Outdoor Attire 101

Fashion Tips for Outdoor Photographers

Layers that include no cotton. 

There, I said everything you need to know about what to wear if you desire a continued and healthy life as an active, outdoor photographer who doesn't live on the equator. Really. It only takes five words.

Okay, you're not satisifed. Neither am I (my boss pays me by the word). But before I move on to some practical tips that you probably won't find elsewhere, let me reiterate what I just wrote: layers that include no cotton.

  • Cotton can be dangerous. The problem with cotton is simple: it doesn't insulate when wet, plus it dries slowly. Holding water against your body is not good, as the water acts a conductive cooler, transferring heat from the body into the air. Hypothermia is a real problem you need to worry about when you're outdoors for long periods away from your home or even vehicle. Hypothermia can set in at air temperatures even in the 50°F range. So, you're a couple of miles from the trailhead when you trip and fall into the remote river you've just been photographing. The air temp is 50°F and dropping. This is not good news. It isn't good news even if you're wearing polyester-based clothing, but at least it dries faster and your outer layer (see next) usually has a high-tech fill that does insulate when wet. One other point, hypothermia begins to show up with as little as a 2 degree F core body temperature drop. In other words, it doesn't take a big change in your body temperature to have profound impacts. [If you're near the equator and know that you don't have 50 degree temps to deal with, then cotton can be your friend. But being wrong with cotton is dangerous.]
  • It only works for ducks. Likewise, down insulation, while one of the best warmth creators we've got, does terrible when wet. If you use a down jacket or vest to keep warm, make sure that you can protect it from getting wet (rain, sweat, or immersion). If you can't, look for a product with one of the synthetic fill materials. I usually take a fleece vest or jacket with me as insurance (if my down gets wet, I'll put the fleece on under it to try to keep my body warmth held close).
  • But sheep are okay. Wool is fine as an insulator when wet. Some prefer it to the synthetic insulators, but some of us don't because we have allergic or skin sensitive reactions to it. The hand (yes, that's the word for the "feel or texture" of a garment) of the synthetics is usually softer and smoother than wool, though there are now some finely woven wool variants that many like better.
  • Layers are your heater and air conditioner. Most of us who work and play in the wild have very refined layering systems (I even have one for my gloves [yes plural; keep reading]). Dressing in multiple, appropriate (and usually thinnish) layers allows you to regulate your body temperature perfectly. The classic situation is that you heat up while climbing those switchbacks and need to blow off sweat as you do. But once you reach the mountaintop and stand around taking photos, you quickly chill. Solution: strip off layers during the climb, put them back on before you stand around waiting for that awesome sunset to arrive. I'll have more to say about layers later in the article, but suffice it to say that every outdoor professional uses layering to keep from overheating or chilling.

The time to worry about the above things is now, when you're at home toasty in your den contemplating the world through your monitor. You may think I'm kidding or exaggerating about the above, but I'm not. 

If you're ever been hypothermic, you'll know why this is bad news: as hypothermia sets in, your decision making will get worse and eventually so bad that you'll take off your clothing. Seriously. Anyone who serves on outdoor search and rescue squads can tell you stories about the nude dead or almost dead folk they've found in the woods. They even have a name for it: Paradoxical Undressing. 

The trouble is this: you won't know when your decision making is getting worse. You'll start by getting wet. Then feeling cold. Next, you'll suffer some minor shivering and perhaps goosebumps as you body tries to figure out how to keep warm. Next comes violent and uncontrollable shivering. And then...well you kind of lose your cognitive functions from there on, so you don't need to know. So I repeat: getting wet even at temperatures above freezing is life threatening if you don't have the right clothing.

If you're off on the trails for long periods away from your car, here's what I think you need as a minimum:

  • Four layers. Inner warmth layer (something like the Patagonia Capilene, with the thickness you use determined by the time of year, place, and temperatures you'll encounter). These days, this is called the "base layer," but in the olden days this was called long johns. Outside that you have your regular pant and top (not cotton!). Next, you have an insulating layer (usually only on the top, as in a vest or down jacket). Finally, you have your weatherproof layer (at least water resistent, but preferably one of the waterproof technologies). And yes, you should have waterproof pants that go on over your regular pants as well as a waterproof jacket. Note that these are not "comfort" clothing, these are essential "if you have them you might survive" clothing. We'll get to the comfort stuff later. Right now I'm talking about the minimum, remember?
  • Keep the hands covered. I use a two-layer approach to gloves (and three-layer when I know I'm going to be out in below freezing weather for long periods of time). The inner layer is a very light synthetic glove, sometimes called a liner. I want a thin first layer so that I can feel the camera controls but still have some wind and cold protection over my skin (frostbite hurts, and it can happen fast to exposed skin). Over that I normally use a pair of gloves that have peal-back fingers (which means that the tips of my fingers will have a single layer of the liner over them while taking photos, but if I need to warm those fingertips back up, I pull those foldable finger covers back over my digits. Another approach is to use fingerless gloves, like bikers and climbers do, but I like being able to get that second layer back over my finger tips, when necessary. If I need a third layer, I use a warm mitten over the first two layers (mittens have no individual finger holes). And yes, I've found a peal back mitten, too, so I can go from one very thin layer to three full layers over my fingers almost immediately. Two layers of gloves is light and easily packed into even the most tight waist pouch or backpack. Obviously, the full three-layer approach only comes with me in some situations and at certain times of year, but I'm almost always with my two-layer glove set, even in what some think is a warm destination, such as Hawaii (think volcano top). 
  • Use synthetic hair. A tight fitting but insulating cap is a must. I actually take a multilayer approach here, too. My first layer is a set of ear warmers, my second layer is a nice snowboarding cap, my third layer is a full on balaclava (covers your neck and head except for where your eyes will poke out). Like gloves, a cap and a ear warmer are small, light, and packable in just about anything you're likely to be hiking with, so don't forget them. In the summer, I often use a Argentinian Gaucho hat instead of my snowboarding cap because it has a nice wide brim to keep my eyes shielded from the sun. But I still carry my ear warmers.
  • These boots are made for walking. And that's just what they'll do. That age old advice about needing big, heavy, ankle-high rock stompers is, well, aged. Most of us outdoor photographers have graduated to something more akin to what are called trail runners. Normal cut, running shoe style with slightly beefed up treads, but waterproof. Whatever you do, make sure your shoes are comfortable, and that they fit. All else comes after that. If you've got the right shoes, you won't get blisters. But make sure that your regular outdoor shoes are waterproof. If you only work in hot climates, I suppose that doesn't apply, but then I'd suggest that you make sure that your shoes expel moisture and dry quickly. In Hawaii and other tropical climates I often use a hiking sandal.
  • A second pair of socks. Did I say your boots are going to be waterproof? Yeah, well, that only works if you don't get water down them from the top (i.e., don't step in deep puddles or have water streaming down your legs into them). Thus, you'll want a dry pair of socks, because at some point you'll step in that puddle or encounter that epic rain storm. If conditions are really wet, you might want to carry a pair of lightweight gaiters that work with your boots. Wet feet aren't fun except at bath time with rubber duckies. 

Since I'm wearing one of the layers and my boots, the rest of that minimum set actually packs into a pretty small space in my pack. My down jacket squishes into something about the size of my 24-70mm lens. My waterproof jacket and pants make for even smaller bundles. And the rest I can usually stuff somewhere in my backpack. In a pinch, I stuff them in a sack I attach to the outside of the pack.

Let me be clear that this minimum set won't keep me perfectly dry or nice and toasty in the most miserable conditions, but it'll keep me alive until I can get back to the trailhead and my vehicle. And even though summer is coming up as I write this, don't think that lets you off the hook. I've found myself in unexpected blizzards in more National Parks than I can name during the summer months. 

Yes, you guessed it: what I just wrote about is my summer gear. For winter and arctic explorations I use as many as six layers and carry a lot more clothing and much thicker, warmer, and waterproof stuff.

Here are some other fashion tips for outdoor photographers:

  • Dress like a gray card. Ever taken a picture in a National Park and rued the day that white t-shirts were invented? (White RVs are a near second in getting me upset when I find them in my frame.) We've got enough problems with the high contrast situations in landscape photography without having to deal with bright white objects in our scene. So go to your closet right now and throw out all those white shirts and blouses you've been wearing. Likewise, we don't want to dress like all the women here in my locale (and New York City; e.g. black on black). We want all our upper-body clothing to be mid-tones. You don't have to wear a gray shirt, though. I've accumulated a fair number of blue, green, brown, and other-colored technical T's that reflect about the same amount of light as a gray card. Why do we need to dress in mid-tones? So that we can include ourselves in our shots, when necessary. This was Galen Rowell's old trick. If his wife Barbara, a student, or I weren't around, he'd pose himself in the landscape when he needed scale, a splash of mid-tone color, or another element in the scene.
  • But carry a color splash. For years, the classic outdoor scenic shot that included a human—usually for scale—had them dressed in a red jacket. The red generally was a good contrast to the scene, wasn't too bright or too dark, and it drew our eyes to the person in the picture. When Velvia reigned supreme, that red jacket really popped on the light box (photo editors are a sucker for bright differentiating colors when their only alternatives were the usual green trees, blue sky, and brown ground). Red is now cliche, though. Consider alternatives. For a few years I carried a yellow jacket with me (that's the outer garment, not the winged insect). So, one of your layers should be of color. Orange, yellow, some blues, and reds tend to work best for splash.
  • Ditch the cool shades. Imitate Indiana Jones instead. Ever notice the pictures of serious outdoor photographers at work? Notice how we're all wearing large brimmed (or wide brimmed) hats? Ever wonder why that is? Polarized sunglasses kill your color perception: you'll see things the camera doesn't see (unless you get the camera a matching pair). You'll come home wondering why your colors seem so faded compared to what you remembered. Beyond that, those LCD displays we use on all our gadgets don't show well at certain angles with polarized sunglasses on. But you need to keep glare out of your eyes, thus the hat. Helps with the sunburns, too, if you get the right hat.
  • Assume it will get colder. This should be an automatic assumption if you're going to gain altitude, as the rule of thumb is that the temperature drops 3°F with each 1000 foot elevation gain. But the thing is this: you can always take clothing layers off (and should) if you get too hot. If you run out of layers to put on, well, that could be a problem.
  • Think about what happens when it's dark. First, bring a small flashlight or headlamp with you. But when night falls, so do temperatures, and sometimes far more than you anticipate. Even in the desert the night temperatures can get challenging. Can you zip and unzip your clothing in the dark (hint: add light zipper pulls)? Can others see you in the dark? 
  • Test your clothing. You want clothing that allows you not only to stay warm and dry, but that can allow you to continue to operate. Try taking pictures with the gloves you think you'll wear. See if your pack or waist belt still fits well over all your layers. 

Finally, since a few of you tropical photographers protested when this article first appeared, let me briefly address hot climates, too. 

In the tropics you'll probably be in one layer, but I still think you should keep at least one other layer handy. Get wet during the day and still be out as the tropical night comes and you'll still get chilled. 

For the tropics, quick-drying fabrics are generally what you want, partly because wet clothing can get your photo gear wet and sometimes it will chafe as you move (again, that leaves out cotton). Shorts and short sleeves are not necessarily the right choice (think sun exposure, plus all the things your skin might come in contact with that can scrape it up). 

You'll also want light colors that reflect heat, not dark colors that absorb it. A hat, preferably of light fabric or with mesh, is almost necessary. 

The thing you're worried about during the day in the tropics is heat stroke, which is every bit as life threatening as hyperthermia. So finally we find a use for cotton! Having a cotton bandana (or t-shirt) means you can dip it in water and use that to cool your body. Keeping hydrated is also extremely important as the heat rises. 

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