There may be 24 hours in a day, but the number of usable hours depends on when the sun goes down. They don’t call 8 PM “Backpacker Midnight” for nothing.
This post is geared toward people who create outdoors, but I’ve modified it just a bit and hope it helps anyone traveling by whatever means they choose.
Tip 1 – Know your gear. Know it cold.
I’m talking about your traveling gear. It’s amazing how much time a disorganized pack can take up. It helps to know your routine so well that you can do it in your sleep.
Knowing your gear comes with experience and practice. There’s no substitute for that. You can give that experience and practice a little boost by doing the following things:
1) Pay Attention. Seems so obvious, but travel is full of things we want to see and do. It’s easy to get distracted. While you’re wrangling your stuff you’re not seeing or experiencing any of it, so you might as well take note of what packing method works and practice it.
2) Do a Post-Trip Assessment. Write it down. Note what worked, what didn’t, and what improvements you can make on the next trip. Whether you’re an ultralighter or cannot dream of hitting the backcountry without your coffee press and camp chair, the whole point of a post-trip assessment is to streamline the kind of travel you want to do. This makes it easier for you and, ultimately, gives you more time to get your art on.
Tip 2 – Know your adventure.
Have a big-picture strategy in your head. Consider the environment and what you tend to capture – big viewpoints or vibrant flora? Slice-of-urban-life or historic monuments? What does the terrain offer in terms of what captures your interest?
Where can these subjects be found? Above treeline? A two-hour train ride from your hotel? A dayhike away from basecamp? Grab a map and mark the general vicinity of these areas.
It’s helpful to ask the locals. Seek out rangers, guides, people hiking back out from the direction you’re going in. Simple questions, such as “I’m interested in taking some sunset photos – where’s the best place, in your opinion?” or “How many miles is it from the trailhead to the river?” can help that big picture.
Don’t make an itinerary that dictates when and where you’ll stop to paint exactly what. What is awesome about plein air creation is the potential for spontaneity. On the flipside, you know what you like to paint best, and having a rough idea of where your preferred subject matter is will help you get a better idea of how to organize your day. Maybe you’ll need to get a before-sunrise start to have enough time to get there and paint, or maybe you’ll have the luxury of a nice breakfast and some quick sketches along the way.
Tip 3 – Take Care of Yourself!
Okay, mom, geeze.
Really! Let me nag for a second. Level blood sugar, hydration and rest go a long way in taking your creativity from inspiration to action. We artists tend to get so caught up in the creative process we’d probably forget to breathe if it didn’t happen automatically. Here are some basic tips to keep you from physically tanking:
1) Food in your pocket. A candy bar, a baggie of chips, whatever. All it needs to be is easy to reach and easy to eat. You can refuel while walking around to find the perfect angle to start working.
2) Water on your back. Hydration reservoirs are awesome, even if you’re not hiking or backpacking. Even if you’re painting with a 20 pound french easel that you carried two feet from your car. If you’re outdoors, especially in the sun or heat, have water and drink it frequently. I prefer hydration reservoirs because they are, literally, two inches away from your face. A water bottle can get set on the ground or beside a pack and be easily forgotten. Hydration packs come in little backpacks and tiny waist packs so they’re totally unobtrusive.
Tip 4 – Know your art gear, simplify and modify as needed.
Another tip that can only come from experience, but as with your travel gear, taking note along the way helps. Do you find yourself fussing about where to put your brushes? Digging for that camera lense? Faced with a pastel box that doesn’t have an iota of palette organization after being shaken around in your bag? Time to take note and figure out how to fix it.
Tip 5 – Adjust Expectations
If you’re like me, you like to eat well on the trail (and HATE Mountain House pouch meals). I enjoy cooking up some fancyness out in the backcountry. Chicken jambalaya, pancakes with berry compote, chilli and corn bread, brownies for dessert – it’s awesome. It’s not feasible (time-wise and weight-wise) to do that when I’m soloing anything or hitting a long, hard trail. If I’m doing a really chill trip with people to help carry communal camp gear, then I’ll let my inner Emeril out. Otherwise, it’s oatmeal and ramen.
Things take longer when out and about than at home. Yeah, no kidding – but do you always remember that? I don’t. I once tried to take in nine museums in one day. Nine. I got to four before they closed for the day, and it wasn’t easy.
Whether you plan on sightseeing museums, dayhiking off basecamp, cooking great camp food or tasting everything the local open air market has to offer, these things take time. Be ready to compromise and prioritize.
Maybe you have one day where the non-art stuff is prioritized and one day with art stuff prioritized. Maybe you set your alarm to let you know that it’s already noon – now take a moment and think: what’s more important to me now, seeing the sights or painting them? Maybe you resolve that the whole trip is an art trip, or maybe you just take along a basic sketchbook or a mirrorless camera and squeeze in some creating time.
You can’t do it all, sometimes even if you plan meticulously. If a wrench is thrown into your schedule, chill. So you’re not a painter of flora and you’ve found yourself stuck in the local gardens. Paint the dang flowers anyway. Maybe you’re an architecture photographer and you’re stuck in the open air market. Try your hand at street photography! You’ll learn something or, at least, won’t be bored. Maybe you’ll find your next artistic inspiration in that unlikely place.
Tip 6 – Call in the reinforcements.
If you’re traveling with other people, put them to work for you! I’m joking. Kind of. With any travel, communication is key, before you even step out the front door. Figure out what sort of adventure they’d like to have and communicate what you want to accomplish art-wise. Figure out ways to make that happen, compromise if needed, or (if it’s safe) each of you can go your own way and meet up to reminisce and story-tell at the end of the day.
Figure out what you do well and be sure to pull your weight. I can set up and tear down camp ridiculously fast, so that gives me painting time while my backpacking buddy is cooking dinner or breakfast. Or they can go on a dayhike off-base if I want to paint something in camp while doing camp laundry – in exchange, they owe me time the next day along the trail.
It isn’t about tit for tat exactly, but it’s about contributing your skills to advancing the adventure for everyone and the other people doing the same so everyone has time to do what inspires them. It’s about multitasking where you can and finding opportunities to Get Shit Done for yourself and your travel companions.
Tip 7 – Grab the Moment!
You can do a lot in fifteen minutes. Waiting for the train? Grab that sketchbook. Road trip bathroom break? Take out the camera (NOT in the bathroom, that’s just weird and not a good way to make friends).
I started this painting of the Grand Canyon in the five minutes I managed to grab while waiting for my backpacking partner on her bathroom break. You may or may not create something you love, but it’ll get the mind going down that creating path, warm up your artistic vision and possibly be the foundation for a piece you really like.
Tip 8 – Be Ready!
Have your gear organized and easily accessible out the gate. Painting supports are toned, palette is laid out, brushes clean, fresh medium poured in palette cups with lids. During downtime or at the end of the day, do a quick tune-up of your creating gear. Sharpen your pencil and empty your pencil sharpener. Clean your camera lenses.
More certainly NOT-dumb readiness tips from Max Wilson:
This might sound super dumb, but I would add “Store your gear consistently.” I used to be really inconsistent about what was where in my pack from trip to trip. One trip a lens would be in one pocket, another on the next trip and I can’t tell you how many shots I used to miss before I started keeping all my lenses in the same place every time. So simple, so effective.
Most importantly, anticipate what you’ll do the next day.
Photographers might know it’s going to be a bright, sunny day and look forward to shooting the landscape. In the case, maybe having the right GND filters ready to go helps. My painting pallette and the tone of my supports varies from Joshua Tree to Yosemite National Park, and I lay out the colors and tone the supports according to the general landscape around me. Sure, you might come across something to capture that requires a different set-up, but in being pre-set up you’re already halfway there.
I hope this little list of tips helps all you creative adventurers! Is there anything you’d like to add? Anything you disagree with? Let me know in the comments!