How to not die at -35C (AKA what to pack for the Arctic)

How to not die at -35C (AKA what to pack for the Arctic)

While we were in Finland last week, the lowest temperature we experienced was -35C. This is very cold. My dad actually got frostbite, on his face. Only mild frostbite, but suddenly a spot on his cheek and nose went white and the guide we were out with looked at him and said, “we have to get you inside immediately.”

It was -15C when we arrived in Ivalo on Friday morning, which would hold the record for the coldest temperature I’d ever experienced for a huge six hours, and I thought that was cold. HA. Ha. I wore my thin gloves – that allowed me to work my camera – for two hours on that first day, and only by the end were my fingers numb and tingling. In -35C, 60 seconds outside with thin gloves and I couldn’t feel my hands at all. All these temperatures are so far from my day-to-day experience that they all basically sounded the same. -15C? -35C? How different could they possibly be?

VERY DIFFERENT, it turns out. Yes, you need a ski jacket for both. Yes, you need multiple pairs of thick socks at all low temperatures. But if you think about the difference between 15C and 35C, it puts into perspective that the difference can be significant.

However, despite the way below freezing temperatures, we were still able to spend hours outside everyday. Could I feel my fingers and toes for all of those hours? No. Could I feel my fingers and toes for a majority of those hours? Still no. Was there a moment when I got so cold in the wind that my eyes started to leak – which, I promise you, is somehow different from crying – and the ‘tears’ froze on my eyelashes immediately giving the world’s iciest false lashes? Hard yes.

But we were able to be outside, taking in the glorious polar light and riding lovely Finnish horses through fresh powder. This was only made possible by the clever tessellation of numerous layers, which somehow manage to keep you warm enough to stay conscious but not so bulky that you can’t move your limbs and are rendered unconscious from claustrophobia.

Here is the complete list of items I had to pile on my body to remain vaguely warm in aggressively sub-zero temperatures.

  • Underwear, (sports) bra, thermal leggings, thermal long-sleeve.
  • T-shirt, thick leggings.
  • A super warm Patagonia fleece
  • An even warmer Hackett fleece
  • Ski trousers
  • Ski jacket
  • A pair of socks
  • A pair of thick socks
  • A pair of thicker socks
  • A neck buff
  • A scarf
  • A balaclava (only when we were out at night, lest people think I was trying to rob them) (Also, not a baklava. That’s a Turkish dessert, and, although they are delicious, they are not very useful for insulation purposes. Unless you eat so many you are able to create a few extra layers of insulation for yourself, which is not a bad idea, but will need to be planned some months in advance. Anyway.)
  • A fleece-lined hat
  • A pair of thin gloves that allowed me to work my camera semi-accurately
  • A pair of enormous mittens that gave me the dexterity of a drunk toddler
  • Proper snow/ski boots
  • And, provided at our accommodation, a full-body, extra-insulated bodysuit that you somehow wrangled on over all these other layers, made feasible by a complicated network of zips.
The final product. Am I not a vision?

This is what I was wearing when I spent two hours outside at night at -35C. Other than the oversized mittens and extra bodysuit, everything else was a standard daily outfit in the Arctic.

We were also given a number of useful cold weather tips from the local people and guides we spoke to. Apparently, you do acclimatise eventually, to the point where -5C means that you don’t wear your winter coat. Superheroes are real and they are in Finland.

  • The insulation provided by the air is your friend. For this reason, you should wear boots that are a few sizes too big, that allow your feet to move around freely, even with all your thick socks. Super tight boots allow the cold to reach your toes much more quickly.
  • Ditto for gloves. Mittens allow some air to insulate your fingers, keeping you warmer. Though these mittens are typically worn over the first pair of gloves, because it really is that cold.
  • Putting a layer of newspaper between your socks and boots means that the paper absorbs the invading moisture, rather than your socks and skin.
  • If you put small portable hand and feet warmers on your wrists and ankles, it warms the blood heading into your hands and feet, making the warmth spread further.
  • You need to keep wiggling and scrunching your fingers and toes to keep the blood moving. Keeping them static will make the numbness worse.

Even with all these layers, you’re still not immune to the cold. As evidenced by the amount of clothes we need to stay even vaguely warm, humans are not meant to be in temperatures that low and certainly can’t thrive. But we were not trying to figure out how to spend weeks upon weeks outside in northern Finland. We were trying to figure out how to stay warm enough for short periods to enjoy horse riding, stars and snowmobiles, an altogether less extreme goal.

With enough layers to clothe a whole family in more typical temperatures and the above tips, we were able to not only survive, but thrive – for short periods bookmarked by hot chocolate sessions – in the insanely low temperatures we encountered in Ivalo. And only one of us got frostbite. Nailed it.

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