On topographical maps, a solid blue line means that water is guaranteed any time of year. Priceless in a desert. Priceless when you've got enough water for about the next half a day. Not at all helpful when you turn the corner of the canyon and the stream is there … only it's frozen over?
Death Valley in January is a wacky place. Death Valley is a wacky place.
In a few months, Cottonwood Canyon (no joke - some cowboy named it.) will regularly be over 100ºF in a few months. But in January, days are a cool 50º and nights are a freezing 20º.
My group of three spent five days backpacking through the western mountains of Death Valley in 2008. I got to carry 10 lbs of camera gear in addition to my 40lb pack. A Nikon D70 body (old, used, but operable and I don't care too much if it gets banged up), a polarizer, a Nikkor 17-35mm f/2.8, a Nikkor 105mm f/2.8 micro, loads of batteries, 20GB of CF cards, and a pack of microfiber cloths. Except in the roughest of terrain, I keep the camera slung from my pack in front of me. The rest of gear I stow in my pack with an insert from my Domke bag. Using the Domke insert is the best solution I've come up with to keep the gear padded on a backpacking trip, if you've got a better one, I'd love to hear it.
When I'm backpacking, I keep the 17-35mm on my camera most of the time. It's a tack-sharp wide-angle that makes it great for landscapes, and the low aperture makes ideal for the quick portrait or in low light. It's a heavy lens, but it's short, and worth it. The polarizer never leaves the lens. (If you've never tried a polarizer, do it. Now. This will be here when you get back.)
The macro lens serves double as a telephoto lens. 105mm isn't enough to do any bird photography, but it works great for most large wildlife, and a true macro usually comes in more handy (also: the it weighs only a little over a pound, a good tele starts is over five).
Backpacking while photographing is an interesting challenge when you're with a bunch of non-photographers who are more focused on getting to a good place to camp before dark than waiting for the perfect light. I've often found that the secret to convincing others to play along is to take plenty of pictures of the people in the group – everyone loves a new Facebook photo. I also volunteer to take up the rear – I've found that people are more inclined to let you play if they don't feel like they're waiting for you.
The image above is just a taste of the wackiness that we found in Death Valley. For real wackiness, take a look at the whole set on flickr.