This article is a photographers guide to exploring sand dunes. I’ll give you a few tips that I’ve learned from my experiences so far, including how I plan my trips, what’s in my backpack, and what I do to ensure I’m doing my best to stay as safe as possible.
Safety is by far one of the most important factors when it comes to organising any hike anywhere in the world – and hiking in the sand dunes are no different. Dune systems can be arid, isolating, unforgiving landscapes to navigate, with wildlife that can potentially be both dangerous and unpredictable, and with weather that can alter how you safely navigate your way in, through and out of the dunes. It is so important to take responsibility for your own safety and be as informed and prepared as possible before entering these dune systems.
Research the area you’re entering. If the dune system is within a National Park, then head to the National Parks website for your state, and arm yourself with their informative and practical guides on the area. I always research here first, because it will generally have information such as directions on how to get to the dunes, the grade and length of any hiking options within the dune system, cultural sites of significance for you to be aware of, information about the wildlife and vegetation you may encounter, and it generally also has information on any road closures, or important alerts for you to be aware of.
If the dunes aren’t within a National Park, then you’ll need to dig a little deeper to research on the dune system you’re visiting, the surrounding areas, and any necessary safety information to be aware of. If you’re using the internet, ensure you’re getting your information from a reputable source. If when you arrive at your destination there’s an information centre, I encourage you to take the time to go and speak those working there. The people that work at information centres are knowledgable of the surrounding areas and are a wealth of information.
Watch the weather – both before and during your dune adventure. As a photographer, the weather determines when and if I go out into the dunes and I use a couple of different weather – and if necessary, tide – apps to familiarise myself with the forecast so I can plan my shot list accordingly. The combination of apps I use for weather forecasting are AccuWeather, Weatherzone & BOM and for tide times I use Willy Weather.
AccuWeather is probably my favourite weather forecasting app, and some of the functions I use in AccuWeather when planning my sand dune adventures are:
- Severe weather alerts
- UV index
- Average wind and maximum wind gusts
- Rain probability and rain amounts as well as a precipitation forecast for up to four hours
- Cloud cover, and
- Sunrise and sunset times
All of this important forecast information allows me to plan, prepare and pack appropriately for the conditions I’m likely to experience. I know my image at the start of this article may look serene viewing it through a computer or mobile device, but I can tell you that this particular morning the wind was gusting and my face (and camera) were getting lashed not only by the wind and cool air, but also by the grains of sand drifting off the dunes – luckily I was prepared, and I had worn the appropriate clothing to protect myself as much as possible and it made the experience much more comfortable.
Familiarise yourself with the entry and exit points, and try to find a physical landscape marker that you can easily recognise to alert you to the entry and exit points. Dune systems can become very disorientating, very quickly. Dunes come in all shapes and sizes, and their beauty can be all consuming – over every peak, there’s more incredible landscape to explore and adventure through. What you may not realise when you’re out there, is just how far into the dunes you’ve trekked, and to the chagrin of your legs that have so confidently and easily walked you in there – your legs also need to walk you back out. This all takes energy, and a reasonable to high level of physical fitness, and if you’re capturing a sunrise or sunset with your camera, then chances are you’ll be navigating your way in or out of the dunes in low or no light, and so it is essential that you do your due diligence and get familiar with how best to navigate your way in and out of there. I will always do a scouting trip first to try to best familiarise myself with the dune system. A compass and head torch are ideal pieces of equipment to have in your backpack to help in navigating your way in and out of the dunes at low light, and if possible, try to find a landscape marker that is close to the entry and exit points so that when you see said marker you know you’re near the entry and exit.
Tell someone where you are going. I cannot stress this enough. In such isolated landscapes, it’s crucial that someone know where you’re going. Anything can happen, and so in telling someone where you’re going and when you would expect to arrive back, you’re giving yourself the best chance of somebody being able to alert the appropriate emergency services to your location in the event that you’re unable to.
Be aware of the wildlife that you could come across in the dunes. Dune systems can be arid, unforgiving landscapes that are home to some incredible wildlife – some potentially dangerous. We humans are entering their home – not the other way around – and so it is important that you are mindful and respectful of where you are stepping. For your own safety and the safety of the wildlife, be vigilant in scanning your surrounds consistently, and do not approach or feed wildlife. The National Parks website is generally a fantastic source of information around what animals you are likely to encounter. If you are not entering a National Park, then be sure to obtain information from a reputable source about the types of wildlife you may see, and familiarise yourself with what you should do if you do have a close encounter.
Wear appropriate footwear. I love nothing more than walking barefoot along the sand when I’m headed to the beach – grounding in nature is something that calms me immediately. In saying that though, the sand dunes are an entirely different beast, and can be very hard and very hot to walk over. In addition, you never know what is beneath the surface of soft sand and so I now always wear my hiking boots during my sand dune photography adventures. The other reason I really love wearing my hiking boots, is because I have more support around my ankles, and given the uneven surfaces you’ll come across, and the fact that the soft sand can drop away without warning, it just provides my ankles with some extra protection.
CULTURAL SITES OF SIGNIFICANCE
Part of your responsibility of entering any landscape, is to be informed of any cultural sites of significance that you may come across during your dune adventures. Be mindful at all times of where you’re walking, and ensure you are familiar with any relevant rules and regulations pertaining to the area to ensure cultural heritage remains protected.
How you plan your trip will depend entirely on the purpose of your dune adventure.
Below are a couple of things I do to plan my photography adventures in the dunes.
- Sun Surveyor is a great app to help determine sunset, sunrise and magic hour times and to visualise the position of the sun based on your where your location will be in the dunes.
- Weather apps play an integral part in planning out the most ideal conditions for photographing the dunes, and as mentioned above will determine whether it’s suitable for you to go out into the dunes. It will also help you to determine what you need to wear, and if you need to pack anything extra in your backpack to help you make your experience more comfortable.
- Sun safety. If you’re planning on traversing the dunes at anytime during the day, you’ll get a double whammy of sun exposure due to the sun hitting your skin from above, and also the sun rays reflecting back up onto your skin from the sand. Regardless of whether it’s warm or cool, sunny or cloudy, I’ll wear sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, and lightweight clothing to protect my skin from the sun rays beaming down from the sky AND the rays reflecting off the sand.
- Book accomodation that is reasonably close to the dunes if possible. If you’re going on a road trip to to visit some incredible dune landscapes, you’ll want to make sure the drive to the dunes is close by so you can scout out the area and potential photography locations and make the most of your limited time in any location. Who knows when you’ll be back to capture that particular dune system again, so the closer you are, the less time you’ll spend driving and the more time you get to spend in the dunes. Another pro of having your accomodation close to the dunes means a little longer sleep in time also – winning! And on that note, sometimes the difference between capturing a brilliant sunrise and a good one is time. With the best of intentions, we can set our alarms, but sometimes our bodies and minds crave our comfortable bed rather than sand dunes and we can sleep in a little longer than we’d anticipated, and so being closer to the dunes and reducing drive time can allow us a little extra wiggle room if we’ve hit snooze on our alarms one too many times.
- And speaking of alarms – set them…twice.
- Charge all of your batteries including camera and phone batteries. If you’re a photographer, you’ll know the frustration of having a battery run out, so be prepared and get everything charged in advance.
- Ensure your backpack is packed ready to go. You’ll find a list of what’s in my backpack towards the end of this article. If your bag is pre-packed and ready to go, and an incredible moment strikes and you need to get to the dunes quickly, you know you can just grab your bag and get going without needing to pack your bag in a rush and potentially missing something important to include within your backpack.
- To protect, or not to protect your camera gear…that is the question. In terms of protecting your gear, it depends on what article you read, or photography YouTube channel you subscribe to, but there are some photographers who wrap their gear in plastic, and never ever change lenses on the dunes for obvious reasons – sand gets everywhere…..literally everywhere. There are some photographers who don’t protect their gear AND change their lenses out in the dunes. What you choose to do with your gear is ultimately your decision and is also dependent on your insurance as well. You need to determine what your level of comfort is with regards to your camera gear. Some photographers have two camera bodies with two different lenses, but if like me you have only one camera body then at bare minimum I would suggest a polarising filter to protect the front of your lens. I personally do not “protect” my camera lens and body with a plastic bag, although I have heard of other photographers doing this. I will confess I have changed my Canon lenses in the dunes, and I knew in doing so that there was every chance that it could be to the detriment of my camera. Luckily, the one and only time I have done that, my camera and lenses remained in good working order and I cleaned them to within an inch of their life afterwards, but again, you will need to determine where your level of comfort lies. If you’re not comfortable switching up lenses in the dunes then perhaps a good alternative (and something I now do) would be to plan in advance to capture the sand dune system with your telephoto lens one day, and your zoom lens another day.
- Food and water. For sunset shoots, I’ll generally eat dinner before I leave, that way I’m not having to worry about organising dinner when I get back to my accomodation. For any other time of the day, I’ll pack protein balls as a snack to keep me going as they’re lightweight (and yummy!), and of course I will always have a bottle of water.
WHAT’S IN MY BACKPACK
I try to pack as light as I can, and of course with there being different seasons, the contents of my back pack can vary depending on the weather and intensity of the hike into the dunes. Here is a basic guide to what’s in my back pack:
- Camera and lens
- 2 x batteries – one in the camera and one spare
- 2 x memory cards – one in the camera and one spare
- Bandanna – this is perfect for protecting your face during harsh winds, and windstorms in the dunes
- Beanie – perfect for keeping your head warm during Autumn, Winter & Spring
- Protein balls
- Head lamp
- Lightweight waterproof/windproof jacket
- Basic first aid kit s
That was a mammoth article, and I hope it has given you some basic tips around keeping safe and planning your next photography sand dune adventure. If you’d like to know more about the Australian Sand Dune Project, you can find out more about it here.
Otherwise, if you’d like to know a little more about me, you can head on over to the About page to learn more about the origins of my love for photography. You can also join me over on Pinterest, Instagram or Facebook for more behind the scenes as I embark on my Australian Sand Dunes Project.
Until next time,
Founder, Lens & Muse