Let’s continue the series on photography in wintertime. With the holiday season approaching, we all have more time off from work. So don’t spend all of it inside baking cookies (not that there’s anything wrong with that!). Get out and shoot some too. We’ve covered the getting there part, plus how to dress for winter. Now it’s time to hit the trail.
This morning I watched a few other photographers in Zion National Park. They were, as usual, sticking to the roadside. By far most pictures are captured from within a few yards of the road. I don’t completely avoid it of course, having gotten some great shots even by standing on top of the car. But although it’s even more tempting in winter to shoot near the car, getting away from the road is key to making the kinds of photos that are unique to your own vision.
The last post focused on winter clothes, but there are a few other things that can help greatly when you’re traveling in snowy or icy conditions. So let’s look at how to stack the odds in your favor during a winter outing.
- Camera Pack – Fit: Though not unique to winter, it’s even more important to have a camera backpack that fits and carries well. The typical blocky camera pack isn’t really good for hiking, but its shortcomings are even more pronounced in snow or ice where the simple act of walking is more challenging. So find one that carries most of its weight closer to your back and doesn’t swing the weight around. A sternum strap & waist belt are very helpful, for example.
- Camera Pack – Size: Since you’ll be carrying some extras beyond photo gear, it’s necessary to get a pack that has a roomy compartment for clothes and other non-camera stuff. If you already have a pack that is fairly large and comfortable, but without a dedicated compartment for extras, try taking out a few velcro dividers meant for extra lenses and making a place for the extra stuff.
- Filling that Pack: In summer, typically short photo hikes can be done without a lot of the safety equipment that’s necessary both for longer hikes in summer and outings of all distances in winter. So think carefully about which lenses to take and take out any extra camera gear that you may not need. This makes room for extra clothes, some food plus the 10 essentials.
- Just in Case – Ten Essentials: Google the 10 essentials, but realize in winter two of them are especially important: light and fire. Take a good headlamp with extra batteries (and don’t forget extra batteries for the camera). Being able to easily make a fire is very important in wintertime. Waterproof matches and a ziplock full of dry newspaper and other tinder (and perhaps some fire-starting compound) can save your butt!
Feet – Extra Help
Once you have good warm boots (see last post), consider where you’ll be hiking. The snow and ice of winter often demands something more for your feet:
- Traction Devices: If you don’t plan on going through deep snow much, you don’t need snowshoes or skis (see below), but if you’ll be in icy conditions, consider the small traction devices that slip on over your boots. Yak-Tracks are a popular brand. True crampons are too much; they’re for mountaineering.
- Snowshoes are popular with winter photographers for good reason. They’re simple to use and sure beat wading through hip-deep powder snow. Buy a pair that is appropriate for your size and weight. I would avoid the super-small and light kind; they’re for the crazies who run races in them; they normally don’t float enough in soft snow.
- Snowshoe Technique: Practice walking in snowshoes before you carry your camera pack, then add the gear on the next hike. While you do need to walk with a slightly wider stance and lift your feet more, most novices exaggerate this movement, wasting energy. The idea is to sort of shuffle, lifting just enough to avoid getting tangled up and tripping. If you never trip and fall, you probably aren’t learning to do it right.
- The Ski Option: I’m biased, but in my opinion skis are the best way to get around in snow. Sure it takes a little more time to learn than snowshoes, but that time is paid many times over with more speed and more fun when you’re out. In most terrain, I can leave snowshoers in the dust when I’m skiing. With short days, trying to catch the light, snowshoes are too slow for some destinations. And fun? On downhills snowshoers are plodding while I’m whooping and hollering.
- Using Cross-Country Skis: Modern cross-country skis are shorter, wider and much more stable/easy to use than the long skinny skis I learned on. And this kind have been out long enough now to go used. Just get a basic set of touring skis, boots and poles. With the money you save I recommend taking lessons. It probably goes without saying, but your camera needs to be stowed safely in your pack when skiing. I wear a small bag for my camera (Lowepro Toploader) over my chest, clipped to the straps of my backpack. Load distribution is even more important when you’re skiing, so make sure your backpack doesn’t swing around as you move.