THE LEARNING PATH
It was 2001 when my partner Bo and I decided to meet in person for the first time and with a few Nikonians members in a photography target-rich location. With the help of long-time Internet friends -some of them beta testers of nikonians.org- who knew the area very well, we chose the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a week in September.
The weather was not that cold then, but for those of us coming from warmer areas it felt very cold in the mornings and nights, only moderately warm at noon. How to dress for such weather was not even a consideration of any concern at that time. We just disposed of the jackets at noon and kept on shooting with a Merino wool sweater or a light fleece jacket until the late afternoon.
The event was so cordial and satisfying in every way that we decided to make it a Nikonians tradition, the field event of the year from then on, the “ANPAT”, Annual Nikonians Photo Adventure Trip. We now have both an ANPAT in the Spring and the traditional ANPAT in the Fall.
Again, with the help of another Nikonians member, beta tester and great friend, in the fall of 2002 we ventured into Moab, Arches and the rim of the Grand Canyon in Utah, with an optional extension to Arizona for Monument Valley. This time the cold in the early morning and at night was a bit harsher. My partner Bo, used to the winters of Sweden and Germany had no major issues, however, if it not had been for the gift of a pair of Columbia jackets with a light fleece lining presented to us by our dear friends, I would have been freezing and not at all comfortable, shivering in the cold at sunrises and sunsets.
In 2003, another great friend and extraordinary photographer organized the 3rd ANPAT, in the Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba, Canada. Excited by the opportunity to be once again shooting in the company of Nikonians, I –as more than a few others in that trip- completely forgot that the park is “a little further north” from anywhere we have been before and therefore a bit further on the nippy side; more so when with iced drizzle and wind. A very serious weather under estimate.
Acknowledging ignorance I then swore I would never feel that cold again and started the study of how to stay warm, very seriously, as applied to photography in the field.
As a skier I’ve learned that whatever you wear for the cold needs to fulfill three separate functions:
- Manage Moisture – The First Layer. Your own perspiration should not become your enemy when keeping you wet inside your footwear, or underneath your clothing. This means that fabrics that absorb moisture should be avoided (like the cotton of my Woodstock T-Shirt). Fabrics that do not retain perspiration but wik moisture away from your body should be preferred when talking about your next-to-skin garments, including undies.
- Manage Insulation – The Second Layer. You need to be able to keep warm, with the heat not been dissipated away from your body and dehydrating you.
- Manage Weather – The Third Layer. This outer or shell layer should allow you to be ready to encounter and successfully deal with wind, rain, ice and snow.
All three layers need also to have the following characteristics:
- Manage Freedom of Movement – You need to be able to move without constraints. Able to run if necessary. Nothing overly tight that could cut down your blood circulation or reduce mobility. Nothing overly loose that can allow wind to get to your body.
- Manage Weather Changes – If the climate changes during the day, shedding one layer will give you the flexibility to keep warm but only as much as needed.
- Work well within a temperature range – Garments for any of the above layers are now graded for three ranges: Light, Medium, Heavy (also called Expedition or Artic). It is usually best to use three layers of the same grade.
- Give you the best value for your money – You can achieve the comfort needed to enjoy your trip by applying the same principles from head to toes. Dressing in layers is a proven method and it doesn’t need to cost a small fortune.
Note that the range to choose will need to take into account the level of activity you expect (the amount of heat you will develop on your own) and the temperature range your body is accustomed. For example, to go skiing I wear Light grade layers because of the intense body activity. For photographing in the cold, only walking short distances, I need to use Medium grade layers. To shoot in Minnesota, Canada or Alaska I will choose Heavy grade because my body is used to function at well-above freezing temperatures.
For the First Layer, the industry uses three major types of treated fabrics for the first layer:
- Synthetic fibers. These are the least expensive and yet darn effective. The main con is that they tend to keep odors, so you need to have enough sets to change daily and/or wash.
- Natural fibers, silk. These are in the middle price range, not always as effective as the synthetic. Usually selected for high activity level.
- Animal fibers, mainly Merino Wool. Probably the most effective, especially for underwear, feet liners and socks, but the most expensive.
For the Second Layer, I have not found anything better yet and more cost effective than synthetic fleece, specifically the original Polartec® fleece, more so in the military grade 200 and 300.
For the Third Layer, it gets a bit more complicated and one can be easily confused.
Two are really the main choices (discard leather and fur):
- Down. Down offers many advantages, like compressibility for packing, but it can’t get wet. Even with treated fabrics. Works better as a second layer.
- Synthetics. Synthetics can be water-resistant or breathable water-proof. The second is the most effective as you can face rain, ice, and snow with them. Not the least expensive but you will use it forever, more so when abrasion-resistant. I have one medium weight that has lasted me for more than a decade.
BEST KNOWN BRANDS FOR LAYERS WEAR
In North America, in alphabetic order: Arc’terix, Cabela’s, Columbia, Marmot, North Face, Patagonia, Polartec, REI, and Salomon.
In Europe I’ve seen the 66° North from Iceland; the Fjall Raven and the Haglöf from Sweden; the Italian Napapijri (Finnish word for Arctic Circle); and many others in France, Germany and the UK, all having adopted the layers principle and synthetic fabrics.
Special Forces guys like to wear Asolo and Salomon Boots, both with Gore-Tex. If you have been thinking on getting new light boots I can recommend the Salomon Quest 4D GTX lightweight boots, insulated, waterproof, breathable, very comfortable and with excellent ankle support. The best I've ever had, following the recommendation of a Seal Team 6 member. Aside from Asolo and Salomon, other good brands of good hiking boots include Blackhawk, Oakley, Nike, Lowa and Vasque.
Except for extreme cold, it is recommended you use light gloves that can be worn when shooting, allowing for full dexterity. This helps to avoid losing one in the field. We have found that the Hatch Specialist all-weather gloves work very well, as used by SWAT teams. Other good brands for the task are Blackhawk and Mecanix Wear, as used by Navy Seals. (Mecanix is not to be confused with Mecanics). Some Nikonians recommend Simms fold-over Mitts as a good alternative if you prefer a mitt with fingers.
- Still cold with three layers? Add another one.
- Cold in the face? Use a hydrating cream and a balaclava or a shemagh.
- Don’t be shy about it.
- Don’t forget your head. Most of the body heat is lost through the head.
- Merino wool or synthetic fibers beanie or a felt hat should help. Wear at least a Nikonians cap if an ushanka is too much.
- Drink a lot of water. You can also dehydrate in the cold.
- If you are waiting for sunrise, don’t just stand or sit still. Move! That generates heat to keep you warm.
And of course…….
Have a great time!