5 Tips for Polar Expeditions
Trekking to the North or South Pole, across Lake Baikal, crossing Greenland or any other kind of sub-zero expedition requires a lot of preparation and dedication, but are hugely rewarding. Here are our top five tips for any polar expedition, to help keep you safe and improve your comfort while on the go.
Breaks should be short and organised
You should be resting as often as required, to ensure you’re taking care of your body. But stopping exposes you to the elements and just a few minutes extra could have a big impact on how cold you become, it also adds time to your expedition. This means you should be strict on setting break times for between 5-8 minutes, 20 at the most. 5-8 minutes goes by quickly, so it’s a good idea to start thinking ahead about what you need to do before break time comes, so that when you stop you can systematically work through your list; going to the toilet, eating, removing or adding a layer etc.
It’s also a very good idea to have a dedicated time keeper/alarm to help make sure you keep on schedule, as you want to be ready to leave before your hands go stiff with cold, not after. In order to save time, don’t do anything unnecessary. Keeping your skis on and as much stuff kept in your packs as possible will reduce energy expense and save time. Your pulk should be packed in a way to allow caches of equipment for easy access.
You should have a system in place to check the area before you leave. It’s surprisingly easy to head off only to realise you’ve left a mitt, or a food package on the ice. Leave nothing by footprints should be your mantra, not only for the environment but for your safety.
Respect your body
Your body is going to take a real beating when the winds are high and its -40c, so it’s paramount to your safety that you listen to and understand the signals it’s sending you. If you develop an ache, a niggling pain or any other kind of ailment, even if it’s hunger, you should bring it to the attention of the group and act accordingly to address the issue as soon as you can. Small issues ignored can extrapolate and become dangerous quickly in such harsh environments. Your expedition leader will also be checking in on you, so make sure that you are honest about how you’re feeling, and listen to their advice- there’s no room for ego on this trip!
You should also look out for your team mates. Keep an eye out for any signs of fatigue or illness and report it as soon as possible to your expedition leader that that the issue can be corrected before it manifests itself more seriously. At times it might be hard to think about anything else other than yourself, but in camps and at rest points, be sure to reach out to the person next to you and ensure they are doing alright. It’s a virtuous circle, and can really help aid the enjoyment of your expedition.
Food, Drink, Sleep
This leads us nicely onto fuel, and the top three as you’d imagine are food, drink and sleep.
Let’s start with water intake. It is crucial that you continue to drink even if you’re not thirsty, the cold will mask how thirsty you really are which can be dangerous if overlooked for too long. Dehydration will lead to dizziness and lightheadedness, fatigue, dry lips and eyes, rapid heartbeat and breathing, confusion and irritability and fainting. All things I’m sure you’ll agree are not pleasant at the best of times, and could prove very dangerous in -40c temps.
You need to eat at least 4,000 calories per day on the ice, but often you’ll need 5000+ especially if you’re of a taller frame. So, the foods you’ll be eating will be densely packed with calories, and it’s very important that you eat all of your food each day. The food will be cached into 24hour sections so it’s really easy to keep track of your intake. Eat at every break, and at every other opportunity.
Sleep is your only real chance to recover, so it is paramount that you take it seriously and prepare in advance to reduce breaks in your sleep as much as possible. Firstly, I’d recommend taking a fleece sleeping bag liner, which can add up to 5c to the temperature inside your sleeping bag- this will not only aid the onset of sleep, but allow for a deeper and more undisturbed nights rest for your muscles and mind to recover. Secondly, you should be carrying a pee bottle. A pee bottle is exactly what it sounds like, and is designed to prevent you having to leave your warm tent (or sleeping bag for that matter) at all for a loo break. Going outside even momentarily during the night can have a tremendous impact on the amount of good quality sleep you’ll be able to get.
On a non-biological topic, it’s worth mentioning that you should wherever possible save your stove fuel as much as possible. Your stove is your line to drinking water and warm food, so protect it at all costs. You don’t need to heat everything to boiling point, and you can save energy by ensuring your pots are insulated and have lids on during cooking. All these things add up and will ensure you have enough fuel to last the journey.
The trick with pacing an expedition to the poles or any similar trek, is to take advantage of opportunities, and to control what you can control, and exploit things you can’t. This includes your effort or input, and such the pace that you’ll be able to maintain. Many things factor into this calculation, such as weather, stage, group health and stability.
Things you can’t control
The weather is a critical factor that will challenge your average pace, so you should take advantage of breaks in poor weather to get a couple of extra hours in, if it’s possible to do so. Similarly, if the group is really beaten up and the weather is deteriorating then your expedition leader might choose to hunker down, get some much needed rest and ride out the weather for a few extra hours.
Group health is, for the most part controlled simply by planning, communication and precaution. However, if a particular member is suffering worse than others your pace will inevitably slow, this is an opportunity to conserve your own energy, support your team mates and contribute in a meaningful way to the overall health of the group.
Things you can control
Effort or input, meaning the amount of exertion to put into the task, and the amount of conscious input you contribute to the expedition (time keeping, equipment checking), are both things that have a knock on effect to your overall pace. It is safe to say that everyone comes out of the gates strong, excited and ambitious, and it’s easy to over exert both effort and input during the earlier stages of the expedition. However, you should be cautious not to peak to early. It’s actually more advisable to gradually increase effort each day as you acclimatise to the strain, and to alternate input duties to share the burden.
I think it’s safe to say most people have experienced the frustration of losing ones key or phone at an inconvenient time, usually as you’re about to leave the house or need to make a call. So, imagine this feeling when it’s -40c and the wind is gushing around in from seemingly every direction. That’s quite a different feeling. Fortunately, with proper kit planning and organisation (shout out to all you over-planners) this situation can be minimised, if not avoided all together.
Using a caching system, you can keep most frequently used items at the easiest access points, and similar items together, as well as storing items in places where you naturally need them. Anyone who’s ever worked in the restaurant business knows to store a spare bin bag in the bottom of the bin, not in the store closet. This is so that when you change the full bag, the new one is there right where you need it, saving you an extra trip. Same goes with polar expeditions, in essence. Things like your spoon, flask, pee bottle should all be stored in places where you’d expect them to be in the situation you’re most likely to need them. The aim is to make things easier for yourself, here are some other tips:
- Add large tabs, or lengths of cord to any zippers so that you can easily operate them with big mits on
- Tape up the folding sections of your tent poles and leave them in the tent sleeves. Your tent will be much quicker to erect
- Don’t take off your skis one breaks, they will insulate your feet from the snow and make departure quicker
- Spend some time before your trip practicing simple tasks with your mitts on and become familiar with all your kit
- Practice disassembling and reassembling any item in your kit that could break or that comes apart. And make sure you have the correct tools or means to repair them in sub-optimal conditions.