In less 48 hours, I will be face-to-face with polar bears, the world’s largest land-based carnivores. How cool is that? I’ve been invited by Churchill Wild, an arctic safari operator in Churchill, Manitoba to join a group of photographers on a polar bear walking safari at Seal River Heritage Lodge on the shores of Hudson Bay. When they emailed, it took me less than a millisecond to accept.
I’ve dreamed of photographing Churchill polar bears, and now I’ll have my chance. But I’ve never photographed in frigid weather and I admit I’m a little apprehensive. I’m the first person to catch a chill in a warm room and the guys at Travel Manitoba, the tourism board, say I should prepare` for double-digit, subzero temperatures.
During the day, I won’t be in a vehicle, which is one of the best things about this adventure. We’ll photograph polar bears on foot at EYE LEVEL. It’ll be great for photography but I need to be smart about what I wear. With this in mind, I’ve done a ton of research and asked a lot of questions, and here’s my plan. When I get back, I’ll let you know how it fared. Also in this post: camera gear—what I’m bringing and why—and packing tips.
“Layering Is ESSENTIAL!” A fellow writer told me in answer to my query. She went on to say I’d need a base layer, a mid-layer, an outerwear layer, and depending on the material of the outerwear, a shell (wind stopper) on top of that. Awesome! (She thinks, her voice dripping with sarcasm). I saw myself trudging around in the snow like the Michelin man barely able to move my limbs.
The good news: My parka, insulated pants and boots, would come from Churchill Wild. If they don’t know what I should wear, who will? What I had to figure out was my layers, hat, gloves/mittens, socks, and few other items I noticed on a packing list the team included with my itinerary.
Feeling a bit overwhelmed, I reached out to Columbia to see if they might have some thoughts and they sent me some great stuff. For my base layer, I’m armed with the brand’s heavyweight thermal reflective omni heat base top and tights. The interior breathable fabric has tiny silver dots “that reflect and retain” the warmth a body generates. The more I move, the toastier I get. Sounds good.
I’m also bringing a Smartwool medium-weight merino long-sleeve top and bottom I bought a few years ago. I wear them when I shoot in New York. I thought it a good idea to have two weights to choose from so I could mix and match.
As a mid-layer, I received a Columbia Omni-Heat Voodoo Falls 590 down vest with the tiny heat reflectors, plus I have my Uniqlo ultra-light down parka I take with me everywhere. It’s light and packs easy and I often wear it under my safari jacket when I’m in Africa for the chilly mornings and evenings.
I also have a couple of polar tech tops and some Uniqlo heat tech underwear I may use with everything else, just in case.
Update: Post Trip
Here’s what I ended up wearing under the outerwear gear I was loaned by Churchill Wild. Though temperatures dropped to -39F at it’s worst, I always felt toasty except occasionally my fingers were cold because I took my mittens off a lot to work my camera.
My daily dress:
Columbia’s heavyweight thermal reflective omni heat top and bottom. These turned out to be fantastic. I could feel them warm up as I moved.
A long sleeve pullover
Black Diamond mittens — I borrowed from one of the Churchill Wild guides
Quartz Parka, FXR thermal pants, and Baffin waterproof boots — were rated to -50F to ensure that people stay warm even when standing still and available to guests for rent.
The general consensus from my cold weather pals is to wear mitts, and I think I have the perfect pair. The North Face’s Montana Gore Tex Mitts has a number of qualities that sold me from the start. First, they’re slim and not bulky. Second, lining is sewn like a glove wrapping each finger in warm fuzziness. Third, the mitts have a cool wrist band you can stuff a hand warmer in to keep heat focused on my pulse point. Love it.
I bought my mittens in large, though the mediums fit, so I’d have room to wear a lightweight liner for warmth and for when I need to remove my mitts to change my camera settings.
UPDATE: Post Trip
Since returning, I can say that while these mittens will be great around New York City and less frigid climate, they were NOT suitable for the arctic circle. I had to borrow my guides black diamond gloves (see above) that had 2 times the down stuffing.
Hat / Socks
The wind chill by the Bay is often fierce at times, so I also purchased a balaclava ( I always want to say baklava).
I look like I am about to rob a bank but at least I know my nose and cheeks will stay warm. Over my balaclava, I’ll wear a The North Face classic wool beanie with a warm fleece lining.
A good tip: Since the balaclava goes over the ears, I’ve taken a pin and poked tiny holes where my ears are so sound will be less muffled.
I bought two pair of Smartwool Women’s mountaineering extra heavy crew socks, plus a Wigwam Coolmax liner so if my feet sweat, the liner will wick away the moisture and I’ll avoid having to wash my socks every day.
Camera gear I’m taking and why
Normally, I like to bring two camera bodies so I don’t have to waste time switching out lenses during a wildlife sighting. But due to some weight and baggage restrictions, that’s not going to be the plan as of yet.
Canon 5DMark III
Canon 1DX II
(I’m bringing two bodies so that I don’t have to switch lenses out in the cold. That said, depending on how far we have to walk, and the weather, I may forgo carrying both. We’ll see.)
Canon EF 100-400mm f4.5-5.6L IS II USM à This will be my workhorse lens. Long enough to capture the action but light enough that I’ll be able to hand hold it. I will use this with the 1DX II for most of the time because it has a faster frame rate and if I am lucky to get some polar bear action, it will be ideal.]
Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS USM à a great lens for almost any circumstances. It’s fast and has a beautiful bokeh. It’s also great for portraits, FYI. [Will use this with the 5D]
Canon EF 16-35mm f/2.8L III USM à I love the versatility of this lens. I often shoot 35mm for street photography and candid, and the 16mm I’ll use for landscapes and astral photography. If I’m lucky, I’ll see the Northern Lights! [Will use this with the 5D]
Benro Tripod –I’m bringing this for night photography and if I’m lucky, the Aurora Borealis. Depending on how the polar bear sightings pan out, I may use it on the tundra to give myself a break from hand holding.
Gear prep checklist
Before you head out on your next trip be sure to do the following:
- Reformat your memory cards so that you’re not doing it in the field.
- Number your memory cards so you know how many you have left and if any are missing.
- Clean all your lenses so they’re ready to go when you are.
- Make sure you have all the extra batteries, chargers, cords etc., for all your devices ready so you’re not panicking last minute to find them.
- Make sure you have your camera manual on hand. You never know when you might need it.
Not having used my camera in real cold weather, I wanted to know what precautions I needed to take, if any. I asked a few good friends and photographers who’ve taken on Iceland and Svalbard, what they recommend. And they all said, “Watch out for the condensation.”
The concern is not the gear in the cold (though battery life may take a bit of a beating), it’s what happens when you go back inside. Once the cold gear hits the warm air of the lodge interior, condensation will begin to form, and that’s bad news for a camera’s inner workings.
The answer: I need to put my gear in a plastic bag BEFORE I go inside, so when the condensation begins to form it will do so on the outside of the bag, not on my gear. Once the equipment reaches room temperature, I’m good to go. That’s easy enough.
Other tips include
- Remove my used memory cards from my camera before I go back inside so I’m not tempted to open the plastic bag before my gear warms up.
- Keep my extra camera batteries in my internal pockets so they remain warm next to my body.
- If it’s super cold, use a rubber band to affix hand warmers to my batteries.
I’m allowed a total of 70lbs of luggage. One checked duffel (50lbs, no suitcase allowed and dimensions must not exceed 55 inches in total), a carry on bag (no more than 20lbs) and a purse. My checked bag is about 36lbs including my tripod but my camera bag weighs more than 20lbs, so there’s a good chance I’ll have to put a couple of my lenses in my purse or coat pockets when they weigh my luggage. (Sneaky but necessary.)
For all my trips I use packing cubes: one for my underwear, another for my tops, another for my bottoms, you get the drift. For this trip, because a winter wardrobe is inherently bulkier, I’m going to use a combination of packing /compression cubes plus, compression bags. If you’re not familiar with either of these products, check out my video below.
Tip: Separate your belongings into three piles: the things you’ll check; the things you’ll carry on; the things that go into your camera bag. That way you’ll be able to see easily what goes where and if there’s anything missing.
If you’d like to follow along with my journey please follow my Instagram and Instagram Stories here? As well as my Facebook and Twitter feeds. I’ll be passing through Winnipeg first and then up to Churchill for a bush flight to Hudson Bay and Seal River Heritage Lodge. After that I’ve got a bit of a surprise, so stayed tuned!!!
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