the thing about snow is…

…well, i really don’t have any idea how to prepare for it. i grew up at the beach so i’m accustomed to sand, bare feet, bonfires, damper and swimming.

snow is very unfamiliar to me: my only experiences have been during a handful of ski trips, a week in colorado in the winter, some work trips to the usa for only a few days at a time, a workshop last year in glencoe (-6 deg celcius) and the london snowpocalypse experiences (which i don’t think really count do they?)

and next year, in february, i’m heading to japan for a photography workshop with martin bailey. i’m hoping to see snow monkeys and eagles, and red-crowned cranes and other wildlife, as well as experiencing the hokkaido region…

and it’s going to be cold.
like -30 deg celcius cold.

i’m hoping to make some photographs like this one – image by martin bailey, used with permission.

i have no clothing to prepare me for that level of cold. i’ll be packing as much merino clothing as i can fit in my suitcase, and i’ve just bought a pair of snow boots, but i need to hire a jacket (because mine is PURPLE and will scare the wildlife away) and i’m also going to need to hire camera gear (because i need to take two camera bodies with me – it’s too cold to switch lenses and there’s apparently never enough time -, plus zoom lenses that are longer than the one that i have).

part of me is wondering if this is such a good idea after all. i don’t want to end up with so much gear that i don’t use it all, or so little that i end up being the cautionary tale, that martin shares with all future participants, about the woman who missed the cranes, or the monkeys, or the boat trip, because she had hypothermia that day!

snow lovers: if you have any packing tips or clothing tricks for me, i’d love it if you’d share!

i know though, whatever happens, that this trip is another way i can grow – by learning new photography skills and being around people who know more than i do, and also as a human being.

8 thoughts on “the thing about snow is…

  • I used to be good with snow & the cold. But, years of living in the tropics have thinned my blood. These days I struggle with the mild winters of Adelaide (2c to 16c).

    But, I can recommend lots of stuff about making the most of the photographic experience. Though, I suspect you can probably guess already much of what I would say.

    I hope you enjoy preparing for the experience as much as you will surely enjoy being there (despite the cold). You’ll be taking a trip I have thought about years, long before I even had an interest in photography!

  • thank-you everyone for your fabulous and detailed advice for dealing with the cold – i am very grateful to you for taking the time to help me out!


  • oh, and WRISTS. make sure the space between your coat and gloves will be covered no matter how far your extend your arms. i sliced off the forearms of an old cardigan and wore one on each arm tucked into the coat sleeve and the glove

  • ah! i *do* know about -20/30 degrees Fahrenheit. (i’m from coastal California but my alma mater is near Chicago and their worst January/February days are like that, so i had to learn.)

    like pohanginapete said, gloves that won’t hinder you shooting are important, and keeping your face and ears covered (hat low, scarf high, +hood) makes a BIG difference.

    other important details:

    *if there will be wind, get a windproof or wind-resistant layer at least for your upper body

    *knits had better be both thick and tightly done

    *hands need pockets, even with gloves

    * if you don’t have boots, legwarmers under your jeans can substitute as far as calf-warmth

    *those insulating leggings work a treat

    * the actual experience is not as horrific as the numbers sound. breathing is the hardest part if it’s still, wind is the hardest part if it’s not. but you’ll all be making the best of it together!

  • I went birding in Hokkaido over Christmas a few years ago, and on the coldest days I erred on the side of wearing lots of clothes and did not regret it.

    i.e. I bought two pairs of thermal long johns — thin ones and thick ones — so I would have a choice, and ended up wearing both pairs under jeans under windproof trousers. And several layers inside a down jacket, and a couple of pairs of gloves, and I think a balaclava and a hat, maybe. And socks inside fleece liners for my hiking boots.

    But it meant I could stand on the seashore when it was -15C and the wind was blowing in off the north Pacific, and watch Stellar’s Sea Eagles sitting on ice floes, without feeling the cold too much. Even with all those clothes, after a while standing in the wind I got chilly enough to need a brisk walk; but basically I could stay outside all day without feeling too cold.1

    I think you have to take those kind of temperatures seriously: comparing it to skiing, if it’s -12C at the top of the mountain with the wind blowing, and you’re on a chairlift, just think how quickly you feel the cold penetrating despite ski wear and gloves and a hat.

    Having said all that: *amazing* birds. You’ll love it.

  • I grew up in Northern Canada, where the temperature is regularly -40C. Shooting in winter… it’s tough. Here are some of my clothing tips for cold weather.
    – layer your socks, especially if you’re going to be doing lots of walking. A thin sock on the inside, (preferably something that wicks sweat away) and a thick sock on the outside is the very least. a middle layer of a regular sock wouldn’t be bad either.
    – In cold weather, the parts of your body that get cold first that the extremities – hands and feet – and when they do it’s a sure fire way to spend the day grumpy and possibly with frostbite later. I know winter jackets are expensive, but I would personally go with a lower price winter jacket and spend money on really good quality gloves and socks.
    – As with your feet, layering mittens helps. Especially when I’m shooting, I like to use a thin pair of gloves (which I take multiples of for when one gets wet) inside a pair of wooly fingerless gloves (like this: with a flap to cover my hands back up when I’m done shooting. Other things to keep in mind with keeping your hands warm are that mittens (where all your fingers are in one space) allow your fingers to share body heat more than gloves (where each finger has it’s own space).
    – Because snow is frozen water, when it comes in contact with you, your body, your clothes, anything with any amount of heat, it gets wet. Bring lots of extra socks and gloves for when this happens.
    – Make sure your hat covers your ears really well. Cold ears is no fun and very painful, especially if there is any kind of wind.
    – The key is really to layer your clothing. When we go out in winter I like to wear a pair of tights or leggings under a pair of long johns, then a pair of jeans and then (depending if I plan on rolling in the snow) a pair of snow pants. Same with the top part of your body – tank top, thin longsleeve tee, thin sweater, big sweater, jacket.
    – This is going to sound silly, but I recommend trying on all your winter clothes together before you go and walking around in them. See where there are gaps that form when you squat or lean over (particularly between your jacket and your pants). Make sure your gloves/mittens are long enough to be tucked into your jacket sleeves and don’t pop out easily (nothing worse than reach up to take a photo and suddenly your wrist is freezing). Also make sure that your scarf/scarves tuck into the collar of your jacket well. If you decide to get snowpants, I suggest ones that come up to your chest with suspenders over your shoulders. Then it’s really hard for snow to get down your back.
    – The trick is to try and keep as little of your skin from being able to be exposed to the cold, so this sometimes means tucking things in in slightly weird ways. I find that tucking my pants into my socks keeps my ankles warmer and tucking sweaters into mittens and then mittens into jackets helps with my wrists.
    – I HIGHLY recommend bringing hand heaters. These things are a god send for if you have to take your mitts off to shoot.
    – Last but not least, remember that once you’re cold it’s harder to get warm and you will not have fun if you are freezing and you could jeopardize your health. If you’re out there and you fall in a snowbank and get soaked, don’t keep going. Get inside, take off your wet clothes and run a lukewarm (not hot) bath. If you can’t feel your ears, fingers or toes anymore or they hurt when you touch them, same thing, get inside.
    – Okay, one more, a little trick for when your hands or feet get so cold they feel numb. Once your inside, fill a sink or tub or bucket with lukewarm water, not hot, just lukewarm. Gently put your hands or feet in. This will probably hurt a bit at first, they way your foot hurt when pins and needles are being worked out of them, but soon they’ll feel normal again.

    I hope this information helps! If you can’t find any sort of hand warmers in the UK, let me know and I can send you some.

    This sounds like an amazing adventure!

  • This sounds amazing. Sigh…

    Hiring long lenses can be mighty expensive, and they can be difficult to use. If you’ll be using lenses for the 5DII, you’ll need a good tripod — and possibly a program of weight training! If your second camera body has a reduced-frame sensor, you’ll get extra magnification (e.g. Canons like the 7D have a crop factor of 1.6x, so the marvellous 300 mm f4 becomes a 480 mm f4, and it focuses down to 1.5 m).

    I eventually switched to micro 4/3 format for travelling. This gave me access to the brilliant Panasonic 100–300 mm lens — the equivalent of 200–600 mm. The autofocus is lousy but usually adequate and the results I’ve managed aren’t too shabby (I think). I use it on a Panasonic GH1 body, but I’d be very interested to see how well it works on the Olympus OM-D E-M5, which is getting rave reviews. All up, the 100-300 with an Olympus or Panasonic body weighs roughly a kilo — a lot less than a long Canon lens, a lot less expensive (your hire costs might go a long way towards that system), and a lot less conspicuous.

    I’m not saying you should opt for this, but I think it’s worth considering.

    As for cold weather stuff, I admit I’ve never encountered -30°C (although my house feels like it sometimes). Nevertheless, do get a good down jacket (I got a Mont Bell jacket from the i-climb guys in Wanaka, and it’s brilliant). Fingerless mitts (‘edging mittens’ is the olde Englishe term) might be handy, although you might have to use full gloves in that kind of cold, in which case operating a camera might be awkward. Instead of paying vast sums for fancy gloves, get some of the gloves sold for commercial use in walk-in freezers; they’re a fraction of the price and at least as good as the fancy stuff designed for wealthy ice-climbers.

    I find one of the really important things in cold weather is to keep my face covered as much as possible. That means covering my nose, so I’m breathing warmer air than I’d otherwise inhale.

    Nothing wrong with a purple jacket. The wildlife will see you no matter what you’re wearing, and I’ve found it easier to get close to wild animals if they can see me clearly and I just take my time, waiting until they relax before I move a little closer. Animals get very jumpy when they’re not sure what that thing is over there. Besides, the only colour that won’t stand out in that landscape is white ;^)

  • how incredible!! i have absolutely no advice about cold weather gear, but i do believe that it’s good to push ourselves into situations and experiences that scare us enough to question what the hell we’re doing.

    and i hope that that journey west will have to include a stop here, i’ve gotten quite used to and anticipate that yearly visit. no pressure of course :) xo

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