Railfanning in Winter--What does it take?

HemiAdda2d Feb 5, 2018

  1. HemiAdda2d

    HemiAdda2d Staff Member TrainBoard Supporter

    Winter in my neck of the woods (North Dakota) is harsh, deep, and unforgiving. Railfans up north can't enjoy their hobby during the winter, can they? Danger lurk in many places: frostbite, hypothermia, windchill factors, blowing snow/drifting, slick roads, etc. Equipment freezes up, batteries fail: it’s tough to railfan in winter. With a little bit of knowhow, and some key equipment, you can get chillingly beautiful train photos in the dead of winter.

    First, you need to gear yourself up. If you live up north, chances are you already have some of this stuff. When it’s cold out, and I mean below zero with howling winds, you need to bundle up. Bare skin freezes in minutes in windchills exceeding -30°F, so if it’s already close to or below zero, a mild or moderate wind will cause those windchills to become dangerous. Sometimes it’s so cold you get an ice cream headache from simply breathing.

    1. If you’re new to winter and outdoor sports, it means layers. What kind of layers? Can I just take as many flannel shirt as I own and end up looking like that kid from A Christmas Story? In a way, yes and no. Layering depends on your clothing’s ability to hold your body heat in. Holding body heat in requires your layers to have air pockets. That means they cannot all be skin tight, A.K.A. you need them to be somewhat roomy--freedom of movement.

    2. What fabrics should I use? There’s so many types of fabrics out there, from wool to cotton, and myriad of synthetic fabrics to further confuse you. I’m old school. I like natural fibers in my layers. I prefer wool, but it’s either hard to find or prohibitively priced. There’s bunch of types of synthetic fleeces out there, and your average sweatshirt type fleece is not what I’m talking about.

    a. Base layers: PolarTec makes a great fleece for layering. Polypropylene (poly-pro) is another useful synthetic fiber. I have thick base layers of poly-pro and they are hard to beat. In fact, they hold in so much heat you need to moderate your heat if hiking and exerting—working up a sweat.

    b. Pants: I also have some insulated jeans. They have Thinsulate lining, and by themselves (without a base layer), I can withstand 0-5°F temps. With a base layer, they’re good to windchills of -25°.

    c. Jacket: I have several options. Carhartt makes a fabulous cotton duck parka. It’s impervious to all but the strongest winds. In fact, if you get the wind to penetrate your Carhartt jacket, you probably blew over! My particular model doesn’t have a hood built in, but I have a snap-on accessory hood. You can buy a Carhartt jacket with a hood nowadays… I also got a jacket from a previous job that is similar, but it has a hood. I wear it most.

    d. Coveralls/bibs: Similar to the Carhartt jacket are my matching bib coveralls. When it gets THAT cold, I wear the Carhartt combo. Carhartt makes several styles of jackets and bibs, as well as a single piece coverall. They also come in several specifications for weather; normal (mild weather), quilted, and Arctic Extreme. When I outgrow my current set, I’m springing for the Arctic version.

    e. Footwear: Socks as well as boots are vital in cold weather sports. I love my wool socks. Thick, cushy, warm, made in USA (Darn Tough brand). Those socks with my normal (uninsulated) hiking boots are good for -10°F. When the wind kicks up or the mercury curls up in the bulb, I reach for my winter boots. Made by Rocky, 1200 grams of insulation—they’re called Blizzardstalker. With a name like that, you know they’re warm.

    f. Hands: Photography in winter is brutal on your hands. Thick gloves don’t like to actuate small camera buttons, bare hands get frostbite—time again to layer up. You can spend oodles of cash on ultra-high-tech ski gloves, and they’ll keep you warm, but you can’t do much while wearing them, certainly not manually focusing on a distant set of intermediate signals while it’s below zero in the wee hours of the morning. I team up a “fleece all-weather glove” from Seirus with a simple wool glove liner from a military surplus store. The double glove method works for me. I keep warm while waiting for the train, and take the outer glove off to work the camera when train time arrives. The thin, yet warm glove liners allow me full functionality of my hands that I lack with thicker gloves.

    g. Headgear: I have a great synthetic fiber 'Thermolite' Wigwam beanie. It’s nearly impervious to the wind, thin and quite warm. When the wind kicks up, you need facial protection as well. I wear a thick fleece combo balaclava. It acts as a mask, with drawstrings to snug it up against the wind. I roll the bottom side inside out, and pull it up against my face. I also have a thinner neoprene wraparound/Velcro mask that covers my nose.

    h. Glasses freezing up and icing over with your breath? I got nothing. I still fight that problem… I have a ski mask that helps, but even it fogs/ices up the same.

    This isn't The Stig, it's The Stig's North Dakota cousin (BBC/Top Gear joke)

    the stig.jpg

    Now that you’re warm, how do you get your gear to cope with the cold?

    1. Camera: The camera tends to withstand the cold fairly well. I haven’t yet experienced a malfunction attributable only to the cold (operator error, that’s another story).

    2. Batteries: Camera batteries (especially the stock Canon rechargeable batteries that fit my T5 camera) HATE the cold. Despise it. Loathe it. They dump their charge at the first sign of a snowflake or below freezing temperature reading. You geared up against the cold, framed up a great shot, and the all-too-familiar blinking red battery flashes, mocking you as the train approaches. My solution is low-tech. I stuff my spares in my pants pocket to stay warm. I frame/focus the shot, do a few test exposures at the f/ stop and shutter setting goal, and see how they turn out. After the shot is set up, I pop open the battery door and slip the battery into my left glove, then stuff my hands in my pockets until train time.

    3. Focusing at night: When you can barely see your subject, focusing accurately is a problem. I carry an LED spotlight. A cheapo Rayovac light cannon. I can spotlight the target, use my zoom-focus utility and dial my focus in just right. I then hook the lanyard of the light cannon around my tripod handle. It acts as a bit of a ballast to prevent shake in the typical winds (like a sandbag). I also have a small Petzl headlamp that I use to work the camera when it is especially dark. It doubles to illuminate my way as I hike in and out.

    4. Lenses: While the camera functions well in extreme cold, the lenses sometimes don’t tolerate it much. When the weather is just right, even at those below-zero temps, fog can form and wreak havoc on your glass. Even without fog conditions, frost can/will form on the lens, and the only way you can prevent it is putting your lens cap back on, or covering your camera with a simple soft fleece jacket or something. When the lens frosts up a bit, a simple Lenspen will clean it up quick. Lens caps can ruin your prefocusing, so I usually don’t use the cap after I have it all set up. The Lenspen also can brush off dust that may have blown onto the lens (remember the everpresent wind?).

    5. Road conditions: Without all this prep, none of it makes a difference if you can’t get trackside safely. Winter road conditions are just as harsh as the cold and windy weather. Icy road drift over in unlikely places, visibility plummets to just a few feet beyond your hood, and tires fight for grip.

    a. Tires: A quality set of all-season or winter tires are useful. You might as well have a serviceable set on the car in winter anyways, so why skimp here?

    b. Icy roads: The biggest thing out-of-towners find when they get to the north are the icy roads that offer almost no control to your car. The first rule: slow down! You won’t get trackside if you skid off into the ditch.

    c. Drifted snow: Blowing and drifting snow is deceptive. You either can’t see how deep it is until you’re in too deep, or you cannot see the road in the first place. Sometimes, if you cannot see the road, slow down; if the road is drifting, it’s easy to get stuck. Tire chains and studded tires help, where legal. 4-wheel-drive as well as chains and studded tires don’t make you invincible. Sometimes they let you go farther to get really stuck!

    d. Emergency kit: Survival in winter in the north is a battle against the elements. If you get stuck out on the side of the road unprepared, you can literally die. A good emergency kit has extra blankets, strike-anywhere matches, candles, a knife, flashlight, emergency (space) blankets, spare gloves, hats, boots, jackets, snow pants (for every member of the family). Add food and water. Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MRE) are available from most military surplus stores. They store for near forever, have a heater (just add water) and are a good source of calories to stay warm. Bottled water will freeze, so dump a bit out to allow for expansion. If you need it, you can thaw it. I add a hatchet and roll of duct tape and road triangles. Lastly, is a collapsible shovel. I have a collapsible snow shovel for getting unstuck. I used it last month when 2 feet of snow drifted in front of my car at work.
  2. Hytec

    Hytec TrainBoard Member

    Been there, done that in central New Hampshire and upstate New York, now live in Coastal Mississippi by choice, thanks to the wisdom of Uncle Sam 62 years ago. (y)
  3. BoxcabE50

    BoxcabE50 Staff Member TrainBoard Supporter

    My attire for winter railfanning: A warm room, comfy chair and.... :)
    Hardcoaler likes this.
  4. Hytec

    Hytec TrainBoard Member

    ...adult anti-freeze. :rolleyes:
    Kurt Moose, Hardcoaler and BoxcabE50 like this.
  5. BoxcabE50

    BoxcabE50 Staff Member TrainBoard Supporter

  6. Hardcoaler

    Hardcoaler TrainBoard Member

    As a former resident of cold and snowy Chicago, I recommend a standard sunny day camera setting of f/16 at 1/2000 Sec. :)

    Under the "Safety" header, remember too that all of that extra headwear inhibits hearing and peripheral vision. Stay aware of your surroundings and look twice if you are near tracks.

    I learned this in my teen years as I walked east along a C&NW line. I wisely chose to walk on an infrequently used side track, when an eastbound commuter train drew near behind me on the main. The Engineer tooted his horn and it scared the daylights out of me as he swept past in a cloud of white. Dressed in layers of winter gear, I hadn't heard a thing.
    Last edited: Feb 5, 2018
  7. TrainboySD40

    TrainboySD40 TrainBoard Member

    3: Comfort. You can fashion an armchair or loveseat out of snow. This can last all winter if you regularly attend the same spot. If wind is an issue, you can make a fantastic windbreak. This works very well if you have a low train frequency.
    Hardcoaler likes this.
  8. Kurt Moose

    Kurt Moose TrainBoard Member

    Here in Washington State, on the "Wetside", you have some serious rain gear-!!


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