noun mountaineer \?mau?n-t?-?nir\
1: a native or inhabitant of a mountainous region
2: a person who climbs mountains for sport

When I was a kid, I was a mountaineer, and I spent all my time studying mountaineering. You’d be surprised how much thought has gone into mountaineering. I learned techniques for everything from how to walk down a hill to how correctly use Velcro. Mountaineers are manic about their equipment, and some of those skills have served me well in Photography, too. Here are three essential habits surrounding bags that I think you need to form to both keep your gear safe and maximize efficiency.

If You Close the Bag, Lock the Bag

Dropping equipment off the top of a cliff is not only expensive, but it may be hazardous for someone below, and it may leave you without essential tools. Well, dropping camera gear is all of those things, but much more expensive. To avoid it, mountaineers always lock a bag if they close it, and photographers should do the same. That means zipping it closed or buckling it closed. If the flap on the bag is left open, that’s ok because it’s clearly open, but if the flap is closed but not locked then you’re asking for trouble when someone grabs the bag by the handle on top and all the gear goes spilling out. No matter how many times you assist me on a shoot, you’ll still hear me say it, and it’s a reminder for me as much as you.


Last year I was on a field workshop in Valley of Fire with Richard Harrington when a student asked me to hand him his bag. It was after dark, and the bag was sitting on a picnic table with the flap closed. I lifted it up and out spills a Canon 5D mkIII with a $2000 lens attached. Fortunately, I caught the camera on my foot just before it hit the ground and nothing broke. Another time, long ago, my photography and mountaineering worlds crossed paths when I was rock climbing with a friend in Little Cottonwood Canyon. One of us forgot to zip a bag shut, and my Pentax K1000 went tumbling down the cliff and landed in the scrub oak a few hundred feet below. In those days, the cameras were much tougher, though; I think the camera knocked a chunk out of the cliff as it fell. It’s simple to avoid these problems: If you close the bag, lock the bag.

Zippers to the Middle

It seems like mountaineering tips are all based on a person sitting on the side of a cliff in the dark. Well, I shoot in the dark frequently for nightscapes and photowalks, and I try to reach my gear in the backseat so often that this tip saves me frustration. All you do is always leave your zippers to the middle, not on the far side. Most camera bags have two zippers for the main compartments so you can open it either way. If you always leave your zippers right in the middle then you always know where they are and you can open the bag more quickly, or without looking. Again, this tip is important in extremes–but good habits are made during normal times, and they save your bacon during the extreme times.


Buckle the Buckles

If you have a broken buckle in the wilderness, it can be a major inconvenience–especially if your hip belt buckle breaks since that belt takes the weight off your shoulders and makes hiking with a load bearable. Same goes for photo bags, but these days the buckles are all proprietary and far fewer people can sew their own straps. The number one way buckles break is by getting stepped on. If you simply buckle the two sides together, though, then it’s almost impossible to break by stepping on them. So whenever you take off your hip belt, or open a flap, lock the buckles back together and save yourself a backache. Sheesh, knowing us these days, a single broken buckle will probably motivate you to get a new bag!


Good Habits=More Spending Money

If you make these simple practices into habits, I guarantee it’ll save your gear from breaking, and not replacing broken gear means more money to spend on things like photobooks from Photofocus Authors, including Brian Matiash and Nicole Young’s latest titles.