Planning a winter trip to a place with cold weather? Wondering what to pack to stay warm for your hike or photography expedition? This post has you covered!
Growing up in the snow belt of Michigan where the “Lake Effect Snow Machine,” as our local weatherman typically called it and attending college just south of Chicago, I am very familiar with cold weather. I’ve skied (cross country and downhill), I’ve skated, and now, I get up at sunrise and hike through snow all in the name of photography.
Along the way, I’ve learned a lot about staying warm–or at least warmer–in cold weather. I’ve also encountered a lot of other photographers who don’t have a lot of knowledge about what to pack/where for winter photography expeditions, so thought this might provide a helpful resource for them, and newbie hikers.
The thing about packing for winter weather is that it can be expensive. I know photographers seemingly enjoy spending money on gadgets and I am no exception, but personally, I prefer to be spending on gadgets that directly benefit my photos. When putting together my hiking gear bag, I have tried to find the best intersection of quality and value, so as to not break the bank.
I used to cheap out as much as possible, but after buying replacement piece after replacement piece for my gear bag, I’ve realized that spending a bit more is definitely the way to go. Still, I don’t go the super high-end route, as performance outerwear and sporting goods can get as expensive as photography equipment if you get really into it. I try to take a middle of the road approach, and I think that works really well for me. If you’re going to get really into winter hiking or photography treks, going for even more high-end gear than I do might be advisable.
With that said, I’ll start with some general observations as a preface to my recommendations. One of the biggest mistakes I see other photographers and hikers, particularly those who live in warmer places, make is assuming that the best way to stay warm is to bundle up as much as possible. This is a bad idea for a variety of reasons. Granted, a giant puffer parka might is super stylish (especially if you are a rapper), but it’s totally impractical.
For one, when you’re on a winter photography trip, you’re going to have spats of activity on the hike to get wherever you’re going, followed by sitting and waiting. A large parka is cumbersome and a huge pain when hiking; not only will it be too hot, but it will be more unnecessary weight that you’re carrying. Conversely, when you’re sitting around waiting for the sunrise or sunset, it will be bulky…but not all that efficient at keeping you warm.
Instead, you want to dress in layers. You’ve probably heard this piece of advice thousands of times in myriad circumstances, so it’s not as if I’m exactly proposing anything groundbreaking. However, it’s the layers in the context of winter hiking and photography that make all the difference.
My go-to brand is Marmot. I have two Marmot down jackets, two Gore-Tex shells, a tent, and 35L hiking backpack all by Marmot. I’ve had great success with the brand and their customer service (I’ve owned one of my Gore-Tex shells since 1999 and they have repaired it twice!) and I feel it offers better value for money than other performance brands. I’ve started ‘diversifying’ with other brands recently, but I have nothing but positive things to say about Marmot.
Marnot doesn’t have as much name cache as The North Face or Patagonia–the former having been subverted by frat guys and the latter by Whole Foods shopping yuppies wanting to flaunt their environmentality–meaning you’re paying for the quality, not the logo. Other brands I like include Mountain Hardwear, Montbell, Norrona, and Outdoor Research, among others.
Here’s my approach to layering:
Base Layer – Whatever you do and no matter what the temperature, don’t skimp on the base layer and wear a regular ole cotton t-shirt. You need something that wicks moisture, otherwise you’ll end up cold from your own sweat. The sole purpose of this layer is getting perspiration away from your body.
Insulating Mid-Layer – This is usually going to be fleece, but honestly, this is the layer where you can skimp and just wear a sweatshirt or something you already own, so long as you don’t need serious performance. If the weather isn’t really cold and you buy a nice down jacket, you can skip this layer entirely (I often do). Personally, I think the Terramar Military Expedition Weight Crew is the better option here, as it essentially combines the base and mid-layers into one product. You can also find good mid-layers at REI stores.
800-Fill Down Jacket – Known also as a down “sweater”, this is your primary insulating layer. You want 800 fill (or 900 fill if you’ve got mad cash). For a high-quality 800-fill down jacket, you’re looking at spending $150-200. Note that I only mention down here as you don’t even want to trifle with synthetics. A synthetic material will save you money up front, but they are inferior to down in terms of warmth, weight, and compression. A lot of technical advancements have improved synthetics, but they still can’t touch down. Sorry, science, you lose to the ducks.
Outer Shell Coat – Personal preference will vary on this one, but I think the Marmot Minimalist is a tough shell to beat. When purchasing a shell, a lot of people look for something big and bulky, as that’s synonymous with warmth in many people’s minds. This is a mistake. The key considerations for a shell should be: wind & waterproof, taped seams, pit zips, and 3-season use. This last consideration disqualifies almost any coat that has excessive insulation (so don’t buy anything with built-in down or fleece). The outer shell should offer warmth due to its wind and waterproof status, and as it retains heat from the layers under it. Once you go from some bulky parka to the 3-4 layer system listed above, you will never look back. Lighter, more utility, and more warmth.
Moisture Wicking Thermal Long Underwear – A good pair of thermal long underwear is a must. Unfortunately, you’re sort of on your own here. I’ve only ever been able to find one pair that I really like–Wickers Expedition Weight–and they no longer are made. I prefer a heavier weight for my thermals than a “pure” hiker would, as I spend a lot of time stationary while waiting for the sunrise/sunset.
Convertible Hiking Pants – If you want the pinnacle of high fashion, you need some convertible hiking pants. They are all the rage on the runways in Paris and Madrid this year. In all seriousness, convertible pants are especially useful when you’re going to be hiking in conditions with a wide range of weather–in other words, when there’s a significant ascent. If you’re on a tighter budget, this is the first thing I’d cut. (Honestly, a lot of the time, I just wear jeans.)
Darn Tough Merino Wool Socks – Hiking socks aren’t cheap, so you might be reluctant to spend this much on them. The first time you feel like your toes are going to fall off on a winter shoot, you’ll change your mind. Darn Tough is one of the best brands out there, and this is the version of their socks you should get for winter hikes. Note that this is too thick of a sock for most spring and fall hikes, and certainly summer, so look at their thinner socks for those seasons.
Merrell Moab Hiking Boots – If you’re serious about winter hiking and want a versatile shoe, you should get something waterproof and that has “mid” height (covering the ankle). This pair is currently on my Christmas list, after doing a lot of in-store testing. (I currently have Tevas, and while great, they aren’t mids, so they don’t work so well with gaiters.) Not only are they waterproof, mid-height, and stable, but the Vibram sole is really comfortable. Remember to size up about a half-size to accommodate thicker wool hiking socks.
Snow-proof Gaiters – Chances are, you are not going to buy Gore-Tex ski pants to hike. That would probably be a bit excessive, unless you’re going to encounter waist-high snow (in which case snow shoes are probably the better solution). If you are going to encounter any snow that might come up past your ankles, you should consider gaiters. This is one situation where I think it’s fine to go the cheaper route, as these probably won’t get much use for most people. For me, these are basically a $10 insurance policy, as I rarely use them.
Windproof Winter Hat – I’ve used the Mountain Hardwear Dome Perignon for the last few years, and it has made all the difference in the world. When you’re on a mountainside exposed to the wind, that’s where it really matters, and spending a few bucks more for that wind-proof layer inside is totally worth it.
Modular Gloves – These aren’t the exact gloves I have (they’re no longer made), but they’re the same idea. If you’re going to be in any kind of conditions, you want gloves that have an outer waterproof shell and inner fleece layer that is thin enough so you can operate your camera through them. Since DSLRs have tactile buttons, you don’t need “electronics-friendly” gloves (they’re too thin), but you do want ones that aren’t so bulky that you become clumsy with the buttons. A pouch for handwarmers (or memory cards!)–as this pair has–is another huge plus.
Crampons – This is the third pair of crampons I’ve owned, and the previous two times I opted for cheaper Yaktrax versions without metal cleats, and both of those broke after little use. I couldn’t be more satisfied with this pair. On a recent trip to Crater Lake National Park, I actually forgot my hiking boots, and was able to attach these to my tennis shoes for great results. They are durable, and show no signs of wear even after I’ve done several hikes with them. (Oh, and these are approved for carry-on by the TSA, although you might want to bookmark this TSA.gov blog post to show them, as TSA agents in warm-weather locations might not know that–I speak from experience there.)
LED Headlamp – This is always something you’ll want in your camera or hiking bag, and mine gets a lot of use. I’ve gone through several headlamps, and based on my (bad) experiences, I want to stress how important it is to not buy one with a clunky battery pack on the front. After a lot of research before purchasing this one, I narrowed down my choices to Petzl and…Energizer. Energizer?! Petzl is a widely regarded hiking brand, but the comparable Petzl options (lumens strength and modes) are significantly more expensive, so I went with this Energizer headlamp, and have absolutely no regrets.
There are a few other items I’ll be adding to my kit soon, including snowshoes and (possibly) Gore-Tex socks (they are just so expensive!). I’m still doing research and talking to people about a few of these options, but once I finally decide on what I’m getting and have a chance to test those things, I’ll report back and update this post.
Anything else you recommend packing for winter hikes or photography expeditions? Things you’re thinking about adding to your gear bag? I’d love to hear from you, so if you have tips or questions, post them below, and I’ll respond!