In this article I share my research in extreme winter survival by bike. This is a preparation for the bike ride I’ll soon be undertaking in Alaska and Canada and the idea is to be able to cycle and sleep in temperatures from -10ºC to a maximum of -40ºC.
Cycling and camping in extreme cold may seem like thirty transactions and I’m certainly not going to destroy that, it is. I myself have experienced that it can be very nice to experience the silence and focus of cycling in these circumstances. The enthusiastic and initial planning and effort gives me a very nice feeling, maybe you could explain this because a lot of dopamine is released in this process in a natural way.
Cycling in vast white areas, without insects and with a bit of luck the beautiful northern lights in the sky. If you are willing to put in the necessary time in knowledge and experience -plus you carry some calmness with you and have no qualms about feeling uncomfortable all the time- then you may find this an interesting challenge like me.
In principle, conditions down to -25°C are still quite pleasant. In the coastal areas, temperatures are generally milder than in the interior. Conditions below -25°C are more challenging, then it is already a lot more important to minimally expose skin to the outside air. In temperatures below -25°C, you do almost everything with mittens on. This means that everything takes more time, such as setting up a tent, but also melting snow and cooking food is a much bigger challenge. It is often the small things that require much more attention, so good preparation and a lot of practice is essential.
Cold is to be taken seriously, experience is really necessary, making mistakes in extreme conditions can quickly become fatal. There is a big difference in preparation between being in the cold for a day or an expedition of several days or even weeks without having a place to dry stuff. Decreasing insulation value due to freezing of body fluids in clothing and sleeping material is a serious problem to take into account. A fixed (daily) routine adapted to the daily temperatures and your equipment is necessary to make everything as pleasant and safe as possible.
If temperatures are lower than -40ºC, it is no longer fun. Keep in mind that this can be extremely tough for several days. A constant focus is then needed to keep warm and to take the right actions to prevent the smallest mistakes from being made. Regular eating and drinking is also very important, for example your body consumes at least twice as many calories as in normal circumstances, for a man this is quickly between 5000 and 6000 calories per day.
A bicycle with an aluminum or a steel frame is both a good choice in extremely cold temperatures. It’s smart to choose a sturdy frame, I myself use a Surly Long Haul Trucker with a steel frame and on a last winter trip I used a Kona Rove All with an aluminum frame. It is good to consider the type of braking system because oil can freeze and plastic can become very brittle. Teflon-coated (brake) cables are more reliable for the cold.
You will slip less with tires with spikes, such as the Schwalbe Ice Spiker Pro. You could use a sheepskin or fur saddle cover for some extra comfort and warmth. Because water always has a solid shape, it is less important to use waterproof bags in extreme cold.
And furthermore, how it gets used to or turns a tire in these circumstances is in my opinion an absolute nightmare.
Water in a liquid form at outside temperatures of –25°C can be a serious problem for the skin, and from –35°C it is even dangerous. At temperatures below -50°C, contact with liquids is usually fatal to the skin tissue. The most important rule is to always keep the skin dry, so it’s good to think in layers. A base layer, an insulating layer and a protective layer. All these layers have an important function and especially with a lot of movement it is necessary that layers ventilate very well. Gore-tex or other waterproof materials are less interesting and can even ensure that moisture cannot escape quickly enough and thus freeze faster in clothing, which in turn can reduce the insulation value.
Do not use cotton as a base layer, cotton retains moisture for a long time and loses almost all insulation value. Polypropylene and merino wool are recommended.
Eating and cooking
The motivation to cook extensively in extreme temperatures is low, you prefer to crawl deep into a warm sleeping bag as soon as possible. It is therefore smart to prepare food according to the circumstances. Everything that contains moisture becomes, for example, rock hard, (freeze) dried food can offer a solution. Also think of oat flakes, crackers, nuts, pasta, milk powder, egg powder, dried fruit, etc. Active in extreme cold you can quickly burn more than 5000 calories per day, keep that in mind.
A camping stove releases carbon monoxide, so cooking in an insulated tent can be very dangerous. Ideally, you would cook outside, but bearing in mind the reality of extreme cold conditions, this is usually not possible. It is therefore best to cook in the opening of the tent and ensure sufficient ventilation to dissipate the fumes. Always be on the lookout for carbon monoxide poisoning and do not continue cooking if you feel sleepy. Never go to sleep when food is simmering on the stove.
As a combustor, the MSR Whisperlite International works fine in my own experience in conditions of –25°C, others tell me that in extreme cold the MSR XGK is a safer choice. This burns more powerfully, which is great for melting snow quickly. As a fuel, kerosene is difficult to ignite, gasoline is dirty and brutane and propane remain liquid in these conditions. White gas may be the best option, but my experience doesn’t go beyond using gasoline, which is often the most available option.
Ventilation is extremely important when choosing a tent. It is also necessary that the outer cover of the tent reaches the ground to prevent rapid heat loss and to protect yourself against wind. I use the Hilleberg Soulo, it is freestanding and quite easy to set up in extreme conditions, but others prefer a tunnel tent because this type of tent ventilates better, which is the advantage of the condensation accumulation in the tent.
You could also opt for a tipi tent with a (foldable) wood stove as the type of tent. I would only recommend this if you are in one place for an extended period of time. It is a lot of work to set up the tent and stove every evening after a hard day of cycling and to collect wood. It is also important to take into account that there is no wood to be found in areas above the tree line. I therefore choose when it is possible to use a campfire, but in general not to use an open fire or a wood stove in the tent.
A double-walled tent is nice to retain the heat better. The tent must stand firm with wind and also be able to withstand some snowfall, snow pegs can add value to that. It is to have enough space to change clothes and cook food (in the tent opening). And also use sturdy tent poles whose elastic does not break too quickly.
Note that it is important to always aim the opening of the tent
For extremely low temperatures, I choose down over synthetic sleeping bags. Down offers the best combination of packing volume, weight and comfort. I use the Fjällraven Polar with a limit temperature of -30°C, which is quite an expensive sleeping bag. Synthetic is cheaper but consumes more packing volume, synthetic material continues to insulate when damp and down does not. New materials keep coming onto the market that may combine the quality of both materials.
No less important is the sleeping mat. Cold quickly pulls into your sleeping bag from the ground because the down on which you lie does not insulate. Ultimately, it is about your entire sleeping system that you use. You can increase the insulation value of your sleeping system with, for example, a foam mat with a reflective coating under your regular mat. And/or you use an extra sheet bag in your sleeping bag.
Natural materials such as reindeer hide provide warmth and comfort that is probably better than any sleeping pad on the market. If you use reindeer hide, make sure it comes from a source that trades the animals in a legitimate and sustainable manner. Reindeer in Scandinavia, for example, belong to the Sami.
The temperature ratings (comfort, limit, extreme) are not all reliable because this varies per brand and per person, for sleeping pads this is the R-value. Also not unimportant with sleeping mats, if you inflate them with your mouth, condensation/moisture will enter the sleeping mat, which may reduce the insulation value.
Condensation and VBL (vapor barrier liner)
When you are on the road for a longer period of time, keeping your clothes and sleeping system dry is the biggest challenge and also a big risk to take into account. As moisture builds up in your clothing or sleeping bag, its insulating ability is compromised, potentially creating a dangerous situation. In a shorter trip you can just take a second pair of clothes with you, but on a longer trip without the possibility to dry clothes or a sleeping bag, this can really cause problems.
The breathability of clothing and a sleeping bag is important. Yet there is another option, vapor protection or also called VBL (vapor barrier layer). This can be interesting to retain body fluids on certain parts of the body by applying a layer that does not allow moisture to pass through.
Feet, for example, are usually a problem area, as the thicker outer materials of footwear limit the release of moisture. Vapor barrier/VBL socks can be used on extended cold weather excursions. Thin polypropylene socks should be worn next to the skin with the vapor barrier over it. Your insulating layers (wool socks, etc.) are then placed over the vapor barrier/VBL layer. With this system your feet stay nice and warm and the moisture does not freeze.
Routine and training
Cycling in extreme cold may seem reckless and unnecessarily dangerous at first, but with the right amount of self-awareness and good gear you can reasonably plan, set goals and achieve them. Surviving in extreme cold for long periods of time requires a certain routine and also the discipline to continue to follow this routine.
In many of my articles I write that becoming aware of my own patterns are the most beautiful and most important steps I can take in my life. It’s about preparing myself and becoming aware of how far I can go with mental and physical training and how I react in difficult situations. With training for an expedition in the cold I train mind over matter.
Holding on to an efficient routine is essential to me. And thus the importance of know thyself because in cases that you can no longer or are really tired, you cannot afford to fall into unconscious and perhaps inefficient patterns. Knowing what to do with yourself, how far you can go and also knowing when to call for help is very important for winter survival.
I see the focus that is needed as an extreme meditation that ensures that I can be completely in the moment.
Cycling in extreme cold requires quality gear, and they are often not cheap. I try to approach it as puristically and independently as possible and have therefore purchased all necessary items, whether or not second-hand, over a period of a number of years. Sponsoring and/or collaborating with outdoor brands is of course also a possibility.