Hey ladies, I’m back, beautiful, and newly 27 years old. I’m sorry for being MIA on Sunday (the only time this whole year I’ve skipped an article drop thank you very much), but it was my birthday and I was away on the trip of the lifetime.
More specifically, I was in Longyearbyen on the island of Svalbard – the place where it’s illegal to leave the town limits without a gun due to the constant presence of real-life polar bears; and the place where there’s the Svalbard Seed Vault, where they keep all of earth’s seeds deep down in the permafrost in case of an apocalypse. So yeah, I guess you could say I was a little busy.
I had been prepping for this trip for a while now, as temperatures drop down to -30ºC and it’s one of the harshest environments on the planet. As you know, I am an island girl, and although I am partial to spending my winters in the Swiss Alps, Arctic winters in the North Pole are a slightly different kettle of fish to a comparatively very warm and populated luxury ski resort.
Yes, I did have thermals from my skiing winters, but just thermals are not enough. The local government shares a Youtube video to advise you what to wear in the different seasons, and the one applicable to me suggested wearing two sets of wool thermals, a large wool jumper, two pairs of socks, a fleecy jacket, a puffer jacket, a neck scarf, a larger wool neck scarf, a woollen hat, and two pairs of mittens just for everyday wear. Keep in mind, this means that you need to wear the above things all at the same time.
So what do I do when I’m unsure? I went shopping, and pretty much thought I was prepared. In hindsight, you can never be too prepared, but this is what I’ve learned…
Quality base layers are key. The trick to dressing for extreme cold is layers – and good layers. What I mean by good layers are layers that absorb sweat. Since you’ll be bundled up, but clearly still moving and probably doing something strenuous (as it is an extreme environment), you want layers that will breathe and absorb your sweat. If you’re wearing a cotton shirt against your skin, it will sit with all the sweat and get cold against your body, and you might end up with hypothermia (not ideal). You want the layer closest to your body to ideally be merino wool. Synthetic base layers also work but are not as warm, so choose wisely.
I was pretty happy in my ski socks as long as you’re wearing correct boots. If you’re wearing leather boots more suited to a city location, your feet are going to get very cold and very wet. I am obsessed with the Canada Goose Snow Mantra Boot, which although take some getting used to taking on and off, are extra warm, extra hardy, and extra comfortable. The only downfall to those is that they are absolutely massive, so prepare to take an extra suitcase, and be wary which activities you will be doing.
Before Canada Goose became the coat of every Ivy League university’s unofficial uniform, and the focus of many a PETA protester, Canada Goose actually only exclusively made clothing for extreme weather for people like Canada’s Park Rangers and Ontario’s Provincial Police, among others. They also made huge snowmobile suits, and were directly marketed for highly functional gear in extreme environments. Moncler I would trust in the Swiss Alps, but in the far North, Canada Goose has earnt it’s stripes several times over.
In Svalbard they give you special suits to wear over your clothing, with special boots as well to wear, so it’s best not to wear so many items that are hard to take on and off.
Investing in a quality backpack is worthwhile, as how warm you feel varies for everyone. On a day out it’s important to pack extra layers, extra gloves, hand warmers if you have (which can be put in your fleece pockets to keep your body warm if you still manage to get cold), a bottle of water, and some food to keep your energy up. Do not bring things you don’t need. Like an idiot I packed my wallet in my backpack on our 9-hour snowmobile trip – just in case the polar bears are trying to make some extra money in the wild tundra by opening their own kiosk – and it got absolutely wrecked. You know when you see articles of remains of arctic camps and all their gear looks like it had been out there for a million years? That’s what the inside of my backpack looked like after 9 hours. My credit cards were in my wallet, in a pocket, in my backpack, which was in a massive steel box on the back of the guide’s snowmobile, and they were still ripped to shreds. My new credit card that I got in the mail last week is now useless, and the chip is living out in the arctic wilderness somewhere forever.
Apart from base layers, everything around your head is important. Even leaving the hotel for more than two minutes is so cold that your ears can get frostbite, so investing in a good balaclava (that only shows the eyes – none of the Loro Piana wide openings in my previous balaclava article) and a good pair of mittens is well worthwhile. Normally I’m not a mitten girl as I like the freedom of having my fingers move independently from one another, but for warmth’s sake, I’ll take the mittens. I’m not kidding about the extreme environments – do not be underprepared. People literally die from exposure in these parts – buy the good mittens.
Trick of the trade? Buy glove inners that are touch screen compatible. You’re going to be taking thousands of pictures, and continuously exposing your fragile little hands to the cold is going to put a damper on your fun – cold fingers is not a good time, especially when you need them to work the accelerator (and brake!) on the snowmobile.
The most important thing to do in the far North is have fun, and with the right gear, you won’t be worrying about keeping warm or dying from the cold – you’ll be having loads of fun in the snow, soaking up those insane views, and if you’re really lucky, spotting a polar bear or two (or a group of cool penguins if you’re in the far South). It’s an experience not many of us get to witness, and if you can go, go! But make sure to be prepared…
Image via Bibi Cornejo Borthwick