Is it really that cold?
One need to remember that the polar night in the Arctic, which for Svalbard means mid-October to the end of February, is a relatively warm period. Spring is a significantly cooler time of the year. So, the real issue are not very low temperatures, but the lack of light, deep and soft snow, and rapidly changing weather.
If you are already outside and you feel it’s warm and cozy, there is a great chance you are overdressed. The trick is to wear several layers, with thermal underwear as the first one. The reason why you don’t want to have cotton next to your body is that it easily absorbs sweat and when you stop moving it will decrease your body temperature dramatically, which may lead to hypothermia. The second layer, depending on the temperature, could be a very light polar fleece. And again, it has to be made of at least a little bit breathable fabric. Even if you feel cold at first, once you start moving around the heat generated by your body will do the rest. The third layer should be a slightly waterproof wind-stopper jacket, preferably with a hood. Breathable materials won’t help you much when a 10-20 m/s wind starts blowing, and if you don’t wear anything that stops it, your body temperature will drop very quickly. Yet another polar fleece will make you more harm than good. For example, for temperatures ranging -15°C up to 0°C I would wear the three layers mentioned above and a warm winter jacket attached to my backpack. The jacket’s purpose is to keep the warmth when I stop for a snack or to do some field work. Usually, after first kilometer in these temperatures it’s getting too warm for me and I have to unzip the softshell jacket. Another thing worth remembering is that if you know you are going to stop in 15-20 minutes, slow down. The moisture in the inner layers will evaporate slowly thanks to the heat of your body.
Covering your face
Depending on the wind direction and snowfall, you may need to cover your face. I found out that powerstretch balaclavas work great, but at the same time they stick to your mouth making it difficult to breathe. So I usually put a wind-stopper half-mask first and then, if the conditions get rough, I would pull out the balaclava. The wind-stopper mask is made of a harder fabric, thus making it easier to breathe. Another discovery is that with two masks on your face there is a lower chance of getting it fixed to your mouth due to vapor collecting inside and freezing. And once it gets frozen, it’s not much useful anymore.
Goggles are a must, no matter time of the year. You will find these essential especially during a storm, when a snow blowing right in your face with a huge speed makes it impossible to keep eyes open. Also, you will quickly learn that any uncovered part of your face hurts due to hundreds icy needles hitting your skin.
The rule of all rules: never expose your hands, unless fixing something requires taking them off. That’s especially important when dealing with metal (at low temperatures it may cause an instant frostbite). In our case it’s usually a piece of hardware that gets broken somewhere in the icy wilderness. The liner gloves I’m very happy with are Black Diamond Welterweight Gloves (or PowerWeight, but I find their fabric too weak for any kind of work), which allow me to use touchscreen devices when on the move. I haven’t had to wear mittens so far, so in case of strong wind and when my hands get sweaty, I put Glissade Gloves on top of the liners.
Dealing with darkness
As it turns out, 120 lumens for a headlamp is not enough, especially during a snow storm. What I would recommend is a 320-lumen light with a detachable battery pack, which you should keep next to your body if not used. Frozen batteries die quickly. Also, don’t forget to take another set of fully charged batteries, well wrapped in a plastic bag, so the moisture won’t get in.
Securing your gun
Putting your shotgun into a case or a cover is probably one of the less smart things you could do in a remote area full of polar bears wandering randomly. So what to do if you need to secure your gun against snow filling up the chamber? I came up with a solution of my own, a partial cover made of leather, which worked pretty well so far and enables me to react quickly in case of a threat. Tested in the field. A picture probably describes it better:
A few other tips
- Grow your beard (if that’s possible in your case). Not only it’s a bit warmer, but when something freezes to your face it’s easier to cut it off from facial hair rather than your skin.
- Never rub when experiencing frostbite, it will only make things worse. Instead, put your hands in arm pits and get warmer gloves.
- Sitting on snow decreases insulation properties of your clothing.
- The problem with freezing batteries is sometimes solved with cables running inside the sleeves. Never done that myself, but works great for pros reaching North Pole.
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