“I can’t handle the cold.”
I hear this phrase a lot when talking to people about what I do for a living. It’s the most common reaction to the idea of sleeping outside, 500km inside the Arctic Circle, at -25°C with a sleeping sack, bivvy bag and air mat for shelter. Indeed, this latest spate of rare cold snaps that saw -6°C on the Southern coast of England has sparked grumbled conversations and a longing for the summer months.
But how is it that we can take a group of 10-year-old students to Northern Finland, walk them through the tundra, to sleep in in a snow grave, and return with the same number of students that we set out with? How do they cope? Is it just down to being able to afford the best clothing and equipment? No, in short. Having gear that is designed for the environment in which you operate is an advantage, but it is by no means the final answer.
We are in the latter half of January, and the Polaris Outdoor team has just returned from a trip to one of the most remote regions of Scottish Highlands, where we undertook a challenging multi day winter walking expedition. From the stunning shores of Loch Affric, heading west and over the snow-covered peak of Càrn Eighe to the winding knife-edge ridgeline of the Five sisters of Kintail, and back via the peaks that dominate the Northern slopes of Glein Shiel.
The winter has been good so far in terms of snow coverage and reliable low temperatures. The first 3 days saw constant wind speeds of 30-35 miles an hour. The snow line beginning at 600m and dropping right down to sea level with the onset of a high-pressure system that gave us fiercely beautiful sun rises and sets, with crisp and clear vistas for nearly 100km. All for the small price of sleeping in temperatures as low as -17°C at 1100m.
It’s important to note that there is a fundamental difference between the dry cold of northern Europe and temperate weather systems that frequent the West coast of the UK. Higher moisture content in the air can lead to much more rapid cooling of the body because water moves heat away from the body 20 times faster than air via convection. Additionally, increasing physical activity in wetter environments means the body will sweat more in comparatively higher temperatures. This can compound the issue and hugely increase the risk of hypothermia when the hard work finishes.
So what solutions are needed?
This starts with the clothes on your back. A layer system is the best approach here that functions as insulation and wicks away moisture, and keeps external moisture from penetrating inwards. Starting with the base layer, a merino wool and synthetic blend works well for multi-day cold weather trips. Merino wool is a fantastic insulator and during stop-start activities like winter mountaineering it retains far more of those thermal properties when wet compared with other materials and is very good at wicking moisture away from the body. It is odour resistant which is ideal for long trips where washing is not practical. The addition of synthetic materials will make the garment keep its well-fitting shape while giving it more durability and elasticity. On this trip, I used the Seige Base Layer by Thrudark, which is an astonishingly warm garment for its thickness. The geometric construction of the fabric was fantastic at quickly removing sweat.
A mid-layer serves a similar purpose and therefore can be made from similar materials. Remember to have an extra layer in your bag to put on when you come to rest. A top tip is to wait until you cool to a comfortable temperature thereby getting rid of moisture before adding a backup layer.
The outer shell layer’s function is to prevent the precipitation from reducing the effectiveness of your thermal layers. It also prevents the bite of a cold wind from cutting through you. Gortex is a lightweight synthetic material that accomplishes both of these objectives and is my go-to for a waterproof top and bottom for mountain walking in any season. However, being waterproof means that sweat will quickly build up so garments with ventilation zips in the armpits, outer and inner legs are ideal.
As for hands and heads, an insulative glove with a lightweight Gortex over mitten is a powerful combination. To take the opportunity to dispel a myth, it is untrue that most of our body’s heat is lost through the head. Heat is radiated fairly evenly across the surface of the skin. A merino hat is very a good insulator but may lose its shape rather quickly. Again, a blend of merino with stretchy synthetic fibres works well.
When considering materials for any garment remember the old adage, cotton kills! It is a poor insulator, and this is further reduced if it gets wet, while taking a long time to dry. I have endured enough cold damp, feet during my career that I no longer hesitate to spend a bit more money on a decent pair of wool socks. Bridgedale do excellent merino wool socks that I combine with their synthetic liners.
Hydration, food, and things to avoid…
Our blood is made up of 51% water and this is integral to our body’s ability to regulate temperature. Become dehydrated and the blood begins to become more viscous, preventing it from carrying heat around the body. Don’t wait until you are thirsty to drink as you will already be dehydrated, and cold temperatures will reduce your thirst. Straw-coloured urine is a robust indicator of hydration and is usefully easy to measure against the white of snow! It doesn’t take a master tracker to identify the previous night’s camp of a dehydrated hiker.
Your body breaks down food into glucose, which is released into your bloodstream, known as blood sugar, and is the main source of fuel for the brain. Run too low, and the brain will have reduced function, this includes temperature regulation! You therefore need to eat more in colder climes.
I hope it’s fairly common knowledge now that alcohol does not keep you warm in the snow. Quite the opposite in fact, as one effect on the body is vasodilation (making larger) of the blood vessels. This allows more blood carrying heat to the surface of the skin where it radiates into the air, increasing the chances of hypothermia. Caffeine and nicotine do likewise. I can, however, suggest warm sugary drinks like Ribena or Vimto. Rock and roll.
Tips and tricks…
Battling with fine tasks with cold hands while attempting tasks that require fine motor control can be frustrating at best. Vigorous star jumps are a quick way to increase the core temperature as well as using central fugal force to encourage warm blood to the extremities. Hand warmers are great for those who suffer from poor circulation. Boots that are too tight will restrict blood flow and the feet will go numb so loosen the laces a little.
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing”Alfred Wainwright
This quote from prolific hillwalker Alfred Wainwright rings true. But as I’ve mentioned above, it is only part of the story as to how an individual could get into real trouble if prior research, preparation, or self-care is neglected. I make a point of gently challenging someone who declares that they cannot handle the cold. If cold weather is only to be avoided at all costs, it is not only comfort that is sacrificed when it inevitably sinks its teeth into your bones. Just imagine all those crisp and clear mornings where a fiercely beautiful sun rises seemingly just for you because no one else wants to ‘brave’ the cold. Think about making just a few small changes to develop your self-reliance so that when you hit that summit and take in a stunning mountain vista that makes your breath catch, you’ll barely notice the bite of the wind.