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 and the complete kayaking gear list has 12 pages. They are available for $15 each.
Every traveler loves maps. They're gateways to dreams. And when the dreams become real and a trip is planned, maps become a puzzle. What scale(s) should you bring? What about backups? I've never had the wind snatch a vital topo out of my hands and run away with it, but that can happen.
Here in the Canadian Rockies, or in any serious mountains, 1:250,000 scale topo maps, with their typical 200- or even 500-foot contours, are not enough for navigation. Where you can or can't go depends so much on local relief that only the standard Canadian 1:50,000 maps carry enough contour detail.
In the Arctic, it's a different story. I still bring 1:50,000s on kayaking expeditions, because I want to judge if a little inlet holds promise as a landing or campsite. On most sledding expeditions in the High Arctic, though, 1:250,000s are enough. In any case, 1:50,000 scale topos used to be rare up there, although a full series now exists. The only time 1:50,000s are important is during overland passages involving precise routefinding through a maze of hillocks and creek ravines. I used the 1:50,000s constantly when my partner and I were crossing Labrador's confusing tundra last year. Once we reached the George River, maps of any kind were hardly necessary. We just kept to the same frozen waterway for weeks.
Most High Arctic sledding takes place on the sea ice or in broad, obvious valleys where -- because of the infinite visibility of the tundra -- you could hardly get lost if you tried.
Technically, you don't even need paper maps any more, since modern GPS's include topos. But I find the screens too small for navigation, although they're great for verifying your current position. Still, the batteries don't last very long and are hard to recharge in the field.
I used to buy topo maps one by one. For a long trip, the cost totalled hundreds of dollars. They were one-sided and had lots of wasted space around the borders that I'd trim off to save weight and space. Single-sided maps were inefficient, but they were your only option. Thanks to the thick stock on which they were printed, they lasted for years, until repeated folding and trail moisture began to wear away key details.
Maps in the office
About 10 years ago, digital maps became popular. For $100, you could buy a DVD of all the topos in a travel area, such as Nunavut or Labrador, and print them out yourself. Since my professional printer can handle up to 13x19 paper, the maps can be almost the size of old-fashioned government charts, if desired. This not only saves money, but since you can crop the digital topos as desired, you rarely encounter the irritating situation where you need two or even four maps for a small trip, because your chosen route happens to fall at the corners of several adjoining topos.
Typically, I put the 1:250,000 overview maps on larger paper and the 1:50,000s (the U.S. uses 1:63,000) on 8-1/2 x 11 paper, which fits conveniently in a large Ziploc bag. I print all maps double-sided, and number them with a Sharpie. If you're traveling hard, 1:50,000 maps on letter-sized paper last only a couple of hours before you're on to the next one. On a fast sledding or kayaking expedition, even a full-sized 1:250,000 topo lasts only a day.
Increasingly, topos are available free online. I am not as educated about this resource as some people, because I already own the DVDs for the areas where I typically travel. But recently I was researching a route on the Alaskan border that I might do next month and found this exhaustive set of 1:250,000 and 1:63,000 topos. The files are easily large enough to print clearly.
It was much harder to find a similar resource for Canadian maps. Toporama, the main government digital map website, is one of those Kafkaesque nightmares designed to be, ironically, unnavigable. Google was of little help. Thankfully, a fellow wilderness traveler who used to work in government pointed me to the Canadian site for free 1:50,000 and 1:300,000 topos. It's one of those old-fashioned ftp, Windows 95-looking places, which is probably why it eludes search engines, but all the maps are there.
Finally, don't overlook the VFR navigation charts that bush pilots use. These 1:500,000 maps give a great overview for long-distance journeys. Ellesmere Island, for example, is covered in two charts, Ellesmere and Alert; northern Labrador has Goose Bay and Ungava. What I like most about them, besides the fact that they're double-sided, is that they're just the right size for penciling in landmarks, historic sites, literary quotes, etc. My charts are awash in chicken tracks related to those areas.
The need to breathe is the most inconvenient part of winter travel. At night, the moisture in breath freezes on the collar and hood of your sleeping bag. Over the days and weeks, that part of the sleeping bag increasingly becomes a rigid helmet. Insulation is compromised. You can't stick your head inside the sleeping bag, or the moisture will affect the entire bag. (Read The Worst Journey in the World for the consequences of this.) As it is, the bag suffers from transpiration through the pores, but the damage is not as dramatic as it is on the part of the bag near your mouth.
During the day, breath likewise freezes on the collar of your jacket and especially on any facemask. I don't wear a facemask in still air, no matter how cold, but there's no getting around the need for one in a headwind. By the end of the day, the facemask is a mess. The mouth and nose area are thick with ice. On a day trip, who cares, but if you have to wear the same facemask day after day, what do you do?
Pick the right sort of facemask, for one. The first kind I tried was one of those neoprene half-masks that cover the nose, cheeks and chin and Velcro behind the head. Little holes over the mouth area allow you to breathe. Problem is, neoprene is warm but it takes a long time to dry and is an inappropriate material for a garment that gets wet -- except, of course, in a wetsuit, which is hung to dry after every use.
Surplus stores carry down masks which cover the entire head and are very warm, but down is even harder to dry than neoprene. Wool balaclavas also ice up beyond drying. Fleece versions are much better, but after a windy day with your nose and mouth buried in one, they also become sodden and icy. And ordinary balaclavas are not quite enough for the coldest, windiest conditions.
Some modern products try to get high-tech with facemasks. Some make the wearer look like Darth Vader. Other companies like Scott make full facemasks that seem popular on windy Antarctic trips. I have no experience with these; they too would ice up but might still (unpleasantly) protect the face.
For several years, I've been using Outdoor Research's Gorilla balaclava. Its nosepiece attaches with Velcro, so can be removed if the wind drops or, especially, in the evening. The nosepiece is the main thing that ices up. I rest it near the camp stove while making supper and melting water, close enough so that the material doesn't melt but near enough that the accumulated ice steams off. By the end of the evening chores, it's usually dry again.
OR's latest model of the Gorilla is inferior to their previous version, because the nosepiece is thinner, smaller and has a mesh piece over the mouth, which is not necessary and just provides another surface to ice up. So I've rigged a thin, fast-drying piece of fleece which attaches to the sides of the balaclava like the nosepiece does but which doesn't cover the mouth.
As for what to do about the sleeping bag hood and collar: On the coldest arctic winter trips, I carry a synthetic overbag which fits over the down bag. This overbag shields the down from most of the damage from breathing.
Climbing skins for manhauling
We manhaulers all use climbing skins on the bottom of our skis for traction. Neither wax nor the bas-relief scales on waxless skis gives enough grip to pull a heavy sled. Borge Ousland told me of one exception: With his characteristic mix of good contacts and clever thinking, he once had Fischer put scales along the entire length of a ski, not just in the kick area. He claimed that these custom skis had enough grip to haul lighter sleds, up to around 130 lbs.
Skins give good grip but also reduce glide, hence the canny manhauler's desire to eliminate or minimize their use. On my early journeys, I hadn't thought this through, so my skins spanned the full width of my touring skis. I wasn't much of a skier then anyway, so glide was irrelevant. I thought skis were useful while hauling a sled merely to float on the snow and were better than snowshoes because you pushed skis forward but had to lift a three-pound snowshoe with each step. Obviously, skis made you less tired, except in deep powder.
Since then, I've refined my skinning approach considerably. My skins are mohair rather than nylon because mohair glides better. And they're now half the width of my narrow touring skis. I bought the skinniest skins I could find -- 50mm wide -- and cut them down the middle with scissors. Then I tracked down some bails small enough to hook on the tips of my Europa 99s. These narrow bails were so hard to find in this era of fat skis that I bought enough to last a lifetime. With a little duct tape on the edges to further narrow the bail, they even fit on racing skis.
The 25mm width gives enough grip, even with slippery mohair, to haul a sled of any weight. 20mm would work too, and give slightly better glide. Not sure about 15mm. When Colltex sponsored me, I didn't think to ask for enough skins to slice them into various widths and lengths to see at what point they failed to give adequate grip.
I carry an extra tube of skin glue with me, in case the skins start to come off or (in the southern Arctic) I have to slog through slush on lakes or rivers. Fixing slushed-up skins is a time-consuming job in the tent. You have to melt the frozen slush off over the camp stove, dry the skins, then reapply the glue. Miserable! Doesn't happen often, luckily.
Other travelers have experimented with interesting ways to increase glide on their skins and also to affix them more securely. One team of Europeans gouged a wide groove down the center of their skis with a router, so that their skins were partly inset. (Seems to me that simply narrowing the skins would be easier.) Others screw their skins to the skis so they can't possibly come off. With a dedicated pair of arctic skis, you could also permanently attach the skins before the expedition with bombproof Gorilla Glue. Since I don't deal with slush or flooded summer sea ice often, removeable skin glue works fine for me.
You could also experiment with shortening the length of the skins, especially if they are permanently fixed on. Skis with skins barely longer than the kick area might glide very well. Commercial skins are always full length, because on steep slopes, you need grip on the tips and tails of your skis. Manhauling has different requirements.
Not long ago, a top U.S. wildlife photographer joined a photo tour to a tropical destination. This guy has been making a living from his animal imagery since the late 70s. He still spends at least half the year in the field. He is the real McCoy.
But on this tour, he found himself a bit of an outcast. No one was interested in him. No one asked what he did. He's a quiet guy, but the main reason seemed to be that his gear was not as new or as expensive as that of the doctors and dentists and other clients on the trip. They were all shooting with Nikon D4's and Canon EOS 1DX's while his main camera was the competent but comparatively humble Nikon D5000. What could he possibly teach them?
Group conversation tended to be mostly about gear. Pros talk gear sometimes too, but never as a pissing contest. Gear is a tool, not a symbol of how serious we are about our hobby.
On rainy days, most of the photographers would gather in the lodge and take turns showing the images they were so proud of on a screen. Meanwhile, my professional friend stood outside on the balcony by himself, hard at work photographing birds in the rain.
Random thoughts about temperature:
Some people are good in the cold. Some are good in the heat. I've never met anyone who's good in both.
Earlier this week, at the Australian Open, the temperature during some of the night matches dropped to the low or mid-50s (11 or 12C). Both Roger Federer and Andy Murray, who are good in the heat, wore undershirts. I would never wear an undershirt even while walking in such mild conditions, let alone running as intensely as they do. On the other hand, I can barely jog for half an hour in 30C temperatures, let alone do sprint sets for four hours.
Professionals like Federer and Murray know what to wear. Despite coming from Switzerland and Scotland, they're just sensitive to cold. But many people overdress because they are afraid of the cold or because of inexperience. When I skate-ski at the Canmore Nordic Centre, wearing an undershirt and a wind vest on a -5C day, many beginners are sporting thick hats, big mitts, insulated pants and car coats down to their knees. In Canadian cities in winter, it's common to see joggers wearing full GoreTex suits in what for some of us is shorts and T-shirt running weather. They dress for the first five minutes of their outing, not realizing that when exercising, you dress for when you're warmed up, not for when you're starting.
In arctic travel, it's obviously important to dress warmly but it's more important to dress cool. Someone who's too hot will feel sluggish and slow down. Sometimes you don't even realize why you're going so slowly: It's because you're hot! Because of this, it's better to underdress slightly, because it makes you go faster in order to generate more exercise warmth.
It's easy to tell when you're truly wearing too little: your fingers start to go numb and they don't un-numb within 15 minutes or so. That's the time to put on an extra layer. Note that this early numbness is not the numbness of frostbite. Ice hasn't formed in the cells, the circulation has just slowed or shut down and lactic acid is building up. This early numbness hurts.
Winter is great for active people who suffer in the heat, because there is so much to do: skiing, running, skating, cycling. In summer, to avoid heat, I prefer swimming for aerobic exercise. Even there, you go faster when the water's cool. Most public pools are far too hot, because athletic directors respond to complaints from seniors, mummies with kids and those who just want a relaxed swimming experience, ie, the majority. But if you train seriously, the elevated temperatures in these pools sap energy. The best pool I ever swam at was a university pool that was kept at 79F. The cool water gave an opening shock when you first jumped in, but you warmed up after a few minutes, as you do when running in winter with a T-shirt. And you could swim as hard as you wanted without wilting. Most public pools, by comparison, are 84F or 85F. Because of water's great density compared to air, that 5 or 6 degrees makes a huge difference. An experienced swimmer can tell when the water temperature changes by just a single degree.
I'm not a great advocate of wind chill: Even the new scale is exaggerated, and people tend to cite it because it makes the cold that they are enduring sound more impressive. It's a way of exaggerating without actually lying. But a wind chill equivalent of 40 below feels totally different from the real 40 below.
Still, wind is the hardest thing an arctic traveler has to deal with. "I laugh at the cold, I laugh at the dark, I laugh at the ice, but I do not laugh at the winds," Fridtjof Nansen wrote once. "They are everything." And although I've camped down to -54C (-64F), the most dangerous temperature I've ever experienced was 40 below with a 30-knot wind on the Labrador plateau. Usually at those temperatures the air is calm; not this time. Traveling would have been risky and taken too much energy for too little distance, so I sat it out in the tent. In a nearby Inuit village, a young fellow died in that storm when his snowmobile broke down.
Sitting out -40 and 30-knot winds.
January 25, 2013
Poked around Mountain Equipment Co-op (Canada's REI) yesterday, as I sometimes do, just to see what's new in gear. A couple of items caught my eye. First, what MEC calls their Expedition Bootie. Booties are soft camp boots with down or synthetic fill to keep your feet warm at the end of the day. They're soft as slippers and feel great after a day of skiing or trekking.
Booties are usually just ankle-high, but MEC's have a noninsulated extension that comes up just below the knee. I've been looking for commercial booties like this for years: When I was starting out, the Montreal company Kanuk made a fabulous pair. They were one of several imaginative winter camping items that Kanuk designed in its early years. Unfortunately, the owner soon realized that outdoor companies do not survive by specializing in items for winter camping, no matter how imaginative. Now they make town-and-country stuff. So following the basic design of their expedition bootie, I have new ones custom-made periodically. This is a pain, and I've always kept my eye open for comparable booties that are available over the counter.
Unfortunately, MEC's Expedition Booties, above left, have the right design but aren't warm enough for a true expedition boot. My own custom-made booties, above right, are twice as thick and keep the feet warm down to -50C. MEC's are ordinary booties to which an extension snow cuff has been added.
In arctic travel, it's important to carry a snow knife for two reasons: one, as a survival tool, in case something happens to your tent (hurricane or polar bear); two, to build a wall of snow blocks as a windbreak or (for group travel) a biffy.
Inuit sometimes make their own snow knives (for example, from a carpenter's square). Often they just use a ripsaw. This last is not a particularly lightweight solution, but since they're on snowmobiles, an extra pound or so doesn't matter.
Most lightweight snow knives available in outdoor stores are for cutting test snow blocks in avalanche country. They're usually too short for igloo/snow wall building. But MEC's Backcountry Access Snow Saw (below) is just long enough. Incidentally, a serrated edge is not necessary for cutting snow blocks: That's why a carpenter's square with its tip rounded off and sharpened and its handle built up into a nice grip also works well.
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. In 20 years I've never had a cold night, 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.