Explorer Mikael Strandberg

Extreme cold, what is best? Fur or modern polar gear?

Since a small cold spell have hit Europe I´ve received a few calls from media and readers regarding the subject extreme cold. I immediately thought about this report which I wrote from Siberia. It will explain my thoughts.

A small note regarding the choice of equipment during Arctic Travel

It´s the 3rd of January in a grey and overcast Srednekolymsk. It´s terribly cold out there, -55°F, but there´s no wind. The New Year Celebrations is continuing with the same unhampered joy. The bar´s and disco´s in the settlement are alive.

We continue to get mails from readers all over the western world, full of interesting opinions, heaps of advice and encouragement. Inspiring, fun and thought-provoking. Many of them has to do with our choice of equipment. Quite a few are of the opinion that we´ve picked the wrong choice of clothes and equipment for an extremely cold climate like this.

´´Why´´ ,they ask, ´´haven´t you learned anything from the native people you´re living among, who´s knowledge how to dress and what equipment to choose in an extremely cold climate like the Siberian, has to be superior to any other. They have thousands of years of amassed knowledge!´´

One reader from Moscow even pointed out, that natives of this region probably have lived here for more than 300 000 years! (A Russian scientist, Yuri Mochanov, have found proof of this amazing fact along the northern part of river Lena, at an excavation site called Diring Yuriakh. That means, if it´s true, that there was a small pocket of life surrounded by the immense continental ice long before the dates we´re being taught in Scandinavian schools today!) Anyhow, I was of exactly the same opinion before leaving Sweden, namely that we would as fast as possible, get our hands on proper fur clothes before setting off on skis. And copy the natives way to dress. However, that was before I did any serious thinking. Especially regarding polar history. And, I changed my mind completely once Johan and I had a chance to try out these ancient and well-tested outfits.

Every single piece of equipment that we´re using on this Expedition, is the result of an ongoing development, which has taken place since the father of all polar travel, Frithjof Nansen, in the late 19th Century, started looking for the optimal equipment to use during physical travels in cold climates. Every single piece from the stove to the clothes we use. All the other knowledge we carry with us today as well, regarding how to travel and how to survive in this extreme cold, is also a development from this era. Arctic legends like Nansen, Robert Peary, Roald Amundsen, Knud Rasmusen, A.E Nordenskiold and Robert Falcon Scott have tried and used pretty much all existing materials like fur, canvas, leather, wool, cotton, felt to nylon. Tested under circumstances far more demanding than we´re experiencing at the moment.

 

The technical development has taken a big step since this epoch. We also understand the importance of what food to eat, what training and what type of preparations are needed, the full potential of the human body and the mental aspect much more. This also applies to the choice of equipment and clothes. Which is a certainty, since we´ve learned from the wide experience and mistakes of all those earlier travelers. Or at least it should be a certainty, but since we do continue to get questions and opinions about this, and since we´ve had doubts ourselves, maybe not! There´s also a fact that every single hunter, trapper and fisherman we´ve come across since leaving Zyryanka, have been utterly shocked and worried when they´ve seen how we´re dressed. They just shake their fur clad heads, look us in the eye´s and say:

´´This is no good at all. This is what you should have!´´

Then they point out, as we would be utterly mislead, what clothes and boots should be worn. What they don´t understand, and everybody else with the same opinion, including ourselves before we realized properly, is that when the native Siberians head outdoors in this extreme climate, every single step and thought they have, has to do with either getting food, do as little mistakes as possible, they never stress or overwork themselves and they try to preserve as much heat as possible. They´re not outdoors to do any sporting adventures which involves sleeping in a tent with no heating and physically abusing yourself. They travel either by snowmobile, slowly walking or, not that often, ski. They´re dressed from top to toe in a variety of fur clothes. Thin and thick garments in layers. By far the best choice of clothes if you ain´t moving too fast and you want to keep the cold at bay. And if you have a warm log cabin to return to in the evening. But if you´re out there, pulling a 100 kg heavy pulka/sledge behind you, going through rough terrain and sleeping in a tent, fur clothes are on the verge of being dangerous. They make you sweat enormously and sweat is no good at all. And not sweating is almost impossible if you do any hard work. And, anyone, who´s been sweating in fur garments, knows that it turns to ice in no time. And, for example, getting a fur glove on when it is frozen to ice, is a lot of unnecessary hard work. And it adds on to the risk of getting a nasty frostbite. By the way, even in our light wool underwear we sweat tremendously even in temperatures like -58°F and at times we have woken up in the morning, after freezing all night, having to thaw out the ice of the long underwear. That is a reality I don´t wish anyone to have to experience.

The human body is a phenomenal heat source as long as you´re moving. Which we do all the time, except when we´re inside the tent. Therefore, we dress to avoid sweating too much. Therefore a light set of underwear, a shirt, a pair of trousers and a Gore-Tex jacket with a hood is more than adequate to travel in. Even at these low temperatures. Plus a thin balaclava with a facemask and a pair of wind proofed gloves. And two pairs of light socks inside the boots. But, as quick as we stop, say just for a dump, we immediately whip out the thick down Jacket, the thickest down gloves and the thickest hood out of the pulka. Otherwise we would get serious problems. And when it is time to camp, boots off immediately as well and on with the down boots (bivvy boots), quickly inside the tent, get the stove going, get inside the sleeping bag and hope for a relatively warm night. Furthermore, these modern clothes dry much faster, the seems are better and more comfortable, they´re windproof, but they still breathe and they´re much lighter. Fur clothes are really heavy, the seems are uncomfortable after awhile and they´re clumsy to handle. And once they freeze to ice, they´re hard to handle. But, this should be said, the modern clothes and boots are nothing for someone who´s hunting, working in the forest and chopping wood. The normal life of a Siberian hunter.

 

Nevertheless, there´s no doubt that we´ve been freezing too much lately. Dangerously much. And we will freeze even more once we start skiing again, the 1st of February. The reason for this is due to the fact, that temperatures will continue to be low plus that there will be more snow and, worst of all, February and March are a time of blizzards and snowstorms. Therefore, we´ve realized, some parts of our modern clothes are just not sufficient below – 58°F. We need to add on some sort of solution involving fur. As additional protection. Especially on our hands since they´ve taken too much damage already. We´re presently working on a pair of big wolf skin gloves, with fur on the upper hand but only normal leather in the grip of the hand, to pull on quickly over the other gloves when needed. We´ll see how they will turn out.

What, than, can the modern developers of polar equipment and clothes learn from the Siberians? First of all, I think it is, once again, important for them to properly understand how extremely inept, slow and awkward all movements become in this extreme cold. The longer the time, the worse. (I have a feeling that most gear to day are made to last a normal modern polar trip. Maximum 2 months.) Gloves shouldn´t be too tight, arm sleeves neither, no unnecessary and complicated solutions as for example to many zippers. The pocket openings have to be wider and longer, more space and more back up solutions if the gear brakes. Which it will sooner or later in extreme climates. Siberians also always have a quick backup. As an example, our ski bindings, who´s weak points broke immediately when temperatures went below -58°F. Luckily, there wasn´t too much snow at this moment, so we could walk. If this hadn´t been the case, we would have faced serious problems. It wouldn´t have been a problem at all if the manufacturer had added two simple square holes on the sides of the bindings, where we could have slipped through a piece of string, to keep the boot in the binding. This backup solution would also have made the binding lighter. A Siberian binding is just a piece of leather which is tied over the front part of the boot. If it brakes, there´s a spare at hand immediately. This solution is no doubt much weaker, more uncomfortable and is made only for shorter trips, but, there´s always a backup possibility.

We´ve definitely progressed a lot since the day of Nansen, but there´s still some distance to go to complete perfection!

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