With the right clothing, the Arctic winter can be surprisingly comfortable. Many local suppliers will lend or rent you the thick outer garments that are expensive to buy. If your holiday consists of organised excursions such as northern lights viewing plus short dog sledging and snowmobile trips, good-quality ski clothing should see you through (tip – check out summer sales in the UK for bargains on winter clothing, especially those marked ‘thermal’). However, if you’re going to be spending extended periods outdoors in sub-Arctic and Arctic weather, you should upgrade to a higher level of protection.
The Layer Principle
It is much better to wear a number of thin layers than just a few thick ones. The air trapped in between thin layers warms to your body’s temperature and acts as valuable insulation. Make sure your clothes fit well and that some of your layers are of differing sizes to avoid constriction, which will prevent air circulation and will be uncomfortable.
In cold conditions, it’s better to wear wool, silk or synthetic polypropylene next to your skin. Avoid cotton: when you sweat, it gets cold and clammy, and doesn’t dry out easily. Merino wool is excellent. On top of your base layer, you’ll need to wear at least two or three additional layers, which should be made of fleece or wool. Remember that you’ll need long johns as well as upper-body protection.
A well-insulated jacket is a must, as are insulated trousers or salopettes in cold conditions. If the weather is likely to be wet you’ll need waterproofs; don’t take unwaterproofed down out in the rain as it soon becomes soggy and useless. Some local suppliers such as snowmobile operators will loan one-piece thermal suits to put on over your jacket and trousers.
In very cold weather, it’s a good idea to wear two pairs of gloves – one thick pair of mitts (mitts that don’t separate the fingers keep your hands warmer) and a thin pair of gloves underneath that allow you the use of your fingers when you need to do something fiddly, yet ward off the icy cold for a short time, at least. If you’re prone to cold extremities, you can buy carbon hand-and foot-warmers from most good outdoor shops. Shake these up to activate them, pop them into your glove or boot, and they stay warm for around eight hours. If you’re going to stay outdoors for an extended period, pack a spare pair of gloves – if you lose one in cold temperatures you’ll soon freeze your fingers.
You’ll need proper winter boots if you’re going to be outside for extended periods. Many local suppliers will provide these – make sure you request a size larger than you normally wear, to comfortably accommodate extra pairs of socks. Hiking style winter boots are suitable for simple excursions such as northern lights viewing and town-based activities, but they’re not advisable for more adventurous snow based activity as snow can easily get inside them. Make sure your footwear has good grip for walking on snow and ice.
These should be made of wool, never cotton. Pack an extra pair or two in your rucksack if you’re going out snowmobiling or dog sledging – if your feet become damp or wet you should change into dry socks: wet feet soon become frostbitten feet.
Hats and headwear
Take a woollen or fleece hat which covers the ears, as well as a balaclava, Buff or face mask to cover mouth, nose and cheeks. Noses and cheeks are especially prone to frostbite, and should be kept covered whenever possible – skin can freeze in minutes in very cold weather.
You may need sunglasses or tinted goggles as the sun on the snow can be dazzling. Contact-lens wearers may find the cold and dryness makes lens-wearing uncomfortable and should pack glasses as an alternative.
If you intend to use any sauna facilities, you may want to pack a swimsuit – unless you’re brave enough to go ‘au naturel’. There may be occasions too when you’ll find yourself in an outdoor hot tub watching the northern lights overhead.
The northern air is very dry, and you’ll need to pack plenty of lip salve. Some people have problems with water-based moisturisers. Specialist products are available – ask your local chemist.