March 30, 2021
How to survive the cruel cold of Yakutia.
I like adventures – even when the comfort level thereon sometimes plummets further south than the mercury does in Yakutia! But I also really appreciate downtime, and one such portion of downtime I had recently while sat at home on a warm sofa, sorting photos of – and already nostalgizing about – the ultra-awesome first leg of our Magadan–Moscow road trip on the Kolyma Highway. As I was doing the sorting, I was reminded of how I’ve been asked rather often about how we – mere Moscow ‘office plankton’ – managed to survive in such extraordinarily cold climatic conditions every day. We managed to survive by dressing properly – appropriately for the extreme cold. But what actually is ‘dressing properly’ for Yakutia’s -50˚C temperatures? It’s hardly going to be ‘make sure your coat’s a warm one and don’t forget your hat and gloves’, now is it? All-righty, then let me tell you – directly from the Yakutian horse’s mouth. But first – let me show you:
Yep – that was my full wardrobe for the whole of our road trip. Oh, the blue bag there isn’t attire of course; but all those garments did somehow fit into it!
So, where shall I start? Logically, I guess – from the inner-most garments: underwear!…
Actually, this is one type of garment that you can select from your regular, day-to-day ‘civvies’ in your underwear drawer: they don’t need to be special in any way: in fact, the less ‘special’ – the better: nothing wool, nothing insulated/thermal. One thing: they can look nice ). But even that doesn’t matter: you’ll probably be sleeping in some thermal leggings anyway, so no one’s ever going to see your Mickey Mouse briefs ).
Below – items of clothing that mostly need to be of the ‘special’ kind. And this is going to be in detail and take some time, so please be patient!…
First up – base-layer pants and tops.
I had three sets of leggings: thin, medium and thick. If it’s not too cold out – wear the thin set; if it’s cold but not crazy cold (not lower than -40°C) – the medium. Crazy cold – the thick. Absolutely-mental cold: wear two sets; if absolutely-mental cold + there’s a strong wind blowing or some pea-soup ice-death fog everywhere – all three (or, wiser, wait until the wind calms down a bit or the fog lifts). Mercifully, we never needed to resort to the ‘all-three’ variant.
// In the above photo – all three sets are uppermost on the table.
What comes next after those base layers? Socks…
A bit like the base layering, your socks should be of varying thicknesses. You don’t need too many: I think I took six pairs but only used three. So take five pairs: they don’t take up much room anyway.
After socks… outer-layer pants.
These need to be windproof and very warm. And that’s about all I know: I’m no specialist on these types of garments. Just be sure to ask someone who does know which are the go-to warm pants, or ask someone in the store you buy them at.
// On the photo the socks and pants are in the middle, to the left
Over the top of the socks goes footwear – a critical sartorial consideration in Yakutia if you plan to spend more than a few minutes outside. Much like the foregoing, you’ll need a few different types…
Regular sneakers: these are for the flights there and back, and for milling about the hotels you stay at.
Proper winter boots: for driving – including for quick stops for the call of nature – and for short walks when it’s no colder than -50°C out. If it is colder, don’t stay out in that cold in these boots for more than an hour. In short, no walking off into the wilderness and getting lost!
High fur boots, or some special insulated arctic boots: these are for longer walks (up to several hours) and/or when it’s super cold and windy, or when you’ll be sat (not moving) out in the cold for a while, for example on a slay behind reindeer or a snowmobile. Without these ultra-warm boots you could easily get frostbite in your feet. Ouch.
Which kind of super-warm boots you should go for is a personal choice. High fur boots are warmer, but insulated arctic walking boots are more practical: they have removable thermal socks inside. Having these can really help: feet perspire, so taking out the socks means you can dry them quicker. There are other options too – plenty. Just remember – without seriously warm boots you won’t survive out here!
4. Flip-flops: These are for back at the hotel of course. Nice to slip them on after a long day on the road: aaaaah ).
After the various thermal base-layer upper garments, what’s next?…
A good, warm fleece. Very practical, very cozy, and rather smart too: you can even wear it to a restaurant, which is just what I did a few times.
// The fleece is also in the photo: I’m wearing it!
And if it’s really cold, add on top of the fleece a thin, light, warm, dry, down-filled jacket. Ahh, how it warms you up! Just wonderful!
// Mine is the bright green item – bottom right corner
What’s next? Keeping the head and neck warm – very important parts of the body! For this purpose they’ve come up with this here thing called a buff, which can be used in different ways. For example, for the neck, it acts like a scarf; for the head, it acts like a bandana – or a ‘base-layer hat’ (see below). Wait: the buff has another application: as a mask. Timely, given the pandemic; but it also helps prevent breathing being painful due to the air being so bitterly cold.
Buffs take up hardly any space at all so take, say, two thin ones and two thicker ones. They’ll always come in handy – if not for you for a fellow traveler.
// Buffs: in the middle toward the bottom.
Next – hat.
You could go for something extravagant – maybe a ushanka, but there’s no need. The regular woolly hat you wear in winter normally will be fine. But here’s the thing: on its own it may not be warm enough; you need to put on under it… another buff – one of your thick ones. Talk about practical must-have items these buffs, eh? And that’s all you need hat-wise, as your coat (see below) will have a warm hood on it, which acts as a second third hat.
Moving on… to – special creams! Ok, creams are hardly clothing, but they’re no less important. See, you’ve wrapped up warm your body, head, most of your face, your hands, feet… everything – but not the small section of your face around your eyes and mouth. Enter special creams – special in that they contain zero water in their composition, for obvious reasons. Which particular creams, what brands to look out for – I’m afraid I don’t know. I ‘borrowed’ my creams – one for lips, one for face – and didn’t catch what they were called. I hope someone will be able to tell us in the comments.
Ok, nearing the end now. Next up: coat, or coats.
It goes without saying, your coat needs to be a good one: windproof, very warm, with a good hood and large pockets – big enough for your hands in their clown oversized mega-warm gloves to fit in.
I took with me two coats, and wore both at different times. One – a down-filled one, which I wore in the car, and a more substantial – polar-rated – one for the longer walkabouts. Btw, the down-filled one is highly compressible: you can fold it up tiny and put it into a small plastic bag, and when it opens up it’s also a very cozy, warm coat.
What else? Of course – the gloves/mittens (bottom left in the photo).
Whatever you do – don’t take skiing gloves. Take thin fabric gloves in which you’re able to use your fingers as the Lord meant – for pressing things like the buttons on your camera) – and also some super thick ones for the mega-cold, which normally go over the top of the thin ones. You can whip the thick ones off occasionally to operate your camera then quickly put them back on.
‘So that’s it?!’ you’re thinking? Actually, nope. There’s more…
We could now put all these warm clothes on and go for a walk. Sure, but only if the sun’s shining and there’s no wind. If there is a wind up the above-listed clothing items (and creams) would be insufficient! You’d need to get even more well-wrapped-up! Here’s how:
First, you don a balaclava – providing maximal protection of head, face, neck; and on top of that – some skiing goggles. Why the goggles? Because when it’s -50˚C or lower the icy wind will literally freeze your eyes up practically straight away! So yes, after putting on all the above-listed, you add the balaclava and goggles and you should be good to go, at least for a while – if you insist on going walkabout when there’s a gale blowing ). And that’s that: welcome to the world of cold!
PS: I nearly forgot: the icing on the cake…
If you really do fear the intense cold, these days there are special chemical-laced tissues that emit heat for several hours once you open the pack they’re in. And you can put them where you want: in your gloves, boots, or on your body. Yes modern science can do the impossible!
So there you have it folks: now you know how to survive a windy -50˚C. See, there’s nothing to be afraid of! So get yourselves to Yakutia!…
All the pics from our Magadan–Moscow road trip are here.