I’m just back from walking the Arctic Circle Trail in west Greenland and wanted to document the gear I used in the hope that others might find it useful when preparing for the trail. The ACT is a 165km trail that links the towns of Kangerlussuaq and Sisimiut in west Greenland. Most of the year it’s covered in snow and ice but during the short Arctic summer it is passable on foot.
(Note this post contains affiliate links)
We walked the trail over ten days between the 15th to the 25th of August. We chose our dates to try and avoid the worst of the insects and to finish before it got really cold. We expected the weather to be variable, similar to winter in Ireland – potentially quite cold (nearing freezing or slightly below) with snow or sleet but also warmish (up to 20C) with a strong Arctic sun.
I spend a long time assembling and refining the gear that I brought, it is a big part of a trip for me. The ACT is quite unique in that you need to carry everything with you, there is nowhere on the trail to restock. The only infrastructure along the route are the dozen or so wooden huts, there are no roads or tracks. If you have a problem you have two choices, either figure it out for yourself or call a helicopter. This makes it a very committing walk, in terms of gear it means that you must allow a wide margin of error. If you forget something or have something fail then you will just have to manage without.
The challenge is to pack as light as possible so that the walking is enjoyable rather than a grind while making sure that you have enough gear to be comfortable for ten days in variable conditions.
I don’t think my approach would qualify as ultralight as I took along a few items that some might consider luxuries (a bigger tent, kindle, fishing rod) but my bag was pretty light. My base weight was 7kg with 8kg of food on top of that, meaning that I set out with a 15kg pack. The average weight on the trail was around 20kg and I only met one person with a lighter bag, a German guy who started out with 14kg.
However I definitely invested plenty of time and effort into minimising the weight I carried, going as far as to cut off labels, shorten straps and cutting the handle from my toothbrush, as I knew that it would make the walking more enjoyable and that there is a certain satisfaction is having everything you need and needing everything you have.
I purchased a number of products from Aliexpress which is the Chinese equivalent of Amazon. Like Amazon it brings together a huge number of sellers in one marketplace. There is no risk of getting ripped off as the site only passes your money onto the seller once you have declared that you are satisfied with the goods. The products vary in quality and much of the outdoor gear is just a clone of well known western brands, some may well be made in the same factories. Some people may have a problem with this relaxed attitude to intellectual property but the products are rarely exact copies and some of them (for example the Lanshan 2) could be considered unique products in themselves.
It is cheap so it can be well worth a punt, you will find plenty of reviews of the more popular products on the site itself as well as elsewhere. In my experience the quality is generally pretty good, particularly from the bigger brands such as 3F UL and Naturehike. The only real downside is that shipping can be very slow, it can easily take a month for things to arrive in Ireland from China.
Lighterpack is an excellent website that allows you to compile a gear list and keep track of its weight. The information can be easily shared and it’s a good way of keeping tracking of your gear as well as a checklist for when you actually pack.
See the details of my gear https://lighterpack.com/r/5s9b6c
I used a Naturehike 0ne-person dome in Mongolia in 2016 and was very happy with it but this time I wanted to save a little weight and after researching trekking pole tents on Aliexpress (I was always planning to take poles so this made sense in a way it wouldn’t on a bike trip) I bought a very small very light one person pyramid tent. And while it was very light (410g) it proved too small to live in for 10 days when there was potential for bad weather (wind and rain) so I bought a 3F UL Lanshan 2 which has plenty of space (it’s a snug two person tent) while still being quite light (1200g).
The Lanshan has two generous porches, which would make it, in spite of its modest width, quite workable for two with tonnes of space for one. Another useful feature that I didn’t appreciate before the trip was the ability to separate the inner and flysheet. Generally I pitched it as one but if the fly was wet in the morning I unclipped the inner (which only took a minute or two) and stored it separately to the fly to keep it dry. Generally I got a chance to dry the fly at rest stops during the day.
The Lanshan 2 was amazing, it felt little a fortress. There was a huge amount of space for gear and to sit up and read or cook. It was very solid in the wind and rain. And I absolutely bring it again. For the price (€90 delivered from China) it can’t be beaten. Some of the lads had smaller dome tents and while they didn’t have any problems I think that if the weather had been worse they would have had issues with leaks and also found the lack of space challenging.
The only downsides to the Lanshan are that it’s a little fiddly to put up, but it gets easier with practice. And while the white colour makes it very pleasant to hang out in it also means that it’s slow to dry in the sun.
I replaced the supplied aluminium pegs with lighter, strong titanium pegs. The ground in Greenland was quite sandy and rocky so didn’t hold pegs particularly well so we secured them with rocks on windy days.
Poles are indispensable for the ACT. Even if you don’t use them every day while walking they make river crossings much safer and are also very helpful for crossing boggy ground. I spend ages searching Aliexpress for an ultralight set and eventually found these. Made of carbon fibre they weight a mere 155g each and are very solid. The baskets weren’t very robust and only lasted a few days of hiking so it’s worth replacing them in advance with sturdier ones.
I didn’t use the straps once on the entire trip. I found it very handy to be able to free my hands but it’s worth experimenting without the straps before cutting them off (they aren’t replaceable).
I had already invested in a down sleeping bag for my Mongolia trip, an Alpkit Pipdream 250, which has 250g of 750 fill down. While very light and compact it’s only rated to around 5C so I bought another bag, the Alpkit SkyeHigh 500 which I got on sale for around €170. Rated down to -4C with 500g of 650 fill down it proved to be well up to the job. On the coldest night I was a bit chilly and most nights I slept in most of my clothes but it seems I’m a cold sleeper as the others who had similar bags (Alpkit Pipdream 400) were fairly toasty. The bag felt very solid and keep me comfortable. The only issue I had with it was the smell, the cheap down (it has 650 fill) had a weird odour like an ashtray.
Even though the climate was quite damp I was very happy taking a down bag. Once you have a good tent and pack the sleeping bag in a fully waterproof drybag there should be no problems. Nothing can come close to down for its warmth to weight ratio. I used a number of nylon Naturehike drybags and they were very waterproof. As they were also airtight I decided to leave the inflatable pillow at home and use a drybag stuffed with spare clothes as a pillow instead. I stumbled upon a very useful hack to keep the pillow in place – put a spare tshirt over the top of your mattress and slide the pillow under. Not alone is it more comfortable but it keeps the pillow in place. Try it!
My sleeping pad was a Thermarest Neoair regular which I got from Nigel in Alpine Sports. He gave me a great price and it was delivered very promptly. Initially I was reluctant to pay so much for a pad but it really is the best out there and well worth the money. It got a small leak early in the trip from a safety pin and needed to be reinflated once a night but it wasn’t too bad. I had brought a repair kit but didn’t try and find the puncture.
My cooking gear was pretty simple as I only needed to heat water for coffee and to rehydrate my dinners. A titanium spork, sponge, striker, Opinel number 9, coffee (60g of instant was plenty for the trip) and my gas stove all fitted into a 650ml Alpkit titanium mug which doubled as my pot. The BRS 3000T stove came from Aliexpress and weighted a mere 25g and while it had worked well on my training trips it gave me problems on the ACT, it seemed to be clogged and sometimes it wouldn’t work.
Researching the trail a common theme seemed to be problems sourcing the correct type of gas. As you can’t fly with gas canisters they must be bought on arrival. Some people seemed to be unable to find any in Kangerlussuaq or bought the wrong type. When we arrived in Kangerlussuaq there was plenty, in the shop in the airport, in the small kiosk outside and in the supermarket. To avoid buying the wrong type you should check the canister fits on your stove before you start walking. It’s hard to understand why everyone doesn’t do this, otherwise you run the risk of eating cold food for ten days.
We carried a 250g cannister each. We used about half of it over the ten days having a few coffees and a hot dinner each day. The first and last huts had some non-empty canisters but the rest had none.
I carried a 2l foldable water container. With the exception of the first day when you pass some brackish lakes I rarely carried it more than half full. There is water everywhere. We had no problems with water quality but carried purification tablets just in case and used them on a few occasions out of caution. Certainly I would say a water filter is overkill.
Initially I had planned to carry 12 days of food so that I had two days of food in reserve but ultimately I decided that it wasn’t necessary. In an emergency you could usually find some food in the first and last huts and if you were really stuck your fellow hikers would help you out.
I divided my food into a bag for each day. This made life simpler on the trail but required lots of plastic bag (about 70!) and took up a bit more space in my pack due to trapped air in the bags. The system worked well and I was able to plan the meals so that there was some variety from day to day.
I planned on about 3600kcals per day weighing around 800g. With my food coming to just over 8kg in total, which was over half my total pack weight.
For breakfast each morning I had a few bars, flapjacks or snickers or similar, I usually had one with coffee and the other at our first break after about two hours walking. Lunch each day consisted of soft tortilla wraps with sliced chorizo or salami and some crushed up crisps. The wraps stayed fresh in the ten days sealed in ziplock bags.
Dinner each day consisted of three packs of cupshotz, an Aldi own-brand hydrated pasta/noodle snack. They are pretty tasty and comparable to expensive freeze dried meals in terms of energy per gram and they are a fraction of the prize. They just needed to sit in about 300ml of boiling water for a few minutes to cook. I usually sprinkled some leftover crisps or salami on top to make for a 1000kcal meal.
I also took some snacks, chocolate or yoghurt covered peanuts or banana chips or similar. I usually ate something just before falling asleep to keep me warm through the night.
In the end I pretty much ate all my food. I had some leftovers from the first day (we had eaten plenty that morning before and during our flight) and the last day (we got into town at 12 so I only ate breakfast from my rations). I could have got by on less but overall I think I judged it about right.
I kept all my other smaller stuff organised into a few ziplock bags and Naturehike zipped bags (these are billed as waterproof but aren’t even close, a drybag would be a better alternative).
First aid and repair kit
Thankfully this stuff went largely unused apart from the needle and floss which I used to sew my rucksack.
I brought toilet paper but never used it. I found moss to be a much more environmental and effective option. There was quite a lot of paper visible on the trail which was very disappointing to see. If you must use it either bury it or take it home with you.
I used the head net on a few occasions and didn’t use the repellent, overall the bugs were fine. Apparently they were bad near the west end of the trail earlier in the month so maybe we were just lucky. It would be wise to bring a spare head net as they are easily lost and it would be horrible to need one and be without. I brought a tiny head torch but never needed it, it doesn’t really get that dark, it’s probably wise to bring something though just in case of an emergency.
I bought the three Harvey’s 1:100,000 maps that cover the trail from Cordee. I scanned them and the relevant pages of the Paddy Dillion’s Arctic Circle Trail guidebook and formatted into a 6 page PDF with a section of the map on one side and the relevant information from the guide on the other. I got this colour printed and laminated in a print shop for €12. This worked out very well as I was able to store each day’s map in my trouser pocket.
You could probably get by quite well with just the guidebook as generally the trail is easy to follow but it was nice to be able to consult the map to get a sense of the place.
Soon after leaving Kangerlussuaq you lose phone signal but I kept my phone on flight mode for the whole trip in case I needed to consult the GPS, which I never did. It lost only a few percent of battery each day. We carried a Garmin InReach Mini which allowed us to send SMS, track our location and potentially send an SOS via the satellite network. It worked reasonably well but some aspects are less than intuitive. It was worth carrying for peace of mind but most people on the trail didn’t have one or anything similar.
I took my kindle and used it for a few hours each evening. Everyone went to bed pretty early but I found I needed to read for a few hours before falling asleep. Some might consider it a luxury item but I think a kindle is essential considering that you could be cooped up in your tent or a hut for a long time.
Another luxury item was a small telescopic spinning rod and tackle. I was keen on trying to catch an Arctic char and was lucky enough to catch two. Well worth bringing a compact rod and a few spinners if you are interested in fishing.
I carried all my gear in a 3F UL rucksack . The minimalist bag has one 40l compartment with a rolltop closure, two side pouches and a large mesh pocket on the front. It has no rigid back system and to be comfortable it needed to be packed very carefully. The low weight (700g) and simplicity appealed to me but I was a little concerned about how it would handle a heavy load.
After using it over a dozen times I was satisfied it was up to the job however on the second morning of the hike I realised that it was starting to come apart where the hipbelt meet the back panel. I managed to sew it using floss and a needle and it held up fine for the rest of the trip. The bottom line is that the bag wasn’t designed for the weight (16kg) it carried at the start of the walk. Nevertheless I think it’s an excellent bag for lighter loads and was even very comfortable with a heavy load.
I lined the bag, which isn’t waterproof, with a heavy duty bin liner (it was black, a whiter one would have made it much easier to see inside) and everything was also stored in its own drybag. In the side pockets I carried my water and fishing rod. The mesh front pocket contained everything I needed during the day including rain gear, gloves, hat, sunscreen, head net and snacks – all packed into a water-resistant bag (next time I would use a proper drybag).
I’m not a big fan of pack covers and they definitely aren’t enough on their own to keep a bag’s contents dry. Everything should be double bagged, you need to be confident that the contents will stay dry during a long day’s walking in heavy rain (hopefully it won’t come to that).
This was an area in which I probably took a lot less than other people. I basically had the clothes I wore each day and tent clothes.
My rain gear consisted of an Alpkit Balance jacket and an 3F UL rain kilt. Fortunately they weren’t used much as we only had very light drizzle for the first few days and one short shower later in the trip. I wore the jacket quite a bit over my base layer when it was windy. The kilt, which is basically a rectangle of light nylon, is a little weird but works really well in light rain. It’s very light and compact but isn’t a substitute for rain trousers in really wet conditions.
I took a fleece to wear during breaks and when the weather was very cold while hiking as well as a very light down jacket (a Patagonia down shirt) to wear in the tent and around camp. Spares amounted to one pair of underwear, a short sleeve base layer and a few pairs of socks.
My Lowe Alpine base layer is over 20 years old and still going strong. A white (keep you cool), long sleeved (keep insects and sun off the arms) base layer is really useful if a little impractical in that it gets grubby pretty quickly.
The vast majority of hikers on the trail wear heavy leather boots but I choose to wear a pair of Innov8 Terraclaw 250s, a fairly minimalist trail running shoe. They are very light and comfortable with excellent grip. Inside them I wore a pair of Sealskinz waterproof socks. I had used Sealskinz before and they had worked reasonably well so bought a brand new pair of mid-weight, mid-height hiking socks for the ACT. Waterproof socks are funny in that when they are working properly your feet still feel like they are wet i.e. you can feel the water and it can be cold and sometimes a little clammy inside the sock even though ultimately your feet are dry.
In the end the waterproofing lasted for 8 days, unfortunately giving in on Day 8 which is the wettest day. I wore them again on Day 9 but carelessly singed them while trying to dry them over a gas stove so they started to cut my feet on the last day and I had to swap them out. If I was going down the trail runners and waterproof socks route again I would take two pairs of Sealskinz and alternate them daily.
My three fellow hikers wore leather boots and their feet stayed dry throughout. Next time I would consider a pair of lightweight Goretex-lined boots teamed with a pair of long gaiters instead or trail runners as it would be great to keep the feet dry. That said I never suffered any foot problems.
To combat the dampness I rubbed nappy rash barrier cream Bepanthen onto my feet each morning (a 30g tube was more than sufficient).
I wore a pair of decathlon running gaiters to keep stones out of my shoes.
On reflection I would probably bring along a pair of light flipflops or similar for around camp. If you wear boots then you will need something to wear when fording the bigger rivers. Flipflops with some sort of extra strap to keep them on your feet, sandals or crocs would all work well.
Shortly before the trip I decided to buy a smaller point and shoot rather than take my bigger DSLR. I bought a Canon G9 x and it worked out really well. It fitted in the hip pocket of my rucksack so was always to hand and I’m really pleased with the photos it took. I can’t see myself taking the SLR on many overnights any more.
I brought a Anker 10,000mAh power pack to charge the camera, the InReach and my phone. Unfortunately it stopped working on the last day.
I took a tiny tripod but it wasn’t dark enough to take any astrophotos and I only used it once for a group photo. I would leave it behind next time.