For many photographers, and other adventurers travelling to the Arctic and Antarctic, dressing for the cold might be their biggest concern. Our WildPhoto Travel clients come from all parts of the world, many of them from warmer climates, and some have not even seen snow and ice before. Therefore we get questions about cold weather jackets, hats, and not to mention gloves, that are suitable for the travelling photographer, on a regular basis. The challenges concerning dressing for the cold as a photographer means the gear should be lightweight, it needs to keep you warm, and preferably dry, but it should also not restrict your creativity as a photographer.
Our photography tours will normally be during the Arctic or Antarctic summer months with temperatures lingering around zero degrees Celsius. However, we are also doing our Svalbard winter expeditions where we might experience temperatures down to minus 20 degrees out on the open ocean. This makes it challenging to stay warm while taking pictures, and we push our gear to the limit.
As wildlife photographers we like to get down low, where it might be wet and cold, and we like to wait our subject out, or wait for the right light to break through from behind the clouds. This takes dedication and the right equipment. A cold and miserable photographer is not a creative photographer. Over the years our team has done over 100 expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic, and during these journeys we have learnt some lessons the hard way. We have also found a selection of cloths and equipment that make it possible for us to keep pushing for even more creative images. Based on our experience we will try to give you some clue to how you should be dressing for the cold.
Stay dry and warm!
The most important thing to consider when dressing for the cold is to dress in layers, which allows for perspiration, insulation and protection from the cold temperature and wind. With the layering method you can easily adjust your clothing depending on the current weather and temperature. Below we will go into a bit more detail on how to layer up.
The inner layer
The main purpose of the cloths next to your skin is to get rid of perspiration from your body, to keep you dry. Sweat is the issue here, and many might be surprised to learn how much you might sweat even at very low temperatures. Therefore it is of great importance that this layer transports humidity away from your skin, keeping it dry and warm. The inner layer should be close to your body and should be quite tight, but not too tight. Both upper body and legs need to be covered. Good materials for this first layer are wool or so called technical synthetic materials. Recently also bamboo has been used with success, sometimes in combination with wool. Wool has a natural ability to transport moisture and will absorb up to 30 % of its own weight before feeling wet. In the early days of exploration wool was the only option, but in recent years there are many, carefully designed, technical materials on the market. These are typically made to copy the abilities of wool and at the same time keep their form, be lighter and last longer. A combination of the two often seems to be a very good alternative. As a kid I hated wool as it itched, but today’s wool are much softer and especially the Merino wool products are nice and soft against even the most sensitive skin. After several season in cold weather we have very good experiences with the Norwegian brand Aclima and is used by all our guides in the Arctic and Antarctic, both summer and winter.
If you do get sweaty and wet, and your inner layer is not transporting humidity out, it is very important to change into something dry as fast as possible. Even if this means stripping into your naked skin on a freezing day, and change into a dry underlayer, it is strongly recommended. Also remember cotton should NEVER be worn close to the body, or preferably not at all, when dressing for the cold.
The middle layer (or layers)
The purpose of this layer is to provide insulation and retain body heat without restricting movement. Suitable materials for these layers are polar fleece or wool. Middle layers with long necks (with a zip to adjust ventilation, and long arms with good coverage of wrists are the best. Some products have a hoodie, which might be a good option for those really cold days. The important thing here is to reduce heat loss from vulnerable bodyparts like the neck and the wrists. It is important that these parts are relatively loose, not to restrict the blood flow to the extremities. On a really cold day we recommend two or more middle layers. It is better to wear several thin layers than one thick layer when dressing for the cold, as the weather might change and you need to dress down to prevent sweating. During our expeditions we do normally use Aclima and Sail Racing as middle layers. These might be wool hoodies or turtlenecks, fleece jackets/pants or lightweight down vests/jackets.
We do recommend bringing an extra middle layer in your bag when going out so you can add it if the temperature should drop. Remember to put it on as soon as you start feeling cold, as it is very difficult to “defrost” once you start freezing.
The outer layer
At WildPhoto we work mainly on the ocean or along the coast, using small rubber boats for cruising or to land on frozen shores. In our experience keeping the wind out and staying dry is the main purpose of the outer layer, meaning both jacket and pants. But at times the weather might change or we find ourselves hiking to get into position for our shots, which means we also need our outer layer to let out excess body heat. Therefore it is good to have a breathable material here such as Gore-Tex. Impregnated cotton materials are not recommended when dressing for the cold. Over the years we WildPhoto Travel have chosen to work with Sail Racing of Sweden who specialize in sailing clothing when dressing for the cold on our expeditions. They have also developed an Antarctic collection and this has been part of our guide equipment for years. It is durable, lightweight and it does the job. Our chosen expedition jacket is the Sail Racing Pole Down parka. If you would like to purchase this parka please send us an e-mail on firstname.lastname@example.org (It will be branded with the WildPhoto logo on the right arm)
80 % of your body heat is lost through your head. Your head is like the body’s funnel, and you should always wear a hat when dressing for the cold. The same principle applies here – preferable materials are synthetic fibre or wool. It should also be wind proof and water resistant. A scarf/balaclava can be a good accessory, and when it is really cold it is a must have! This should preferably be in wool. Fleece tends to get cold when you sweat and it gets moist, and it is not recommended.
Hands and feet
Your extremities are extra sensitive, and it is of outmost importance to keep hands and feet dry and warm! When dressing for the cold the same layering method applies here as with the rest of your body. Use inner gloves or liners made of synthetic fibre, silk or wool and cover with a wind/waterproof mitten. Mittens are much warmer than gloves! Please remember to bring an extra pair of mittens. At WildPhoto we use several different brands, but for the really cold days our preferred mittens and gloves are those from Heat Company. These also have a pocket for hand warmers and will quickly re-heat your frozen fingers if needed.
On your feet you should wear inner socks of synthetic fibre and cover with layers of wool or synthetic socks. Aclima has great woollen socks for both summer and winter use. When it comes to shoes you should wear something that can handle cold weather for long time and that is water resistant/proof. When we work on the ocean we tend to step into water on a regular basis, sometimes standing in water for a period of time. Then we turn to our Muck boots, sometimes using heat packs inside them to assist with keeping our feet warm. If we plan to do hiking ashore, we might use higher hiking boots with a Gore-Tex outer layer.
On a last note I would like to quote a Norwegian saying: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing”. Get out there, stay dry and warm, and keep shooting!