Environmental Photographer Kyle Obermann Shares His Best Packing Tips for Photographers and Explorers

Photographer Kyle Obermann
Photo credit: Yang Biqing

I’m an environmental photographer and explorer. I spend most my time in western China trying to build support for local conservation groups and change the way outsiders think of China’s wild. I’m originally from Austin, Texas, so even though I spend most of my time in the high mountains on the eastern edge of the Himalaya, I am still very nostalgic for a good, scalding hot summer and a romantic piece of empty desert! Not everything is ever perfect, but I’m also very in love with life!

Photographer Kyle Obermann

How and why did you get into environmental exploration?

I’ve always loved nature, cared about protecting it, playing sports, and making art. So I guess you could say all the ingredients for what I am doing now were there in the past, but it took one of the most miserable and transformative years of my life to get me out the door and put the dream together. My first year out of college, I found myself making near six figures with a private driver, living in 5 star hotels in China and Hong Kong, expensed meals, the whole expat package nine yards.

Still, I hated my work and almost instantly realized that while money is a tool, it by no means gets you any closer to happiness. So I stayed miserable for a year, saved every penny I could, made plans and networked, and left after 12 months to do what I do now. If it wasn’t for that one horrible year, I don’t think I would have ever been pushed to figure it out.

Photographer Kyle Obermann

How do you prepare for your adventures?

Out here in western China, if you want to escape the hundreds of millions of tourists, you have to get off the trail (literally). These days I plan most of my adventures by staring at and toggling angles on Google Earth around big patches of white (cool mountains).

To get in shape, I usually run but I’ve had a foot injury that’s also prevented me from doing much of that these last few years so I also design my own workouts that I can do outside the gym (and in public places like parks, alleys, etc.) that stimulate the body like climbing up mountains.

How do you finance your adventures?

I’ve been very blessed to have sponsors for the year of exploration I am currently on. The North Face keeps me clothed, WildChina Travel helps out with a bit of funding and press, and my biggest supporter is the charity arm of a finance group based in China called, SAIF Partners. SAIF really cares about the environment over here and their support allows me to do what I do without worrying about the finances. So thankful!

Photographer Kyle Obermann

How do you eat and sleep on the road?

I probably split my time living with local conservation groups who host me on site and in guesthouses in cities where I can shower and have diverse food choices again. The food over here is so good and cheap, I don’t cook. In fact, the only meals I can cook well are usually inside a tent vestibule (I’d like to improve upon that someday, btw). Out in the wild, I sleep in a North Face Fuse Mica 2 tent, an old Ketly Cosmic Down 20F bag, and cook with a MSR Pocket Rocket. Love all three of those although the bag seems to be losing its warmth.

Photographer Kyle Obermann

How do you bring your things with you?

I’m on the road for a whole year, and need to carry everything with me from a laptop, a tent, and nicer clothes for meetings in the city and talks, so I have a lot. Most everything fits in my North Face Base Camp XL Duffel.

When I’m hiking, I use my GoLite Jam Pack (2lbs, 55L), but unfortunately GoLite is no longer in business. The LJam Pack is frameless, and I can do anything with it up to seven days in the wilderness. At seven days, it’s just about to explode at the seams, but I rarely think about buying other packs and adding more weight on my back. Still, sometimes it can be annoying having to take out everything just to reach the sleeping bag at the bottom when all your friends’ packs have a convenient zipper pouch at the bottom. It’s preference, and most people choose fancy framed packs. When I bought the GoLite, I was on a tight budget ($60), committed to trimming down gear to make up in added weight of camera gear, and I’ve made do in the harshest of expeditions and never looked back.

Photographer Kyle Obermann

How do you organize things in your bags?

Before I go on a trip and pack, I like to meticulously lay out everything on a nicely-made bed. This is the only realistic way I can be 95% sure I’m not forgetting something. After that, it’s much more “throw everything in” style. When I’m packing my backpack for a trip, I’m careful though, and its heaviest things at the bottom, clothes in Sea to Summit or Osprey dry bags, and camera in my waterproof Ortlieb bag. I also carry around one of those massive black trash bags that go in large trash cans with me that I can use as a waterproof pack liner if the weather or water gets really rough.

How do your bags and gear hold up?

Wonderfully! My Golite’s right shoulder strap is getting weak at the seam because I have a bad habit of swinging it over that shoulder every time I put it on, but other than that all my gear is worn, but in good shape. In China, it’s also super easy and cheap to fix things on the street – I fixed that seam in my bag with new stitching for $1 and re-glued the soles to my Chaco’s for another $1 just the other day. Repairing gear is the way to go! One thing I am still looking for is a perfect pair of gloves that is super warm, durable enough to scramble sharp rocks, waterproof, and thin enough to operate my DSLR.

Photographer Kyle Obermann
Photo credit: Phillip Guebert

Any gear you wish you had brought with you from the beginning?

I’m considering investing in a F-Stop or Peak Design bag or camera carrying system. The Ortlieb bag is great, but it always hangs by your side like a purse and can get very in the way when mixed climbing. I’m also on the lookout for a great rain cover for my camera so that I can still use it in the mountains when the weather turns south – right now I have a homemade cover, a thick plastic bag with a measured 77mm hold cut in it for a lens, but it may be time for an upgrade.

What has been your best adventuring purchase below $100?

Hands down my Golite backpack. I bought it five years ago for $60 and it’s been all over the US, New Zealand, and China from 0 to 18,000ft. Even though they are no longer commercially available, I would pass on this piece of advice for adventurers on a budget – Don’t think you need to go for the big brands or fancy suspension systems to explore comfortably. Dig deep online into smaller brands and hunt for sales. Pack your pack well, do back and core exercises. Also, pro tip: don’t be afraid to buy a pack of the opposite sex. Inquire first, but sometimes there is no difference other than color. That’s how I bought my Golite pack – it was on sale, they were out in “men’s,” so I bought a larger “women’s” pack which was exactly what I needed.

Photographer Kyle Obermann

What kind of photos do your prefer to shoot?

I like to shoot candid’s that show the relationship between people and nature. Especially when we talk about conservation, we often shoot people as separate from nature – turning our lens on wildlife, landscapes, etc. But, the reality is that humans are an inseparable piece of nature and the conservation story too. To be specific, I’m in love with the mountains, and I hope that my photos reflect one of my favorite quotes from Norwegian Philosopher Arne Naess: “The smaller we come to feel ourselves compared to the mountains, the nearer we come to participating in its greatness.”

Photographer Kyle Obermann
Photo credit: Wensidingzhou

What is your best advice for other adventurers?

Passion. You need a fire for what you do and constantly remind yourself why you do it. The reality is that “adventuring” is less than half as romantic as we make it out be on social media and you need real grit to get through the challenging moments – like when you’re wet and stuck in a freezing forest of bamboo whipping you in the face while trying to avoid leeches falling on you from the canopy all the while trying to film with a waterlogged DSLR. That was my low point this month. It was only because I really believed in what I was doing that I was able to pull through.

Adventuring is fantastic, but it’s not necessarily any more romantic than any other job – just different. Instagram shouldn’t be your inspiration, you should be. You do you.

Photographer Kyle Obermann

What will the future bring?

To quote our newest President from a YouTube video compilation: “China, China, China, China, China.” China’s wild is inspiring, magnificent, and just like their economy it offers boundless opportunities for exploration and adventure. That being said, I’d like to connect more with the US so that I can really be a bridge between outdoors and conservation communities in the US and China and hopefully, one day, the world. I want to change the focus of exploration from ourselves, the explorers, to protecting the lands we are exploring. Global warming doesn’t care that you climbed that virgin, glaciated summit. It’s going to melt it to pieces leaving nothing for your children or theirs. It’s time for not just scientists, but explorers to seriously start doing something about that.

Visit Kyle Obermann on his website and follow him on Instagram

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  1. Kyle you’re a rock star and you’re making 萬老師 proud. Keep on dreaming, dude.

  2. Kyle, that life sounds like a dream to me too. After also working that miserable expat job now for 3 years, I can attest to the need for some adventure. Hopefully, we can come go on an adventure with you in 2018 before we depart China. Golite was an awesome company. It really is too bad they are gone. I made my own packs instead.

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