Polar kit list: What to pack for extreme cold
The extreme cold demands respect, and consideration of appropriate clothing and kit. Now, we don’t always take ourselves totally seriously here at Echio, but when it comes to these kinds of climes, you really do need to be focussed and prepared. In some regions, temperatures plummet to -50c, with the coldest temperature on record being -89.2C in Antarctica 1983. So believe me when I say, it does get nippy. For some context, steel and rubber will both become brittle enough to shatter at this temperature, and a pot of boiling water thrown into the air will almost immediately crystallise into ice.
Luckily for us, good old technology fuelled by human desire to explore has come up with many fantastic new materials to help our fragile bodies withstand the onslaught of mother natures colder regions. But, materials aside, it actually comes down to one simple principle that homo sapiens (humans) have been using for millenia… layering.
The idea is simple- layers of fabrics trap warm air between and allow moisture to escape, thereby keeping the air closest to the skin both warm and dry. Layers are also flexible on account that they can be added or subtracted to adjust temp.
Layers for extreme cold climates consist of:
- A base layer to wick moisture away and insulate you
- A mid layer to trap body heat, allow flex and insulation
- An outer layer or “hard shell”, a tough but flexible jacket that protects from wind and rain
- Hats, Gloves, Socks, Scarves
The base layer is a tight fitting layer, whose main purpose is to extract moisture (sweat) away from your skin in a process known as ‘wicking’. As the name suggests, the base layer goes under all other clothes, and provides added comfort.
Base layers are generally soft and comfortable materials, stretchy and breathable and made from wool or synthetic materials. The creme de la creme of base layer materials is merino wool, which is both extremely comfortable and great at wicking away moisture. Moisture in your clothes drastically reduces their insulation capacity, so it is very important that any water is vented out of clothes by the base layer, as soon as possible. If you don’t have the budget for Merino wool base layers, synthetic ones can be almost as good and for a little cheaper.
Synthetic base layers may be treated to reduce the breeding of bacteria from sweat, which is particularly important on expeditions where you can’t pack lots of changes, and washing clothes is impossible. Base layers (especially synthetic ones) can get very smelly indeed. You should pack full sleeve base layer tops and full leg base layer leggings/long johns.
Depending on the extremity of the climate, you can select a light, mid or heavyweight material:
Light- approx 170gm2
Mid- approx 250gm2
Heavy- approx 400gm2
These layers go over your base layers, and provide a highly versatile and flexible heat insulation system. Zips, buttons and vents allow you to cool yourself easily, yet hunker down quickly if the weather takes a dramatic turn.
Your mid layers will be made up of a mix of wool or synthetic shirts, woollen jumper, fleeces and/or down jackets and should be layered according to the weather, obviously starting with the lightweight items and layering over the fleeces and jackets. It is of the highest importance that you have flexibility, so look for good quality items with proper ventilation, good zippers/buttons.
Make sure that the layers on your upper body are long enough at the back to avoid your skin being briefly exposed during physical tasks (builders bum is not cool when it’s -30c). You need to make sure you have a wind and waterproof layer in your kit- a fleece will simply not be substantial at blocking wind and could be dangerous.
Tip: when buying mid layers, make sure you think about the amount of layers underneath so that you buy a big enough size!
For the bottom half, traditionally explorers would wear a natural fibre trouser, however many newer materials are available, such as Gore-tex. The key again is insulation and flexibility. Moleskin is the favourite for polar conditions, as it’s pretty much unrivalled in terms of warmth and comfort. Don’t buy tight fitting, you need some air between the base layer and your trouser to keep warm.
Hard shell layers
This is your protection from the direct battering of the weather, therefore it must be wind proof and is usually waterproof too. Hardshell coats should always have hoods, typically lined and bordered with a thick fur for extreme cold.
Any outer layer needs to be practical, including large tabs for zippers for use with mittens on (you can make these yourself if needed) as well as draw cords and velcro tabs so that you can tighten all the space around your cuffs, neck and bottom and prevent any heat escaping or water/snow getting in. Practicality also extends to waterproofing. Depending on where you are going, you may not need your hard shell to be waterproof… In Antarctica for example, there is essentially no snow all year round, any ‘snow’ you do experience will likely be just ice blown up by the wind. This is important as waterproofing of clothing makes the garment less flexible in the cold and less able to vent out moisture- which could be dangerous if you are taking on a particularly strenuous expedition.
Polar parkas and down suits are the most typically used outer layers for polar and arctic conditions, as well as in mountaineering.
Your head, hands and feet will lose significant heat when your body notices a drop in ambient and/or internal temperature. This is why your hands and feet are the first to go tingly and numb when it’s cold- your body is pooling its heat resources around the most important parts of you, your organs, and so blood flow is restricted from the extremities. This is both uncomfortable, and downright dangerous- numb, slow moving hands are useless in an emergency. This is why its critical to pay proper consideration to the warmth and protection of your head, hands and feet.
Your hands should be protected by 2 or even 3 pairs of gloves, depending on the severity of the weather. Again, layering is key, so start with a light warm pair of gloves and the layer over a weatherproof protective glove, followed by a polar mitten. Mittens are the best for warmth, but they compromise dexterity entirely- like wearing boxing gloves, you’ll not be able to do much with your hands while wearing them, but they are perfect for long treks, skidooing or skiing.
Your head should be covered at all times when resting, as you can lose 20% of your body heat through your head alone. A cold head will trigger responses from your body, leading to number fingers and toes immediately, which makes everything harder. In certain weather at the poles, breaks are limited to just 5-8 minutes at the most, after which your hands become numb and it’s difficult to prepare properly for departure. Make sure your hat can cover your ears, which will become extremely painful and potentially frostbitten if exposed to the elements for long. Choose a hat with ear flaps, or a flexible beanie which easily comes down over the ears- a fleece material is usually best. You might also consider a balaclava, which can be worn as a hat but then pulled down when it get particularly cold, though watch out for moisture buildup around your nose, which will quickly turn into frost.
Feet should be covered with 1 or 2 pairs of thick warm wool socks. Avoid the cheaper acrylic socks as they won’t be as warm, however many wool socks will incorporate some other materials to make them last longer and be more comfortable- this is fine. You can add layers of thinner socks to create the warmest system, but make sure that your boots aren’t too tight!
Boots absolutely must be proper polar boots. Bunny boots or Mukluks are what you need, don’t even attempt to use normal hiking boots for any kind of polar expedition. Muck boots are also used on many expeditions, they are kind of like wellington boots, but better suited for cold climates and easier to walk in- typically these are used while mounting trips from boat onto land.