Wrap Up Warm
4th Jan 2016
Winter is here although as I sit here writing this you wouldn't know it as we are experiencing the warmest December since records began way back in 1910. Just for the record it has also been the wettest and we have had the least amount of sunshine too!
Traditionally the coldest months here in the UK are January and February so we still have time for the frost and snow to arrive before we head into spring. Winter is a great time for photography with winter landscapes, frosted vegetation, icy watercourses and the fact that sunrise and sunset occur at a more sociable hour. The sun rises very slowly and scribes a shallow arc across the sky meaning we are bathed in the warm 'golden' light for much longer than at other times of year which increases the photographic opportunities for us. If we get to see the sun, did I mention this has also been one of the greyest Decembers on record?
Everything has to change at sometime and I'm hoping we will get some beautiful cold, crisp winters days over the next few weeks. I am heading out to Norway in February, leading a couple of photographic workshops to photograph the aurora and I can guarantee that they have plenty of cold and snow. It was -16 when I was there in 2014.
So what kind of clothing will keep us warm while we are out in the elements trying to capture our beautiful images while others, less appropriately dressed have retreated back indoors?
Most of us have heard of the layering principle for winter clothing, where we dress in lots of thin layers and can remove layers as we get too warm or add new ones as we cool down. Well this layering principle is great for those taking part in active pursuits like walking, skiing etc and need to regulate their body temperature. As photographers we are much less active, our bodies don't produce anywhere near as much heat from our activity and so our clothing needs to provide as much warmth as possible. We need just a few layers but layers that have high insulation properties.
Starting next to our skin with a base layer, this is the modern day equivalent of a vest, we need something warm but breathable. Our choice comes down to an organic fibre like cotton or wool, a man made fibre like polyester, rayon or polypropylene. Some garments contain a mix of the two fibres both natural and man-made.
Synthetic fibres are breathable and quick drying, they are easy to care for and are abrasion resistant. On the downside they are not as warm as a natural, organic fibre based garment and they can also retain body odours.
Wool is the best of the natural fibres, today the leading garments are made from merino wool which has very soft and thin fibres making it non-itchy. Wool is warmer than the equivalent thickness of synthetic garments, it's breathable and has natural, odour resisting properties.
In my opinion it's only downside is that care has to be taken when laundering it, cool wash only and definitely don't tumble dry it! ........ I did once by accident and my expensive Icebreaker baselayer came out the size of a postage stamp, you have been warned!
Companies like Icebreaker manufacture an extensive range of high quality merino wool garments, this isn't an endorsement for them but I have used some of their products extensively and have found them to be well made and of good quality.
Mid layers comprise everything that sits on top of your base layer and underneath your outer garment, they can comprise shirts, fleeces or even inner jackets. These layers you can build up to increase your insulation to match the conditions, here in the UK you might need just a good fleece beneath your outer jacket but in arctic conditions then a fleece in conjunction with another layer or layers would be more appropriate. There really is not much advice I can give you other than tell you what I wear and why.
Fleeces come in different weights, Polartec is the most universal material for fleeces and comes in 3 weights with Polartec 100 being the lightest weight and Polartec 300 offering the most insulation.
Other options for mid layers is another Merino wool layer, this time one in a thicker, fleece like style. Sometimes, in very cold conditions I wear a down gilet on top of a fleece for extra warmth.
Finally I would urge you to consider a garment made by a UK company called Buffalo. It's not a name known to many people but they are superb and used by the police and military. They have a fleece inner layer for warmth and a nylon outer layer for shower protection but their main advantage is that they maintain their warmth even when wet and they also dry very quickly, you can wear them as a base layer or an outer layer.
They are very durable but should they get damaged you can return them to the manufacturer in Sheffield who offers a repair service.
This really is a choice between whether you need waterproof qualities or not.
Down jackets are the recommended choice due to their high insulation and lightweight, nothing can really match them for warmth, pockets of down feathers stitched inside a windproof membrane. Some down jackets are even available with a waterproof outer layer.
I wouldn't recommend jackets with synthetic insulation as they just don't have the necessary warmth.
When I am up in Norway during the winter photographing the aurora the night time temperature can regularly drop below -16'C, a down jacket, Buffalo mid layer, Polartec 200 fleece and a merino wool base layer have kept me warm and not even worrying about the cold.
Down jackets come in 'fill weights', figures you will commonly see see are FW600, FW650, FW800 etc, this number is the amount of cubic inches just 1oz of the down would fill. Therefore you would have 200 cubic inches more down in an 800 jacket as opposed to a 600 jacket and therefore the jacket would be warmer.
Also the kind of down is important Polish or Hungarian goose down is considered by many to be the finest quality down but concerns have been raised as to 'how' this type of down is harvested. There are some reports that suggest down from countries like Poland is collected from live birds and can results in serious injuries to the birds. As I am opposed to all kinds of cruelty it would be prudent to ask the manufacturer if the down in their jackets is collected humanely. At present just one company 'Patagonia' has altered its production lines to ensure down plucked from live birds are eliminated from its garments.
Now our body is well protected we need to give just as much attention to the rest of our head, feet and hands, which can be great sources of heat loss.
Starting at the top of the body and working down we need a hat, if possible a thermal hat. Recent studies have shown that the popular theory that we can loose 45% of our body heat through our head is a fallacy but I still recommend you keep your head covered. I use a beanie hat by a manufacturer called SealSkinz which is insulated, waterproof and breathable.
A balaclava is also a good garment to invest in especially if you are visiting very cold parts of the world, in fact I always take two with me. When you breath through the balaclava you will find that area around the nose and mouth ices up over time, so by having two balaclavas it is a simple operation to replace the iced up one with the other while the original one thaws out.
Once again the modern technical 'thermal' ones are very good.
There are several manufacturers of balaclavas but once again I suggest you take a look at a few different ones and select one that suits you. Wool will tend to cause less irritation to your face and let it breath more than synthetic materials.
The long neck allows you to tuck it in below your outer jacket and even your mid-layers to eliminate draughts which can result in muscle stiffness over time.
Hands - I usually wear 2 pairs of gloves, a thin merino wool inner layer and a pair of large, well insulated, waterproof outer ones. While the benefits of the large insulated gloves can't be over emphasised they are not the most suitable items for trying to change camera settings while wearing. By wearing a thin, inner glove you can happily remove the out glove, change your settings and replace the insulated glove without exposing your finger tips to the icy cold conditions.
Some of the modern inner gloves, also called glove liners, have a special coating on the finger tips which allow you to use touchscreen devices like mobile phones and tablets without removing them. They don't provide a great level of insulation but prevent you exposing your skin to sub zero temperatures.
A good pair of well insulated, waterproof gloves is one of your best investments when out in the cold weather, life isn't very nice when you have frozen, throbbing fingers and with them also being waterproof you can sweep snow, drop them without fear of them losing their insulation properties.
Finally we reach the foot section, a good sturdy pair of boots are ideal not only for keeping your feet warm but also the aid walking on snow and ice. Special insulated winter boots are available but I have found my walking boots to be more than suitable, the thick soles help prevent the cold travelling up into your body from the ground and decent, insulated socks provide some additional warmth. A good pair of wool, preferably merino wool socks are perfect, they are warm, breathable and resist odours very well.
Finally a set of easily attached studs for your boots are essential, these are pieces of flexible rubber or plastic which stretch to fit over the soles of your boots and contain many steel or tungsten studs to help you gain traction on ice. These are so beneficial and have helped me stay upright while many around me have been slipping and falling on the compact snow and ice.
One of the makes I use are called Spikey Plus, they are cheap but very effective.
I have included a few photographs to show you the kind of garments that I use but they are in no way endorsements of these products, I leave it up to you to research and purchase items that you feel are the most appropriate for your needs.
I like to buy from my local store where possible and Endless Pursuits in Lytham carry a great range of outdoor clothing at great prices, they can also obtain out of stock items quickly should your size or colour not currently be in stock.