March 12th, 2020

Although winter conditions can complicate backcountry photography expeditions, it is also a fantastic opportunity to take beautiful and unique photos.  Often times, some of the most popular summertime trailheads are desolate in the colder months, leaving large expanses of backcountry to be explored with minimal crowds. One of the biggest perks in my opinion is being able to camp virtually anywhere (subject to local regulations), because camping on the snow has negligible impact on the vegetation beneath it.  Obviously, that only works if you follow leave no trace principles!

However, planning and setting yourself up for success in the snowy wilderness is not a walk in the park, and can be intimidating for outdoor lovers  of all experience levels.  Here I will break down some of my most valuable tips and tricks to inspire you to get outside and create some stunning photographs before Winter ends.  

1. Do your research

Heading out into the snow should be fun, but can be dangerous.  Familiarize yourself with the terrain you plan to encounter, and determine if that area is at risk for avalanches.  I will not get into that in too much detail, but basically the most avalanche prone terrain are typically open slopes ranging between 30-45 degrees in steepness that have had heavy snowfall recently.  If avalanches are common where you live, always check the local avalanche advisory for recent snow reports.  

When you are planning your trip, make sure you are checking the weather forecast for the closest location possible.  Sometimes in remote backcountry areas, this can be very challenging.  A good tip is that if you can find a weather forecast for a town nearby, but you plan to camp at a higher elevation, for every 1,000ft increase in elevation it is typically 3-degrees F colder.  This knowledge can help you gear up accordingly.

As far as planning where to go, the possibilities are endless.  At first, you may want to stay on designated and marked winter trails, but you may build up your navigational skills enough to warrant heading off-trail into virgin territory.  The one thing to keep in mind is that it is  common to move about half as fast as you would on the trail in snow as you would in the summertime.  An 8-mile hike that you can do in 3-hours in the summer would likely take around 6 hours on snowshoes.

2. Gear Up Smarter, Not Heavier

Although cold weather conditions might incentivize packing all of your warmest layers, keep in mind that you will want to keep your kit as light as possible because moving in the snow is tough work.  You will want a combination of lightweight and breathable layers.  I have found that merino wool base layers work best in keeping me warm, dry, smelling fresh wit their anti-odor properties.  I also pack water-resistant soft-shell pants, extra wool socks, a fleece mid-layer, a warm and packable puffy, an ultra lightweight rain jacket, and a warm hat and gloves. 

For sleeping, I know some people that do not mind toughing it out in a lightweight bivy sack, but for just a pound or so heavier, you can stay warmer and much drier in a sturdy tent like the Slingfin Portal.  This will also give you space to keep your gear inside the tent or in either of the two vestibules, which will keep everything dry in case it dumps new snow overnight.  Most people think that all of the warmth comes from the sleeping bag, but a high quality winter sleeping pad with an R-value above 4.5 will prevent your body heat from sinking to the snow beneath your tent.  With that said, having the proper sleeping bag is equally important.  You will want something that fits your body snug because it will take less energy to heat a smaller space.  My go-to winter bag is the Feathered Friends Snowbunting EX 0-degree Bag because it is extremely toasty and weighs in at under 3lbs.  If you do not want to splurge on a new sleeping bag just yet, an ultra compact and lightweight silk sleeping bag liner can add between 5-10 degrees of warmth to the sleeping bag you already have.  

As far as camera gear goes, this is the time to bring just one or two zoom lenses that can cover a wide range of focal lengths, and leave those numerous and heavy prime lenses at home.  I always bring a carbon fiber tripod with me, but that is especially subjective in snowy landscapes that naturally reflect a ton of light and would likely allow you to use faster shutter speeds and lower ISO settings.  

3. Skills and tips you should know       

When setting up your tent in the snow, you should do your best to compress the snow where the floor of your tent will be.  You can walk over this snow a bunch of times with snowshoes or skis and that will not only flatten the surface, but prevent the snow from sagging under your weight at night. 

Additionally, you should familiarize yourself with how to stake out a tent using a dead mans anchor, since you will probably not have solid ground to drive the stakes into securely.  If that is something new to you, check out this super easy to follow video.  Having a snow shovel or ice axe in your pack makes removing your tent stakes a breeze.

Route finding is one of the most underrated skills in winter backcountry exploring.  Many times trail markers are harder to find or not visible at all and if you are the one lucky enough to break trail, you may find yourself lost before you know it.  Carrying a map and compass or GPS (best if you have both) on you is extremely important in keeping you safe and making sure you spend less time navigating and more time shooting pictures.  

When it comes to your camera functionality, it is important to note that your lithium-ion batteries will drain very quickly under cold temperatures.  It is best to not only bring spare batteries, but to keep the spares inside your puffy jacket pockets during the day and inside your sleeping bag at night.

Also, carry only about a little more water as you think you will need to get to where you plan to set up camp.  The great thing in winter is that there is a reliable water supply everywhere, snow!  Make sure you have plenty of camp stove gas on you (which is far lighter to carry than extra water) then melt and filter, or boil water as you go.  

Lastly, if you think you will be cold when you sleep, heat up a water bottle full of water, wrap it in a t-shirt (so you don't burn your skin), and stick it between your legs inside your sleeping bag.  This will heat the blood in your femoral artery, which will circulate around your entire body.

Although this is not intended to be a comprehensive step-by-step post, I do hope that it will encourage people to explore and photograph winter landscapes safely and with confidence.  I would love to hear your questions, feedback, and experiences about this topic in the comments below!

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