Long-term winter travel - pros and cons

Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
Trip End Nov 30, 2009

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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

I've had a few questions from readers about the practicalities and logistics of travelling through Arctic conditions and northern winters, and I know I was concerned about the extreme cold before I got there, so in the hope that it's useful for future trekkers here's a summary of the pros and cons of winter travel. Hope it's of interest.

I should first say that I have been very fortunate so far regarding the weather. I travelled across the Australian outback in midwinter, and that was cold at night but pleasant through the day. The whole way through South East Asia up to northern Vietnam was in 'shoulder seasons', either coming into or out of monsoons on the coast and missing the heat and intense humidity of the tropical summer. It could have gone one way or the other and I just got lucky the whole way through. Flies and mosquitoes in many areas were non-existent or barely noticeable.

Once I got to the middle of Vietnam, monsoon had set in on the coast and winter had descended further north. That meant no diving at Nha Trang and foggy (but interesting) conditions at Halong Bay. China in December is cold - you can't deny that, and obviously Mongolia, Russia, Eastern Europe and Scandinavia are going to be pretty frosty indeed (anywhere between 0C and -40C) any time after October. I purchased appropriate gear for this leg in China, probably the best place to do so due to low costs, and was surprised at how warm you can be at excessively low temperatures.

All this meant that most places I went to were pretty comfortable to travel in and did not have any of the peak tourist season problems (crowds, inflated prices etc). Some hostels discount prices, some museums let you in for free and there was always other travellers about so there wasn't the lack of companionship problem you might expect.

On the downside everywhere had pretty short daylight hours for sightseeing and some tourist attractions/activities, especially in Scandinavia, are closed all winter. Usually the most important attractions remain open (e.g. the Hermitage) but a lot of other stuff will be shut so you miss out on some cool stuff. Oh well, you can't do everything anyway.

The moral of the story is that I'd recommend winter travel if you're not a high maintenance traveller. Do your homework on a particular destination, check when high, low and shoulder seasons are and if perfect weather is not most important to you, try to go in the shoulder season. You are likely as not to get good weather anyway and find many benefits for doing so. The exception to this is spring in heavy-snow climates - it gets all slushy and gross.

Finally, if you do go in winter and it is going to be damn cold, take necessary precautions and buy suitable gear. I was lucky to be able to pick up seconds quality ski gear in China before departing (for less than $AU100), but even before I left I had thermal underwear ready to go. Don't forget good footwear and headwear either - very important so you don't end up miserable every day...

Good luck.
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