Traveling to a polar region, whether the Arctic or the Antarctic, instantly brings to mind glaciers, icebergs, and very possibly snow, sleet or rain. These regions also can have rapidly changing conditions, all in the same day. It takes specialized clothing and gear to comfortably shoot in extreme weather, but you can’t get the shot if you are too cold to venture out on deck when the action is happening. Shore landings may be for several hours, so one needs to be well prepared for staying out in the elements for an extended period.
If you ski, snowboard, snowshoe or even live in an area with significant snowfall, you may have some of the necessary clothing and footwear already. I think it’ s easiest to think in layers, as if suiting up for a polar expedition. I tend to get cold easily, so often find myself wearing 5 layers on top and 3 layers on bottom, with 2-3 layers on my head and 2 layers plus boots on my feet.
Protective clothing checklist:
- Long underwear (long johns) are essential, either synthetic or my preference, merino wool. I take 2 pairs, wearing one during the day under all my other layers as a base layer, and another pair to wear as pajamas. These come in different weights and thicknesses. Companies whose products I particularly like include Patagonia, Ibex and Icebreaker. Check out also Mountain Hardware and Arcteryx for high quality products.
- Warm wool or synthetic socks. I prefer knee-high ski type socks for added warmth and to help ease on knee-high boots, and regularly wear 2 pairs at once.
- Waterproof pants. Some are lined with an insulating layer, others are shells, intended to be worn over a wool or fleece layer.
- Insulating top or jacket, fleece, down, wool or equivalent. I often wear 2!
- Waterproof shell with a hood. My Patagonia shell has a zip-in down lining, so it can be worn separately or together. I hardly ever wear one without the other.
- Fleece or wool cap.
- A fleece buff neck warmer, which I often pull up over my head and lower face as a balaclava.
- Gloves. While in Norway, I picked up a pair of gloves at Wildphoto at the end of the trip which I wished I’d had at the beginning. I managed with various combinations of glove liners and over gloves, but this recommendation comes from veteran photo workshop leader Jack Graham, with whom we’ll be traveling to snowy Japan in winter soon. They are called Heat 3 Smart gloves and were designed for the European Special Forces. Essentially, they are gloves within mittens, with retractable thumb and finger flaps, enabling you to operate small buttons on your camera without having your fingers completely uncovered. I’m sure all photographers who have worked in cold environments have given up in disgust struggling to operate a small button on their camera and stripped off their glove to hurriedly make the adjustment before their fingers freeze. These gloves also have a small zipped pocket on the backside of the palm for small items, perfect for inserting heat packs for extra warmth. The gloves themselves are goat leather, with Primaloft insulation.
- Hand warmers. These are inexpensive and sold in packs and can be inserted in gloves, boots, pockets, as a heat source for extremities vulnerable to cold. The heat is greatest the first 1-2 hours, but lasts with declining efficacy for up to 10 hours.
Whether shooting from the deck of the ship or during a shore excursion, keeping your feet warm and dry is of paramount importance. Shore excursions will be made by zodiac, transferring you from the mother ship to the shore, requiring a wet landing (stepping into ice-cold water). Waterproof, warm boots must be at least mid-calf high, but I prefer knee-high boots, both for warmth and an extra margin of protection stepping into frigid water. My rubber and neoprene Muck boots were terrific on all counts. The one downside is packing these relatively bulky and heavy boots. At least, there is plenty of room inside to stuff all those knee-high socks and long underwear!
Now, you are dressed and ready for the polar elements. In our next post on Svalbard, we’ll address what camera gear to bring.