Traveling with a Nature First Mindset

A few months back we shared an article called “Know Before You Go” that had information and tips on how to plan ahead for your travels while putting Nature First. This month, we share more specific ways for nature photographers to vacation responsibly while making it easier to discover new and inspiring locations. We are sharing a few items from our previous article since we believe this is so important, as well as new information on what we can do while on holiday/vacation. 

So many of the positive changes we can all make start with small changes to our mindset. We establish patterns in all areas of our lives and this is the same with travel. Reprogramming our minds to plan and travel differently than we have before takes a little effort, but brings many benefits to the vacation experience. I know this has been true for me as I have become a more environmentally conscious traveler.  It does take a little bit of work at first, and then the practices become natural over time. 

We encourage you to incorporate the following practices into your planning process. The more you know ahead of time, the easier it will be to adapt to changing conditions while traveling, and the better the travel experience will be for you and for our delicate lands.  And even if you’re returning to a familiar place, a little research will provide you with valuable information on recent changes and current conditions.

photo by: Rick Dunn

Best practices for vacation and holiday planning

  • Research the areas that you will be visiting – protected areas, national parks and monuments, private land conservation areas, World Heritage sites, etc.
  • Contact parks or protected areas for information on current conditions and reducing impact. Many of the places we travel to have very detailed and helpful information on their websites including tips for visiting at off-peak times.
  • Educate yourself about the type of environments you will visit – environmentally sensitive areas such as alpine tundra, fragile coastline or wetland, geothermal areas and features – how can you make sure that you don’t create a negative impact?
  • Call ahead and talk to rangers and protected area management – ask how to be responsible photographers in your travels.  Local management will understand where photographers are having an impact and will have tips on how to best access certain locations.  If you cannot talk to someone ahead of time, stop by the headquarters and visitor centers when you arrive.
  • Determine if permits are needed for parks, parking, camping etc. With Covid came a rise in tourism to outdoor places and many national parks and public lands now use permit systems for entering and/or for specific locations within a park. Different places around the globe will have different permitting systems in place to protect nature and lessen crowds. Researching prior to your arrival will help prevent/minimize delays and identify alternatives to closed locations. 
  • Don’t just follow the crowd – research new and different places for photography.   The areas surrounding many well-known parks are just as beautiful, far less crowded, and offer opportunities for more creative photography.  Instead of taking the same picture that everyone else has, be unique and create your own memories. People are more likely to remember a creative image of a new location than another copy of an over-photographed location.
  • Look into volunteer opportunities to give back to places you visit – you can do this on your trip or before/after travel in some situations as well. 
  • Treat the destination as if it were your home – pack reusable bags and water bottles to avoid using disposable plastic items. We often prioritize convenience and have different behavior on trips, but by planning ahead, it really is easier (and less expensive) to include reusable items in your suitcase or car. 

Once you arrive at your destination, do your best to keep Nature First and Leave No Trace principles in your mind throughout your travels. Be an example to others while out exploring and help educate others when you can. This is more important than ever as we have seen an increase in harmful behavior since Covid’s arrival last spring. There have been dramatic increases in littering, parking in undesignated places, crushing wildflowers, disregarding trail boundaries and entering posted restoration areas. A good portion of this is related to people simply not knowing the negative impact they’re having, but some know and engage in harmful behavior anyway. When we lead by example and teach others, we create visible standards that will influence others’ behaviors and we will start to see an overall positive change. It may be a long process based on what we are currently seeing in nature, but we know that the more of us who commit to leading by example, the more we can impact others and protect our treasured lands. 

Another way to put Nature First is to check out visitor centers, nature centers and local gear shops when you arrive at your destination to ask questions related to your plans. The local community will have the best knowledge and can often give you advice on where to go that may be different from main attractions. You can ask about sensitive areas to avoid and how you can help take care of their area. Imagine if we all did this as photographers – it would give us such a great reputation among the communities we visit. 

While we continue to see so much harmful behavior in the outdoors, there are so many simple steps we can take to counteract this, such as the following: 

photo by: Brynn Alise Schmidt

Make informed and environmentally friendly decisions once at your destination

  • Use your new knowledge to pick photography locations where you can leave no trace. Ask if your actions may prevent the next person from enjoying the same scene that you are enjoying.
  • If you encounter wildlife, maintain minimum recommended and legal distances.
  • If swimming in the ocean, particularly near reefs, please use sunscreen specifically certified to be safe for marine animals and environments.
  • Be aware of environmentally sensitive areas and take steps to avoid or minimize impact.  
  • Pack out all materials you bring with you, or dispose of them in designated containers.  
  • Use discretion when sharing locations on social media.  Allow others the rewards of discovery.  
  • Purchase locally sourced food and souvenirs when possible
  • Learn about the history/culture and natural significance of places you visit.  These are great points that you can include when posting your images online.
  • Act like the destination is your home – bring reusable bags and your own water bottles to refill; request new towels/sheets only every third or fourth day.
  • Bring a small trash bag and pick up litter along trails and in popular areas.

We have an opportunity to put forth positive examples and to be ambassadors in the nature photography world, and Nature First is here to help you. The alternative is to maintain the status quo and sit by silently as the places we love continue to be negatively impacted. Everything we do makes a difference and small changes lead to bigger ones, so please join us in taking any action that you can to put Nature First. 

cover image by Brynn Schmidt