HOW TO SURVIVE IN CANADA'S ARCTIC
Equipment and tactics for overlanding in severe winter conditions
Going in search of the unknown is what makes the overlanding lifestyle such an attractive one for so many. It produces adventure, puts you in front of spectacular views and challenges your senses and problem solving abilities. When overlanding deep into the wilds of Canada, it is important to be well prepared for whatever issue might arise. However, if you plan to take on winter or even the Arctic, the game changes big time.
When planning the Titan Arctic Challenge completed back in March, to say I had steep learning curve is an understatement. It was near vertical. However, I learned a great many things on that expedition, things to help you whether you’re just going out for a spot of winter camping, or planning a full Arctic adventure of your own. Here is just some of the valuable information I took away from that expedition.
If there is one thing I can suggest to someone looking to challenge themselves as we did, it is to be as best prepared as one can. Do not fool yourself, the Arctic is a seriously dangerous place if you’re not prepared, it will happily put you in a life or death situation.
The best thing I did in my preparations was to talk to people who have done this sort of thing before. Take the time to do your research and find people who already have experience. They will likely be very excited for you, and more than happy to feed you all the information they’ve already learned. They will be able to recommend books to read, routes to take, campsites to utilize and local contacts. Most importantly, they will help you think of equipment and techniques that you haven’t thought of yet. A good resource for finding the right people, and even getting training, is to visit an overland rally or expo.
As a camping and off-road enthusiast, my camping kit is rather extensive and of good quality. That being said, I was amazed how little of it I could actually use when dealing with temperatures below -20°C.
Let’s start with clothing. Obviously, layering up is essential. When living in -40°C, make sure you have Merino wool long underwear with several changes. We made sure we had a dedicated set just for sleeping in, you don’t want to go to sleep in freezing condition in materials that have been subjected to sweat. Good fleece midlayers are your best friend, try to have many
different options. We opted for a down winter jacket with a weatherproof shell for our main top layer, topped off with a Canada Goose Expedition jacket for severe conditions.
A set of Baffin Revelstoke boots were ideal footwear, offering enough warmth for -40°C, while small enough to drive in.
Don’t cheap out on sleeping gear. We had MEC -30°C sleeping bags that were nice and toasty until -20°C, a bit chilly at -25°C, then progressively worse as the temperature dropped. We combated this by wearing MEC’s “Get Down” booties and Merino socks as well as a good earflap toque and balaclava.
Propane freezes at -20°C, so you will want a white gas burning stove for cooking. Any water you take will freeze, so have a large covered pot for melting snow on a campfire. Fire starters and fire logs also make life a lot easier in camp.
A blowtorch comes in handy, like when your rubber doorstops freeze and you can’t shut the doors to the truck. Throwing a bit of heat on them softens them up enough to be operational. Fuel bought in the North should already be conditioned with antifreeze but having a generator will keep the block heaters running at night so the vehicle will start in the morning.
It might seem like a foolish comment, but it is easy to underestimate just how cold -30, -40 or even -50°C can be when you are living in the outdoors. Don’t leave the warmth of a vehicle without gloves and a toque – frostbite sucks, trust me. Carb up before bed to keep the inner fire burning and wear goggles to keep your eyes from freezing shut with ice crystals from your breath – ask me how I know.
Don’t go to Bed Alone
When it gets down to -20°C, I highly suggest that you don’t go to bed alone. When it’s this cold, everything freezes overnight, so you want to sleep with some select items to warm with your body heat so that they’re not frozen in the morning. That means a change of socks, deodorant, toothpaste, and a canister of propane for cooking breakfast. In my case, due to the additional media I had to produce, I had a lot of batteries on me as well. My cell,
camera, GoPro, GPS and flashlight batteries were all stuffed into my cargos before bed. It didn’t always make for the best sleep, but when everything I needed worked in the morning, life was a lot easier.
Choose the Right People
Choosing who you take on a long-distance expedition is a lot more important than you might think. Team chemistry is huge when you are together for days or weeks on end, dealing with tense situations and extreme weather. You want good strong headed and dedicated people that aren’t going to breakdown or snap in an emergency. People who are irritable or temperamental are poison when pressure builds. It’s also good to have a team leader who is not scared to delegate tasks and make the tough choices when decisions need to be made.
Time is never on your side, hours before departure are usually spent flinging everything into the truck, thinking you will organise it all later. Don’t! Take the time to put together a checklist, make sure that everything has its place and be sure to keep the vehicle tidy and sorted. It may seem anal, but trust me, it makes camping much more efficient and keeps aggravations to a minimum.
As propane freezes at -20°C, a multi-fuel stove running white gas was used for Arctic regions.
At -40°C, five layers of Merino wool, fleece and a down jacket was still not enough, we countered this with Canada Goose Expedition parkas.
MEC down booties and -30°C sleeping bags made sleeping in -30°C rather comfortable. -40°C… not so much.
Water freezes, so bring large covered pots to melt snow over a campfire. An organized vehicle can’t be overstated enough. Everything runs smoother when you know where everything is.