intense. 

On a slow night, the green bands don't move very fast, but on a fast night, it's like watching a ribbon waving in the sky, and the movement is very easy to see with the naked eye. Our local Finnish guides - the ones who live here and see the Aurora most often - have even been animated and excited by the spectacular displays we've had the past two nights.

Normally, I use exposures of 10+ seconds with KP2/3 storms to get enough color and intensity to make a nice photograph..... however, I have been shooting this week at 4 seconds! 

This is also the first time I've used the Leica SL for photographing the Aurora, and so far, so good! I chose the 21mm Super Elmar Lens for the task, and it's been a great choice. 

Scenic Traverse Photography is Moving!

Hey folks! We've got some big news today...... Scenic Traverse Photography - aka Kristen and the Photo Sherpa - are packing their bags for an international move!

We moved to the United Kingdom in the summer of 2014 knowing there would be a return to the United States 3-5 years later, but it's coming a little sooner than expected. Our time in the UK is being cut short so that we can return to Washington, DC almost immediately. Kristen has been selected for an incredible opportunity, and the time to pack is now!

Most of these international moves happen over the course of 6-8 months (we had 10 for our move to the UK), but we're going to pull this off in a record 5 weeks...... The timing is a little unfortunate as it also means we've had to cancel our 3 weeks in Thailand, something we're super bummed about, but will hope to do again soon.

Don't worry, I'll still be posting photos and updates and we might try to sneak in one last European getaway before heading back. 

As always, new adventures are on the horizon! We've loved living (and traveling) in Europe, but time to return to the motherland and make more great photography there!

I don't exactly have a stockpile of photographs related to moving! But I pulled this iPhone shot out of the archives - this was our moving truck after everything was unloaded. 

I don't exactly have a stockpile of photographs related to moving! But I pulled this iPhone shot out of the archives - this was our moving truck after everything was unloaded. 

The Leica SL Is Not A Perfect Camera (But It Could Be!)

Any frequent readers of ScenicTraverse.com should know that I am an avid user and big fan of the Leica SL Type 601, a mirrorless 24 megapixel camera introduced about a year and a half ago. The Leica SL was the first major production camera from Leica aimed at gaining audience with outdoor and landscape photographers who have traditionally used Nikon and Canon products.

To me knowledge, Leica has never stated that they are trying to explicitly sell the Leica SL to outdoor and landscape photographers, but a look at the specs sheet for the Leica SL and it's clear that is an audience they'd love to get. Just look at the amount of weather sealing and rubber gaskets in the camera!

Anyway, all of this is a long way of getting at the point, which is that Leica needs to issue a firmware update for the Leica SL to fix one of the (if not the) greatest pitfalls of the camera. This is the one thing that keeps the Leica SL from arguably being a contender for 'best outdoor photography' rig:

There is no way to disable the long exposure noise reduction (aka LENR).

LENR is a process that digital cameras use to remove sensor noise from a photograph, resulting in an overall better output image file. During long exposures, it is possible for hot pixels or pixels with bad information to appear, which would degrade the final image. To resolve that, engineers force the camera to take a second black "exposure" of equal length to the first image. Any bad or hot pixels will show up on the second image (which we, the user, never see) and the camera can process that bad information out of the final product. Basically it's a way of subtracting out bad data from an image, which sounds like a good thing.

A 2 minute exposure of Joshua Tree National Park - that took 4 minutes to get.

In practice, this means that if you take a 15 second exposure of waves crashing on a beach, you need to wait 30 seconds (15 seconds for original exposure + 15 seconds of LENR = 30 seconds) before you have that single photograph. 

So what's the problem? This is less of an issue for daytime photography, but most landscape and outdoor photographers also will point their camera to the night sky for star trails and galaxy shots, which is where LENR becomes a problem.

Here's why: Let's say I want to shoot some star trails, and I want to create an image where the stars curve and bend into a circle following the rotation of the earth. An image like this one.....

Star trails over Badwater Basin in Death Valley National Park, California

See those nice long star streaks in the sky? To get something like that, you need to photograph the nights sky for an extended period of time - upwards of 30 minutes. 

The traditional technique to take a photograph like this was to put it on a tripod, click the shutter open for 30 minutes or more, and wait. But what if a car drives past and puts some light into your image, or a strong breeze knocks the tripod, or a plane flies through the scene, creating a straight line of light? Your long exposure is ruined, and you have to start again. With the improvement of digital post-processing techniques, nighttime photographers now often shoot a series of shorter images (20-30 seconds on average) over a long period and stitch them together in Photoshop, creating the same star trail effect.

The technique of shooting a series of hundreds of images that get stitched together is becoming more popular, as it also lets you throw away any single exposure where a plane, car, or other light source disrupts the image without compromising the final result.

But here's where we get back to the issue with the Leica SL. Most other professional cameras let you disable LENR, and instead take a single "black" exposure with the lens cap in place during the shooting sequence. That file is imported into Photoshop with the rest of the series and Photoshop does the noise reduction processing, rather than the camera. The benefit to this approach is that the camera can spend more time shooting the stars, and you can get seamless star trails shots.

What do I mean by seamless? It doesn't take a very long exposure before a tiny bit of smearing (aka rotation) starts to show up in a star photograph. The exact time it takes before the rotation of the stars becomes visible in the image depends on a host of other factors, but the gist is that for a camera like the Leica SL with the 24-90mm f/2.8 lens, it's in the range of 20 seconds. Let's say I shoot 20 second exposures for 30 minutes and then process the files in Photoshop. Because of the LENR, I will really only have one exposure every 40 seconds, and only 15 minutes of rotation for that 30 minutes of imaging. In other words - half the star rotation would be missing!

Leica's engineers will argue that forcing LENR results in an overall cleaner image product, and as a company that expends considerable effort into creating the very best image quality, I appreciate their interest in preserving that; however, the inability to disable the LENR for nighttime shooting and do the processing in Photoshop means the Leica SL is ill suited for serious nighttime photography work.

I used some Photoshop magic to create this image- the files were all taken with the Leica SL, but I needed to be a little heavy handed with the edits to create the final product.

During the course of the Revolutions project, I photographed the sky and night at least a dozen separate occasions, and came to determine that, for now, getting star trails with the Leica SL requires a good amount of Photoshop Magic to fill in the gaps of star trails. While this cover-up technique creates some pleasing images, it's not the same as having the real thing - as having all the data.

So Leica, please publish a future firmware update and allow users to temporarily disable the LENR. Feel free to put a disclaimer in the menu warning people not to mess with the option unless they really understand the consequences. But if you make that firmware change, then the Leica SL really can compete for the title of 'best outdoor and landscape photography camera'.

Review: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About an Escape Campervan

This will be a living blog post - so if there is something I didn't cover, send me an email and I'll update it! Last updated: 7 Jan 2017

Be sure to watch this video tour of the van that I recorded, as it covers some of the same information and provides a visual to accompany this!

Take a tour of our Escape Campervan - home to the Scenic Traverse Road Trip for the past month. More information about the trip, including photos and other videos can be found at www.ScenicTraverse.com

Greetings! Chances are, you Googled and came to this article, which professes to be everything you need to know about Escape Campervans. That is a half truth. Really the article should be titled “Practical things that people who are thinking of renting an Escape Campervan ought to know” - but that seemed a bit long.

Anyway, welcome. Let me first introduce myself for the uninitiated in the group - I’m Kristen Meister, a professional photographer and Scenic Traverse is my domain. In December 2016, my husband, Mike (aka Photo Sherpa) and I rented an Escape Campervan for a month, and drove over 3,682 miles in it. We spent 27 nights sleeping in the van, and we feel that has earned us ‘expert’ status in the art of road tripping in one of these vans. We rented the Mavericks model, which is the bigger of the vans rented by Escape, and is built in a Ford chassis. 

Van selfie! This is the van when it's totally empty of anything else....

Who should rent a camper van from Escape?

Other than the obvious qualifiers of someone who likes to be outdoors, explore, and isn’t afraid of a little adventure….. for a trip of this length, I would not recommend more than two adults in one of these vans. In the summer, if we had the roof top tent thingy equipped, I could argue that one or two other passengers could attend, but it’d get really cozy, really fast. As it is, we’ve nearly maxed out the usable storage space in the van with just the two adults.

Our van, which we nicknamed "Sulley" on Malibu Beach

What is the van? How does this work?

This is basically a 12 passenger van - like the airport shuttles - modified into a camper. It has a convertible bed/sitting area, a pull out kitchen, and enough creature comforts to feel homey for a long trip. You don’t need special driver’s licenses to drive one.

We picked up our van in Los Angeles, California, and the awesome staff was happy to let us choose from an assortment of vans on the lot. Since we were going to be gone so long, I prioritized van ‘newness’ and tire tread above all else. We found a nice van with only 77,000 miles and almost brand new tires painted in an Avatar theme - which happens to be my favorite movie - and were set.

After a quick introduction to the van, we moved in and were off….. 

Sulley, the neon mushroom van!

What does Escape provide?

For the money, a rental from Escape is an extremely good value. Not only are you renting the van, but they include a lot of the basic gear you’d need anyway, which minimizes overhead for trip planning. They include (in no particular order):

Kitchen:

  1. A small pull-out drawer refrigerator. If you are well organized and play Tetris, then you can easily fit 4-5 days worth of food in there. We even managed some craft brews amongst the meals. See note below on electricity.
  2. A standard propane gas two burner stove and two tanks of propane. 
  3. Some basic pots and pans, cups, cutlery, cutting board, and a towel. 
  4. A sink that is vacuum pump operated. The fresh water tank on board holds a little more than 5 gallons. There is also a dump tank for holding sink waste water. This isn’t sewage - just sink water.
  5. A battery powered light useful for cooking in the dark (this is mounted to the roof, so you can’t use it around the campsite). 

The back of the van opens to reveal the kitchen area. The bottom right drawer is a small fridge. There is a stove on the left side.

Fully stocked with a week of groceries and the all important craft brews (don't drink and drive, enjoy your brew after parking for the night!)

The pull out camp stove

Electricity

  1. There is obviously the normal car battery deal to start the car. We can skip that.
  2. What you care about is the plug-in electricity and the solar electricity. Let’s start with solar…. on the roof, above the crew area of the van, is a solar panel that collects sun and charges the onboard battery that powers the refrigerator and cooking lamp. This is all done automagically! You will hear the faint sound of the compressor for the fridge turn on in the middle of the night, but it’s incredibly quiet. 
  3. Depending where you camp, you may have the option for plug-in power. Essentially they provide a long extension cord and a plug adapter (should you need it for the campsites). You have to crack a window and run it in that way. They also provide a power strip so you can charge cameras, laptops, phones, etc. It also powers the heater….. (see staying warm). 
  4. There are three cigarette lighter things in our van - two up front and one in the passenger area (near the table). A cigarette to USB lighter adapter thingy is a must-have, and Escape sells them for like $5.
  5. We used a power inverter to plug in laptops and other electronics and charge them via the 12V cigarette lighter for the days when electricity was not available at the campsite.
Ok, not the best photo ever, but you can see the solar panel on the roof of the van

Ok, not the best photo ever, but you can see the solar panel on the roof of the van

Running the extension cord up in the window of the suicide doors

The all important (at least in winter) space heater. Provided by Escape

The all important (at least in winter) space heater. Provided by Escape

Bedding

  1. The camper van comes equipped with a flip down convertible bed / dining area. When in bed configuration, it’s roughly the size of a queen bed. 
  2. Escape provides some linens for use in the van - thats two pillows, a fitted sheet, and a comforter / blanket. They are clean and 100% came from Ikea.  
The empty main seating area. The bench folds flat (like a futon), the table breaks down, and there are spare cushions (not seen) that create the final bed.

The empty main seating area. The bench folds flat (like a futon), the table breaks down, and there are spare cushions (not seen) that create the final bed.

Staying warm

  1. This was a great concern of mine, particularly since we went during the winter and it often hovered near freezing at night. Not to worry - Escape will send you with another comforter for the bed, and you have a small space heater that can be used at campsites with electricity. We found that placing it in the kitchen area and using the auto thermostat mode was very helpful - it kept the camper comfortable at night by automatically turning on and off. 
  2. I would also recommend traveling with layers for bedtime. This is particularly handy when you inevitably have to pee at 1am and need to leave the warmth of the van.
  3. Finally, we also brought our camping sleeping bags in compression sacks and a small blanket to add to the warmth.

Spaghetti dinner on a cold night. You can see the rope system over my shoulder that we rigged to hang lanterns and other small oddities.

Storage

  1. This was my greatest stress before we arrived. Would we have enough storage space? We actually rented the roof top storage box and ended up not needing it, so we never had it mounted. 
  2. There are a few tricks to storage - the first is to pack into luggage that collapses and can be left at their depot. Second, you get a huge storage space if you stack the small thin pillows for the bed. Third, you have a big storage bin behind the kitchen. And finally, collapsable cloth storage buckets are your friend.
It may not look very organized, but the buckets on the ground under the table helped hold all our cameras and electronics. There are similar bins behind the couch holding our clothes.

It may not look very organized, but the buckets on the ground under the table helped hold all our cameras and electronics. There are similar bins behind the couch holding our clothes.

This is why I had to get organized - thats all my camera gear for the trip!

This is why I had to get organized - thats all my camera gear for the trip!

It may not look it, but the van is super clean. The orange towel on the ground served as a doormat. You can also see where we stacked the cushions on the right to create more storage area in the wooden box below.

It may not look it, but the van is super clean. The orange towel on the ground served as a doormat. You can also see where we stacked the cushions on the right to create more storage area in the wooden box below.

Modifications and Van Hacks

Here are a few recommended ‘hacks’ for your van - designed to help make living in it as comfortable as possible. Have a hack I didn't list? Email me and I'll add it (and give you credit!)

  1. Get organized. Seriously. We brought (and then bought) a few collapsable storage boxes and that made a huge difference. Walmart sells these for a few bucks each - they are a god send. We stored clothes, camera gear, food… you name it. The buckets make it easy to move things around the van - like moving daytime gear into the front seat during nighttime bed configuration.
  2. Buy $10 in egg crate mattress toppers for the bed. As is, the bed is very comfortable. But you can feel the seams where the pillows merge, and a quick foam topper will resolve that issue and make it even more awesome.
  3. You can bring some simple rope and craft a rigging line in the back to hold lanterns, keys, watches, headlamps, etc at night. We used what is called “550 cord” and is sold at most outdoor stores. Ours was an X shape and made it easy to have lights and accessories at hand.
  4. REI and outdoors stores sell microfiber towels that are nice and small. We had two in the back for drying dishes, one in the main area that served like a doormat, and one in the front to wipe condensation from the windshield in the mornings.
  5. Clothespins are great for helping to keep the blackout curtains in the van closed.
  6. Bring a laundry bag to shove dirty clothes in, as that helps keep the clothes piles organized
  7. Use a spare plastic grocery bag as a trashcan for the front driving area
  8. Download some audio books to listen to during your drives. 
  9. Leave the freshwater tank drain opened at a slight crack as you drive, so the water can slowly drip out. 
  10. Buy a cheap pair of gloves (like dishwashing gloves) to keep your hands clean as you handle the water tank drain.
  11. If it is well below freezing overnight, the water tank can freeze. If there is something you want to keep from becoming frozen, pull it out and place it near the heater overnight. This was never really a huge problem - we just had to defrost our Dawn dish soap and some jars of Nutella.
  12. Keep your van clean, because random strangers will ask to look inside. We were stopped at gas stations, parking lots, and at restaurants and asked to show off the inside. Don't have a pair of underwear sitting someplace you don't want people to see, because they will peer in the windows in the parking lots. It's alright, it's also good security. No thief will break into a van that has that much attention.
  13. In the summer, I would recommend renting an extra table from Escape so you have more workspace. In the winter it was too cold to ever eat outside the van.
  14. If you don't need the extra seating space, you can pull one of the bed cushions out of the storage box and double stack them, allowing you to have a ton more storage space (see the video above to understand this).
  15. The van will get roughly 16 miles per gallon, which isn’t bad, all things considered. I know this isn't a 'hack' but it's still good to know!
  16. If you are traveling for any length of time, you will need more propane tanks. We used four during the month.
  17. Having a pair of spare shoes besides hiking boots is nice for driving and those 1am bathroom trips. We had a pair of slip-on TOMS.
  18. It pays huge dividends to be organized. I cannot stress this enough. We carried a moleskin book that contained our itinerary, locations of grocery stores, recipes, addresses, and trip diary. 
  19. Tools like carabiners, mutli-tools, and pocket knives have about 100,000 uses in a van like this. We used a carabiner to hang the car keys up at night so we didn’t loose them amongst all the bedding.
  20. You can run the extension cord in the small window on the suicide door, or up the back through the rear doors. 
We had a set of Yahtzee for playing some road trip games

We had a set of Yahtzee for playing some road trip games

We had to add air to the tires when the cold weather dropped the tire pressure. Most gas stations will have pumps, but it's another reason to have some quarters on hand.

We had to add air to the tires when the cold weather dropped the tire pressure. Most gas stations will have pumps, but it's another reason to have some quarters on hand.

That's five days of groceries. We paid a little extra at stores to buy pre-chopped veggies and fruits to save on the amount of prep and clean up required for meals.

That's five days of groceries. We paid a little extra at stores to buy pre-chopped veggies and fruits to save on the amount of prep and clean up required for meals.

Recommended packing / shopping list

OK, this is a stretch. I’m not going to tell you to pack underwear - this list is the extras that you’ll want or need to make your trip awesome.

  1. Clorox disinfecting wipes for the kitchen
  2. A collapsable water jug (many water fill stations wont have a hose for you to use to fill the van’s tank).
  3. A set of small quick-dry travel towels. We used two in the kitchen for drying pots and one in the front to wipe condensation off the windows. They will get fogged up overnight as you sleep.
  4. Your own set of pots / pans / dishes. If you like to cook, and if you already own a set of camping pots and pans, you may want them. What Escape provides is fairly basic. We had a set from REI that was two big pots and a skillet, plus a smaller pot for boiling water for coffee, etc. 
  5. Your own set of plates and bowls - again, what they give is fine, but we already had some of this and it was worth bringing. For instance - we have Yeti cups and tumblers with lids that were great for drinking hot coffee / tea.
  6. Your own kitchen knife. I bought one at REI for $15 that was awesome. The one they give isn’t very sharp, and if you are cooking and chopping a lot, you’ll appreciate your own.
  7. A lighter / matches
  8. If it will be cold, suggest bringing a sleeping bag to use with their blankets.
  9. You may want an extra pillow - we got ours for $3.44 at Wal-mart
  10. Lanterns and lights. They don’t supply anything besides the back cooking one. Headlamps and little lanterns are a must-have.
  11. Basic cooking tools - an extra spatula, slotted spoon, bottle opener, chip clips, measuring cups…..
  12. Trash bags. We got small ones in a 36 pack that let us throw away the trash every day and keep the camper smelling lovely.
  13. Roll of quarters to do laundry
  14. Clothes pins (in case you want to do some sink laundry, or for the aforementioned hack)
  15. A multi-tool 
  16. Car GPS
  17. Laundry bag
  18. Water bottles
  19. Aux input cable for the stereo
  20. Cord / rope for a rigging system
  21. Laundry detergent and dryer sheets
  22. Paper towels
  23. Dish soap
  24. Spare batteries for lanterns, flashlights, cameras, etc
  25. Wet wipes
  26. Hand sanitizer
  27. Aluminum foil 
  28. A small tarp (in case it rains and you want to cook, you can rig it over the kitchen area)
  29. Flip flops (to wear in the showers at campgrounds)
  30. Towels
  31. Re-usable grocery bags (California charges per bag!)
A pair of microfiber towels from REI for drying dishes

A pair of microfiber towels from REI for drying dishes

Your imagination is the limit when it comes to van dinners. We steamed a pot of crab legs and shrimp, along with drawn butter and a local California wine!

Your imagination is the limit when it comes to van dinners. We steamed a pot of crab legs and shrimp, along with drawn butter and a local California wine!

Have fun! Van life is incredible, and will take you to some amazing places!

Have fun! Van life is incredible, and will take you to some amazing places!

What did I forget? If you have rented a van, send me your hacks to include!