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How to Survive at 42 Below Zero

Don't cross the streams!

That bundle of puffiness up there doing a great impression of the StayPuft Marshmallow Man is me, getting ready to head out into ridiculously cold weather. How cold? −40°, and sometimes colder. I didn’t specify Celsius or Fahrenheit because that is the magical temperature at which they meet. It’s so cold it doesn’t matter.

Just to give you an idea of what it’s like walking around at these temperatures, if you threw a pot of boiling water into the air, it would turn to snow instantly. It’s typically a better idea to put things on the windowsill to cool them down quickly, as it’s more freezing than the freezer. The water vapor in your mouth freezes when you inhale, so your first breath after stepping outside is typically followed by a massive coughing fit while your lungs try to figure out how you managed to breathe ice.

I think you get the idea of how incomprehensibly cold that is, yet it’s just another winter here in Mongolia. Each day, if you decide you want to step outside to, I don’t know, get food, you are facing spending a lot of time out in this consciousness-freezing weather. If you are taking public transportation, you will be waiting out in the cold for an infrequent and unscheduled bus. When it finally comes, there will be a thick coating of ice on the inside of the bus, due to the condensation building up and freezing when it touches the window. So, good luck figuring out which stop is yours, as they don’t announce it.

All the deels are all lined up.

The way Mongolians survive is by wearing a “deel” (pronounced “dell”). A deel is a massive, thick robe lined with sheep hides, all of the wool facing you with its soft, cuddly warmth. It’s essentially a bright colorful tent where you are constantly being hugged by a herd of sheep, and it is very, very warm. Regardless of how beautiful they are, they are expensive, big, and fairly useless outside of Mongolia, which means they’re out of the question for me.

I’d always assumed scientists living in Antarctica just stayed indoors all the time, but the fact that there are outdoor markets here year-round meant it was possible to survive in this weather, and perhaps even thrive. Piece by piece I figured out how to not get hypothermia while using what I had with some local materials, despite the completely anti-minimalism stance. I decided I liked breathing more than not having this stuff.

Step 1: Baselayers

As I’ve written about before, most of my clothes are merino wool already, which comes in very useful here. Wool underwear, wool leggings, a wool t-shirt, and wool socks make up my first layer. So far, nothing new.

Step 2: Midlayers

On top of the existing warmth, I wear another pair of leggings, these made from local yak’s wool, two more pairs of thick yak’s wool socks, and a couple of long-sleeve shirts, sometimes also wool. Then I put on my double-thick cashmere hat, a long cashmere scarf, and my gloves, which are essentially 3 very thick pairs of gloves crammed into one pair. I also wear my fleece coat on top of all of this. That should be enough, right?

Step 3: Outerlayers

No. On top of all of this I wear jeans, a pair of hiking boots rated to −30° (ridiculously warm most of the time but here it’s not enough), and a knee-length down coat with a hood and a zipper cover to keep wind from sneaking in and icing it shut. I pull the scarf up over my face to allow me to breathe, and the only part of me left exposed is my eyes. As a result, the hot air coming out of my scarf rises up and freezes onto my eyelashes, frequently freezing my eyes shut. But I’m warm.

Now that I’ve described everything needed just to step outside for a second, imagine how long it takes to put all of this on in the morning before you even get to step outside. About 20 minutes every single time. Now cut to 3 hours later and imagine you just braved the icy outside world to finally get back to your nice, toasty home. You are suddenly sweltering inside your wool furnace, and are facing the same 20 minutes while you drench everything in sweat. Whee! It’s a good thing merino wool never stinks.

Now I have a huge collection of very warm clothes that have even gotten me through spending a winter night outside sleeping in a yurt. Every single day I’m thankful for each and every item, especially the cashmere. It’s a luxury in the rest of the world, but a staple fabric here (the only thing both warm and soft enough to rub against your face for long periods), available cheaply on most street corners.

So, how does this all fit into my minimalist lifestyle where everything fits in one small backpack?

It doesn’t.

I may keep a piece or two that prove themselves to be amazing, like the cashmere hat, but once I leave for warmer climates this stuff is gone. There’s no point trying to keep this stuff as souvenirs or “just in case”, as I doubt I will ever be anywhere this cold again. I am essentially renting all of this stuff for a while, and once I leave Mongolia, I’m leaving these ridiculously warm clothes as well to return to the minimalist lifestyle I know and love.

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  1. I want “a bright colorful tent where you are constantly being hugged by a herd of sheep”!!

    That said, what are you actually doing with all those warm layers? Shipping them to me!?

  2. Dana says:

    It still shocks me that cultures live and thrive in weather like you describe, what with frozen eyelashes and all… Do the locals wear anything over their faces? What’s on their feet? The mind boggles. Thanks for sharing what it’s like in UB; I’d eagerly read anything else you want to share about life there. 🙂

  3. Chris Dame says:

    Kevin: It is every bit as wonderful as it sounds. And if you want them, they’re yours. I might even drop by to drop them off.

    Dana: The locals wear scarves as well, or sometimes insulated gas masks due to the ridiculous levels of pollution in winter. They mostly wear homemade wool shoes or Uggs, though a lot of women can be seen walking around in knee-high boots with 6-inch heels, even on inches of ice. There’s plenty more on UB coming, as well. I’m glad you enjoy it!

  4. Kai says:

    Wool! More and more Marino is slipping into my tiny bag but there is an enemy lurking out there, waiting to destroy my few possessions: the moth. Right now I’m keeping my shirts/underwear in individual ziplock bags (in case one gets contaminated) but figuring out how and where to hang dry them and how to give them enough breathing room to not stay wet in the plastic is tricky. I feel insane, but I’ve also seen how travelers in particular lose their icebreakers to holes in a mater of months if they’re unprotected.

    Any ideas, besides “live somewhere where it’s 20 below and moths can’t survive”?

  5. Chris Dame says:

    Somehow I’ve never encountered moths, living in temperatures everywhere from -42°C up to 48°C (-45°F to 118°F, which sounds more impressive). My Icebreaker shirts have all worn down, and I’ve discovered their shops around the world don’t have as much stock as their American stores, so I’m holding out until I head back. My Smartwool shirt ripped apart at the seams after about 2 years, so I won’t buy them again. I had one Icebreaker shirt get holes ripped in it at a concert by a very excited fan, and the other is finally starting to get some holes, but I have had both of these shirts for around 4-5 years of constant wear, which is impressive.

    I guess my only suggestion is to not camp inside moth villages, or at least make peace with their tribe chief. I hear they appreciate offerings of chocolate.

  6. Leslie says:

    And here I thought Buffalo was cold. This made me thankful that I’m living in Florida . . in the 80s F here today. If I close my eyes and concentrate really hard . . I’ll try to send some to you. Oh damn, I think it just turned to snow. sorry ;P

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