Creating Lifestyle Content on Trail

photo by Alex Manelis

Most people would probably consider a backpacking trip an opportunity to shake off the duties of work and enjoy a little downtime with Mother Nature – cell phones turned off, computers powered down, and hammocks securely fastened.

Other people know that time spent on trail offers the perfect chance to snap photos, shoot film, and engage in storytelling – in other words, create “content.” Sometimes, this simply consists of creating material for your own social media channels, but it in other cases, the images you capture on trail can prove useful to brands and other organizations who are looking for lifestyle content – stories about people outdoors, using their gear, participating in their activities, and embodying their mission or ethos.

So how do you get into the brand content creation game? We reached out to Paulina Dao of Little Grunts, a Bay Area photographer, writer, backpacker, and climber (and social manager for the Bay Area Climbers Coalition) whose creative savvy and authentic messaging has resulted in gigs with REI, Backpacker Magazine, Arc’teryx, Outdoor Research, Noso Patches, and Mountain Hardwear, among others.

To Dao, the idea of “content” isn’t just some social media catchphrase, but rather “a means of sharing experiences with the world and inspiring people to get outside” while also encouraging people to practice environmental stewardship. She also believes in the power of narrative to guide her work. She takes her charge seriously, going beyond aesthetics to convey a larger message. “Anyone can snap a photo,” she says. “But what does it mean? What is it portraying? How did it feel in the moment? Being able to tell a story really takes content to the next level.”

Here, Dao shares her tips for capturing those special moments on trail, including careful consideration of brand partnerships, being thoughtful about gear, and working with intention.

What are the keys to creating meaningful, authentic content instead of just advertising a brand or product?

Before taking on any partnerships, really take a step back and look at the product or the brand. Does the company align with your values? Does the partnership make sense, whatever that might mean to you? Don’t do something just because you are getting paid or you are getting free stuff. People can see right through that.

Be organic. Things that are blatantly advertising a brand or a product don’t do very well when you’re scrolling through your social media feeds. I’ve made this mistake before.

Put a fun or different spin on it. What makes you different from everyone else? How can you make this content something that people say, “Oh, yep, that’s totally you”?

Find a way to connect with whomever is consuming that content. Think of ways to make them stop and look, read, and ponder what is being presented.

What moments or opportunities are you looking for on a backpacking trip when it comes to creating content?

I love lots of movement in my photos, whether that is wind, people moving, or laughing. I think it adds another dimension.

I also look for real moments. I try not to stage people. I like to have them do their thing and then I run around and work around that.

What are the biggest challenges when creating content on a backpacking trip? How do you deal with them?

My biggest challenge is weight. What camera gear can I bring that won’t be too heavy, but will also allow me to capture what I want? I’m not a very fast hiker, so being precise with what I bring is very important. I can’t afford to bring multiple lenses. I try to think about what I want to capture beforehand and bring the best lens I have for the job.

Another challenge is keeping up with everyone and being able to frame my shots. Sometimes I’m at the back of the pack and I get a lot of “from the back” shots. When this happens, sometimes I won’t stop when people take breaks. I will keep hiking to get ahead and shoot.

Do you have any must-have gear when doing content creation in the backcountry?

A camera of some sort. This varies depending on the type of trip I’m doing. Am I just backpacking? Are we climbing? The four cameras that I currently own are a Canon 5D Mark II, Sony RX100, GoPro Hero 3, and my iPhone X.

I despise bulk of any kind when climbing, so I will leave the big, beefy DSLR behind. The Sony RX100 is a point and shoot that I bought used. It’s really powerful for a point and shoot, and super lightweight. I usually always have my iPhone on me.

If I have my DSLR, my go-to lens is the 24-70 f/2.8. It’s super versatile and sharp. I’ll also bring a tripod in case I feel like shooting night photos, or if I don’t want to bug people to snap some photos for me.

What are some ways content creators can connect with brands?

Reach out to smaller brands for a partnership to get your foot in the door.

Do your research! We have so much information at our fingertips that it is so easy to find the marketing people at a company.

Be persistent. If you email someone and you don’t hear back, send another email to follow up.

Build your connections with others. People like to work with who they know and trust. Be a good and reliable person.

Do you have any other tips for people who want to begin creating content for outdoor brands?

Quality and passion are the two biggest takeaways that I have. Brands will find you if you are creating quality content. I like to look at photos from photographers and friends that I admire. What do they do that I like? How do I utilize that in my own work? I also watch a lot of videos on CreativeLive and go to photo camps to find ways to think differently behind the lens. I also try to get out and shoot a lot.

Brands are also willing to take a chance on you if you’re passionate about what they do.

My first ever partnership was with Outdoor Research back in 2013. They had these pair of pink shorts that I absolutely adored. I wore them everywhere. I had just started my blog. I tagged Outdoor Research in every single photo of me wearing these shorts. One day, I had just come out of the wilderness from a backpacking trip and there was an email in my inbox asking if I wanted to partner with them. I’ve been working with Outdoor Research ever since.


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Unless otherwise mentioned, all photos courtesy Paulina Dao