Dressing for Winter Photography

© Paul Mozell  — Although I live in New England, I am often surprised by the intensity of the complaints about winter weather. It’s not that I want to keep folks from emigrating to Florida. Rather, knowing how to stay comfortably safe and warm is much easier than most people think.  Heat management, and dressing correctly, is the key to getting great photographs of the winter landscape and cold weather sports and activities.

Mushing on Chocorua Lake, New Hampshire © Paul Mozell

This content of this post is adapted from workshops I once taught for the Winter Hiking & Backpacking Program of the AMC – Appalachian Mountain Club. Indeed, if you really want to learn how to stay warm and have fun in the cold, hang out with some ice climbers and winter backpackers.  Let’s start with the extremities. If your feet and hands are cold, put on a hat. Not only does your head have a lot of surface area that radiates heat, but it acts as a chimney, and warmth from your body core just rises up through the neck and head. Forget about those silly, fluffy ear warmers and get a couple of nice, fuzzy, fleece or wool hats. I say two, because on a full day outing, or if I know the weather is going to change, I may switch from a hat that has full ear coverage and makes me look like a bearded Andean or Nepali herdsman, to a light weight hat made for cross-country ski racing.

The hands are next, and here you have many choices. Start with a pair of thin, synthetic, liner gloves. This way you’ll be able to handle cold cameras and tripods for a few seconds or minutes. Over the liner gloves you’ll be wearing a heavy water-resistant glove or mitten. Although mittens are warmer than gloves, you give up a lot of dexterity. Here is my favorite tip of all. If you are the kind of person who always has cold hands, wear or carry a couple of pairs of disposable latex or plastic gloves as your first layer. The vapor barrier principle has been extensively researched. It explains that your body loses heat either by radiation or by evaporation. A waterproof layer worn directly on your skin entirely prevents that evaporative heat loss. If your outer gloves get wet from melting snow or ice, the latex gloves help restore the insulating value of the outer gloves. Trust me, this works very well. Thin rubberized kitchen gloves are equally effective.

On to your feet. In the coldest weather—and for the sake of this discussion, I’ll say below 20° F, boots with a removable inner liner are the warmest. Sometimes called Mukluks or Pac Boots, these calf high boots are descendants of the heavy moccasins worn by Native American people. Sorel is the best known manufacturer of these as well as LL Bean. Forget about wearing summer hiking boots in the winter. I do also wear a pair of winter boots made by Columbia that are nearly as warm as the Sorels. Although the insulating layer is not as thick, the design uses synthetic materials that radiate heat back to your feet.

Want to keep your toesies really warm? Wear Vapor Barrier Socks. Yes, a thin nylon, waterproof sock worn is the first layer on your feet. They work just like the VBL (vapor barrier liner) gloves I talked about earlier. Yes, your feet will be a little damp and a little smelly when you remove the socks, but you’ll be surprised how the sweat glands in your feet actually shut down. Your socks will not be soaked with perspiration. Instead, your feet will be nice and toasty. Alternatively, you can wear the VPLs over a thin pair of breathable liner socks, covered by some heavy wool or synthetic “regular” socks. Do a quick Google search for vapor barrier socks.

“Cotton Kills”, is an oft used expression in the hiking and climbing community, and for good reason. A sweat-soaked garment like a cotton T-shirt or sweatshirt dries from the outside first, and the wet inner fibers stay next to your skin.  Wool garments, on the other hand, dry from the inside first, due to the properties of natural wool and the osmosis principle. In the 1970’s when I started winter hiking and camping, we all endured 100% wool underwear. The only alternative was 100% cotton waffle or thermal underwear. The wool was warm, very itchy, and smelled horrible after a few hours – or days – of sweat accumulation. Then someone came up with polypropylene underwear which didn’t itch, was very warm, but stayed skinky even after a thorough machine washing. Polypro has been retired and replaced by great fabrics that keep you warm and comfy, are easily washed, and come in several weights and fashionable colors. You must own at least one zip-turtleneck and long-john set.

Oh yes, back to the cotton kills mantra. Jeans or dungarees are the wost garments you could wear for cold weather. Your Levis will keep you stiff, cold, and wet until you perish in the wilderness! Get a pair of light weight, breathable-waterproof pants to wear over your synthetic underwear. Downhill ski pants are probably too heavy weight, so I use uninsulated pants made for climbing, hiking, or cross-country skiing. If you can get some with full-length zippers you’ll be in great shape. The best fabric comes from Gore-Tex. It still is the most breathable of the waterproof materials, and likely has the longest life in active use, but it costs the most. Other fabrics that use a waterproof-breathable coating, as opposed to the membrane used the Gore-tex, are not as breathable and long-lasting, but will cost you less. In a pinch, a pair of cheap, breathable, nylon gym pants work very well over long underwear, as long as they don’t get wet.

The upper body. Keep your core warm, but control perspiration. This is the credo all cold weather enthusiasts. The key to managing your heat on a long photography trek is layers, layers, layers. Polyester fleece jackets are everywhere now, available in multiple weights and designs. Get yourself at least two of those and cover them with a roomy parka shell that has plenty of pockets. The parka may be your priciest investment, so shop wisely. You can drop anywhere from $150 to $400 on these, but you get what you pay for in design features and workmanship. I prefer parkas that have no insulation, letting the fleece jacks provide the warmth. The key is to develop your own system of layers that can be quickly removed and changed, adjusting to your perspiration rate and the weather conditions. Only get garments that have full zippers – avoid pull-over jackets and sweaters, if you can.

There is a lot more to this science, or practice, or fanaticism, of dressing for, and thriving in the cold weather. For outdoor photographers, the old saying still holds true: “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing”.

A few favorite suppliers:

  1. REI (Recreation Equipment)  – A great cooperatively-run corporation, I’ve been a member for over 30 years. They are an affiliate advertiser on Photo-Review
  2. LL Bean – Since time began, known for their superb customer service and terrific store-brand clothing and gear
  3. Patagonia – An innovative and environmentally-focused clothing manufacturer, admired by all outdoor nuts.
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