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The Expedition Packing Guide: 5 Cold Weather Survival Gear

It’s fair to say that most people rarely visit some of the truly cold corners of planet Earth. Sure, some of us have to contend with the real extremes, but it’s not often you’ll meet someone prepared to trek into the frigid barrens and immerse themselves some of the chilliest temperatures known to man. In this expedition packing guide, we will discuss  about 5 Cold Weather Survival Gear.

But how cold is cold? We’re talking -30 C, and below. We’re talking about the kind of temperatures which, when you’re exposed to them for even a short period, can leave your body numbed for hours after.

Cold Weather Survival Gear
Lake Baikal Russia

Photo by Alyssa li on Unsplash

With those chilly thoughts in mind we’re going to delve into the essentials you’ll pack for an expedition into some of the coldest places on Earth.

First, I’d better share my credentials. My name is James and I, with my hiking pal Jake, run https://treksumo.com, an outdoor gear review site that also lists the route and destinations of our numerous hikes and treks. I’m a former soldier in the British Army and spent many seasons in northern Norway, practicing Arctic Warfare.

In more recent years, and since leaving the service, I’ve been to many very cold destinations, including:

  • Skiing to the North Pole
  • Crossing Greenland
  • Running/hiking the 400-mile length of Lake Baikal, Russia
  • Long-distance skis through Norway
  • And more…

I understand the cold well and have a healthy respect for the damage it can do:

Frostbitten thumb
Frostbitten thumb

Image: My frostbitten finger, courtesy of the brutal Siberian winds.

That’s enough about me. Let’s take a look at some of the essential gear you’ll need for your hikes.

5 Cold Weather Survival Gear

Warm Base Layer of Clothing

It goes without saying that your base layer is one of the most important you’ll be wearing. By trapping air next to your body, you reduce the risk of cold injuries such as hypothermia, but there is another consideration to make: reducing the number of layers you wear.

The standard advice in cold regions is to wear several thin layers. You can then easily add or remove a layer at a time to better regulate your body temperature. But when the thermometer dips below that big 3-0 the last thing you want to be doing is stopping, shrugging off your shell jacket, and adding another layer to warm you up.

In my opinion, a better option is to wear only a thick base layer and shell. Instead of adding and removing clothes, you modify your pace and then open and close your jacket’s zip to cool off or warm-up.

This approach might not sit well with many people. I like it because I can carry fewer items of clothing and, if the weather is unseasonably warm, I can simply shrug off my shell layer.

Tip: buy a shell jacket with big pit zips for maximum ventilation

Pack Plenty of Fatty Foods in Your Ruck (or Pulka)

As this is a beginner Sugar has a bad rap, and rightly so. It’s rotting your teeth, makes you fat, and isn’t particularly good for the environment. That said, there is a place on your packing list for sugar, but only in small quantities. Instead of getting a fast energy fix from sugar, I prefer to load up on fats.

Before the super-clean eating athletes turn on me, remember that this advice is for the average person planning an expedition in a very cold place. The super-fit Ray Zahab and his fellow ultra-runners are different creatures altogether.

So why pack lots of fatty food? Because it’s the human body’s most concentrated form of energy. And it’s the perfect fuel for long-duration, low to moderate intensity activities in cold places e.g. skiing to the North Pole or hiking Lake Baikal in winter.

Before you dash out and buy kilos of cheese to pack in your ruck, remember that planning any expedition is a balancing act. Plenty of fats are essential, as are adequate proteins.

A Silly-Looking Hat

Here in the UK, there used to be a long-running comedy series called Blackadder. Set in various eras throughout English history, the story followed the hilarious trials and errors of the family lines Blackadder and his servant, Baldrick.

The earliest images of Baldrick depicted a man wearing a serf’s hat, one that looks a little like mine…

baldrick hat

Image: My hat. Baldrick, eat your heart out.

Looks silly, right? Yeah, of course, it does, and I wouldn’t dare wear it in public. But it was perfect for my North Pole adventure. Made from fleece, with big ear flaps and a snug fit the hat kept the very worst of the cold at bay. And when the Arctic gales ripped across the snow the drawcord prevented the winds from stealing my silly hat away.

Sometimes you need to be prepared to look just that little bit unusual, an act that could save your life or, at a minimum, prevent the tips of your ears from freezing off.

Yes, I do still have that hat!

Solid Fuel Hand Warmer

I first had the pleasure of using one of the finger savers way back in the early 2000s whilst on exercise in Norway. There was only one problem with those older models – the fibrous material that stopped the contraption from going up in flames was more than likely asbestos.

My original hand warmer was taken from me many years ago and, I assume, destroyed. At least it’s no longer a health hazard.

I absolutely recommend you buy a solid fuel hand warmer and pack it into your ruck. There will be days it so cold that your knuckles will feel like they’re going to crack and splinter. There will be times when the chill is so deep in your bones that you’ll feel as if you’ll never again be warm.

That’s when you pull out your hand warmer, grasp it gently, and feel the return of heat and sensation to your fingertips.


Haemorrhoid Cream

This is one of those items that I spent some time mulling over – it’s an uncomfortable subject, but not nearly as uncomfortable as the intense feeling of hemorrhoids. Also known as piles, they are caused by intense pressure in the rectum that comes from straining to empty your bowels.

But how do piles occur in cold places? Well, when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go. The problem is this: you really don’t want to spend too long ‘going’ in extremely cold environments as other ‘parts’ of you can be affected by frostnip, or worse.

So, to prevent cold injuries you need to offload fast which results in straining and, over time, hemorrhoids. It’s a catch 22 situation: suffer from piles or watch an exposed part of your body turn blue as it starts to freeze.

Pack the cream!

A Warm Pair of Booties

How do you keep a baby’s feet warm and snug? You put booties on them because babies are precious and we don’t want any harm to come to them, or their feet in this case as they’ll be needing them for those big, future hikes that are to come.

But what about your feet? How do you keep their feet toasty warm in those extreme cold climates? Well, you could crawl into your sleeping bag and let that snuggly down do its job and gently drive the cold out of your joints. The problem comes when you need to answer the call of nature. What then?

tent booties
Image: My own tent booties, ridiculously warm.

Tent boots! Yes, they look just like the booties you put on a small child, but they are far warmer and some designs have a hard sole that lets you wear them outside for short periods – no more pulling on your cold, damp hiking boots just to pay a short visit behind the nearest bush (remember: don’t push too hard).

Wrapping it Up, Quite Literally

It’s easy to be cold and uncomfortable when your hikes take deep into the unknown, barren wastes of white. But don’t let that happen to you. Sure, you might need essentials like a Garmin InReach Explorer+ (check out our review – it’s awesome) but stop to think about those small items that will make life on the trail an absolute pleasure.

Before I head off on another hike, I’d like to thank the team at Hiking Gear Lab for allowing me to write this post for them. And please do drop by and check out some of our hiking route and expedition write-ups.

The last word: whatever you pack in your ruck, be safe out there.

James Redden

James Redden  Contributor

“My name is James Redden and I’m a keen outdoorsman and backcountry skier who loves nothing more than to leave his desk on a Friday and head out into the wilds. In recent years I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to visit and explore many amazing destinations around the world (mainly in cold places). My journeys include a ski to the North Pole, a crossing of Greenland, 3 months in the Sahara desert, and more recently a solo, unsupported traverse of Lake Baikal, Russia. Currently, I’m planning for a full distance solo to the South Pole, a short hop of around 700 miles.”


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