10 Things You Should Avoid Doing in the Polar Regions


1. Wearing tight garments

Technical compression socks and underwear may help in competitive athletics, but they’re not suitable for cold-weather expeditions. In extreme cold, any slight loss of circulation has an unusually strong effect. I suffered my only case of frostbite on my first expedition, when I held a sandwich to eat as I went. My grip caused a slight loss in circulation, which frostbit the index finger.

On another expedition, one foot was numb for several days, but it didn’t feel like frostbite. I eventually checked it in the tent. One sock had slipped down and bunched around my ankle. The slight pressure from the bunching had turned the foot numb. I pulled up the sock and feeling returned a day or two later. This extreme sensitivity doesn’t occur at room temperature. To avoid any crimping, I even cut the elastic around the wrists of my gloves.


2. Fighting the weather

Photo: Jerry Kobalenko

Unlike the mountains, it is possible to travel the polar regions in just about any weather, no matter how heinous. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should. A long trek requires you to husband your resources. The handful of kilometres you may gain from hauling into the teeth of a gale is not worth it. It’s too much effort for too little distance. Despite its reputation, the Arctic is not particularly stormy: I’ve accumulated about four years in a tent in the North, and — not counting sea kayaking — have sat out bad weather for maybe two weeks in total.

Strong headwinds in frigid temperatures, in particular, may be worth sitting out. A tailwind can still be dangerous — it’s hard to stop without getting cold and it may be difficult to set up camp, especially solo — but it isn’t as draining as a headwind.


3. Hauling the sled with only your legs

Photo: Jerry Kobalenko

I’d long believed that there wasn’t much to learn about hauling a sled — after all, you’re just walking/shuffling on skis and dragging this thing behind you — until I noticed that my less experienced partners weren’t doing it properly. Properly, in this case, meant efficiently, in a way that allowed you to continue longer, faster, easier.

The most obvious flaw was that inexperienced sledders use their ski poles as delicate feelers rather than third and fourth legs. Enlisting your arms as aids to propel you forward saves the legs and allows them to continue for more hours. By the end of a month or two of sledding, your triceps should be as well-developed as your thighs.

Another, more subtle technique comes into play when dragging the sled over a piece of sea ice or a ridge of snow, as in the photo above. You can do it with just your legs, but if you must do this a lot, as in rough ice, your legs burn out prematurely. Better to use gravity to help: As the sled climbs the hard part of the rise, you straighten your legs and lean forward in the traces so that your body weight, not your leg muscles, brings the sled up to the crest. Just as you’re about to fall on your face as the tension releases, you start walking again. With practice, you can do this without missing a beat. It’s much, much easier.

I eventually conceded that I must have absorbed these lessons early on, without realizing it. There is stuff to learn about sledding.


4. Bringing foods that don’t work in the cold

Extreme cold has a weird effect on most foods. Peanut butter becomes as hard as taffy and doesn’t spread. Even fatty cheese is hard as a golf ball; to cut it, you need to whale away at it with an ice ax, losing all sorts of cheese splinters in the snow. Better to cut cheese ahead of time, in a warm room, and to make all peanut butter sandwiches before starting the expedition.

And some foods just don’t work: I like cashews, and on my first expedition, I brought a bagful. But in the cold, cashews lost all their flavor. It was like eating nothing. Meanwhile, the taste of peanuts — usually overwhelming — becomes almost subtle.

Finally, if you like meat snacks, bring sausage, not jerky. Jerky becomes so hard in the cold that it’s like chewing razor blades. It’s hell on the gums.


5. Imagining that you don’t need a firearm in polar bear country

Photo: Jerry Kobalenko

For many southerners, polar bears are either the cute, roly-poly cartoons of Coke commercials or the tragic symbols of climate change. But in the Arctic, they are the main source of objective danger.

Most polar bears aren’t interested in you, but once in a while, you will meet an exception, usually an adolescent male. “Polar bears are the most conservative animals in the world,” Russian researcher Nikita Ovsyanikov once told me, and it is true that they are usually pretty easy to deter by striking an aggressive posture. But a firearm is absolutely necessary as a last resort. Just as important, you have to be psychologically prepared to shoot if necessary, tragic though that is.

In many arctic villages, the local Royal Canadian Mounted Police tell of gentle hikers showing up to go camping, never thinking that they might need a firearm. Like Werner Herzog’s misguided grizzly man, some believe that animals won’t trouble you if you don’t trouble them. The Arctic is the only place I’ve been to where if the local cops ask if you have a gun, and you say yes, they visibly relax.


6. Letting a polar bear get too close in order to take its picture


Sometimes polar bears just turn up; it’s amazing how a big animal in an open landscape can appear out of nowhere. But you keep your wits about you and you deal with it. However, some are tempted to deliberately let polar bears get close enough for a picture before trying to chase them away. Don’t. Several bears have been unnecessarily killed because a traveler wanted that key expedition photo of a polar bear. When the bear is close enough to photograph, it’s too close! Inexperienced trekkers also tend to wig out and fire prematurely, because the tension is so high at close quarters. Bears can almost always be chased away with non-lethal deterrents.


7. Sitting down for lunch

Photo: Jerry Kobalenko

In the arctic spring or the antarctic summer, when the weather is warmer, sit to your heart’s content, if the wind is not blowing. But when it’s really cold, sitting down for a protracted rest/lunch stop is a poor idea. Even if you parka up during the stop, you lose your exercise warmth, so when you get going again, you’re frigid for the next 20 or 30 minutes — or you have to be so overdressed, that you’re losing time stopping several times to de-layer.

I follow what I call the Seven Minute Rule: All breaks — to pee, drink, and eat — are seven minutes or less. This way, when you get going again, your body is still warm from the previous couple of hours of exercise. Admittedly, with the Seven Minute Rule, you often have to stuff the snack into your mouth, until your cheeks puff out like a chipmunk’s, and you chew as you go.


8. Overdressing

Photo: Jerry Kobalenko

A sweater, so goes the old saying, is something you put on when your mother is cold. Many of us have internalized those dire childhood warnings about catching our death of cold, so we overdress. The colder it is, the more we are tempted to do this.

But extreme cold is like any other temperature: You dress just enough to stay comfortable without sweating. If anything, you want to be just a little cool: You travel faster. By comparison, when you’re too warm, you often slow down without realizing it, to avoid sweating.

Dressing for the temperature might mean wearing just an undershirt and light gloves at -20°C, if a strong sun is shining and the wind is calm. Although I try to be efficient, I am constantly fine-tuning my clothing on the trail; sometimes I don and doff my hat 10 times in an hour. I stuff it in a pocket or inside my ski bibs; no need even to break stride.


9. Putting your head inside the sleeping bag for warmth


In Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s classic Antarctic tale, The Worst Journey in the World, three doughty sledders make a quixotic trek in the frigid polar night in search of emperor penguin eggs. It was so unremittingly cold that they spoke of the minus 50s as a warm spell. Every night, they had to pry open their frozen sleeping bags to crawl in.

Bags do accumulate frost from body transpiration, but even at those temperatures, the bag doesn’t become as hard as twin sheets of metal. Their problem was that they stuck their heads inside the bags to keep their faces warm. This might have worked for the first few nights, but the moisture in their breath refroze and petrified their sleeping bags. You simply must keep your face outside, uncomfortable though it is.

I wear a balaclava at night. The cold does not bother my cheeks and mouth area, but my nose does get cold. Because I don’t like the hampered breathing feeling of covering my mouth in order to protect the nose, I pull down the balaclava from above, hooking it over the nose. This is one advantage of having a big schnozz — this would not work with a button nose.


10. Immediately assuming frostbite if your hands or feet go numb

Photo: Jerry Kobalenko

When it’s very cold, it’s hard to avoid fingers going numb occasionally; for example, at the beginning of the day, before you’ve warmed up. This numbness feels different from the more serious numbness of frostbite or frostnip. (Until you learn to differentiate, you have to check!)

When the skin temperature of a gloved hand drops to about 9°C, you lose your sense of touch. Sometimes, the circulation stops, and waste products like histamines or lactic acid build up. It hurts like hell when feeling returns and these impurities are reabsorbed. Ice climbers know this sensation well, and call it the screaming barfies, because it makes them want to both scream and barf at the same time.

On particularly cold trips, sometimes the feet go numb as well. When the skin temperature remains below 9°C for long periods, the nerves near the surface of the skin slowly die. Then the feet go numb. It takes a couple of months for feeling to return, as the nerves gradually grow back. It’s disconcerting, but not serious.