March 12, 2011  •  Leave a Comment

As I write this, it’s early-ish November, about 35F/2C outside, with a lovely rain/snow/slush drizzling down – perfect hypothermia weather! I stepped outside this morning, close to sunrise, tripod and 2 camera bags hanging off me and decided quickly, “The heck with this.” Well, those weren’t my exact words, but you catch my meaning. Neither of the subjects on my list for this weekend (foxes and coyotes) would be out in this weather anyway (being much smarter than me), but a thought did occur to me as I was wrestling my gear back inside: maybe a little review of how to stay warm and dry while you’re out photographing might make an decent article.
I’ve been backpacking and mountaineering since I was a teen, and in that time learned a little about staying warm and dry in the backcountry. As nature photographers, we often find ourselves out in nasty conditions, and if we’re better prepared for whatever conditions we face, the better we can practice our craft, and the more likely it is that we’ll return safely from our excursions, with great images to boot.
Let’s start out with a review of how we lose body heat – once we understand that, the better prepared we’ll be to retain it. There are five ways we lose heat:
1. Conduction
2. Convection
3. Evaporation
4. Radiation
5. Respiration

Conduction is when we directly transfer heat from one object to another. If you sit down in the snow for any period of time, the snow conducts the heat away from your body. It’s hard for your body to create enough heat to keep your backside warm as the snow is conducting the heat away to quickly to compensate.
Convection is losing heat to air or liquid flowing around an object. A convection oven speeds cooking times by circulating hot air around an object. Convective heat loss uses cold air (the wind) the same way. That’s where the wind chill factor comes in – wind makes you feel colder since it’s blowing your body heat away.
Evaporation is liquid being converted into a gas. In the summer, evaporative cooling can be a good thing; the sweat evaporates from your body and cools you off. In colder temps, this same process can rob you of body heat.
Radiation is not a super-power. Heat is a form of energy, and it radiates away from your body. We can see this energy radiating away if we use a night-vision scope or actually do have the ability to see the infrared spectrum as a super-power.
Respiration occurs as part of breathing – when we exhale, we lose heat in our breath. When you see your breath when it’s cold out, that’s because our breath is warmer than the surrounding air and the water vapor condenses. Breathing heavily (snowshoeing uphill, for instance) increases heat loss due to respiration.
Hypothermia is the enemy. Hypothermia is a condition that occurs when one’s body temperature falls below the level required to operate safely, or the body is unable generate enough heat to maintain a core body temperature. Hypothermia is not just a risk during frigid winters – it happens most often in temps between 40-50F/4-10C. We’re not going to go into much detail about hypothermia here except to say that we want to prevent it through proper clothing.
Now that we understand a little better how we lose heat, let’s figure out some ways to retain that heat. You’ve probably heard that dressing is layers is a good idea, and it is. Keep in mind that no clothing system (with a couple of exceptions that we’ll cover later) generates heat, it only retains the heat you’re able to generate. Dressing in layers give us the ability to fine tune our clothing system to not only stay warm and dry, but to prevent overheating as well. Remember, if we’re uncomfortably hot or cold when outside, we’ve failed as Uber-Nature Photographers.
How We Retain Heat
The first rule in dressing for cold weather success is NO COTTON! (I’ll wait for your horrified gasps to die down before I continue). Cotton is often referred to as “Death Cloth” by experienced outdoors folks. Why no cotton? Cotton is hydrophilic (it loves water). It absorbs water (sweat or any other liquid) and holds it against your skin. Cotton is great for towels because of this, but not so great for staying warm and dry outdoors. If you can keep it dry, this may not be that big of a deal. But that may be a big “if.” If it rains, if you sweat a lot, if you manage to get wet, the cotton soaks up the water and holds it against your body. If you’ve ever walked into an air conditioned room while wearing a wet bathing suit, you know the kind of chill you get. The longer you wear wet clothes during cold weather, the harder it is to maintain body heat and the more susceptible you are to hypothermia. POP QUIZ: Which of the five ways do you lose heat this way? You’ll find the answer at the end. Bottom line: Leave the jeans and cotton undies at home when you’re out in nasty weather.
Base Layer
The first layer of clothing for cold weather is a base layer. In anything other than arctic conditions, this is usually a light layer. The purpose of a base layer is not to provide warmth necessarily, but to transport sweat away from your body. The secret to maintaining body heat is to keep your skin warm and dry. Having to heat that water next to your skin takes a lot of energy and cools you down quickly. Dry skin is warm skin, and warm skin is happy skin. When a good base layer absorbs sweat (or any other moisture), it’s going to pull it away from your skin, spread that moisture out so it can either disperse it quickly (if it’s the only thing between you and the air), or move it along to the next layer (the mid layer or shell) so it can be dispersed that way. Good layers always move the moisture away from you so that it gets out as soon as possible.
My two base layer favorites are a one-piece suit made of lightweight polyester (no gaps between the pants and shirt), and pieces made from merino wool. Merino wool is not the old- scratchy kind of wool. It’s very soft, comfortable, and doesn’t smell. If you wear your base layer more than a few days in a row, microbes are going to start growing and start to stink. Polyester is infamous for stinking quickly. Merino wool, on the other hand, is relatively stink-resistant; something to consider for long trips. Any of the modern technical base layers are going to perform well. Find something on sale at any of the big outdoor chains (REI, EMS, MEC) and you’ll do fine.
Mid Layer
The mid layer is for warmth. It doesn’t provide warmth, but it traps dead air and your body heats that to provide warmth. The colder it is, the more dead air you need to trap. There are lots of options of a mid layer. Since my wife gets cold easily, she uses a mid layer as her base layer (a 1 piece Farmer John suit of PowerStretch material) that still pulls moisture away but provides more insulation and warmth.
One of the more popular options for mid layers is polyester fleece. It comes in many weights and thicknesses, doesn’t absorb moisture, and can help you stay warm even if you do get wet. For colder temps, down or synthetic fills provide lots of dead air space for warmth. An advantage of down is that it’s very light and compressible for the warmth it provides. I have a lightweight down jacket that provides lots of warmth, but the jacket itself weighs less than 8 ounces and packs down to the size of my fist, and I can carry it in even the smallest pack I carry. On the down side (pun always intended), if down gets wet or even damp, it collapses and loses its insulating properties. Synthetic fills also provides lots of warmth. They’re heavier and don’t compress as well for storage, but they allow you to retain warmth even if they get wet.
Since I’m usually wandering around when I photograph, I stay active enough that a light shell, moderate mid layer, and sometimes a base layer are enough to keep me warm and dry. In really cold temps and when I’m sitting in the same place for a long time (trying to ambush coyotes in January, for instance), I’ll wear my usual layers but put on a thick down jacket for when I stop and camp out with the tripod. It’s too warm for walking around (and I’ll get too sweaty too), but when I stop moving, the extra insulation really helps.
The shell is the outermost layer of your system. Shells provide protection from wind and moisture. In mild conditions with no wind or precipitation, a fleece jacket might be all you need for a mid layer and shell. And even if the morning starts out mild, conditions may change rapidly. I just never seem to be out in mild conditions. Always bring an appropriate shell for the conditions you’re likely to face.
There are two approaches to shells, called the hard shell and the soft shell. The hard shell is the traditional waterproof and windproof jacket and pants – something like a rain jacket. Before the advent of Gore-Tex, jackets were waterproof and windproof, but they breathed about as well as a plastic garbage bag (which is to say, not at all). Gore-Tex and its descendants changed that, and allowed the fabric to keep out water from the outside but allowed vapor from inside to escape, keeping you from steaming in your own juices. Hard shells provide the best protection in the rain, but they tend to be stiff and noisy.
Soft shells take a different approach. They’re designed to breath much better at the cost of water-proofness. They’re best described as water-resistant, not water-proof, but they breath much better and are much more comfortable and quiet. The heat your body produces pushes moisture out of the fabric, and you stay dry in anything less than a moderate to heavy rain.
You not only need to keep your core warm, you’ve got to protect your extremities as well (head, hands, feet). The ancient Greeks used to think that our brain wasn’t for thinking, but rather that it was a big radiator – and they weren’t too far off. I’ve heard estimates that we lose between 10 and 90 percent of our body heat through our head, and the truth is probably somewhere in between those extremes.
An old adage goes, if you’re cold, put on a hat. A hat is a crucial piece of cold weather gear. My favorites are a windproof fleece hat that covers my ears, and in really brutal conditions, a windproof balaclava. I’ve also found neck gaiters to be extremely warm and versatile pieces that seal the gap between jacket and hat. If I start to overheat, the hat is the first thing I take off.
If you can’t keep your hands warm, you won’t be taking many photos, and it’ll be hard to just hold a heavy camera and lens. I’m still struggling to find a glove/mitten that keeps my hands warm but allows me to operate camera controls. I’m currently using a pair of REI convertible mittens; they have the fingers exposed about half way, but have a mitten section that flips up to cover the fingers. I can even squirm my index finger out by itself to hit the shutter button. So far, so good, but I haven’t hit temps much below freezing yet. Moose Peterson usually uses cross-country ski gloves effectively. I have photography friends who swear by chemical heating packets they slip into their gloves for extra warmth.
Your legs generally stay much warmer than your core and generally require fewer layers to keep them warm. Here in Colorado, the weather can change drastically very quickly. I keep enough gear in my car to survive the next Ice Age, so I can usually adapt quickly to any weather conditions. There’s always a pair of pants and fresh wool socks in a chest in the trunk, and I carry a light wind layer, a rain shell, and an insulating layer as well. Then there are the hats, gloves, mittens, goggles, snowshoes, crampons, ice axes, gaiters, trekking poles . . .
Being warm, dry, and comfortable takes the focus away from ourselves and allows us to focus on our photography subject instead. Dressing for Outdoor success is more than taking images – it could be a matter of life or death.


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