Columbia River Gorge during an early-winter freeze
Tips for Staying Warm and Safe This Winter
While we might find ourselves hiking or snowshoeing to find winter subjects and scenes, when we find them we often stand still for quite some time while we create images. This can lead to being cold and not fully enjoying our time outside, or worse, expose us to the dangers of cold exposure.
Clothing Layers: It is important to wear a mix-and-match layering system when outside in cold and/or wet conditions. Layers allow you to adjust what you wear which helps you adjust to the activity of the moment. Check out REI for further advice and options.
Be Bold, Start Cold - You might need to hike to your destination. If so, it is a good idea to not wear all of your layers of clothing when starting out from the trailhead. You might consider wearing as little as possible at first, knowing you will generate warmth as you hike. Your base layer and a rain jacket might be enough. Or perhaps only your base layer if there is no rain or snow falling. If you were to wear your most insulated jacket and layers when hiking, you might overheat and sweat a lot, causing your inner layers to become wet. When you stop to photograph, your wet layers will pull heat from your body more quickly than when dry.
Next-to-skin, insulation, weather protection - This is the typical three-layer structure with which to layer your winter clothing. You can adjust depending on your own body's needs and your climate.
Next-to-skin - Also known as your base-layer. Next to skin means the inner-most layer of clothing, your underwear. Often - from head-to-toe - a long sleeve shirt, long underwear and socks, and maybe liner gloves. This is the layer that touches the skin and moves moisture (sweat or melted snow) away from the body. There are many brands which offer natural and synthetic options. No cotton! I really like the company Ice Breaker
Insulation - This is the mid-layer which consists, often, of a down or synthetic-filled jacket, or a fleece sweatshirt. This is the layer that keeps you warm when standing still, but might not be worn when hiking. No cotton!
Weather protection - This is the waterproof outer-layer worn to keep rain and snow from landing on our absorbent mid and base-layers. You might see jacket and pant options that offer waterproof and insulation. Keep in mind that, while this allows you to wear only two layers, you will not have the mix-and-match options that a three-layer system allows. A dedicated "rain" jacket is important to carry with you, even if the forecast is dry.
Hat, neck gaiter and gloves - Always carry a winter hat. While you might not wear it while hiking, it is crucial to retain body heat when standing still near your tripod. A neck gaiter is a tube of fabric which can be worn in many different configuration does a great job of sealing off gaps in your clothing. Check out the Buff. I really have enjoyed my dedicated photography gloves from the Norwegian brand Vallerret. They keep my hands warm while allowing me full access to my camera's functions.
Socks - Wool socks! Thats it. Check out Darn Tough.
NO COTTON - Cotton, considered a no-no in winter because it sponges up water and can chill you, can be okay if you’re outside on a super-dry, scorching summer day. When it is cold and you are sweating from the hike, or rain has soaked your mid and base layers, cotton takes longer to dry and does not keep you warm when wet, like wool can.
Boots - I prefer to wear my tall hiking boots when hiking in the winter. If your feet are always cold, you might consider a dedicated pair of insulated winter boots. Just make sure they are snug an the feet and will not wiggle if you are wearing snowshoes. Either way, choose waterproof footwear for winter photography.
Gaiters - Boot gaiters are (often) waterproof tubes of fabric which wrap around your lower legs and over the tops of your boots. This keep snow or rain on grass from falling into your footwear.
Snowshoes and Ice Traction - Snowshoes are incredibly helpful when the snow is deep and you want to access landscapes away from the road. Choose a pair that can support the weight of you and all of your gear. I really like MSR snowshoes. Some companies even make snowshoes for your tripod, which go a long way to keep your tripod where you want it. B&H Photo has a few options. Ice traction looks like big rubber bands with small spikes, which strap to the bottom of your feet and help prevent you from slipping when walking on ice. Very useful when photographing frozen waterfalls.
Hand Warmers - single-use hand and feet warmers are an awesome addition to your camera bag when in cold environments. They can make the difference between a really joyful and productive photography session or a cold and miserable one. There are also reusable battery-powered hand warmers available.
Extra Batteries - Carry extra camera batteries with you, in a layer of clothing. Exposure to cold can drain batteries more quickly.
Camera Bag - When photographing in the winter, a larger camera bag is often needed to allow for extra room to store clothing layers, hand warmers and water. I have always had great luck with Lowepro camera bags.
Upper Latourell Falls and it's frozen basin
As much as I LOVE summer, there is something undeniably beautiful about an icy or snowy landscape. I hope you are able to get outside this winter and enjoy whatever conditions your area has in store. Consider layering your clothing in order to better adapt to the conditions of that moment.