Last year on this site, I wrote about high-intensity headlamps and their occasional usefulness in arctic travel. In the High Arctic, you don't need a headlamp during the travel season (April-August) because of the 24-hour sun. But in the shoulder months (March, September), and in lower latitudes, headlamps are a typical part of one's kit. If you're traveling or doing chores around camp at night, you have to watch for approaching polar bears, but ordinary headlamps don't throw a far enough beam for safety. That's where the high-intensity lights come in.
In that original post, I wrote about a Petzl model, the Ultra-Rush. Even brighter ones exist, such as the Lupine Betty RX14, which is supposed to outshine even a car headlight. The main problem with these devices is price; The Petzl is $500; the Betty, over $1,000. Spare batteries are a further $200 or so. It's also unknown how these rechargeable batteries perform in the cold. Some lithium-ion batteries do as well as non-rechargeable lithiums; others do not.
I'm not sure what the market is for these high-end headlamps; it must be tiny. Perhaps they're targeted to winter joggers in Reykjavik or Tromso, or night crews at industrial sites. If I were doing a polar night trip, I'd suck it up and go with the Lupine model. I'd order custom non-rechargeable lithium packs from a third-party provider like Stuart Cody, so I'd be sure they worked in the cold. But for intermittent use, more economical models will do.
Online headlamp junkies write in their forums of cheap but serviceable Chinese headlamps, such as the Cree XM-L, pictured above. It runs off reliable lithium AAAs and is available on eBay for about $20, including shipping. I bought one and have been testing it. It advertises a brightness of 2000 lumens (vs a typical headlamp brightness of under 100 lumens) but I wouldn't put much credence in that number. However, it does throw a long, wide beam that would give sufficient warning of an approaching polar bear. As you might expect, the innards look flimsy -- the contact springs, in particular, look as if they're held on with spit rather than epoxy. On an expedition in which I expected to be outside at night more than a few times, or where deep cold plays havoc even with first-rate gear, I'd carry a second identical headlamp as a backup. But this is a decent little unit. As a bonus, the instructions are rendered in exquisite Chinglish.
Because I learned to navigate solely with map and compass, a GPS unit has always been just a backup for me. It makes life easier but isn't necessary. My current GPS dates back to the 1990s. It has no color screen and no maps. If I'm in a confusing spot, I consult it for latitude/longitude, which gives me my location on the topo map. In the High Arctic, navigation is even easier, because distinctive mountains and fiords hint broadly where you are, and 1:250,000 topos are all that are required. Mostly I use the compass for its shaving mirror.
I already own all the paper topo maps and digital map files of my favorite arctic areas, but when I travel to a new location, these days I download and print the free online topos available from an ftp site like this one. It has all the Canadian 1:50000 topos; a sister site gives the 1:250000s. These resources aren't easy to find on Google, because they have no text for the spiders to pick up. Also, it helps to own the three index maps for the Canadian topographic series, so you'll know that 37P or 104K covers the area you're interested in.
When you print the portions of these topos germane to your route, often you end up cropping out the lat/long numbers along the edges. This makes consulting a primitive GPS like mine rather difficult. When I used a friend's modern GPS a couple of years ago, I saw what I'd been missing. It showed exactly where you were on an LCD topo. Simple. The only disadvantage was how much juice these LCD screens require, especially in the cold. The big batteries for these units often needed too much juice to charge via a solar panel.
When we were in British Columbia last month about to catch the ferry to Bella Bella, where we would start our 250 km paddle back to Port Hardy, Alexandra and I happened to meet a young commercial fisherman who gave us an invaluable tip. For $15, the Navionics app for a smartphone largely replaces marine charts. As long as you download your route ahead of time by going over it once on your phone, the app continues to give you detail without cell coverage. It tells times for high and low tide, and the current state of the tide. It even shades in green the shoreline areas that dry out at low tide.
We used the Navionics app throughout our kayaking trip. Paddling in the fog, I kept my iPhone in my PFD, protected inside its Lifeproof case. We navigated mainly by compass and topo map but gave the phone a quick consult whenever we needed it. At the end of the paddling day, it quickly recharged via the solar panel.
I traveled once with a partner who organized some of the food, including the morning hot chocolate. He was a nice guy but he was stingy, and perhaps I should have known better. But this was early in my career and I didn't think to verify his choices. The cheese was the cheapest bulk cheddar, more water than dairy. And the hot chocolate were those tiny packets of instant hot chocolate. No matter how little water I added, the drink tasted like cocoa diluted to 1/20 of what it should be. And the packets themselves are tremendously wasteful. Because of their foil content, you can't burn them, but must carry them to the bitter end.
Soon after that, through trial and error at home, I found my ideal hot chocolate. At the time it was called Ghirardelli Double Chocolate. It was not oversweet, but not bitter like some true cocoas. No sugar had to be added, just a little whole milk powder. (I always use whole milk powder rather than skim milk for the extra calories.) For simplicity, I premix the milk and hot chocolate powder at home and carry it in large Ziplocs. Two towering tablespoons of the Ghirardelli plus a level tablespoon of milk powder yield half a liter of exquisitely rich hot chocolate.
The problem with all gear, however, is that over time, manufacturers change their line. You find the perfect pair of gloves, the perfect ski pole, the perfect face mask. Then one day, it's no longer available and when it needs replacing, you have to begin your search anew.
Not long ago, Ghirardelli scrapped its trusty Double Chocolate mix, which I could order conveniently through Amazon. Luckily, online research revealed that the product hadn't disappeared, it had simply been rebranded. Their Sweet Ground Chocolate is essentially the same thing. Amazon no longer ships this product to Canada -- one of those irritating strictures that non-Americans often have to put up with. So, as I've often done over the years, I have it shipped to a U.S. friend, who kindly brings it here during his yearly visits.
Those of us who travel the Arctic eventually have incidents with polar bears. How often they occur depends on where you go. As with other wildlife, polar bears abound in some areas and are uncommon in others. I once went more than 10 years between incidents, and I've also had five close calls in a single, stressful year. All told, I've had 13 close encounters with polar bears, where the bears were either curious or predatory and had to be deterred. In most of them, the bears came within 20 metres.
I've always carried a firearm and flares for protection and deterrence, but until recently (the five-bear year), I didn't bother with an alarm fence. Just another thing to carry, and an extra half-hour's work setting up camp. But it eventually became clear that the worst incidents took place when the polar bear approached while I was sleeping. With no one to deter it, the bear gets comfortable with the sights and smells of the camp and eventually comes right up to the tent. It may even break in. Over the years, I've become practiced at sleeping with one ear alert for sounds. When I wake up in the sleeping bag, before rolling over and going back to sleep, I listen for five or ten minutes, in case I woke because I subconsciously heard something. Twice, there was a polar bear in camp that had to be chased away.
So I now travel with a bear alarm fence. A few years ago, in the Gear archives, I sketched out details of my homemade fence. (Commercial ones aren't very good.) Mine weighs just three pounds. Several times, it has warned me when bears were in camp.
Recently, one of my correspondents, Peter Vacco, wrote me about a clever refinement he added to his own alarm fence: a mercury switch. It solves a problem which occasionally comes up and which, if we're experienced enough or anal enough, we want to address: Sometimes a polar bear knocks over a pole in such a way that the wire doesn't break, so that the alarm is not triggered.
Some travelers address this by adding a sturdy base plate to their perimeter poles, then weighing them down with rocks so that they can't be tipped over. But the plates add weight and bulk to the fence unit. A mercury switch is more elegant.
A mercury switch is just a little glass vial with a drop of liquid mercury inside and some external wires or plugs (the unit pictured above has both) that allow the switch to integrate into the fence circuit. If the pole falls for any reason, the mercury drop flows away from its bed and disrupts the circuit, triggering the alarm.
The switches weigh next to nothing and can be rigged to attach to the poles, as above, with elastic webbing. These days, most of us are familiar with the idea of mercury switches through our smart phones. Although the phones use different technology, it's similar to how they recognize when to switch to horizontal mode.
Since mercury freezes at -39 C, these switches aren't appropriate for winter/spring arctic travel, but are a worthwhile refinement for summer expeditions.
Because the north is so hard to get to, journeys run longer. No one except residents of the few towns goes on the land for just a couple of days. Few except commercial tours stay even a mere two weeks. Four weeks or longer is more common. That's why sledding and sea kayaking are so ideal: They allow you to carry a month of supplies agreeably.
Occasionally, though, one must resort to the dreaded backpack. A backpack can carry a month of food and gear, but it is a time fraught with suffering. Thirty days in the arctic summer typically requires a 100-pound pack. Consider the arithmetic:
1.5 pounds of food/day = 45 pounds
Fuel and stove = 8 pounds
Expedition backpack = 7 pounds
Gun, ammunition and flares for polar bear protection = 9 pounds
That's already 69 pounds, with no camping gear, clothing, camera gear, GPS, etc.
So 100 pounds. Hard, but it can be done. But part of the problem is that few packs can handle that weight. It's not just the volume: Most suspension systems aren't built to bear those loads. I once had a giant 115-liter Gregory pack that could carry as much as I needed, below.
Despite the smile, however, the pack carried horribly, because anything over 80 pounds slumped like a sack of bricks. The waist belt was useless; the shoulders carried everything.
Early in my travels I had a North Face frame pack called a Back Magic. It struggled with large volumes but carried 100 pounds as well as 100 pounds could be carried, below front. I just had to strap things artfully to the frame. I liked the pack so much that with rare foresight, I bought three of them. I still use my last surviving one on week-long backpacking trips here in the Rockies.
A Montana company named Dana Design had a monster pack called the Terraplane that, among guides, had a reputation for being able to carry big loads. But Dana Design disappeared in the 1990s, and Marmot, the company that eventually took it over, phased out the Terraplane before I could scoop one up.
Eventually I found my expedition backpack. Made by Arcteryx, it is the Bora 95. (Arcteryx photo below)
I've used it with weights up to 105 pounds, and its suspension system holds up. Since I only tackle those loads once every three or four years, it'll last indefinitely. Unfortunately, as with Marmot/Dana Design, Arcteryx no longer makes this expedition pack. How many backpackers will buy a pack that can carry 100 pounds, anyway?
Speaking of backpack hijinks, a few years ago I posted a YouTube clip of 120-pound Alexandra (top photo in this entry) struggling to stand up with her 70-pound backpack. She persisted and eventually succeeded. Although I was laughing off-camera, her experience is typical of big loads. It's both miserable and undignified.
A little magazine column I wrote some years ago about hats:
“If your feet are cold, put on your hat.” When I see that expression, steam tends to come out of my ears, warming the air around me and reducing my need for a hat.
The myth of the almighty hat is entrenched in our culture, kept alive by lazy writers and well-meaning mothers everywhere. It’s become a literary touchstone for me: When I browse books about winter or life in the cold and find that advice, I assume that the book isn’t very good. Usually I’m right.
The foot thing is part of a larger myth that we lose from 60 to 90 percent of our heat through our heads. Believers cite quasi-science to back it up. They claim that constant high blood supply to the brain leads to more heat loss from that area, or that the scalp can’t vasoconstrict, so more heat escapes out those wide-open vessels.
Those are the myths. The truth, as presented by thermal physiologist Gordon Giesbrecht of the University of Manitoba, is that we lose heat in proportion to the area exposed. The head adds up to 10 percent of our body area, so a naked person loses about 10 percent of his or her heat through an unhatted head.
The myth of excessive heat loss through the head supposedly began with some poorly interpreted research on American soldiers in the 1950s. A 1970 army survival manual claimed we lose almost half of our heat through our heads. Wiser heads have not prevailed since then: A Google search of the first line of this piece yielded 27,600 hits, but only 35 hits identified it as a myth.
At least, the myth leaves us with some richly ironic stories. Giesbrecht tells of a snowmobiler in Nome, Alaska who was driving across a frozen lake when his hat blew off. It was only a ball cap, so it didn’t keep him very warm, in any case. Nevertheless, perhaps remembering his mother’s advice about the importance of a well-covered head, he dutifully circled around for it. He broke through thin ice and drowned. “He died for his hat,” says Giesbrecht.
A facemask is essential gear on an arctic expedition, but it doesn't need to be used every day, even at -40. It's mainly for headwinds. As long as your layers are adequate and the air is calm, nose and cheeks won't freeze. In marginal conditions, I keep the compass around my neck less to navigate than to use its mirror to check for frostnip.
I see a lot of photos of polar travelers, their facemasks photogenically crusted with ice. Maybe they've just had a lot of wind, or maybe they're wearing the mask too much. There are reasons not to.
First, breathing does ice up a mask in short order. Polar travel would be so much easier if we didn't have to breathe. (Among other things, we could then sleep with our heads inside the sleeping bag!) On cold days, so much ice can form that putting the mask on next time in its frozen condition is truly grim. Every evening, I try to melt off most of the ice by placing the mask carefully near the stove. A solo traveler can dry out the mask daily, but with two or more people sharing a single stove, it's harder. If the mask is still a little damp by the time the cooking is finished, I put it in the pocket of my fleece jacket and sleep with it. It's often dry by morning. At the very least, it stays soft and unfrozen and is more comfortable to put on.
The second reason not to overuse a mask also has to do with breathing. Masks deflect warm breath onto sunglasses or ski goggles, causing them to fog up. It doesn't matter if you have double-lens goggles with a ton of antifog agent applied, it's simple physics: moist warm air condenses on a cold surface. Very soon, it's hard to see. There are steps you can take to minimize the condensation -- mostly, controlled breathing -- but windy days often mean traveling half-blind.
Nor can you ski without this eyewear. Except early in the sledding season when the sun is still very low, eye protection is essential to prevent snowblindness.
Though the icicle-encrusted mask looks impressive in photos, I prefer to minimize the ice by using the Gorilla balaclava, made by Outdoor Research. Its large, Roman-shaped nosepiece attaches by Velcro onto a windproof but otherwise basic balaclava. It is mainly the detachable nosepiece that ices up, which is easier to dry.
The newer versions of this balaclava, unfortunately, have a design flaw. A mesh now covers the mouth, which is unnecessary and adds to the icing problem. So I have replaced the nosepiece with one of my own, made from fleece and Velcro, and sans mesh.
It's hardly a revelation that weight is important in outdoor travel. Cutting the end off your toothbrush is a cliche. Whole industries have risen around saving weight. Carbon fibre and titanium give strength and lightness at exaggerated prices. One of my spare one-quart titanium fuel bottles recently sold for -- get this -- $250 on eBay. It saves an ounce and a quarter over its aluminum equivalent.
While I'm conscious of weight, I'm not obsessed with it. I won't get an ulcer worrying about how I can trim my 85-pound backpack down to 80 pounds. Similarly, I don't care whether I'm pulling 250 or 260 pounds on a sled. You really don't notice much difference.
But there are times when small amounts of weight matter a great deal. Weight is not linear; beyond certain weights, you enter a much higher degree of difficulty. It's like discrete electron energy states. The transition zones depend on personal strength and travel conditions, but within these parameters, they are consistent. For example, I find a huge difference between a 280 pound sled and a 290 pound sled. I will do anything, even drop some food, to keep the weight under 285 pounds. If an expedition is very long and I need to go over 300 pounds, so be it. But I'm grimly aware that the sled will pull like a sack of bricks for a week or two.
Likewise, I can carry a 100 or even 120-pound backpack, but it is, frankly, hell. How the old voyageurs managed 180 pounds on their tumplines I will never know. With backpacks, the magic number for me is about 90 pounds. I don't mind 90 pounds; I can deal with it. But above 95 pounds, life is just suffering and endurance.
As a traveler, it's important to learn what those transition zones are for you and your method of self-propulsion. If you are on the margin, cut, cut, cut.
Alexandra and I have spent the last week at Purcell Mountain Lodge, skiing and writing. On our first day, one of the hard plastic straps on my ski boots snapped. Since the fix took just ten minutes and is a useful expedition trick, here it is. A field repair kit should include everything you need: wire, needlenose pliers and (optionally) a bit of tape.
Heat a piece of the wire over a camp stove and melt two small holes in the plastic strap on either side of the break. Cut two small pieces of wire, thread them through the opposing holes and twist them together. For neatness, or to avoid catching them on anything, cover the stitches with tape. Inside the lodge, we used electrical tape, but such ordinary tape doesn't work in the cold (the glue freezes). In the Arctic, I'd use some of the BSM medical tape I carry for blister prevention. It wouldn't look as good, but the medical-quality glue works even at -40.
The Gopro takes not only high-quality video but also 12 megapixel jpegs. However, as any pro knows, the number of megapixels is not the whole story. Although I've heard of people who've managed good still images (usually under sunny, evenly lit conditions without dark subjects), the quality of the Gopro's stills is generally poor. There's only so much detail that a sensor the size of a pinky fingernail can render.
Below, comparisons of the Gopro with a Nikon DSLR and the compact Canon G12. At 100%, the Gopro image is mushy and smeared. This smearing and lack of detail is common.
Gopro Hero 3+, 12 megapixel setting, detail at 100%.
Nikon D300s, 12mm lens, detail at 100%. Jpg from original RAW file.
Canon G12. Jpg from RAW file.
The mushiness in the Gopro image can be seen not only in the foreground pine tree, but in the background mountain, which looks more like a watercolor painting than a photo.
Two more Gopro examples, from images cropped at 100%:
Horrible! Note, however, how well the Gopro has rendered the chandelier.
Admittedly, the Gopro was designed as a video camera, with stills capability as a bonus. The file size of these images are big enough -- opened in Photoshop, they were approximately 35mb -- but the images are acceptable only for presentations, websites or very small print size.
It's hard to find information about the Gopro's stills ability on the web. This is why. No pro uses it for stills.
January 9, 2014
My new Gopro Hero 3+ arrived today. Gopros have become the world's most popular camera, according to a recent 60 Minutes segment. Its tiny spy-camera size, high quality, 170-degree angle of view, waterproof case and ability to attach to various platforms for point-of-view filming make it amazingly versatile, especially for action.
Its main limitation is the battery. Despite the camera's appeal to skiers, climbers, snowboarders and other winter athletes, its little battery cannot handle real cold, any more than the one in my otherwise excellent but similarly powered Canon G12 camera can.
Gopro's website is full of great information. Unfortunately, its sole attempt to deal with the Cold question says little more than, "We do not have any official extreme temperature ratings for the camera," and admits that cold affects battery life. That's marketingspeak for, "Cold-weather performance is not one of its selling points."
It's in fact very easy to test how well a battery functions in cold. All you need is cold. In the following weeks, I'll test the Hero 3+ in various midwinter Canadian temperatures and report the results.