Before booking my trip to the Arctic, my knowledge of outdoor wear and thermals was minimal. The closest I’d come to the extreme outdoors was a Bronze Duke of Edinburgh trek in the mild and wet UK countryside, and even on that I managed to lose my tent poles and walk in an eight mile circle (fact). So, when my Arctic kit list landed in my inbox, I regarded it with great suspicion: this was not a world I was well acquainted with. Fast forward a few months and how times have changed. I can now navigate an outdoor shop like a seasoned pro and spend much of my time walking around in my fleeces, gloating at the fact it may only 16 degrees in my house, yet I’m toasty warm.
And so, I thought it might be useful to compile a blog on my top ten tips for what you need to pack for the Arctic. Surviving -20 degrees for 5 days taught me a lot about what I needed and what was a waste of space in my suitcase. I rented many of the more bulky items like my sleeping bag, duffle bag and ski gloves from Outdoorhire.co.uk, which saved me a huge amount of money. The rest, listed below, I bought:
If there’s one thing you’re going to pack for a trip to the Arctic, it’s going to be thermals. These are your essential base layer that will help keep out the freezing cold but also allow you to move around easily. I decided to buy a range of thermals, ranging from the fairly bog standard sets you can buy in many high street stores, to splashing out on the more expensive [easyazon_link identifier=”B006VWU00G” locale=”UK” tag=”twithatra-21″]Merino Wool thermals[/easyazon_link]. To be honest, I didn’t notice a huge difference in the effectiveness of them although I do recommend in investing in some Merino Wool tops and leggings if you can. Although they’re made from wool, they’re not itchy and don’t hold onto smells, which was very useful for me when I spent 10 hours of my day around dogs! Avoid any thermals with cotton in them as these will not keep you warm.
2) Good socks
Another key essential for the Arctic is plenty of thermal socks. On particularly cold days, I was wearing four pairs! I would recommend starting with some thermal but thin base layer socks and then generally increase their thickness as you layer up. I had one particular pair that went all the way up to my knees, with a fleece lining, and they were one of my favourite items to keep me nice and warm. Like with the thermals, avoid a cotton sock as these will do little in keeping in the heat.
3) Lightweight thermal coat and mid layer tops
Over the thermal layers you should wear a tight fitting fleece or a wool shirt. I struggled to find the mysterious wool shirt so opted for taking two fleeces. Again, I went with one cheap fleece from Marks and Spencers for £12 (in the sale) and a more expensive North Face fleece for £50. I didn’t notice a particular difference between the two in keeping me warm so I assume the only difference will be in the longevity of the fleece. It’s handy to pick a fleece with plenty of pockets so you can store your batteries, mobile phone etc. in them. I would also recommend a fleece that zips the whole way down so you can take it off easily if you overheat (unlikely!)
A last minute addition to my suitcase was a lightweight thermal coat, which I’m so glad I took with me. As a mid-layer (I wore this over the fleece and my thermal layers), a light weight and tight fitting thermal lined coat is perfect when adding that final extra layer before you put on your specialised Arctic boiler suit! I was kindly gifted an amazing coat from Alp and Rock, which was lined with down, making it, literally, light as a feather but also very warm. I raved about this coat the whole time I was in the Arctic and couldn’t recommend this brand enough for cold weather clothing.
They say you lose a large majority of your body heat from your head and so having appropriate head wear is essential. I invested in a fairly expensive balaclava that as well as being thermal, was also light weight and breathable, so I didn’t feel like I was slowly suffocating. I also wore a fur (faux) lined hat over the balaclava when it got particularly cold. I should emphasise here, your focus with any of this kit should be its effectiveness in keeping you warm, not in how fashionable you can look. In -20 degrees, the last thing on your mind is what you might look like (I usually looked terrible) and more so on keeping hold of all your fingers and toes.
As with the socks, you need to be able to layer your gloves so you can allow for more movement in your fingers when you need it. I started with thermal base liner gloves that I could keep on when doing tasks like tying up the dogs or having lunch. Over these, I then put on my ski gloves that gave me extra warmth but still allowed me to use my hands fairly well. Finally, I added what could only be described as leather oven mitts that took all dexterity away but kept my hands warming whilst sledding.
6) Hand and foot warmers
These were my saviour, despite only being 70p a pack. Hand and foot warmers come in packets of two and look a little bit like tea bags. Once you open them, you just need to crack them and shake them about a bit to let the magic (some clever chemical reaction) happen. Within half an hour these little bags are lovely and warm and perfect to pop in your gloves or over your socks. I found these especially useful when I needed to take my gloves off to take a photo as I could just hold onto a hand warmer to keep them warm.
7) Spare batteries
If you are heading to the Arctic to take a lot of photos, you need to come prepared. In such cold temperatures battery life is awful (the shortest mine lasted one one day was 2 hours!) and so I recommend that you pack plenty of spare batteries; keeping them in your mid layer pockets during the day so they keep nice and warm. I did find that if a battery had died, putting it back in my fleece pocket for half an hour would bring it back to life again, so make sure you warm the batteries up as frequently as you can.
It’s a well known fact (questionable) that exploring the great outdoors works up an appetite and when you’re using all your energy to keep warm, snacks were an essential in my suitcase. I should advise that healthy, high energy snacks like protein bars, dried fruits and nuts would be the preferable addition to your suitcase, but I decided to go with snacks that would cheer me up when I was feeling the cold and tired. So, I packed my bodyweight in cadburys chocolate. This little pick me up really helped over lunch, even if I did have to warm it up over the fire first to resemble less of a block of ice.
9) Clear ski goggles and sun glasses
Similar to skiing, two key essentials are sun glasses and goggles. The only big difference is that you’ll need clear goggles as with limited daylight in the Arctic, you won’t want any shaded glasses adding an extra layer of darkness. I bought some goggles that would fit easily over my sunglasses, so I could wear them together (I told you this wasn’t a fashion statement!) These are particularly important when it was snowing to avoid my eyelashes freezing!
10) Face moisturiser and sun tan lotion
This may seem trivial compared to essential items like thermals and gloves, but do not underestimate their importance. My British skin was not prepared for freezing conditions, added on top an even colder wind. By the end of the trip my face was dry, flaking and painful. Much like skiing, despite the temperatures, on a sunny day the sun is glaringly strong against the snow and I definitely burnt my nose. Keep a small bottle of lotion with you in your mid layer so you can reapply easily without having to contend with a frozen bottle first.
If you are visiting the Arctic as part of a tour, or taking part in extreme activities like Dog Sledding, then you will be given a big all-in-one boiler suit and thick snow shoes to finish off your outfit. For those days when I wasn’t sledding, i.e. the first afternoon visiting the Ice Hotel, I wore salopettes over my thermals and my walking boots.
It may seem, like it did to me initially, a rather overwhelming list, but all the items I’ve listed above were essential to my trip and ensured I kept warm and dry. I would definitely recommend renting bulkier items like a sleeping bag, unless you plan on making the Arctic a regular holiday location! It’s easy to be drawn into buying expensive versions of thermals, fleeces and gloves, but I generally didn’t notice much difference between the more costly items and the ones I bought for cheaper on the local hight street. Mix and match on cost to save money.
Any more questions? Let me know below in the comments and I’ll try my best to answer them!