Shooting in Extreme Cold Part 1: Layering

As summer is beginning to wind to a close, you may be scheduling winter gigs or getting booked on shows that shoot outside in harsh climates. Icy environments are a great backdrop for extreme locations, and television networks are currently in love with showing tough people surviving in some of the coldest places on earth. Of course, you might also be shooting in a typically temperate place that happens to get an unusual and brutal cold snap, like what happened to me this past January on a three week shoot in Ohio. Remember that infamous polar vortex? Yeah, that was a bit unexpected.

A lot of DP’s and camera operators live and mostly work in warm, sunny climates with predictable weather patterns. But inevitably, you may be asked to travel to a location that is way outside your comfort zone. In addition to shooting out in the polar vortex, which saw temps drop down to 0°F (-18°C) this past year, I also spent several winter months shooting up in the far north of Canada, just 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle. While there, I was working outdoors on 12 hour days in temperatures as low as -40°F, which, coincidentally, is also the same as -40°C. Sometimes I even had to sleep outside in a tent for several days in those temps when I was shooting particularly remote story segments.

Where I camped for 3 days in -40° temperatures on a brutal but extraordinary shooting expedition.

It sounds brutal, and it is. If you’re prepared, though, it’s far short of impossible - and can reward you with an experience you may have never thought you could to endure. But the key, as I said before, is being prepared. After a fair amount of trial and error, here’s part 1 of what worked for me & how I made it through the extreme freeze with all my fingers and toes:

LAYERS

You absolutely must layer your clothes, and layering properly is the key to staying not just warm, but also flexible enough to do your job properly. If you’re operating a camera, you can’t be clammed up so tight you can’t bend your elbow. Also, layers allow you to respond to changing conditions and keep you versatile in the field when you need to be able to pull off and put on clothing as your body temperature and the environment fluctuates.

A typical morning for me on my North Canadian shoot with nylon and fleece balaclava, wool beanie cap, down shell with coyote fur hood liner

1) Your first step, and the most important layer, is to put on your base fabrics. For this, you want to avoid cotton at all costs. The base layer is meant to wick sweat away from your body and dry quickly to keep you from getting cold. In sub-freezing temps, sweat is your worst enemy. If your clothing gets wet from sweat and it doesn’t evaporate, your damp clothes will make you very cold very fast. If it’s cold enough, the sweat may even freeze, and then you’ll basically find yourself standing in a freezer wearing an ice shirt. Not a pleasant place to be. Cotton, while being great at wicking up moisture, is notoriously slow to dry. Some people prefer wool as a base layer as it’s very warm, but I find it to be not much quicker than cotton for drying, and it has less wicking power. Synthetics like polyester make the best base layer - they wick quickly and dry fast. Just be aware that you’ll want to wash them often as they have tendency to hang on to odor. There are some wool/synthetic blends that do a good job of balancing warmth, wicking, drying, and anti-odor capabilities. I typically just stick with straight synthetics as they’re inexpensive and efficient. Look for blends of spandex, polyester, nylon, goretex and/or lycra®. You need a base layer over your entire body if you’re going out into extremes. Get base layer socks, long underwear, shirts, hands, and a balaclava for your neck, face, & head. Buy base layers that have a form fit; you want the fabric against your skin for maximum wicking ability. However, be aware that this can also cause chafing, particularly against the nipples of men. Bandaids across your nipples, or even just a bit of duct tape or gaff will prevent this. There are also some anti-chafe sticks and cream on the market that will help.

2) The next step is to prepare your mid-layer. This is usually lightweight, durable, and comfortable clothing you can wear to protect yourself when you strip down your insulating layer if you get too hot. And you will get too hot, especially when carrying a 20-30lb camera in mid-day, no matter what the temperature is. If you feel yourself sweating, take off the insulation and let the moisture evaporate; don’t stew in your own sweat. Wool and nylon can be great mid-layers, and I use cotton quite a bit for my mid layer, but if you’re a heavy sweater, it’s not optimal. Micro-fleece is also great, but the static electricity it can build up can be quite annoying and even damage digital cameras. I typically wear a mid-layer over just my torso and legs.

Balaclavas: not just for S.W.A.T. teams anymore

Balaclavas: not just for S.W.A.T. teams anymore

3) After that comes your insulating layer, and I’ve got just one word for you: wool. It’s incredibly warm, is a great insulator even when it’s wet, and is very durable. It can be bulky, but if you spring for Merino wool, it has a higher warmth-to-weight ratio due to it’s finer fibers. I use Merino wool socks, bottoms, sweater, and beanie.

4) Finally, you put on your shell. This is the layer that protects you from wind, but can also give another important insulation point. For the extreme cold, you’ll want a goose down shell for your torso. Here is where you’ll need to do some research though; some high quality down parkas can be optimal for temps in the -40° range, but will leave you burning up in -20°. Know where you’re heading and what the weather will be. In an ideal world, you’ll have a few options for a different range of temperatures and conditions. I have a heavy down coat and light down coat from North Face, with a detachable water- and wind-proof hooded shell that can fit over either of them. I also have an even more heavy duty long goose-down parka from Cabella's with coyote fur hood liner for the toughest days. For more benefit, try to get a coat with a fur liner around the hood; it does wonders for breaking up wind and keeping your face warm. Canada Goose makes what is arguably the world’s standard for extreme cold shells, but I find them to be a bit bulky. For your bottoms, get a good pair of ski or snow pants, and make sure they’re wind- and water-proof.

For your hands, mittens are great for warmth, but will leave you lacking in dexterity. Wool gloves with a fold back pocket mitt over your hand liners work great when the wind is calm and gives you finger dexterity when you need it. In the extreme cold with blustery wind, you’ll want to wear something more heavy duty, like Outdoor Research’s Alti Gloves. You’ll have more finger dexterity than you would with mitts, but they are still bulky and can make operating camera buttons and dials difficult. But they will keep your hands warm and your fingers from getting frostbite.

Baffinboot.jpg

Lastly, let’s talk for minute about footwear. This is where most people fail with their cold weather gear, and it’s decidedly crucial to have the proper boots for spending all day outside on your feet. When you’re standing outside on snow and ice all day, that cold gradually seeps up through the soles of your feet, and once your feet get cold, you’re done, even if you’ve adhered to everything I’ve said in this post to now. You won’t die, but you’ll be very very miserable. I tend to find that boot manufacturers grossly overstate their temperature range, and if you think that shoes rated for -40° will keep your feet warm in -40°, you’re in for rude awakening. Spend the money here for quality footwear, you’ll be so glad you did. I personally prefer Baffin snow boots. They’re a high, waterproof, heavily insulated boot with a massively thick sole that allowed me to stand on a frozen lake all day without feeling the first bit of cold in my feet. However, every night when you take the shoes off, take out the liners as well and let everything dry. Feet sweat a lot, and these shoes aren’t the best at letting liquid evaporate out of them. The thick liners will absorb moisture, and if you don’t take them out to dry, that moisture will continue to build up. One day you’ll put on your boots and go outside and the liquid trapped in the liner will soak into your socks make your feet cold quickly. 

I hope your takeaway from this post is that there is no one-size fits all when it comes to outfitting yourself for working in extreme cold temperatures. Expect to have a variety of fabrics, densities, and types of cold-weather clothing on hand to be ready for ever-changing conditions. This is especially true for gloves - you're working with your hands, and operating equipment with small buttons and touchscreens and other features that aren't easy to use with protective clothing on. Having a few different options on hand is a great idea; there's a delicate balance between being protected and being able to work efficiently. It's better to have too much, than get stuck in the cold with not enough.

Next up - how to keep protect and keep your camera gear working!