What to Pack for an Arctic Expedition

In April 2014, I was preparing to travel to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to join Arctic explorer, Joe “Malamute Man” Henderson and his team of 22 Alaskan Malamutes on expedition.  I was going to spend twelve days cross country skiing through some of the most remote areas of wilderness in the tundra.  There would be no heating, no hot water, no bathrooms, no beds.

When I get stressed I write lists.  And in the weeks leading up to the Arctic expedition I wrote dozens and dozens of lists.  There’s something therapeutic about breaking down seemingly mammoth undertakings into small manageable tasks.  And I find it incredibly satisfying to cross out each item on my list as it’s tackled.

But there was one list in particular which I agonised over for weeks and weeks.  My packing list.

There was limited information available on what to expect during the expedition, let alone what to pack.  I knew that a tent, foam sleeping mats, a sleeping bag, food and cooking supplies would be provided.  Beyond that, I was unsure.

I already had the basics: ski trousers, a ski jacket, a couple of fleeces, some lightweight base layers, hats, gloves, ski socks and a pair of snow boots.  Initially, I thought I was pretty much sorted but the more I thought about what a full day and night on this trip might entail, let alone nearly a fortnight, the more I began to panic as the realisation gradually dawned on me that packing for an Arctic expedition was nothing like packing for a ski holiday.

I imagine that when most people go on a ski holiday, there’s generally a lovely warm cabin to head back to after a long and exhausting day on the slopes.  And that cabin has amenities such as heating, hot water, bathroom facilities and beds.  You don’t just set up a tent out in the snow…  But that’s exactly what I was planning to do.

I knew that the temperatures would be unpredictable and I had to be prepared to survive conditions as brutal as 40 below, perhaps worse.  But then again, it might be nowhere near as cold as that.  My husband joked that I had nothing to worry about; we’d gotten married in a Lappish snow chapel, and I had worn a sleeveless wedding dress in -23C… but I knew this was no joking matter, and that not just my comfort, but my very survival depended on having the correct clothing and gear.

I recalled just how frighteningly cold my feet had gotten one night in Lapland when we went out on a frozen lake hoping to glimpse the northern lights dancing above us.  Despite wearing two pairs of ski socks inside my snow boots, my feet had been so cold they hurt.  A lot.  So I was terrified at the prospect of becoming a victim of frostbite.  Wind chill can significantly increase the risk of frostbite: with just the slightest wind (say 5mph) in conditions as cold as -40C, exposed flesh can freeze within just one minute.

And so, I spent hours and hours each week reading various forums and product reviews, putting together detailed lists of what I needed, constantly revising them as I absorbed more and more information.  I had a breakthrough when I was put in touch with someone who had previously been on such an expedition – Angus Mill’s advice was invaluable, and I am deeply indebted to him for all of his help.  There were a few things that I learned very quickly: cotton kills in Arctic conditions, layering is the key to trapping body heat, and there were three materials which were renowned for their excellent insulating properties: merino wool, goose down, and fleece.

Throughout February, March and April I worked my way through my list, carefully selecting items that would be warm, durable and wherever possible, easily compacted into stuff sacks to save space.  Of course, I had to balance the desire to bring all sorts of “luxury” items against the need to pack light, not only to adhere to the limitations of airline baggage restrictions, but also to ensure that the sleds pulled by the dogs would not be overloaded with unnecessary or heavy gear.

Just an hour before it was time to set off for the Airport to begin my arduous two day long journey from Edinburgh to Deadhorse, Alaska, I finally crossed off the last items on my packing list as I zipped up and buckled my rucksack (weight: 14kg), and I could finally relax.  Only relaxation was impossible… because I was far too excited and nervous as it finally sank in that I was about to embark on the biggest adventure and most terrifying challenge of my life.

My final packing list:

  • Merino wool underwear, socks and liner socks
  • Merino wool base layers (tops and bottoms) – 4 x light weight; 2 x heavy weight
  • Silk liner gloves, fleece lined gloves, heavy woollen mittens, technical ski gloves
  • Merino wool/fleece buffs, balaclava, windstopper hood
  • Merino wool ski hats, baseball cap
  • Fleeces
  • Goose down gilet
  • Goose down/Primaloft jackets: 1 lightweight; 1 x medium weight; 1 x heavyweight
  • Shell jackets
  • Ski jacket
  • Ski trousers
  • Steger mukluks, snow boots, goose down camping slippers
  • Fleece pyjamas
  • Sunglasses, ski goggles
  • Peshtamel towel
  • Silk sleeping bag liners
  • Backpack, daysack, laptop bag
  • Compression sacks, stuff sacks, ziplock bags, wash bag
  • Toiletries (including: wet wipes, hand sanitizer gel, sunblock, lip balm, Bio Oil)
  • First Aid kit
  • Disposable hand warmers
  • Knife
  • Head torch
  • Toughbook laptop, Kindle, cameras, memory cards, spare batteries
  • Battery packs, solar chargers

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