When you take your camera on the road, everything you take with you becomes part of your photography equipment – and some items will surprise you. Did you realize that the vehicle you travel in is part of your photography equipment? It is. It holds your equipment, it gets you to and from your photographic location, and it serves as a blind, tripod, and background. In our article on the Ideal Photo Vehicle, we looked at what makes a perfect vehicle for the traveling photographer. Let’s also look at what makes a recreational vehicle ideal for the traveling photographer.
It Must Get You There
And Let You Park
The ideal photographer’s vehicle will get you there and back home safely. The same applies to recreational vehicles. It should get you to where you want to go, but it also must allow you to park and stay there. First, where do you want to go? Where do you frequently go? What is the terrain like? What are the campgrounds or places to stay like? Are they nearby or distant from your nature photography location? What is the average temperature and weather you will be experiencing? All these things go into deciding what kind of a vehicle you need for your nature photography and traveling habit.
- It Must Get You There
- Make a list of your desired or most visited locations. Are they in dloland areas where you will be driving mostly along flat paths? Or high in the mountains? Will you be traveling over rough terrain, muddy roads, sandy beaches, or sand dunes with a danger of getting stuck? Choose the style of your vehicle based on the terrain you will be traveling to get to the location and then travel the terrain at the location.
- You Must Be Able to Park and Camp
- Upon arrival, where will you stay, park and camp? Are their camping facilities nearby? Can you park nearby? The choice of vehicle is determined by how easily you can park or camp nearby. In the United States, the average national park, national wildlife refuge and Bureau of Land Management campground site is limited to 26ft (8m). If you will be visiting these types of campgrounds, you have to fit their size restrictions and choose an RV accordingly. Are there private campgrounds nearby? some parks and tourist locations provide parking for buses, motor homes, trailers and other oversize RVs, but not all. Does the area permit taking up two or more parking stalls with your oversized RV? If not, you will have to park elsewhere. Where is the distant parking lot and how far is it from where you want to be?
- How Versatile Does the RV Need to Be?
- Some people only use their RVs for photography during the summer when the weather temperatures are more enjoyable to be outside. Other enjoy taking their camera out into the mountains where weather conditions change moment by moment. How versatile does your RV have to be to accomodate your travel need? Must it be able to handle the extremes of terrain plus weather, or just one? Do you mostly do moderate camping, with only occassional rough terrain, then maybe pulling a heavy-duty towed vehicle to the location will allow the RV to be parked in a nearby campground while you use the stronger vehicle to get to the location. This means you need a sturdy RV that will tow that kind of vehicle. Consider all the ways you will use the RV and make sure that it will service all your needs or how you will have to make some compromises.
- Is Camping Nearby and Convenient or Far?
- The type of RV you choose is often influenced by how close the vehicle can get to your location while still allowing you convenient access. We’ll talk more about this, but consider how close the campground is to the location and how big a vehicle you need, or if you really need two vehicles. For instance, if the campground is far enough away, it might be more convenient to have a motor home with a towed vehicle to allow you closer access rather than a single RV.
- Weather and Temperature
- What will be the weather conditions at the times of your most common travel times? Will it be sunny and warm or snowing and freezing cold? What are the average temperatures at that time? The RV you choose should be able to keep you safe and warm and protected from the environment and weather. If you are a cold weather camper, you need to have an RV that is well insulated to protect you from freezing pipes and other cold temperature damage. Constantly wet and raining? Then the RV needs to be weather-tight with a rubber roof and possibly awnings or protective coverings. Extreme heat conditions require air conditioning and air flow throughout the vehicle. The weather you will experience inside and outside the RV will affect your enjoyment of the nature experience as well as your personal safety.
- Size Matters
- How big do you want to go? Will you be traveling alone, as a couple, or with a bunch of friends and family? Do they all need a place to sleep or will some be willing to sleep in a tent outside? How much equipment will you be carrying? A single camera with a good complement of lenses and a single tripod, or vast lighting equipment, multiple cameras and lenses with several tripods? What about snow mobiles, bicycles, scuba gear, scooters or motorcycles, ski gear, camping gear, and the other stuff people often fill their RVs with? How much room do you need for whatever will go inside the RV?
- How Long Will You Be Inside the RV?
- As nature photographers and nature lovers, we spend more time thinking about what we will be doing when we get to a nature location, camera angles, photographic subjects, hiking, climbing, walking, sitting, and exploring, that we often forget that there is another side to camping and traveling: down time. This is the time you spend eating, sleeping, and existing inside your recreational vehicle. It happens. You arrive at a location and the rain coming down floods everywhere and you are stuck inside for a day or two waiting for a change in the weather. Or you planned on clouds and the bright sun is out with heat wave temperatures and you can’t photograph your subject because of the high light contrast. So what do you do? Take into consideration how long your trip will be, the time spend inside traveling, and the time spend inside the RV while waiting for your photographic moments to occur. How much room do you need to move around and feel comfortable? If you just need a chair and table alongside your little cooking equipment, then size isn’t very important. But if you want to watch a little satellite television, use your laptop, or catch up on some work, and there is more than just you in the RV, you will probably need a little more elbow room.
How Are You Going To Use It?
Think about how you are going to use your RV as a piece of photography equipment. If the roof is solid with a stable ladder, you can stand on it to photograph from a good height, either bringing you eye level with the birds in the trees or allowing your camera to photograph wide sweeping scenics and landscapes over the top of fences and barriers. Can you also stand on the hood or bumper to get just a little higher?
What about using the vehicle as a blind? Most animals whose habitat roams near highways and roadways are accustomed to seeing vehicles on the road and tend to ignore them. Step out of the vehicle and you become instantly noticed, but stay inside and you are ignored. From within the vehicle, you can often use it as a blind to photograph wildlife without distracting them. How much room do you need inside to accommodate your equipment in use and to move around to get the photograph? The huge crew cab truck we use to tow our trailer has large bench seats. Brent can easily switch from side to side in the back seat with his large lens while I can move fairly freely between the driver and passenger windows with my own camera. In the Class C motor home we rented in Spain, the screens functioned similarly to window shades instead of as permanent fixtures, so we could easily open the window, raise the screen, and photograph out the motor home windows on the sides and in the back, allowing a great deal of movement inside the vehicle. Think about the access to the windows and using them as supports and the entire vehicle as a blind.
Besides shooting from inside and behind our vehicles as a blind, we also have used our vehicle as a backdrop. It’s neutral white isn’t very pleasing to the eye, but it can represent an out-of-focus cloudy sky or background. If you consider using your vehicle as the occasional background, especially for closeup photographs like flowers or insects, choose a neutral or dark tone for contrast or a natural color. When you want shade or shadow, a large vehicle parked in the right position can also block the sun.
Our large truck also acts like a giant wall and wind block. We’ve pulled it in close when working with wildflowers alongside the road to block the wind and stop our subject from moving around in the breeze. There are many uses a vehicle can provide, dependent upon the style and type of photography you do.
Type of Vehicle to Choose
Whatever vehicle you choose, there are pros and cons to each one. Here is a look at the most popular different RV types and some of the reasons you might consider them for your nature photography or travel photography.
- A van is a nice idea if you will be traveling alone, or are young and in love. It is a small space in general with little room to get away from each other and still have a place for your equipment. Some of the newer vans have a top or side section that expands out, creating more room, but it often won’t tolerate freezing or stormy weather conditions. Take care to measure your photography equipment and accessories to make sure you can store all of it conveniently and safely without crowding yourself. These vehicles are very mobile and easy to park anywhere, since their footprint isn’t much larger than the average car. While solo travelers find these perfect for long distance trips, they tend to be better for short trips and tend to get gas mileage similar to a car.
- Truck and Camper
- The truck and camper combination is a good choice for those who don’t mind the small space found in most campers but do need a vehicle that will take them away from their home on the road. A camper can be parked at campgrounds or even in parking lots and the truck is then unrestricted in where it can go. If you will be traveling through rough or high mountain terrain, the engine strength of a good truck will get you there and back safely. Again, like the van, make sure all your photographic equipment will fit inside the camper with room left over for you to move. This vehicle combination is good for the solo traveler, short trips, and medium driving distances. Unfortunately, the gas mileage can be expensive and add up though modern trucks may have improved gas mileage. While new campers are usually easy to disconnect from the truck, older ones may require some effort and strength. Access between the truck and the camper is usually very limited and requires leaving one to enter the other. If you intend to use the vehicle as a blind, this needs to be considered. Most campers can withstand most average temperatures, with some withstanding serious, but not extreme, cold temperatures.
- Class C Motor Home
- A Class C motor home is a combination van or truck and camper. Access between the driving area and the living quarters is open. These are ideal for a single person or couple, or a small family in the larger sizes. Some Class C motor homes can sleep eight or more people, though there usually isn’t much moving room with eight people awake. The ease of access between the driving and living quarters makes it easy to use this vehicle as a blind. Because the footprint is only slightly larger than an average vehicle, it is easy to park and camp. The Class C motor home also enters the arena of height concerns, limiting access to areas with low height tunnels or tree branches and gas station roofs. Some Class C motor homes have the engine strength and suspension design for towing a small vehicle, permitting the motor home to be parked and another form of transportation used to gain closer access to distant sights. Depending upon the design and insulation, some can withstand fairly severe temperatures and weather conditions. Gas mileage can be expensive, though some modern vehicles show great improvements in that area.
Narrow Window on the RoadClass C motor homes are designed to be similar to a truck and camper combination, with a bed over the dirving compartment. The bed area usually extends out over the front windshield, creating a narrow view out the front window for the driver and passenger. In other words, you can’t see the sky near you – only in the distance. While this isn’t usually much of a problem, driving the twisting mountain roads through Los Picos de Europe in Spain we faced low cliff overhangs and low height tunnels, constantly fearing a crunch on the roof. Your awareness of how “tall” the vehicle is takes some getting used to as the view out the front window inhibits much of that height perception. You do become more comfortable with the vehicle height over time, but you need to be aware of this.
- Motor home
- A full-sized motor home can come in a variety of sizes and lengths. Some can be as small as a Class C motor home and some are as large as buses and Mac trucks. Some have low profiles, allowing easy access under trees and roof lines, while others are tall and require close attention to height restrictions on bridges, gas stations, and other low ceilings. Some can sleep over a dozen people easily, with plenty of room to move. They can carry all your equipment and enough for 10 other photographers. They are literally homes on the road with full home services such as full size kitchens, refrigerators, clothing washing machines and dyers, and even dishwashers. Some even host bathtubs instead of the typical shower. They tend to be expensive but they come in a variety of shapes and sizes outfitted for the different “seasons” to accommodate the weather conditions you will be traveling or staying in, so choose one appropriate to the weather. Unfortunately, motor homes also tend to be very expensive to drive, insure, and difficult to accomodate in many campgrounds, and restricted in most national and wilderness parks and areas. They often require advance planning and registration for some campground facilities. Driving them requires special patience and determination as they are huge and awkward to maneuver. Some states are considering special driver’s licenses to drive the larger motor homes. These are excellent for long term stays with all the conveniences of home, and they make a huge blind, though take care when parked alongside the road as they tend to take up a lot of space. These are excellent for long-term or full-time travel, though, as they are truly homes on the road.
- Travel Trailer
- A travel trailer comes in four forms and contains no motor in the trailer. it must be towed by another vehicle. They come in all sizes, shapes and forms. Typically travel trailer styles consist of the travel trailer (a box on wheels), pop-up trailer (a box on wheels that expands or lifts up when camping), tent trailer (like the pop-up, it expands up into a tent on a box on wheels), and the fifth wheel (a travel trailer/camper combination). A travel trailer is parked and disconnected from the towing vehicle, allowing freedom of transportation while the “home” stays put. Size matters due to campground size restrictions and the ability to hold your equipment and passengers, but these tend to be the most popular and flexible recreational vehicle combinations, and a good choice for many part-time traveling nature photographers. Travel trailers can come with all the conveniences of home or just be a glorified bed. As a blind, these are only useful when parked in a natural area or when attached to the vehicle parked alongside the road.
The Bigger the Trailer, the Bigger the Tow VehicleThere is a direct, and often overlooked, connection between the size of the travel trailer and the size and strength of the pulling or towing vehicle. The larger the trailer, the bigger and more powerful the towing vehicle. To tow a heavy trailer with an insufficiant vehicle is very dangerous due to the stress and strain on the vehicle and the lack of ability to control the vehicle on the road.
Now What – How to Choose an RV?
We’ve given you a lot of information about the different choices you have when choosing a recreational vehicle for your nature photography interests. Begin with a checklist for all the features you need to stay in the places and weather conditions you will visit, and then make a checklist of all the ways you will actually use the RV, inside and out. As you make these lists, you will start to see some common thread which will lead you to understand which RV will be the best for you and best match your photographic needs. Then, start shopping. Keep your list with you at all times so you aren’t swayed by this gimmick and that. Go for durability rather than pretty. And check out our article on the basics of choosing a recreatiional vehicle to help you learn more about the kind of vehicle you need for your traveling photography dreams.