Equipment On The Road Scandinavia 2011

Essential Gear for a Deep Winter Cycle Tour

The original version of this article appeared in the February 2012 issue of Geographical.

Blue light invaded my cocoon of flapping fabric. My waking thought was one of despair. The wind, which had made pitching camp so hopeless and miserable the previous evening, hadn’t died. It was thirty degrees below zero.

I lay on my back, remembering how I had stumbled about in the dark tying guylines to bicycle wheels and half-buried panniers in a vain attempt to anchor my three season tent in the deep, sugary snow. I tried to muster the motivation to get up, pack up and hit the road. But motivation was proving hard to come by that morning.

Ice lake biking at Ostersund

With a huge mental effort, I struggled free of the two bulky sleeping bags and into the down jacket I’d used as a pillow. In doing so, I brushed my head against the door of the tent and was engulfed by a cloud of ice crystals. I unzipped the entrance and discovered that snow had filled the porch, burying my stove and pan. I dug the items out, soaking my thin gloves in the process. I needed to keep my gear as dry as possible in order to stay warm but some contact with moisture was unavoidable.

Whilst cooking a comforting breakfast of porridge, I opened a packet of cheese and cut into it. The cheese was frozen solid. I might as well have carried a brick around in my pannier. The porridge froze to the side of the pan, and to my Edwardian explorer’s moustache. Instinctively, I wiped my moustache with my hand. This resulted in a glove covered in porridge. I fumed and tried to wipe the glove on my trousers. Now I had a moustache, a glove and a trouser leg covered in frozen porridge.

It was at about this point that I considered throwing myself in front of the next passing vehicle.

Dashing through the snow

But passing vehicles were few and far between. I was still climbing the steep learning curve of high latitude, low temperature bicycle touring. 19,000 kilometres of pedal-powered adventures elsewhere in the world had been little preparation for Scandinavia’s ice-covered roads in February. I’d already learnt the hard way that down-filled sleeping bags act as giant sweat absorbers, that moist breath leaves pretty ice-crystal patterns on expensive camera lenses, that diesel contains water and freezes, and that standard tent pegs are as much use as chopsticks in snow. I spent many frigid nights wishing I was inside a free-standing, snow-shedding tent equipped with proper ventilation features.

At least I could rely on my down-filled sleeping mattress. Before bedding down, I’d pull two fleece hats over my eyes and don a spare neckwarmer. I had a three litre hydration pack between my knees, a camera battery in my pants, and a stomach full of fatty energy for the long winter night. This ritual became more bearable – even fun – as I grew used to the routine.

Further into my journey, I was hauled in from the cold by a passerby and treated to a warming coffee and a good talking-to. My new friend Anders was a winter outdoor guide and knew all about sleeping outdoors. I departed his home clutching a bag of wide aluminium snow-stakes and never suffered a poor pitch again. A similar chance encounter resulted in a vapour barrier liner to use inside my sleeping bags to help keep the insulation dry, and the knowledge that a heavier synthetic-filled bag would have been a better choice on a trip where it was packed away every morning rather than hung out in the sun.

First camp

My rationale for setting off somewhat under-prepared was that I could get away with making a few mistakes. A bicycle tour invariably takes place on roads and among people. No matter how extreme the conditions, you’re rarely further from help than an outstretched hand on the roadside. And this trip, it turned out, involved a strange fusion of approaches.

Although I did not carry a satellite phone, an emergency beacon or a shotgun, there was plenty in common with polar expeditions. I became obsessed with the delicate balance of exertion, air temperature, clothing, windchill, road gradient, sun, shade, food intake and tiredness, all for the purpose of remaining as dry as possible whilst making progress.

On the other hand, I shopped for food every few days in a supermarket and occasionally feasted on pizza rather than incinerating noodles on my multi-fuel stove. Filling stations sold seasonally-appropriate clothing and equipment, including folding hand saws, collapsible shovels and spare fuel bottles.

I rode the same expedition mountain bike that I’d taken through Africa and Mongolia. It consisted of a steel Kona Explosif frame with heavy duty 26-inch rims, riser bars and an adjustable stem, a Tubus rear rack, and a reliable Shimano XT drivetrain with a wide gear ratio. I’d also made some notable modifications. Flat, wide pedals accommodated the huge winter boots I wore, although the boots failed to keep my toes warm unless I occasionally dismounted for a jog. Studded tyres from Schwalbe proved essential on the hardpack and slick ice. (Salt is ineffective at keeping roads clear below minus 5 degrees Celsius and was therefore not used on the roads I cycled on. This was a relief as salty road spray would have eaten my drivetrain.) An Extrawheel trailer carried my bulky winter kit. And the oil filled hydraulic disc brakes performed wonderfully, even at thirty below.

I flushed the rear wheel’s freehub with degreaser because on a previous escapade the grease inside had solidified, leaving my legs spinning comically while the bike went nowhere. I hadn’t thought to do the same for the gear shifters, which pulled the same trick one particularly cold morning in Scandinavia and left me nudging derailleurs with my feet. As the mercury dropped, my suspension forks became rigid as the internal damping oil grew more viscous. And the saddle – a worn Brooks model that had seen more than a few adventures – did not prove as comfortable as I’d hoped. The leather took on an ice-like quality when perched upon. I kept an eye out in the shops I passed for a saddle cover to relieve my numb behind, to no avail. More than once, as my foot plunged through a thin crust of snow, I fantasised about swapping my bike for skis and a pulk.

I did away with water bottles in favour of a hydration pack that I wore beneath my outer layer. There isn’t much of a market for specialist ice-biking clothes so I took an old ski jacket. It was lined, breathable and snowproof, with plenty of inner pockets for defrosting sandwiches. The jacket was fitted with armpit zips to help sweat vapour escape. Managing moisture required constant attention, and this feature was indispensable. Beneath the jacket I wore a merino wool base layer. This simple combination was sufficient down to about minus 25 degrees Celsius. At lower temperatures I added a fleece mid-layer, pedalled harder, or both. I wore one or two fleece beanies on my head, and reserved my hood and ski goggles for snowy days.

My lower half was served well by a pair of standard padded lycra cycling shorts, over which I wore winter cycling tights and fibre-lined ski salopettes with integral gaiters. On my feet I learned to wear thin silk or polypropylene socks, plastic carrier-bags in lieu of vapour barrier socks, and long woollen ski socks inside my winter boots. This combination kept my boot liners dry and my feet warm. On my hands I wore a pair of silk liners topped with a pair of cheap fleece gloves.

Thanks to the exertion, this system kept my hands toasty warm while riding on all but the coldest and windiest days, when I added a pair of mittens. When any of these accessories became too damp with sweat, I switched to a spare pair of gloves and stuffed the damp items inside my jacket. My body heat dried out damp clothing in a couple of hours.

Before departure I’d scoured dozens of charity shops for a secondhand down jacket and eventually unearthed a suitable one in Edinburgh. I quickly learnt the necessity of dragging my £10 bargain from the rack-top drybag every time I stopped cycling for more than a couple of minutes. Together with a couple of fleece pullovers, it kept me warm throughout the worst of the winter nights as I rode across the Arctic Circle. Even after several weeks I was still shocked at how rapidly my body heat was sucked away when I stopped moving. At these times, preserving my hard-earned heat became my sole concern.

Crossing the Arctic Circle

The acute need for a constant presence of mind was perhaps the greatest difference between this cycle ride and previous travels; a loss of the careless freedom that usually defines long bicycle journeys. However, this feeling was replaced by the challenge and intrigue of operating outdoors in an Arctic winter, which was precisely the experience I had gone looking for.

Equipment Interviews Scandinavia 2011

10 Questions & Answers On Surviving The Scandinavian Arctic On A Bike

Timely or what? The Norwegian Cyclists Association have been in touch about my trip last year to Scandinavia, in which I rode a thousand miles from Oslo through Sweden and Lapland and across the Arctic Circle to Bodø. The following post is an edited version of the interview I did for their magazine På sykkel. It might help us here in London, as we struggle to cope with ten centimetres of wet slush…

Snow road into the mountains

1. First, could you please give us a few facts about yourself; age, location, what kind of work you were doing until you started cycling, and a few of the countries you have visited by bike?

I’m 28 years old, originally from a small village in the English Midlands. I began travelling by bicycle in 2007, two years after finishing university. I had no career at that time, so leaving home to travel was quite easy, as I had very little to lose. Since then, I’ve crossed nearly 40 countries by bicycle, going as far afield as Sudan, Ethiopia, Yemen, UAE, Mongolia, and of course the Scandinavian Arctic.

I’m currently living in London, where I’ve spent the last year writing a book about my travels. A documentary film has also been produced, and we hope to release it to the public this year. I have two major trips planned for 2012.

2. What was the turning point that made your transition from ‘normal’ to ‘hardcore’ cyclist, and what is your main motivation for cycling today?

I don’t think of myself as a ‘hardcore’ cyclist, although I can see why it looks that way! I guess the transition was in 2007, when I began my first long trip. I had no previous experience of cycle journeys at that time — I just used a cheap bike to get around, and occasionally go mountain-biking in the countryside near my home.

On all of my journeys, the bicycle has always been a tool to do a job. I see cycling as one of the few truly independent and self-sufficient ways of exploring a country. With a bicycle, I can travel at my own pace, cover 2 or 20 or 200km in a day, go where buses and trains can’t reach, and stop whenever I like. I can sleep almost anywhere. And the image of a lone cyclist brings out the best in people along the way. It’s humble and non-threatening, so it also gives me access to the society and culture of a place in a way that other forms of transport rarely can.

3. There are many places with a comfortable climate for cycle-tours – why did you choose to ride through some of the coldest and most desolate parts of Norway during the dark mid-winter?

There are a few reasons for this. The first was that after nearly 20,000km of bicycle travel, I wanted to experiment with how far I could push what I was already doing. I wanted to disprove the assumption that darkness, cold, snow and ice were reasons not to travel by bicycle, and the only way to do so was to give it a try. A handful of other people had already done such journeys, in even more difficult conditions, but I wanted to find out for myself. Scandinavia was close enough to the UK that I could get there quickly and cheaply by bus for the month that I wanted to spend on the trip.

The locals seem to think I'm crazy

4. What was the highlight of this tour? 

The incredible juxtaposition of beauty and hostility that defines such a place in the mid-winter. If you’re outside 24 hours a day and active, you’re fighting a constant battle with nature to stay warm, dry and functional. But you’re doing so in this staggering, inspirational, otherworldy environment. It’s a very unique set of conditions to find yourself in.

The other highlights were, of course, those moments of hospitality from the people I met along the way. Settlements were pretty sparse, and people were quite reserved, which made the encounters all the more memorable.

5. When temperature drops just a few degrees below zero, most cyclists start feeling cold and numb in fingers and toes after 60–75 minutes, and after 90 minutes it gets painful. Yet you manage to go on for four to six hours, day after day. What is your secret – how do you dress?

It’s difficult to say — I pedalled hard enough to generate plenty of body heat, since that’s the only available source of warmth, and the circulation kept my hands warm. I wore big skiing mitts when it was really cold, and when I was getting going in the morning, and a pair of fleece gloves once I had warmed up. However, despite wearing huge boots, I often had problems with cold toes. I found the best thing for that was to get off the bike and jog with it for a few minutes.

6. Most of your days ended in a small cold tent. How did you manage avoiding the discomfort of sweating on the bike, and then almost immediately start freezing when you stopped riding for the day?

I avoided sweating as much as I could. I paid a lot of attention to getting the balance of clothing and exertion right. Because the temperature fluctuated a lot — between ‑33°C and 0°C — I could never forget about it entirely. I wore a skiing jacket which had lots of vents and closures for expelling heat and moisture, and I wore merino wool baselayers underneath, which is a great material for keeping warm while exercising and drawing moisture away from the body and allowing it to evaporate through the jacket’s vents.

Snow coated bike

When I stopped in the evening, the first thing I would do would be to take off the ski jacket and put on a down jacket. This kept in the warmth I’d generated whilst riding.

7. How did you dry your damp/sweaty clothing inside a tent?

I couldn’t! Any sweaty clothing I took off at night would have frozen solid. So avoiding sweat was a top priority. My neckwarmer, for example, was constantly made wet by my breath, so it would always be as stiff as a board in the mornings. Luckily it still did it’s job of keeping the cold air off my face and out of my lungs, even if it was mainly composed of ice for most of the trip!

8. Your blog has lots of good photos. How did you manage to keep the batteries for your camera and computer going for four weeks in the cold?

I charged them whenever I could — in cafes, petrol stations, people’s homes. By day I kept the camera battery in an inside pocket of my tights, against my skin. It was annoying to retrieve it every time I wanted to take a picture, but I suppose it made me more selective with the shots I took. Whether that improved the quality of the pictures I don’t know!

The laptop battery would need to be warmed up before I could use it. Naturally, at the end of a long day and while lying in my sleeping bag, the warmest place was down my pants!

9. Apart for the temperatures and snow, what are the biggest differences bike touring in England versus Norway?

I have very little experience of touring in England. But I’d say what makes Norway special is the amount of wild land and the way in which it is respected, used and enjoyed. In England, the population is far more dense, and every inch of land is owned and used for something, so it’s impossible (at least, it looks impossible) just to wander off into the countryside. Even in national parks, camping is forbidden, and it’s discouraged to stray from marked trails.

The result is that we as a nation are fairly illiterate when it comes to outdoorsmanship, and our concepts of nature and wilderness are narrow and highly institutionalised. I really admire the approach that is taken to the natural landscape in Scandinavia, encouraging responsible enjoyment and stewardship of the countryside.

10. Where are you heading for your next bike trip?

I have two journeys planned this year. The second is still at the ‘ideas’ stage, but the first will be a two-month journey through the Western US, from Canada to Mexico (or thereabouts). It begins in April, and I’ll be telling the story on my website.

Inspiration Scandinavia 2011

5 Reasons To Go Winter Cycle Touring (& 5 Reasons Not To)

Cycling Scandinavia in the winter of 2011 was an intensely memorable experience, ticking all the right boxes at that time in my adventure cycling journey. Here are five reasons I’d urge other adventurous riders to give it a shot:

  1. Challenge
    Winter cycle touring throws a lot of new considerations into the mix. After 18 months on the road in more temperate climes, I needed to push myself, broaden my experience and learn some new skills.
  2. Beauty
    The ethereal sunlight and snow-clad lands of the far north might be as familiar to locals as grey skies and patchwork fields are back home, but for me this harsh spectacle was rarely short of breathtaking.
  3. Solitude
    This region is sparsely populated, and the back country is all but deserted during winter, save for a few skiers and skidoo enthusiasts. Need a place to unwind and reflect? Head for the Arctic.
  4. Hospitality
    “We’re as cold as the weather”, said one Norwegian lady. But, although a world away from the hospitality of the Middle East, I was often taken in from the bitter cold for food and a place to sleep.
  5. Safety
    If you do get into a pickle, the fact is that you’re still on the road, probably in range of mobile phone signal, and therefore never far from help. You’re not so far from home. It’s not a polar expedition, even though your clothing, camping setup and ice-beard might have a lot in common with one.
Sleigh riders

Not convinced? Excellent! Here are some handy reasons why it’s a really silly idea:

  1. It’s cold. Really cold
    Frozen toes, cold-aches, numb buttocks, oozing nostrils producing giant snotty icicles, permanently fiddling with zips and hoods and gears and brakes whilst wearing massive mittens — and this is supposed to be fun?!?
  2. It’s dark. Really dark
    Go north at New Year and you’ll notice that the sun doesn’t bother rising at all. A little later and you get only a few hours of pale light in which to accomplish your daily distance. Otherwise you’ll be riding at night at minus goodness-knows-what-temperature, which is fine if you’re a masochist, but not if you aren’t.
  3. It’s expensive. Really expensive
    Norway’s reputation for high prices is well-earned. Expect supermarket food to be twice the price of back home; accommodation three or four times more.
  4. It’s slow. Really slow
    This can’t be overstated. You can’t ride at a clip without getting hot, sweaty, cold, and motionless, in that order. Everything has to be done with painstaking methodology, in acute awareness of temperature, sunlight, wind-chill, gradient, exertion, food intake and caffeine level. It’s exhausting.
  5. Camping sucks
    Sleeping bags suck up body moisture and freeze solid. Stoves, lighters, matches, cameras, laptops, tent-pegs and a host of unpredictable bits and pieces stop working properly. Forget to change into a down jacket immediately and you need half an hour of star-jumps to get warm again. Condensation freezes inside your tent and you get a shower of ice crystals every morning. Your food freezes on it’s way to your mouth, to the sides of the pan, and to your Edwardian-explorer-style moustache.
Sunrise in Lapland

Like many such endeavours, the memory of an experience like this is far sweeter than the reality from which it draws. But if you detect a rogue thought wandering your mind, craving irrational challenge, and you’re already well-versed in the routines of life on two wheels (or even if you aren’t), I’d highly recommend giving a winter in the outdoors a little consideration.

Find out more about the equipment I used when cycle touring in the Arctic Circle, or read about how to stay warm when camping at thirty below…

Films Scandinavia 2011

Video: Cycling The Scandinavian Arctic In Midwinter

I re-edited the short film I made of my little ice-biking excursion in Norway and Sweden to make it eligible for a documentary scholarship application run by WorldNomads.

I was surprised and pleased to come in as the fourth-place runner up out of about 200 entries. It is a valuable thing for an aspiring film-maker to receive a bit of critical praise after a lot of hard work at honing a craft — just as valuable, maybe, as the first-place prize, which was to join a documentary-making expedition in the northern Australian outback. That would have been fun!

It’s equally valuable to receive helpful, measured criticism, because in that way a person who is able to accept it can identify ways to experiment and improve in the future. I’m heartened that pursuing what I love doing is having a moving effect on other people, and encouraged to press forward with the exciting plans I’m developing for a future film project.

(Sorry I can’t tell you what it is yet!)

Films Scandinavia 2011

Arctic Cycle Video Goes To The Festival

The short movie from my winter cycling trip in Sweden and Norway was selected for presentation at the ‘One Shot’ International Short Film Festival in Yerevan, Armenia. In the unlikely event that you’re in Yerevan on Saturday, do pop down to the ACCEA at 15:00 to watch it on the big screen. The festival opens today and will run until the 24th of May.

Judging by Vimeo’s ‘likes’ and ‘plays’ statistics, lots of people seem to have enjoyed this video, although a few sharp-eyed viewers noticed the missing stamp! Whoops!

If you didn’t see the 90-second film the first time around, here it is again:


Read more about this little adventure. If you liked the video, you might also like the short films from Mongolia last year…