Extreme cold. How To Dress? As quick as there is a cold draft in the US or a threat of a cold winter, I get almost spammed with questions how to dress. I have written about this issue extensively, but feel like this article below is the one needed at this stage of the queries. Because I have received such a response on two articles on what gear to bring to the Arctic and what thermal underwear to choose. Extreme cold seems to fascinate people. And questions arrive like these three:
- Exactly how do we dress in -40?
- And how does extreme cold affect you?
- Can you please make it an easy read?
So with the help of images taken almost one year ago by one of the foremost Yakutian photographers, Egor Makarov, I have decided to write this article, hoping it will be of good help, concise and full of the information anyone needs to know before venturing into the extreme cold!
I am only going to discuss modern polar equipment, since for most people who wants to venture into the cold, good, well done fur clothes are almost impossible to get. You need very good connections to find the best, manufactured by hand by the best!
A few points on extreme cold
Basically human beings are tropical animals and not really equipped to deal with even the mildest cold weather. To successfully survive low temperatures any animal needs to generate sufficient body heat by burning appropriate food and preventing the loss of heat by suitable clothing and/or finding an adekvat warm shelter.
There´s really three types of extreme cold, a dry version, a damp and one including a wind chill factor. The last type is the most difficult and dangerous one. Here´s a good chart to illustrate (in Fahrenheit only) the wind chill factor. But just there to give you an idea. This wind chill factor has always have to be taken into account. Antarctica and many other areas which includes Arctic deserts, such as the tundra, wind is most of the time part of any journey. Being inside a forest like the Siberian taiga, wind is less of a problem.
Bodily indications that one is cold.
The most common indication on the body as regards to low temperatures is its effect on the urine production. Basically your body want to get rid off all the liquid, so when you get cold,you want to pee.
Another indication of cold is when you get red cheeks and nose. Once again, this amazing apparatus called the human body, is trying not to loose heat through its weakest parts, its extremities.
Goose pimples is another indication of the body getting cold. Unfortunately this is something which is left since our ape days and only animals with fur have an advantage from this. It improves their insulation dramatically.
Shivering is the next stage and can increase the body heat five fold. It is the shivering which helps us keep warm, but once this happens, there is a reason of staying alert.
Problems when the body gets too cold.
There´s basically three stages of bodily damage which can occur when one gets too cold. The first is a frost nip, the second a frost bite and the third, hypothermia.
The first stage, frost nip is often observed at the end of one´s extremities, like the nose, ear lobes and sometimes the finger tips. The skin kind of turns white. Frost nip is an early warning which could become a frostbite. It can be easily cared for by just putting on extra clothing. After some time the white layers of the skin might turn into what looks like a sun burn and will eventually be sloughed off.
The second stage, frost bite is more serious. What happens is that the skin actually goes below freezing and you get ice crystals under the it. And when you get into to warmth, the skin swells and you get blisters turning purple and black. This area gets hardened by the hour, but if damage is not to bad, the dead skin peels off and new skin arrives. This is a superficial frostbite that I know well. It is extremely painful though!
Severe frostbite is much worse though and happens far too often when the affected area is re-warmed too fast. If you reckon that you have been affected by a severe frostbite, which basically only people with long experience of low temperatures know, it is better to keep the parts frozen until one gets medical attention.
The third stage; Hypothermia is the most dangerous phase, but once again you have different stages of its development, but it can lead to death. I have only once seen a case of hypothermia, a Japanese climber in Nepal, who actually undressed on top of a pass called Thorong La, and froze to death. The symptoms are often shivering, numb hands and skills like skiing or climbing becomes complex and the victim becomes argumentative and unhelpful. Rational decisions seems impossible. And when reaching the final stages of hypothermia, heart rate and breathing is slow, limbs are stiff, pupils dilate and doesn´t react to light, hallucinations seems to occur regularly. Possible death is not far away.
However, having mentioned all this scary stuff, there´s also a well known fact that people with deep concentration and a great will to live, can fool death. I saw this great TED talk below which describes this in detail:
So how to dress and survive
Before I nail down the rules prevailing at the moment about how to dress, let me just say that it is extremely important that you continuously add fuel to your body. The fatter the food, the better. For example I added on 18kg before my Siberian journey back in 2004-05. It gave me great help! And, it is such an enjoyment of being able to eat everything before leaving!
How to Stay Warm.
Dress in layers as below:
First, what we can call the basic layer, the one next to the skin. This item, either high tech yarn or wool, (cotton is forbidden!) should be soft, comfortable and able to wick away perspiration quickly. Damp gear can reduce the insulation a lot, so it is important to get rid of the sweat from your body.
Second layer is what one can call, the middle insulation layer. Depending on how low the temperature is, this is the layer where you for example can use a thin fleece or wool shirt or long john topped with another thin layer like a a high tech yarn or wool shirt. Or a thin down jacket or down trouser. Adjustability is therefore very important here, like zips and pockets. And one of these garments have to be long enough to cover the butt. Arm sleeves should have an additional piece at the end of which covers the wrist, which is one of the weakest parts of the body and a real “killer” when it comes to loosing heat.
Third layer is what we can call, the shell layer. Or the outer layer. This one definitely needs to be windproof, possibly water proof depending on where you want to go. It has to have a hood, fastenable cuffs and draw cords. It is important to say that waterpoof garments isn´t necessary in very cold weather as no rain falls, but if you intend to carry on your journey when temperatures rise dramatically, go for goretex. It has more versatility, if you cash flow is low. Like mine. If you have the means, go for what is called an Arctic parka, since waterproof gear doesn´t transmit perspiration as good as for example a traditional parka in cotton or synthetics. During the Siberian journey we used a down jacket with a goretex three layered jacket as a front in combination with each other as one big jacket.
Forth layer is the accessories to protect the so called extremities, like gloves, mittens, head gear, socks and boots.
Hands is such a weak part of the human body in low temperatures. And if you are a photographer like myself, it is even worse since taking a photo with a down mitten is impossible. I would say you need at least two pairs of gloves and mittens. One thinner glove made of fleece, followed by a down mitten. The outer pair needs to be windproof, preferably the first hand layer as well. The only good gloves I have ever had, were a couple of wolfskin one´s.
Head. The most important place for the best accessory! The head is the body regulator number one. It is the fastest, easiest and best way to both heat up and to cool down. Either put on or take off. Should be used in combination with the hoods on the outer layers! I would say a real good face mask, which is made of polypropylene and which fully covers head, neck going down a bit on back and chest and which has a face cover which is easily removable is a must. I have what I think is the best in the world made by Taiga in Sweden. I carry a top hat in fleece as an extra layer over the face mask and on top of this, you need a thicker hat, because when filming, you can´t be covered in too much headgear like the hood, so you need an extra hat like the one on the image above which of course covers your ears.
Socks. The layering principle should be applied here. Thickness depends on what you are going to do. If you are going to do physical work, one thinner (but still thick) and one thicker. Wool definitely in one of them. If you are just sitting on the back of a sled like below, stock up! Well, if you have good boots, two pairs is enough.
Boots. Woow, how I suffered last February when on the back of this reindeer outfit in Yakutia! I have never had as cold feet as that in my life and the pain was relentless every evening when slowly warming up. I had some old TNF boots from the 2004-05 Expedition, made for -40 and they were….terrible! However, when skiing I had great boots from Crispi, but if you ain´t skiing, you need proper boots like the super duper one´s from Baffin.
As important is your mental state, so prepare in advance! Good luck! I just love low temperatures, because it is the cleanest environment on earth!
*** A lot of this info has changed recently, do read this Expedition Report from Yakutia!