Three Antarctic explorers spoke to Wilderness to pass on their tips for winter tramping.
Antarctica might be over 6000km away with temperatures more than 50°C lower than in New Zealand, but there’s a lot we can learn from the coldest place on Earth and apply to winter tramping here.
“Staying dry is the key in Antarctica, and that goes for New Zealand in winter too,” says experienced Antarctic skier Mark Sedon. “It’s all about thermoregulation so your body maintains its core internal temperature.”
Sedon has completed 18 ski and climbing expeditions to Antarctica, the most adventurous being a 55-day, 2000km kite ski and climb of The Spectre, a mountain in the Gothic Range of the Transantarctic Mountains.
Trying not to sweat is a skill to master. “Try and pace yourself so you don’t overheat,” Sedon says. “If you get hot, take off a layer. If you’re cold, stop and put one on. Don’t wait until you’re sweaty, because once you get wet it’s hard to fix.”
Sedon uses light layers over heavy. “I generally use merino base layers, fleece second layers, a windshell if it’s windy and cold, and a very light outer shell. Items with zips are handy for cooling down without having to take everything off.”
Laura Andrews, a firefighter and medical first responder from Auckland, took part in the Antarctic Heritage Trust’s Inspiring Explorers Expedition South Pole 2022. Andrews skied nearly 1000km to the South Pole in her first foray into polar travel and gained a good understanding of how her body worked in the cold.
“Having a really good layering system is important,” she says. “In one day you could go from cold to warm to hot, so being adaptable on the go is important.”
Andrews agrees with Sedon on the importance of avoiding getting sweaty. “I wore lots of thin layers for quick transitions, and had dry layers at the ready to stop myself getting cold.”
Multiple layers of gloves work well to reduce skin exposure and loss of dexterity.
Andrews and her expedition group worked together to figure out the best speed of travel to keep them all in good condition.
“The main thing was working as a team with open communication,” she says. “It meant everyone was on the same page and we operated to the best of the capacity of the team at the time.”
Food and nutrition
When tramping in winter, it pays to be in top condition to lessen the likelihood of making small mistakes that have big consequences.
“Dehydration makes you colder and more tired,” says Sedon, “so make sure you don’t say no to that extra cup of tea or bottle of water.”
More calories are burned in cold conditions than in warm climates, so you’ll eat more than usual. Andrews consumed 4500 calories each day: “We fuelled ourselves with high-calorie foods that we could access quickly and easily.”
Working in legs of 50 minutes on, 10 minutes off, Andrews used the breaks to eat what she could. “It wasn’t about what tasted or looked good, it was about knowing I was getting enough to fuel me for the next leg,” she says. “If I didn’t manage to get the food in I really noticed it, especially on big multi-days. You’re fueling not just for today but for the days after.”
Sedon agrees. “I often tell people lunch starts straight after breakfast. You graze all day, eating high-calorie snacks every hour.” Sedon’s choices included peanuts, salami, cheese and dried fruit.
The longer something takes, the greater the chance of getting cold, so have snacks prepped, ready to go and within easy reach. Sedon carries snacks in his jacket pockets. “They’re easy to get to and it stops them from freezing.”
Andrews carried a long wooden spoon to use for snacks so she didn’t have to take her mittens off. “Any time with exposed hands adds to the risk of cold weather injuries,” she says.
Adding butter, oil and other high-calorie items to dehydrated food is an easy way to include extra calories.
“The longer we were out, the more we started to add to our meals, like salami and butter,” says Andrews. Sedon does this too. “I’d add a stick of butter, probably around 250g, to a meal.”
He goes on: “A hot dinner is a great way to warm up before going to bed, and make sure you’re well hydrated before turning in for the night.”
Dehydration causes the body’s core temperature to drop, and hypothermia can set in quickly.
Lack of sleep reduces cognitive ability and the body’s ability to repair itself, so getting a good night’s sleep is vital, but this can be tricky in cold temperatures.
“It’s all about insulating yourself from the ground,” says Sedon. He uses a two-layer sleep system of a foam pad under a Therm-A-Rest mattress. Andrews used three layers: “An insulated floor mat, a foam mat, then an inflatable sleeping pad.”
Andrews has tips for staying warm in your sleeping bag: “Fill a Nalgene drink bottle with boiling water to use as a hot water bottle. Don’t breathe into your sleeping bag, as moisture gets in which can freeze and make you cold.”
Both Sedon and Andrews advise less is more when it comes to bed-wear, and to have a loose sleeping bag so there’s room for extras. “Put items of clothing in your sleeping bag to dry out overnight,” says Sedon. “I often put my socks or gloves on my chest when I go to bed. Down booties are useful to keep your feet warm.”
With 24 hours of sunlight in Antarctica, eye masks are crucial. Sedon says: “I use an eye mask now any time I want to get to sleep early. I also find meditation helps to slow everything down and relax.”
The last thing anyone wants to do when it’s freezing is get up in the night for a pee, but holding on makes you colder, and dehydration can be a killer. “A pee bottle [with a she-wee] is a game changer,” says Andrews. “Learning to use it is a bit of a talent, but it’s a great skill to have.” Sedon also uses a pee bottle: “It’s the key for not having to get up in the night.”
Romina Waller is SAR Lead and Field Support for Antarctica New Zealand at Scott Base. She is a professional hard-ice guide and has worked around the globe.
Waller’s job is to make sure that people go outside with fresh eyes: “The main risks are the environment and weather. Frostbite can get you in minutes,” she says. “The mean ambient temperature is about -45℃, but it can feel like -70℃. The biggest risk is complacency.”
Waller takes new arrivals on Antarctic field training to show them self-sufficiency. “We cover the theory before heading out to camp for the night. They learn about the weather, what gear they need and how to use it, how to look for and treat cold-weather injuries, survival kits and how to build a shelter.”
She says winter tramping needs different skills from other times of the year. “If you don’t have the skills, consider learning from a professional. There’s nothing worse than picking up bad habits from friends. If you go on a course you’ll have lots of fun and know you can back yourself when out there.”
Waller says preparation is key. “It’s all about assessing risk. Thinking about the worst-case scenario and what you need to take to make it safe. Running your body to fatigue, coldness and dehydration can be killers, so it’s important to combat those. Sometimes the small things that seem simple can be catastrophic.”
Weather forecasting is notoriously difficult and Waller takes everything with a pinch of salt. “In New Zealand the weather can change and catch you out when you least expect it,” she says. “It’s the same in Antarctica, where you can get caught in a whiteout in minutes.”
Waller advises people to know and test their gear thoroughly. She says people often go for the most expensive equipment expecting it to be safer or better, but there is a more important consideration: “Not knowing how to use it or understanding any limitations increases the risk of something going wrong.”
She also advises caution around the ‘light and fast’ trend. “It can be totally achievable if you have the skills, understand what you need and know your gear. But if not, it can be a recipe for disaster.”
For winter tramping, Waller recommends doing a risk assessment with the people you’re going with. “It gets everyone thinking on the same page about what’s the worst that can happen and whether you’re prepared. It also helps to be aware of heuristics: perceived risk versus actual risk is where you can get caught out.”
Waller’s a big fan of hiking with a group in winter. It’s much safer than going solo: “It all comes back to a risk assessment. If you’ve got every possible control in place, and know that if anything goes wrong you can get yourself out of it, then go for it. But I think it’s more enjoyable with others, and you can buddy-check each other and talk about the environment and see how everyone’s getting on along the way.”
Questions to ask before a winter tramp
People: Who’s going and are they fit? What’s everyone’s role and do they know it?
Communication: Is there a plan, what is it, and does everyone know it?
Gear: What do you need, have you got it all and does everyone know how to use it?
Terrain: What terrain are you covering and do you have the right gear and skills for it?
Weather: What’s the forecast? Have you planned for adverse weather?