Four Incredible Fall Backpacking Trips in West Virginia’s Potomac Highlands

With fall foliage that rivals New England, a unique topography reminiscent of the Alaskan and Canadian tundra, and a bevy of wilderness areas flush with epic views but lacking crowds and complex permit systems, the Potomac Highlands of West Virginia possess some of the finest fall backpacking trips in America. From a quick and easy overnight to a multi-day odyssey far from official trails, it features some of the best backpacking you could find anywhere, for backpackers of all ability levels. Put these trips at the top of your backpacking to-do list this fall.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Table Rock

For an easy introduction to what fall backpacking in the Potomac Highlands is all about, head to the Canaan Mountain Backcountry Area and tackle the 2.4-mile roundtrip trek to Table Rock. With a short distance, minimal elevation gain, and astonishing views, Table Rock might be the best bang-for-your-buck hike in the entire state.  Even better, this trail receives surprisingly light hiking pressure since the majority of backpackers head to the nearby Dolly Sods Wilderness.

From the small trailhead parking lot on Canaan Loop Road, take the Table Rock Trail through a pretty forest of hardwoods that will be bursting with color in late September and early October. After 1.2 mostly flat miles, break out of the forest onto appropriately named Table Rock, and behold a 180-degree view of mountains and the Cheat River Valley. Be mindful of crevasses in the rock as you explore, and then set up camp at a protected campsite back in the woods that was passed just before reaching the overlook. Or, if the weather is clear and calm, consider sleeping under the stars out on Table Rock. Wherever you decide to camp, be sure to pack in all the water you’ll need, as there isn’t a water source on this trip. Rise early the next morning to have your coffee while watching the sunrise illuminate the fog-filled valley and colorful autumn foliage before making the return trip to the car.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Dolly Sods Wilderness

Dolly Sods Wilderness is one of the most popular and well-known wilderness areas in West Virginia, and for good reason. With a vast network of trails, a bounty of campsites and several overlooks that provide panoramic views of nothing but seemingly endless wilderness, there are countless routes in Dolly Sods that are perfect for a fall backpacking trip. Since Dolly Sods is a designated Wilderness, be prepared for minimal or no trail markings and to ford creek crossings, all of which helps to preserve a true wilderness feel as much as possible.

For a 19.4-mile (3 nights is best) lollipop loop that showcases the best of Dolly Sods, take the Rohrbaugh Plains Trail north from the Dolly Sods Picnic Area on Forest Service Road 19. In 2.5 miles, the first great views of the trip can be had from a rocky outcrop just off the trail. This overlook on the edge of Red Creek Canyon provides some of the best views in Dolly Sods, with Red Creek Valley below framed by Breathed Mountain and Rohrbaugh Plains. While only 2.5 miles from the trailhead, the view from here is so astounding that it’s worth spending a night at one of the campsites dispersed in the woods near the overlook. Sunsets from here are incredible, and on cool fall mornings fog often fills the valley below, making for truly dreamy photo conditions.

After breaking camp, continue on the Rohrbaugh Plains Trail and pass the Wildlife Trail on the right at 3.1 miles. Continue straight and drop down into Red Creek Canyon and cross Fisher Spring Run at 3.4 miles. Follow Fisher Spring Run Trail down to Red Creek, and pick up the Red Creek Trail to begin a 10-mile counterclockwise loop. Reach Rocky Point Trail on the left at 4.4 miles, which makes for a great side trip (add roughly 2 miles roundtrip) up to Lions Head, a rocky overlook that provides one of the best views in Dolly Sods, and possible campsites nearby. Continuing north from the junction with the Rocky Point Trail on the Red Creek Trail, reach the Breathed Mountain Trail at 6.0 miles. This trip takes you left down the Breathed Mountain Trail, but one could also continue straight down the Red Creek Trail to arrive at a fantastic and popular camping area near some waterfalls on Red Creek called “The Forks.”

Back at the junction with the Breathed Mountain Trail, take this trail west for 2.4 miles and travel through a beautiful forest of spruce and blueberry bogs. This combination of forest flora is more commonly found in the boreal forests of Canada than the Appalachian Mountains, and is especially beautiful in autumn when the berry bushes turn bright red and are a perfect contrast to the dark green spruce forests.  Arrive at the Big Stonecoal Trail at 8.5 miles and turn left to head south down this trail for 2.4 miles before arriving at a trail junction with the Dunkenbarger Trail. Excellent campsites along Big Stonecoal Run can be found here.

Continuing south on Big Stonecoal Trail, the western end of the Rocky Point Trail to Lions Head is passed on the left at 11.6 miles, and in 1.4 more miles ford Red Creek and arrive back at Red Creek Trail at 13.0 miles. The banks of Red Creek possess several wonderful campsites, and Red Creek (named for the reddish-brown tint of the water caused by a high tannins concentration from decomposing red spruce and hemlock needles) is perfect for cooling tired feet after a long day on the trail. Continue heading northeast along the Red Creek Trail for 1.5 miles before hitting the intersection with Fisher Spring Run Trail, at which point you’ll be retracing your steps from the start of the trip back to the parking lot.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

North Fork Mountain

For fans of ridge hikes with near constant views, it doesn’t get any better than an autumn trek along North Fork Mountain. The full length of the ridge hike is 24.7 miles in total from end to end and makes a great shuttle hike if a car can be dropped at both trailheads (it’s about a 40-minute drive one-way between the north and south trailheads). It’s also possible to break this up into smaller shuttle sections, especially if starting from the northern trailhead. From the northern trailhead on CR 28 (Smoke Hole Rd.), ascend switchbacks for 1.6 miles to gain the ridge. Once up on the ridge, views and campsites abound, and there is minimal elevation change. Hike south and take a short side trail on the right that leads to Chimney Top, which provides a spectacular view of distant mountains and autumn foliage peppering the pastoral countryside far below. Countless other vistas await further down the trail, as the ridge never strays far from a clear view.

Three quarters of a mile further south, pass another fine vista, Table Rock (not the same Table Rock as the one previously discussed at the start of this article). If short on time or energy, this makes for a great stopping point, and several nice campsites can be found dispersed in the forest not far from the trail that provide easy access to sunset views from the ridge. From Table Rock, the trail ambles south and passes two spur trails that descend east off the ridge: Landis Trail and Redman Run Trail, reached 4.1 and 8.2 miles from the north trailhead, respectively. Taking either of these trails would provide a shorter shuttle hike alternative.

The main disadvantage of being up on the ridge is the scarcity of water. Save for a semi-reliable spring that’s passed halfway through the trail, there’s no water sources up on the ridge, so it’s best to pack in enough water to last the length of the trip in case the spring is dry.

The views continue on the southern portion of the trail, with so many overlooks that they don’t even have names. While the north half of the trail is more interesting, the southern half to the southern trailhead is still beautiful, and completing the full length of the trail is a rewarding and recommended experience.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Roaring Plains

For the seasoned backpacker looking for a trip that’s as challenging as it is scenic, there’s no better destination in the Potomac Highlands than a part off-trail wilderness sojourn in the Roaring Plains West Wilderness. Backpackers with the necessary skills are rewarded with some of the most incomparable solitude, views, and campsites to be found not only in West Virginia, but the entire East Coast. Given the largely off-trail nature of this route, it’s wise to budget extra time in case you get turned around, and to pack a map and compass and know how to use them. A GPS could also be incredibly useful for this trip.

There are several possible routes that can be taken into the Roaring Plains, with the eastern fork of the South Prong Trail (which begins just a half mile down FS 19 from the start of the aforementioned Dolly Sods Wilderness trip) offering a pleasant, relatively flat portal to the rugged terrain that lies ahead. After heading south for approximately 2.5 miles on the oftentimes wet and muddy South Prong Trail, the real fun begins. Look for an unofficial trail on the left, not marked with a trail sign but often marked with a cairn, which heads in a southwest direction through the forest. Take it slow, keeping an eye on your compass and be on the lookout for more cairns marking the way along the faint trail, known as the “Hidden Passage.” After almost a mile of picking your way through the forest, break out into an open meadow with expansive views. Soon after arriving at the meadow, the trail passes one of the finest campsites imaginable, nestled in the flame-red berry bushes and with the kind of expansive, open views that are hard to come by when backcountry camping in the East. This area makes a great basecamp option to do day hikes from, with the top hiking option being an off-trail journey along the rim of Long Run Canyon.

To get Long Run Canyon from the meadows campsite, follow a faint, unmarked trail for about 0.7 miles through the open meadows, until reaching the Pipeline Swath (essentially an old dirt road). A small trickling creek located at this junction is one of the only water sources if camping at the meadows and for the duration of the loop along Long Run Canyon, so top off water bottles here and be sure to treat the water. Take a left to head southeast on the Pipeline for about 0.3 miles until arriving at the remains of an old road, where the real adventure begins.

Turning right, dive into the bush and head in a west-northwest direction to reach the rim of Long Run Canyon. Scan for a faint path possibly marked with cairns or flagging, and budget extra time for this section of the hike, as it’s the sketchiest part from a navigation standpoint. Once you arrive at the canyon rim, the trail is much easier to follow. When in doubt, ensure that the canyon is on your left. The next 2.5 miles are some of finest hiking miles imaginable, with almost constant views out across the canyon into the vast West Virginia wilderness. Heath thickets, spruce, and rocky outcroppings combine to form an incredibly beautiful and unique landscape unlike anything else in the East. While there is minimal elevation change on this section of the hike, since this is an unmaintained trail, there will almost certainly be downed trees to navigate around.

While base-camping at the meadows will make the hike along the canyon rim easier, for the hardy backpacker there are several options for camping along the canyon rim. Although water is hard to come by along the canyon, the views and solitude more than make up for the extra effort of hauling in water. Some of the best campsites are just past possibly the finest view of the day, at a spot called “The Point,” reached 1.5 miles into the hike along the canyon rim. From The Point, head northwest and in one mile arrive at a large campsite with a fire ring. On the north side of the campsite, look for a cairn and the start of your journey away from the canyon rim on the Tee-Pee “trail.” Another unofficial trail that can be a pain to follow, it’s best to set a northeast compass bearing and do your best to follow the faint boot path while sticking to the compass bearing. A half-mile bushwhack will lead to the Roaring Plains Trail, which is an official Forest Service trail. Turn right (east) onto the Roaring Plains trail, and in 0.9 miles again reach the Pipeline Swath. Turn right onto the Pipeline, and head southwest for one mile before arriving back at the base of the meadows, where you’ll turn left and retrace your steps from earlier in the day to return to basecamp in the meadows, having completed one of the most rugged and beautiful fall hikes imaginable.


Level-Up Your Fall Photography at the Adirondacks' Heart Lake

With all due respect to the other seasons, there isn’t a more exciting time of year for wilderness exploration and photography than fall, and there’s no better place to be this time of year than the Eastern United States. Blessed with a variety of hardwood species like sugar maple and birch that turn practically every shade of color imaginable during the autumn season, there’s no shortage of fantastic foliage destinations in this part of the country. That said, there are some locations that stand out from the rest, such as the Heart Lake area in New York’s Adirondack Mountains.

Located south of Lake Placid in the High Peaks Region, Heart Lake is a perfect fall hiking and photography destination. While the main sights can be seen in just a daytrip, to truly appreciate this special area, nothing beats spending a few nights in a classic Adirondack lean-to, several of which pepper the lakeshore and surrounding forest. Or if camping isn’t your style, the charming and cozy Adirondack Loj is also near the lake and offers the weary hiker heated rooms and home-cooked meals.

Another big advantage of staying at Heart Lake is that some of the best fall photography imaginable is right at your doorstep. The following tips will help you make the most of a fall trip to Heart Lake and to take your fall photos to the next level. While this article is focused on the Heart Lake area, most of the photography tips can be applied to any locale.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Time it Right

The first consideration when planning a fall photography trip to Heart Lake or elsewhere is timing. While difficult to predict and variable from year to year, peak fall foliage in this part of New York typically arrives in the last week of September and lasts through the first week of October. Peak fall color at Heart Lake the past two years has been right around October 5th. Once September arrives and preparation for fall kicks into high gear, the Adirondack Mountain Club posts a weekly Heart Lake foliage report on their social media pages that is an incredibly useful resource for monitoring the color progression remotely. If looking to explore other areas in the Adirondacks or New York State, I Love New York posts a weekly foliage report for the entire state on their website and social media pages.

Even if you miss peak color, there can be advantages to being a little on the early or late side. In the days leading up to peak color, the prominence of some trees with green leaves that have yet to change color can make the ones that have changed pop even more. Post-peak when the leaves begin to fall is a great opportunity to experiment with detailed macro shots of freshly fallen leaves and can provide the opportunity to catch the first snow of the season as autumn color hangs on before succumbing to the white of winter.

Scout It Out

One of the best ways to get to know an area and to take the best photos possible is to get out and explore and scout out different compositions upon arrival, especially if never having been to the location before. Spending at least a couple days in an area is also advantageous as it provides more time to study weather patterns and to get a better understanding of how the light interacts with the landscape at different times of the day. Scouting is rather easy to do in the Heart Lake vicinity, but there are a few classic spots where photography is worthwhile:

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Heart Lake

The lake itself offers a bounty of photo opportunities, and a hiking trail leads around the eastern half of it and provides several access points to the lake. Even better, snag one of the lakefront lean-tos, which can be reserved up to a year in advance, and your own slice of private lakefront will be just steps away. A sandy beach on the north side of the lake is an excellent spot to photograph mountain reflections or a canoe beached on the sandy shore with a background of colorful foliage.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Mount Jo

Rising above the north shore of Heart Lake, 2,876-foot Mount Jo provides one of the most phenomenal fall views and is one of the best bang-for the-buck hikes in all the Adirondacks. A typical rugged and steep Adirondack trail leads from the campground to the rocky summit ledges. Partway up the Mount Jo trail, the trail forks into the 1.1-mile “Short” Trail and the 1.3-mile “Long” Trail, both of which ultimately meet below the summit after a 700-foot climb. It takes roughly 45 minutes to get to the top, where a glorious view of mountains and fall foliage spreads out below. The opportunities for landscape shots with a wide-angle lens are endless, and since the view looks to the south, great sidelight can be had at both sunrise and sunset. While views from the official summit are nice, some open ledges below the summit provide an even more panoramic view with a clear perspective of Heart Lake surrounded by colorful autumn foliage with Algonquin and other High Peaks rising from the valley further to the south.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Heart Lake Campground

Spending the night camping at Heart Lake opens up additional photo opportunities. Campers by a crackling fire and tents or lean-tos nestled in the forest are great additions to any fall photography portfolio and help to fully paint the picture of what fall in the mountains is all about. Lean-tos, tent campsites, and bunks in the Loj can be reserved onlineat the Adirondack Mountain Club’s. Lean-tos and tent sites cost $40 to $45 per night, and Loj rooms range from $70 to $160. For all Heart Lake accommodations, Adirondack Mountain Club members receive a 10% discount.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Mornings are Magic

As difficult as it can be to crawl out of a toasty sleeping bag to feel the cold slap of predawn air, there’s no better time of day for fall photography than early morning. Winds at Heart Lake are typically calmest at dawn, better facilitating the reflection of colorful foliage and clouds in the lake. Fog rising from the lake on crisp autumn mornings is a common occurrence and provides some of the most dreamy and mystical photography conditions imaginable, whether photographed from the shore of the lake itself or from a higher vantage point up on Mount Jo. On especially cold mornings, frost might even coat the flora, adding a special touch to an already extraordinary time of year.

Look Beyond the Grand Landscape

When color is at its peak, the most obvious way to capture the beauty is to use a wide-angle lens to capture grand landscape photos. To create a more diverse portfolio and to truly capture the full essence of fall, though, it’s important to look beyond the landscape and find the subtle beauty of fall. One of the best ways to do this is to use other lenses besides a wide-angle. Utilizing a telephoto lens is a great way to isolate smaller sections of a landscape, and it can be a fun exercise in creativity to start with photographing the landscape using a wide-angle lens and then switch over to a telephoto to pick out different compositions from within the wider shot. From the shore of Heart Lake, use a telephoto lens to create a frame-filling shot of the most colorful group of trees, or a lone red maple amid a group of evergreens. From the summit of Mount Jo, hone in on morning fog floating over the top of the forest canopy, or a canoe on Heart Lake dwarfed by the immense scale of the Adirondack wilderness.

On the opposite end of the spectrum from an expansive landscape photo, macro photography can reveal an intimate and abstract side of fall that often goes unnoticed. With macro photography, a small section of a single leaf can be as beautiful and profound as a grand vista filled with millions of leaves.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Pack a Tripod and Polarizer

Two of the most useful accessories for fall photography not only at Heart Lake but in general are a tripod and polarizing filter. Unless intentionally blurring some or all of a photo for creative reasons, it’s typically desirable for a photo to be in sharp focus from front to back. A tripod is often necessary to stabilize the camera and facilitate a sharp photo, especially at dawn and dusk when there’s less light and longer exposure times are required. A polarizer comes in handy throughout the year but is especially useful in fall. Much like the polarized sunglasses that you might own, putting a polarizing filter on a camera lens helps to decrease glare and haze. Using one helps to make fall colors really pop, especially when the leaves are wet. A polarizer also helps to deepen the color of a blue sky, although care should be taken not to overdo it and end up with an unnatural polarization gradient in the sky. To avoid this, twist the polarizer back and forth until the most pleasing effect is achieved, especially when photographing at a 90-degree angle to the sun, at which the polarization effect is most prominent.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

Get Out and Explore

While there are enough interesting photography subjects at Heart Lake to keep a photographer entertained for days on end, there are also several other nearby locations that can all be reached on foot that are worth investigating if on an extended stay in the area. About a mile up the road from the Heart Lake Campground, a trail to Mount Van Hoevenberg begins off South Meadows Road and leads to another short mountain with an open, rocky summit that provides a different perspective than Mount Jo. En-route to the summit, pass a beaver pond that provides an excellent view of Mount Van Hoevenberg to the north. For a less strenuous diversion from Heart Lake, continue to the end of South Meadows Road by foot or car to photograph pretty meadows complete with a babbling brook.

Heart Lake also provides easy access to hiking some of the most popular High Peaks, such as Algonquin, Marcy, and Phelps. It should be noted though that while the tundra of these peaks can sport pretty autumn alpine grasses, the best fall colors will be well below these lofty summits.

For a more secluded leg-stretcher than hitting a High Peak, loop around the north side of Heart Lake to connect with the Indian Pass Trail. Reach beautiful Rocky Falls in a little over two miles, with the option to continue on approximately three more miles to rugged and seldom-visited Indian Pass.

On the drive to and from Heart Lake on Adirondack Loj Road, several open meadows are passed that make for perfect photography or picnic spots, just be sure not to encroach on any private land.

 

Whether spending just an afternoon or an entire week, Heart Lake is a perfect destination for fall photography. With the tips outlined in this article and an open, creative mind, you’ll be sure to come away from your visit with the best fall photos possible.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

10 Tips for Solo Backpacking

Don’t get us wrong: There are few things as purely fun as heading into the wilderness with a group of close friends, sharing stories around the campfire, and dragging conversations and debates out late into the night. But there also might not be many outdoor activities as rewarding as heading into the wilderness alone. The physical, mental, and emotional challenges are heightened, your awareness of your surroundings deepens, and you finish with a feeling of accomplishment and self-reliance that you can’t get with help. But solo adventures are different than group trips, especially in safety and planning. So whether you’re seeking out a challenge, looking to escape from the hectic modern world, social distancing, or simply don’t have anyone to go with, use these tips to get the most out of your solitary adventure.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

1. Ease into it

Your first-ever backpacking trip shouldn’t be a solo mission. Before immediately diving into a multiday solo trip, incrementally gain experience and knowledge by first backpacking with other, more experienced backpackers. It’s also far better to make a rookie mistake while in the company of a seasoned vet than to learn things the hard way when you’re all alone. Once you feel comfortable enough to go solo, get a few low-mileage, one or two night trips under your belt before biting off that week-long epic you’ve been dreaming about.

2. Tell a friend or family member your itinerary

If things turn bad while you’re solo, no one will be there to provide medical assistance or run out to the road or a ranger station to get help. Leaving a detailed itinerary with a loved one is always a good idea even when backpacking with others, but is imperative to your safety and wellbeing when going alone.

3. Consider using a satellite messenger

In the same vein, carrying a satellite messenger such can be a soothing security for you and your loved ones while you’re off the grid alone. These messengers vary in capability, but some good basic features include a “check-in” feature that lets the people of your choice know that you’re ok and provides your GPS coordinates via text and/or email, and an SOS feature that alerts local search and rescue of your location and that you’re in danger and in need of rescue.

EMS-Burlington-2314

4. Double-check your gear

Extra care and diligence need to be taken with gear before heading out on a solo backpacking trip, as there won’t be anyone there to lend you spare gear or help with repairs in the event of a gear failure. Opening up your tent, sleeping bag and pad before packing them to inspect for damage or mildew from storage, re-waterproofing rain gear and boots, and checking how much fuel is in fuel canisters are just a few of the things that should be done each time before hitting the trail. There won’t be anyone to double-check your work, or carry backups.

5. Lighten the load

An advantage of backpacking with a group is the ability to split up gear among multiple people, helping to keep everyone’s pack at a reasonable weight. When backpacking solo, it’s up to only you to carry all that is needed to thrive in the wilderness, and pack weight can quickly balloon to an ungodly level that prohibits efficient travel and personal enjoyment. For high mileage solo trips, the added cost of lightweight gear is worth every penny. Smaller tents, cookware, and other items are perfectly fine for a single person, and can dramatically lower weight. Another useful way to eliminate unnecessary weight is to keep track of what you pack for each trip, and what you actually end up using. This is an easy way to identify the items that have earned a place in your pack, and those that can be done without.

6. Develop a daily rhythm

Solo backpacking involves much more work than just the act of hiking. Camp needs to be made, water gathered and purified, food cooked, perhaps firewood collected. If such tasks are procrastinated and completed haphazardly, solo backpacking can quickly feel more like a chore than an enjoyable escape. Developing a daily rhythm will ensure that tasks are efficiently completed and free up more time to hike and enjoy the beautiful surroundings.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

7. Mitigate risk

Solo backpacking is inherently more dangerous than hiking with a group, and extra care needs to be taken when solo to avoid danger and taking unnecessary risks. Pushing onward when the weather’s bad, crossing a swollen river, and venturing onto uncomfortably dangerous terrain are just a few of the high-risk scenarios that should be avoided as much as possible when backpacking solo. There’s no shame in turning back when a dangerous situation outside your comfort zone presents itself while solo.

8. Reinforce first aid and emergency kits

In the event of a medical emergency while solo backpacking, you want to be able to rest assured that you have the medication and equipment to safely get you through it. Off the shelf first aid kits are a good start, but it’s best to carefully go through them before a trip and bolster with extra supplies and medications. Items such as a signaling mirror, emergency whistle, prescription medications, and medical tape and bandages are items that can be crucial in an emergency and that often aren’t included in a run-of-the-mill first aid kit.

9. Strengthen navigation skills

Even when planning to stay on designated, well-marked hiking trails, having a strong knowledge of your planned route and bringing along a map of the area is crucial. GPS devices and phone apps can be great navigation resources, but many a backpacker has needed to be rescued after the battery in their navigation device died. Bringing a map and compass, and knowing how to use them, remains a vital skill even in this digital age, especially when navigational choices are up to you alone.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

10. Combat loneliness

Getting away from it all, challenging yourself physically and mentally, and connecting to the natural world are just a few of the many benefits of backpacking solo. Having some downtime on a trip can be great, but it’s in these moments that loneliness can creep up on you and threaten to sabotage a solo trip. Keeping the mind active is a great way to stave off loneliness. Writing in a journal, drawing, reading a book, and taking photos are a few activities that don’t require much energy but keep the mind engaged. Grappling with loneliness in the wilderness and overcoming it can be one of the most rewarding aspects of solo backpacking, and the more time spent out in the wilds alone, the more comfortable you’ll become and the more it will begin to feel like home.


10 Tips For Taking Spectacular Winter Photos

Winter in the mountains is equal parts magical and challenging. With rocks and roots buried in snow, vicious flies and mosquitoes a distant memory, and the thick, humid air of summer replaced with a crisp chill, there are countless benefits to exploring the mountains in winter. When it comes to photography, no other time of year allows for such dramatic and otherworldly images. From alpine trees caked with rime ice to waterfalls frozen in time, the landscape takes on a special character that beckons to be explored and photographed. Hostile conditions in winter are more often the norm than the exception, however, and having a safe and productive winter outing takes a level of preparedness that far exceeds that of other seasons. So what kind of gear and techniques will set you up to take the best winter photos?

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

1. Protect Yourself

Just because you climbed a mountain or went outside to take pictures, doesn’t mean you’re not exposed to the same conditions as you would be if you were simply out on a hike. Having the right layers and gear are critical to keeping you comfortable and safe. In addition to snowshoes, skis, MICROspikes, and/or crampons, items such as a warm and lightweight jacket and pants, balaclava, and ski goggles will help keep you warm and protect your skin from the biting cold and wind while you’re taking photos.

Perhaps the most critical piece of clothing for the winter photographer is hand protection. Finding the perfect balance between keeping hands warm while maintaining enough dexterity to change lenses and adjust camera settings can be a tricky task. Pairing a thin and windproof glove with a warm pair of mittens can provide the best of both worlds: The base layer glove provide just enough protection and supple dexterity to handle the camera, but the mittens can slide on quickly before your hands get too cold.

Carrying extra pairs of gloves is always wise, as gloves that have become sweaty on an ascent can become hazardous if a prolonged photo session upon reaching the exposed alpine zone is planned. I’ll often pack an extra pair of buckskin or leather gloves to change into before breaking out above the tree line, as these types of gloves provide excellent wind protection and dexterity.

Credit: Joey Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

2. Protect Your Camera

Protecting the camera from harsh winter conditions not only ensures that the best possible photos will be taken, but also prevents often expensive photo gear from being ruined. A snow/rain camera cover comes in handy when photographing in snowstorms or near a spraying waterfall, and costs much less than replacing a camera body that’s been ruined by water damage.

Condensation can also be a problem in winter, especially when taking the camera from the cold, dry outdoor air to a warm and relatively humid house, cabin, or car. Allowing the camera to gradually adjust to temperature differences limits the chances of condensation forming on the camera and lens and potentially making its way inside the camera. Leaving the camera in a camera bag inside your pack overnight after bringing it inside will allow it to gradually adjust to the swing in temperature and limit the formation of condensation.

While these tips will help to avoid damaging your gear after you’ve finished your outing, a challenge that’s often faced while out in the field is moisture from snow or waterfalls accumulating and freezing on the front of the lens. Periodically checking the lens glass for snow and ice accumulation will prevent the frustration of having an excellent photo rendered useless. While snowflakes can typically be simply brushed off the lens using a microfiber cloth or an air blower, special care needs to be taken if ice has accumulated on the lens. Trying to scrape off ice can lead to scratches which could permanently mar an expensive lens or filter. This is another situation where the ever-useful hand warmer can save the day. Gently holding one against the ice helps it melt, and the resulting water can be easily wiped or blown away.

3. Seek Out the Unique Beauty of Winter

One of the greatest aspects of winter photography is that even familiar destinations take on an entirely new character and appearance when the temperature drops and snow begins to fall. The typical summit views of grey rocks and green evergreens is transformed into a fantastical world that the majority of people will never experience first-hand. Crafting photos that fully capture the raw, surreal, and sometimes savage beauty of winter is equal parts challenging and rewarding, and focusing your efforts on the most eye-catching and awe-inspiring spectacles of winter will increase the odds of coming away with impactful photos. While the range of winter photography subjects is limited only by the imagination, nothing seems to epitomize winter more than evergreens blanketed with snow or rime ice.  Shooting at tree line, the highly dynamic mountain environment where the forest ends and the alpine zone begins, is the perfect place to seek out snow covered evergreens and krummholz encased with rime ice. Whether a wide-angle lens is utilized to craft shots of snow-coated trees in the foreground giving way to mountains in the background, or a macro lens is employed to capture an abstract photo focusing on the intricate shapes and detail of ice-covered tree branches, nowhere else represents the unique beauty of winter quite like tree line on a mountain.

Floating-in-Fire-Priola
Credit: Joey Priola

4. Choose Your Location Based on Conditions.

Knowing the optimal conditions for a given location that are conducive to the best photos is an important aspect of photography, especially in winter when conditions can change more rapidly than in other seasons. In addition to the typical weather forecasts, ski resorts often post snow reports and have webcams, which make for a very useful resource if one is located in the general vicinity of your planned hike.  Maybe you’ll discover that a low snow level will preclude a previsualized shot of evergreens coated in snow, and you’ll be able to call an audible before even leaving your house and switch focus to a different winter photography subject, such as frozen waterfalls.

5. Use a long exposure for waterfalls.

Partially-frozen waterfalls can produce some of the most impactful winter photographs, especially when photographed using a long exposure to give the water a silky-smooth appearance. Exposure lengths can vary from ¼ to multiple seconds, depending on the light level of the scene. A tripod is essential for these longer exposure lengths, and neutral density filters that limit the amount of light that reaches the camera sensor can also come in handy if a longer exposure is needed to achieve the desired effect.

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Credit: Joey Priola

6. Utilize Live View

One of the trickiest parts of winter photographing is carefully composing a photograph in hostile conditions. While it’s easy to look through the viewfinder to compose a shot during other times of year, it can be difficult or impossible in winter. This is especially true when photographing from mountain summits, where high winds often require ski goggles, which impede the eye from being placed against the view finder, to be worn. Utilizing the camera’s live view function, which is found on practically all digital cameras, is a much easier way to compose a shot in harsh winter conditions. Live view displays what the camera is seeing on the LCD screen on the back of the camera, aiding in setting up the desired composition.

7. Get the Exposure Right in the Field

With bright snow and dark trees, rocks, or water often present at the same time in a winter scene, properly exposing a photograph can be challenging. One of the best ways to ensure that a winter photograph is properly exposed is to utilize the “histogram” function that’s found on almost all digital cameras. The histogram displays the distribution of tonal values in the image, from 0 percent brightness (black, on the far left of the histogram) to 100 percent brightness (white, on the far right of the histogram). Keeping an eye on the histogram is a great way to avoid one of most common pitfalls of winter photos: overexposing snow so that it becomes a white, detail-less blob.  Coupling the histogram with the live view takes things a step further, as it enables you to view how the histogram changes as the exposure is changed, even before taking a shot. Checking that the highlights aren’t “clipped” and that the histogram isn’t getting cut off on the right, white side ensures that bright snow won’t be overexposed and will retain detail.

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Credit: Joey Priola

8. Focus Properly

While intentionally blurring portions of a photograph, such as the aforementioned long exposure to blur/smooth moving water, can be a great creative effect, more often than not the desire is to produce a photo that is sharp throughout. This requires the camera to be focused properly, and the winter season makes this more challenging than other times of years. In extreme cold temperatures, the camera’s autofocus abilities can fail. In addition, as the autofocus function relies on the presence of contrast at the focal point to render a sharp image, the autofocus function can have trouble properly focusing at times of low contrast, such as a snowy scene in soft light that is common in winter. Manually focusing the image is often the best method to produce sharp photos in winter, and is another advantage of utilizing the live view function. To do this, zoom in on the composed image in live view, and then turn the focus ring on the lens until a sharp image is achieved. For wide-angle landscape photos, a general rule of thumb to attain an image that is sharp from front to back is to focus on a point that is approximately 1/3 the distance from the lens to the background. To further ensure that a sharp photo has been obtained in the field, zoom in at 10x on the LCD screen after taking a shot to confirm that it’s sharp throughout, and refocus if needed.

9. Pack Extra Batteries.

Cold temperatures sap battery life, and there’s nothing more frustrating than getting partway through a photo outing and having your camera battery die. Packing a couple extra batteries for your camera, and extra batteries for a headlamp/flashlight, can be a trip-saver when they’re needed. Extra batteries will be rendered useless, though, if they’re left unprotected at the top of your pack and subjected to the cold as you hike. Stashing batteries towards the center of the pack, where they’ll be insulated by the surrounding pack contents, can help spare batteries to maintain life. Double-bagging batteries in a plastic bag and placing a hand warmer outside of the bag that contains the batteries can provide extra insurance in truly frigid winter conditions.

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Credit: Joey Priola

10. Freeze the Action

Capturing outdoor athletes in action can yield powerful winter photos that make the viewer feel as if they’re a part of the scene. Skiers carving turns, with fresh powder billowing in their wake, are excellent subjects that highlight the exhilaration of the winter season. Freezing the fast-paced action of skiing can be a challenge to the photographer, though, and it’s easy to come away with blurry images. To ensure that the subject is tack sharp, utilize a fast shutter speed of 1/1000 second or less. If such a short shutter speed makes the image too dark, open up the aperture to allow more light in or bump up ISO, the sensitivity of the camera sensor to light.