Equipment for winter trips
There are a couple of things to consider in general if you are traveling to Siberia in the wintertime, especially when visiting Lake Baikal. These things depend, firstly, on your destination, and secondly on your way of travelling. One thing common to all preparations is making oneself ready to fight the bitter coldness at day- and nighttime. We want to give some advice for planning a trip based on our experience from expeditions that were mostly done on foot and included sleeping in simple huts or tents. Before we begin it should be added that for sure all difficulties of nature and countryside can be mastered with appropriate equipment, but there are always many ways around to make things cheaper and more appropriate to the character of the country you are just about to travel. We want to mention these alternatives here too.
Sleeping in tents
Sleeping is the most un-sacrificable phase of recharging your batteries after a day of fighting the forces of nature. But with temperatures around -20 degrees Celsius specific preparations should be made to keep body-warmth where it belongs - with the body. On the one hand this concerns the sleeping bag, and on the other hand your thermal insulation mattress.
Choosing a sleeping bag, you should get yourself one that can master extreme temperatures in its comfort zone. Sleeping bags that can deal with -10 degrees Celsius seem pretty cosy when tested in your local store, but a three- to five-days outdoor test in an area of -25 degrees Celsius would be the more like the situation that is expecting you in Siberia.
The idea of taking some clothes with you into the sleeping bag if it is very cold is questionable, because your extremeties, especially your feet, might not get much out of it. Often the socks are already wet from sweating and keep cooling your feet down instead of warming them up. Sleeping with cold feet is extremely uncomfortable - at least to me. Equivalently, changing clothes should not be overrated either, since taking off clothes even for a very short time can already be really shocking in the Siberian coldness.
The quality of your thermal insulation matress is as important as of your sleeping bag. We have had our best experiences with thick foam mats, even though they are not very handy regarding their transport. The thickness of your insulation-mat is a decisive factor, the thicker it is the better. Sometimes it is even a good idea to take two mats with you. Inflatable mattresses bear a couple of problems in extreme weather conditions: They are difficult to repair at -20°C, while at the same time they are more prone to defects due to mechanical influence. Coldness makes the fabric weak, and a lot of the plastic material which usually is soft turns hard and sharp-edged in cold weather. We have had those problems over and over again. One practicable way of dealing with it, though, is to put a thin foam mattress under your inflatable mattress for protection.
Lifeguard foils are a sensefull addition to your equipment, too. You should either take it into the sleeping bag with you, or lay it between sleeping bag and iso-mat, but definitely not underneath the mattress. The foil reflects your body temperature radiation, and thus should be kept relatively close to the body to have an affect at all. There is no radiation of coldness, because "coldness" simply means the absense of warmth. Consequently there is no "keeping the cold away", but only a "keeping the warmth together".
An important advice before going to sleep is to widen your boots right after getting out of them at night. Otherwise you might not get your precious feet back into them next morning. The reason is the following: spending a night outside, boots tend to develop the smoothness of concrete or steel. This is most important for those who got blisters along the way already!
Specific attention should be given to always having three things with you: Thermal insulation, rain protection and, most importantly, wind protection. In a bay of Lake Baikal you might get a feeling of warmth from the winter sun, but standing on the windy lake, the perceived temperature can be twice as low as the actual temperature. Do consider this when, packing up, you are deciding if or if not to take these wind-stopper gloves or that storm-mask with you. Do it! Wind-proof jacket and pants are obligatory, and down clothing is good, too. Many thinner layers are better than one thick layer, because this enables you to adjust to the ever-changing weather conditions. Gloves, scarf and hats should be packed up in double sets, because losing one of these things can have very serious consequences. Considering the number of layers you want to wear on your trip you should take into account sitting somewhere for two hours not wanting to start freezing.
Give body hygene a little vacation on your outdoor winter trips in Siberia. The situation (several days of sleeping in a tent under these weather conditions) will see to that itself. Therefore you will not have to carry too many extra clothes with you. Contrary to what is shown in all those movies - if you are already freezing, you are most probably not going to take your clothes off and rub your body down with snow. Generally, we do not recommend this method as a means to enhance blood circulation at all. A good cup of hot tea and a fire are a far better option to warm someone up again.
One advantage of Siberian coldness is, however, that transpiration does not result in disadvantageous smells too fast. This will only happen as soon as you get into warmer places like huts or busses. Or, if you start airing out your sleeping bag at home. By the way, brushing your teeth is normally not a problem, it might just take a while to warm the tube up at your body before anything comes out ...
Generally, shoes should be warm and have well insulated soles. For hiking on the lake the sole should be rather soft. Walking on the ice is pretty similar to walking on asphalt streets, with the small difference that streets are usually even, whereas ice tends to be covered with beautiful-looking, but hard-to-walk-on ice-formations. Wearing hard and unflexible mountain hiking boots while walking on the lake might result in blisters.
A quite intelligent development that entered the mountaineering market during the last years is called "Kamik Icers". These are a sort of plastic sandals with vibram soles that have metal screws attached to the bottom. You can attach these sandals to your boots with velcro straps. The screw system for sure could be improved in the future, yet already now they are a very useful accessory for anyone who wants to walk on bare ice. Also, if there is snow on the lake, these "Icers" enable you to use the "sea streets", which usually means a big gain of time.
Even though you will experience strong coldness, the sun is usually shining during the Siberian winter. If the ground is covered with snow, the glare will be extremely intense, and your face will turn red quite fast, too. Therefore you should remember to bring Sun-Lotion with high SPF and good eye protection like snow-goggles.
Fire and cooking
No matter if it is a real fire, a camping stove or cooker or some hot tea from your thermos-bottle - you definitely should spend more than one thought on these essential things to warm you up in the cold before you start going.
Undeniably, a thermos is the most important thing! On the way you surely will not have a lot of time to start your cooker or even make a fire. But when it is cold you should drink a lot of warm tea or else - thus better carry a thermos with you than suffering from dehydration and/or coldness later on.
If you take a cooker with you, you should check how much fuel you will need for the trip and if your fuel will actually still burn at very low temperatures. Make sure to take more fuel than estimated, since cooking will require more of it out there than usually: The cooker will need more fuel to get hot in the coldness, furthermore, you will have to melt all your water from ice or snow, and last not least, your cooker is your source of warmth and therefore your guarantee of survival. You should remember to cook at least twice a day (morning and evening) and adjust the amount of fuel to that.
Those who do not want to take a cooker will need wood and tools to make a fire out of it. One thing you need is a saw - it really does not matter what it looks like as long as it can cut good amounts and diameters of wood. We always had an old Druschba that worked out pretty well. Additionally there is the axe, and you might want to bring two instead of just one with you. If you have the chance to take two, bring a hatchet with a blunt and wide blade plus a normal, sharp-edged axe with you.
For cooking you can use regular enamelware pots to hang over the fire. If you already have an appropriate construction for this - perfect, otherwise you will have to improvise, which usually works out just fine. Make sure to bring a big ladle and cookingware appropriate to your menu listings. This is a good idea especially for groups.
By the way: Ice is better for melting than snow. It is easier to transport in your backpack from wherever you find it and it is also easier to store. If you are lucky you might find fishing holes in the lake where you can get water directly - otherwise be ready for long waiting times until you have melted water from the ice in your cooking pot.
Sleeping outside requires a tent. If you cross the lake in a small group, make sure to have enough ice screws and a wind-capable tent with you. You will not get tent pegs into the ice, even if you work it with hammer and chisle. It will simply break the ice into pieces. You do not have to attach every single loop of the tent, yet a couple of simple attachments - depending on the weather conditions - should be made with your ice screws anyway.
For groups, big group tents like the Jurte are a good idea - sometimes simply for saving weight on your trip, for example, if you are using your hiking sticks as tent poles. In the countryside pegs are no problem, as long as they are heavy-duty ones. When pulling them out you will put as much stress to them as when hammering them into the ground. The "Jurte principle" (fire in the middle of the tent) did not work out well for us, partly due to the wet wood (you have to use what you can find!) we were using, partly due to the weather conditions with the high atmospheric pressure: it prevented any chimney draught from coming up and supporting the fire.
How should large amounts of equipment and luggage (tent, food, fuel ... ) best be transported with the least expenditure?
No matter if the ground is covered with snow or not, the lake has a more or less even, flat surface, thus, the thought of a sled or a pulka is pretty close. Pulling your luggage behind you actually is a perfect means of transportation. This way you can take three to fives times as much equipment with you than in your backpack. We, however, strongly recommend not to carry 200 kilograms or more on your pulka. It might not seem to be too heavy at the beginning, yet if you need to pull this amount of weight with you for several days over long distances it soon will become quite strenuous.
At this point it remains a good question, where on Lake Baikal to find a Pulka or something similar. Of course you can buy a Pulka from brands like Acapulka, Fjellpulken, Segebaden or others and take it with you to Siberia. But as these products are rather expensive and not very compact or easy-to-transport, there is one alternative left that you can read about on the next page: Build one yourself!