I’m something of a desert rat, so while the Alaska trip was not my first experience with extreme cold it’s not something I do on a regular basis. This post is intended to be a summary of what worked and what didn’t.
As everyone will tell you, layers are the key to cold weather wear. It’s important to remember that you want to maintain a comfortable body temperature, not just “stay warm.” It’s surprisingly easy to overheat when you’re all bundled up, so remember that layers need to come off when you get too warm. My full set of clothing consisted of light and medium weight long underwear (synthetic), hiking pants and warm button down shirt, fleece pants and jacket and an Army “marshmallow suit,” also known as the ECWCS extreme cold weather parka and pants. I never wore the marshmallow pants so I guess I was over prepared. The Missus wore hers, but said afterwards that she wasn’t sure she actually needed them. (A note on the ECWCS outfit – These are a little heavy for backpacking use, but perfect for this kind of trip. We bought some for the Missus as most women’s cold weather gear appears to be sized for tall, Nordic types, and she’s very petite. The Army has sizes for everyone, even if they usually issue the wrong one.) Neither of us had any problems with keeping a comfortable core body temperature although hands and feet were a problem.
I bought a set of Baffin Wolf boots which are rated to -40º and while they worked well if I had to do it over again I would have gone with the -100º rated Eiger. The boots are rated assuming you’re working, and even so you need to come in to warm up periodically. The Baffins were very good for about an hour and a half and then I would go in and warm my feet up. I brought chemical foot warmers, but they were no match for the outside temperatures. They did help a little when warming up the feet. I wore a single set of Darn Tough wool boot socks which were outstanding. If you want to wear multiple sets of socks, make sure your boots are big enough for them. If they’re too tight they won’t be as effective keeping your feet warm.
Hands were another issue all together, since we were operating cameras we were concerned about dexterity. We tried various combinations, but at the end of the day regular mittens worked best – it just took a little practice getting use to it. For fine work like changing camera batteries it turned out that removing the mitten and quickly changing the battery worked best, particularly if you kept a hand warmer in your pocket to warm your fingers up before putting the mittens on.
During the day just a couple of layers seemed to work best. A single set of long underwear under the hiking pants and a fleece jacket under a down jacket worked just fine at -5. The light hiking shoes I wore on the flight in were fine around town as well. I actually went and bought a light down jacket at Big Rays Sporting Goods in Fairbanks to fill the gap between fleece and the parka. For headgear, I used a two layer wool balaclava that rolled up into a normal stocking cap for day use. Having two balaclavas may be useful since the part pulled up over your nose and mouth gets damp quickly. At night the hood of the parka kept the wind out and ears nice and toasty. You don’t realize how cold it is until you come inside and feel the outside of your parka.
As far as camera equipment went, mostly there were no problems. Batteries get weak in sub zero temperatures so you need to be able to change them out quickly. If you put the “empty” battery in a pocket with a hand warmer it will recover quite a bit. I did most nights swapping the same two batteries. Keep your pocket zipped up, though, or the hand warmer will try to heat the outside and not be very useful! Also, we found that the batteries needed to be recharged when they’ve warmed back up or they don’t really take a full charge.
As it turns out, the “L” in LCD stands for “liquid,” and at about -25º or so some people had a little trouble with the LCD becoming unresponsive, but they recovered fine once warmed up. A bigger problem was condensation. If your lens fogs up in that kind of cold the fog turns into frost and you’re finished for the night, but what caused some people problems was the trips to the warming hut. I just left my camera outside and didn’t have a problem, but some tried to take the camera inside to change batteries. Ever bring a cold drink into a warm place? Yep, condensation, which immediately froze once they went back outside. At the advice of our trip leader we put our cameras in zip lock bags before coming in from the cold which causes the condensation to form on the bag instead of the camera. Once the condensation was gone it’s safe to open the bag.
A weirder problem I had was with the tripod. The grease I used on the threads for the legs froze making tightening the leg adjustments kind of difficult. After talking with the manufacturer I found they use “Super-lube multipurpose silicone grease” which is good to -45º. Problem solved…
Probably the biggest thing to remember as far as photography goes is to have everything prepared before you go outside. Nothing is simple at subzero temperatures! Zippers freeze, batteries die, you get clumsy – the less you have to do in the cold, the better off you are.