Staying Comfortable In Extreme Conditions

Updated: Sep 13

I love being comfortable. In fact I consider it a top priority on all my expeditions. My friends who aren't professional guides laugh at this because they consider my vocation and avocations to be among the most uncomfortable pursuits on the planet. But they are wrong. Being comfortable is possible even in the harshest climates. And when it's not an option I do my best to "make friends" with my discomfort and it works surprisingly well. Here are five ways I maximize my comfort when exploring the ends of the Earth.

1) Start by knowing your climate - Wherever I go I make sure to know the temperature range (which can be quite dramatic in places like Greenland), and also what to expect in terms of precipitation and humidity. I find that these three environmental factors affect my comfort the most. My kit will differ drastically whether I'm packing for a place where I might get wet (Iceland, Greenland, Shackleton Crossing of South Georgia Island) vs. a place where I'll experience extreme cold but no precipitation (South Pole, Vinson, North Pole). The level of humidity also has a big impact on my comfort and what gear I'll bring. In humid climates like Iceland or the North Pole I'll bring less down (or no down) and the added weight of a synthetic sleeping bag and synthetic parka might mean more scrutiny on my other creature comforts.


A team of skiers en route to the South Pole
Antarctica's dry climate helps the cold feel more tolerable.

2) Know your body - My body is good at staying warm while I'm on the go but at night I generate absolutely no heat. I know from experience that if I don't bring some serious reinforcements to my sleeping system (like an inner bag & hot water bottles) that I'll have plenty of sleepless nights. This knowledge comes from hard-earned experience and when challenged on it I don't waiver. Your body is your best teacher, and if you're listening you'll learn exactly what you need to be comfortable. But keep in mind that your body is not a "set it and forget it" product. Even when you have a great system in place you'll need to adapt frequently to changing conditions, dwindling energy or variations in your speed or terrain. You should be able to adjust quickly and easily to any new requirements - and that takes planning!

3) Know your priorities - One of my favorite benefits of expedition living is that it forces us to reevaluate our priorities. I love the process of paring down and simplifying. I love shaving off physical weight (what's the old mantra? ounces=pounds=pain?) and also psychological weight, which can build up like plaque from living in our hectic, always-connected society. But I'm not a minimalist and I'd fail any ultra-light test. My priorities include having fun and being efficient (up to a point). They also include peace of mind, which means that I often carry one or two "insurance" items which I may never use, but I'm so glad to know that they are in my sled in case I need them.


A skier en route to the South Pole wearing a facemask
My "insurance" items usually include a couple different types of face protection.

4) Know what makes you happy - Sometimes it's the little things that make a difference; a cup of my favorite tea at the end of the day, reading a note from one of my daughters, sharing a picture of my dog, a game of Solitaire or a Battleship tournament with my tent mates. I never deprive myself of the little things that make me happy. They are so important and they add so much value to any adventure. I will also frequently allow myself a luxury that's not so small... my ukulele or a flask with an after dinner beverage to share. These items have a proven track record of helping to replenish my emotional reservoir or reset my attitude after a long day; and they are an important part of my kit. 5) Have reasonable expectations - Let's face it. Sometimes comfort is the last thing on your mind. Whether it's bad conditions, an illness or injury, a never-ending day, or having to give or take up slack - sometimes you just have to deal with adversity. It's during moments like these that your personal mindset makes all the difference. This is when I remember the old adage "life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it"; and this is when I try hard to "make friends" with whatever it is that is bothering me. I drink an imaginary cocktail of acceptance, optimism and resilience, and then I get on with the task at hand, hopefully with greater ease, less discomfort and if I'm lucky a sense of gratitude.


Music in a tent during a North Pole expedition
Relaxing in the tent with a little music near the North Pole

I had to drink a few of these happiness cocktails on our recent Iceland expedition. We were traversing Europe's largest glacier, Vatnajokull, when it decided to throw some nasty weather at us. We had a couple days of whiteout conditions that made us question whether we were still on Earth or whether we had been mysteriously transported to the inside of a ping-pong ball. But our team faced the challenges with persistence and humor and we had a ton of fun despite the conditions. You can read a wonderful account of the experience from a first-time sled haulers' perspective here.


Skiing on the Vatnajokull Glacier in Iceland
The horizon lifts and we know we aren't in a ping pong ball! Vatnajokull Glacier, Iceland.

Whether you're skiing to the ends of the Earth or car camping, remember that expedition mentality is as much about thriving as it is surviving. Learn about your location, listen to your body, think about your priorities, identify what makes you happy and be prepared to make friends with adversity. If you do, you'll be able to handle just about anything that gets thrown at you, with comfort and style.