I enjoy sharing stuff on this site but I wouldn't mind making some coffee money sharing a little more. So I've put together pdfs of both my sledding and kayak expedition equipment lists. In many cases, I explain why I've chosen it, and in the case of obscure items, where to get them. Each list includes every piece of hardware and software someone needs to organize either a manhauling or kayaking expedition in the Arctic.
You can see a jpg of the first page of each by going to the Store and clicking on one of the Gear List thumbnails. The sledding list has 11 pages in all, the complete kayaking gear list has 12 pages and the new Cold Weather Food Guide has 10 pages. They are available for $15 each.
February 12, 2019
Picked up my first piece of new gear in a while, a Petzl Duo Z2 headlamp. Its many settings range from close/wide to telescopic searchlight, and it casts up to 430 lumens. Why does an arctic traveler need a US$250 headlamp that boasts of being usable in combustible gas environments? In the High Arctic travel season, from late March till early September, you don't need an artificial light of any kind, because the sun is always above the horizon. But in the low Arctic, or in late summer, when night returns to the North, typical headlamps will not throw enough light to alert you in time that a polar bear is approaching.
I've had a couple of uncomfortable experiences where I've either had to set up camp in the dark, or go out every couple of hours on a stormy night to shovel snow away from the tent, to prevent the drift from engulfing it. (This is an issue with tunnel tents, when the wind shifts and is blowing against the long side.) The light from a consumer headlamp drops off dramatically after 10 or 15 metres. The Z2 illuminates at least a 50-metre-long cone; specs say 115m at its brightest setting, but that's arguable.
The Z2 isn't the most powerful headlamp in the world -- that would be something like the 5000-lumen Lupine Betty, which is comparable to a car headlight. But the Betty and other models in the 500+ lumen range, cannot take conventional AA batteries. They come with proprietary, expensive and heavy lithium-ion batteries. Some of these work in the cold, some don't, none can be recharged in the field: They need too much juice for solar panels, which have decent voltage but minimal current -- which is why also you can't recharge a laptop with a solar panel. Each of those proprietary batteries cost at least as much as a Z2.
The Z2 runs off four AAs, and lithium AAs work in any temperature. This is the most powerful headlamp I've been able to find that runs off regular batteries.
Most people -- including Canadians, who should know better -- vastly overdress in winter. It's as if they have internalized their mother's dire warnings about catching their death of cold. When I used to run in Toronto in -5 C or -10 C (14-23 F), I would often see joggers tricked out in full GoreTex suits, where shorts and a T-shirt or at most a single layer and tights, were adequate. Those joggers must have come home drenched.
Even here in the Rockies, among experienced outdoor folks, overdressing is endemic. At the Canmore Nordic Centre last weekend, in -2 C, I counted 34 of 35 fellow skiers wearing a hat.
The first principle for dressing in cold or cool weather when active is, dress for ten minutes into your workout, after you've begun to generate exercise heat. The body is happier being slightly cool for the first few minutes than too warm for the next half hour. The second principle: always wear as little as you can. Being slightly underdressed helps you go faster, just as being overdressed prompts you to go slower. Sometimes you don't even realize that you're going so slowly because your body is trying to manage the excess heat.
Metaphorical mothers would be horrified, but on expeditions, it is entirely possible to pull a sled in just an undershirt and no gloves in -17 C, if the wind is calm. The exertion keeps you warm. It feels strange at first to be so lightly dressed in temperatures that you've grown up hearing described as dangerously bone-chilling.
It isn't hard to tell when you need more clothes. Listen to your hands. Long before you begin to shiver, your fingers go numb. It's not frostbite; the circulation just begins to shut down. Sometimes that just requires a pair of warmer gloves. Other times, it is possible to reestablish equilibrium by increasing your pace slightly. If this doesn't help, your body is asking for an extra layer.
Note that in extreme cold, numb fingers are quite common at the beginning of the day or after a long break. It's nothing to worry about. After 15 or 20 minutes of exercise, feeling slowly returns. The numbness feels quite different than the numbness that immediately precedes/denotes frostbite.
Sometimes, a hat and gloves are overkill, even on a glacier on Axel Heiberg Island.
February 5, 2018
Three winter tips
1. When you're staking your tent down in hard snow, long aluminum snow stakes, combined with skis and poles, are ideal. But what about on bare ice? Occasionally, you find yourself on windblown sea ice or glacier ice.
Some people bring ice screws, which climbers use on frozen waterfalls, but this is overkill. A tent typically has 12 to 18 attachment points, and except in trees, I anchor them all. Eighteen ice screws weigh a ton and cost a small fortune. But years ago, I was traveling with some Inuit friends from Grise Fiord on Ellesmere Island. They just used 4" nails and a hammer to secure their tent. I later imitated them, and it works wonderfully. My hammer is a lightweight ice ax with a pick on one side, which is useful for chopping iceberg pieces to melt for drinking water, and a hammerhead on the other. Sometimes, the nails bend a little when you extract them in the morning, but not much. It helps to bring two or three extras as insurance against loss.
2. Some polar travelers wear tape on their noses or cheeks. They claim it's for wind protection. I would argue that using tape is dangerous, because the thin material gives no insulation to speak of and it hides when that part of the face goes white with early frostbite. I have a compass around my neck at all times and use its mirror to check my face frequently in a wind. If it's white, I warm it briefly with a bare hand until color returns.
3. Hauling tires has become a standard way to "train" for sledding expeditions. The fine Norwegian traveler, Borge Ousland, started this practice, and it looked so photogenic that others started doing it too. In practice, it doesn't help much, except to give confidence to inexperienced manhaulers and provide an interesting photo for the expedition website. Apparently, in London's Hyde Park, you often see people hauling tires in preparation for some trek.
I once tried a similar sled-training gimmick, joining a team of sled dogs hauling tourists in Banff National Park, below. It was just done for the photo. I've never trained specifically for manhauling, though I do workouts that push the core, triceps, lats and the small of the back: the areas that sledding specifically taxes.
In an era dominated until recently by fleece and other synthetics, wool has staged a comeback, thanks to a handful of manufacturers spinning high-end garments from merino wool. (Full disclosure: Icebreaker is an occasional sponsor.) Fine merino fibers lack the scratchiness of ordinary wool; light merino T-shirts and underwear are silk-like, while warmer garments feel wooly yet comfortable. Moreover, these manufacturers have a design sense: Some merino T-shirts look elegant, a word I never thought could be applied to a T-shirt, while sock patterns strive almost to be Kandinsky-esque works of modern art.
This material and craftsmanship doesn't come cheap. Not all of us want to spend $100 to $140 for a T-shirt or a pair of long johns. In part, that price reflects the comparative rarity of the material. A single merino sheep yields only half a dozen garments a year.
My introduction to merino was inauspicious. I bought two pair of SmartWool socks when they started appearing in stores. Socks, like gloves, are so important in arctic travel that I test them a lot. These socks failed. Within two weeks of mere city use, I'd walked holes in both pair. I haven't tried their products again, although I'm sure they've improved since those early models. Socks are one of those items in which merino works well, as long as the wool is blended with nylon for strength and a little spandex or something similar for stretch. Pure merino is too flimsy for something as rubbed against as socks.
Recently I've discovered Darn Tough socks out of Vermont. They really are almost indestructible, and the company gives them a lifetime guarantee, so when they finally wear through, as even a good product must, customers can keep asking for a new pair, until eventually they start feeling guilty or the company has to soften the terms of its guarantee.
Merino has several advantages. Manufacturers claim it doesn't hold odors like synthetics do. I haven't noticed this, but I don't sweat much, and after weeks on the trail, everything smells. A certain thickness of merino -- they come in various light, medium and heavyweight designations -- is a little warmer than the equivalent weight in synthetics. Merino briefs and T-shirts are the most comfortable I've ever worn, much softer than cotton.
Disadvantages of merino relate mainly to price versus longevity. Synthetic underwear lasts essentially forever. I have several long johns that are twenty years old and have another decade left in them. Their merino counterparts last about three years; the delicate, silk-like briefs one year, the $100 T-shirts the same. The briefs and long johns rip, the necks on the T-shirts stretch and permanently deform. Merino underwear tops, however, endure.
The difference in toughness relates mainly to whether the garment is 100 percent merino or a merino-nylon blend. Long johns, briefs and T-shirts are pure merino. They're lovely, comfortable and effective items, but comparatively poor investments.
One final issue with merino that I've mentioned here before. This won't bother most people, because few of us wear the same underwear or pair of socks for a month. But on expeditions, as the days go on and sweat and salt accumulates, merino gives you a skin rash that never happens with synthetics. At that point, I switch to my synthetic backups. (On trips lasting more than a month, I carry a change of long underwear.) About five years ago, a film called Crossing the Ice scooped lots of awards at the Banff Mountain Film Festival. It was about two wacky beginners skiing across Antarctica. Among the problems that bedeviled them on their three-month journey was a serious skin rash. They cried about it, but never addressed what caused it. They had a merino sponsor, and it's likely that their wool underwear was to blame.
I'm a great fan of MSR's white gas stoves: Except for the first expedition or two, they're all I've ever used. I carry two on winter trips, an XGK and a WhisperLite. The WhisperLite is more adjustable and suitable for cheese dinners, while the XGK, though loud, boils superfast.
Unfortunately, their info page, Stoves 101: How Much fuel Should I Carry is not up to the standards of their actual stoves. It's obscure, blathersome and not very useful. They could have distilled much of it into a few direct sentences: In winter, you use .18 to .25 liters of white gas per person-day, depending on how much fluid you and your partner/s need. Some people sweat a lot and have to drink more than others. The .25 includes an excess of at least 10 percent, in case one of the fuel containers leaks or you have to use a bottle as a Molotov cocktail to scare away a polar bear if the usual deterrents aren't handy.
These figures assume that you're not running the stove inside the tent for an extra hour or two to keep warm; it's just for melting water and simple one-pot cooking. This ration includes a good number of 30 or 40-below nights. In milder conditions, say -10C, you need a little less, because you don't have to melt extremely cold snow. In summer, I've never measured fuel consumption precisely, but a single .8-liter fuel bottle seems to last forever, because you're not melting every drop of water from snow. On a month-long sea kayak trip, I'll bring just a couple of bottles. However, I'll try to do the weekly pancake breakfasts over small driftwood fires, because that meal takes a long time and can expend a lot of stove fuel.
The upcoming December issue of Expedition News quotes me (correctly) praising Berwin-type ski bindings, because they allow you to use any boots -- warm mukluks, sealskin kamiks, whatever you prefer for the conditions. It's why I've never had blisters (or frostbite) skiing 400 to 800km at a time over some 20 expeditions. Nevertheless, like any item of equipment, Berwins -- which I've always bought from Akers Ski -- are not perfect.
If, for example, you're a good technical cross-country skier pulling a moderate sled load -- say, 150 to 175 pounds -- over hard snow, you may prefer a more standard boot/binding system that allows faster, more dynamic skiing. Berwins give you no support: they're exclusively for shuffling forward. If you've ever seen beginning skiers on cross-country trails walking with their skis, that's more or less all you do with Berwins.
For the same reason, if your route involves descents (or, of course kite skiing), stay away from Berwins. It's almost impossible even to snowplow effectively with them. Once, I skied down from the summit of Barbeau Peak, the highest mountain on Ellesmere Island. I had nothing else with me, so the Berwins had to do, but it was truly a joke descent, with long, gradual traverses, followed by step turns and then long traverses in the other direction. It took forever.
But there's another reason why Berwins are not the best choice. Modeled on old military designs, they were the first commercially available bindings that accommodated any boot. But they're been improved on, in the same way that contemporary cross-country bindings are a huge advance over the rat-trap, three-pin bindings that your granddad used to use, along with knee-high socks and wool knickers. Berwins lift under the ball of your foot, exactly like those three-pin bindings. But some modern adventure bindings lift from the toe, like trail xc ski models. These are far more mechanically efficient -- faster, less tiring.
Out of laziness and comfortable familiarity with the Berwins, I've never used these superior models, so I can't say how durable they are. I'm not even sure where to find them any more. While Berwins continue to be made, the Hummocks bindings shown above, which were manufactured until recently by a Canadian engineer named Richard Tanguay, no longer seem to be available. Likewise, polar guide Richard Weber used to sell similar bindings, and maybe he has a few remaining in his storeroom -- try emailing his website -- but he no longer advertises them. See Richard's YouTube clip of these bindings in action. You just can't ski like that on Berwins.
Bern Crawford repairing a traditional pair of caribou babiche snowshoes. Below, a pair of his custom-built snowshoes.
One of the many impressive things about Labrador is how skilled people are with their hands. From an early age, kids learn how to repair snowmobiles and outboard motors. A friend of ours built his first wilderness cabin at age nine. Former journalist and politician Joe Goudie builds canoes. And Bern Crawford of Happy Valley makes snowshoes in his garage-cum-workshop.
He boils the birch planks in a long metal tank, splits them, then bends them over one of his snowshoe forms and clamps them in position. Finally, he tackles the painstaking job of attaching the nylon webbing. Nylon lasts much longer than traditional caribou sinew and doesn't stretch in soggy spring snow.
Each pair of snowshoes takes Bern 60 to 70 hours. He is typically months behind on his orders, because the finished product takes so long and he does not charge much. It's about the pleasure of working with your hands, not about earning a profit.
Feathercraft, the company that makes the folding kayak that Alexandra and I use on our arctic expeditions, announced earlier this year that it is going out of business. "Due to a number of factors, including poor economic conditions, changing lifestyles, flight baggage restrictions and increasing costs, we have found that making our premium kayaks is no longer financially viable," wrote founder Doug Thompson on their website.
I have two folding kayaks: a Feathercraft K2 double, pictured above, and an old single Klepper Aerius I.
With the Klepper during an 800-km solo in Labrador.
The Feathercraft is superior in every way, except the Klepper assembles more quickly and easily. But the Klepper's shallow rudder doesn't steer as well in bumpy water, the boat lacks bow and stern hatches and its antiquated seat is so famously uncomfortable that I replaced it with one from Long Haul Folding Kayaks, which makes modernized Klepper clones. The original Klepper design seems to have been upgraded little since Franz Romer used one to kayak from Portugal to Puerto Rico in 1928. Feathercrafts, by contrast, are completely modern boats, with comfortable sling seats and a sea sock that, in the unlikely event of a capsize, keeps most of the water in the hatch area, where it can be quickly drained simply by turning the sock inside out.
Folding boats have a skeleton of dozens of custom-made pieces that artfully snap together. They're beamy, stable, large-volume craft. Both my single Klepper and our Feathercraft can carry a month of food and supplies in the Arctic. The Feathercraft moves well for such a large boat. Fully loaded, we can easily cruise at 6 km/hour, and do 8 km/hour while hurrying across exposed bays or fiords.
These small production products do not come cheaply: The K2 retailed for around $7,500 (about $6,000 US): one of the causes of its demise. Another is the increasingly draconian restrictions meted by the airlines concerning baggage. The whole point of a folding kayak is that it packs into two large duffles for convenient transport. But many airlines now specify kayaks, along with surfboards, as items that may not be carried as checked luggage. You might be able to get away with it, since it doesn't look like a kayak. But what if you arrive at the airport for an expedition and hit an agent at the oversized luggage area who is both picky and knowledgeable?
Incidentally, travel writer Paul Theroux is a folding kayak aficionado, and his Happy Isles of Oceania covers his adventures in the South Pacific with his Klepper.
Most arctic expedition equipment is commercially available but a few items still need to be custom-made. One of the most important is a beefy pair of camp booties. Lots of down and synthetic models exist, but they're not warm enough for -40 or -50. When I was starting out, a local Quebec company offered some of the best winter camping gear in the world, including superbooties that were twice as thick as any other model and which reached just below the knee. I used them for years, and after the company stopped making them, I would periodically special order the item. Eventually, I would find an outdoor sewer willing to tackle the project, using my old pair as a model. But I kept wishing I'd just be able to buy them off the shelf somewhere.
This elusive product still doesn't exist, but Western Mountaineering comes the closest with their Expedition Booties. They look about the same thickness as ordinary booties, but the insulation comes all the way up to the knee.
This suggests a workaround: order a pair that is two or three sizes larger than you need, spacious enough to accommodate a pair of down socks inside them, such as Western Mountaineering's own Flash Down Booties. This double layer would keep your feet warm around camp no matter how low the temperature.
In recent years, I've used my iPhone as a GPS, compass and source of topo maps. But how do you keep it charged in the wilderness? You can carry a solar panel, but there's a simpler, smaller solution: a 12-volt battery pack. Mine was originally made by Human Edge Tech, the equipment sideline run by Tom & Tina from ExplorersWeb. While I no longer see it in their product line, it's possible that they would still do a custom order. If not, it's an easy project for an electrician friend.
The plastic case holds eight AA batteries, four on top, four on bottom. A wire from the case leads to the female end of a cigarette lighter socket. Since each AA battery is 1.5 volts, eight of them add up to 12 volts, the same as a cigarette lighter charger in a car.
You just plug your phone into the unit with its accessory car charger. Each set of AA lithium batteries will recharge a smart phone six or seven times. It also works with a satphone. And AA lithiums work even at -40. At those temperatures, of course, I keep the phone warm in a pouch against my body.
AA lithiums are overpriced in most places, but mail-order businesses like Batterystation.com sell them for a reasonable US$2 each.
Rock and Ice Parka from Feathered Friends
Expedition Down Jacket from Fjallraven
Absolute Zero Parka by Mountain Hardware
Zero Point Parka by Montbell
Expedition Jacket by Rab
Himalayan Parka by The North Face
Grade VII Down Parka by Patagonia
Compared to sleeping bags or tents, picking an arctic down parka for cold-weather expeditions is pretty simple. Although I've only used one of the above parkas (the Rock and Ice), they all look pretty good to me. Below, the general principles:
Features to look for
- offset baffled. This means that there are no sewn-through seams where cold can leak through. The seams of the baffles, or down chambers, are protected by another down baffle on top of it, so the insulation is continuous. This is an old principle in sleeping bags, but only the warmest parkas have this feature.
- length. Many superwarm parkas are made not for polar expeditions but for 8000-meter peaks. Some of them are cut short so that climbing harnesses can be worn with them. These aren't appropriate for arctic travel. You want a parka that's reaches the floor of the tent when you're sitting down, without being cumbersome car-coat length.
- good neck protection. You don't always want to close the hood flaps. Good parkas have a meaty down-filled collar that zips or Velcros well under the chin.
- check the numbers: these parkas should have a pound or nearly a pound of down insulation and cost $800 to $1000 US. That doesn't mean that every $1000 down parka is arctic expedition appropriate. I find Canada Goose parkas, for example, thin, heavy, too long and overpriced.
- a big inner pocket for insulating a water bottle.
- fur ruff. A ruff is mainly for wind protection, and around camp or in the tent wind is not an issue. A ruff is just one more thing to ice up from breath. For the same reason, you don't need a tunnel hood that extends far in front of the face.
- snaps. This is not a deal breaker (the Fjallraven and Rab parkas above are full of them) but no one does up snaps. So why put them in? This lack of thoughtful design might indicate problems in more important areas of the parka.
- knit cuffs. These just get in the way of gloves and wristlets.
This entry is not about rainwear or tents or sleeping bags -- it's about choosing a new laptop -- but outdoor writers and photographers spend more time in front of their computers than skiing, hiking or hauling sleds.
Until about 10 years ago, Alexandra and I used Windows-based computers. It was always frustrating, but you get familiar enough with the operating system that you can work around its inherent drawbacks. Still, it bugged me no end that the Windows philosophy was clearly, Good Enough. They threw out software that was shabby and incomplete, figuring that in six months they'd try to sell you a new version that was slightly better. They had no pride in the product.
In 2008, a friend who fixed our more complicated Windows issues moved away. This was our impetus to make the jump to Mac. I picked up a 17" MacBook Pro, while Alexandra bought a Mac Pro a year or so later. We got these high-end models partly to process our hi-res images efficiently and in my case, because the laptop was in use almost all day and I wanted something built to last.
That MacBook Pro was perhaps the best piece of gear I've ever had. In contrast to a lifetime of Windows use, it was totally un-frustrating. It worked like a computer should. It let you concentrate on the task rather than distract you with problems, inefficiencies, workarounds, etc.
Over the years, it needed remarkably little maintenance. Every few years, I'd replace the battery. I ran low on hard drive space and had to upgrade from 500gb to 1 tb. Finally, the laptop had a serious problem. I was told that the logic board needed replacing.
Apple had long ceased making replacement parts for what they amusingly called a "vintage" machine. So I bought a scrap MacBook Pro of the same year and model on eBay for a couple of hundred bucks. Its logic board still worked. A repair store swapped it out. The laptop ran fine for another two years. Its 4 gb of RAM was no longer cutting edge but it was enough to run Photoshop and other upgraded programs that made so many more demands on the computer than their 2008 iterations.
Finally, last fall, the venerable MacBook Pro died. There was no point in trying further to repair it. At this point, you're throwing away good money after bad. It had cost $3,000 but lasted eight years. Amortized, that's a dollar a day for a great computer.
So when the new MacBook Pros came out recently, I was one of the first to buy one, a 15" model with the Touch Bar. It won't be as good as the old one. For one thing, the keyboard is incredibly irritating for a fast typist who learned on a manual typewriter and still punches the keys rather hard. I am constantly correcting typos when my fingers graze two hair-trigger keys at once.
In general, Apple's obsession with weight and slimness at the expense of functionality is unfortunate. The logic board, memory modules and solid state drive are all soldered together to squeeze them into a smaller package. I can replace the battery, though not by myself. I doubt I'll be able to replace anything else if it crashes over time. The amortization factor will be much poorer.
At the same time, I still love the non-frustrating Mac operating system. I was afraid that the glossy Retina screen would drive me crazy with glare -- my old MacBook had a matte finish -- but there are no distracting reflections. The Touch Bar is cute, but it's more of a future tool than a current one. I use the sliders for brightness and sound, but that's mainly it. However, the Touch ID feature is great; it gives security without having to enter a password all the time. It works much more quickly than the iPhone version of Touch ID.
Another small hidden advantage of the Touch Bar: If you open a video in Safari, such as on YouTube, that is prefaced by an ad, the Touch Bar lets you skip to the end of it. Finally, the sound coming out of these on-board speakers is amazing. Who needs external speakers with this rich a sound?
Of course, the machine is impressively fast. Recently, I batch processed 50 jpgs in Photoshop. That many images opened instantly and processed equally fast.
Photographers will notice that their old jpgs look a lot smaller on this Retina screen, which (at 100%) has 220 pixels/inch versus 100. So a typical 72dpi, 8x5.3" image looks almost postage-stamp sized on a Retina screen. To get suitably sized jpgs for viewing, you can do one of three things: 1) increase the zoom factor to 300% (though the image begins to pixelate); 2) replace current images with larger files jpegified from the original tiffs; 3) instruct Photoshop to "open in low resolution". Then the jpgs are displayed at their old size.
March 23 addition: The Touch Bar has become much more useful since I installed BetterTouchTool. It's not approved by Apple, because it burrows too deeply into MacOS, but it is the only program that allows you to customize the Touch Bar differently for different applications. Below, the Touch Bar for the Opera browser, which includes the icons of several bookmarks I've programmed in, plus (on the left-hand side) the open programs.
January 17, 2017
Dealing with the cold is mostly about picking the right gear, but there are a few technical subtleties that are not immediately obvious. Restricting circulation even slightly, in ways you would never notice at normal temperatures, has a big effect in arctic cold. On one of my early expeditions, I lost all feeling in one foot for several days. I ignored it; I could tell it wasn't frostbitten, it was just numb. Finally, one evening I had a look. It turned out that my sock had slipped down a little, and the bunching had impinged on circulation. I pulled up the sock, and within a day, feeling returned to the foot.
This was a valuable lesson, and since then, I've paid close attention to anything that feels even mildly tight. When I buy a new pair of gloves, I rip out the elastic that many models include in the cuff to keep snow out. In deep cold, this light elastic pressure makes hands a lot colder. Likewise, I avoid knee socks. You might think these nordic-style models are useful because they add extra insulation on the lower leg, but so much elastic does more harm than the insulation does good. Likewise, athletic underwear like this high-end X-Bionic stuff is unsuitable not just because it's crazy to spent $200 on a pair of long johns but because they use compression on certain areas of the leg. This may help Olympic athletes but not someone traveling at -40.
In general, any garment that pinches, compresses or is tight in any way is not suitable for cold-weather expeditions.
The other day, a reader asked me about goggles, since he was going to work in an arctic village and he had heard that in winter, eyes could freeze. Like lungs getting frostbitten from icy air, this is one of those myths that reinforce the southern notion of the Arctic as an unliveable Pluto. It has no bearing on reality. Even in a headwind, eyes don't freeze, though they can certainly tear and big beads of ice can form on the eyelashes. For visibility, these must be melted off with a bare finger every hour or so.
I so rarely wear goggles that while I always bring them (in case of a severe blizzard), several years sometimes go by between uses. Admittedly, some people's faces are more sensitive to cold. Alexandra doesn't accompany me on winter expeditions because frigid air actually hurts her exposed face. Such people might wear goggles for extra warmth more than eye protection.
One of the problems with goggles (and with sunglasses against snowblindness) is how easily they frost up. Despite antifog agents and double lenses, if you breathe into your collar or face mask, the warm air will deflect upwards and fog your lenses. Nothing can prevent this. In a crosswind, even if you breathe straight out, the wind catches the warm, moist air and deposits it on the downwind lens. At least you're only half-blind in this case.
Likewise, if you overdress and sweat -- or if you sweat a lot in general -- the moisture from your eyes condenses as frost on the lenses. You can scrape it off with a bare fingernail but it keeps reforming. One doesn't hear a lot about controlled breathing during arctic travel, but it is an important skill. It won't avoid this blinding frost deposit in all situations, but it will help prevent or minimize it.
Perspiring partner: When you sweat this much, it's impossible to avoid goggles or glasses fogging in the dry arctic air.
For most of us, life is a compromise between champagne tastes and a beer budget. When do we really need the best gear, when is it an indulgence, and when is it just unnecessary? Few of us can justify a $100,000 Birkin bag. What about a Tesla? It costs a lot, but it runs on electricity: good for the environment, right?
When I began doing arctic expeditions, I had little outdoor experience. I tried to make up for my ignorance in three ways: research, fitness and the best gear. Great gear, I figured, was least likely to let me down under extreme conditions. I tried to minimize cost by asking manufacturers for a pro deal. These are not hard to get, and typically involve a discount of 40% off retail.
Eventually I figured out that even someone who does hard arctic expeditions doesn't need the best of everything, just the best of some things. Sleeping bags and tents are two items where buying cheap is false economy. Clothing is different: I have a great down parka, but my bib pants are 20 years old, come from a middling manufacturer, and have long lost their water resistance, if in fact they ever had it. At -30, you don't need water resistance. My current winter shell is pretty good, but I've successfully used basic ones in the past. In shells, the only vital quality is windproofness and reliable zippers. Zippers break easily in the cold. And if they jam, you want to be able to unjam them with thick gloves or mitts on.
Choice of underwear is likewise flexible. Icebreaker is a sponsor of mine, so I use a lot of merino wool, but my old Polartec undershirt from 1988 remains good, too. Winter garments never age, because snow is such a gentle environment. Technically, I could be wearing the same fleece jacket that I took on my first expedition. Fleece is mainly about thickness. In winter, I use 300-weight fleece, though 200-weight works too. I avoid Windstopper in everything, because it becomes boardy and cold at -30 or -40. In all garments, quality is nice but you can save a lot by buying middle of the road.
A rule of thumb: what you wear during the day is the same as what you'd wear on a day outing at home, so does not have to be top quality. During the day, you stay warm by being active. But in camp, you need good stuff.
Odds and ends
- Picked up a 15" MacBook Pro on the weekend to replace its venerable precedessor, which died during an arctic cruise last summer. The hottest feature of the new MacBook is the Touch Bar, although I haven't used this much yet, apart from tweaking volume and brightness and hitting the virtual Escape key. It'll become more central once developers like Adobe begin incorporating Touch Bar features into their programs.
So far, the three most impressive aspects of this laptop are:
1) Speed. While setting it up, I was temporarily transferring 20,000 old emails from an external hard drive to this new computer. The Apple tech on the line with me said, "With that volume of emails, this process can take two to six hours. Call me back when it's done and we'll continue." Five minutes after we hung up, it was done.
2) Touch ID. It's much faster and less fussy than on my iPhone 6 Plus. Incredibly useful. You barely tap the Touch ID area, and you're in. Except when first booting up, and giving permission to install some programs, you never have to input the admin password. Would prefer to have no admin password at all, but the Apple tech suggested that you need a way into the computer in case Touch ID ever breaks down. Forcing you to enter the password once in a while helps you remember it.
3) Speaker quality. Fabulous, especially at higher volumes.
- Last summer, one of the other cruise resource people -- a fellow who guides full time -- kept raving about his binoculars, Swarovski EL 10x42s. "I divide my outdoor life into two parts, Before Swarovski and After Svarovski," he said. With this build-up, I had to look through them. I've never paid much attention to binoculars. I carry them on expeditions, but I buy based mainly on lightness and price. For this cruise, I had borrowed Alexandra's little Leica 8x20 binoculars, which cost about $500 and were the clearest ones I'd ever looked through.
Of course, at $3,500, the Swarovskis should have been astonishing, but they truly were. I had no idea binoculars could be that sharp. They could pick out subtle animals on an arctic hillside, which were invisible to my little Leicas.
Others bino-philes on the cruise showed me their popular and equally elite Zeiss 10x42 Victory model. Like the Swarovskis, they're waterproof, a vital consideration on Zodiacs. If I were making a living looking through binoculars, or if animal watching was my passion, I would invest in one of these two, which enhance the viewing experience in the same way that MacBook Pros improve the computer experience.
I used to buy a classic product called ScotchGard to restore water resistance to some outerwear. It came in a spray can with a distinctive red tartan pattern. When sprayed on an older jacket, it allowed the rain to run off in beads, as it did when the garment was new.
You can still buy Scotchgard, but the formula is much weaker now, and its tartan can is no longer ubiquitous in outdoor stores. 3M began marketing Scotchgard in 1956, but around the turn of the millenium, it became clear that its active ingredient, perfluorooctane sulfonate (PFOS), was an environment hazard. It accumulated in the tissues of humans and animals and was extremely slow to break down. In 2002, 3M replaced PFOS with a chemical that isn't as effective but which has a much shorter lifespan.
ScotchGard is not unique. It is a popular example of a DWR -- Durable Water Repellent -- used everywhere in the outdoor industry. If you wonder why your GoreTex used to bead water when new and no longer does, it's because the DWR has worn off. Because ScotchGard-like sprays are no longer used, it's harder for consumers to restore this first layer of water repellency. And when water no longer beads, it coats the outer surface of the garment. It may not penetrate the GoreTex membrane sandwiched beneath the outer layer, but it prevents water vapor from escaping outward. In other words, you sweat more in an older rain jacket.
PFOS and its slightly less harmful contemporary version belong to a class of chemical called PFCs. The problem is that all Durable Water Repellent finishes use PFCs. The outdoor industry has not been able to find a substitute. The only compromise it's made has been to replace 8-carbon PFCs, like the original ScotchGard, with 6-carbon PFCs. If you've noticed that as they age, rain garments now lose their ability to bead sooner than older products, that's why.
Many of us hike with gaiters when the underbrush is wet or muddy, or on downhill scree runs. But comercial gaiters are often too warm. A friend shared a good idea with Alexandra: If you just want lightweight gaiters to keep stones and twigs out of your shoes, cut up an old pair of stockings. They're not water-resistant, but they're comfortable and form an effective seal.
On the arctic cruises where I occasionally work as a resource person, giving talks, leading hikes and so on, I seem to be the only serious photographer who carries a tripod any more. Largely that's a consequence of newer digital cameras allowing you to raise the ISO (and indirectly, the shutter speed) high enough that shake is no longer an issue, even with large telephoto lenses on a moving ship.
I continue to carry a big tripod for two reasons: one, I do a lot of HDR (high-dynamic range) bracketing when I'm shooting scenics. This is a technique where you autobracket the same scene at different exposures and then combine them digitally. The resulting image interprets exposure more like the human eye does, with both the brightest and darkest areas showing plenty of detail. I typically use 5 frames at -2 stops, -1, 0, +1, +2.
The photo above, showing the harbour in Ilulissat, Greenland is a typical HDR shot. It looks normal (and that is the idea; badly used, HDR can look wonky and surreal) but everything from the bright sides of the boats to the shadow areas are well rendered. Without a tripod, I can't hold a camera steady enough for those five frames to line up consistently. Usually, a corner of the image blurs because the camera has moved imperceptibly during the motor drive sequence.
But the real reason I use a tripod is to slow myself down and let me look carefully at a complex scene like the one above. You need time to study the edges of the photo, to determine what should be included and what should be cropped out. This can take several minutes as you play with the zoom lens, experimenting with the best compositions. It's hard to do this handholding and looking through the viewfinder; and utterly impossible just using an LCD screen. A tripod gives you time to compose a studied image.
Casual shooters have always avoided tripods because, well, they're a pain to carry and to use. Others tote tripods that are so toothpick-like that they're nearly useless. A tripod's job is to steady the camera, and this requires a certain weight. The lighter the tripod, the more limited.
I have three tripods: a big carbon model that weighs 6.5 pounds, including a good ball head; a lightweight carbon one that I use exclusively for backpacking; and an aluminum one for winter use that weighs 6 pounds. The joints of carbon legs don't tighten very well in the cold.
If you're shooting sports, wildlife or portraits, a tripod is no longer as useful as it used to be. But as a tool to force you to slow down and take more careful imagery, it remains indispensible.
The cliche outdoorsman swaggers along with a foot-long hunting knife strapped to his hip, but unless you're planning to skin a moose or kill a b'ar, such flamboyant displays of manhood just add unnecessary weight and size. How big a blade do you really need for cutting open a packet of freeze-dried food? How big a hacksaw to trim a broken ski?
Over the years, I've collected, been given or custom-made tiny tools that do the job with a minimum of weight and size. A friend calls this the Arctic Small Tool Tradition, after the Dorset culture, with its finely crafted miniature artifacts. In the photo above, a sampling: my summer bear fence alarm, which runs off a 9V battery and weighs just 3 ounces; a small file; a micro multitool and a custom-made hacksaw. They're all I've ever needed.
Before last month's press trip to France and Italy with Columbia Sportswear, to try out their 2017 line for Canadian Geographic magazine, I'd never used their products. In the past, Columbia had a reputation for supplying affordable gear for the Mom and Pop camper. The company was big -- there are a lot more Mom and Pop campers than arctic adventurers -- but I never even bothered to look at their line.
So it was a surprise to find myself won over by many items, especially Outdry rainwear, which is their entry in the waterproof/breathable category. I don't want to get into specific garments before my reviews appear in Canadian Geographic, but in general I found Outdry far more waterproof and less sweaty than GoreTex, during the copious rain and uphill hikes we had during our time in the Mont Blanc area. Outdry's rubbery feel makes me question its usefulness on cold-weather trips, where many products become uncomfortably stiff, but as a magic ingredient in summer shells and footwear, it's impressive.
I've always been skeptical of GoreTex, because it's been such an overhyped product. It surpasses what existed before, but it's not that good, and you have to replace it often, since it works best when new. Consumers don't want to do that, though pros reluctantly accept that necessity. But we get a lot of stuff for free or at big discounts.
In recent years, GoreTex has become even more problematic. It turns out that the DWR (Durable Water Repellent) coating manufacturers put on the outside of rainwear to help the water bead off is bad for the environment. Companies have been trying to find a way around this, but in reducing the harmful chemicals, they've made the coating less effective. It's also why you can no longer buy handy sprays (such as the classic Scotchguard) to rejuvenate the DWR once it's worn off. Columbia's Outdry membrane is bonded to the outside of the garment, so no need for an extra coating.
After the trip, I received some Columbia items suitable for arctic travel that are not on the market. Since they're not openly available, scrutinizing them here is really just an excuse to talk arctic gear in general. Columbia has a parka, below, with a mixture of down and synthetic insulation, that they give to sled dog mushers in the Iditarod. Its car coat length keeps the rear end and kidneys warm. The fur trim on the hood does make a significant difference, as I wrote here a few years ago. The reflective interior, which also appears on several of their commercial garments, purportedly reduces radiant heat loss. I first used a reflective coating of this kind on my first expedition -- Jack Stephenson of Warmlite used to make a silvery shirt that was both a radiant and a vapor barrier. I'm not convinced that the foil-like coating makes a huge difference, but it doesn't hurt.
Detailing on the parka is excellent: great collar, deep pockets, easy zipper. My own beloved arctic parka, Feathered Friends' Rock & Ice jacket, has more insulation but it's shorter and the hood and collar are less effective. I'd rate this an ideal arctic spring parka, good down to about -30C. (Iditarod temperatures average quite a bit warmer.) It also has a classy look similar to one of the Canada Goose parkas, which have become popular in both the Arctic and the streets of Manhattan.
Leaving for Geneva this morning, then to nearby Chamonix to test Columbia Sportswear gear for Canadian Geographic, along with 19 other journalists from Outside, Backpacker, GearJunkie, Runner's World, etc. The gear is laid out above. Not all of it is 2017, but a lot of it is.
Until this gig, I was unfamiliar with Columbia gear. No matter how experienced you are, you can't be intimate with every manufacturer's product. Until not too many years ago, Columbia had the reputation of being a purveyor of reasonably priced outdoor gear for mainstream family use. Now, some of their offerings, such as their Titanium line, are suitable even for pro types like me, who have to be very anal about their gear.
Weather in the Alps promises to be poor, which is great for testing. Nothing more disappointing than showing up with three rain jackets and experiencing only sunshine and blue skies. OutDry, Columbia's weatherproof/breathable membrane, is bonded to the outside of the garment or daypack, rather than sandwiched between two non-waterproof layers like GoreTex. I've always had my reservations about GoreTex, mainly because it's so overhyped and overpriced. Nevertheless, I use it, because it does sort of work, when new. It's genuinely windproof, which makes it great in winter. Winter is such a clean and non-abrasive environment; gear lasts forever, if used only in snow. In summer, however, waterproof/breathable materials tend to age quickly when used hard and put away wet, as the expression goes. If you do long expeditions in extreme environments, as I do, you have to renew your rain garments regularly. The average consumer understandably doesn't want a $600 jacket to last just a couple of years.
Columbia's OutDry seems promising not because of where the membrane lies, but because it looks tougher and more waterproof than GoreTex. Some of the jackets have a soft hand, but certain high end models have a rubbery-type finish. It's the sort of protection a commercial fisherman would wear, yet it's as light and packable as typical mountain clothing. I might not want to bring these into -40: rubbery material gets stiff in serious cold (as does Windstopper, by the way, which is why I avoid it). But for summer rain, a garment should lean more toward waterproofness than to breathability. I have no reason to think OutDry is less breathable, buty I'd welcome the tradeoff for a more waterproof, more enduring substance than GoreTex. We'll see.
Full disclosure: Columbia is providing gear and a trip to Europe, but those who know this website, know I'm a straight shooter when it comes to gear. I have to be, because it is so vital for safety and comfort in arctic travel.
In a couple of weeks, I'm off to Chamonix, France on behalf of Canadian Geographic magazine to test Columbia Sportswear's 2017 line, along with other international journalists. "Test" is probably a misnomer, but for the gearheads among us, it's a chance to be exposed to new materials and ideas.
Columbia has already shipped me some of the gear I'll be using in the Alps. At first glance, two new items stand out: I've never worn a material as light as what their Featherweight Hike long-sleeved shirt is made of. It's like tissue paper, only softer and tougher. It is potentially a great summer hiking shirt that weighs nothing, feels almost like nothing but blocks UV and wind.
The second item, their new Trail Strike shirt, has not been officially released yet and I can't show any pictures of it, but it includes a great little detail: a cotton strip on the inside for wiping eyeglasses. Unfortunately, you can't clean glasses with synthetics, so on kayaking expeditions I bring a cotton T-shirt or two for use in camp, as glasses and camera lens wipes.
Correspondent Nenad Rijavec is off to Ellesmere Island shortly for five weeks of sledding, and sent me his design for a polar bear alarm fence, based on the blueprint I published here a few years ago. Here's his link. The fence looks well thought out.
Dark glasses and snowblindness
Dark glasses are not the only solution to the threat of snowblindness in the outdoors. Although I have sunglasses, I wear them infrequently; mainly on blindingly sunny days on icefields. The rest of the time, I find them unnecessary. Instead, I use my ordinary prescription glasses which are UV-coated. It's these ultraviolet rays, not brightness, that causes snowblindness.
Some beginners fail to realize that you can get snowblindness even on murky overcast days, when one doesn't feel the need for sunglasses. I've also heard of people who've suffered snowblindness while wearing cheap sunglasses that didn't block enough UV.
Sometimes, you don't need protective glasses at all. In Labrador, the snowblindness season starts in early February. On Ellesmere Island, it's early April. Here in the Rockies, it's mid-January. Before that, the winter sun is too low to sunburn the cornea, which is what snowblindness is.
Why do some of us feel the need to wear sunglasses often and others don't? I have a theory. A few years ago, I was at the optometrist getting my eyes tested for a new prescription. He kept trying to take a photograph of the inside of my eye, but the images all came out black: apparently, my pupils closed down too much during the flash. Different people, the optometrist explained, have different minimum pupil diameters. It's likely that my pupils become small enough that bright light doesn't bother me.
I've specialized in long-distance manhauling and sea kayaking expeditions partly because backpacking three or four weeks of supplies in the Arctic is such a grim experience. Sleds and kayaks carry the weight for you. On good hard arctic snow, you can pull up to 285 pounds before the effort becomes truly onerous. Kayaks, meanwhile, are more about space than weight, but if you pack cleverly, you can stuff a month of food and gear in a large boat.
On long treks, backpacking always means suffering. The burden rarely weighs less than 90 pounds. Anything more than 105 pounds is just too physically destructive. Ultralight gear allows fit hikers to cover long distances agreeably, but most of these expeditions have taken place on southern trails or in regions where frequent towns allow for resupplies every couple of days. While it's possible to minimize weight -- e.g. by using an ultralight tent -- there's only so light an arctic backpack can be. You can't freeze-dry your shotgun, or reduce your food to a pound a day.
Very few backpackers ever tote over 80 pounds. Following supply and demand, most companies do not even make packs that can carry 100 liters or more, just like few sleeping bag manufacturers make bags for -40. Even among those who do, not all of the packs work. I once had a monster Gregory pack, below left, that carried 115 liters. Trouble was, its suspension system was not up to dealing with anything over 80 pounds. The weight just slumped on the shoulders. Despite the smile below, these were grim treks.
Gregory still makes a jumbo pack, the Whitney 95, that holds up to 103 liters. Its size Large weighs just over six-and-a-half pounds. Maybe their suspension system has improved, but I wouldn't trust a Gregory pack with mega-loads again.
My current expedition backpack, above right, is a discontinued Arcteryx model, the Bora 95. Empty, it weighs seven-and-a-half pounds, which is typical for a pack of that size. It carries 100 pounds as well as 100 pounds can be carried. That doesn't mean it's a great experience. Arcteryx now makes a slightly smaller pack that weighs just under six pounds, the Altra 85.
Years ago, when I was first researching big packs, I kept hearing about one from a small company called Dana Design. Guides loved the pack and swore that it carried big loads well. Unfortunately, by the time I heard about it, the pack was no longer available, and the company itself eventually disappeared.
Fortunately, after a few years in retirement, the original founder of Dana Design created a new backpack company called Mystery Ranch. Their biggest pack, the T100, above, weighs about seven-and-a-half pounds and carries 100 liters. The pack's pedigree suggests that its suspension system can handle expedition weights.
March 5, 2016
Today we added a new item to the Store: a Cold Weather Food Guide. The 10-page guide covers general principles of cold-weather nutrition, specific foods, useful recipes and gives a rough scale of how many calories you'll need in various arctic temperatures. As with the other guides, it's available as a pdf for $15.
Recently, I saw an interesting new repair item from MSR. It's billed as a tent pole repair sleeve, but it's more useful for something much more difficult to address: a broken ski pole.
The red tube is your standard tent pole sleeve. They come in various diameters and do a good job of making a broken tent pole functional. Tent poles can snap in strong winds, especially when you're setting up the tent. These sleeves are a quick fix and can serve for an entire expedition.
The adjustable silver tube I haven't seen before. It could serve as an effective clamp to keep two halves of a broken tent pole together. You would insert a tight-fitting dowel or standard repair sleeve inside the broken pole for strength, then clamp it all together with the adjustable sleeve. If you don't have a dowel that sits securely in the inner diameter of your ski pole, you can thicken a narrower dowel by wrapping it with medical tape.
Ski poles don't break often while sledding -- I've broken a pole once in my life, when I rapped the side of my ski with it to dislodge some snow that had glommed onto the ski bottoms in mild weather. But a broken pole is such a serious inconvenience, and not easy to fix with standard materials, that this MSR item is now part of my repair kit.
Arctic expedition tents, continued
Tunnel tents: the Keron 3GT
In the last nine years, as I've returned to gale-whipped Labrador, I have at times sacrificed the roominess of a dome for the superior wind resistance of a tunnel tent -- in this case, the Hilleberg Keron 3GT. Like the VE-25, it's a two-person tent advertised as suitable for three people. It isn't, unless one person is very small and doesn't mind sleeping in the vestibule.
Admittedly, the 3GT's vestibule is huge. You can even sit and cook in it, thanks to its high ceiling.
A tunnel tent takes one third the time to set up that a dome does. In the Hilleberg model, this is partly because tent and fly stay joined by elastic clips. Once the shelter is up, two or three inches of dead air space separates tent and fly. This also avoids condensation wicking through to the inner tent. Although every good fly fully covers the inner tent, the Keron's fly is essentially flush with the ground. No wind-whipped rain ever gets underneath.
Setting up this elegant model, you realize how old the design of The North Face's VE-25 really is. The VE-25 dome tent was cutting edge in the 1970s. Nowadays, it remains reliable but clunky: You assemble the inner tent, then drape the loose fly over it like a bedsheet. You then impale each pole tip into grommets on the fly. Eventually the unit is complete. Finally, you stake it down.
A tunnel tent never threatens to blow away as you set it up, because it is not free-standing. It only achieves its shape when it is staked down. You could not put up this tent on a slab of granite. You insert the four poles -- effortless, even in a gale -- fix one end securely to the ground, then accordion the back end into position and stake that. Finally, you stretch out the guy lines.
Theoretically, the narrow end of the tunnel should point into the wind, but that is not always practical. For one thing, wind can change direction after the tent is up and become a crosswind. Secondly, you may want the door pointing in a particular direction. In the photo below, Alexandra is setting up the tent so that the main door (not shown) faces the beach, so that we can keep a lookout for approaching polar bears. Amazingly, the tent is as secure broadside as it is nose to the wind. The wind just seems to glide off that slippery nylon.
With a tunnel tent, good staking is even more vital than with a dome. Sometimes I see campers with softball-sized rocks purportedly holding their tent. This does nothing. If the soil is soft and doesn't hold a stake well, as on the sandy beach below, a good rock of 30-50 pounds is necessary to secure each line. By the time I'm done, 1/3 of a ton of rocks hold down the tent.
Once the tunnel tent is up, it seems able to handle almost any wind. I've had the Keron in 110 kph (70 mph) winds. The poles barely flexed. The wind in the photo above was 50 knots, the comfort limit for a dome tent. But inside the tunnel, all was calm, quiet and secure.
In winter, the correct orientation of the tent is important. While the tent itself can handle a gale broadside, drifting snow quickly accumulates along the windward length and begins to press against the tent, photo below. In really bad conditions, you may need to shovel that drift away every two or three hours, or you will be engulfed. This does not happen if the nose of the tent is into the wind.
While the tunnel has plenty of space, two big guys have to take turns putting on their bulky winter clothing or wriggling into the sleeping bag. In a wide dome tent, both parties can do this simultaneously.
There are situations for which the tunnel tent is not suitable. Park campsites, with their designated platforms, are far too small for this ultra-long tent. Besides, park sites are always sheltered, and a $1,000 tent with such potent wind resistance is overkill. This is a specialized piece of wilderness gear.
The Keron comes in a few different models. One of them, the Keron 3, is identical to the 3GT except that it lacks a vestibule. I use a Keron 3 to save weight on some summer trips.
Of course, these are not the only suitable arctic tents, just the two most common types. There are some clever ways to cut weight while keeping good wind resistance. Once I traveled with some Russians who had a homemade winter tent that consisted of a single wall of parachute silk, below. The smart feature was a set of aluminum spokes that served as the apex of the tent. It folded closed for travel and fanned out in camp by loosening a wing nut. Perimeter pieces fit into holes at each T-joint for rigidity. At the end of each spoke was a slot for a ski tip. Thus, the skis doubled as tent poles. The tent accommodated a dozen people, but you could easily engineer smaller versions for four people and up.
Arctic expedition tents
Tents and sleeping bags are the two most important items of gear in arctic travel. If your sleeping bag isn't warm enough, you can't sleep. Arctic travel is not like mountaineering, where you're only out for a few days and you can simply endure until you return to base camp. On arctic expeditions, you're typically out for weeks and your camp life has to be, perhaps not uxorious, but comfortable enough to let you recharge. Earlier this year, I gave a rundown of winter expedition sleeping bags. Today, I'll talk about two styles of tent I've found suitable for arctic travel, summer or winter.
Sleeping bags have one main requirement: to keep you warm. Expedition tents have two: They can't leak, and they have to stand up to wind. My first tent was a $30 hardware store special. In its first stern test, a downpour in Scotland, it leaked right away. I used a whole roll of toilet paper mopping up the puddles before they invaded my sleeping bag. It was a good lesson: You can skimp on a lot of things, but not on a tent.
After trying a three-poled dome tent -- which was good in rain but not in wind -- I graduated to a four-pole geodesic dome tent, The North Face's classic VE-24. I used it and its iterations for years. The North Face still makes the VE-25, which has the same inner tent as the VE-24 but whose fly includes an enclosed vestibule rather than just a small awning, as pictured below.
The North Face's classic VE-24
VE-25: similar to the VE-24 but with a vestibule that gives a lot of storage space for the sake of an extra pound or so.
Winter gear is bulky, and dome tents have a lot of room. Two big guys can change clothing or maneuver into their sleeping bags at the same time. On summer backpacking trips, a 10- or 11-pound dome tent (including stakes and a spare pole) is too much for one person, but on sledding trips, it's a worthwhile investment even for a solo traveler. Of course, it's better to share the weight with a partner.
A four-pole dome tent (not counting the vestibule pole) resists winds up to 50kph (30mph) well, but they are difficult to set up in the Arctic, where shelter is often absent. There have been times on solo expeditions where I was afraid I would not be able to get the third and fourth poles, which give the dome its rigidity, properly in place without breaking them. And you need to stake down the tent securely while putting it up, because a dome will blow away like a tumbleweed if the wind rips it from your grasp.
Beyond 50kph, a well-staked dome can survive but it feels insecure and uncomfortable. The windward pole starts to flex and threatens to bend or break. In summer, the wind gets underneath the floor, which pumps up and down convulsively. The din is terrific. Twice, I've used the dome in 75kph (50 mph) winds. Both times, I weighed down the interior perimeter of the tent, with blocks of sea ice in winter and rocks in summer.
Nowadays, I also have a five-pole dome tent, which is even more spacious, slightly heavier (13 pounds) and better in wind. Still, I now tend to use dome tents only on expeditions where I'm not expecting a lot of violent wind or where I can camp in trees, such as the southern half of Labrador.
Dome tents: roomy, comfortable, good in moderate winds but not in gales, and hard to set up solo in a howling wind. As a minor bonus, they're easy to clean of frost in the morning: just pick them up and shake.
Later this week: the tunnel tent.
The arithmetic of food
Most writing about expedition food tends to be full of unhelpful generalities. In recent years, I've read several times that a typical winter sledding diet requires 1kg/person-day. To me, that figure comes with so many unspoken asterisks that it is almost useless. For example, 1 kg/day often implies a tacit acceptance that you will be losing weight and will feel colder than necessary. It may require that you put on significant weight before the expedition, as some parties do, then draw on that, camel-like. On a three-month crossing of Antarctica, when weights are at their haulable limit, that may be a necessary evil. But on a one- or two-month journey, it makes more sense to bring the right amount of food.
Several factors affect how much food you should carry:
1) Temperature. On the coldest trips, where -40 or below is a common experience, you have to ingest more calories just to stay warm.
2) Individual metabolism. Some people burn through food faster, and the same person needs more food at age 25 than at 45. A 175-pound man obviously needs more than a 120-pound woman. Incidentally, this makes the practice in survival situations of giving everyone the same ration patently unfair.
3) Type of activity. Sledding burns more calories than the same number of hours of sea kayaking or backpacking.
4) Type of food. Fat has over twice as many calories as the equivalent weight in carbohydrates or proteins (9 calories/gram vs 4 calories/gram). Theoretically, then, an expedition should carry nothing but fatty foods. But taste aside, the body can't handle more than a certain percentage of fat in the diet. One expedition -- I think it was Will Steger's Antarctic crossing -- consumed so much fat that the group suffered digestive problems -- the runs, and so on.
In general, I try to max out fat without stinting on carbs or proteins. For example, I bring whole milk powder for cereal, dinner mixes and hot chocolate. Whole milk powder is hard to find in North America but turns up in some health food stores.
My supper cheese (a raclette) comes from a local deli and is 48% fat; typical grocery store cheeses (mozzarella, cheddar) are 17 to 28% fat. The higher water content in these low-fat cheeses also makes them freeze harder in the cold. Even pre-cut chunks freeze together as if with Krazy Glue, whereas I can separate chunks of fatty raclette, even at -40.
After some 40 expeditions, the arithmetic has become second nature: the coldest sledding expeditions, in which I'll be dealing with a lot of -40s, require 2.6 lbs/day. (25 years ago, I needed 2.9 lbs/day.) This is close to 7,000 calories. Spring sledding trips (March in Labrador, April-May in the High Arctic) demand 2.2 lbs/day (formerly, 2.4 lbs), which works out to 4,000-5,000 calories. Summer kayaking expeditions, 1.8 lbs (Alexandra eats 1.5 lbs/day on these).
These are status quo food amounts. In other words, I never lose much weight on expeditions -- only 4-5 lbs -- and rarely have much food left over. If you want expeditions to double as weight loss clinics, bring less, but remember that food both keeps you warm and gives you the energy to travel hard. On one expedition, a partner brought too little lunch food and always bonked on longer days.
The arithmetic of water
If you travel in the cold, you are more aware of water intake than a summer hiker, because every sip must be melted. This can be time-consuming: It takes half an hour to turn snow at -40 into a liter of boiling water. The amount of fuel carried depends on a group's water needs, and these needs can vary greatly. I once traveled with someone who sweated so heavily, even at -25 or -30C, that he needed twice as much water as I did -- about six liters/day versus my three liters. This includes water used to reconstitute meals. Most of this water must be at or near boiling.
Sweating tends to be the most important factor in individual water requirements. In preparing for a trip with a new partner, I always ask, "Do you sweat a lot?" I do not, so my three liters/day is probably at the minimum end of the spectrum. On long days (more than eight hours) or in warm arctic spring conditions, I drink an extra half liter. On the longest, warmest days (12 hours plus), I might go through an entire extra liter. But in these milder conditions, melting snow takes less fuel and is much faster.
Why do you need to bring drinking water near boiling? It's more efficient to melt the following day's water the night before and store it in a thermos overnight. In extreme cold, boiling water becomes merely pleasantly warm by morning. Sometimes at breakfast I also fill or partly fill a one-liter Nalgene bottle, if I'm anticipating a longer day. In the uninsulated container, the water needs to be hot in order not to freeze before you can finish drinking it. Even water added to breakfast granola must be very hot or else it will freeze by the time you eat your way to the bottom of the bowl.
In this part of the world, summer backpackers typically have easy access to streams and lakes. But like winter sled travel, sea kayaking requires water management. Alexandra and I carry 22 liters of water in our double kayak. For the two of us, this lasts comfortably three days -- including water used for washing -- or four days, with rationing. Because it's possible to be windbound at a waterless campsite, we try to top up every day. One nice thing about the Arctic: All water is good to drink, from the largest river to the scummiest puddle. Chlorine or iodine tablets are unnecessary.
A year or two ago on this page, I mentioned how, of the different "flavors" of GoreTex now available, the only one that is actually waterproof is GoreTex Pro. This is based on experience, not theory. I've had three non-Pro shells from good manufacturers, and they all leaked even when new. My three GoreTex Pro garments do not. A sample size of three may not be statistically significant, but it is enough to inform my buying decisions. Even though it's more expensive, I only use GoreTex Pro.
Outdoor clothing has become more complicated over time, as the industry has expanded. GoreTex was always overpriced because of the monopoly that Gore largely succeeded in creating through a combination of technology, marketing and aggressive litigation. Today, a high-end shell might set you back $700; even my rain pants retail for close to $500, which is absurd. You can get a cut-rate GoreTex parka at MEC or REI for a couple of hundred bucks, but good luck using it in anything more than a sprinkle.
Another new issue with contemporary outdoor apparel is fit. Shells no longer necessarily leave enough room for proper layering. Alexandra recently bought a new Arcteryx rain jacket. Arcteryx is arguably the best manufacturer these days, and it is the brand we turn to for much of our outdoor clothing. As The North Face was in the 1980s and Patagonia was in the 1990s, Arcteryx is today. No matter what the company, I've always been a natural Men's Large, while Alexandra, at 5'6" and 122 lbs, is a classic Women's Small. But while her new jacket fits perfectly under town conditions, it is too close-fitting for flexible outdoor use. It looks great when she walks around Canmore, but it would be hard to layer a 200-weight fleece jacket underneath it. In ordering, we neglected to observe that this particular model has a "Trim" fit, as opposed to an "Athletic" fit, which despite its name, is cut more loosely. Other quality manufacturers whose lines include both real outdoor gear and what one may call rustic chic likewise offer garments with flattering but impractical styling. With this model, Alexandra would have been better served by a medium size.
Rainwear styling: slim, trim but not great for howling storms requiring multiple layers.
Contrast is a wonderful quality in people, and one of the indicators of that quality in Alexandra is her collection of footwear. She must have close to 100 pairs of shoes and boots -- not the, um, world-class numbers of someone like boxer Manny Pacquiao's wife --
-- but Alexandra does love shoes. Hers come in two distinct breeds -- town and country, top.
In a spouse, contrast makes you feel as if you're living with two different people. This foments unpredictability: which personality will a given event bring forth? Refreshing not to know after 15+ years. Contrast makes life richer, because you can inhabit two or more universes without ever becoming stranded in one.
One person, two styles.
Here in the Rockies, most mountain bikers carry bear spray in case of a grizzly encounter. Even mellow bears will sometimes chase something that seems to be running away from them. Bear spray is too narrow for a bike's bottle rack, so one neighbor had a good idea: cut the top off an old drink bottle and duct tape the bear spray inside. That way, it's always handy.
Winter travel would be a lot easier if we didn't have to breathe. It's mostly the moisture in our breath that, over the days and weeks, gums up gear. Everything near our faces, from balaclavas to sleeping bag hoods and collars, become casques of ice. All parts of the body give off moisture through the pores, especially if you overdress and sweat, but are easier to control.
On our recent Labrador expedition, as always, we put our feet in vapor barriers -- large Ziploc bags; bread bags rip too easily. This kept the inside of our boots relatively dry. And our sleeping bags incorporated a vapor barrier: The Warmlite bag has two top layers, a thick inner layer and a thin outer one. A vapor barrier coats the underside of the outer layer, so that moisture doesn't penetrate into the outer layers of the bag and ice up the down. Instead, it condenses into loose powdered frost between the two layers. In the morning, you just brush it away with the ever-handy whisk.
Still, in time everything ices up. On long trips, how do you restore your insulation to its pristine state? If your journey includes heated cabins along the way, it's easy. But even without a warm room, you can manage it. You use the sun.
Take a day off on a sunny, windless day. Place your iced-up equipment facing the sun. In the photo above, my partner James is using his black sleds as solar ovens to strengthen the sun's drying powers. Even on frigid days, the sun works magic on frost. Under its rays, ice worms of moisture wriggle out of your equipment. The ice doesn't melt, then dry -- it sublimates. By the end of a day of sunshine, the gear is restored.
In the High Arctic, where the travel season coincides with the 24-hour sun, it's even easier. In the morning, drape your sleeping bag over the tent or on the sled while you're having breakfast. Leave your boots outside in the sunshine overnight. When you wake up, they're dry: no vapor barriers needed, as long as you travel in April and May, when the sun is strong.
Topographic maps are often 40 or 50 years old, so their compass declination adjustments tend to be way off. The maps often suggest that the variation is "decreasing 13.4' per year", for example, but after half a century this estimate might still lead to bearings that are a couple of degrees off. So ignore the magnetic variation on the maps and simply plug latitude/longitude into this declination calculator before you go. Even easier, you can use a smartphone app like Declination. Then write the updated figures on your topos.
A stoveboard for winter camping
Most of my gear is store-bought but a handful of winter items are custom-made. So few people travel in winter that companies have simply not bothered to commercialize solutions to every problem that a snow walker faces. For example, I've carried a stoveboard for years. It's a light piece of plywood with a piece of rubber staple-gunned to it.
Gasoline stoves become hot underneath and would otherwise keep melting into the snow. Without a stove board, you have to constantly level out your stove platform. Unfortunately, a square of blue foam pad just melts. Very messy, very gooey.
The loop of rubber stabilizes the whole unit by securing the fuel bottle. With this system, I can even cook inside the tent -- although I have to be ultra-careful to avoid flare-ups that could melt the ceiling of the tent in a second. Usually, I prime the stove in the vestibule, then when it's burning blue, I bring the stove and stoveboard inside and place them on a banker's box that serves as a table.
The warmth in the tent during cooking is worth the extra care required. I leave the door open slightly to minimize carbon monoxide buildup, but unlike an igloo, a nylon tent is well-ventilated and carbon monoxide is not a problem. You do want to avoid bringing water to a rolling boil, because then steam fills the tent like a London pea-souper, till you can't see your partner a couple of feet away. This moisture condenses on the tent poles above, freezing the aluminum joints together. In order to disengage the pole sections when breaking camp the following morning, you have to warm them with your bare fingers -- very painful at -40 -- and a good reason to shut off the stove just before the water hits the boiling point.
Arctic sleeping bags, continued
Few people own, and few companies make, arctic winter sleeping bags. Why should a designer put effort into something that sells maybe 50 units? It's not like a camper can use such a bag for anything other than the coldest conditions. A sleeping bag that works at -40 or -50C is uncomfortably warm even at -10C. If you sleep outdoors at other times of year, you need different bags. I have half a dozen of them, and only use my arctic model on journeys where the temperature is likely to reach -30C or colder.
Before this roundup of some of the extreme cold-weather bags out there, a disclaimer: All these bags have, from my perspective, the design flaw I point out in the FAQs below: goose down on the bottom of the bag. My bag, from warmlite.com,is the only product that avoids this. (Warmlite has never sponsored me or given me a discount for my endorsement.)
The bottom section of the bag, which can unzip completely from the two top layers, has big down-filled chambers running along the sides. They frame the 2" open-cell foam pad that slips into an envelope beneath and keep the sides of the bag insulated as you sink into the soft foam pad. As you can see, the bag also has a wide insulated collar underneath, plus a similarly wide one on top. The image below shows the bag with all its layers zipped into place. It looks clearly wider but not as puffy as some of the mummy bags reviewed below, but remember that since this bag has no down on the bottom, the vertical loft viewed from the side is half that of a mummy bag.
This bag is meant to be rolled like a bedroll, rather than stuffed. It seems to keep its loft for a long time: you're looking at a 10-year-old bag. Finally, as I mentioned in the January 4 entry, in the coldest conditions (below -40) I slip this bag into a custom-made overbag, below, which has a layer of synthetic insulation on top. Like the sleeping bag itself, it has nothing underneath but nylon: foam pads provide 100 percent of the ground insulation.
Now onto the reviews...
Rab Expedition 1400
Its weight, just over 4.5 lbs, initially does not sound promising, but over three pounds of that weight is 850-fill down. Depending on how warmly you sleep, and how much clothing you wear in the bag -- this mummy is cut a little bigger to allow for extra layers -- the Expedition 1400 may just fulfil its -40 promise. It'll certainly do -30F. Pricey at $1,400, though.
PH Designs is another small British company catering to the seemingly endless queue of UK beginners who want to pull off some ambitious polar feat. The Xero 1300, a little less than five pounds, uses 900-fill down, with an option to upgrade to 950-fill for an extra $200. Base price is $1,300, and it claims a "typical operating temperature" of -54C (-65F). Don't count on it -- not unless you also wear a down suit inside this large-cut mummy bag, as their model does in the comical studio shot illustrating this bag at work. That might work for high-altitude mountaineering, where you're only at high camp for a couple of days, but no one wears a down suit inside their sleeping bag on a long polar trek. Baffled parkas are so bulky that I doubt you could wear one inside even an outsized mummy bag without compressing the insulation of both parka and bag. Besides, a bag that needs that sort of supplementary insulation to work at its advertised temperatures is like claims of a flying aardvark: "just add wings."
This is clearly a decent bag, but I've camped in -54, and unfortunately none of those manufacturers in Britain have access to those temperatures, so their ratings are just whistling Dixie. Side views of the bag don't show extraordinary loft. Again, with a good insulated overbag, this would be serviceable, however.
The company has a second bag, the Hispar 1200, which is even lighter (55 ounces) and has an even more outlandish temperature boast (-58C). I like that it can be ordered extra-wide and extra-long, but its base price of nearly $2,000 makes it an extravagant gamble. Shaving a few ounces off a sleeping bag is false economy, because the weight saving typically amounts to a single day's snacks on the trail. I would love for someone to trade lightness in favor of superior insulation and come out with a six-pound bag with four pounds of 900-fill down. Unfortunately, PH Designs gives overall weight but doesn't share how much down is in either of these sleeping bags.
The Tempelfjorden bag from Helsport has an honorable pedigree. First, the company is Norwegian; if any country knows polar travel, it's Norway. Second, the weight -- about 9 pounds -- is right for a bag that actually handles extreme temperatures. Finally, it is classic two-in-one system, with a thick inner down bag and a thinner synthetic overbag. Many competent polar travelers have used it, including Borge Ousland on several of his adventures and Rune Gjeldnes and Torry Larsen on their Dead Men Walking trek across the Arctic Ocean. At $900, it's reasonably priced, too.
Another arctic winter bag on this list that I'd trust to do a good job at -40 is the Snowy Owl from the Seattle company, Feathered Friends. I've never used the bag, but their Rock and Ice has been my expedition down parka for years. Their Forty Below down pants truly kept one of my partners toasty warm for weeks at 40 below. Besides, the Snowy Owl's specs are reasonable: 3.5 pounds of 850-fill down. No other bag on this list has this much insulation. $1,100.
While I don't quite buy their -60F rating, you could extend it that low with an overbag. You'd probably want one anyway, to suck up most of the body moisture that rises through the insulation and condenses at the frost point. My only criticism is the usual one: Why have down underneath you? You crush it, and if you roll over in the middle of the night, it takes a while for the now-exposed underside to reach full loft, during which time you get cold. And in not too many uses, the down underneath will get so squished and traumatised that it never springs back, so this $1,100 bag lacks longevity. As do all the other bags on this list.
Nemo Canon -40
The Canon -40 (long size) from Nemo Equipment has three pounds of 850-fill down: in other words, pretty good. Maybe not a true -40 bag, but usable at -30F anyway -- cleaving to the general principle that all manufacturers exaggerate their bags' ratings by 5C (10F). The width of the bag is encouraging; but the down-filled chimney above the face is a nice idea that falls short. For the first couple of nights, it keeps your face warmer, but your breath quickly turns the interior of the chimney into solid ice. It's cold, and further moisture condenses on the slippery sides and icy particles shower down constantly on your face.
The Canadian company Kanuk had a sleeping bag like this years ago, when I was just beginning my arctic travels. Kanuk was an early sponsor, so I knew the gear. The owner quickly discontinued the chimney idea once the drawback became clear. It makes no sense to have any sort of down insulation -- such as a face mask -- anywhere near your breath, where the down inevitably becomes wet and freezes. Cost of the Canon -40: $1,100.
Arctic sleeping bags
In winter camping, and especially in arctic travel, the single most important item of equipment is a sleeping bag that works in the temperatures you'll be encountering. In his classic Antarctic tale, The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard wrote of getting frostbite in his sleeping bag -- an unambiguous indicator of inadequate gear. When I was briefly involved with a group of Russian polar adventurers back in the late 1980s, they proudly showed us the sleeping bags they used for a polar night trip on the Arctic Ocean. They were essentially three-season bags. "Was good experiment," enthused one rocks-for-brains strong man. "It showed us how much we are able to bear." They shivered all night and lost toes to frostbite because of crappy ski boots. Very good experiment.
In the FAQs below, I speak a little of my own sleeping bag, the Triple Bag from the odd little family company Warmlite, which hasn't changed its inventory since the 1970s. I love it; it's kept me warm at night down to -54C (-64F). On the coldest trips, I shore it up with a custom-made synthetic overbag, which like the sleeping bag, has no insulation on bottom -- a generous thickness of foam pads preserves the warmth underneath.
The overbag has several uses: Most obviously, it adds warmth, which, as the bag ages and the down flattens slightly, becomes increasingly important. It also helps preserve the insulation from the effects of frost. At night, the moisture in your breath coats the inside of the tent with frost. If the head or foot of the bag rubs against the nylon walls, some moisture transfers to the down, especially on milder nights. Your breath is particularly destructive to the collar and hood of the sleeping bag, which can eventually become a casque of ice. Needless to say, you never put your face inside the sleeping bag for warmth, unless you're only camping for a single night. That was one of many mistakes Cherry-Garrard and his men made, and why they had to forcibly pry open their frozen bags every evening in order to crawl in.
The Triple Bag has two down layers on top, a thick layer and a thin layer. The underside of the thin layer has a silverized vapor barrier that catches the moisture that drifts upward from your body. By morning, loose frost from this vapor has accumulated between the two layers. You need to brush this snow meticulously from the bag before it melts in milder conditions. This is a bit of a pain, but avoids an ordinary winter down bag's usual drawback: The moisture from your body rises upward through the down until it reaches the dew/frost point, when it condenses in the insulation itself. Over the weeks, this frost clumps the down pods together, making them useless as insulation. A few serious winter bag systems include a synthetic overbag, which absorbs most of this condensation that would otherwise end up in the down. Synthetics keep their insulating ability even when full of frost.
How many years a sleeping bag lasts depends on obvious things like how often you use it and whether it ever gets wet, but also on how you store it. The stuff sack a bag comes in is made only for travel, not storage! Stuff a bag in its tight sack between trips and within a few months, the insulation becomes permanently crimped and the bag loses much of its effectiveness. Sleeping bags, insulated clothing, even tents, should be stored loosely in large storage sacks. For most of us, this creates a crisis of space. Our two-car garage is chockablock with large cotton sacks andcan barely accommodate a single vehicle.
Properly stored and carefully used, I've found that a sleeping bag will last for its intended temperatures for about 15 years. For me, this translates to about a year of actually use, at one or two months at a time. After that, it's not useless, but a winter bag becomes a spring/fall bag. So while I've had two Triple Bags and am coming up on needing a third, for most people, a single expedition bag is all that they will ever need.
My Triple Bag is so bulky that I would never use it for winter backpacking, only for sledding. Most other winter expedition bags have a more traditional mummy shape, with down on the bottom. Although I continue to use the model that has worked for me -- why not? -- I keep close tabs on what else is out there. Buyer beware: there is a lot of exaggeration. A rule of thumb is that manufacturers exaggerate their bag's capabilities by about 5C; some a lot more.
When I see a five-pound bag that promises a cozy night at -60, I just laugh. My first expedition bag was a five-pounder. New, it worked to about -30C. At -45C, although I wouldn't get frostbite like Cherry-Garrard, I'd shiver all night. Modern designs and loftier down (900cc down vs the 550cc down that was the elite standard when I started) make five-pound bags better now, but I wouldn't bring any on a winter arctic expedition without a serious overbag and a lot of foam underneath me.
What's underneath the bag is as important as the bag itself. On my first expeditions, I used 3/4" of closed-cell foam (two pads). It was not enough. Although some travelers use Thermarests in winter, I don't, because finding a puncture in winter would be difficult. (In summer, you just immerse the pad in a stream or lake and watch for bubbles.) Instead, I use the two-inch open cell foam pad integral to my Triple Bag, plus the blue-foam pad that I sit on in the tent, plus a Crazy-Creek-type camp chair, plus some clothing. You can't have too much underneath you.
With foam pads and overbag, my current sleeping bag system weighs 10 pounds. But it actually works at -50.
Next week, I'll analyze a few of the other arctic expedition bags out there.
January 3, 2015
These days, many southerners use mountain snowshoes like the ones just below. They're light, tough, and the integral crampons help on harder snow, especially on uphills. People have trekked to the North Pole in such snowshoes, and they're the ones I usually carry when I'm expecting sections of snow too deep for convenient skiing. However, this style of snowshoe is not great in deep powder, where flotation requires more surface area. A few years ago, in northern Quebec, I was trying to get around an obstruction called Helen Falls at the mouth of the George River. I tried to detour through the woods with these snowshoes and sank up to my thighs. Every step was like a Monty Python Silly Walk, involving a great wide sweep of the leg. It was better than postholing with only boots, but not much better.
For these sort of conditions, it's better to revert to traditional snowshoes, such as the ones below, used by the Innu in the tree country of southern Labrador. The squat, rounded shape allows good maneuverability in the woods, and the flotation is vastly superior to mountain snowshoes. They're also half the weight: my mountain snowshoes weigh 5.2 pounds/pair, while my Innu snowshoes weigh 2.5 pounds.
The Innu snowshoes, above, are made with country wood and caribou sinew. The traditional binding takes getting used to: You hook your boot through the loop and give a kind of half-twist. This shortens the binding strap and locks in your heel and toe.
Caribou are scarce in Labrador these days, and making snowshoes with sinew is time-consuming; it's more an aesthetic or cultural than a practical choice. Instead, most Labradorians use a version of the ones below: same bear-paw style, also homemade, but strung mostly with nylon webbing (used in the making of crab traps). Not as lovely as the sinew but more durable and as good in the airy powder of sheltered woods.
Next month, I'm going on a snowshoe journey in Labrador -- more about this on the Expeditions page later. I'll be bringing both pairs of snowshoes: the mountain type for use on harder snow in windswept areas, and the Innu kind for more difficult conditions.
Last year on this site, I wrote about high-intensity headlamps and their occasional usefulness in arctic travel. In the High Arctic, you don't need a headlamp during the travel season (April-August) because of the 24-hour sun. But in the shoulder months (March, September), and in lower latitudes, headlamps are a typical part of one's kit. If you're traveling or doing chores around camp at night, you have to watch for approaching polar bears, but ordinary headlamps don't throw a far enough beam for safety. That's where the high-intensity lights come in.
In that original post, I wrote about a Petzl model, the Ultra-Rush. Even brighter ones exist, such as the Lupine Betty RX14, which is supposed to outshine even a car headlight. The main problem with these devices is price; The Petzl is $500; the Betty, over $1,000. Spare batteries are a further $200 or so. It's also unknown how these rechargeable batteries perform in the cold. Some lithium-ion batteries do as well as non-rechargeable lithiums; others do not.
I'm not sure what the market is for these high-end headlamps; it must be tiny. Perhaps they're targeted to winter joggers in Reykjavik or Tromso, or night crews at industrial sites. If I were doing a polar night trip, I'd suck it up and go with the Lupine model. I'd order custom non-rechargeable lithium packs from a third-party provider like Stuart Cody, so I'd be sure they worked in the cold. But for intermittent use, more economical models will do.
Online headlamp junkies write in their forums of cheap but serviceable Chinese headlamps, such as the Cree XM-L, pictured above. It runs off reliable lithium AAAs and is available on eBay for about $20, including shipping. I bought one and have been testing it. It advertises a brightness of 2000 lumens (vs a typical headlamp brightness of under 100 lumens) but I wouldn't put much credence in that number. However, it does throw a long, wide beam that would give sufficient warning of an approaching polar bear. As you might expect, the innards look flimsy -- the contact springs, in particular, look as if they're held on with spit rather than epoxy. On an expedition in which I expected to be outside at night more than a few times, or where deep cold plays havoc even with first-rate gear, I'd carry a second identical headlamp as a backup. But this is a decent little unit. As a bonus, the instructions are rendered in exquisite Chinglish.
Because I learned to navigate solely with map and compass, a GPS unit has always been just a backup for me. It makes life easier but isn't necessary. My current GPS dates back to the 1990s. It has no color screen and no maps. If I'm in a confusing spot, I consult it for latitude/longitude, which gives me my location on the topo map. In the High Arctic, navigation is even easier, because distinctive mountains and fiords hint broadly where you are, and 1:250,000 topos are all that are required. Mostly I use the compass for its shaving mirror.
I already own all the paper topo maps and digital map files of my favorite arctic areas, but when I travel to a new location, these days I download and print the free online topos available from an ftp site like this one. It has all the Canadian 1:50000 topos; a sister site gives the 1:250000s. These resources aren't easy to find on Google, because they have no text for the spiders to pick up. Also, it helps to own the three index maps for the Canadian topographic series, so you'll know that 37P or 104K covers the area you're interested in.
When you print the portions of these topos germane to your route, often you end up cropping out the lat/long numbers along the edges. This makes consulting a primitive GPS like mine rather difficult. When I used a friend's modern GPS a couple of years ago, I saw what I'd been missing. It showed exactly where you were on an LCD topo. Simple. The only disadvantage was how much juice these LCD screens require, especially in the cold. The big batteries for these units often needed too much juice to charge via a solar panel.
When we were in British Columbia last month about to catch the ferry to Bella Bella, where we would start our 250 km paddle back to Port Hardy, Alexandra and I happened to meet a young commercial fisherman who gave us an invaluable tip. For $15, the Navionics app for a smartphone largely replaces marine charts. As long as you download your route ahead of time by going over it once on your phone, the app continues to give you detail without cell coverage. It tells times for high and low tide, and the current state of the tide. It even shades in green the shoreline areas that dry out at low tide.
We used the Navionics app throughout our kayaking trip. Paddling in the fog, I kept my iPhone in my PFD, protected inside its Lifeproof case. We navigated mainly by compass and topo map but gave the phone a quick consult whenever we needed it. At the end of the paddling day, it quickly recharged via the solar panel.
I traveled once with a partner who organized some of the food, including the morning hot chocolate. He was a nice guy but he was stingy, and perhaps I should have known better. But this was early in my career and I didn't think to verify his choices. The cheese was the cheapest bulk cheddar, more water than dairy. And the hot chocolate were those tiny packets of instant hot chocolate. No matter how little water I added, the drink tasted like cocoa diluted to 1/20 of what it should be. And the packets themselves are tremendously wasteful. Because of their foil content, you can't burn them, but must carry them to the bitter end.
Soon after that, through trial and error at home, I found my ideal hot chocolate. At the time it was called Ghirardelli Double Chocolate. It was not oversweet, but not bitter like some true cocoas. No sugar had to be added, just a little whole milk powder. (I always use whole milk powder rather than skim milk for the extra calories.) For simplicity, I premix the milk and hot chocolate powder at home and carry it in large Ziplocs. Two towering tablespoons of the Ghirardelli plus a level tablespoon of milk powder yield half a liter of exquisitely rich hot chocolate.
The problem with all gear, however, is that over time, manufacturers change their line. You find the perfect pair of gloves, the perfect ski pole, the perfect face mask. Then one day, it's no longer available and when it needs replacing, you have to begin your search anew.
Not long ago, Ghirardelli scrapped its trusty Double Chocolate mix, which I could order conveniently through Amazon. Luckily, online research revealed that the product hadn't disappeared, it had simply been rebranded. Their Sweet Ground Chocolate is essentially the same thing. Amazon no longer ships this product to Canada -- one of those irritating strictures that non-Americans often have to put up with. So, as I've often done over the years, I have it shipped to a U.S. friend, who kindly brings it here during his yearly visits.
Those of us who travel the Arctic eventually have incidents with polar bears. How often they occur depends on where you go. As with other wildlife, polar bears abound in some areas and are uncommon in others. I once went more than 10 years between incidents, and I've also had five close calls in a single, stressful year. All told, I've had 13 close encounters with polar bears, where the bears were either curious or predatory and had to be deterred. In most of them, the bears came within 20 metres.
I've always carried a firearm and flares for protection and deterrence, but until recently (the five-bear year), I didn't bother with an alarm fence. Just another thing to carry, and an extra half-hour's work setting up camp. But it eventually became clear that the worst incidents took place when the polar bear approached while I was sleeping. With no one to deter it, the bear gets comfortable with the sights and smells of the camp and eventually comes right up to the tent. It may even break in. Over the years, I've become practiced at sleeping with one ear alert for sounds. When I wake up in the sleeping bag, before rolling over and going back to sleep, I listen for five or ten minutes, in case I woke because I subconsciously heard something. Twice, there was a polar bear in camp that had to be chased away.
So I now travel with a bear alarm fence. A few years ago, in the Gear archives, I sketched out details of my homemade fence. (Commercial ones aren't very good.) Mine weighs just three pounds. Several times, it has warned me when bears were in camp.
Recently, one of my correspondents, Peter Vacco, wrote me about a clever refinement he added to his own alarm fence: a mercury switch. It solves a problem which occasionally comes up and which, if we're experienced enough or anal enough, we want to address: Sometimes a polar bear knocks over a pole in such a way that the wire doesn't break, so that the alarm is not triggered.
Some travelers address this by adding a sturdy base plate to their perimeter poles, then weighing them down with rocks so that they can't be tipped over. But the plates add weight and bulk to the fence unit. A mercury switch is more elegant.
A mercury switch is just a little glass vial with a drop of liquid mercury inside and some external wires or plugs (the unit pictured above has both) that allow the switch to integrate into the fence circuit. If the pole falls for any reason, the mercury drop flows away from its bed and disrupts the circuit, triggering the alarm.
The switches weigh next to nothing and can be rigged to attach to the poles, as above, with elastic webbing. These days, most of us are familiar with the idea of mercury switches through our smart phones. Although the phones use different technology, it's similar to how they recognize when to switch to horizontal mode.
Since mercury freezes at -39 C, these switches aren't appropriate for winter/spring arctic travel, but are a worthwhile refinement for summer expeditions.
Because the north is so hard to get to, journeys run longer. No one except residents of the few towns goes on the land for just a couple of days. Few except commercial tours stay even a mere two weeks. Four weeks or longer is more common. That's why sledding and sea kayaking are so ideal: They allow you to carry a month of supplies agreeably.
Occasionally, though, one must resort to the dreaded backpack. A backpack can carry a month of food and gear, but it is a time fraught with suffering. Thirty days in the arctic summer typically requires a 100-pound pack. Consider the arithmetic:
1.5 pounds of food/day = 45 pounds
Fuel and stove = 8 pounds
Expedition backpack = 7 pounds
Gun, ammunition and flares for polar bear protection = 9 pounds
That's already 69 pounds, with no camping gear, clothing, camera gear, GPS, etc.
So 100 pounds. Hard, but it can be done. But part of the problem is that few packs can handle that weight. It's not just the volume: Most suspension systems aren't built to bear those loads. I once had a giant 115-liter Gregory pack that could carry as much as I needed, below.
Despite the smile, however, the pack carried horribly, because anything over 80 pounds slumped like a sack of bricks. The waist belt was useless; the shoulders carried everything.
Early in my travels I had a North Face frame pack called a Back Magic. It struggled with large volumes but carried 100 pounds as well as 100 pounds could be carried, below front. I just had to strap things artfully to the frame. I liked the pack so much that with rare foresight, I bought three of them. I still use my last surviving one on week-long backpacking trips here in the Rockies.
A Montana company named Dana Design had a monster pack called the Terraplane that, among guides, had a reputation for being able to carry big loads. But Dana Design disappeared in the 1990s, and Marmot, the company that eventually took it over, phased out the Terraplane before I could scoop one up.
Eventually I found my expedition backpack. Made by Arcteryx, it is the Bora 95. (Arcteryx photo below)
I've used it with weights up to 105 pounds, and its suspension system holds up. Since I only tackle those loads once every three or four years, it'll last indefinitely. Unfortunately, as with Marmot/Dana Design, Arcteryx no longer makes this expedition pack. How many backpackers will buy a pack that can carry 100 pounds, anyway?
Speaking of backpack hijinks, a few years ago I posted a YouTube clip of 120-pound Alexandra (top photo in this entry) struggling to stand up with her 70-pound backpack. She persisted and eventually succeeded. Although I was laughing off-camera, her experience is typical of big loads. It's both miserable and undignified.
A little magazine column I wrote some years ago about hats:
“If your feet are cold, put on your hat.” When I see that expression, steam tends to come out of my ears, warming the air around me and reducing my need for a hat.
The myth of the almighty hat is entrenched in our culture, kept alive by lazy writers and well-meaning mothers everywhere. It’s become a literary touchstone for me: When I browse books about winter or life in the cold and find that advice, I assume that the book isn’t very good. Usually I’m right.
The foot thing is part of a larger myth that we lose from 60 to 90 percent of our heat through our heads. Believers cite quasi-science to back it up. They claim that constant high blood supply to the brain leads to more heat loss from that area, or that the scalp can’t vasoconstrict, so more heat escapes out those wide-open vessels.
Those are the myths. The truth, as presented by thermal physiologist Gordon Giesbrecht of the University of Manitoba, is that we lose heat in proportion to the area exposed. The head adds up to 10 percent of our body area, so a naked person loses about 10 percent of his or her heat through an unhatted head.
The myth of excessive heat loss through the head supposedly began with some poorly interpreted research on American soldiers in the 1950s. A 1970 army survival manual claimed we lose almost half of our heat through our heads. Wiser heads have not prevailed since then: A Google search of the first line of this piece yielded 27,600 hits, but only 35 hits identified it as a myth.
At least, the myth leaves us with some richly ironic stories. Giesbrecht tells of a snowmobiler in Nome, Alaska who was driving across a frozen lake when his hat blew off. It was only a ball cap, so it didn’t keep him very warm, in any case. Nevertheless, perhaps remembering his mother’s advice about the importance of a well-covered head, he dutifully circled around for it. He broke through thin ice and drowned. “He died for his hat,” says Giesbrecht.
A facemask is essential gear on an arctic expedition, but it doesn't need to be used every day, even at -40. It's mainly for headwinds. As long as your layers are adequate and the air is calm, nose and cheeks won't freeze. In marginal conditions, I keep the compass around my neck less to navigate than to use its mirror to check for frostnip.
I see a lot of photos of polar travelers, their facemasks photogenically crusted with ice. Maybe they've just had a lot of wind, or maybe they're wearing the mask too much. There are reasons not to.
First, breathing does ice up a mask in short order. Polar travel would be so much easier if we didn't have to breathe. (Among other things, we could then sleep with our heads inside the sleeping bag!) On cold days, so much ice can form that putting the mask on next time in its frozen condition is truly grim. Every evening, I try to melt off most of the ice by placing the mask carefully near the stove. A solo traveler can dry out the mask daily, but with two or more people sharing a single stove, it's harder. If the mask is still a little damp by the time the cooking is finished, I put it in the pocket of my fleece jacket and sleep with it. It's often dry by morning. At the very least, it stays soft and unfrozen and is more comfortable to put on.
The second reason not to overuse a mask also has to do with breathing. Masks deflect warm breath onto sunglasses or ski goggles, causing them to fog up. It doesn't matter if you have double-lens goggles with a ton of antifog agent applied, it's simple physics: moist warm air condenses on a cold surface. Very soon, it's hard to see. There are steps you can take to minimize the condensation -- mostly, controlled breathing -- but windy days often mean traveling half-blind.
Nor can you ski without this eyewear. Except early in the sledding season when the sun is still very low, eye protection is essential to prevent snowblindness.
Though the icicle-encrusted mask looks impressive in photos, I prefer to minimize the ice by using the Gorilla balaclava, made by Outdoor Research. Its large, Roman-shaped nosepiece attaches by Velcro onto a windproof but otherwise basic balaclava. It is mainly the detachable nosepiece that ices up, which is easier to dry.
The newer versions of this balaclava, unfortunately, have a design flaw. A mesh now covers the mouth, which is unnecessary and adds to the icing problem. So I have replaced the nosepiece with one of my own, made from fleece and Velcro, and sans mesh.
It's hardly a revelation that weight is important in outdoor travel. Cutting the end off your toothbrush is a cliche. Whole industries have risen around saving weight. Carbon fibre and titanium give strength and lightness at exaggerated prices. One of my spare one-quart titanium fuel bottles recently sold for -- get this -- $250 on eBay. It saves an ounce and a quarter over its aluminum equivalent.
While I'm conscious of weight, I'm not obsessed with it. I won't get an ulcer worrying about how I can trim my 85-pound backpack down to 80 pounds. Similarly, I don't care whether I'm pulling 250 or 260 pounds on a sled. You really don't notice much difference.
But there are times when small amounts of weight matter a great deal. Weight is not linear; beyond certain weights, you enter a much higher degree of difficulty. It's like discrete electron energy states. The transition zones depend on personal strength and travel conditions, but within these parameters, they are consistent. For example, I find a huge difference between a 280 pound sled and a 290 pound sled. I will do anything, even drop some food, to keep the weight under 285 pounds. If an expedition is very long and I need to go over 300 pounds, so be it. But I'm grimly aware that the sled will pull like a sack of bricks for a week or two.
Likewise, I can carry a 100 or even 120-pound backpack, but it is, frankly, hell. How the old voyageurs managed 180 pounds on their tumplines I will never know. With backpacks, the magic number for me is about 90 pounds. I don't mind 90 pounds; I can deal with it. But above 95 pounds, life is just suffering and endurance.
As a traveler, it's important to learn what those transition zones are for you and your method of self-propulsion. If you are on the margin, cut, cut, cut.
Alexandra and I have spent the last week at Purcell Mountain Lodge, skiing and writing. On our first day, one of the hard plastic straps on my ski boots snapped. Since the fix took just ten minutes and is a useful expedition trick, here it is. A field repair kit should include everything you need: wire, needlenose pliers and (optionally) a bit of tape.
Heat a piece of the wire over a camp stove and melt two small holes in the plastic strap on either side of the break. Cut two small pieces of wire, thread them through the opposing holes and twist them together. For neatness, or to avoid catching them on anything, cover the stitches with tape. Inside the lodge, we used electrical tape, but such ordinary tape doesn't work in the cold (the glue freezes). In the Arctic, I'd use some of the BSM medical tape I carry for blister prevention. It wouldn't look as good, but the medical-quality glue works even at -40.
The Gopro takes not only high-quality video but also 12 megapixel jpegs. However, as any pro knows, the number of megapixels is not the whole story. Although I've heard of people who've managed good still images (usually under sunny, evenly lit conditions without dark subjects), the quality of the Gopro's stills is generally poor. There's only so much detail that a sensor the size of a pinky fingernail can render.
Below, comparisons of the Gopro with a Nikon DSLR and the compact Canon G12. At 100%, the Gopro image is mushy and smeared. This smearing and lack of detail is common.
Gopro Hero 3+, 12 megapixel setting, detail at 100%.
Nikon D300s, 12mm lens, detail at 100%. Jpg from original RAW file.
Canon G12. Jpg from RAW file.
The mushiness in the Gopro image can be seen not only in the foreground pine tree, but in the background mountain, which looks more like a watercolor painting than a photo.
Two more Gopro examples, from images cropped at 100%:
Horrible! Note, however, how well the Gopro has rendered the chandelier.
Admittedly, the Gopro was designed as a video camera, with stills capability as a bonus. The file size of these images are big enough -- opened in Photoshop, they were approximately 35mb -- but the images are acceptable only for presentations, websites or very small print size.
It's hard to find information about the Gopro's stills ability on the web. This is why. No pro uses it for stills.
January 9, 2014
My new Gopro Hero 3+ arrived today. Gopros have become the world's most popular camera, according to a recent 60 Minutes segment. Its tiny spy-camera size, high quality, 170-degree angle of view, waterproof case and ability to attach to various platforms for point-of-view filming make it amazingly versatile, especially for action.
Its main limitation is the battery. Despite the camera's appeal to skiers, climbers, snowboarders and other winter athletes, its little battery cannot handle real cold, any more than the one in my otherwise excellent but similarly powered Canon G12 camera can.
Gopro's website is full of great information. Unfortunately, its sole attempt to deal with the Cold question says little more than, "We do not have any official extreme temperature ratings for the camera," and admits that cold affects battery life. That's marketingspeak for, "Cold-weather performance is not one of its selling points."
It's in fact very easy to test how well a battery functions in cold. All you need is cold. In the following weeks, I'll test the Hero 3+ in various midwinter Canadian temperatures and report the results.
1. What sleeping bag do you use for winter arctic travel?
The Stephenson Triple Bag, with 10% overfill and their 2" open-cell foam pad. See warmlite.com. (Do not accept their now-standard down air mattress, which does not suffice in the cold.) In 25 years I've never had a cold night in this bag, and I've accumulated half a year in it at -40 or colder. It's bulky - stuffed, it's about the size of a big green garbage bag full of leaves - but I can squash it down to a little bigger than a medicine ball with a custom-made compression stuff sack. Still, its bulk makes it more suitable for sled travel than winter backpacking or ski mountaineering.
It includes an
integral vapor barrier liner that doesn't make you feel soggy
but which works best when new. But its smartest feature is
that it has no goose down on the bottom, just that slip-in
foam pad. As one manufacturer admitted to me, goose down on
the bottom of a winter bag is a design flaw, but people buy
them, so they keep making them. Why on earth would you want to
have down on the bottom of a bag, where it gets squished?
Besides bulk, the Stephenson bag's only disadvantage are its
microscopic zippers. Stephenson is a lightness junkie, but
those zippers make it hard to close the unusual
European polar adventurers often use
the Tempelfjorden bag from the Norwegian company Helsport. I have
no experience with it but although it's a classical bag
with down on the bottom, enough people have used it in
extreme cold that it obviously works okay.
2. What tent do you use?
For years, I used a North Face VE-25. Recently I've switched to Hilleberg's Keron 3GT, which sets up faster and resists wind better. It's hard to get those third and fourth poles into a dome tent like the VE-25 during a gale, especially if you're traveling solo. The Keron is a little narrower for two big guys with winter bags, and like most tunnel tents it's not free-standing, so it needs secure anchors. But it's especially good in places where the wind can rip. And its vestibule is gigantic.
3. What boots do you use on sled trips?
Equipment choice depends a lot on personal style and abilities. My feet don't get very cold, and Steger mukluks, Expedition style, from mukluks.com are as warm as I've ever needed. Since I prefer to walk, not ski, while hauling a sled, I need footwear that is as light as possible. Most of the time, I'm sledding in Inuit sealskin kamiks that I buy in the Arctic. I have light nylon overboots made for them that add warmth in a wind. The kamiks are fine down to about -25º - in other words, from mid-April through May.
4. What about skis and bindings?
Fischer Europa 99s and Berwin bindings. I don't use kites - the eastern High Arctic is not windy enough: A few years ago, an ill-prepared expedition that imagined they were going to kite 1000s of kilometres in a couple of months got a rude awakening. It was the most slapstick arctic expedition since two guys from France decided to gallop some glue horses around Cornwallis Island in 1990. In short, you don't need technical boots & bindings up there. They're overkill and they give you blisters.
5. Where do you get your sleds?
If you live in Norway, you have it made, because that's where the two main manufacturers, Acapulka and Fjellpulken, are located. Acapulka sleds are great, but some of them are the cost of a second-hand car -- a good second-hand car. Then there's the shipping from Europe. There are a few molds floating around North America, though, and I use one of them. It's not my mold, and I'm not sure how public it is, so I can't be more specific. But a fiberglass sled shell, with runners, costs me $600. I then have to custom-make my own cover, then pop-rivet it on the sled. Finished, the sled weighs 19 pounds, about 6 pounds heavier than the primo Acapulkas. It's seven feet long and holds enough for two months. The harness is pretty easy to make: a backpack waist belt worn backwards, its buckle replaced by two loops with 'biners, plus adjustable chest straps. You don't want a pulling belt that buckles in front, because that's where the padding should be. Several manufacturers make this mistake.
6. What camera do you use?
Pros secretly roll their eyes when they get this question, but most of us, including me, asked it at some point in our early days. The question is a little strange, because the underlying subtext is, If I get that same camera, I can take those pictures too. That said, I do most of my shooting with a Nikon D300s and D700. Both allow me to use an EN-EL4a battery, which works in the cold. I'd have a D3-series body if I could, but the irony is that many pros get by with less expensive gear than advanced amateurs who have a real job and can justify getting a $7,000 camera that's out of date after three years. On warmer expeditions, or on day trips, I also carry a Canon G12. And an iPhone for day-to-day stuff, quick snaps of documents, and so on.
7. Where do you get your custom sewing done?
Ninety percent of my gear is store-bought but about 10 percent is custom-sewn. There's usually someone in your area who can custom-sew outdoor gear. I even found somebody when I lived in Toronto. Custom work tends to be an aside for them: Usually their main business is warranty repairs or making outdoor clothing for local manufacturers.
8. I'm planning an arctic expedition. Can I ask you some questions?
I don't mind answering the odd question, but for more elaborate consultations, I have to charge.