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Backcountry Photography

The Digital Dilemma: How Can You Keep Your Hands Warm
Yet Still Leave Your Fingers Free?

By Tamia Nelson Get the Picture?

December 6, 2011

I'm not one to hibernate indoors in winter. Don't get me wrong. I'm no hard(wo)man. I like my creature comforts, and I don't worship the cold. I've spent enough nights shivering in unheated rooms to last me a lifetime. But I also know that I need to keep moving to stay reasonably fit. A chipmunk can sleep through the winter and then spring into life just as soon as the sun melts the snow away from her burrow, with her vigor and vitality unimpaired. Not me. A week spent sitting behind a desk leaves me listless and flabby. Four months of idleness would probably finish me off altogether. Use it or lose it… That's my motto. It has to be.

Still, it's not easy to leave a warm house when an icy wind is driving snow through the pine woods and even the chickadees are cowed into silence. I need a very good reason. And photography provides it. There's so much to see in winter. Landscapes that I know intimately from excursions during the more temperate seasons now look completely different, and every storm alters their appearance yet again. It's said — correctly — that you can never wet your feet twice in the same river, such is the power of moving water to alter the land in ways both large and small. And the same is true of any winter landscape, at least in snow country. With nearly every step you take, you're going where no one has gone before.

Of course, there's more than this to lure photographers outside in winter. The white mantle that remodels the contours of familiar hills also serves as a tablet, faithfully recording the wanderings of every manner of four‑footed traveler. Best of all, its surface is refreshed with each snowfall, so I'm always seeing the latest chapter in the story of the travelers' lives. In a very real sense, the winter woods are an open book. And then there are the colors. Much of the time, the frozen landscape is a grim portrait in gray and black. But suddenly, just as I'm turning toward home, the last rays of the sun will duck under the low‑hanging clouds, suffusing a distant ridge with a warm glow, and in the blink of an eye the composition is completely changed. Now it's a nocturne in black and gold. No Pixar wizard could produce anything half so striking.

The bottom line? The winter woods and hills are a wonderland for photographers. But like almost all gifts, this one comes with strings attached. Winter isn't an easy time to work outside, even when the work involves no more than turning dials and pushing buttons. Photographers need the right gear — and they need to know how to use it to best advantage. Blowing snow and freezing cold are also hard on digital cameras and their lenses. To be sure, practice and planning can overcome most such obstacles. Yet one stumbling block remains to bedevil cold‑season shutterbugs:

Cold Hands

Some folks seem to have heaters in their fingertips. They're the lucky ones. But what about the rest of us? If you've suffered frostbite in the past, or spent long hours twisting ice‑screws into frozen waterfalls, or just been unfortunate in the genetic lottery, your hands may balk at working even in comparatively mild temperatures. Take it from me: It's not easy to make pictures when numbing cold has transformed your fingers into nerveless claws. Then there's the pain that often precedes the onset of this crippling numbness. A toothache is mild by comparison. Agonizing pain or icy immobility? It's hard to know which is worse, but one thing is certain — neither contributes to your success as a photographer.

Unfortunately, your hands are probably the hardest part of your body to insulate. Your fingers, with their high surface‑to‑volume ratio, see to that. And mittens — the first choice for cold‑weather hand protection — make photography all but impossible. You need to keep your fingers free to work a camera's controls, and a lot more besides. Here's a short list of photographic tasks that are either difficult or impossible with mittened hands:

And that's not all. Winter photographers aren't exempt from the usual run of outdoor chores, of course, and these include …

All of these chores demand strong, nimble fingers. Which in turn requires that you keep your hands warm. But if this leaves you encumbered in bulky mittens, with no more dexterity than a stranded seal, you're no better off. OK. That's the problem. But —

What's the Solution?

It's a maddening dilemma. Mittens keep your hands warm when nothing else will, but they make it nearly impossible to do much besides wiping your nose and gripping a ski pole. Gloves free your fingers from confinement, but a glove must be thin if it's going to allow free movement, and the thinner the glove, the less protection it offers. Furthermore, no glove, no matter how thick, can offer anything like the insulation of a mitten. Of course, it's easy enough to enumerate the qualities of the ideal winter glove. It would …

  • Leave your sense of touch unimpaired
  • Allow you to manipulate small controls easily
  • Do nothing to restrict circulation
  • Be both windproof and waterproof
  • And insulate as well as any mitten

Good luck! I've never seen anything that comes close to meeting all these targets. So it's no surprise that there are almost as many solutions to the "digital dilemma" as there are winter photographers. Some shutterbugs wear gossamer silk gloves under mittens or ski gloves, pulling off the heavy outer layer whenever they need to focus or snap a shot. (And all too often, dropping the discarded shells in the deepest snowdrift for miles.) Others wear neoprene diving gloves — and resign themselves to half‑frozen fingers. (If they're lucky. If they're not, they get frostbite.) A few swear by convertible mittens that flip back to expose the fingers, and then flip forward again to warm them up. These are clumsy, but some folks like them. Farwell used just such a pair during three years of winter bicycle commuting, in temperatures that sometimes dropped down below zero (Fahrenheit), and he still has all ten fingers.

Over the years, I've tried every one of these approaches — and more, besides. So,  …

What Works for Me?

You'll see the first part of the answer to this question in the picture below:

Defense in Depth

I've opted for a layered approach, separating the functions of windblock and insulation. In the photo, you're looking at two examples of each. Now here's the same photo with labels in place:

Naming of Parts

The Outdoor Research PL 400 gloves combine a breathable (but wind‑resistant) outer layer with a light fleece lining. They fit like a second skin but they don't bind, and they keep my hands acceptably warm till the temperature falls below freezing. That's when I put the Headsweats lobster mitts into play. The Headsweats are proof against even a gale of wind, and they add a mitten's warmth when worn over the Outdoor Research gloves. Yet the lobster mitt's two‑by‑two design affords more dexterity than any conventional mitten. This combination is my first choice for cold‑season jaunts combining cycling and photography. And I'm not the only one to appreciate its virtues. Farwell has adopted it, too. His flip‑over mitts now gather dust on a shelf.

When photography is the primary business of the day, however, and when I'll be getting around on shanks' pony rather than two wheels, I leave the PL 400s at home and turn to my Manzella Silkweight Windstoppers for my first line of defense:


The Windstoppers live up to their name. They're light and thin, but the double‑sided fabric does a good job of blunting the edge of a cutting wind, while the fleecy liner holds the heat in. I've described them in more detail elsewhere, and their great virtue is the freedom they give my fingers. In fact, they fit so well that I can manipulate all the controls on my camera almost as easily as I can in high summer. But when the temperature drops lower than merely chilly, they're not enough by themselves. That's when I add a second line of defense, either my Thinsulate‑insulated fleece gloves (in moderate cold), or — on really arctic days — one of the heavyweights shown below:

The Heavy Brigade

Gray wool Dachstein mitts have long been a favorite of climbers, and the canvas and leather gauntlet mitts to their left are tolerably accurate copies of a US military pattern, though they lack the GI mittens' separate trigger‑finger:

Sound Off!

Needless to say, while the heavy, boiled‑wool Dachstein mitts and gauntlet mitts are wonderfully warm, it's impossible to work a camera's controls while wearing them. Which is why I slip my Windstoppers on underneath. Somewhat surprisingly, the Dachstein‑Windstopper combination works well in temperatures down to zero degrees Fahrenheit or thereabouts, at which point I swap the Dachsteins for the military gauntlet mitts, whose heavy, snap‑in fleece liner has proven adequate in temperatures down to −40. And that's about as cold as I want to go.

Perhaps you noticed a discordant element in the photo above. What's a pair of light leather shooting gloves doing in such heavyweight company? Well, the shooting gloves are an alternative to the Windstoppers when my winter travels take me through bramble thickets. They don't add much warmth, but they stand up well to thorns. You can't have everything, after all.

Making Tracks

Though most of us keep trying, don't we? And this is especially true of our cold‑weather wear. Which may help to explain why I have several drawers stuffed full of gloves and mittens, worn once or twice and then set aside. I chalk this up to experience. The ones I've just described are those I use most often during the Season of Hard Water. And there's a very good reason for this. They work. Most of the time. But even the A Team fails occasionally, and when that happens, it pays to have a …

Plan B for Cold Hands

The letdown always comes when you least expect it. You take off your outer mitts to snap just one picture. Then you see a second shot and snap that. And then a third, only to notice that you're having a hard time focusing. That's when you realize that your fingers are rapidly becoming numb.

There's no time to waste now. The photo shoot is over. Tuck your camera away and pull on your outer mitts. Flex your fingers repeatedly. Better? If not, shuck your mittens and tuck your hands under your or (better yet) a companion's armpits. Don't be shy. You need skin‑to‑skin contact here. Still no improvement? Then it's time to fish out one of the little chemical heat packs like those I carry for emergencies. I don't use them often. In fact, it's been years since since I needed one, and the heat packs I have in my rucksack have passed their use‑by date. (I'd better replace them, pronto!) But when you need them, you really need them.

I also carry backup mittens in my pack. And once you've lost your only pair in a bottomless drift, you will, too. My gauntlet mitts have sewn‑in loops for a cord which I then thread through my sleeves and over my shoulders. This is a great nuisance when I take off my anorak — the cord always seems to snag something — but it's a wonderful help on the trail. With the tether in place I can remove my mittens yet still keep them handy, and there's no chance they'll disappear in a drift. That's worth putting up with a small nuisance, I think. After all, cold hands never improved anyone's day, did they?


Pictures of Comfort


The temptation to hibernate at home during the winter months is hard to resist, but if you're a photographer you've got a reason to be out and about, even when the thermometer drops below zero degrees Fahrenheit. Of course, you can't shoot photos with frozen fingers, can you? Which leaves you with the "digital dilemma": How can you keep your hands warm and still leave your fingers free? Now you know my answer. Will it work for you? I hope so. But if not, tell me what does. Then I can pass the word along.



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