Is Iceland on your bucket list? Don’t forget the Nikwax

Charlie Smith is a designer, filmmaker and cold weather adventurer with a penchant for heading into frozen and hostile environments. Having led expeditions in the Arctic; including dog-sledding across Scandinavia and travelling extensively in Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Greenland, Charlie is no stranger to uncomfortable journeys in the cold. Working alongside leading adventure brands such as Arc’teryx, The North Face, Montane, Aclima, Black Crows & Land Rover, Charlie has been documenting his artic adventures, expeditions and endurance challenges for the last 8 years. Recent trips include the inaugural Montane Lapland Arctic Ultra, steep skiing & touring in Lofoten, Norway, and Europe’s toughest dog-sled race – the Finnmarkslopet.

Charlie has been hailed as one of ‘The New Shackleton’s: Britain’s Next Generation of Explorers’ by Gentleman’s Journal, and featured in Wired for Adventure’s list of ‘Most inspiring young Explorers in Britain’ – we are extremely excited to feature his story in our newsletter, and to read that he uses Nikwax!

It’s been two weeks since we returned from hiking ‘The Laugavegur’ in southern Iceland. It’s a trail I’ve done multiple times in Summer and Winter, however, this time I was tasked to take my girlfriend and her family. Now, I know that taking any group of people on a hike should not be taken lightly but having led a group of 37 between the ages of 16yrs and 55yrs across the same trail some years earlier, I was more worried about my potential in-laws getting slightly damp than I was about anything going drastically wrong with the group of 37! My worry was heightened when my friend, Brandur – Chief Coordinator of Iceland Search and Rescue – told me, “Any relationship that can last a hike in Iceland can last a lifetime”, which I’ll admit at the time sounded more like a warning than a threat. This was followed up with, “Oh, and you’re taking the in-laws? Good Luck my Friend!”

Seven people, four days, one trail seemed easy enough. My girlfriend’s family are an athletic group – they keep themselves fit, they’re all passionate about the outdoors and, uniquely, my girlfriend is a doctor who wants to go into expedition medicine. I felt our bases were covered in terms of health & wellbeing. So, what was I worried about?

Well, in preparing for this hike I asked them each to prepare a gear list detailing what equipment they owned, when they had bought it, and how long it had been since they last used it.

Studying their lists was more akin to a ‘Greatest Hits’ album by Slush and Pebble rather than kit that would be up to the challenge of a four-day hike during the shoulder season in the highlands of Iceland. Streaming rain, temperature fluctuations between -5C and +20C, snow, sleet, hail and sun – we could expect to experience it all.

Meteorologically, the Icelandic highlands are an interesting place, located perfectly at the juncture between the relatively warm weather systems of the North Atlantic and the cooler, frigid systems of the Arctic North. There is a gargantuan tussle between these two mammoth meteorologs as they slog it out above any hikers that dare to walk through the mountains there. At just a moment’s notice, the blue skies and sunlight you’ve been basking in can sporadically decide to change and take the metamorph a little too literally – saturating you with rain, sleet and frost-fog that’s been hiding behind the mountains to the north. It’s why the Laugavegur trail closes to all but the most intrepid hikers in September and sometimes doesn’t open again until the following June. It’s a cacophony of volatility, beauty and one hell of an adventure – packaged into a four day hike just 2.5 hours from London by air.

Recalling the words of Brandur during another conversation (“Iceland is where gear goes to die”), I had to make sure that my girlfriend and her family wouldn’t suffer the extremities Iceland has to offer. And so the challenge was set – how could I prepare their kit for the unpredictable climate ahead?

This is where Nikwax came in. I’ve been using the brand for years – not just because of its recognizable green-capped bottles lining the shelves in my dad’s shed before I even knew what DWR stood for, but because like the Icelandic weather, most of my adventures happen sporadically. I usually embark on long, dark, wet and cold Arctic expeditions in the winter, which effectively means that for 9 months of the year, my most important [sic. expensive] gear is in storage – airtight chemical tubs, Really Useful Boxes and packing crates galore.

Upon returning from the cold wilderness, the wholly separate, yet equally important, phase of preparing my equipment for its period of hibernation begins, which means washing, cleaning, drying, and airing everything…

My detergent drawer is cleaned more thoroughly than a military rifle. My merino wool base layers are washed with (copious) Wool Wash and then air dried. My merino fishnets (Woolnets) are doused in a bath of hot water and Wool Wash – I can’t risk them in even the gentlest of washing machines. My waterproof layers are washed with Tech Wash® followed by TX. Direct® Wash-In and then a cursory spray of TX. Direct Spray-On for good measure. My down jackets, admittedly, don’t get too much attention, just for the fact that I usually run hot and end up lending them to whichever poor soul has followed me into the cold this time. However, I have good memories of using Down Proof and endlessly kneading my favorite Montane® Down jacket after it was used and abused in the northeast of Greenland.

I’m well aware this may read like the diary of a person beginning a borderline obsession, however, in Arctic environments you quickly discover there is a thin line between freezing in saturated clothing and being safe in dry warmth – that thin line is usually called GORE-TEX® and it doesn’t work unless you look after it – and look after it well. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned on my journeys is that if you look after your kit, it’ll look after you back.

So, it’s five days before we are due to leave for Iceland on a hike that purportedly will not only make or break my relationship, but also all the equipment I’ve brought to endure the next four days of volatility (the weather, not the in-laws). The team have also dropped off their own kit with me, which I have volunteered to prime, and so the washing, cleaning, drying, airing and protection process begins. The waterproof jackets go through their two wash cycles and are doused in a fine mist of TX. Direct Spray-On before being flung over any available hook, merino wool base layers in all shapes and sizes are left to dry on towel rails, radiators and DIY internal washing lines, and down jackets, thankfully, are nowhere to be seen!

Seven people, seven jackets, seven pairs of trousers, seven sets of waterproof mid layers and bottoms, fourteen base layers, twenty-eight socks, countless gloves, hats and beanies… the list went on.

Just one garment slipped through the net of my makeshift launderette – a black, cotton pajama top sneaked its way into the waterproof wash and now showcases waterproofing properties to make even the latest GORE-TEX jacket green with envy. 

As the mountain of clothing became a molehill, it didn’t feel like a chore at all – in fact, I enjoyed it. Be it the thought of keeping the potential in-laws sweet, or pre-adventure enthusiasm/anticipation, preparing all of our kit with Nikwax felt like getting my armor ready for battle – a way of physically channeling my inner explorer’s excitement in a methodical and (most importantly) useful way.

Header image: ©Philip Lindberg, Unsplash