Tales from the Trail: How an ultralight sketching kit transformed the way I nature journal

My nature journaling kit has come a long way since 2020, and because of it, so have I.

Tales from the Trail: How an ultralight sketching kit transformed the way I nature journal
Me with my ultralight nature journaling kit on a ~4-mile trail run in March 2024

One day in February 2023, I decided to toss my smallest sketchbook (previously reserved for scribbles) into a fanny pack before heading out to run. Until this point, I had been using a larger sketchbook for my nature journaling, which I carried in a backpack along with a Stablo easel and a tripod to support my sketchbook and a growing number of sketching and painting supplies. I lovingly called this monster kit, "THE WORKS", and while it had plenty of great bells and whistles, it also had a monster problem: it was a source of friction between me and the nature journaling process.

What you see: Me, enjoying a wonderful day nature journaling at Hot Creek near Mammoth Mountain, California. What you don't see: All the extra gear I carted down into this ravine, including a tripod, backpack, and easel. I still had a great time painting, but all those extra art supplies added undue stress and distraction and kept me confined to this one spot.

I had already built a strong nature journaling habit and am lucky enough to no longer experience friction around the "doing" part of nature journaling (i.e. getting out into the field and starting). Instead, my problem was THE WORKS itself: carrying too much good stuff was causing me to focus too much time and energy wrangling art supplies rather than nature journaling.

One evening, after a particularly long nature journaling session spent mainly setting up and breaking down my kit with little to show for myself in my nature journal, I got fed up. I realized I was losing the beauty of the process at the expense of all my art supplies. THE WORKS had become too unwieldy a monster and I needed to make a change.

Look closely at the big electric switches in Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein and you'll spot one labeled, "THE WORKS"

Let the experiments begin!

Good, but could be better: My first attempt at a running kit using a fanny pack and a smaller sketchbook (A6). For a while, this kit also became my everyday art kit. I have since iterated on this spec and have changed both my running kit and everyday kit now to be even smaller.

When I trialed a fanny pack sketchbook kit for the first time, something clicked: ditching all the extra art gear (and a larger sketchbook) in exchange for a smaller, more portable kit didn't limit me as I had suspected it might — in fact, this smaller kit became the single-most liberating change I had made to my sketching kit yet...but I knew I could improve it even more.

Running with nature journaling supplies

The fanny pack was a great step in the right direction, but it bounced up and down while running. I wanted to make it even more portable and to go yet smaller and lighter. How could I bring a sketchbook, watercolors, drinking water, sun protection, wipes, snacks, and more with me on a 3+ mile run?

As I began brainstorming, I realized I needed to prioritize the main activity (in this case, trail running) over the supplies themselves. I wanted to be able to go out for an extended run and bring my nature journal with me and would need to find an optimal form factor for running with all the essentials plus my sketching kit.

I decided to invest in a trail running vest and filled it with running essentials (water, electrolyte chews, sun protection, etc.), then, after the essentials had been determined and their spaces had been reserved, I worked to select which sketching supplies would make the cut. I weighed all my gear, tested different ultralight bags for my select art supplies, and experimented with different ways of keeping everything hands-free along the trail with no place to sit. Equally important would be speed as I would be stopping to draw in 100-degree temperatures (another story for another time, perhaps).

This change in mindset of prioritizing the main activity first (trail running) and then structuring my kit around the core activity led to a huge mindset shift and expanded my range of nature journaling territory to a ~5-mile run and allowed me to record my observations on the fly, adding them to my nature journal within ~15 seconds of spotting them. What a change from THE WORKS and its ~15-minute set-up!

My first test run (pun intended) with a trail running vest equipped with minimal sketching gear occurred in May 2023. I ran out to a field which previously was inaccessible to me with THE WORKS and spotted 3 rabbits, 4 quail, a Great White Heron, Say’s phoebes, and my first yellow-headed blackbird. I would not have been able to access these areas kitted-up with a heavy backpack!

This little kit has allowed me to integrate my nature journaling practice into an activity I wouldn't have previously associated with running, but now the two are inseparable in my mind and complement each other beautifully.

My kit now goes with me everywhere and it continues to morph as I continue to use it. Each new field test reveals yet another area which could be tweaked and improved, and the iterative process brings a new excitement of its own.

But what about THE WORKS?

I still use THE WORKS on occasion, but I have trimmed it down extensively. I also recently shared on about a new monopod sketching set-up I am trialing and developing which can be set up and broken down within a couple minutes total. It's essentially a hands-free set-up with support for your gear, but it's not something I would be able to bring with me on a run.

Me with THE WORKS. I do still use this set-up occasionally, but it has been trimmed down extensively.

If you've made this far, I hope you've had some a-ha moments of your own regarding form vs. function, how flexibility with your process (and kit) can be just as important as any art technique, the importance of field testing, and the joy of the iterative process.

Now, go put that kit to good use and always be iterating!