Sunday, 25 September 2016

Top 10 bits of kit for cold skiing & camping

Apologies for the radio silence here at offpisteskiing HQ, August and September have been busy to say the least!

An update on off piste coaching and adventures courses with spaces still available will follow shortly, but in the meantime I wanted to share my 'top 10' bits of kit for cold camping and skiing - featuring some equipment that really made life pleasant in Baffin Island this spring!

1. KosyBoot Pro

OK so the KosyBoot Pro neoprene overboots aren't necessarily the most aesthetically pleasing bit of kit, but as anyone who has put their feet into boot shells which have spent the last 12 hours at -30C will agree anything that helps get your boots up to a workable temperature is worth its weight in gold. 30 minutes with these neoprene overboots on, at the same time as a quick blast with a pair of Lenz Heat Socks (see below) made the transition from camp gear & Baffin boots into ski gear almost a pleisure! (Almost)

2. Lenz Heat Socks

I was initially a bit concerned about big days out in these, as the heating element fibres that run under the sole of the foot give these socks a thicker and stiffer feel than my usual choice of sock, but in practice they were comfortable even on the really big days, and the benefit of having a constant gentle heat from under the sole made a big difference to foot warmth during the trip. I used the Heat Sock 1.0 paired with the Lithium pack 1800 rechargeable battery. These will definitely be coming out of the cupboard for cold days in the Alps this coming winter, though the 1200 battery pack would probably be better as a bit lighter and lower profile (no need for such big capacity for day hits in the Alps...).

Ross about to feel 'the glow' deep in Gibbs Fiord, Baffin Island
Photo ©RossHewittCollection

3. Brynje Super Thermo mesh thermals

A massive revelation for me last winter was the use of mesh base layers - whether for warm or cold (or inbetween) environments these are probably my new favourite piece of kit. Moisture in base layers can be a real problem in cold climates, enhancing the rapid cooling that can happen when you are transitioning from a hard work activity (like boot-packing up a 1200m couloir) to a less intense form of exercise (skiing down). The Brynje Super Thermo base tops and 3/4 length bottoms worked brilliantly for this - combined with a zipped layer over the top they allow for really easy venting and temperature control when hard at work, draw any moisture away from the body and into the mid-layers, and are super-warm as soon as you zip up the layers on top. Being synthetic they do have the unfortunate downside of getting really (really) smelly, after week 1 in the tent they smelled bad even to me... but that is the trade off for the functionality!

Brynje kit is available in the UK from the very helpful folks at If it was good enough for the Sir Edmund Hilary on the 1953 Everest expedition it is probably worth considering..!

*Note: images of me modelling Brynje mesh thermals have all been destroyed for the sake of public decency! - I wouldn't want to put anyone off their tea :-) *

4. Salomon X-LAB and Soulquest midlayers

Layering of clothes for Baffin took quite a bit of thought, but I was really happy with a combination of the Salomon Soulquest BC Insulated Mid and S-LAB XAlp Down jackets - the Soulquest is a great combination of fleece and Pertex, giving both warmth and breathability, ideal as a thermal layer on the way up. I have never been a big fan of hoods generally (apart from winter climbing in Scotland and the odd really snowy day in the Alps), but the stretchy hood on the Soulquest was absolutely brilliant, like putting on or removing an extra layer on the upper body in terms of the warmth boost or extra cooling effect.

The Soulquest Mid in its element:
Photo ©RossHewittPhotography

The S-LAB XAlp Down jacket was another top bit of clothing - so light and packable, with a really good insulating capacity - perfect for beating the chill while transitioning at the top of couloirs or as we dropped back into the 'freezer effect' on the fiords. This is likely to remain a go-to for cold days in the Alps!

5. Exped Downmat 9

On a 4 week expedition if you don't sleep well then physical and mental fatigue sets in very quickly and you might as well head home. The Exped 9 LW was possibly the best single individual piece of kit I took to Baffin Island as I don't think I have ever slept so consistently well in a tent. 9 cms of air with a down filling, a ribbed construction stopping the sleeping bag sliding off the side - the schnozzel bag inflation is ridiculously effective... and it all packs down into a small and lightweight package - way more compact than my previous 'cold camping' Thermarest. If you are heading anywhere seriously cold then you need one of these in your life. * Note: in Baffin I used the Downmat 9 over a Thermarest Z-rest foam mat - extra protection and warmth but also as a back-up in case of a major technical problem with the Downmat.

6. Stove board

Camping in -20/-30C temperatures, survival depends on being able to melt snow - whether it is for tea, soup, porridge, freeze-dried meals, or simply to drink, no water = no energy. A stove with a fuel pre-heat loop is an absolute essential - MSR XGKs were our stove of choice, but a detail not to be missed out on is having a solid base to run the stoves on. There is plenty of detail online with some pretty sophisticated base boards with extra insulation, elasticated loops to hold the stove/bottle in place etc etc, but we kept it simple and scavenged 2 pieces of ply in Clyde River.

Here Chipie demonstrates the stove board whilst smoking up a treat - 'barbecued sausage Gibbs Fiord style':

7. Crate from Northern Stores!

Camping on the frozen fiords of Baffin Island presents an extra challenge or two compared to normal snow camping. Whereas on a glacier generally you have unlimited amounts of snow to 'furnish' your living space - tables, chairs, toilets etc in the fiords on Baffin there is often only a bvery thin layer of snow on top of the ice. Possibilites for construction are much more limited unless you get some windy days and can create some 'accumulation zones' for windblown snow. Before we left Clyde River we managed to scavenge some crates from the Northern Store and these made life way more comfortable at base camp... If you have no limits cash-wise it would definitely be worth bringing in some folding camp chairs, but given the cost of extra bags on the flight up to CLyde River (which was eye wateringly expensive as it was) we were happy to compromise.

8. Salomon MTN LAB boots

This isn't really a 'cold skiing' specific item, but I continue to be amazed by how good these boots are. What particularly impressed me in Baffin was how steady the flex pattern remained even in sustained cold. Despite the temperatures, and in spite of the minimalist material thickness of some parts of the boot my feet stayed warm the whole time - with a morning boost from the Lenz socks and Neoprene overboots as above - though the KosyBoots stayed in camp pretty much every day.

The MTN LABs doing their stuff in 'Better than Polar Star' couloir:
Photo ©RossHewittPhotography

9. Beard!

A tricky proposition for some of the expeditioning population out there I know, but a bit of facial hair growth is definitely a bonus in terms of keeping the chill off your face - plus you get to work on your 'Scott of the Antartic' look too! Not to be underestimated - in retrospect I should have started growing it way sooner than I did!

Ross here working on his 'snowbeard' look:

10. Baffin boots

Last but by all means not least, the mighty mighty Baffin Boots. Probably the single best item on this list along with the Exped Downmat. Forget Sorel (sorry Sorel) or anything else - the locals all wear Baffin boots and they deal with far colder conditions mid-winter than we had (the readings from the Clyde River airport weather station show seriously cold figures mid-winter!) - honey-combed mid-soles, high on the lower leg, so so comfy and so so warm - a real pleasure to get into after a day's skiing. Given how much time is spent at base camp on a trip like this having warm comfortable feet is an absolute must.

Evan and Jomie modelling their boots on the skidoo ride in:

11. Eyemasks

Just outside the top 10 but an essential for Arctic camping. If like me you only sleep well in a dark room then being able to shut out the 24-hour daylight will help with getting proper rest. I doubled mine up with a Buff or warm hat on the cold nights.

So there you have it - my top 10 (11) useful bits of kit from Baffin Island - obviously every cold camping/skiing destination will have its own particularities but some of these items are absolute keepers for any cold trip...