Surviving The North

PHOTO by elwynn / Depositphotos
How to get ready for the toughest hike in the Russian North

The “Great Argish” festival opened in Norilsk on Nov. 1. It was timed to coincide with the beginning of the polar night and winter. A large part of the programme is about holidays in the north, which have recently been growing in popularity.

Lenta.ru publishes a series of articles for those who have long dreamed of a trip to these untouched parts of Russia, but were never brave enough, explaining how to organise your own excursion. The first one introduces scientists and travellers from the Russian Travel Geek club who will guide you through the essential steps before setting out on an expedition.

Ivan Kravtsov, guide:

Even the fact that you're thinking of embarking on a journey is great news! The North is incredibly beautiful, diverse and tough. If you’re inexperienced or have never been camping or hiking, then you have some serious thinking to do in choosing and training your future teammates. Whether it’s Kamchatka, Yakutia, Northern Siberia or the Polar Urals, it will be a demanding test, but rewarding, too. You will walk far off the beaten track, discover spots which your friends will never see, test your physical and emotional limits and learn mind-blowing things about the world you live in.

A few tips on how to find proper gear, draw routes, pack essential provisions and protect yourself from wild animals can be handy for first-timers and seasoned hikers alike.

Footgear

Stores offer a variety of gear for climbing, cave exploration and so on. The adverts and articles you find online are mostly written by company experts trying to sell tourist equipment.

You need professional gear but there are a few things to bear in mind.

Cave
Ice cave on Olkhon island, Baikal lake

Well-known companies sell clothes suitable for extreme conditions. They are mainly American, Canadian and European brands. However, those countries generally deal with conventional tourist destinations. Hiking trips usually pass through specialist camps or lodges where you can dry your boots, get warm and cook something. The Russian North has none of these. So the first tip is forget about hiking boots and membrane jackets. In the constantly changing landscape – valleys, hills, swamps and rivers – any membrane boots are bound to get wet within a few hours, so rubber boots are a better choice for rough terrain.

Artem Akshintsev, head of Russian Travel Geek club:

Rain, heavy dew, swamps, ditches. No matter how expensive your boots are, they will get soaked. If you’re eyeing something more than just a weekend getaway, for example, a route with no campsite, you’ll have no chance of drying your membrane footwear. Once they've dried over the fire, your boots will look like cheap army ankle boots. The membrane, that appears to be so invaluable in the mountains, instantly loses its quality when dried over fire and no longer holds moisture.

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Your best choice is rubber boots. I have worked at the natural reserves in the North for over six years and I’m yet to meet any seasoned trekker marching through the swamps and animal tracks, wearing anything other than rubber boots. The only change over the years is that foot wraps have been replaced by dual-layer fleece socks. These socks are very important: without them you are guaranteed blisters and grazes.

Fishing waders are perfect for exploring a wild boreal forest. But they have to be rubber ones. EVA boots are quite fashionable and considerably lighter, but the downside is that they’re easily pierced by tree roots and branches.

In winter, insulated rubber boots with gaiters are ideal. Gaiters prevent snow sneaking into the shoe. Going on a summer route, bring along your sandals too. They’ll help your legs to relax at the end of the hiking day once the camp is set up. They’re also invaluable when you have to cross fords. At the end of the day, take off the boots and leave them inside out to let the wind do its work.

Steppes
Chui-Oozy, confluence of the rivers Chuya and Katun. Altai mountains

Hiking Clothes

Proper clothing is also important. In summer, you need thermal underwear, a woollen or fleece sweater, a large raincoat (ideally big enough to cover a backpack), gloves and anti-encephalitic suit.

Why the suit? Ticks and mosquitoes can seriously spoil your experience of the trip. The anti-encephalitic suit is basically an anorak with an attached mosquito net for protection from flies. You should get one made from modern fabrics. The cotton suits, which were worn by our grandparents, have one downside: they absorb moisture. Once they get wet, you will immediately feel the additional weight.

Winter gear is similar, except you don't need the “suit.” Just dress warmly. In any season you should carry a change of dry clothes (at least socks and a sweater) in a thermal and waterproof bag. The rest is no different from an ordinary hiking trip: a warm sleeping bag, packed in a thermal cover, a sleeping mat, flashlight, insect repellent (in summer), rechargeable and regular batteries for the camera and GPS-navigator. A gas burner and pot can come in handy too.

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A view of Suntar-Khayata, a granite mountain range rising along border of Sakha Republic

Ivan Kravtsov:

The next tip is to bear in mind the weight of your gear. A comfortable backpack for long walks should weigh 25-30 kg. This doesn't mean you can't pack more, but 35 kg or more will slow you down significantly. Use professional tents weighing 2-2.2 kg, no more. Choosing a sleeping bag depends on the climate: synthetic materials work better in humid climates, down-padded sleeping bags are good for dry weather. Weight is crucial here too. Of course, it always depends on your budget, but it's fair to expect to spend $230-310.

Until you've visited the North, you can't realise how harsh it can be. The first expedition will teach you to get rid of any excess during the preparation stage. Your tent, sleeping bag, two sets of clothes, provisions and equipment (axes, firelighters) and a first aid kit is about all you need. You will definitely get wet, from either rain or an icy river, so it is essential to have dry clothes, which you can bring along a 60-80 litre thermal bag. Plastic containers are ideal for storing small items such as flashlights, extra batteries, GPS-tracker (be sure to buy one).

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Food

Artem Akshintsev:

To save on weight, go for freeze-dried foods. Cured meat is perfect. Canned products weigh a lot, but if you are physically fit, then a can a day is fine.

Cereals and pasta should be packed in tight sealed bags or plastic bottles with a wide neck. Don't forget about sugar and sweets either. A couple of plastic tubes of delicious condensed milk can really cheer you up after a long and arduous journey.

Remember about a balanced diet: you need proteins, fats and carbs. Local edible plants, berries and mushrooms can also add variety to your meals. But be very careful, as mushroom poisoning can cost you dearly.

Forget about hunting unless you are a professional hunter. It takes a lot of energy, so a snare is the only feasible alternative. Learning how to lay one isn't difficult, but it’s still a matter of luck. Fishing can make all the difference to the menu, so bring along a rod.

Don't forget that drinking water is the most essential part of your diet: make sure to always have extra. One more thing to remember: after a meal, any leftover food or cans have to be burned in the fire and buried. Wild animals shouldn't get access to cooked food. Even feeding just one wild animal can cause you big problems.

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Ivan Kravtsov:

The amount of food that you take should be calculated accurately. A meal should be based on essential daily required nutrients. You can take a little extra, but not more than 10% of the total weight .

You should always stock on dry birch bark or paper to light a fire in any conditions. Be sure to check whether there is wood along your route. If not, get a gas burner and gas cylinders.

If you go with a small group, it is better to invest in a more expensive vacuum burner; it consumes less fuel and is more efficient. A blowtorch will help too: it connects to the gas cylinder and dries wood quickly.

P.S.

Artem Akshintsev

And last but not least, a few words about physical training. A healthy lifestyle and fitness clubs are in fashion these days, which is great news. But when heading to the North, triceps and perfect abs do not matter. You need physical endurance, strong core muscles and little body fat. Stay fit, smart and keep your objective in mind. Only then you will be embraced by the wilderness and able to experience its true beauty.