This February, I had my first experience of an Arctic Winter when I travelled to Tromsø in Norway. The city itself wasn’t overly cold, with temperatures only a few degrees above or below 0°c during the day, but when we were out in the night or early in the morning, we certainly did feel the cold. Things got even colder when we went on a Northern Lights chase that took us into Northern Finland and Sweden. By the time we crossed the Swedish border over a frozen lake, it was -24°c! As a Brit I’m used to fairly mild temperatures, not usually dropping below freezing unless it’s a particularly cold winter, so I had no experience dealing with such biting cold temperatures.
Mistakes I made
My biggest mistake was my choice of footwear. Although I had every intention of buying suitable footwear, the Millets employee who helped me pick my shoes out had no experience of such cold weather. He simply asked me what kinds of activities I’d be doing and the temperatures I was expecting. I only had a rough idea at the time, and I didn’t know I’d be heading into Finland and Sweden either. I think I told him I was expecting it to be about -3°c or thereabouts. Most of the time I was in Norway, my feet were cold. In Finland it became so unbearable I had to get back on the minibus while everyone else was taking photographs outside. I eventually admitted defeat and our driver helped me into some snow boots. Looking at my shoes he said, “No wonder your feet were cold. These are summer shoes.” If only I had done a bit more research into appropriate footwear, or even asked friends who had been to Norway or similarly cold places, I might have made a better choice and saved myself a lot of discomfort.
As well as having completely inadequate shoes, my socks weren’t quite up to scratch either. They were lovely and snuggly when I was inside, but outside, they failed to make an impact. Yes, they were labelled as thermal socks, but they were relatively cheap. Let me tell you, you really do get what you pay for! Katie had bought Merino wool socks, and her feet were fine all the way through our trip, even at -24°c! Sure I saved money, but my feet hurt all the time!
Another mistake I made was forgetting to put my gloves on during parts of my first night in Norway. It was much colder than usual that night, at around -10°c, and we went out looking for Northern Lights. Getting my camera set up on a tripod and operating it proved impossible with gloves on, so I kept taking them off, and due to sheer laziness, more often than not, I left them off as it seemed too much effort to keep fiddling around with them. The cold was really biting at my fingers, but I guess at that point, I was too excited to care as I was watching the Northern Lights for the very first time in my life. The next morning, we went out to photograph the sunrise, right on the water’s edge on Tromsøya. The wind was smacking me right in the face, and even though I was being more sensible with my gloves, whenever I took them off to get a shot, I started to feel it. Then, on our Northern Lights chase, I dropped one of my gloves in the snow and some got inside. The temperature was so low that the snow inside my glove would not melt, meaning I couldn’t put my hand inside properly. Even sitting by the open fire, my hand was in agony. By the third day, my hands were a mess – bleeding and sore. I bought some intensive handcream from a pharmacy in town, but it didn’t help the soreness. When I returned home to England, my hands were really itchy for several days, and even now, a month later, my skin is still quite rough and my nails are weaker than normal. In hindsight, I really should have kept my gloves on on the first night as that’s where my problems started.
What I got right
Before travelling to Norway, I invested in lots of lovely warm clothes, including a massive, thick coat with a fluffy hood. I looked obese, but my body was warm. I also made sure to take two hats and two scarves, which was really sensible as I did occasionally get wet. Having a spare meant I could leave one indoors drying and still be warm when I went out. I also bought several thermal long sleeved tops and thermal leggings to wear under my regular clothes. Most days I layered up with at least three top and two bottom layers. If I went anywhere warmer, I could simply remove a couple of tops so I didn’t overheat.
When we went on our Northern Lights chase and on our dog sled ride, the companies provided us with thermal wear. We did have to pay a little more for the privilege on our Northern Lights chase, but it was worth it. There was no way I would have survived out on a frozen lake in Sweden in my regular clothes!
Buying handcream at the pharmacy was also a Godsend. Although it didn’t completely heal my hands, it did make it a bit more bearable. I put the stuff on obsessively once I’d bought it, and it ease the roughness enough get through.
The trouble with ice…
The trouble with ice is, it’s really slippery! We found this out to our detriment on several occasions. The first time was when we realised how tricky it was to walk around on icy ground. Getting from the car to the front door of our AirBnB property should really have only taken ten seconds or so, but it actually took us a few minutes most of the time. I had assumed that my shoes had enough grip to cope, but I was wrong. What helped in the end was buying shoe spikes from the pharmacy. We still had to be careful, but it really cut down the time it took to move from place to place.
As difficult as it was, crossing the ice by foot was a walk in the park compared to driving! Our hire car had a light on the dashboard that flashed whenever we skidded, which was a lot. Katie did all the driving and was very careful, but there were plenty of times when the ice snuck up on us. As well as skidding, we also found ourselves stuck in the ice a few times. The first time was in Ersfjordbotn, when we drove down a fairly steep slope into a carpark without factoring in how difficult it would be to get back up and onto the road. When we left, we couldn’t move, we just kept sliding back down. In the end, another driver came over to help us and ended up pushing us backwards up the slope! I have no idea how he managed it, and without him we probably would have been stuck there for days. The burning smell coming from the car after that was both unpleasant and disconcerting. We got stuck again coming home one night after heading away from the city. Our AirBnB property was uphill, and with only four minutes left to go (according to the Sat Nav) we got stuck. We tried several different routes to get back to the house, all of which involved going uphill, and the roads were so icy that we kept slipping back down. Eventually we did find a slightly easier route and made it home, but that was almost an hour later! I guess the only thing we could have done would have been to get some tyre spikes fitted.
Speaking of cars…
Having a car in Norway was invaluable. Although there is plenty of public transport available, having a car allowed us to go wherever we wanted, whenever we wanted. In such cold temperatures and in icy conditions, we could hop in, turn on the heated seats and make our way around in our own time, stopping whenever we saw something pretty. There was no way we could have managed to get around by foot, and waiting for a bus in the cold would not have been fun. The car was a bit of a sanctuary for us. When we got too cold, we used the car to warm back up, and it was useful to be able to throw our stuff in the back so we could move from place to place quickly. Without the car, we would not have seen the Northern Lights in Ersfjordbotn and Sommarøy, nor would we have been able to stop and take photographs at all of the beautiful spots in and around the island.
Luckily, we didn’t run into any problems food wise. There was a small supermarket a few minutes away from the house by car, so we never ran out of things to eat. Having the house to ourselves allowed us to cook our own meals too, and with our daily routine out the window, it was easy to eat whenever was convenient to us. What we did discover was the necessity to keep snacks in the car. On our long drives into the middle of nowhere, we went without eating for hours at a time. This was normally fine, but a few times we did get peckish. Foresight meant that we always had a tin of Pringles or some other delicious snack handy which we munched away on to keep ourselves going. Food in Norway is pretty expensive, and we knew this before our trip. Katie had brought some pasta with her in her suitcase, and we managed to get by on this and a few other ingredients we picked up on our first night. Eating a filling meal before going out in the cold was one of our more sensible ideas, and choosing the right companies for our Northern Lights chase and dog sled ride meant that we got some hot food to warm us up while we were out and about in the cold.
Something I hadn’t thought of was how my gadgets would cope with the cold. I was sensible enough to bring two batteries and the charger for my camera, luckily. The cold weather drained the batteries in my phone and my camera much faster than usual. On the Northern Lights chase, my phone completely died and I had to rely on borrowing our guide’s phone charger to bring it back to life. I also had to charge my phone in the car quite a lot, especially on the first night when it dropped from 70-something to 16% percent after being in the cold for a few minutes.
With all of our gallivanting, Katie and I were always conscious of our safety. When we picked up our hire car, we made sure to get several emergency contact numbers, including the Sixt office and Hyundai Assistance, just in case we had car problems and got stranded in the middle of nowhere. We also took a number from a man at the airport so we had someone to call when we returned. As well as this, we took note of the Norwegian emergency service numbers.
While on the road, we kept to a sensible speed, and whenever we encountered a road sign we couldn’t work out, we looked it up on Google to make sure we knew the rules of the road. Everywhere we went, we made sure to use our phones as Sat Navs so we didn’t get (too) lost.
Wherever we went, we kept certain items with us, such as torches, phones and money. We also kept our shoe spikes with us even if we didn’t need to wear them, just in case we came across an icy patch.
When we were out on the town, we always made sure that at least one of us was watching our drinks. We met some really lovely people who were completely trustworthy, but we didn’t let our guard slip – you can never be too careful! It also helps that I don’t drink alcohol, so I kept a clear head while we were out and didn’t allow either of us to do anything foolish. We got a taxi into and back from town that night to keep safe.
Arctic Survival Checklist
If you’re heading out into the freezing Arctic, make sure you remember the following:
- Wear warm clothing – Do extensive research into the clothes you will need and don’t skimp on price. Layer up and leave vanity behind. No one cares what you wear out in the snowy Arctic!
- Invest in appropriate footwear – You will need at least one pair of waterproof, thermal boots/shoes. If you have any reservations about what shoes to buy, check out this handy guide. In fact, even if you don’t have reservations, check it out anyway.
- Wear your gloves – It might be fiddly to keep taking your gloves on and off if you’re taking photographs, make sure to keep them on as much as possible. If you do start to feel the cold, just wait a while before taking them off again. Also, make sure you are wearing thermal gloves.
- Over-pack hats and scarves – It’s better to have too many than not enough. If you get wet, your knitwear will need time to dry out. Spares will come in handy.
- Buy intensive hand cream and keep your skin moisturised – The cold really bites at your skin and will become unbearably rough and cracked if you don’t keep it moisturised.
- Buy shoe spikes – They’re really easy to put on and take off and they will make it so much easier and safer to walk on the ice.
- Equip your car and drive safely – If you are driving, be sure to go slow on the ice. Get tyre spikes fitted so you can drive up icy slopes. A car with heated seats is a great idea too!
- Take food with you – You will save a lot of money if you pack yourself some food when you venture out. It’s also a good idea in case you find yourself stranded.
- Choose your tour/activities wisely – The cheapest option isn’t always best. Always read the reviews, and compare what each company offers before you book.
- Bring spare batteries and chargers for your gadgets – The cold will have your phone going from 100% to 0% in a matter of minutes. Make sure you’re prepared!
- Take as many useful phone numbers as you can – Emergency numbers are a must, but it can never hurt to get numbers from anyone else who could bail you out if you run into trouble.
- Learn the rules/signs of the road – The roads are likely to be very different to what you’re used to. Farmiliarise yourself with road signs and rules before you drive on foreign roads.
- Carry essentials with you – A torch, spare glasses, sanitary products, food, money, identification. Just think about what situations and hazards you might come across and prepare yourself accordingly to tackle them should they arise.
Most of all, make sure to plan your adventure carefully, try not to take any stupid risks, and enjoy the experiences the Arctic has to offer! If you have any tips or stories to share, please do leave a comment below.