I get cold really easily – especially my hands and feet – while photographing in cold weather. Living in Vermont and loving doing photography in the far north means I’ve had to figure out how to dress properly in order to stay warm.
The bottom line is there’s no reason to be miserable doing winter photography. Knowing what to (and not to) wear is key to your comfort.
Let’s dive in.
How We Get Cold
Before we dive into the specifics of what to wear, it is important to review the four ways in which we can get cold. Understanding how we get cold helps explain the rationale behind the types of clothing materials and strategies for winter wear below.
The human body loses heat in four ways:
Evaporation is the process of moisture (either from sweat or precipitation) leaving the surface of your body. In the summer, this is a good thing because evaporating sweat is what helps cool us off when we’re hot. It’s actually called evaporative cooling.
In a winter environment, however, evaporation of sweat or wet clothing could cool us down too quickly or by too much making it very difficult to warm up again in a cold environment.
Key Take Away #1: Wet clothing is to be avoided in winter as much as possible.
Radiation is the normal process of heat moving away from the body. Our bodies generate heat through metabolism. In order to maintain a balanced core body temperature, we give off any excess heat from all parts of our bodies.
There is a common misconception that we lose most of our heat through our heads, but this is actually not true.
If we were naked out in the cold, the rate of heat loss from different parts of our bodies would be the same. If we bundled up well and covered our bodies except for our heads, then yes, our body heat would escape primarily through our heads. A hat-less head is an open door to let the body heat out. But that doesn’t mean our heads are special in emitting body heat. It just means to cover your head if you want to retain as much body heat as possible.
Key Take Away #2: Trapping body heat will help keep you warm.
Conduction is basically the transference of heat by direct contact from your body to something that is colder than your body. For example, your tripod will be a lot colder than your hands while shooting in winter. Touch the metal parts of the tripod with bare hands, and some of your body heat will be transferred to the tripod.
The same concept goes with rain, sleet, or snow touching your skin. Each drop will initially suck away a little bit of body heat through conduction, and then further cool you down by evaporation.
Key Take Away #3: Keep a protective barrier between you and a substance or material colder than body temperature.
Convection is the transfer of heat that happens when cold air meets a warm body; the body warms the cold air molecules, which then move away and make room for more cold air molecules.
When it comes to convection, think of the wind chill factor or the “real-feel” temperature given by many weather apps. The real-feel temperature feels much colder than the actual ambient temperature because the wind cools us down so much faster.
Key Take Away #4: Wind can rapidly make you cold by both convection and evaporation. Your goal in maintaining warmth is to stay dry and protected from the wind.
Importance of Using a Layering System to Stay Warm
Now that we understand the science behind getting cold, what do we do about it when we want to go out and photograph the next snowfall or ice formation?
The key to staying warm while photographing in cold weather is to use a layering system of clothing. It should be no surprise that each layer of the layering system plays a role in combating one or more of the four ways of getting cold discussed above.
Clothing insulates our body heat by trapping warm air between the fibers of different types of fabric and also between layers of fabric. The more air space available, the more warmth you’ll have. This is why layers work better than one big thick layer.
This is also another reason why wet layers are bad in cold weather (besides evaporation); the water basically collapses the air space between fibers of some types of materials, thereby abolishing any insulative value.
Remember the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears? Well, that’s the goal layering system in a nutshell. You want to be like Goldilocks and have your temperature be not too hot, not too cold, but juuuust right.
The core benefit of using a layering system is in its flexibility and the ability to quickly change your level of protection according to the current conditions and your needs.
When choosing layers, you should consider:
- The forecasted weather
- The amount of physical exertion you will be doing
- Any downtime
- The type of terrain (elevation, above or below treeline, water crossings, etc.)
For outdoor photography, this typically involves hiking to a location and then standing still for long periods of time while photographing or waiting for good light.
This combination of activity is quite challenging because you are very likely to sweat while hiking and then your clothing will be wet while you stand still and do photography. This is a great recipe for getting cold and perhaps dangerously so.
To avoid this situation, it is important to keep in mind that body movement generates heat and clothing traps that heat next to your body. So, pace yourself and use minimal layers during the hiking portion so that you don’t sweat too much.
Also, take short breaks and add an insulation layer while resting so that you don’t cool down too fast.
Pro tip: Slow your pace down about 10-20 minutes before you reach your destination to start to cool down a bit so that you aren’t still sweating a lot when it’s time to stop and take out your camera.
Types of Layers and How to Wear Them
A winter layering system consists of:
- Base Layer
- Insulation Layer
- Outer Layer
Below, I discuss the purpose of each layer, how to use it, what material to choose, and what I personally use based on years of figuring out ways to stay warm. Depending on the weather you may have more than one layer in any of these categories.
Keep in mind that what works for me may or may not work for you and your situation. There are so many winter wear products on the market nowadays, and so as long as you keep these general principles in mind, you should be good to go.
Because many of these products tend to be pricey, I recommend looking for sales throughout the year or even in the off-season, which can provide significant savings.
Some of the links mentioned below are affiliate links, which means that if you choose to make a purchase from the link, I will earn a small commission. This commission comes at no additional cost to you, and it helps support this website. Thanks!
1. Base layer
Purpose: The base layer is the layer that sits directly on your skin. The sole purpose of the base layers is to wick moisture away from your skin and prevent cooling by evaporation.
Materials: Never, ever, ever use cotton for any layer for winter photography. This means for undies too!
As the saying goes, “cotton kills”. Why? Because cotton absorbs water really well, it dries slowly, and you lose a ton of heat through conduction and evaporation.
The base layer should be made of a material that is moisture-wicking, such as merino wool or a synthetic material like polyester or capeline.
Here’s how they compare:
|Pros:||Soft and non-itchy, lightweight, naturally anti-bacterial (minimal armpit stink), breathable||Excellent at wicking, lightweight, can be more affordable and durable|
|Cons:||Can be a little more expensive, less durable, a little less wicking||For whatever reason, the material tends to get irreversibly stinky|
Sometimes base layers are labeled with different weights, from ultralightweight to expedition weight. While the heavier base layers provide some insulation and added warmth, that is really the role of the next two layers in the layering system. Typically, a light to mid-weight base layer would serve you best since it’s sole purpose is to get moisture away from your skin. Heavier weight base layers are usually only necessary in extremely cold environments.
What I Wear: My go-to base layers are the Smartwool Merino 150 Wool Top as a lightweight option and the Smartwool Merino 250 Wool Active Crew Top for a more mid-weight option. I usually don’t wear a base layer on my bottom half and start with the mid-layer for my legs.
Purpose: The primary purpose of the mid-layer is to help evaporate the moisture wicked off of you from the awesome base layer and to also provide a little warmth by trapping heat.
Materials: Usually, the mid-layer consists of a lightweight fleece jacket with or without a hood or heavier weight base layer made of merino wool or a blend of natural and synthetic fibers. I sometimes opt for a light down or windproof vest that will help keep my core warm but my arms cool for when I’m exerting a lot going uphill.
What I Wear: I have a bunch of favorite mid-layers that I use for various levels of activity or weather. I like having a half or full zip for my mid-layer so that I can quickly cool off my core while sweating without fully stripping a layer. I also like having a hood on my mid-layer because it can act as a neck warmer when fully zipped (even if it’s not over my head).
My favorite mid-layers include the Melanzana Micro Grid Hoodie and the Outdoor Research Deviator Hoodie as lightweight options. I use a half-zip merino wool-fleece hoodie from Ibex Clothing as a more mid-weight option. Unfortunately, Ibex went out of business so my favorite is no longer available. For a vest, I almost always use my Patagonia Down Sweater Vest. For my legs, I use the Minus 33 Juneau Expedition Wool Leggings.
3. Insulation layer
Purpose: As the name suggests, the insulation layer is there to keep you warm. It works by trapping your body heat (released through radiation) in a pillow of fibrous air space around your body.
Materials: There are natural and synthetic materials used for insulation, and they both have pros and cons. What to choose really comes down to what you will wear for your outer layer, the type of weather you are likely to encounter, and affordability.
Here’s how they compare:
(Primaloft®, Thinsulate®, Thermolite®, etc.)
|Pros:||Most warmth for least weight; very compressible||Has all of the benefits of regular down and treated with a polymer that makes it water-resistant||Provides insulation even while damp; fibers are water-repellent; dries fast; generally more affordable|
|Cons:||Will not insulate when wet||Tends to be more expensive||Generally a little heavier, less packable, and less durable than down|
|Activity Level:||Best for periods of rest or other non-sweaty times||Best for periods of rest but will retain some warmth value even when moist||Best for when you need insulation while exerting or in wet weather|
What I Wear: For a synthetic insulating layer, I use the Patagonia Nano Puff Hoody, which I will usually use under another insulating layer, the Patagonia Down Sweater when I’m at rest or need to warm up. What I love about Patagonia is that their down products are humanely and sustainably sourced. When I need a little more insulation, I’ll wear the Montbell Alpine Light Down Parka over these layers when at rest.
All of these insulation layers are highly compressible and lightweight making them very easy to pack and stuff into my camera backpack.
4. Outer layer
Purpose: The outer layer can be either a soft-shell or hard-shell and is designed to protect you from rain, sleet, snow, and wind. By blocking wet and windy weather, the outer layer fights against heat loss due to evaporation and convection.
Look for jackets that have a hood, are water-resistant or waterproof, are breathable, and block the wind if you anticipate encountering high winds. Other handy features of outer layers to consider are taped seams, pit zips, fleece-lined pockets, and waterproof zippers.
Materials: Outer layers are either softshell or hardshell. Softshells consist of more flexible and breathable fabrics and are usually water-resistant rather than waterproof. Most will shed light rain and snow using a durable water repellent (DWR) coating. Some softshells additionally have a windproof membrane.
Hardshells, on the other hand, are both waterproof and windproof. The downside of hardshells is that they tend to not be as breathable as softshells, but they do provide added protection from the elements. Be sure to choose one that uses a breathable waterproof material, such as Gore-Tex®, Dry.Q®, MemBrain®, or Pertex® Shield, and has fully-sealed seams.
What I Wear: My go-to winter outer layer is the Patagonia Cloud Ridge Jacket for colder weather. If all I need is a little rain or snow protection and less warmth, then I’ll wear a regular waterproof rain jacket like the Patagonia Torrentshell, which is lighter and more packable. Keep in mind that it is a good idea to size up your outer layer because it needs to be able to fit over the other layers.
8 Tips to Keep Your Hands Warm
- Use merino wool liner gloves while handling gear – it will keep a barrier between you and the colder equipment and reduce conductive heat transfer while maintaining some dexterity.
- Keep a spare pair of liner gloves in a pocket close to your body heat so that you can swap out cold gloves for warm ones if needed.
- When not directly handling your gear, use over mittens with good insulation and wind protection, like the Phosphor Mitts from Outdoor Research.
- Put hand warmers inside your mittens or in your jacket pockets and hold them while wearing liner gloves.
- Swirl arms around like pinwheels to get warm blood from your core pushed out to your fingers.
- Put bare hands directly on your core body skin (stomach, armpits, etc.) to warm up cold fingers.
- Use a remote shutter release to control your camera’s shutter.
- Use a touch point stylus for touchscreen LCDs displays – I find that the sensor tip gloves rarely give me the dexterity needed to control a camera through the LCD display.
7 Tips to Keep Your Feet Warm
- Use liner socks to help wick away foot sweat.
- Wear a pair of merino wool boot socks. I have tried tons of different brands, and hands down (feet down?) Darn Tough Socks are by far the ones that keep my feet the warmest and driest and also never seem to wear out. They are made in Vermont, so that’s an added personal bonus.
- Invest in winter boots with insulation and are waterproof. The level of insulation will depend on whether you need it or not. Some people have hot feet and others, like me, have cold feet. My current pick is the Salomon X Ultra Mid Winter CS WP W, which has 200g Thinsulate insulation and is waterproof.
- Bring an extra pair of wool socks and regularly swap them out to help them dry out quickly.
- Create an extra barrier between your feet and the frozen ground by standing on a lightweight piece of foam. I cut this into a smaller piece, roll it up, and stick it in a side pocket of my backpack.
- Put toe warmers inside your boots.
- Jog in place to increase your overall body heat if your extremities get cold.
5 Tips to Keep Your Head Warm
- Use a lightweight and breathable hat during high exertion activities.
- Switch to a merino wool hat during rest periods.
- Bring an additional warm hat in case one gets wet from sweat or weather.
- Cover your head and hat with a hood from the insulation and/or outer layers.
- Use a balaclava or neck gaiter under your hat or outer layer for better wind protection of your face and neck.
3 Tips on How to Keep Your Energy Up in the Cold
- Bring snacks that are high in protein and fat, such as nuts, cheese, jerky, protein bars or trail mix. These types of calorie-dense foods are slower to metabolize and are better at sustaining energy during a long day in the cold.
- Stay hydrated. It is easy to become dehydrated in the cold because we may burn calories without sweating and may not feel the need for water.
- Want to prevent your water from freezing? If you are using a hydration bladder, then blow air back into the mouthpiece after drinking so that the mouthpiece and hose are emptied of water. If you are using a water bottle, I recommend filling it with warm water and using an insulated bottle, like Hydro Flask. Since ice will form at the highest point inside the water bottle, place it upside down in your pack (preferably near you for body heat if possible) to prevent the lid from freezing.
Now that you know how to dress for cold weather photography, it’s time to embrace Old Man Winter!
If you want to learn about ways to protect your photography equipment in bad weather, check out my video here:
Do you have any tips and tricks for staying warm while doing winter photography? If so, please share in the comments below.