Secrets to Surviving the Bitter Cold

Buckland, AK

It was -25° F when I started this trip on Sunday. It warmed up some, to -15°, but it was offset (and then some) by the 10 MPH crosswind from the west. Monday wasn’t much better — it was -20° F in the morning and -10 deg F mid-day. The weather finally broke that night: Tuesday morning it was a balmy 0°, though that low pressure center was being ushered in by a 25 MPH southeast wind, just in time for an exposed 12-mile southbound ice crossing.

The bitter temperatures (and my newfound respect for polar travelers who contend with even colder temperatures) was certainly the headline for my first four days, but there is a valuable lesson here: The importance of “staying in control” in such conditions (wording courtesy of Roman Dial). The cold has a way of causing, accelerating, punishing one for—and preventing the reversal of—mistakes and oversights.

You broke your stove? Good luck fixing it with gloved (or bare) hands.

You are lost in a whiteout and need your GPS? The batteries and screen will be locked up unless you’ve kept the GPS in a pocket.

A stiff tailwind just reversed and is now a headwind? Your face protection better be nearby (not in your pack) because your nose will be nipped before you can get to it.

Your sleeping bag has lost its loft because multiple nights of insensible perspiration are frozen in it? You’ll need a warm place to dry it out, like a town or shelter.

Your water bottle is completely frozen? That’s problematic, sorry.

The key to traveling safely and comfortable—or, always being in control–in these conditions is simply not making any mistakes. You need to bring your A-game (not your B-game or worse) and always need to be giving your full attention (which, as a side note, ends up being really stressful over multiple days). This can partly be done by foreseeing hidden dangers (e.g. overflow ice), but mostly by being aware of the likeliest mistakes and taking preventive measures. For example:

  • I keep my water bottle next to my belly.
  • I added extra-long pull-cords and pull-tabs on my hood and zippers so I can grab them with big mitts.
  • I use Lithium batteries, which are less sensitive to the cold
  • I keep my big mitts attached to my sternum strap with a carabiner when they are not in use, so they are easy accessible and also so they can’t fall out of a side pocket.
  • My pants have full-length side-zips so I can take them on and off without taking off my boots, or keep them on while fully ventilating them.

These tricks, plus a number of others, help me stay in control.

Off to Koyuk.

Posted in , on March 18, 2010


  1. Sarah on December 18, 2012 at 10:35 pm

    What suggestions do you have for keeping feet warm in cold conditions, particularly while sleeping? I always have a very hard time falling asleep because I cannot get my feet to warm up (sometimes even indoors in MN winters!). In past winter-trips, I’ve tried using a hot-water Nalgene with some success but now I’m planning a thru-hike in which I’m not carrying a bottle (just a platypus). I’m considering down booties, hand warmers, etc but would like to hear your thoughts. Thanks!

    • Sarah on December 18, 2012 at 10:41 pm

      P.S. Besides the hot-water-Nalgene, I’ve also tried all the following but without much success: peeing, drinking water and eating, running/jumping jacks, putting on more layers…I always wear a hat to bed, use a good sleeping pad, and use a sleeping bag rated at least 10 lower than the lowest temp, and while I’m very comfortable from the knees-up, my feet still are cold.

    • Andrew Skurka on December 19, 2012 at 8:43 am

      It sounds like you have a circulation issue in your feet. I’m not sure there’s a great solution here, and you’ll still have to manage it closely. Three ideas:

      1- Increase your lower-leg and foot insulation: thick socks, down booties, an extra foam pad underneath that part of your body, etc. Make sure that the insulation is not reducing your circulation, however.

      2- Consider wearing a vapor barrier liner, like those from RBH Designs, immediately outside your liner socks and/or base layer pants. The VBL will minimize evaporative heat loss.

      3. Keep the rest of your body warm. If your core is legs aren’t warm, your ankles won’t be warm; if your ankles aren’t warm, your feet won’t be warm.

      • Sarah on December 21, 2012 at 11:19 am

        thanks….I’ll try the down booties next time I go out on a practice-run (they’re on my Christmas wish-list)…Do you recommend wearing VBL’s just during the day or also at night?

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