Winter is one of my favorites season for landscape photography. The sun rises later giving me the ability to snooze a little longer. I actually love the rush of stepping out into that brisk winter air and hearing the snow crunch beneath your feet. Then, there is the wind tunnel of stillness and silence that a blanket of fresh snow delivers. Finding some serenity and peace is easy. Well, it’s easy provided your not a sniffling, shivering, teeth-chattering mess.
The first key to successful winter landscape photography is having the necessary gear. If you are warm and comfortable out in cold temperatures, then shooting is going to your main focus. You will happily wait around for the right moment when everything aligns. This is my winter photography packing list to keep me and my gear warm and cozy during cold weather shoots so my focus can be on winter photography.
Packing List of Necessary Gear for Winter Landscape Photography
Having the right clothing gear for a winter photography is critical. This is where it is important to pay attention to the technical specifications of the item. Wind resistant is not the same as windproof. It may cost a little more, but ensuring that your clothing insulates, protects, and/or breaths as needed is critical.
My first trip to Iceland was not comfortable. It was a constant feeling of dampness paired with a chill in my bones. It was entirely because my gear wasn’t up to snuff. After that trip, I shopped around during sale season, bit the bullet, and invested in a proper insulated jacket and shell. It was a game changer for my photography. With the right jackets, I was always comfortable whether I was battling gale-force winds in Patagonia, looking for the aurora in the Arctic Circle’s frigid temperatures, or listening to rain thump off my hood in Iceland.
- Base Layer: This should be fairly tight fitting. My preference is wool because it is amazingly warm and dries quickly. Often, there are hybrid layers, such as merino wool mixed with polyester. Additionally, base layers typically come in light, mid, and heavy. Depending on if you run warm or cold and your destination, take your pick. I tend to lean towards a midweight base layer and then adjust my other layers as needed.
- Mid Layer: A good mid-layer of fleece or down is the next layer to consider. My favorite fleece is Patagonia’s Better Sweater. Other brands, such as North Face, Eddie Bauer, REI, and L.L. Bean make similar products that are also quite good. If conditions call for it, I will wear this under my insulated jacket. Otherwise, it is great as a jacket for a fall day or to wear in the hotel or at dinner.
- Insulated Jacket: My insulated jacket is one of the items I view as an investment. An insulated jacket needs to keep you warm but remain breathable so you do not overheat while hiking in the winter. The last thing you want to do is sweat in winter conditions. Research the type of down, breathability, warmth-to-weight ratio, wind resistance, and fabric weather treatment. Find what works best for you. Use tools like Acrteryx’s Jacket Finder. You may not purchase that particular brand, but it will help you narrow down the attributes you need in a jacket. My favorite jackets have been North Face’s Thermoball Jacket and Arc’teryx Cerium LT Hoody.
- Shell Jacket: This is the other piece of clothing that I consider an investment. The reason being is that I can stand in a storm with my shell jacket and still be warm and dry underneath. This is your most weather protective layer. For me, I need a shell that is waterproof (not water resistant).
- Fleece Lined Pants: A good pair of fleece lined hiking pants are one of my favorite inventions. The other option is to wear a base layer pant and then a pair of hiking and/or waterproof pants on top or snow pants. For pants, I look for comfort, flexibility, as well as if they are waterproof or water resistant.
- Wool socks with insulated hiking or snow boots: Often you will be standing in snow, and even if you make yourself a little clearing, you’re still in snow. This is why wool socks and a pair of insulated and fully waterproof boots are essential. Warm and dry feet will take you anywhere you need to go to grab the shot.
- Neck gaiter, balaclava, buff, or scarf: That cold wind blowing against your face can really do a number on your cheeks and nose. I always have a buff with me and have used it a hundred different ways in my adventures. During winter photography season, I am often shooting with a buff sporting what I like to call the ninja look where only my eyes are showing. I may look ridiculous, but that’s way better than wind burn and rosy-red, chapped cheeks.
- Gloves & Hat: A winter hat and a couple pair of gloves are always with me. Actually, I always have my favorite hat and gloves as well as a back-up pair in case something gets lost or wet. With gloves, I like to have a pair of liners for dexterity so I can easily operate the controls on my camera without bare fingers being out in the elements. Then, I keep a heavier pair of waterproof gloves or mittens that fold back to wear once I have setup my gear.
Clothing Accessories & Miscellaneous:
- Chapstick & Lotion: This is at the top of the list for a reason. The weather conditions will annihilate your lips, face, and hands during winter photography. I carry blistex in my pack, my coat, and throw on in the car. My hands practically drink the lotion whenever it is applied. Please for all that is holy, spend the two dollars and keep a chapstick and a travel sized lotion with you.
- Heat Packs: I do my best to use the reuseable heat packs but they only hold their heat for maybe 1-2 hours. Even if I keep them in a thermos, it isn’t always practical. For that reason, I also use the disposal heat packs for my hands and even sometimes in my boots. I’ll even use day-old packs that are still giving off small amounts of heat inside my pack in an attempt to keep it from getting too cold.
- Sunglasses: People normally forget sunglasses until they are driving while squinting in the middle of the day with a blue sky and lots of reflective snow all over the place. This is why I literally always have a pair of sunglasses with me no matter the season.
- Microspikes/Crampons: A crampon is attached to your hiking shoe or snow boot for traction to improve your mobility on snow and ice. It is especially helpful on sloped surfaces and when crossing glaciers, snowfields, and/or ice fields. Microspikes are smaller and more for flat surfaces where you are walking on ice or hard/packed snow.
- Thermos: Whether it is filled with coffee, tea, hot chocolate, or gluhwein, having a hot drink to sip while out shooting for a few hours is a delightful treat and a great way to keep any chills far away.
Safety and Emergency Supplies:
Winter weather poses risks for being out and about so consider the necessary emergency preparedness materials. No matter the season, having an emergency kit is a non-negotiable. Items such as a first aid kit, road flares and a reflective vest should be in the car.
For those who have traveled with me, they know I always have my “Mary Poppins/Macgyver pouch™.” It’s a pouch of randomness that has saved my bacon and friend’s bacons many times over. This pack includes extra headlamp, sunscreen, first aid kit, insect repellent, pocket knife or multitool, waterproof matches and/or lighter, hand sanitizer, mini roll of duct tape, safety pins, small micro fleece towel, Advil, Benadryl, carabiner, chapstick, lotion, tissues. All things are mini sizes and contained in a small zippered pouch.
For winter specifically, I strongly prefer the vehicle to be 4-wheel or all wheel drive and have winter tires (along with chains if required by law). In addition, I make sure that the car has snow/ice removal tools. I keep both an ice scraper as well as a mini shovel should I need it. I like to keep bottled water, snacks, a blankets and a flashlight/headlamp as well. Even if on travel, I’ll grab a hotel blanket and put it in the rental car. Last but certainly not least, I like to keep the gas tank always above halfway. This may seem like overkill but if you do get stuck on the side of the road or waiting for a road to be plowed, it will be well worth the extra 5 minutes it took to load the supplies.
Depending on my location, the remoteness, how far I’m hiking, I will take a personal locator beacon (PBL). If you are planning for just a couple trips per year, these devices can also be rented.