Let’s have a word on dressing up. I often visit the Dolomites when I am in Italy. Milan is not that far, so I think that I have proper competencies when it comes to giving advices on choosing winter wardrobe and trendy stylisations. Here are a few recommendations for every landscape photographer on picking winter clothes – the ones without which you shouldn’t even go near Lago di Braies (they should work fine on 5000 m.a.s.l. as well ;).
What to wear not to get chilled to the bone (or even freeze)?
What solutions do I recommend?
Photographer's winter gear
The photographing can be very difficult in winter conditions. Some functions become less accessible when the hands holding the camera are frozen stiff. After a few hours spent in -20 degrees Celsius, setting the camera lens stabilisation switch on a middle position can be quite challenging. Even though in most cases it still will be difficult, you can improve your chances to accomplish this mission by being properly dressed up. So, what is the proper winter outfit? The one that gives you thermal comfort and keeps you warm, despite the frost. You must keep in mind that when photographing in winter, the body is more sensitive on temperature. The physical effort made during hiking keeps your organism warm and you don’t feel cold. On the other hand, standing still for even 10 minutes with tripod can make the temperature around zero feel very frosty.
The best way to start sorting through your clothes is to think of the ones that will cover the parts of your body which are most likely to freeze. In this case, gloves and boots come first.
Hands are, without doubt, the most sensitive to a cold weather. Belly or legs above ankles are not that vulnerable to frostbite, although with “hold my beer” attitude anything’s possible :) On the contrary, fingers can be easily harmed and having blisters on fingertips makes holding the camera painful and uncomfortable. Trust me, I’ve been through this.
For the past few years I had been covering my hands with two layers of material: thin glove (called liner) and extra warming Black Diamond Windweight Mitt gloves with easy access to fingers. This combination had been working fine, even at -10 degrees. During the trip to the Dolomites in January, I replaced an old liner for a warmer Merino – Smartwool Merino 250, to be exact. In theory, merino is a fabric which can properly warm and heat your hands even if it’s wet, so what could possibly go wrong, right? In practice – don’t try this at home :) On the first day in the Dolomites, the layer enabling to use smartphone was gone, and on the third – first holes appeared on the fingers which I was using the most frequently. Unfortunately, this resulted in 3 second degree frostbites and less severe ones on the remaining fingers. These were my souvenirs from a one week trip. Merino turned out to be not so tough fabric, that’s why I strongly recommend using tried-and-tested Power Stretch.
When I was in the Dolomites, I also tested the Chinese photography gloves PGY Tech. Even though this time the frostbites resulted probably from wearing a fingerless liners, -30 degrees declared by the producer was a complete nonsense. I felt like I could be left with black fingers at -15.
Upon my return from Italy, I received a package containing gloves from Vallerret – model Ipsoot along with liner made from Power Stretch. The first impression was very positive when it comes to build quality, but without a proper test on location it is hard to say anything about their performance quality. I am going to test them in practice and add my feelings to this article as soon as possible :)
Toes are the next sensitive part of our body that should be highly protected. The proper shoes are a necessity. Most importantly, they should reach above ankles, no matter whether the boots will be used in winter or summer. Stony mountain trails are demanding and with no protection of an ankle we risk its twist every time we misstep and lose balance. Given an unpredictability of snow cover, our ankles are exposed to additional weight when we are wearing snowshoes.
In winter, it is important to remember about proper thermal insulation and waterproofness. In extreme conditions, when the temperature drops below -20 degrees, you should be wearing insulated boots. I recommend the Gore-Tex Insulated Comfort membrane, which guarantees warm and comfort even at -30. In the temperatures characteristic for Polish mountains (from -5 to -20), boots with membrane are not necessary. However, in this case you must remember to properly insulate your foot from the conditions on the outside, and socks are the key to success here. We will come back to this in a second.
I have been using the Meindl boots for many years now and they are really long-wearing. The only thing that wears out in them, because of the rocks, is the sole (which is replaceable anyway). Meindl Himalaya MFS may not be cheap, but they are definitely worth every penny. These boots are made from nubuck and when you apply a proper waterproofing, they can practically guarantee a 100% protection from water and moisture. A high rubber border also strengthens a protection. They are not equipped with an additional insulation, but during a cold weather a warm sock should make up for it. The boots are comfortable, despite their size and weight – MFS foam rubber guarantees that the shoe moulds to foot properly. Another advantage is an ability to attach crampons, which are better than snowshoes.
During my trip to the Dolomites, I was testing Meindle Air Revolution in the -5 to -18 degrees conditions. Even though I wasn’t feeling cold while walking, the situation changed during the moments when I was taking photos. The armoured, leather design of Himalaya boots provided a better protection from unfavourable weather conditions. The soaked boots immediately gain additional grams of weight because of the ice, which we can remove from them in three ways: flick the ice while walking, keep the boots in a sleeping bag (but in this way it will soak and might get damaged) or try to warm them by our feet’s heat, although it can lead to frostbite of our toes.
I used to consider spending 20-30 euro on socks as overpayment, however, a few freezing trips made me change my mind. By choosing proper socks we can regulate the temperature inside boots, depending on our requirements. I invested in Smartwool ones link and these were the money well-spent. They are woven from merino wool which warms our feet, even if the socks are wet. The fabric has a high breathability as well as antibacterial and anti-odour properties. In comparison with liner used in gloves, it is thicker and much more wear-resistant. I have been using merino socks for 4 years and there are no holes in them yet.
The other brand offering high-quality products made from merino wool is Icebreaker. On a freezing cold day I use Smartwool Mountaneering Extra Heavy Crew model, on just a cold day (and while sleeping) – Medium Hiking Crew.
I always wear the second pair of socks, the ultralight trekking ones, which help me protect my feet. I’ve been having problems with abrasion of my left heel for a few years now – even 2 hours of hiking ends up with blisters and skin tears. The second pair of socks reduces friction inside boots and helps to deal with this problem.
The role of gaiters cannot be underestimated when we force our way through one meter high snowdrifts. They prevent the snow from getting into our waterproof boots. Gore Tex seems to be an obvious choice, but I prefer to equip myself with something lighter and guaranteeing a good waterproofness. And cheaper. My choice was the eVent membrane which is simply impeccable. The proper gaiters should not only be made from good fabric, but also have tough belt straps (going from one ankle to the other under bootsole) and the bootlace hooks. My choice: RAB Latok Alpine.
Thermal underwear – bottom/top
The importance here lies not only in insulating, but also in the channeling of excessive heat emission. It is especially vital as we sweat heavily during a more difficult uphill walk – we want to channel the moisture on the outside. We will feel warm only when walking, but every time we will have a break to take photos, wet underwear will make us feel cold and even freeze to our body in extreme weather conditions. Not a pleasant feeling. In winter, I use X-Bionic products. Also, the underwear made from merino wool will be suitable for longer trips.
You should never forget about a proper insulation during stops. We are much more sensitive to low temperature when we don’t move. As I approach the place in which I’m going to take photos, I usually put on the Aura Prefix down jacket.
My legs usually don’t get cold during a day, but recently I’ve started to carry with me Patagonia Nano Air insulated pants. I put them on when I make a stop during -15 or more degrees frost.
I also recommend equipping yourself with pants and hoodie made from Power Stretch / Power Stretch Pro. They can be useful not only when walking in the coldest days, but also as insulating layer during photographing or sleeping in a tent. It is important not to combine these activities while wearing them. Dirty Power Stretch and salty sweat can have a very harmful effect on durability and thermal properties of down sleeping bags.
Pants and hardshell jacket
The main function of the outside layer of clothes is, above all, protection from wind, snow and rain. Even though this layer does not insulate, without it the thermal properties of the layers which I mentioned earlier would be insufficient. Wind would blow away a heat and down would soak, losing its properties. I strongly recommend using Gore Tex fabric. However, you must keep in mind that there are many types of Gore and not all of them are suitable for harsh conditions. I would not use Active membrane in winter as its goal is to guarantee a maximum breathability. Instead, I would choose thicker, double or triple-layered, types of Gore Tex, equipped with underarm ventilation which is useful during the more difficult uphill walks. An important factor while choosing membrane is its toughness. If you consider buying all-inclusive package, then my recommendation is Gore Tex Pro – the thickest, most armoured and loudest swishing membrane. If you are planning winter trips with an ice axe, the possibility of making a hole in it by accident is much lower than, for example, in GTX Paclite. But where there’s a will there’s a way, as they say :)
My choices are: Mountain Equipment Lhotse jacket and Arcteryx Beta AR pants. Both cost around 450 euro, but I recommend keeping track of eBay auctions. If you don’t need these clothes yesterday, you can buy the new equipment for half a price. Still quite expensive, but it is not a type of clothing that can wear out after 5 seasons.
Head protection: hat, balaclava, buff
Most of us have a natural protection in a form of hair, which can decently protect our head against heat loss. In addition to this, I use a balaclava made from Merino during winter. In case of more severe conditions, I put on a thicker one – X-Bionic Stormcap Eye. I usually sleep with balaclava on, because it is a very good solution for the coldest nights. However, not everyone likes to have a layer of fabric on face during the whole night – it is a matter of individual preferences.
Heat doping: accessories
If you are still feeling cold despite all the equipment mentioned earlier, you can always use warmers. The disposable packs able to warm practically every part of the body are easily available on the market. I usually stash some of them as backup. Price – about one euro for invaluable help in case of critical situations. If you want to spend more money, you can buy lighter fuel Zippo warmer. The advantage of this option is that we don’t have to depend on electrical energy and, as we know, the temperatures below zero can drain the batteries really fast – even if we are not using them. If money is not a problem, you can also buy battery heated gloves or insoles.
Sleeping in the mountains in winter
I have never been camping out below -20 degrees. The sleeping bags made for these conditions are usually heavy (and expensive), not so universal and rather suitable for special events. I recommend developing a system which will be flexible enough to be used in various temperatures. I have two down sleeping bags with 0 and -8 degrees comfort temperatures. I usually have been using only one of them while altering my winter pyjamas, depending on the conditions.
My basic choice is Aura Baza with additional down (thanks Aura!), which increased its comfort from -5 to -8 degrees. I can sleep in it with open zip at 0 degrees, but when the temperature is from 0 to -10 degrees, I can spend a night solely in thermal underwear, alternatively adding a layer of Power Stretch. At -15, if Power Stretch is not enough, I put on the Patagonia Neo Air pants, which I mentioned earlier, and a down jacket. This combination should be enough even at -20. There is an alternative – if you want to be safe even at around -25, you can use a second sleeping bag: Aura Sen (comfort 0 – degrees, not in 1-10 quality scale ;)). It can be also used instead of pants and jacket at -20.
I pay a particular attention to feet, because I am having problems with their insulation. That’s why I don’t slide into a sleeping bag when my feet are frozen. In this year, I’ve started using Aura down booties. They are lightweight and don’t take up too much space. A good purchase.
Pitching a tent at the terrace of closed mountain hut provides better protection from wind but still it might be not enough when you use a 3-season tent in -19 degrees Celsius ;)
When sleeping in winter conditions, it is our body that can cause some problems, as human organism can generate around half a litre of water during night. Water vapour can condense on a sleeping bag, especially around its hood. Wet down loses its thermal properties and can even freeze when being exposed to low temperatures. Vapour Barrier Liner can be a solution. It is an insulating layer we cover ourselves with and then slide into a sleeping bag. This can fulfil a function of thermal blanket – kind of a sleeping blanket for mountaineers :) Some dedicated solutions are available on the market, but you can use the Emergency Bivy, e.g. the one from Mountain Equipment. I tested it and, much to my surprise, I didn’t wake up soaked in sweat.
In case a sleeping bag eventually becomes condensed in sweat and I see that the weather conditions at sunrise don’t promise stunning frames, the first thing I do in the morning is drying it. I turn it inside out and expose on wind. Should be enough.
A proper sleeping mat should maintain a thermal comfort. I use Sea to Summit Comfort Plus Insulated and an additional mat (1cm, lightweight foam sleeping pad made from Greek military surplus). While sleeping in winter, R-Value of a mat (that is, a degree of isolation from the ground) should be between 4.0 and 5.0, however, 4.0 of StS was insufficient for me and that’s why I also used a lightweight pad. The advantage of this solution is an increased endurance of mat to perforations, although in winter I lay it on the snow which doesn’t have sharp edges that could damage a mat. I am especially pleased with one particular property of my mat – it must be pumped from both sides, so even if it would rip on one side, I can still spend the night in quite comfortable conditions.
Winter clothing is often more important than the photographic equipment you have. With severely frostbitten fingers, it’s harder to take a good photo with Phase One than with a smartphone that is operated by warm hands. Proper selection of outdoor equipment enabling comfortable winter photography is not a simple task. It’s good to have a proven gear set that is flexible and will work in both 0 and -20 degrees, adapting it to the weather by putting on additional layers of clothing. The solutions I have described should allow you to survive in the most difficult conditions in the Polish and European mountains. Mountain experience, just like photographic experience, is gained by practice. Before you learn to comfortably spend nights in the Tatras or Alps at -30, the weather will most likely take its toll on you. I hope that by reading this article, your mountain trips will become more pleasant and fruitful with good photos. Just remember that things like feeling cold and how it affects your body are very individual. It’s worth getting to know your body well enough so you won’t end up later like Walt Disney on tour. Good knowledge of the equipment you own will also not hurt. I do not recommend purchasing equipment directly before expeditions. Not testing your gear prior to departure, you will often not be aware of its limitations. This can make taking photographs more difficult and, in extreme cases, endanger your health. But hey, I don’t want to say that it’s not worth trying :) Being well prepared, winter mountain photography can be the greatest adventure. Good luck then and see you on the trail!