It’s the time of year when everyone are heading for the Lofoten islands, Northern Sweden or Finland or somewhere else in the arctic to photograph winter-wonderland. The light this time of year can be pretty spectacular, so you are surely in for a treat.
This is no rocket-science, and my points may seem obvious to anyone having been out a winter-day before. But if you have little or no experience with arctic winter, you may want some advice about apparel. You probably carry photography gear for thousands of dollars and spend lots of money on plane tickets, accommodation and maybe tuition. Don’t cut corners when it comes to clothing. When you spend hours knee deep in the snow, waiting for that aurora borealis to appear, you want to be comfortable. A warm photographer is a good photographer. Freezing kills your motivation and ability to focus on photography, and you will end up miserable without any good photos.
First, a few principles:
- It’s not about style. Dress to be warm and dry. In these conditions, function beats style every time.
- Layer up. Dressing up in multiple layers will not only keep you warm, but also give you flexibility if you do something physically demanding or temperatures suddenly should rise.
- Temperatures DO change. The only thing consistent in the arctic is change. You may have +5 or -20 deg C on the same day. Rain, sleet, snow and winds appear from nowhere and might be gone the next minute. Be prepared for everything.
- Use natural materials. It is almost always the best option in cold temperatures. Nothing beats the warmth/weight ratio of down, wool is much warmer than the artificial look-a-likes, and cotton trumps everything for comfort. Plus, it’s better for the environment.
- Don’t forget the most important: your head, hands and feet.
- Stay warm AND DRY. Avoid getting wet, from the outside or from sweating. Impregnate the outer layers so you are ready in case of a shower. If you plan a strenuous activity, pack the middle layer in your bag and put it on as soon as you have reached your destination.
- Bring extra heat with warm drinks and consider e.g. battery- or petrol-fueled hand-warmers.
The first layer should be 100% wool. Use merino wool, it doesn’t itch. Wool is also naturally resistant to bacteria, so it stays fresh even after a few days of use. You are going to need something with long sleeves and full length long-johns. I prefer Aclima warmwool. For warmer temperatures, say warmer than 3-4 + deg C , I use a mesh model. For extreme temperatures like -20 deg C, I use a double model with mesh on the inside and solid wool on the outside. For most instances however, a single layer mid-range solid merino is adequate. I prefer models that go a bit up on your neck to avoid heat loss.
The second layer is a thick 100% wool sweater. Find one with a turtleneck and use a buff to keep your neck warm as well. I have several models, but in winter I prefer e.g. the Devold Nansen.
The third layer is the outer shell. You will need more than a regular thin single-layer shell jacket. I prefer a thick down jacket. The ultralight or thin models are not sufficient, go for one of the really thick and warm ones. Expensive, yes, but mandatory in the arctic. Artificial insulation (like e.g. Primaloft) have some positive sides, but are generally not good enough during winter up here. In my opinion, a thick down parka is the best. Think Canada Goose Expedition, Fjällräven Singi down parka, Arcteryx Therme or something down that road. Be sure it is insulated with real down and has a water- and wind resistant outer shell. You can make it even more water resistant with different chemicals found in all outdoor stores. Also, be sure it has a good hood that fits well over your hat. In my opinion, you won’t need a shell jacket with membrane (Gore-Tex etc). Also, be sure it has deep, insulated pockets to put your hands in, even if you use mittens. As for trousers, make sure they are water- and wind resistant too. Find a pair with some weight and thickness to them, preferably with a nice inner-lining. Some stretch in the fabric is an advantage, for those gymnastics involved when you have a low-level tripod to really catch that foreground wave. Some trousers have a built-in gaiter function, and I find that to work quite well for use in snow.
When it’s really cold, I often use a cotton or wool T-shirt under the first layer. I may also add a layer between the second- and the shell layer. That may be a thin down vest or jacket.
Find a really good hat, wool rules. Make sure it can cover your ears and fits well so it doesn’t blow off your head if it’s windy. For the hands, I prefer wool mittens. You may want to find a model where you can open the front so you can operate the camera with your fingers. In addition, find a decent pair of merino liners to wear as an inner layer inside of your mittens.
Shoes are of utmost importance. I have seen photographers in sneakers mid-winter on the beeches of Lofoten, and that never ends well. You need to stay dry and warm. Find a pair of tall, well insulated winter shoes with a good gripping sole. I have a few different models from Sorel, and they have not disappointed me so far. Some models come with a removable inner wool boot, e.g. Lundhags Skare and Sorel Caribou and Extreme Arctic Expedition. That’s a nice solution if you accidentally get wet and need to dry them properly overnight. Also, the inner boot may double as a comfortable in-door shoe for those late night editing sessions. Consider adding gaiters if your trousers doesn’t have them built in. Also, you may consider that a pair of crampons should fit on your shoes. Icy shores can be quite slippery and dangerous. If you are spending time near the shores, you may want to add a pair of wellingtons to your pack-list. Winter models of neoprene wellies are both warm, lightweight and 100% waterproof. Make sure your footwear is large enough. Air is the primary insulator, and you want plenty of that between your feet and the ice, water and snow. Consider going up one size from you regular shoes. You need two layers of wool socks, one thin and one thick, inside of your shoes, and even then you should have plenty of room to move your toes.
Consider bringing 1-2 hand-warmers. Avoid the single use disposable plastic bags. In my opinion, they don’t work , and always end up in nature or as landfill. You can find decent usb-rechargeable hand-warmers relatively cheap. They may even work as powerbanks as well. You can also find petrol- fueled models. However, don’t depend on them entirely, they won’t save your life, your clothes will. Consider them a nice addition to warm your fingers between operating the camera. In recent years, battery driven clothes have been all the buzz. I have a vest, shoe-soles and mittens with battery-warmers. Now, they may all add some comfort, but the batteries doesn’t last forever in low temperature, and the heat they bring may not be very impressive. Never count on gizmos like that alone. Use it as a supplement, and never compromise on the amount and quality of the rest of your apparel.
Also, always bring a hot beverage in a thermos-flask. Nothing beats a cup of warm coffee or chocolate when you start feeling miserable. A protein- or chocolate bar or other snack is never wrong either.