During the winter the hours of daylight are much reduced. Some would think that this means nature photographers might go into hibernation like some of their subjects, but over these months the sun stays a lot lower in the sky than in summer, allowing for some more appealing light for longer periods at the start and end of the day. With this in mind, photographing from a hide can mean long spells in a small space. Depending on your subject, it might also mean arriving and leaving in darkness leading to sessions in the region of 10-12 hours. There's no doubt that sitting alone in the cold is not everyone's idea of fun. I'm pretty sure photographers don't like it that much either. They certainly wouldn't do it if they could obtain their images using other methods, but sometimes a long stint in a hide is the only means. That's why it's essential to be as comfortable as possible and I expect this leads to a better mental state and, in turn, better work at the end of the day. So, I thought I'd share my tips on how to stay comfortable (and avoid insanity), when faced with a long stretch in a box or tent.
Don't be taken in by the idea that more clothing = warmer. This is only true up until a point. Humans are endothermic - we warm our environment by consequence of producing our own body heat. A few layers of clothing soon warm up next to our bodies, but masses of extra layers only hold the cold from outside and don't help at all. Thermal leggings and tops are pretty unfashionable but they are pure gold. They insulate the air next to our bodies, holding it in and keeping us warm. Over these, I'd have a maximum of 2-3 more layers, each relatively thin so our body heat can reach them. The outer later should be one that is breathable but tight-knit. My knees are the first part of me to get cold, so I often revert to the stereotypical granny tactic of taking a blanket for my knees. How quaint. Feet are a tough one. Being so far from your heart, that pumps out the warm blood, some watertight boots over a couple of pairs of socks seem to work the best for me. Keep your laces a little loose so you don't restrict blood flow, which will lead to pins and needles. A hat, scarf and gloves always come in useful, but are easily forgotten or left at home/in the car. Check you've got them before setting out. Instead of a scarf, I often wear a buff or snood - it's really thin material but I can warm it up quickly and it's incredibly versatile.
We power our bodies (including our body heat) by the energy provided by our food, so make sure you have enough. This said, over eating can overload your metabolism and can reduce the warmth produced by digestion. Fruit and vegetables are good, however they are not the easiest things to cart out to a hide along with your gear. Dried fruit, nuts and cereal bars are a good, light-weight alternative. Seeded bread gives you a helping of seeds as well. Peanut butter and jam sandwiches are great if you can stomach them. Honey is also a great source of natural sugar and energy. A couple of chocolate bars also help sweeten the long days! The trusted flask is always a good companion too, but take small cupfuls/mugs at a time.
Inside the photography hide
Some of these tips may only work depending on how much space you have and the design of the hide. Every hour give you legs and arms a shake. Engaging the muscles will encourage blood flow. Don't go mental - you'll burn up more energy, get too hot and then get very cold once you cool down. If you fell yourself getting pins and needles, try moving the affected area; trying to operate a camera with a numb arm is fun. Some hides are designed that a trench is dug for your feet to sit in while your bum rests on what is the bottom of the hide. Anyone who has watched Bear Grylls will know when building a snow cave, it's good to build a shelf to sleep on so the cold air will fall into the cavity below. So, if you have the chance, perhaps while waiting for the subject to appear, lie flat on the bench and keep your legs and feet out of the coldest part of the hide. If you're in a grand hide like those you get at nature reserves (and they are grand in relation to a tent) take a few minutes to stand up, stretch, shake yourself down and get comfortable again. Taking a sit mat with you on all occasions is useful since it's likely the hide floor will be hard and cold. I'm sure we've all got our solutions to dealing with the issue of going to the toilet, some more preferable than others, so I'll leave that to your imagination.
On the face of it, sitting in a hide for extended periods of time quietly waiting for a chance of a photograph that isn't guaranteed, is a pretty boring way to spend your time. The difficulty is being able to entertain yourself without compromising your attention to the job at hand. The first thing that springs to mind is to take some music or a book with you. Music is good unless you need to hear your subject coming and a book is only good if you know you can take your eyes off where the action might be. At the risk of sounding like someone twice my age, I opt for a middle ground of audio books or podcasts. The best thing about the latter is that there are simply thousands of them. I load up my ipod with hundreds of past episodes of my favourite radio programmes and, playing them at a low volume, I'm like a pig in mud. I've found an important difference in that music has almost continual noise, wheree spoken word programmes do not. For me, this makes a huge difference when listening for animal calls, rustling of leaves and anything that might give a clue to an approaching subject. Combating boredom depends on how well you know your subject, your level of intensity and how much you love Radio 4.
Over to you
So, there are a few tips to make your time in your hides over winter as comfortable and hopefully as successful as possible. I'm sure over the years, other photographers have developed their own techniques and tips to beat the cold/cramp/boredom so feel free to share here, on the Peak Nature FB page or Twitter #chrishjohnstone.