Packing For Extreme Cold Part II: The Expedition Layer

In Part I of “Packing for Extreme Cold Travel,” I covered the basic stuff you’ll pack for your adventures in crazy cold climates. If you do any winter sports at all, you’ll likely have a lot of this stuff – it’s your basic ski vacation gear.

In this second part, I cover the serious expedition stuff – there’s not much of it, but it makes all the difference between freezing your backside off (just about literally) and having a great time in the minus temperatures.

When I arrived in the far north, it was -40F. Bitter cold. My fingers ached by the time I got to the car, just a hundred yards away.

An epic parka: Mine was a rental provided by Whitehorse expedition gear rental company. I have little use for something this intense in the moderate climates of the Pacific Northwest. But in the deep, deep cold of a Yukon winter, my loaner Canada Goose Resolute Parka was – well, I kind of fell in love with it. I’ve lived in apartments with less storage space than this parka. It took me 45 minutes to “move out” of it after spending a very warm ten days bundled up against the weather.

It’s a lot of work wearing a parka like this – it’s bulky, and I lost my glove liners inside the coat (I’m not kidding) to one of the many pockets. If I did not put my phone or pocket camera in the same place, it could take me ten minutes of exploration to find where, exactly, I’d stowed them.

But it was -40. That’s cold. So I appreciated the fleece-lined pockets, the secure zipper flaps, the slightly long sleeves with ribbed cuffs that I could tuck my hands up into. I liked the coyote fur lined hood – and I could never justify wearing a scrap of fur at home. I’m short, so the coat was almost below my knees, but I wasn’t sorry for the extra length when the wind was blowing. There are mesh pockets designed to hold warmer packs, I used them to store my phone because the battery got zapped of power easily in the cold. And I loved the bright red in the snow; you could locate me in just short of whiteout conditions.

You can spend a pile on a parka like this – over $700.00. Unless you’re planning to do repeated trips in this kind of crazy weather, there’s almost no reason to buy one, but an expedition outfitter will hook you up and that’s worth the money for the warmth.

The biggest boots known to mankind: “I saw that picture of you. What the hell is on your feet? You look like Rocket Boy!” Yup. That’s about right. My Bogs are swell in most conditions, and indeed, they were great for Antarctica, but when I went dogsledding, I was sorry I’d not pulled on the loaner -100 rated boots in my rented kit.

I was surprised, given the bulk, how light my -100s were. They were all insulation with a waterproof exterior. I wouldn’t have wanted to run for the bus in them, but they were fine for shuffling around Dawson City in the deep dry snow, and I wore them snowmobiling and was not sorry. Again, this is the kind of thing you’re not going to own unless you’re living the sub-freezing dream life, so whatever shows up in your rented kit is going to serve you just fine in the interim.

I got a huge laugh out of how out of proportion I’d become between my giant parka and my Frankenstein monster boots, but you know what, I wasn’t cold – not at all.

Packing For Extreme Cold Travel Part 1: The Regular Stuff

“Seriously, you’re going to the Yukon in February? Won’t it be dark all the time? Won’t you FREEZE? I mean, literally FREEZE? You can die if you’re left outside for, like three minutes, right?”

“Yes, seriously. I am going to the Yukon in February. I’m super curious about what it is like to be in a place that far north in the winter. And also, I will be wearing a giant parka. I’ll have loaner gear.”

Sometimes, adventure travel means getting off the grid and diving into the backcountry. Other times, it simply means going to a destination when most don’t. A place like the Yukon – or anywhere in the far northern climates in February is an adventure indeed, and it’s totally doable if you pack the right gear.

For starters, you’re going to have to check a bag.

This isn’t easy for me; I’m a pathologically light traveler. But when your kit requires things like big boots or snow pants, you need more space. Suck it up. Pay the checked bag fee and revel in the fact that you’re not dragging a wheelie bag around the airport for a change. You totally have a free hand for coffee now. Crazy, right?Now, what’s in that bag?

The aforementioned big boots. Okay, you can wear them on the plane, and if your destination isn’t that far away and you don’t mind the hassle of getting in and out of them at the TSA checkpoint, go ahead and do that. But I packed a pair of Bogs (rated to -40F) and they served me well for almost everything I did. (I got mine from a hardware store in Forks, Washington, but you can get them anywhere.)

Loads of serious socks. I’ve got a whole array of performance socks, including some from Dahlgren (in alpaca, they’re super fluffy), Darn Tough Vermont (indeed darn tough, I’ve worn mine for over a year and they are showing very little wear and tear), Fox River (lighter merino), and a mess of other brands. Go with natural fiber blends and drop a little cash. Plus, pack more than you’ll think you need. Changing out your socks mid-day is really helpful towards staying warm. Even in subzero temperatures, your feet can get damp inside your boots. If there’s room, pack two pairs for each day, or be prepared to do some guerilla laundry.

Pro-tip: the crazy, dry climate and overheated hotel rooms mean that your socks totally dry overnight when you wash them in the sink.

The best long underwear you can afford. I’m a devotee of SmartWool (as regular readers will know) but I also recommend Icebreaker, Bergan’s of Norway and Ibex. If you have super sensitive skin, you may want to go with silk instead of merino wool, but I’ve found that the merino works just fine. Silk can be really nice for under jeans because it’s so light, but the extra warmth from wool … oh, it can’t be beat. PolarTec makes some heavy blends, but I prefer as much natural fiber in my kit as possible.

Shopping tip: this stuff is expensive. Places like REI Outlet and Sierra Trading post often have it in their online clearance sections, so go hunting. And really, drop some cash. You won’t regret it. It lasts for a very long time.

A down jacket. That critical poof layer. Loft. Fill. Whatever. All that jargon means that more poof equals more warmth. Maybe you’ll get lucky and have a day or two when the temperatures pop up to a balmy 32F and you can shed the expedition parka (more on this later). Eddie Bauer makes an expedition line – First Ascent – that’s not too pricey, or you can drop some money on Patagonia. The nice thing about down is that it packs down to nearly nothing and you can always find room for it in your bag.

Outer layers that are water and wind proof. A jacket and pants, people. I kind of love my Outdoor Research pants; they’re super light and resist the weather – with long underwear they’re good for down to freezing temps. I have a very nice jacket from Westcomb, or hey, combine the down layer with the weather-proof layer and get a three in one – Columbia does a good job on these, but heads up, they run small.

A staggering amount of moisturizing products for your hair, lips and skin. In the extreme cold, it’s a little hard to stay hydrated for two reasons. The first: you’re just not aware of the dehydrating effects of the weather when it’s cold. You don’t sweat much, and you don’t get the kind of thirsty you get when you bake in the sun. The second: if you’re doing outdoor stuff, you really do not want to expose your more sensitive parts to the weather. You may end up thinking, “It’s okay, I’ll hydrate when we get back to the lodge. For now, I’ll pass on the water.” Your skin will pay. And once you get over the vanity of hat hair, what will really bug you is that your hair feels like straw. Drink up, and toss in the product. We already agreed that you’re checking a bag, so what’s the big deal?

Pro-tip: don’t be an idiot; throw in some sunscreen. You might not feel the sun cooking what little exposed skin you have, but it is, and it’s reflecting off the frozen everything.

A pair of sturdy, waterproof shoes: sometimes, you’re just going to eat in the hotel restaurant and you don’t want to go down there in your giant boots. I packed the admittedly kind of weird looking but totally appropriate Sole Exhale – they’re great on the plane, too.

Your usual travel clothing: odds are, in a place that requires an extreme cold weather kit, you’re going to do fine in jeans and a clean shirt. Throw in a nice sweater if you’ve got room. You’ll need a hat, gloves or mittens, and a scarf or neck gaiter in your pile of accessories. Err on the side of casual, and don’t overdo it; you’re probably going to spend most of your time geared up to the eyeballs in expedition gear.

Which we’ll talk about in Part II: “Packing for Extreme Cold Travel Part II: The Hardcore Stuff

[Photo: The Yukon River near Dawson City. Courtesy the author, Pam Mandel]