(this is not an update – only read if you are planning a cold trip or just interested in surviving the cold!)
When we were preparing to start this trip, it was quite hard to find good info on cycling in the extreme cold (below minus twenty centigrade – all temperatures I refer to here are in centigrade). The following is just my opinion from what we experienced. The coldest temperature we had was minus 40 and most of these tips refer to surviving in this (please also note that we were fortunate to have almost NO WIND. The same temperatures with wind would be require considerably more clothing I think)
One good possible source of info is www.icebike.com – a North American website
- Would be worth having spiked tyres (we didn’t have these and consequently fell off quite often)
-the metal parts of the bike had no problems, but plastic parts (toeclips, cables) became very brittle and broke/shattered below minus 20
-bicycle pump – ditto – the screw on nozzle (which attaches to the inner tube) snapped on both our pumps when we had a puncture at minus 35. So I would advise at least 2 pumps, ideally with metal nozzles. Treat these with care
-Patches seemed to come off punctures sometimes
-Gears. When it was a bit warmer and water gets onto your gear cables and then freezes, they get jammed… nothing much you can do about that, but I guess if you keep clearing off this ice then once it gets colder they will be ice free. I was nearly always in bottom gear on the front cog.
- During the day, at minus 35 I wore:
Legs: Skimpy Ronhill tracksuit and baggy gortex over trousers
Body: 3 thermals and then a windstopper fleece (if dry) or north face gortex jacket (if snowing) (Gortex did not really function below minus 25, so had a big lining of ice.
Head: Balaclava and Wooly hat. Ski goggles. I grew a silly beard and if it was really cold put a kind of head band across my nose. (oh, and it is worth putting a spare glove or something down one’s crotch to stop your willy getting frostbite (no joke!))
Hands: We had poggies for our handlebars – kind of glove things which you tie to your handlebars and can put your hands into when riding – quite good, especially in the wind. Then – thin layer gloves (always wear, even if fixing bike), and either army gortex gloves or sheepskin gloves. My hands were fine as long as I kept moving.
Feet: This was the biggest problem, as so little blood goes to your feet, especially if cycling… eventually we went 2 layers – the traditional Russian felt boots – Valenki as under boots – and then Neos over boots on top (Al got the over boots in Alaska, Valenki can be found easily in Siberia).
Valenki are very cheap and (as Al remarked) look as if they are made of carpet tiling. They are actually very warm. However, 2 reservations on Valenki:
1. Make sure you get the ones WITHOUT the plastic sole – i.e. The ones with no sole are much, much warmer (as I found out).
2. Your valenki are very liable to shrink! Both Al and I started off with nice big valenki with which we could wear 2 thick pairs of socks. After 10 days, we found we could only wear one pair of socks. After 20 days, one thin pair of socks and it was very hard to get the darned boots off. Eventually we had to cut all sorts of holes in the boots just to get them off our feet. I think most of the shrinking came about due to our feet sweating and then the boots drying out each time we stayed in a village… and then shrinking. Possibly if you do not let your boots dry out (i.e., put them outside so they freeze at night), you would be ok (they quickly thaw in the morning).
The Neos overboots were good and add 10 or 15 degrees to your foot temperature.
I found feet the most stressful thing of all – frequently having to jump off the bike and run with it, stamping my feet – to try and get some feeling back. Both Al and I lost toe nails, but thankfully no frost bite.
If I was doing it again, I would probably invest in the ultra warm Baffin boots (more expensive, but worth it in the end I think)
If the temperature is warmer, obviously shed layers as appropriate. It is also VERY IMPORTANT to manage your heat well in order to AVOID SWEATING. If you sweat, then it will never really evaporate.
-In addition to daytime gear, it is nice at night to also have a very warm puffa (down) jacket; some kind of big warm socks/slippers; a massive Russian fur hat; maybe some dry thermals in case you did sweat during the day; maybe a spare fleece.
Other (important) Because it is so cold outside your layer of clothing, it makes sense to use your body heat to keep things warm. So:
- Water: obviously water bottles freeze, so besides a good thermos (1 litre) we also had camel backs – which we wore under our coats, so our body heat kept them mostly non frozen (you have to put the tube down your shirt sometimes to melt it).
- Camera – wear under your coat as otherwise it stops working in cold
- You can keep food in your inside pockets to stop it freezing
- Al had the ingenious idea of filling our panniers with cheap Russian ice cream cones – it never melts and has lots of energy (suitable in “warm” temperatures of around minus twenty)
-Tent: Two things to watch out for (i.e. things I wish I had been told)
1. If you have one of those beautiful plastic windows to look out of to see if it is raining from the comfort of your tent… below minus 25 it will simply shatter when you fold up your tent, leaving you sensational views of the awesome cold!
Solution: do not opt to have the aforesaid windowed tent model
2. The poles elastic goes extraordinarily loose below minus twenty… when it is a cold night and you want to get into the tent… and you then have to spend 20 minutes untying and tightening and re-tying the elastic, this is not funny, and is potentially dangerous. Solution: Not quite sure… certainly, at least practice tightening the elastic before you set off. Also, if you are able to only dislocated every other pole (as opposed to disconnecting all of them), that might help
There might even be special cold weather tents out there (mountaineering) but we did not have one.
-Sleeping bag and roll matts. I would recommend 2 roll matts (I did not like my thermorest as my spit always froze in the nozzle making it a pain to let the air out the next day as the air cap froze) and one very good sleeping bag (or 2 reasonable ones). You will not regret carrying these if it is cold. Also, a good warm down jacket to wear at night (and to act as second sleeping bag) would be great
-Stove – obviously this is a lifeline as needed to cook and MELT SNOW at night (with which to fill camel backs and thermos). We had MSRs… but had big problems with the pumps. Not sure why and we (especially the master improviser, Al) were constantly taking them apart and fiddling around trying to fix them. Maybe the mountaineer versions of MSRs would work better. This is so important it would be worth finding out what Antarctic explorers, etc, use?
Cigarette lighters don’t work usually and matches are quite dodgy too – so carry lots of them.
We used petrol as the fuel.
-Food – because cooking is such a hassle when it is cold, in the end we went for instant noodles and then thawed out tins of meat (dogfood like) to give us fat. Same for breakfast.
We also ate lots of chocolate.
-Other – pee bottle, wide plastic rim.
Buying the gearIn Russia, you can get most of the clothing you need there in cities (if they are in cold regions)… much cheaper and mostly pretty good I thought.
I am sure I have forgotten some things and as I said at the top, this is just my opinion – get other advice and be prepared to improvise. Please email me if you have any other questions. (email@example.com)
Me in a Russian hat in Magadan – getting ready to go!