Over the past few years, I have been working on tweaking my cold weather gear so I could more comfortably photograph during the winter and in cold temperatures. After a trip to a very frigid Yellowstone National Park this winter, I think I have finally found a winning combination. No more ice-cold hands, nearly frozen toes, and general cold-weather misery for me!
With so many options for winter gear, I thought it might be helpful to put all of my lessons learned and advice in one spot to help others who want to photograph in winter but are not sure where to start in terms of choosing gear. In this post, I will share some thoughts on using camera gear in cold weather, choosing the right clothing, and some basic tips on being prepared for wintery conditions.
Note: This information is meant for photographers who want to get beyond their car for photography during the winter by walking, hiking, snowshoeing, or skiing on day trips. This is not meant to be sufficient information for backcountry winter camping. Also, I get very cold, so you might need less gear to be comfortable in cold weather. I have found the gear described below to keep me comfortable and safe to about -15 degrees F for a full day out and about, with both activity and standing around.
Using your camera gear in cold weather:
Camera Equipment: I have used my camera gear in temperatures well below freezing on multiple occasions and have never had any malfunctions with the camera or lenses due to cold weather (for example, my Canon 6D is rated for use between 32°F and 104°F and I have used it extensively at temperatures much colder and slightly warmer with no issues whatsoever). Accessories, on the other hand, do not stand up as well. Cold air makes plastic on items like remote releases quite brittle, making them prone to breaking.
In very cold temperatures, keeping the front element of a camera lens or filter clean can also be challenging in certain environments. When waterfall spray or steam (like from a hot spring in Yellowstone) hits cold equipment, the droplets can freeze instantly. In these situations, I have found that using a hand warmer to heat up the filter or front lens element and melt the ice is a good option for cleaning off frozen spray or droplets. In a pinch, I have also used a credit card to scrape ice off a polarizer but will only recommend that you try that option at your own risk! If ice is forming on your gear, it might be time to put it away.
Also, if your camera is not weather sealed, be careful when photographing in snowy conditions and plan to keep your camera as dry as possible. Melting snow can get into your camera and cause damage to the camera's internal components. In snowy conditions, I drape a microfiber towel over my camera and lens to keep the snow off my gear. This is almost always enough to keep my camera completely dry and is much easier to use than a cumbersome raincover.
Battery life:Battery life decreases significantly in cold weather. I always bring along extra batteries so this is not an issue. If you only have one battery, keep it in an inner pocket to keep it warm until you need it. Warming up a cold battery with a handwarmer or by putting it in an inner pocket can also help give a dead battery a little bit of extended use in a pinch.
Tripod and Accessories: In freezing temperatures, be aware that your tripod can become frozen shut. If your tripod gets wet while in use and the temperature is below freezing, be proactive about drying the legs before collapsing them. Carbon fiber also gets brittle in cold weather, so treat this piece of gear with some extra care (for example, one of Ron’s tripod legs snapped off after some minor contact with a piece of ice on an Icelandic beach because the cold weather made it brittle).
Some people use baskets, like those on the ends of ski poles, when using their tripod in snowy conditions. I think this is too cumbersome and have never personally had an issue with just sticking my tripod in the snow and stabilizing it, even in deep snow. For photographing on ice or slick ground, some tripod manufacturers offer spikes, some retractable, to help your tripod stay put. These can be especially handy when standing on an ice-covered lake on a windy day.
When going inside:When going from the cold outside to a warm inside location, make sure you leave your gear in your bag. Taking cold gear out in a warm car or room will start the process of condensation, which is the last thing you want to happen to the inside and outside of your camera and lenses. I leave my gear inside my closed bag whenever going inside and I leave it there until the whole bag and its contents warms up to room temperature. I have never had any issues with this approach but still carry some silica gel packs and ziplock bags to dry out my gear just in case. Other photographers recommend placing your gear in a ziplock bag before going from cool to warm temperatures but I have never had an issue with just leaving my gear in my closed bag, which is much easier and therefore more likely to happen.
Clothing and Personal Items:
Choosing the right clothing and personal items is the most important aspect of staying warm while outside. Up until last year, I used a hodgepodge of winter clothing and it worked pretty well for snowshoeing and photographing in cold weather but I was still always a little too cold. Once we had a three week trip to Iceland planned for February of last year, I decided I needed to be more deliberate in putting together a cold weather ensemble of gear since we would be spending many nights in freezing weather photographing the aurora. With the exception of not having the right boots, this gear proved to be perfect for our trip to Iceland and after testing it out in other winter environments, I can recommend these items or similar ones as a place to start, with tweaking based upon your own needs. I include links below just for informational purposes, not as a recommendation to purchase specific pieces of gear.
Have a basic understanding of what causes hypothermia, how to protect against it, how to identify the symptoms, and what to do about it. Here is a quick primer.
Stay away from cotton! Do not wear cotton base layers, socks, or underwear. Cotton does not wick away moisture, leaving you vulnerable to the cold. If you work up a sweat hiking up a trail and then stop to photograph, your body will cool down after you stop moving and cotton will leave a layer of cold, wet material right next to your skin.
Dress in layers, especially if you will be hiking/snowshoeing/skiing and then waiting around for a photograph. Layers will allow you to stay comfortable when moving and when standing still. I try to start out cold so that I do not work up a sweat or have to stop and take off layers. A base layer can help wick away perspiration, a middle layer can help provide insulation and an outer layer can help keep you dry (and provide more insulation, depending on your needs).
Wind can have a major impact on how warm gear feels. The same fleece that feels warm on a windless day can feel invisible on a windy day. Having a breathable, windproof and water-resistant outer layer for your top, bottom, and head can help you stay warm in the coldest conditions.
Overall, choose clothing that is comfortable and loose. Tight clothes can constrict your movement and make you colder.
Specific Clothing Considerations:
Hands:Touching your camera gear will make your hands cold. I wear two pairs of gloves – a thin inner layer and a thick outer mitten. The inner layer is flexible enough to use in working with my camera and tripod and the mittens help keep my hands warm during the downtime. I almost always keep my left hand in both the glove and the mitten, using my right hand for the majority of the work. I also keep hand warmers accessible to help warm up cold hands, a cold nose, or a frozen filter.
Upper Body: For the coldest weather, I wear three layers: a microfleece or wicking base layer, a mid-weight middle layer (either a North Face Thermoball or a North Face Denali Fleece), and an insulated outer layer (North Face Apex Elevation jacket, which has an insulated hood, repels water, and is windproof). Up until recently, I regularly wore a down coat. After learning more about cruelty in the down industry, I decided that I would prefer synthetic options. Even though down is generally said to be warmer, I have found the above combination to be warmer than my previous down gear. I will still use my down parka in really cold conditions when all I am doing is standing around waiting for something (sunset, aurora, etc) to happen.
Lower Body: I start with a wicking baselayer (either regular long-john style pants or microfleece, depending on the weather) and add windproof and water-resistant fleece pants (REI just discontinued the pair I use, which is disappointing because they are almost a perfect piece of gear). For days when I do not expect to get wet or too cold, these two pants together are a perfect combination. On colder days or days where I might get wet (crawling around in the snow or on a day then it is snowing), I will add a waterproof outer layer (the also discontinued REI Taku softshell pants).
Feet: Good boots are such a worthwhile investment! I just upgraded my winter boots and at first was hesitant about spending $150 on such a specialized pair of footwear. After more than a week wearing them daily for hiking in quite cold weather (up to about -15 F), I can say that good boots make a huge difference and are worth the investment. I am now wearing the Vasque Pow Pow boots and highly recommend them to other women (not sure if they offer a men’s option). I bought them a size too big and wear two pairs of socks – a pair of my normal wool hiking socks with a wader-style, thick wool sock over the hiking socks). My feet get cold so this system works for me but may be too warm for others. These boots will work for winter hiking, snowshoeing, and just standing around. If you plan to be out and about in below freezing temperatures, something with a 400g insulation should be a good place to start. If you will be in really cold weather and will not be active, something warmer (like the Baffin arctic line-up) might work better. Again, invest in good boots, make sure they are not too tight, and NEVER wear cotton socks!
Headwear:I still have not figured this one out for very cold weather. I have used a fleece balaclava (essentially a robber-style face mask, available in different configurations), but have found it to be too constricting. I currently wear a fleece-lined wool ear-flap hat and use my jacket’s insulated hood when necessary. I am going to add a looser neck gaiter that I can use to keep my neck warm and bring up over my nose when necessary.
Other Personal Items:
The Ten Essentials:As with any hiking trip, you should bring along the Ten Essentials, which include a topographic map, compass, hydration, extra food (including high calorie snacks), extra clothing, a firestarter, matches, sun protection, a pocket knife or multitool, first-aid kit, and a headlamp (with extra batteries).
If you are venturing very far beyond your car, also take some time to familiarize yourself with essential practices for safe winter travel. Prepare for your trip by checking trail conditions, checking avalanche conditions, and sharing your plans with a responsible friend or family member. Be sure you know how to read your map and use your GPS if you bring one along. Winter navigation can require some special skills, as snow can obscure familiar landmarks and during a storm, your tracks can become covered quite quickly. This is especially true for photographers who may be venturing out before sunrise and returning after sunset. It is also wise to consider your options - before you depart! - for emergency shelter should you find yourself spending an unexpected night outdoors (at minimum, I always carry an emergency space blanket and sometimes more).
Thermos: Staying hydrated and well-fed helps your body stay warm, so take the time to stop for drinks and snacks. In addition to water, having a hot drink in really cold weather is nice. We each carry a 24 oz Thermos and it does a great job of keeping beverages hot for a full day out in cold weather. In really cold temperatures, regular water bottles can freeze, so look into insulated options if you will be out for extended periods of time. Also, Nalgene-style bottles can become very brittle in cold temperatures, so be careful not to have one laying above your camera gear on cold days where the full bottle has a chance of freezing.
Hand warmers: Handwarmers are probably my favorite piece of winter gear. Once they heat up, a handwarmer provides real warmth and can feel so comforting on a cold hand or nose. They can also be helpful for melting ice off of a filter or warming up a frozen tripod. A handwarmer will heat up more in a closed pocket, which is a good way to refresh one that you have been heavily using. Smaller versions are made to serve as foot warmers and you can slip those in your boots to keep your toes warm, as well.
Gaiters: Gaiters are worn over shoes and generally cover the lower leg up to the knee, preventing things like snow, slush, and rocks from making their way into your shoes. Gaiters made for winter use are often water-proof or water resistant. I typically wear gaiters anytime I will be in snow that is more than a few inches deep or when snowshoeing. They help keep your shoes and pants clean and dry, which can help increase your comfort and safety in the winter.
Microspikes: Microspikes are small metal spikes held together with a rubber binding that fits over a shoe or boot (if you have no idea what I am talking about, click on the link to see a photo). They are useful when hiking on snow-packed trail or icy surface because they offer excellent traction. We have found that cheaper options do not fare well in colder weather and do not last long, so an initial investment in microspikes can be a wiser choice.
Microfiber Towel: I always carry a 16"x36" microfiber towel and it often comes in handy in winter. In light snow, I use the towel to cover my camera and lens to keep it dry. A towel also comes in handy for drying off a wet tripod, drying off wet gear, and shielding the front of the lens from snowflakes between shots. While there are many options available, I prefer the REI MultiTowel because it is lightweight and affordable and carry two of these with me when I travel (in purple, of course).
Snowshoes: Showshoeing deserves a full post of its own, but I will quickly mention that I use the MSR Evo Ascent snowshoes and cheap ski poles. I recently upgraded to this model and have not used them much so I cannot offer an assessment quite yet. If you want to buy snowshoes and need some tips, here is a helpful guide from REI.
A few words about the expense of all these items...Given the harsher conditions, good winter gear can be more important to safety and survival than gear for other seasons. Going out ill-prepared can have big consequences so these items are worth the investment for reasons beyond comfort. For those photographers on a budget, I know that most of the items I discuss above are expensive (and sometimes shockingly expensive). I have acquired these items over a few years, which makes the expense more palatable. And, after years of buying crappy gear, I am a firm believer in buying quality items once and saving in the long-run. If you are looking to save money, a lot of online outlets offer great deals on previous year models, often with little difference other than the item's color. Costco is also a great place to find a good deal on high-quality base layers and they sell decent snowshoes, gloves, wool socks, and handwarmers by the box. And for women reading this, you might be able to fit into the girls version of some of these items and save a bunch (as I have done with the Patagonia base layers that I love but that are also insanely expensive).
Do you have any other advice for photographing in cold weather? If so, please share your ideas below!