A Polar Explorer Shares Lessons on Surviving Extreme Cold
Zoe Gates went winter backpacking with guide Eric Larsen, and learned valuable lessons on cold-weather gear, nutrition, navigation, and survival
If I didn’t know any better, you could’ve convinced me I was standing on a floating ice chunk somewhere in the Arctic Ocean. The setting sun cast a glow on the horizon that, despite the subzero temperatures, painted everything a warm orange. Just moments ago, besides our pair of red, expedition-style tunnel tents, everything had been white. Flat snow filled every inch of my vision, punctuated now and then by sculptural masses of ice poking up from the surface like translucent shark fins.
This was March on Minnesota’s Lake of the Woods, and according to renowned polar explorer and expedition guide Eric Larsen, it was the closest approximation of polar conditions in the contiguous U.S. It’s where Larsen, who has visited the north and south poles and the summit of Everest in a single year, trains clients for polar travel. During this session, he had three clients; one was headed to the North Pole, another to the South. Me? I just wanted to get over the winter camping hump. So I joined Larsen for week of classroom-based lessons followed by five days on the ice. If I could survive simulated polar conditions, how hard could a few December nights in the Rockies be?
With temperatures dropping to -15°F at night and hovering in single digits during the day, conditions were balmy by Larsen’s standards. Nevertheless, we operated as if it were -40°F, and encountered a range of conditions from whiteouts to powerful winds. As it turns out, self-supported expedition-style travel, whether at the North Pole or in Minnesota, is a good parallel for winter camping, where self-sufficiency is paramount to survival. Here’s what I learned.
This, of course, is the crux of winter travel, and where you’ll focus all of your energy. Finding the right layers for any given situation takes some practice—sweating can be dangerous, so you must constantly adjust to maintain a dry, warm equilibrium.
Polar explorers travel anything but light. Here’s what students pack for Larsen’s expedition training courses.
- Expedition Nordic skis, skins, poles, and boots
- Short- and long-sleeve baselayer shirts in a variety of weights
- Fleece jacket
- Expedition anorak with a fur ruff (You’d be amazed at how much heat fur traps around the face)
- Medium-weight down jacket
- Heavy expedition down jacket
- Synthetic underwear
- Baselayer pants in a variety of weights
- Shell pants or bibs
- Insulated pants (down or fleece)
- Sock liners
- Hiking socks in various weights
- Heavy wool socks
- Glove liners
- Fleece gloves
- Fleece mitten liners
- Over mitts
- Insulated gloves
- Insulated expedition mittens
- Warm hat
- Goggles with nose beak
- Sleeping bag (see p. 93)
- Bivy sack (for packing your sleeping bags into—stuffing them causes the down to freeze while compacted)
- Two foam sleeping pads
- Large stuffsacks
- Insulated water bottle covers (Make your own out of insulated packing material and duct tape)
- Other personal items for camping
Don’t Do This: Be Bold, Start Cold
Many winter hikers and skiers have heard this one, but Larsen doesn’t ascribe to it. Start comfy, shed layers as your body temperature rises, and always prioritize layer management over pace. In groups, it can be useful to set a policy: If one person stops to adjust layers, the entire group waits. This creates a pressure-free dynamic that keeps temperature management at the forefront—and over time, it’s more efficient, as no one needs to stop to deal with sweaty layers or numb fingers. Larsen’s key to comfort: Be proactive and selfish.
Core: For high-output travel, maximize breathability but also wind protection. Larsen’s polar travel layering system eliminates fleece and down while moving (they’ll make you sweat). Try multiple baselayers—up to three or four—with a shell on top in windy conditions. They’ll keep you as warm as bulkier layers while still allowing sweat to escape. Whenever you stop, put on your big puffy to trap the heat you generated while moving.
Head: Protecting your face from wind and freezing temps helps ward off cold injury. A balaclava, hat, buff, and nose beak allow you to adjust as needed.
Hands: Combine glove liners, fleece mitts, and over mitts. Reserve your big mittens for emergencies or times when you need to warm back up quickly.
Feet: Keep your boot liners dry. In extreme temps, your liners won’t dry out in your tent overnight—they’ll freeze. Keep them dry longer by wearing vapor barriers: Layer either plastic bread bags or commercial models (like Rab Vapour Barrier Socks) inside your sock, either next to the skin or over a sock liner.
Pro tip: Your body is all connected, so keeping your core warm helps maintain your extremities, too. Got frigid fingers? Zip up your jacket, put on your hood, and move your body.
Sew Your Own Nose Beak
A nose beak protects your face from exposure to cold air and wind, but unlike a Buff or mask, it allows more air circulation to avoid saturation and freezing from your breath.
Materials: recycled fleece from an old jacket, recycled nylon or windproof fabric, dental floss, sewing needle
1) Using chalk or a marker, trace the nose indent of your goggles on the fabric. The top of your nose beak will attach directly to the foam on the bottom of your goggles. Below this, trace an oval large enough to cover the lower half of your face.
2) Cut out matching pieces of fleece and nylon. Using the floss and needle, stitch around the edges to attach the fabrics (it doesn’t have to be pretty).
3) Stitch the beak directly into the foam of your goggles, fleece side in. Pinch the beak to create a small gap at the bridge of your nose—this will hold the beak slightly away from your face and allow air to escape while still keeping you warm. Without proper airflow, your goggles will fog—pack an extra needle and floss in your repair kit so you can adjust as needed.
In extreme environments, your most important survival tools are your systems, which you must develop and dial in ahead of time so that they become second nature by the time you’re in the field. Regular travel can turn into a survival situation in the blink of an eye—a piece of gear fails, you get wet, the weather changes. What might not be a big deal in summer can turn dire in extreme temps where stopping, removing gloves, and tinkering while the wind is gusting can be dangerous. The ability to fall back on your systems prevents little problems from becoming big ones. Preparation and efficiency at every step of your day is key so that you can focus your attention on the basics: eating, hydrating, and staying warm.
1) Your number one job is staying comfortable and ready to deal with issues as they arise. You won’t be able to problem solve effectively if you’re cold and hungry.
2) Prepare your gear so you can use it as seamlessly as possible when you’re bundled up and cold. Larsen keeps all of his expedition tents ready for quick deployment by leaving in poles, pre-rigging guylines, and rolling it up into a large bag instead of a stuffsack. Assess your own kit: Can you add longer zipper pulls to your jacket? Modify your sled for ease of use? For expeditions, you need to put as much effort into planning as the trip itself.
3) Consider impact over time. On long, arduous expeditions, the toll on your body doesn’t just reset when you go to sleep at night. Every inefficiency, error, or small injury that may be minor in isolation has a cumulative effect; maximizing your efficiency in all tasks saves you invaluable time and energy in the long run.
Pro Tip: Wrap Thermoses, fuel bottles, ski poles, and other exposed metal with hockey grip tape. They’ll feel less cold to the touch, and reduce your risk of frostbite while making them easier to grab.
Pulling a Sled
When you can’t fit all your gear in your pack, it’s time to enlist the pulk sled. “Honestly, I think sleds are good for most winter terrain, with the exception of bigger and steeper slopes,” says Larsen. “Of course, there are the obvious factors of the terrain and amount of snow.” While a pack might perform better on continuously steep ups and downs or fast and light missions, a sled can generally help you tow winter loads, which tend to be much heavier and bulkier than summer gear.
A dollar store kids’ sled paired with a duffel or pack can be sufficient for many types of winter trips. Purpose-made expedition sleds tend to be more durable and have more carrying capacity. For polar missions, Larsen custom fits expedition sleds with riveted-on sled bags to keep gear covered.
Pro Tip: How to pull your sled over pressure ridges, inclines, and other obstacles
• Ski up to a dropoff, pull your sled as close to you as possible, side step down, point your skis forward, and use momentum to pull the sled over the obstacle.
• Use your bodyweight to lean in the direction you want the sled to go.
•For small inclines or bumps, take a few “running” steps to gain momentum.
On summer backpacking trips, it’s common wisdom not to mix tents and stoves. But when weather conditions are extreme, it can be unsafe to sit outside to cook and melt snow. It is possible to safely operate a stove (go for liquid fuel, which works better in the cold) inside the tent, with the following precautions:
•Minimize fire hazards by leaving sleeping bags and extraneous gear in the vestibule while cooking. And no inflatable pads—they create unstable surfaces and tripping hazards.
•Maximize airflow by unzipping tent doors at least 6 inches and opening any vents. Pitch your tent so that the wind gusts through these openings and aids in air circulation.
•A homemade stove board of plywood, aluminum sheet, and shock cord acts as a flat surface to keep your setup off the floor, and holds everything in place. It can be useful to use two stoves: One for warmth and drying gear, the other for melting snow.
•Make a windscreen out of aluminum sheet and a draw latch to stabilize the pot and maximize fuel efficiency, which is crucial on long expeditions.
•Always open fuel bottles in the vestibule to avoid spills inside. Set up, prime, and light your stove there, too. Return the stove to the vestibule to turn it off, as it will release vaporized gas.
•Lighters are unreliable in the cold. Use matches.
•Fuel on your fingers will result in immediate frostbite in extreme temperatures. Wear your glove liners, and use caution.
•Don’t put an empty pot on the flame. Always keep a thermos of “starter water” in your stove bag to speed up the melting process, and avoid burning the pot by putting in dry snow.
•Melting snow takes a long time. Budget at least an hour and a half in the morning from when you wake up to when you break camp. A good book, downloaded movies, or chatty tentmates help pass the time.
Meal Planning and Nutrition
Expedition food should be healthy and well-balanced while offering plenty of calories to meet the increasing demand of keeping the body warm and moving. On a North Pole expedition, Larsen will consume up to 8,000 calories per day. Food and fuel are the two heaviest elements in a polar traveler’s kit, so calorie efficiency is especially important.
•Add butter and olive oil to your dehydrated meals, oatmeal, soup, and beverages to boost calorie intake. Bars, chocolate, trail mix, and salami and cheese make good on-the-go snacks.
•Know your preferences. The best food is the kind you’ll eat.
•Your caloric needs will increase over time. Plan for bigger dinners after the first five days, bumping up calories periodically.
•Eliminate packaging and condense food to save space and weight.
•Keep hard candy in accessible pockets for quick energy on the go. (Partially tear the package before stowing it—you’ll be grateful you don’t need to remove your mittens later on.)
•Bacon bits in oatmeal add protein and calories. Trust us.
•Keep bars inside your water bottle’s insulated sleeve to keep them pliable.
•Fill an insulated bottle with hot soup before setting out. A steaming lunch is a morale booster and plays an important role in keeping you warm.
Polar travel poses a unique set of navigational challenges, not the least of which is frequent whiteout conditions. When visual cues are obscured, it becomes impossible to navigate without the help of a compass. Left to your own devices in a whiteout, you’ll inevitably move in a circle instead of a straight line. When he’s unable to see his surroundings, Larsen uses a hands-free bracket that holds his compass level against the body. This allows him to ski while keeping his eye on the compass needle at all times to ensure he’s going the right direction without the help of landmarks. Before embarking on a winter trip, make sure you’re comfortable taking and following a bearing.
•Before going to sleep, remove any hanging gear from your clothesline and pack it in your stuffsack or sleeping bag. Anything you expose to the air overnight will become frosty as you breathe. In the morning, use a brush to sweep the frost off the tent walls and ceiling before turning on your stove so it doesn’t melt and drip.
•A two sleeping bag system is versatile and way more affordable than a fancy expedition-style bag. The inner (-20°F) bag stays lofted and dry even when the outer (20°F or warmer) bag is frosty and damp. Put the warmer bag inside, and use a rectangular or roomier bag on the outside. Larsen uses two foam pads, which are insulating, convenient, and more reliable than inflatables.
•Sleep cold? Layer up and lie on your back to avoid breathing into your sleeping bag and creating condensation.
Pro Tip: Fill a Nalgene with hot water and put it in your sleeping bag for warmth.
A Day on the Ice
7 AM: Wake up, dress, and move sleeping bags into vestibule
7:15 AM: Light stove, melt water, eat, dry out gear, and make repairs
10 AM: Take down tent and pack sleds
10:30 AM: Travel, taking snack breaks every hour
Noon: Hot lunch
12:30 PM: Travel, taking snack breaks every hour
5 PM: Set up tent, build wind block out of snow for bathroom
5:30 PM: Melt snow, eat dinner, dry gear, repair gear
10 PM: Sleep