In the last nine years, as I've returned to gale-whipped Labrador, I have at times sacrificed the roominess of a dome for the superior wind resistance of a tunnel tent -- in this case, the Hilleberg Keron 3GT. Like the VE-25, it's a two-person tent advertised as suitable for three people. It isn't, unless one person is very small and doesn't mind sleeping in the vestibule.
Admittedly, the 3GT's vestibule is huge. You can even sit and cook in it, thanks to its high ceiling.
A tunnel tent takes one third the time to set up that a dome does. In the Hilleberg model, this is partly because tent and fly stay joined by elastic clips. Once the shelter is up, two or three inches of dead air space separates tent and fly. This also avoids condensation wicking through to the inner tent. Although every good fly fully covers the inner tent, the Keron's fly is essentially flush with the ground. No wind-whipped rain ever gets underneath.
Setting up this elegant model, you realize how old the design of The North Face's VE-25 really is. The VE-25 dome tent was cutting edge in the 1970s. Nowadays, it remains reliable but clunky: You assemble the inner tent, then drape the loose fly over it like a bedsheet. You then impale each pole tip into grommets on the fly. Eventually the unit is complete. Finally, you stake it down.
A tunnel tent never threatens to blow away as you set it up, because it is not free-standing. It only achieves its shape when it is staked down. You could not put up this tent on a slab of granite. You insert the four poles -- effortless, even in a gale -- fix one end securely to the ground, then accordion the back end into position and stake that. Finally, you stretch out the guy lines.
Theoretically, the narrow end of the tunnel should point into the wind, but that is not always practical. For one thing, wind can change direction after the tent is up and become a crosswind. Secondly, you may want the door pointing in a particular direction. In the photo below, Alexandra is setting up the tent so that the main door (not shown) faces the beach, so that we can keep a lookout for approaching polar bears. Amazingly, the tent is as secure broadside as it is nose to the wind. The wind just seems to glide off that slippery nylon.
With a tunnel tent, good staking is even more vital than with a dome. Sometimes I see campers with softball-sized rocks purportedly holding their tent. This does nothing. If the soil is soft and doesn't hold a stake well, as on the sandy beach below, a good rock of 30-50 pounds is necessary to secure each line. By the time I'm done, 1/3 of a ton of rocks hold down the tent.
Once the tunnel tent is up, it seems able to handle almost any wind. I've had the Keron in 110 kph (70 mph) winds. The poles barely flexed. The wind in the photo above was 50 knots, the comfort limit for a dome tent. But inside the tunnel, all was calm, quiet and secure.
In winter, the correct orientation of the tent is important. While the tent itself can handle a gale broadside, drifting snow quickly accumulates along the windward length and begins to press against the tent, photo below. In really bad conditions, you may need to shovel that drift away every two or three hours, or you will be engulfed. This does not happen if the nose of the tent is into the wind.
While the tunnel has plenty of space, two big guys have to take turns putting on their bulky winter clothing or wriggling into the sleeping bag. In a wide dome tent, both parties can do this simultaneously.
There are situations for which the tunnel tent is not suitable. Park campsites, with their designated platforms, are far too small for this ultra-long tent. Besides, park sites are always sheltered, and a $1,000 tent with such potent wind resistance is overkill. This is a specialized piece of wilderness gear.
The Keron comes in a few different models. One of them, the Keron 3, is identical to the 3GT except that it lacks a vestibule. I use a Keron 3 to save weight on some summer trips.
Of course, these are not the only suitable arctic tents, just the two most common types. There are some clever ways to cut weight while keeping good wind resistance. Once I traveled with some Russians who had a homemade winter tent that consisted of a single wall of parachute silk, below. The smart feature was a set of aluminum spokes that served as the apex of the tent. It folded closed for travel and fanned out in camp by loosening a wing nut. Perimeter pieces fit into holes at each T-joint for rigidity. At the end of each spoke was a slot for a ski tip. Thus, the skis doubled as tent poles. The tent accommodated a dozen people, but you could easily engineer smaller versions for four people and up.
Arctic expedition tents
Tents and sleeping bags are the two most important items of gear in arctic travel. If your sleeping bag isn't warm enough, you can't sleep. Arctic travel is not like mountaineering, where you're only out for a few days and you can simply endure until you return to base camp. On arctic expeditions, you're typically out for weeks and your camp life has to be, perhaps not uxorious, but comfortable enough to let you recharge. Earlier this year, I gave a rundown of winter expedition sleeping bags. Today, I'll talk about two styles of tent I've found suitable for arctic travel, summer or winter.
Sleeping bags have one main requirement: to keep you warm. Expedition tents have two: They can't leak, and they have to stand up to wind. My first tent was a $30 hardware store special. In its first stern test, a downpour in Scotland, it leaked right away. I used a whole roll of toilet paper mopping up the puddles before they invaded my sleeping bag. It was a good lesson: You can skimp on a lot of things, but not on a tent.
After trying a three-poled dome tent -- which was good in rain but not in wind -- I graduated to a four-pole geodesic dome tent, The North Face's classic VE-24. I used it and its iterations for years. The North Face still makes the VE-25, which has the same inner tent as the VE-24 but whose fly includes an enclosed vestibule rather than just a small awning, as pictured below.
The North Face's classic VE-24
VE-25: similar to the VE-24 but with a vestibule that gives a lot of storage space for the sake of an extra pound or so.
Winter gear is bulky, and dome tents have a lot of room. Two big guys can change clothing or maneuver into their sleeping bags at the same time. On summer backpacking trips, a 10- or 11-pound dome tent (including stakes and a spare pole) is too much for one person, but on sledding trips, it's a worthwhile investment even for a solo traveler. Of course, it's better to share the weight with a partner.
A four-pole dome tent (not counting the vestibule pole) resists winds up to 50kph (30mph) well, but they are difficult to set up in the Arctic, where shelter is often absent. There have been times on solo expeditions where I was afraid I would not be able to get the third and fourth poles, which give the dome its rigidity, properly in place without breaking them. And you need to stake down the tent securely while putting it up, because a dome will blow away like a tumbleweed if the wind rips it from your grasp.
Beyond 50kph, a well-staked dome can survive but it feels insecure and uncomfortable. The windward pole starts to flex and threatens to bend or break. In summer, the wind gets underneath the floor, which pumps up and down convulsively. The din is terrific. Twice, I've used the dome in 75kph (50 mph) winds. Both times, I weighed down the interior perimeter of the tent, with blocks of sea ice in winter and rocks in summer.
Nowadays, I also have a five-pole dome tent, which is even more spacious, slightly heavier (13 pounds) and better in wind. Still, I now tend to use dome tents only on expeditions where I'm not expecting a lot of violent wind or where I can camp in trees, such as the southern half of Labrador.
Dome tents: roomy, comfortable, good in moderate winds but not in gales, and hard to set up solo in a howling wind. As a minor bonus, they're easy to clean of frost in the morning: just pick them up and shake.
Later this week: the tunnel tent.
The arithmetic of food
Most writing about expedition food tends to be full of unhelpful generalities. In recent years, I've read several times that a typical winter sledding diet requires 1kg/person-day. To me, that figure comes with so many unspoken asterisks that it is almost useless. For example, 1 kg/day often implies a tacit acceptance that you will be losing weight and will feel colder than necessary. It may require that you put on significant weight before the expedition, as some parties do, then draw on that, camel-like. On a three-month crossing of Antarctica, when weights are at their haulable limit, that may be a necessary evil. But on a one- or two-month journey, it makes more sense to bring the right amount of food.
Several factors affect how much food you should carry:
1) Temperature. On the coldest trips, where -40 or below is a common experience, you have to ingest more calories just to stay warm.
2) Individual metabolism. Some people burn through food faster, and the same person needs more food at age 25 than at 45. A 175-pound man obviously needs more than a 120-pound woman. Incidentally, this makes the practice in survival situations of giving everyone the same ration patently unfair.
3) Type of activity. Sledding burns more calories than the same number of hours of sea kayaking or backpacking.
4) Type of food. Fat has over twice as many calories as the equivalent weight in carbohydrates or proteins (9 calories/gram vs 4 calories/gram). Theoretically, then, an expedition should carry nothing but fatty foods. But taste aside, the body can't handle more than a certain percentage of fat in the diet. One expedition -- I think it was Will Steger's Antarctic crossing -- consumed so much fat that the group suffered digestive problems -- the runs, and so on.
In general, I try to max out fat without stinting on carbs or proteins. For example, I bring whole milk powder for cereal, dinner mixes and hot chocolate. Whole milk powder is hard to find in North America but turns up in some health food stores.
My supper cheese (a raclette) comes from a local deli and is 48% fat; typical grocery store cheeses (mozzarella, cheddar) are 17 to 28% fat. The higher water content in these low-fat cheeses also makes them freeze harder in the cold. Even pre-cut chunks freeze together as if with Krazy Glue, whereas I can separate chunks of fatty raclette, even at -40.
After some 40 expeditions, the arithmetic has become second nature: the coldest sledding expeditions, in which I'll be dealing with a lot of -40s, require 2.6 lbs/day. (25 years ago, I needed 2.9 lbs/day.) This is close to 7,000 calories. Spring sledding trips (March in Labrador, April-May in the High Arctic) demand 2.2 lbs/day (formerly, 2.4 lbs), which works out to 4,000-5,000 calories. Summer kayaking expeditions, 1.8 lbs (Alexandra eats 1.5 lbs/day on these).
These are status quo food amounts. In other words, I never lose much weight on expeditions -- only 4-5 lbs -- and rarely have much food left over. If you want expeditions to double as weight loss clinics, bring less, but remember that food both keeps you warm and gives you the energy to travel hard. On one expedition, a partner brought too little lunch food and always bonked on longer days.
The arithmetic of water
If you travel in the cold, you are more aware of water intake than a summer hiker, because every sip must be melted. This can be time-consuming: It takes half an hour to turn snow at -40 into a liter of boiling water. The amount of fuel carried depends on a group's water needs, and these needs can vary greatly. I once traveled with someone who sweated so heavily, even at -25 or -30C, that he needed twice as much water as I did -- about six liters/day versus my three liters. This includes water used to reconstitute meals. Most of this water must be at or near boiling.
Sweating tends to be the most important factor in individual water requirements. In preparing for a trip with a new partner, I always ask, "Do you sweat a lot?" I do not, so my three liters/day is probably at the minimum end of the spectrum. On long days (more than eight hours) or in warm arctic spring conditions, I drink an extra half liter. On the longest, warmest days (12 hours plus), I might go through an entire extra liter. But in these milder conditions, melting snow takes less fuel and is much faster.
Why do you need to bring drinking water near boiling? It's more efficient to melt the following day's water the night before and store it in a thermos overnight. In extreme cold, boiling water becomes merely pleasantly warm by morning. Sometimes at breakfast I also fill or partly fill a one-liter Nalgene bottle, if I'm anticipating a longer day. In the uninsulated container, the water needs to be hot in order not to freeze before you can finish drinking it. Even water added to breakfast granola must be very hot or else it will freeze by the time you eat your way to the bottom of the bowl.
In this part of the world, summer backpackers typically have easy access to streams and lakes. But like winter sled travel, sea kayaking requires water management. Alexandra and I carry 22 liters of water in our double kayak. For the two of us, this lasts comfortably three days -- including water used for washing -- or four days, with rationing. Because it's possible to be windbound at a waterless campsite, we try to top up every day. One nice thing about the Arctic: All water is good to drink, from the largest river to the scummiest puddle. Chlorine or iodine tablets are unnecessary.
A year or two ago on this page, I mentioned how, of the different "flavors" of GoreTex now available, the only one that is actually waterproof is GoreTex Pro. This is based on experience, not theory. I've had three non-Pro shells from good manufacturers, and they all leaked even when new. My three GoreTex Pro garments do not. A sample size of three may not be statistically significant, but it is enough to inform my buying decisions. Even though it's more expensive, I only use GoreTex Pro.
Outdoor clothing has become more complicated over time, as the industry has expanded. GoreTex was always overpriced because of the monopoly that Gore largely succeeded in creating through a combination of technology, marketing and aggressive litigation. Today, a high-end shell might set you back $700; even my rain pants retail for close to $500, which is absurd. You can get a cut-rate GoreTex parka at MEC or REI for a couple of hundred bucks, but good luck using it in anything more than a sprinkle.
Another new issue with contemporary outdoor apparel is fit. Shells no longer necessarily leave enough room for proper layering. Alexandra recently bought a new Arcteryx rain jacket. Arcteryx is arguably the best manufacturer these days, and it is the brand we turn to for much of our outdoor clothing. As The North Face was in the 1980s and Patagonia was in the 1990s, Arcteryx is today. No matter what the company, I've always been a natural Men's Large, while Alexandra, at 5'6" and 122 lbs, is a classic Women's Small. But while her new jacket fits perfectly under town conditions, it is too close-fitting for flexible outdoor use. It looks great when she walks around Canmore, but it would be hard to layer a 200-weight fleece jacket underneath it. In ordering, we neglected to observe that this particular model has a "Trim" fit, as opposed to an "Athletic" fit, which despite its name, is cut more loosely. Other quality manufacturers whose lines include both real outdoor gear and what one may call rustic chic likewise offer garments with flattering but impractical styling. With this model, Alexandra would have been better served by a medium size.
Rainwear styling: slim, trim but not great for howling storms requiring multiple layers.
Contrast is a wonderful quality in people, and one of the indicators of that quality in Alexandra is her collection of footwear. She must have close to 100 pairs of shoes and boots -- not the, um, world-class numbers of someone like boxer Manny Pacquiao's wife --
-- but Alexandra does love shoes. Hers come in two distinct breeds -- town and country, top.
In a spouse, contrast makes you feel as if you're living with two different people. This foments unpredictability: which personality will a given event bring forth? Refreshing not to know after 15+ years. Contrast makes life richer, because you can inhabit two or more universes without ever becoming stranded in one.
One person, two styles.
Here in the Rockies, most mountain bikers carry bear spray in case of a grizzly encounter. Even mellow bears will sometimes chase something that seems to be running away from them. Bear spray is too narrow for a bike's bottle rack, so one neighbor had a good idea: cut the top off an old drink bottle and duct tape the bear spray inside. That way, it's always handy.
Winter travel would be a lot easier if we didn't have to breathe. It's mostly the moisture in our breath that, over the days and weeks, gums up gear. Everything near our faces, from balaclavas to sleeping bag hoods and collars, become casques of ice. All parts of the body give off moisture through the pores, especially if you overdress and sweat, but are easier to control.
On our recent Labrador expedition, as always, we put our feet in vapor barriers -- large Ziploc bags; bread bags rip too easily. This kept the inside of our boots relatively dry. And our sleeping bags incorporated a vapor barrier: The Warmlite bag has two top layers, a thick inner layer and a thin outer one. A vapor barrier coats the underside of the outer layer, so that moisture doesn't penetrate into the outer layers of the bag and ice up the down. Instead, it condenses into loose powdered frost between the two layers. In the morning, you just brush it away with the ever-handy whisk.
Still, in time everything ices up. On long trips, how do you restore your insulation to its pristine state? If your journey includes heated cabins along the way, it's easy. But even without a warm room, you can manage it. You use the sun.
Take a day off on a sunny, windless day. Place your iced-up equipment facing the sun. In the photo above, my partner James is using his black sleds as solar ovens to strengthen the sun's drying powers. Even on frigid days, the sun works magic on frost. Under its rays, ice worms of moisture wriggle out of your equipment. The ice doesn't melt, then dry -- it sublimates. By the end of a day of sunshine, the gear is restored.
In the High Arctic, where the travel season coincides with the 24-hour sun, it's even easier. In the morning, drape your sleeping bag over the tent or on the sled while you're having breakfast. Leave your boots outside in the sunshine overnight. When you wake up, they're dry: no vapor barriers needed, as long as you travel in April and May, when the sun is strong.
Topographic maps are often 40 or 50 years old, so their compass declination adjustments tend to be way off. The maps often suggest that the variation is "decreasing 13.4' per year", for example, but after half a century this estimate might still lead to bearings that are a couple of degrees off. So ignore the magnetic variation on the maps and simply plug latitude/longitude into this declination calculator before you go. Even easier, you can use a smartphone app like Declination. Then write the updated figures on your topos.
A stoveboard for winter camping
Most of my gear is store-bought but a handful of winter items are custom-made. So few people travel in winter that companies have simply not bothered to commercialize solutions to every problem that a snow walker faces. For example, I've carried a stoveboard for years. It's a light piece of plywood with a piece of rubber staple-gunned to it.
Gasoline stoves become hot underneath and would otherwise keep melting into the snow. Without a stove board, you have to constantly level out your stove platform. Unfortunately, a square of blue foam pad just melts. Very messy, very gooey.
The loop of rubber stabilizes the whole unit by securing the fuel bottle. With this system, I can even cook inside the tent -- although I have to be ultra-careful to avoid flare-ups that could melt the ceiling of the tent in a second. Usually, I prime the stove in the vestibule, then when it's burning blue, I bring the stove and stoveboard inside and place them on a banker's box that serves as a table.
The warmth in the tent during cooking is worth the extra care required. I leave the door open slightly to minimize carbon monoxide buildup, but unlike an igloo, a nylon tent is well-ventilated and carbon monoxide is not a problem. You do want to avoid bringing water to a rolling boil, because then steam fills the tent like a London pea-souper, till you can't see your partner a couple of feet away. This moisture condenses on the tent poles above, freezing the aluminum joints together. In order to disengage the pole sections when breaking camp the following morning, you have to warm them with your bare fingers -- very painful at -40 -- and a good reason to shut off the stove just before the water hits the boiling point.
Arctic sleeping bags, continued
Few people own, and few companies make, arctic winter sleeping bags. Why should a designer put effort into something that sells maybe 50 units? It's not like a camper can use such a bag for anything other than the coldest conditions. A sleeping bag that works at -40 or -50C is uncomfortably warm even at -10C. If you sleep outdoors at other times of year, you need different bags. I have half a dozen of them, and only use my arctic model on journeys where the temperature is likely to reach -30C or colder.
Before this roundup of some of the extreme cold-weather bags out there, a disclaimer: All these bags have, from my perspective, the design flaw I point out in the FAQs below: goose down on the bottom of the bag. My bag, from warmlite.com,is the only product that avoids this. (Warmlite has never sponsored me or given me a discount for my endorsement.)
The bottom section of the bag, which can unzip completely from the two top layers, has big down-filled chambers running along the sides. They frame the 2" open-cell foam pad that slips into an envelope beneath and keep the sides of the bag insulated as you sink into the soft foam pad. As you can see, the bag also has a wide insulated collar underneath, plus a similarly wide one on top. The image below shows the bag with all its layers zipped into place. It looks clearly wider but not as puffy as some of the mummy bags reviewed below, but remember that since this bag has no down on the bottom, the vertical loft viewed from the side is half that of a mummy bag.
This bag is meant to be rolled like a bedroll, rather than stuffed. It seems to keep its loft for a long time: you're looking at a 10-year-old bag. Finally, as I mentioned in the January 4 entry, in the coldest conditions (below -40) I slip this bag into a custom-made overbag, below, which has a layer of synthetic insulation on top. Like the sleeping bag itself, it has nothing underneath but nylon: foam pads provide 100 percent of the ground insulation.
Now onto the reviews...
Rab Expedition 1400
Its weight, just over 4.5 lbs, initially does not sound promising, but over three pounds of that weight is 850-fill down. Depending on how warmly you sleep, and how much clothing you wear in the bag -- this mummy is cut a little bigger to allow for extra layers -- the Expedition 1400 may just fulfil its -40 promise. It'll certainly do -30F. Pricey at $1,400, though.
PH Designs is another small British company catering to the seemingly endless queue of UK beginners who want to pull off some ambitious polar feat. The Xero 1300, a little less than five pounds, uses 900-fill down, with an option to upgrade to 950-fill for an extra $200. Base price is $1,300, and it claims a "typical operating temperature" of -54C (-65F). Don't count on it -- not unless you also wear a down suit inside this large-cut mummy bag, as their model does in the comical studio shot illustrating this bag at work. That might work for high-altitude mountaineering, where you're only at high camp for a couple of days, but no one wears a down suit inside their sleeping bag on a long polar trek. Baffled parkas are so bulky that I doubt you could wear one inside even an outsized mummy bag without compressing the insulation of both parka and bag. Besides, a bag that needs that sort of supplementary insulation to work at its advertised temperatures is like claims of a flying aardvark: "just add wings."
This is clearly a decent bag, but I've camped in -54, and unfortunately none of those manufacturers in Britain have access to those temperatures, so their ratings are just whistling Dixie. Side views of the bag don't show extraordinary loft. Again, with a good insulated overbag, this would be serviceable, however.
The company has a second bag, the Hispar 1200, which is even lighter (55 ounces) and has an even more outlandish temperature boast (-58C). I like that it can be ordered extra-wide and extra-long, but its base price of nearly $2,000 makes it an extravagant gamble. Shaving a few ounces off a sleeping bag is false economy, because the weight saving typically amounts to a single day's snacks on the trail. I would love for someone to trade lightness in favor of superior insulation and come out with a six-pound bag with four pounds of 900-fill down. Unfortunately, PH Designs gives overall weight but doesn't share how much down is in either of these sleeping bags.
The Tempelfjorden bag from Helsport has an honorable pedigree. First, the company is Norwegian; if any country knows polar travel, it's Norway. Second, the weight -- about 9 pounds -- is right for a bag that actually handles extreme temperatures. Finally, it is classic two-in-one system, with a thick inner down bag and a thinner synthetic overbag. Many competent polar travelers have used it, including Borge Ousland on several of his adventures and Rune Gjeldnes and Torry Larsen on their Dead Men Walking trek across the Arctic Ocean. At $900, it's reasonably priced, too.
Another arctic winter bag on this list that I'd trust to do a good job at -40 is the Snowy Owl from the Seattle company, Feathered Friends. I've never used the bag, but their Rock and Ice has been my expedition down parka for years. Their Forty Below down pants truly kept one of my partners toasty warm for weeks at 40 below. Besides, the Snowy Owl's specs are reasonable: 3.5 pounds of 850-fill down. No other bag on this list has this much insulation. $1,100.
While I don't quite buy their -60F rating, you could extend it that low with an overbag. You'd probably want one anyway, to suck up most of the body moisture that rises through the insulation and condenses at the frost point. My only criticism is the usual one: Why have down underneath you? You crush it, and if you roll over in the middle of the night, it takes a while for the now-exposed underside to reach full loft, during which time you get cold. And in not too many uses, the down underneath will get so squished and traumatised that it never springs back, so this $1,100 bag lacks longevity. As do all the other bags on this list.
Nemo Canon -40
The Canon -40 (long size) from Nemo Equipment has three pounds of 850-fill down: in other words, pretty good. Maybe not a true -40 bag, but usable at -30F anyway -- cleaving to the general principle that all manufacturers exaggerate their bags' ratings by 5C (10F). The width of the bag is encouraging; but the down-filled chimney above the face is a nice idea that falls short. For the first couple of nights, it keeps your face warmer, but your breath quickly turns the interior of the chimney into solid ice. It's cold, and further moisture condenses on the slippery sides and icy particles shower down constantly on your face.
The Canadian company Kanuk had a sleeping bag like this years ago, when I was just beginning my arctic travels. Kanuk was an early sponsor, so I knew the gear. The owner quickly discontinued the chimney idea once the drawback became clear. It makes no sense to have any sort of down insulation -- such as a face mask -- anywhere near your breath, where the down inevitably becomes wet and freezes. Cost of the Canon -40: $1,100.
Arctic sleeping bags
In winter camping, and especially in arctic travel, the single most important item of equipment is a sleeping bag that works in the temperatures you'll be encountering. In his classic Antarctic tale, The Worst Journey in the World, Apsley Cherry-Garrard wrote of getting frostbite in his sleeping bag -- an unambiguous indicator of inadequate gear. When I was briefly involved with a group of Russian polar adventurers back in the late 1980s, they proudly showed us the sleeping bags they used for a polar night trip on the Arctic Ocean. They were essentially three-season bags. "Was good experiment," enthused one rocks-for-brains strong man. "It showed us how much we are able to bear." They shivered all night and lost toes to frostbite because of crappy ski boots. Very good experiment.
In the FAQs below, I speak a little of my own sleeping bag, the Triple Bag from the odd little family company Warmlite, which hasn't changed its inventory since the 1970s. I love it; it's kept me warm at night down to -54C (-64F). On the coldest trips, I shore it up with a custom-made synthetic overbag, which like the sleeping bag, has no insulation on bottom -- a generous thickness of foam pads preserves the warmth underneath.
The overbag has several uses: Most obviously, it adds warmth, which, as the bag ages and the down flattens slightly, becomes increasingly important. It also helps preserve the insulation from the effects of frost. At night, the moisture in your breath coats the inside of the tent with frost. If the head or foot of the bag rubs against the nylon walls, some moisture transfers to the down, especially on milder nights. Your breath is particularly destructive to the collar and hood of the sleeping bag, which can eventually become a casque of ice. Needless to say, you never put your face inside the sleeping bag for warmth, unless you're only camping for a single night. That was one of many mistakes Cherry-Garrard and his men made, and why they had to forcibly pry open their frozen bags every evening in order to crawl in.
The Triple Bag has two down layers on top, a thick layer and a thin layer. The underside of the thin layer has a silverized vapor barrier that catches the moisture that drifts upward from your body. By morning, loose frost from this vapor has accumulated between the two layers. You need to brush this snow meticulously from the bag before it melts in milder conditions. This is a bit of a pain, but avoids an ordinary winter down bag's usual drawback: The moisture from your body rises upward through the down until it reaches the dew/frost point, when it condenses in the insulation itself. Over the weeks, this frost clumps the down pods together, making them useless as insulation. A few serious winter bag systems include a synthetic overbag, which absorbs most of this condensation that would otherwise end up in the down. Synthetics keep their insulating ability even when full of frost.
How many years a sleeping bag lasts depends on obvious things like how often you use it and whether it ever gets wet, but also on how you store it. The stuff sack a bag comes in is made only for travel, not storage! Stuff a bag in its tight sack between trips and within a few months, the insulation becomes permanently crimped and the bag loses much of its effectiveness. Sleeping bags, insulated clothing, even tents, should be stored loosely in large storage sacks. For most of us, this creates a crisis of space. Our two-car garage is chockablock with large cotton sacks andcan barely accommodate a single vehicle.
Properly stored and carefully used, I've found that a sleeping bag will last for its intended temperatures for about 15 years. For me, this translates to about a year of actually use, at one or two months at a time. After that, it's not useless, but a winter bag becomes a spring/fall bag. So while I've had two Triple Bags and am coming up on needing a third, for most people, a single expedition bag is all that they will ever need.
My Triple Bag is so bulky that I would never use it for winter backpacking, only for sledding. Most other winter expedition bags have a more traditional mummy shape, with down on the bottom. Although I continue to use the model that has worked for me -- why not? -- I keep close tabs on what else is out there. Buyer beware: there is a lot of exaggeration. A rule of thumb is that manufacturers exaggerate their bag's capabilities by about 5C; some a lot more.
When I see a five-pound bag that promises a cozy night at -60, I just laugh. My first expedition bag was a five-pounder. New, it worked to about -30C. At -45C, although I wouldn't get frostbite like Cherry-Garrard, I'd shiver all night. Modern designs and loftier down (900cc down vs the 550cc down that was the elite standard when I started) make five-pound bags better now, but I wouldn't bring any on a winter arctic expedition without a serious overbag and a lot of foam underneath me.
What's underneath the bag is as important as the bag itself. On my first expeditions, I used 3/4" of closed-cell foam (two pads). It was not enough. Although some travelers use Thermarests in winter, I don't, because finding a puncture in winter would be difficult. (In summer, you just immerse the pad in a stream or lake and watch for bubbles.) Instead, I use the two-inch open cell foam pad integral to my Triple Bag, plus the blue-foam pad that I sit on in the tent, plus a Crazy-Creek-type camp chair, plus some clothing. You can't have too much underneath you.
With foam pads and overbag, my current sleeping bag system weighs 10 pounds. But it actually works at -50.
Next week, I'll analyze a few of the other arctic expedition bags out there.
January 3, 2015
These days, many southerners use mountain snowshoes like the ones just below. They're light, tough, and the integral crampons help on harder snow, especially on uphills. People have trekked to the North Pole in such snowshoes, and they're the ones I usually carry when I'm expecting sections of snow too deep for convenient skiing. However, this style of snowshoe is not great in deep powder, where flotation requires more surface area. A few years ago, in northern Quebec, I was trying to get around an obstruction called Helen Falls at the mouth of the George River. I tried to detour through the woods with these snowshoes and sank up to my thighs. Every step was like a Monty Python Silly Walk, involving a great wide sweep of the leg. It was better than postholing with only boots, but not much better.
For these sort of conditions, it's better to revert to traditional snowshoes, such as the ones below, used by the Innu in the tree country of southern Labrador. The squat, rounded shape allows good maneuverability in the woods, and the flotation is vastly superior to mountain snowshoes. They're also half the weight: my mountain snowshoes weigh 5.2 pounds/pair, while my Innu snowshoes weigh 2.5 pounds.
The Innu snowshoes, above, are made with country wood and caribou sinew. The traditional binding takes getting used to: You hook your boot through the loop and give a kind of half-twist. This shortens the binding strap and locks in your heel and toe.
Caribou are scarce in Labrador these days, and making snowshoes with sinew is time-consuming; it's more an aesthetic or cultural than a practical choice. Instead, most Labradorians use a version of the ones below: same bear-paw style, also homemade, but strung mostly with nylon webbing (used in the making of crab traps). Not as lovely as the sinew but more durable and as good in the airy powder of sheltered woods.
Next month, I'm going on a snowshoe journey in Labrador -- more about this on the Expeditions page later. I'll be bringing both pairs of snowshoes: the mountain type for use on harder snow in windswept areas, and the Innu kind for more difficult conditions.