Camping? …On the snow? …In Greenland? …For a month? …With no toilet? …Are you serious?
A true survival test, yes, but it wasn’t actually as bad as you may think… We were fully prepared for the cold and ensured we looked after ourselves – staying warm(ish), dry, fed and hydrated.
So how did we cope with the freezing temperatures, deep snow, threat of polar bears, remoteness, lack of facilities…etc. Here’s how and also some top tips we picked up along the way:
Our first night at Constable Point was the first big test of our gear and systems before we headed out to the Stauning Alps. Lessons learnt after the first night included:
1. Inflatable pillows go really brittle in the cold and explode in quite a fashion when you put your head on them! I went without a pillow for the whole month.
2. Tent Poles lose their elasticity in the cold – repeated stretching sorts this out.
3. Digging a hole in the porch of the tent makes getting in and out and taking ski boots on and off so much easier!
4. As you breathe, condensation forms on the inside of the tent, be ready for it to ‘snow’ on you in the morning. The quantity surprised us!
It was a good job everything worked OK and we had no serious issues as it was too late to change anything anyway.
Our camp locations were usually chosen based on our tiredness. When we were too knackered to carry on we would stop at the closest looking flat spot. For the majority of the expedition this was in the middle of a glacier, with the most amazing views! We would check on the GPS and our maps to ensure we weren’t in a potential avalanche run-out zone, then begin to dig out and stomp with skis on, to make some flat platforms for the tents. We’d dig through the soft snow layer to a more solid base – to try and get a level night’s sleep.
We took 3 tents with us, 2x 4-season geodesic tents for sleeping and 1x tunnel tent for cooking and socialising. This set-up worked really well and we would definitely recommend a separate mess tent! To have a place where we could all shelter from the wind and warm up, sit together, eat together and have karaoke sessions together(!) was great. It also meant we didn’t have to worry about the additional condensation created while cooking and it acted as a potential sacrificial lamb if the open flames did meet with the billowing tunnel tent! The sleeping tents were just that, for sleeping. We had large snow pegs to fix the tents down, which worked really well. A little kick in the morning and they’d pull straight out. We used our skis if additional guy lines were needed during windier periods.
One of the advantages of camping on snow is that you can design your camp how you like, there’s plenty of building material available. Packing the bottom of the tents out with snow, prevented any spin-drift from getting between the inner and outer tent layers. A dug out porch (as mentioned above) meant you could sit in the door of the tent and take your ski boots off easily. We built walls out of snow a few feet away from the tents for shelter when required. The inside of our mess tent was a thing of beauty – 2 bench seats, a cooking platform, and storage shelves! Our toilets which got nicknamed ‘poo palaces’ got progressively grander throughout the trip.
It is hugely important to insulate yourself from the snow. We had 3 layers of 3mm underlay which covered the entire base of the inner tent, a foam roll mat each and also an inflatable mat each. This layering system worked well, we didn’t feel the cold from beneath. Interestingly, and something you’d probably never think of – when you blow air into your inflatable sleeping mat, the moisture in your breathe condenses over night and when you come to roll the mat up in the morning, it has small bits of ice inside! This didn’t seem to cause any problems but maybe worth considering taking a small pump.
We had a mix of synthetic and down sleeping bags within the group and both did the job well. One thing you need to consider, your 4-season sleeping bag will make you quite a lot taller than you would otherwise be. If you have a choice of tents make sure it’s long enough so that your head and feet don’t touch the ends! This wasn’t a problem for us shorties but Jesse’s feet touched the end of the tent, iced up, the down froze and this would have been a problem if he hadn’t had down booties to wear inside his sleeping bag.
Each of us had a 1 litre nalgene bottle which we filled with boiling water each evening, this acted as a hot water bottle and helped to keep the dehydration at bay. What would we do without these! They warmed our bags up and our feet throughout the night. In fact, I think the only time my feet were warm was in the mornings when I woke up!
On the extremely cold nights, we had our sleeping bags done up tight around our faces, so that only our noses were exposed. Your nose would still freeze, so we used either a balaclava or a buff to fully cover up. Not for those that suffer from claustrophobia!
People say to wear you next day clothes in bed so they are warm in the morning, this wasn’t really an issue for us. We only had 2 sets of pants and base layers each and changed once mid-trip! Sounds disgusting..it was pretty minging, but you got used to the smell. And it isn’t as bad as you are probably imagining. We had plenty of warm layers to keep the smell in too. One big down jacket and several other insulated jackets shielded our noses and kept us cosy, the majority of the time.
It was also important to keep all manner of things warm, during the day they were kept in our jacket pockets and at night in our sleeping bags. How many items can you fit in you jacket was a common game! These items included: skins for your skis, batteries, GPS, camera, primula cheese, inners from ski boots, gloves, socks, water bottles and suncream!
We’d all decided that having an alternative set of footwear for in and around camp would be essential to give our feet a break from ski boots. We had a mixture of down/synthetic booties and hot socks. It seemed the most extensive products performed the worst – the down booties came with a detachable sandal that was supposed to allow you to walk around in them. The material became brittle and split on day 3, leading to snow filled booties and cold feet. A better solution seemed to be the hot socks in ski boot outers. However, it was really hard to keep feet warm, if not near impossible. Having been back in the UK for 2 weeks our toes are still a little numb! I would recommend taking a proper waterproof snow boot (welly-esk) into which your insulated booties will fit.
Everything was frozen and no water was available, so all cooking began by melting snow. We kept a bag of snow in the tent ready for melting and when this ran out, there was plenty more. All our main meals were dehydrated and this was a huge time, weight and effort saver. Just add boiling water, wait 8 minutes and no washing up! All the meals were very tasty. We made neoprene pouches especially for the dehydrated meal packets, these were excellent. The pouches provided insulation, without them the food would have been cold by the time it was ready to eat. We each had a thermos flask which stayed filled with hot water.
We took 2 primus omni fuel stoves and used white gas. In the extremely low temperatures, they were really hard to get going, a lot of pumping was required! Make sure you take all the tools for maintaining and cleaning your stove, you will need them! We’d made wooden stove boards for the stoves to sit on, this was mainly for stability and to avoid melting the snow beneath. They also captured any little fuel spills.
Going to the toilet
Why does it never happen at home, but always in a tent…needing a wee during the night! Going to the loo in a blizzard with temperatures down around -25°C was not my idea of fun. I am now a total convert to the ‘Pee bottle’! I couldn’t pee in a bottle in my sleeping bag like the guys could, but I became very efficient at kneeling under my sleeping bag and doing the business. In the morning we’d have pee slush puppies, as it never quite froze. Another go would melt it and then it could be poured away ready for the following night. Definitely take at least a 1 litre bottle!
During the day, it was just a matter of announcing to the group, so they’d turn their backs – there was nowhere to hide and no one else was around. Number 2s were more traumatic for certain members of the group, a certain squataphobe. We all got into a morning routine and had a designated ‘palace’ to visit. A big deep hole was dug at every camp, so we could be a little more discreet and get out of the wind!
Take a brush for brushing snow off yourself before getting in the tent, or for brushing off the snow on the inner tent and sweeping under the underlay. Also good for brushing snow off skins and skis at the end of every day.
Develop a system within the team for efficiency and speed. Know where everything is (pack efficiently), who’s doing what, each have a job etc. We got pretty good at getting the tents up and getting a brew on!
Keep a shovel close to hand and in the porch of your tent, you may need to dig yourself out.
Be prepared for poles to snap and outers to rip. We had at least 4 snapping incidents and 2 rips. Take an extensive repairs kit to cover most eventualities.
Things to consider for next time would include possibly a bivvy bag to protect your sleeping bag from the cumulative effects of condensation.