Milky Way Photography Safety and Security Tips

Find Out What You Need for a Safe and Secure Night Photographing the Milky Way.

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Milky Way photography, the boondocks, and weird hours go hand in hand. There are thousands of discussions and articles that cover techniques and post-processing. What is lacking, though, is discussions about safety and security. With the prime Milky Way season kicking off here in North America, now is an excellent time to visit safety and security tips for Milky Way photography.

I initially started this Milky Way Photography Safety and Security Tips article last fall but took a pause, and I am glad that I did. I have come across some really good resources that deserve a place in this article.

MY BACKGROUND

As most people who know me, they will probably tell you that I am very understated in regards to my life and professional experiences. In the case of this article, I draw on those aspects to present the information I am including. I believe that offering one’s resume when done accordingly, adds to the credibility of the information.

I spent the first years out of high school in the Army as a cavalry scout. Just over a year ago, I took a hiatus after spending the previous 14 years as a deputy sheriff in a rural Oklahoma agency. A lot of the information that I draw from comes from those almost 20 years, along with a lot of my own personal research and experience.

LOCATION PHOTOGRAPHY SAFETY

Now you may be sitting there saying, “Hey, I already have spent hours researching where I’m going, what’s this?” Well, you may know where you are going. You might be going with a friend, and they know where you are going. But does a friend or family member that is staying behind know where you are going?

Before you walk out the door, write down the location information on paper. Just don’t leave it at “XYZ, Arizona.” Here is a list of stuff of that you should include:

  • The approximate time frame on when you are going to be at the location,
  • Approximate route information, if you know it,
  • Car description to include vehicle make, model, color, license plate, and any distinguishing features such as decals,
  • Make sure the person you are leaving this information with has an updated picture of you and any person in your party,

Finally, include a list of law enforcement agencies that cover the area where you are going. In the case of us Milky Way folks, this can get confusing, so my best advice is to include the non-emergency number to the destination county sheriff’s department.

VEHICLE SAFETY

When it comes to a Milky Way photography adventure, the adventure is most likely going to take place in rural and desolate areas devoid of civilization during the middle of the night. In the 1800s, a horse was a status symbol in the Old West. The horse was the primary means of transportation, and a person could die if they were stranded. We have traded our horses in for vehicles, but that does not mean we can ignore them. We need to make sure everything is in good working order to lessen the chances of us getting stranded.

Check Your Vehicle

Things are not as crazy these days, but if your vehicle fails you, you will be stuck for a while. That said, here are some things to look for before you roll out:

Tires looking out into the desert Photo From Milky Way Photography Safety and Security Tips, Copyright 2020 Stanley Harper
Even though the tread is barely in the picture, you can see that it is in fairly good condition. Quick tip, if you have a RWD vehicle, pay special attention to the R/R tire as most of the vehicles I have driven over the years deliver most of their power to that tire and they tended to wear quickly.

Tire condition

Our adventures will more than likely take us over dirt roads, and some of these roads will have sharp rocks. If the tire tread is almost worn out or is so soft that it springs a leak if a sharp rock simply looks at it (looking at you Goodyear), your day will get long fast.

First off, invest in a quality tire. Make sure the tread is in good condition. Check that your tires are properly inflated. You can find the recommended air pressure for your vehicle on the label in the driver’s side door jam.

Wipers

Make sure the windshield wipers do not need to be replaced. On most vehicles, changing the wipers out are as simple as going down to the local auto parts store, finding your vehicle in the computer that is next to the wipers, finding the recommended replacements, and snapping them onto the wiper arms.

Lighting

Check the lights and replace the bulbs as necessary. You can also carry a few spares with you, but most lights take several minutes to change out, so make sure you find a safe location to stop before you tear into it.

Cottonwood Canyon, Utah,  Copyright 2020 Stanley Harper
The roads we travel in our chase of the Milky Way will range from great to horrible. Roads like this require the suspension to be in good working order. The tires are also part of the suspension system. Dropping the air pressure just by a few pounds can make a world of difference in ride quality. Just make sure you have the ability to air the tires back up when you hit pavement.

Check the Fluids

Under the hood, check the fluids such as the oil, power steering, transmission, and radiator. Check the accessory belts to make sure they are in good condition.

Create a Repair Kit

There are several things you want to look at when it comes to making repairs away from the garage. Here is a list of things that you will want to consider for your packing list:

Tool Kit

Find a mechanic that specializes in working on the vehicle you have and ask them what the most common size sockets and wrenches you need. Add in some pliers, side cutters, Philips and flat screwdrivers, a crescent wrench, and a big freaking hammer. You do not even need to spend a whole lot of money on this kit. If you have a Harbor Freight store, go there, pick up everything on your list, and buy a cheap plastic toolbox to put it in and you are set.

Tool Box Photo From Milky Way Photography Safety and Security Tips, Copyright 2020 Stanley Harper
Some screwdrivers, sockets, and an assortment of the most common metric sizes needed to make small repairs on the side of the road.

Duct and Other Tapes

Duct tape and black electrical tape. You can fix a ton of stuff with those two tapes. You can even get duct tape with a Milky Way print.

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Tire Repair

Tire repair kits can be found pretty easily these days. You’ll need a pump to re-inflate your tire as well. Get an electrical air pump and not a hand pump like for a bicycle – auto tires are enormous compared to bike tires and take a large volume of air to refill.

You can watch the video to see how to use one:

Tire plug kits can be a life-saver. Just make sure you have an air compressor packed. Make sure the air compressor can fill up your tire as not all portable compressors are created equal.

Spare Accessory Belts

These days, most cars have one long serpentine belt. If you lose it, you are stuck! Those of us that have vehicles with several different belts may be able to keep moving in the case we lose one or two. A good practice is to replace that belt once a year or so. Take the old belt, and if it is still in good condition, toss it in your repair kit. The same thing goes for radiator hoses. Remember, you’ll need wrenches or screwdrivers to install these, so have the ones your car will need.

alternator belt - Photo Copyright 2020 Stanley Harper
These are belts that I replaced last summer. Since they are still usable, I keep them as spares in case I lose one on a trip.

Jacks

There are a ton of options, but the reason why I carry a Floor jack is that it is safer and faster than any jack that comes with today’s vehicles. It does take up more room, but it is well worth it.

Jump Starting

Jump Starter Photo From Copyright 2020 Stanley Harper
This is a Bolt Power HALO portable jump starter. It’s small, portable and will jump start your car and charge your phone.

Jumper cables and/or a jumper box. Jumper cables seem like they are going away in favor of jumper boxes. A jumper box is one of these small rechargeable boxes that are common these days. These boxes usually have USB ports so you can recharge your phone and come with a small set of jumper cables so you can use it to start your car without the benefit of another vehicle. I am a big proponent of these.

RECOVERY GEAR

What is recovery gear? Simply put, it is gear that will help you get your vehicle unstuck in case that happens. What should you consider having in your recovery gearbox?

Foldable shovel

Foldable shovel – You can find these in the camping section of Walmart, or at the local surplus store. They are compact yet very useful. I highly recommend picking one up.

Foldable Shovel Photo From Milky Way Photography Safety and Security Tips, Copyright 2020 Stanley Harper
This is not a foldable shovel, but it’s pretty small and I can keep it in my 4Runner. This is about as big of a shovel that one should need.

Traction Boards

Plastic traction boards – I highly, highly recommend getting a set no matter what you drive, be it car or 4×4. There are a ton of options out there these days, ranging from under $100 to several hundred. A plastic traction board is a just that, a molded piece of a plastic board with nubs to aid in helping the tires grab traction. I still need to get me a set and hope to do so soon.

Tow Strap

Tow strap – A tow strap is a cloth rope or strap. They are made in several different sizes, depending on their weight rating. These straps are used to pull other vehicles. The reason why they are so popular in the 4×4 world is that if they break, they are not a people killing projectile, like a chain. Stay away from using a chain when it comes to pulling another vehicle. Straps are also lighter and easier to store than a chain.

Tow Rope Photo From Milky Way Photography Safety and Security Tips, Copyright 2020 Stanley Harper
One of my two tow straps. I only keep one in my 4Runner at any given time. They are 30 feet long, and I believe they are rated for 30,000 pounds. As you can see, this one has seen some use over the years, but it has never been used to recover my personal vehicle. As long as they are kept stored in dry places, and allowed to dry if they get wet, they will last a long time.

FIRST AID KIT

We are probably all guilty of overlooking having a first aid kit in our vehicles. I was recently watching a video created by Mike Glover, the owner of Fieldcraft Survival. In the video, he presented a new way to think about first aid kits when it comes to vehicles.

Mike keeps a bleed kit in a velcro attached pouch on the sun visors in the passenger compartment. Mike’s thinking is in the case of a traumatic situation where the driver or passenger suffers a severe bleed; there is a kit readily available right there. He stores a more comprehensive first aid kit in another part of the vehicle. I really like this train of thought.

Over my Law Enforcement career, a lot of the vehicle accidents I worked on were on the highways. Some of them were plain brutal affairs and had a lot of blood. On top of that, since they were not in town, it usually took us anywhere from a couple of minutes up to 10-15 minutes to arrive on the scene. That is a long time where anything can happen.

In fact, just a few days ago, I rolled up on an accident going to work. I was about the fifth one there, and even though we were just down the road from a local town, the response time from the local first responders was fairly drawn out.

There are a Ton of First Aid Kit Options

There are numerous styles and sizes of first aid kits available. Fieldcraft Survival has a visor mounted kit listed on their website, or you can also head over to North American Rescue and purchase one there.

Now those kits are great for the vehicle, but what about our camera bags? You’ll want a kit that is compact, lightweight, and enough items to cover the basics. Adventure Medical makes a small kit in a waterproof bag. They sent me one of their small kits a couple of years ago. It is a basic kit with several bandage styles, blister and burn care, splinter/tick forceps, antiseptic wipes and ointment, antihistamine, and ibuprofen. It takes up minimal room in my camera bag and only weighs 2.32 ounces. Adventure Medical makes several other larger first aid kits.

Adventure Medical Ultralight / Watertight Medical Kit.3 Photo From Milky Way Photography Safety and Security Tips, Copyright 2020 Stanley Harper
This is a small first aid kit by Adventure Medical that I carry in my camera bag. There are several other larger kits available.

For me, when I look for a kit, I want one that has the tools I need to control bleeding. I also want to include several types of medication for stuff like bug bites and headaches.

If you already have a first aid kit, check the items at least once a year. Make sure the supplies in it are in good condition and that medications have not expired.

CLOTHING

This section will be short and sweet. Put very simply, make sure you pack enough clothing to deal with rain, cold, and heat. While I am a shorts and flip flops guy, when I am out shooting the Milky Way, I am in pants, shoes, and at the very least, a long sleeve shirt. The reason for this is for protection from bugs and branches.

You do not want to be caught short in this category. I received a semi-harsh reminder during a trip to New Mexico awhile back. Yeah, it was August. Yeah, day time temp was in the high 80’s. The only thing was we did not know where we were going to end up. Well, the spot we found was at 8000 feet elevation, and we were reminded of that once the sun went down. While all of us had light jackets and hoodies with us, the temps dropped to about 45° that night. I regretted not having my fleece jacket with me.

Also, look at keeping some waterproof gear with you. Several years ago, I invested in a rain jacket in anticipation of covering an off-road race in the rain. Luckily the forecast changed, and I think in the seven years that I have had this jacket, I have only worn it once. I keep it in my vehicle for emergency purposes.

Rain Jacket Photo From Milky Way Photography Safety and Security Tips, Copyright 2020 Stanley Harper
In the seven years that I have had this waterproof jacket, I have only worn it once. But I keep it in my vehicle for emergency purposes.

MAPS, GPS, and PHONES

In the olden days before cell phones and GPS, we used archaic devices such as a compass and paper maps to navigate. That was a very effective way to find our way to our destination. Then GPS came along, and the game changed. Every so often, we are regaled with tales of people relying too much on their GPS and getting stuck or lost. I had to deal with this several times while in law enforcement. Since the advent of the smartphone, map apps have been developed, and now we can look up restaurants while texting our friends without changing devices. So what should we do?

Due to the nature of the beast that is Milky Way photography, I would hope that all of us have a working knowledge of cardinal directions. We should know where North, East, West, and South are since we are always studying where the Milky Way is in the sky.

Paper Maps Still Have a Place

I am just as guilty as the next person, but we should at least have some paper maps in our vehicles that cover the areas we will find ourselves. There are numerous sources for maps, depending on what flavor we want. DeLorme has an excellent series of topographical atlases that cover each state.

Stepping up from the paper maps, there are GPS (Global Positioning System) units. Garmin, Magellan, and Lowrance are the big players in this market. I’ve always drawn to the Garmin handheld units. Lowrance units can always be found mounted in desert race vehicles. The advantage of having a GPS is that it does one thing and does it well. The disadvantage is that it is another electronic device for which you have to maintain batteries.

Phones as Navigation Aids

Then we have our phones. Up until a few years ago, I would never recommend using a cell phone instead of a GPS. The tech was not there, and if you lost cell service, the phone would more than likely stop tracking. Now, the tech is reliable, and I have no issue using my cell phone or iPad for navigation purposes. I have yet to lose part of a track due to a lack of service.

When it comes to cell phones, you need to choose which app to use. GoogleMaps is pretty good, but I want to have something a little more in-depth. I have been using GAIA GPS for the last year, and I have been very happy with it. You can read my GAIA GPS review here.

gaia gps Photo From Milky Way Photography Safety and Security Tips, Copyright 2020 Stanley Harper
Screen shot of a track on GAIA GPS.

The one thing that differentiates a phone from a GPS unit is using maps. With a GPS, the maps have to be preloaded. With a phone, it is always good practice to download a particular portion of the map where you will be visiting before you leave the house. Even though the phone can continue tracking without cell service, if you do not have that part of the map downloaded, then your little blue dot will be moving on a blank screen. I have GAIA on both my iPhone and iPad. I really like to use my iPad when I am driving due to the bigger screen.

ANIMALS

Face it; we are going to have to deal with animals at some point. Ranging from small insects to venomous reptiles to large mammals, we need to be prepared.

When it comes to large animals such as bears, you can buy bear pepperspray, which is similar to pepper spray. Bear spray is limited in strength by the federal government, but it is going to be in the same range as to what is used in the public safety sector.

One study I found stated that bear spray was successful in 92% of the test cases, which is pretty good, in my opinion. The thing to remember about the bear spray is that you need to be cognizant of the range and wind. If you attempt to utilize it in the wind, make sure you are upwind.

Noise Pollution Keeps Animals Away

Another deterrent you can consider is a small air horn. Animals tend to be scared off by loud noise. I know some photographers will play music or listen to podcasts while they are out shooting. I like to listen to the environment around me. One thing that I will do when I am out at night shooting is I will perform a visual scan behind me. I usually will have a powerful flashlight and will just spin around with the light. The last time I shot in Oklahoma, I had an animal off in the distance that was interested in what I was doing. It was far away enough that I could not identify it, but my flashlight would light up the eyes.

Watch Where You Step!

We need to pay attention to where we step. Because Milky Way season goes from late winter to early fall, there will be many semi-warm nights, depending on your location. At night, when it is warm, rattlesnakes will be out and about doing what they do. If they sense you and can escape most times, they will avoid you. But if you get around abandoned buildings, they may not have an escape route available.

Always watch where you walk and visually clear any area before you place any part of your body in that space. I like to avoid deep grass because that is where snakes like to hang out. On the flip side, it takes just about an inch of grass depth for a baby rattler to disappear.

Q: Why did the rattlesnake cross the road? A: To get away from the Milky Way photographer.

Since one never knows when they will encounter an unexpected snake, snake gaiters come in handy. Our own Rhonda Pierce recommends them. She says in her article, Ten Essential Non-Photography Tips Before Heading out for a Milky Way Adventure, “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.”

Insect Repellant

While it comes to insects, always carry some bug spray. There are all types of repellants available. For years, the gold-standard of insect repellants was DEET. But due to environmental and human health concerns, some recommend Picaridin. It’s been found to be just as effective as DEET for ticks and mosquitos, and better for flies.

The one thing to keep in mind with bug repellant is that DEET, while a good repellant, it can destroy plastic. I know of at least one photographer who had to have their camera repaired after they contacted it with bug repellant. Picaridin does not damage plastics like DEET.

There are now bug repellants that one can wear on their belts or a wristband. I have not tried one myself, but have talked to people who have them, and they like them. I usually keep several cans of bug repellant in my 4Runner.

For more information on insect repellant options, check out this in-depth guide at https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/insect-repellents.html.

FIREARMS

Before I get off into the meat of this subject, there are a couple of disclaimers that must be stated for this section. The first is that this is not legal advice. If you have any questions regarding the carrying of firearms, consult local, state, and federal law.

Second, this is not a political discussion. This article is about tips and advice on what we should consider. While I am a very strong Second Amendment supporter, I am not here to advocate my position. It is simply an option, and I am a firm believer in that a person is free to make whatever choice they want. That said, off we go.

If you’re going to explore the option of carrying a firearm while you shoot, there are several options you need to consider.

Legality

The first is, can I carry legally? Many states have provisions for concealed carry permits. Some states are “shall issue,” which means that barring any disqualifier like being a felon, the issuing authority (usually the county sheriff) must issue you a concealed weapons permit. Some other states, Utah being at the top of the list, will issue non-residents a permit to carry concealed.

Side Arm Photo From Milky Way Photography Safety and Security Tips, Copyright 2020 Stanley Harper

Then there are the states like California where the state has left it up to the individual counties. Some counties will not issue permits, others will if you “contribute” to the sheriff that makes that decision, while other sheriffs have a “shall issue” policy. The general rule of thumb is that the metro areas of the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles it is almost impossible to get a permit, while the more rural areas are usually “shall issue.” Lastly, there are states where getting a permit is not an option.

Open Carry

Along with concealed weapons permits, some states allow residents and, in some cases, non-residents to open carry firearms. When it comes to the laws on carrying concealed or openly, it is best to consult this map for up to date information. Concealed permits are not drivers licenses in that all states will recognize a permit from another state. Again, read up on local laws before you carry.

If you are not a gun owner, but are considering it, and do not know where to start, visit a local gun shop. A gun shop will typically have people working behind the counter who is knowledgeable and will be able to help you choose a firearm that fits you. One size fits all is not a mindset to go with when it comes to selecting a gun.

The other thing about going to the local gun shop is a lot of times; they will be able to get you set up with training with a reputable trainer. There are gun shops around that do have on-site ranges and a rental program. These shops will be able to put you on their shooting range, let you test some guns and different calibers, and help you find something that fits you.

Firearm Considerations for Photographers

Once you have gotten a gun, now you need to figure out how you are going to carry it. The best answer to this question is what is most comfortable to you and allows you easy access. There are a ton of options out there. Concealment holsters made from Kydex, a thermoplastic that is known for rigidity, formability, and toughness, is very popular right now. There are a ton of vendors that offer concealed carry options. Likewise, there are open carry solutions also.

There is one option that I will vehemently dissuade you from choosing, and that is using a Blackhawk Serpa holster. Because the price is right, it is unfortunately popular. I believe that this holster is a piece of crap that is dangerous. Ranges, classes, and law enforcement (LE) agencies have policies in place that prohibit the use of this holster. The design of this holster incorporates a release lock that is depressed to release the handgun so the user can draw it. That release lock is located right over the trigger of the gun. I had this piece of garbage hoisted upon my person not long before I left my agency with my Taser, and I hated it with a pea purple passion. If you choose this holster to carry your newly purchased handgun, I don’t even want to know you. LOL

Your Safety Includes Proper Training

Lastly, get training and get quality training. There are usually several trainers in every town across the US. Most times, these trainers are going to have a military/LE background and are pretty solid folks. Most trainers are going to mold their training towards the person they are training.

One word of caution about trainers. If you find a trainer that talks a lot about working “black ops” or how they did a lot of stuff overseas that they cannot talk about, there is a 98.3% chance they are a poser and the most high-speed stuff they have accomplished was playing Call of Duty. Find yourself a reputable trainer, and in a lot of cases, your local LE folks will know what that person is.

Situational Awareness is the Key

What is situational awareness? Put simply, it is being aware of your surroundings. You are scanning all around you, and you are people watching. Do you scan your mirrors regularly? If you say yes, what are you noticing? Is it the white, four-door sedan that is tailgating you? Is it the driver on their cell phone? What about that metallic gray SUV four cars behind you that has been there through four turns, and on and off the freeway?

Criminals are opportunists that look for openings to commit their acts of criminality. They are scanning the area. They are watching people, and if they are looking to commit an act against someone, they are going to choose that person who is oblivious to their surroundings. You need to pay attention to your surroundings. Learn how to watch people and learn to look for clues.

CONCLUSION

I hope that I have given you, our loyal readers, something to think about as we gear up for the 2020 Milky Way season. You may never need any of the Milky Way photography safety and security tips that I mentioned in this article. But it is better to know them and not need them than it is to need them and not have them. And you can definitely tailor your kit to your own needs and your vehicle.

If you have a Milky Way photography safety or security tip, feel free to drop it in the comment section below.

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