Gear and Photo Prep: Deep in the Mountains in Winter

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Hey friends, it’s been a intense few days! My assistant Dalton and I were up at 8500 ft in the Enchantment Lakes shooting a new campaign about wilderness survival. More on that later, but I thought I’d share with you some of the gear preparations it takes to go up and shoot at elevation in the mountains in the winter. Shooting up there can be really challenging but the landscapes are truly mind-blowing and the mountain goats unbelievably persistent. Makes me miss my days running survival courses in Oregon. So what did we pack and how the hell did we get our packs down to 35lbs each while carrying all our camera gear and delicious food? 

Man, getting your pack down to a reasonable weight is tough without Sherpas. Particularly when you are packing a camera, lens and tripod combo that alone weigh 9 lbs. It’s worth it, though, when you have to gain 6000 ft of elevation in a day over deep snow.

Our trip was only planned for four days and three nights, and it got cut one day short so we had to hoof a lot more miles per day to reach the lakes and ridgelines from where we did our shooting. So the first thing to think about when after plowing through six feet of snow for 10 miles? Fire, then FOOD. NOT trail mix, but something delicious, hot and full of calories.

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Most important are those big old Beef Sticks in the middle, they are heavy at 12 ozs but they pack a ton of calories and have lots of fat and protein. Perfect for staying warm at freezing temperatures. Also I packed some of my favorite ultralight calorific meals, Joe’s Ultralight Moose Goo. Dinner consisted of those Backpacker’s Pantry Freeze Dried meals, only the high-calorie ones. They are hot and quite filling for two. I usually get my food at Trader Joes and REI.

For food, balancing weight and calories is really important. Just as veterans of the Iditarod will tell you they cache pizza rather than energy bars, I try to bring enough real food because it motivates and doesn’t dehydrate you. Of course we did pack along plenty of energy bars for fuel on the go as we gained significant elevation through snow and the temperatures were in the teens and twenties.

We went with ultralight and minimal for cooking gear something unusual for me, but since there’s not much gathering wild foods in the mountains in the winter, we really only planned on eating what we brought. In the summer I catch fish and eat wild greens to supplement.
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I try not to be a gear whore when it comes to most outdoor activities. In the mountains though, the mountains make different rules, so we depend on good equipment and a light load, especially when you add a lot of camera equipment to the mix.

Critical Equipment:

  1. Trekking Poles. They are a serious lifesaver on icy snowy terrain, especially coming down. Get the ones with Fliplocks.
  2. Gaiters. Keep snow out of boots, and keep them dry inside or you will suffer mightily.
  3. A camp pad with a high R-Value. Mine is a Big Agnes Insulated Core with an R-Value of 4. Almost as important as your…
  4. Sleeping bag: Down if it’s below freezing and make it warmer than you need. I use an Enlightened Equipment Revelation X, which is very light and versatile but not very warm. Fortunately, I sleep in my big down puffy coat and down pants.
  5. MSR EVO Tour Snowshoes. They are great for going across mixed terrain, and tearing uphill, with iron grip on ice and nearly indestructible.
  6. A good solid headlamp like the Princeton Tec Quad. Get one that’s waterproof and durable and always carry spare batteries. In the winter the days are short and it’s easy to get caught hiking to your camp in the darkness.
  7. Hydration system, map, compass, both waterproof matches and lighters, sunglasses, first aid, toilet paper.

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Oh you’ve all been waiting for this one, right? I tend to be super sparing in what I bring as far as camera equipment, because it’s a) less to take care of in the snow and rain and b) it’s the heaviest stuff we bring.

  1. Nikon d800, well, because it’s the camera I do all my work with. No spares since it would add too much weight.
  2. Nikon 24-70mm or Nikon 14-24mm. Simply these are the two lenses I use the most and the 24-70 is more versatile but the 14-24 is far wider and what I generally need when shooting landscapes. With the 24-70 I often can get away with stitching panoramas.
  3. Peak Capture is my camera mounting clip system of choice, I can keep my camera slung on my backpack’s shoulder strap and have it ready to go in an instant. Extremely handy for moving and being ready. Better than any strap system, complements pretty much any strap you want.
  4. My Velbon El Carmagne 630 tripod, out of production but still awesome. Along with the Acratech gv2 Ballhead. It’s a lightweight but very rigid package for traveling and stabilizing exposures.
  5. Optech Soft Wraps keep my camera protected in my pack but are absolutely minimal.
  6. You’ll notice a few odds and ends, like a Pelican case for my storage cards, a remote trigger, and a rain cover for heavy rain.
  7. A Rode Videomic for whoever’s shooting behind the scenes video, which is a must these days. It’s small and convenient for use in the wilderness, where dealing with finicky gear setup etc… means missed shots.

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Finally, my clothes, because it’s just too damn cold to be naked. Next week I’m off on a shoot in Hawaii, so maybe things will be different there…

  1. Feathered Friends Helios Down Jacket. At 14ozs, it’s ultralight and hella warm.
  2. Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer Down Jacket. Even lighter  (7ozs!) and perfect for wearing on the move.
  3. Mountain Hardwear Plasmic Hardshell. Good ones that are breathable are very expensive, this one from Mountain Hardwear is pretty good and much cheaper.
  4. Long Johns. And Base Layers. And socks. Of Merino Wool. Why? Because they won’t absorb smell like synthetics, and also won’t melt or get holes near a fire. Hard to dry things near a fire when they just melt.