You’ve watched all the videos on the PhotogAdventures YouTube page. You know what camera settings and gear you need to capture your Milky Way image. Your camera is packed, and you’ve selected the perfect dark sky location. The day approaches your excitement level skyrockets. Planning the ideal Milky Way adventure involves a lot more than understanding camera settings. Here are my ten essential non-photography tips to help ensure you have a safe, enjoyable and successful Milky Way adventure.

1. Know the Restrictions for Where You are Exploring

There are numerous locations for great Milky Way photography. Many of them located on private or park type property. Check each state or national park website for specific park hours before heading out.

Some parks are open 24 hours while others allow after-hours photography by permit only. Many times a fee and advance remittance of 30 days or more is required. Other parks only allow for after-hours shooting if you are camping there.

Many historical sites close at sunset and have an entrance gate that locks. It is essential to respect the rules and guidelines parks have in place to protect ecological and culturally sensitive areas. If you cannot find the information for photography on the park or historic sites website, call the park superintendent or naturalist.

The trail leading to Hungo Pavi, one of the many culturally sensitive and ancient pueblo ruins at New Mexico's Chaco Culture National Historical Park.  On August 19, 2013, the 
International Dark-Sky Association officially designated Chaco Culture an International Dark Sky Park.
This trail leads to Hungo Pavi, one of the many culturally sensitive and ancient pueblo ruins at New Mexico’s Chaco Culture National Historical Park. On August 19, 2013, the
International Dark-Sky Association officially designated Chaco Culture an International Dark Sky Park.
Photo credit: Brendakochevar [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Park Rangers are the Law Enforcement Agency for National, Historical, and State Parks.

Park rangers operate just as a local police department would. They enforce speed limits and have the authority to make arrests. If you are in a park and are unsure about restrictions, park rangers should be able to answer your questions.

Several years ago in Chaco Canyon, as the sun was setting and I was busy photographing, a park ranger approached me. He informed me that after sunset the only place I would be allowed to shoot from was the Fajada Butte overlook picnic area or from my campsite. I admit I was quite disappointed as I had planned to photograph the Milky Way at one of the ruins. Although park rangers are there to enforce the laws of the parks, once you get to chatting with them, I find they are an excellent resource for finding out about other locations to explore and photograph. In this case, the park ranger suggested a great spot to capture the Milky Way.

A mid-April Milky Way, rising over Fajada Butte, at Chaco Culture National Historic Park in New Mexico.
A mid-April Milky Way, rising over Fajada Butte, at Chaco Culture National Historic Park in New Mexico.
Photo credit: Rhonda Pierce

Just Because a Building is Old or Abandoned, It Does Not Mean You Can Trespass.

If you see a neat old barn or house that would make an excellent element in your Milky Way photograph, get permission to be on the property. Property owners are usually pretty good about allowing you to photograph if you first ask permission. Allow extra time if you are exploring a new area so you can make contact with the locals in town.

I have found the local gas station cashier to be a wealth of knowledge as to who owns what property in town and where to find the property owner. Getting permission to photograph ahead of time will keep you in good graces with the local police and residents. Most importantly, bad things can happen when you are mistaken for a burglar trespassing in the middle of the night.

The bottom line for my first essential non-photography tips – always be respectful of others property and obey “No Trespassing” signs when posted.


2. Be Prepared for the Weather Where You are Going.

Don’t be caught off guard. Desert areas can have a 40+ degree temperature drop from the daytime high to the nighttime low. Hiking out to your location during the day may require a hat and sunscreen, but do you need to pack some extra layers and gloves for when the sun goes down? Prepare for any possible weather events by checking the local forecast before you head out the door. I like to carry an extra windbreaker and hand warmers for unexpected temperature drops.

3. Know the Flora and Fauna.

Dark sky locations in less populated areas may provide the perfect habitat for bears or mountain lions (cougars). Read up on what dangerous animals inhabit the area you will be exploring. Know how to respond should there be an unexpected encounter. If you backpack into known bear territory, make sure to use bear-proof storage containers for your food.

Dangerous Snakes?

Are you hiking into a rocky desert area? Maybe you are exploring a grassy hillside or an abandoned building. If so, you need to know what snakes are common in the area.

Did you know the Mohave rattlesnake is active primarily at night from February to November? The warmth of rock outcrops provides the perfect place for snakes to stay warm after the sun sets. I frequently explore and photograph in the desert southwest where venomous snakes are.

Knowing I may encounter an unexpected snake, I always wear my TurtleSkin snake gaiters when out exploring and photographing. These particular snake gaiters are lightweight, water resistant, and allow me to walk with confidence. When walking through wet grassy areas, they also keep my lower pant legs dry and free from prickly plants. 

Snake Gaitors, by Turtle Skin, provide great coverage from the ankle to the knees against snake bites and prickly vegetation.
Snake gaiters, by Turtle Skin, provide great coverage from the ankle to the knees against snake bites and prickly vegetation.
www.turtleskin.com

Hazardous Vegetation?

Some areas of the United States, specifically Arizona, Nevada, California, and Utah, have what is called the “Teddy Bear Cactus” and “Jumping Cholla.” The Jumping Cholla looks like a typical cactus until you get too close to it, then it sticks you. The needles of this cactus are hollow and have tiny reverse barbs which make them difficult to remove. Stay at least three feet away as segments of this cactus are loosely connected and easily break off in the wind. When someone steps on the soil at the base of the plant, the stems detach and become airborne.

An encounter with a Jumping Cholla is no laughing matter. Carry a multi-purpose tool with you if exploring or photographing where these cactus grow.
Video credit: bravewilderness.com

Knowing the common wildlife, critters, and plants native to the area you are exploring can provide an interesting subject to photograph before the sun goes down.

4. Charge and Prepare Your Cell Phone

Monitor your cell phone for service. If you do not have service, place your cell phone into Airplane Mode to conserve your phone’s battery. When you are out of cell phone range your phone will continuously search for a cell tower which will drain your battery.

Make sure to have in your cell phone contacts list an ICE phone number (In Case of Emergency). In my cell phone, I have ICE #1, ICE #2, and ICE #3 listed. If you are unresponsive, first responders know to check cell phones for ICE contacts in case of an emergency.

If you do not carry a GPS tracking device, download a GPS tracking app to your phone. Some apps let you store map data on your phone for use where there is no cell service. Download the data for the surrounding area in case you get off course. During an emergency or if you are lost and have cell signal, you can contact first responders with your location.

5. Prepare Your Vehicle for the Unexpected

Equip your vehicle with an emergency roadside kit. Your roadside kit should contain a spare tire, jack, tire iron, and “fix-a-flat.” Off-road adventures that take you down back roads may pose a hazard for your tires so make sure you know how to change a tire. Carry an extra flashlight in case you need to change a tire in the middle of the night. Trying to get a tow truck to your location in the middle of the night, due to a flat tire, might leave you sitting for quite a while.

Carry an oldfashioned fold-up road map. Don’t rely solely on technology or the navigational system in your vehicle. Roads in remote areas often do not show up on electronic maps.

If you head to an unfamiliar area, know where the closest medical facility is. And if you like to explore abandoned buildings make sure you are current on your tetanus vaccination.

OK – so we’re halfway through my essential non-photography tips. Here’s Number 6:

6. Heading Out Alone or in a Group?

Before heading out, make sure someone knows where you or the group will be. Carry a basic compass (non-electronic). Be aware of your surroundings at all times and consider your safety. Milky Way photography requires late night photography in what seems like the middle of nowhere. Do you need to carry pepper, bear spray, or other personal protection?

Preparing for a sunset photo, participants in a photo adventure look out over Sotol Vista at Big Bend National Park, Texas. Photo credit: Rhonda Pierce
Preparing for a sunset photo, participants in a photo adventure look out over Sotol Vista at Big Bend National Park, Texas.
Photo credit: Rhonda Pierce

When traveling with a group make sure to have each other’s emergency contact information including pertinent health information. Are there allergies, medications, or health conditions that first responders would need to be aware of in an emergency? I carry a list with all of the above information in the top portion of my backpack where it is easy for everyone to find.

7. Things Will Happen

Cuts and scrapes are common occurrences as you are exploring and moving about in mostly dark areas. Carry a small first-aid pouch in your camera bag. Your first aid pouch should contain band-aids of various sizes, gauze, antibiotic ointment, tweezers and anything else medically necessary for the area you are exploring.

Make sure to have an extra flashlight with you before heading out to your shooting location. The middle of the night under a new moon is not the time to have the batteries in your headlamp go out. Remember the Jumping Cholla I mentioned earlier? Now is not the time to be introduced to them!

8. Pack out what you pack in

Be prepared to pack out what you bring in. The motto is, “Leave No Trace, Take Nothing but Pictures.” All of your trash and waste should come back with you. I pack an extra plastic grocery bag or zip-top bag and some wet wipes for any waste or garbage I need to carry out.

9. Gas, Snacks, and Coffee

Before heading to your destination, top off your tank. Make sure to know where gas stations are along your route and their store hours. If you are from a big city, you may be accustomed to gas stations that are open 24 hours a day. You may be disappointed to find most rural gas stations are not open 24 hours and are likely to be fewer and farther between in less populated areas. Make sure to top off your gas tank frequently.

Consider picking up some snacks or coffee to keep you awake all night while out taking Milky Way photos. It will probably be the last chance you have to get some.

And my last of my essential non-photography tips is:

10. Bring Extra Water with You

My last essential non-photography tips before heading out may seem like a given, but if you are hiking away from your vehicle, make sure to take plenty of water with you. If you are exploring in a warm climate, do not underestimate how much water should be with you. Heat exhaustion can quickly progress to heat stroke if you do not stay adequately hydrated. Upon returning to your vehicle, having extra water on hand allows you to clean off cuts and scrapes. It is also useful to rinse off tripod legs that have been in the ocean or streams.

Your Essential Tips?

Although this may seem like a lot of extra preparation, if you are an aspiring Milky Way or Adventure Photographer, these ten essential non-photography tips will quickly become part of your routine. Half the fun is getting there right?

Are you new to Milky Way Photography? Check out our 3-part series for beginners – it starts with Milky Way Photography for Beginners – Research, Location Scouting and Apps.

Do you have something in your planning that is essential for you to have a great Milky Way adventure? I would love to hear your essential non-photography tips in the comments below!

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