And he’s on a mission “to make cold cool”—to get adventure-seekers more enamored and comfortable with winter camping and its related adventures.
Of course, that doesn’t make it any less intimidating, Larsen admits. But he believes it doesn’t have to be—not when you master basic camping skills and the art of layering. On a recent trip outside Crested Butte, Larsen dispensed his top tips for surviving (and enjoying) winter camping.
Despite spending much of his time in polar regions, Larsen doesn’t enjoy being cold. Shocking, we know. He doesn’t like being too hot in cold places, either. That might seem a little nonsensical, but when you’re in sub-zero temperatures, you want to maintain the perfect balance of warmth—not sweating or shivering.
The key is dressing in layers. You want different materials that wick sweat and provide insulation.
“Sweat is really our enemy,” Larsen says.
When you stop moving, that moisture against your skin becomes chilled very quickly. The trick is to constantly modify.
“At any given moment on the trail, I’m adjusting layers—unzipping or zipping, pulling my hat off, putting it on,” he says.
While racing sled dogs, Larsen’s been known to wear seven or eight layers of clothing. That said he’s also been known to take his gloves off skiing in -50°F or don just a synthetic T-shirt while fat biking across Antarctica. Larsen calls this layer dance the “polar striptease.” And when Larsen can’t seem to get warm, he recommends an old standby: jumping jacks.
Larsen divides layers up into three basic categories—wicking, insulation, and wind protection—and dresses according to the following scheme:
· Base layer t-shirt (wicking): Wool insulates well, but Larsen prefers synthetic for wicking moisture. “It stinks, but after a couple weeks you don’t notice it,” he says. Try LIFA T by Helly Hansen [$35; hellyhansen.com]
· Lightweight base layer long sleeve (wicking): BodyFitZone Zone Long Sleeve Crew by Icebreaker [$110; icebreaker.com]
· Medium-weight base layer long sleeve (wicking): BodyFitZone Winter Zone Long Sleeve Half-Zip by Icebreaker [$130; icebreaker.com]
· Fleece jacket (insulation): Wear the Better Sweater Fleece Jacket by Patagonia for really cold temps and lower activity. [$139;patagonia.com]
· Down sweater/jacket (insulation): Wear the Pinion Down Pullover by Stio in your tent and around camp. [$249; stio.com]
· Shells (wind protection): The soft shell Inversion Jacket by Voormi is made with a technical woven wool that has a membrane embedded into the fabric to make it weather- and water-resistant; it’s also highly breathable for strenuous activity. [$499;voormi.com] The hard shell Environ Jacket by Stio is designed for skiing and snowboarding but will work for any type of winter activity, as it’s waterproof and breathable. [$425; stio.com]
· Expedition down puffy jacket (insulation): The Nepal Jacket by Baffin is roomy, lightweight, and easily packs down. Larsen throws this layer over his outer shell on breaks during polar travel, but it’s also useful as a sleeping system if you want to go fast and light and don’t want to bring a big sleeping bag. [$275; baffin.com]
If you’re hiking in 20°F, two pairs of socks are more than enough as long as you’re moving, Larsen says. Just don’t wear too many; you can cut circulation off to your feet.
In inhospitable environments, Larsen will start with a vapor barrier: silicone-impregnated, non-breathable “socks” (i.e. plastic grocery bags) that’ll prevent moisture from getting into the boot liners.
As for footwear, you want waterproof boots that have thick soles to insulate your feet from snow, water, and ice. Larsen sizes his polar boots up a full size to accommodate socks and insoles. Baffin’s Sequoia boots are warm, lightweight, and tall, complete with a snowshoe ledge, snow collar, and a removable liner that molds to your feet.
If he’s inactive for a while, Larsen stands on a 24-inch-wide cutout of an old RidgeRest pad—a sleeping pad with an aluminized surface that reflects body, like this Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest SOLite Sleeping Pad—to keep his dogs warm.
To keep his fingers from freezing, Larsen wears sweat-wicking glove liners inside thicker insulated gloves, like the Rush SV Glove by Arc’teryx.
“I’m always looking for a good glove that combines dexterity and warmth,” he says, adding that leather palms are best for durability.
3. Fuel and Hydrate Every Hour
It’s easy to overlook hydration when you’re trekking in polar conditions, but proper hydration maintains proper blood flow and bodily functions. And snacks and meals keep your energy levels up while producing body heat.
Larsen always starts out on the trail with a bottle filled with warm water (a tight plastic lid is preferable), and tries to snack and drink every hour. One of those breaks includes a sacred tradition of drinking instant soup from his insulated flask. Try Stanley’s line of vacuum-sealed food jars and/or the Rambler 14oz Mug by Yeti.
“Having hot soup in the middle of a freezing cold day is a great way to help with hydration and energy levels—it’s something to look forward to on the trail,” he says.
Larsen likes to portion his meals into Ziploc bags ahead of time. And he usually keeps an energy bar near his sleeping bag.
“A few bites midway through the night is like putting another log on the fire.”
You don’t want to waste time looking for stuff when it’s freezing, so Larsen stresses the importance of organizing your gear into stuff sacks for efficiency. For easy storage, opt for Air Zippditty bags by Granite Gear.
After stomping down a level patch of snow and erecting a winter-grade tent with the door perpendicular to the wind, shovel snow up against the outer wall. As the snow recrystallizes, it’ll harden into an additional wind barrier.
Once camp is set up, Larsen’s first order of business is collecting snow and boiling it down for drinking and cooking water. Adding a layer of leftover water to the bottom of the pot facilitates this process.
5. Keep Warm at Night
First and foremost, stay dry: Your clothes and sleeping bag work best when your body can keep a warm air layer closeby—sweat, wet socks, and a damp shirt can turn that warm layer of air into heat-sucking water.
“I’ve also never subscribed to the theory that you should sleep in as little clothes as possible while in a sleeping bag,” he says; adding that if you’re chilly, throw on another layer. “I’m a huge fan of wearing a balaclava and hat,” he says.
Secondly, don’t let valuable heat inside the bag escape. Make sure the draft tube is aligned properly along the zipper, and the actual zipper is closed. Larsen also tucks a hot water bottle and his boot liners into his bag at night.
As for choosing the optimal sleeping bag, try The Polar Ranger -20F/-30C Sleeping Bag by Therm-a-Rest. The company worked with Larsen on its design, and it contains overlapping draft tubes, side vents, and a synthetic snorkel hood meant to funnel air in a way that keeps condensation from chilling your face.
Also, while a toasty sleeping bag is an oasis compared to an outdoor bathroom, it’s important to heed the call. “Having extra fluids in your body is actually wasting energy that could be used to keep you warm,” Larsen says.
6. Be Smart With Your Electronics
Before heading out into the cold, fully charge your batteries and devices. And keep ’em warm. Often, a battery will show it’s dead when it’s more or less stunned by the temperature.
Larsen will keep his Goal Zero Sherpa 50 power pack (for longer expeditions) in a spare jacket deep inside his backpack during the day and his sleeping bag at night. He’ll also keep spare rechargeables in his pocket during the day as he travels. “Get it under a couple layers, though,” he advises.
Larsen also recommends swapping standard AA or AAA batteries for lithium ones, as they’re lighter and perform better in lower temperatures. Also, minimize tech with LCD screens; they suck a lot of juice.
7. Bring the Right Gear
“Every adventure starts with the question: What are your goals?” Larsen says. “Are you going light and fast, or traveling as comfortable as you can, or hanging out in a tent for 10 days? Anyone of those things is a legitimate adventure.”
They also dictate what gear you choose. Here are some more essentials to keep your polar adventure from becoming one long sufferfest:
· Thermal underwear: We like Saxx’s Thermoflyte long-leg brief; it has a blend of moisture-wicking polyester and stretchy spandex, with a brushed back thermal jersey for added warmth. [$44.95; saxxunderwear.com]
· Hard-shell pants: These BC Duraweave Alpine Pants by Eddie Bauer are made with a burly shell that’s durable and waterproof. [$499; eddiebauer.com]
· Soft-shell hiking pants: The Keb Trousers by Fjällräven are comfortable and breathable, suited for hiking into your base camp. [$225; fjallraven.us]
· Sunglasses: You want polarized anti-reflective lenses to amplify detail and enhance natural color beyond; try the Outlier 2 by Smith. [$169; smithoptics.com]
· Snowshoes: Snowshoes distribute your weight out on thin ice and provide more maneuverability and traction than skis. “Strapping my feet into these is like engaging four-wheel drive,” Larsen said. Try Lightning Ascent Snowshoes by MSR. [$299.95; msrgear.com]
· Pull sled + hip belt: For easy trekking, store your essentials in one of SkiPulk’s options. [$215-$699;skipulk.com]
· Duffel: We like the durability and storage capacity of the Base Camp Duffel by The North Face.[$110-160;thenorthface.com]
· Trekking poles: LT5 Three-Piece Carbon Trekking Poles by Gossamer Gear [$195; gossamergear.com]
· All-season tents: MSR Gear is a top pick for Larsen, namely because he worked with their engineers to design the Remote and Access lines for winter backcountry camping. [Starting at $110; msrgear.com]