Having spent many months in some of the most unforgiving and demanding locations in the world, Alex has begun a section dedicated to real-world and relevant reviews of expedition equipment. For professional polar expeditions, only the best, most reliable gear will do and so the reviews are comprehensively worded after periods of rigorous testing.
Skis: Asnes Amundsen, Fischer E109 Crown (for use without skins)
Poles: Swix Composite Mountain Extreme
Bindings: Icetrek Flexis
Boots: Baffin Polar series, Sorel Open Range
Base Layer: Icebreaker merino wool (150, 200 and 260 weight)
Cold Weather Outers: Montane Extreme Smock and Salopettes
Windproof: Rab Latok Alpine Jacket
Working Gloves: Rab Baltoro
Mitts: Mountain Equipment Redline, Rab Expedition Mitts (for emergency low temperatures etc.)
Balaclava: Outdoor Research Gorilla
Windproof Hat: Sealskinz Winter Hat
Goggles: Oakley A Frame
Glacier Sunglasses: Julbo Sherpa
Sledges: Snowsled plastic, glassfibre or carbon-kevlar
Hauling Rucksack: Karrior SF Sabre 45
Tent: Lightwave T3 Arctic
Stove: MSR XGK II
MSR XGK I and II (£125)
MSR has long been synonymous with the very best in expedition stoves and the XGK has long been their flagship model. The original model has been replaced with the current model which sports a robust design and long-awaited legs which can be screwed to a stove-board. The shaker-jet design ensures that the jet is kept clear and clean at times when you really do not want to be fiddling around with tools at -30deg. Although the pumps are made largely from plastic, they are well-made and light enough so you can afford to carry spares.
The fuel line is within a solid metal arm which adds to a confidence-enhancing build quality. The stove is very easy to use, with a single fuel valve control and primes quickly, even at altitude. I have used a single stove and pump for four months in the Arctic without having to resort to a deep clean or spares parts even once.
Primus Omnifuel (£130)
Primus is one of the oldest names in outdoor stoves but has only recently begun to serious challenge the MSR range. The Omnifuel is Primus' top of the range expedition stove and has the added feature of being able to operate using compressed gas as well as liquid fuel. The system used is similar to the MSR XGK, even to the extent that most recent pumps are plastic in preference to their previous metals versions. This makes handling easier in cold conditions but may impact their robustness. It has an excellent stable and squat design with legs which can be easily secured to a board. There is no shaker-jet option which means regular maintenance with the slightly flimsy multi-tool in order to keep a strong burn.
The stove uses a double gas valve system, one at the pump end (the master valve) and one at the stove end (for fine control). I think this is over-complicated and adds to the number of junctions where fuel leaks can occur (which happened fairly regularly). The stove also takes considerably longer, and therefore more fuel, to prime than the MSR.
Verdict: Clever with a few flaws
Helsport Svalbard 3 (£820)
This geodesic-design tent is designed with high-winds and serious expedition use in mind. The main living area is tall and spacious, whilst not making the tent a victim in high winds. Erecting the tent is quick and easy with robust poles and well-designed pole-sleeves, almost as simple as a tunnel tent in fact. The interior is well stocked with small pockets and the divider zip is of high quality although slightly susceptible to frosting up. The porch area is spacious with ample room to cook, dig a 'cold sink' hole and store equipment.
The tent comes complete with snow valances and ski anchor loops which withstood a fair amount of abuse. Some small rips did appear in these areas after a few weeks. The strength of the Svalbard against wind is excellent. On one night where a 65mph katabatic wind hit a camp of three of these tents from 90 degrees, their most vulnerable angle, two suffered no ill effects and only one suffered a snapped pole.
Verdict: Great attention to detail and inspires confidence
Lightwave Arctic T3 (£595)
The T3 Arctic is a spacious four-pole tunnel tent from the little-known British tentmaker Lightwave. Their range is very small but have excellent customer service (spare free tent-poles arrived quickly in the post when requested). As a direct competitor to the Hilleberg tunnel tents and at a good price point, the only question is: is it as good as a Hilleberg? I believe so without reservation.
During nearly four months of brutal arctic use which included storm-force winds, it held strong and did not skip a beat. Unlike some manufacturers, snow valances are included as standard and are very robust. The interior is spacious and well thought out with high quality zips and plenty of pockets. A perfect tent for the worst polar conditions, although keep in mind that it must be pitched directly into the wind as it has (as has any tunnel tent) less resistance to side-winds than a dome tent.
Verdict: Excellent alternative to Hilleberg
As a classic mukluk boot for polar applications and a competitor to the Sorel range, Baffin claim that their boots will insulate to -100 degrees. This soft boot with removable insulating inner will only work with flexible bindings (such as the terrible Berwyn or excellent Icetrek Flexis) or snowshoes and so standard touring bindings are not an option. Despite this, their performance is truly excellent. It is vital to use a vapour barrier liner (VBL) along with socks as this will keep the insulation dry and effective. Once these boots become wet they are very hard to dry and will quickly cause frost injury. On a 28-day Greenland spring crossing where others suffered from bad blisters in rigid Alfa boots, my feet looked as good as new at the finish line using Baffin Expeditions.
The lace system keeps the boot snug and comfortable on the foot although after a few weeks the thin ripstop collar at the top ripped on both pairs. This should not impact their effectiveness if trousers are tightened over the boots. A welcome attention would be a utility pocket as seen on the Doug Stoup model (below).
Verdict: Ideal for polar use (including sea-ice) as long as sock/VBL system is well used. Minor additions/improvements would help.
Baffin Doug Stoup Boot (£160)
Almost identical boot to the Expedition/Barneo boot (above) on the inside. The single strap to keep the boot tight however slips badly and does little to aid comfort. The pocket on the outside of the boot is very useful for a small knife and a prussic loop.
Verdict: Flawed tightening system makes it a distant second choice to more expensive Expedition/Barneo boot (above)
Snowsled Greenland Blue (£57)
The most cost effective of the snowsled range, this 1.5m plastic shell is designed for expeditions of short duration with low occurrence of turbulent ice. Although now made from a recently improved plastic which is more resilient, the sledge will not withstand heavy twisting or impacts, especially when heavily loaded. This makes expeditions on frozen lakes, permanent icecaps with little sastrugi and crevassing ideal. Those requiring larger loads of over 50kg should consider hauling two in tandem or using a rigid floor board to aid strength (although this removes much of the weight advantage of the 2.2kg sledge). An excellent light sledge for approach hauling or short/high speed expeditions. Optional straps are vital as are good drybags.
Verdict: Does exactly what it sets out to achieve.
Alpkit drybags (£various)
By the very nature of the alpkit range, which relies on mail-order and outsourced manufacturing to keep prices down and quality consistent, their drybags seem to change design every few months. Having used examples of all types, from lightweight stuff sacs to heavy-duty outer drybags, my impressions have been extremely positive. Most use a durable nylon fabric with a waterproofed inner coating. Despite the nylon itself appearing to saturate under wet snow or rain, the dampness does not penetrate and the contents remain dry. The seal and buckle clips are for the most part well stitched and of good quality plastic which doesn't degrade in cold temperatures.
Thermos 1 litre flask (£10+)
This standard vacuum flask, without plastic coating or handles, is ideal for polar expeditions after some minor modifications. The metal body and lid should be coated in duct tape and even wrapped with insulation foam to avoid dents. Vertically arranged matchsticks, stuck to the lid with tape helps lid removal when frozen on and when wearing gloves. The flasks are easy to store and stack and their insulation is excellent. Boiling water remains warm to the touch after 48hrs unopened in -20 degree conditions.
Rab expedition down mitts
These heavy duty cold weather mitts are designed for the most severe polar temperatures experienced on expeditions. The pile inner mitt fits easily into the down filled main mitt and the outer material is waterproof and breathable Pertex Endurance. In order to achieve this warmth however, it is necessary for the down to loft significantly, making dexterity difficult. Buckles and zips are out of the question and even holding ski pole handles is tricky. Ideal for severe or survival situations but frustrating for everyday use.
Montane Extreme Smock and Salopettes
Icebreaker Merino Wool (150, 200, 260 weight) (from £40)
Silva ADC Wind
Skis and Bindings
Icetrek Flexi bindings
Fischer E109 BCX skis
Alpkit Airic (Slim, Regular and Fat)