Late September is here already and my thoughts are turning to the upcoming cool season with its myriad of photographic opportunities in the forest. Whilst my favourite season to be in the forest is still the wet season, I cannot deny that the cool season and then the hot season, that follows in Thailand, bring a wealth of photographic opportunities with better and more light in the forest.
It is with these coming seasonal changes in mind that my thoughts turn to reviewing and improving my forest kit for days in the deeper forest in a temporary blind or hidden by natural cover.
Over the years I have chopped and changed kit and made adjustments, additions and subtractions - aiming for that never to be achieved grail – the perfect day kit. And so this year I am once again reviewing my gear for my day long blind sessions deep(er) in the forest. Last year saw many new pieces of kit as I adjusted and then adjusted even more to suit my own unique needs. One of my major adjustments last year was the need to go lighter on everything. This was driven by two factors a) I had started using much longer and heavier lens/camera combinations and b) age and middle aged spread was making long days with big pack weights much harder on my poor body.
Last year, on the photographic gear side, I had somewhat stumbled over to largely using the Nikon 600 VR II with a D800 and a Gitzo S5 with fluid head for my day hides. This combination could get me exceptional quality however, when added with day kit essentials I simply could not carry the set-up any distance, it was literally a painful proposition. I still needed the reach of the long lens though because a lot of the potential opportunities in my own preferred situation are small tree dwelling mammals or canopy dwellers.
I did manage to greatly reduce the discomfort of hiking with a long lens rig by looking at what the weight saving alternatives were and achieved a considerable weight advantage with some key gear changes. It was at a big disadvantage to my wallet though!
My revised standard hide gear became a Nikon 500 FL, a Gitzo 3 with only 2 leg stages and the fabulous multipurpose “uniqueball” ballhead. I have incurred a weight gain on the body side though as I moved to a Nikon D5 for its ISO and speed advantages, but the whole kit now is much lighter and therefore comfortable for hiking distances with, as well as being easier to set up, break down and repack.
But rather than just camera equipment it’s the whole day kit/gear combination that really makes for a good forest experience, when hiking to a day hide. And right now I am refining and adding to my day kit ready for a new “season”. It’s still an enjoyable work in progress but for the sake of interest and sharing here are some of my newer current personal preferences:
Backpack. I have a small room full of old backpacks – testament of my trying to find my own backpack nirvana over the years. And last year I finally found my own little piece of backpack heaven. At a little store in Amarin plaza I was introduced to my first Blackhawk backpack, the Blackhawk Ultra-lite 3 (Baht 4500) day pack to be exact. If you have ever admired a 5.11 tactical pack but then been horrified as you try to lift one, then Blackhawk may just be for you. A fantastically rugged but feather light Molle system backpack that allows you to get commonly used kit onto the outside of the pack so the main compartment (of a total of 3) can be used exclusively for camera gear (or anything else you may wish). And I have not found anything that I cannot squeeze into this relatively small pack's main compartment including the Nikon 600 VR, camera and accessories.
At first I was in two minds about the Molle system but am now a total convert, it has enabled me to load 2L of water, essential day gear, chair/stool, bear spray, monocular, GPS and tripod, all safely and securely to the outside of the pack. This makes them easily accessible without entering the pack as well as organized in regular positions.
This season I am trying the newer version of the pack (priced at USD 130) courtesy of a friend who picked it up in the states as well as a cheap no-name molle stuff sack that clips to the bottom of the pack for holding my camo screen/nets.
Blind/nets. No change this year, I am sticking with the good old “Hunters Specialties” camo leaf blind scrim. Incredibly lightweight and folds down extremely small making it easy to carry. I have para-cord attached so I can just make a quick stretch blind or alternatively just use the scrim to cover myself. I do occasionally use a pop up blind but find them restrictive for my own preffered uses.
Chair/stool. Lightweight but sturdy for my large frame are essential. After trying a host of cheap stools I have eventually, happily, settled with the “walkstool” for short forays and recces but it’s not comfortable enough a full day for me, 3 hours is about my limit with this stool.
Being comfortable in a hide for the whole day is a major plus, it makes the day so much more enjoyable if one is comfortable. I have gone through all of the locally available folding camping chairs and found just one that I have really found comfortable but its downfall was it's size which made carrying it a hindrance to hiking. I had tried the “Helinox Chair One” last year but it was a disaster for me as it was too low and restrictive – I kept getting stuck in one position and then could not reach the camera quietly.
This cool season I will be trying the “Helinox Sunset Chair”. I picked on up a few months ago and have tried it a couple of times and it is a good mix of comfortable as well as portable. When it’s broken down it handily just clips to the side of my Blackhawk pack.
Coverage. As anyone who uses a hide in Thailand’s forest knows, one of the major issues one faces is the annoyance of sweat bees. It’s even more of a concern for me because I have an allergic reaction to sweat bee stings. So even during the hot season I maintain 100% body coverage when hiding – I just sweat and bare it. The majority of stings come to the hands and lower arms and I have had a hard time keeping these extremes covered whilst still maintaining the ability to have tactile feel with the camera controls. This has now been resolved, for me at least, by “Hunters Specialties” who now have an excellent unlined spandex glove that has a high cuff. Now I can be fully covered whilst being able to operate the camera controls through these gloves as well.
I am sure during the coming cool and hot seasons I will continue to attempt to refine this collection but for now I have a day rig that I can fairly easily hike a few kilometers with, equipped with everything I need to set up a hide in the quieter depths of the forest. Nirvana.
Notes: All of the items mentioned herein are available on ebay or on your local amazon website
Uniqueball can be purchased directly from the manufacturer.
When using the Blackhawk ultralight with a 600 mm lens I recommend to fit a backplate into the rucksack's backplate pouch
Paul Thompson's photographs can be seen at ThailandWildlife.com