How a Polar Explorer can Help Improve your Backcountry Hunting

Published 2018-09-26

Picture hiking into your favorite backcountry elk spot, pack loaded, bow in hand, a week in the wilderness ahead of you. Now imagine that same trip, but your “approach” is closer to 500 miles in length, in place of a pack you are hauling a 300-pound sled, and the temperature never gets above zero. This is just another day for our Ambassador John Huston, a Polar Explorer with hundreds of days and thousands of miles in polar environments under his belt. Read on to find out how his experiences can teach backcountry hunters to stay focused, motivated and well fed on tough hunts (hint: a stick of butter a day helps.)

MYSTERY RANCH: Tell us a little about yourself, and how you got into polar exploration.

John Huston: Between 2000 and 2005 I worked as an instructor and sled dog trainer at the Voyageur Outward Bound School in Ely, Minnesota, Northwoods, and Boundary Waters country. During that stretch, I slept outside over 200 nights a year. I often used stories from the heroic age of polar exploration, turn of the 20th century, as the leadership curriculum for the courses I was leading. When not in the field, I spent countless nights sitting by the woodstove in my lakefront cabin, pouring over literature about Ernest Shackleton, and Norwegians Roald Amundsen and Fritjof Nansen. Early explorers were the astronauts of their time. The way the solved problems and led their teams was fascinating to me. In 2005 a group of Norwegian explorers drafted me to join their team restaging Amundsen’s 1911 expedition to the South Pole for a BBC/History Channel documentary.

We skied and dogsledded 1400 miles in 72 days on the Greenland icecap using exclusively 1911-sytle equipment, clothing, and food.

I got to jump into the pages of my favorite books – real time. Those Norwegians became my on-ice and off-ice comrades for life. Since then I’ve been working in the polar expedition field as an expedition leader, guide, trainer, consultant, and safety manager.

John Huston hauling 300 pounds on the way to the North Pole. © John Huston

MR: What is one of your most memorable and challenging expeditions? Why?

Huston: Our unsupported North Pole expedition was a monster of mental and physical effort. My expedition partner, Tyler Fish, and I skied over the frozen, jumbled surface of the Arctic Ocean for 475 miles and 55 days. We didn’t take a single day off. An unsupported expedition is self-sufficient – no resupplies, no caches, 100% human powered, no sled dogs, no snow machines. There is immense pressure to get all the details right during the preparation phase. In the beginning, our sleds weighed over 300 pounds per person. On the morning of Day 5, at the end of the polar night in early March, our thermometer bottomed out at –60°F. For the next two days, it didn’t register above –50°F. The Arctic Ocean is the most awesome force of nature I’ve ever encountered. The ice sets up differently every year, and it can change by the week, by the day, or in the moment. Seventy-five miles from the pole a windstorm out of the northwest was pushing the icepack (and us) south up to 12 miles per day. At this point, we were emaciated and exhausted. In the end, we cut our sleep to the bare minimum, doubled down on our safety and travel routines, and pulled it off. I lost over 40 pounds. We are the 12th team to travel from land to the North Pole unsupported and the first Americans to do it.

John Huston and Tobias Thorsleifsson ski past the base of the Hardangervidda glacier outside of Finse, Norway. © Kyle O’Donoghue

MR: Backcountry hunters need to carry all of their own gear into the wilderness during a hunt, and if successful, come out with a lot more weight than going in. What similarities do you see between your self-supported trips and backcountry hunts?

Huston: I see a lot of parallels – the beautiful simplicity of living remotely with minimal resources, the wilderness immersion, the connection with animals and how they change how we connect with the wild (I’ve worked with sled dogs a lot), the camaraderie, the team dynamics, the preparation and planning, the unknown outcome, the cold, the importance of equipment, the responsibility to be safe out there, the singleness of focus.

One of the most interesting similarities to me is that my expeditions and backcountry hunts are both goal-oriented endeavors that in many ways are a journey into the unknown.

For me, that journey starts at home during the preparation phase. While on the ice, I try to stay even-keeled with my expectations and mental approach because we are dealing with so many variables beyond our control – the weather, the terrain, our teammates, and at times, our emotions. Embracing the journey, as opposed to solely focusing on the end goal, frees up my mind to patiently deal with unexpected obstacles and setbacks, learn from the experience, and enjoy living outside even if success is in serious doubt or not achieved.

John Huston during the final push on the way to the North Pole. © John Huston

MR: How do you train for those trips?

Huston: I like to say that preparation is the expedition. We are accountable for our success on the ice by the margins we create during preparation and training. The more time I can devote to training and preparing the better. A long, thorough training phase increases my chances of success and brings the expedition into my normal day-to-day life, which I feel gives the actual expedition more depth.

I break down training and preparation into four categories – physical, mental, knowledge, and experience.

Physical training for polar expeditions can involve a lot of tire pulling while striding with ski poles to simulate pulling heavy sleds while cross-country skiing. I’m big on training the body in the same way it is going to be used on the expedition. My workout routine consists of a lot of multiple joint exercises and core work, endurance training, and some flexibility training. Hiring a trainer or a coach to line out a training program toward a specific goal has always been fun and well worth it.

Physical training done at expedition pace can also be excellent mental training. Over time my body becomes accustomed to the constant exertion and snail-like pace of pulling truck tires. When we hit the ice, we’re pulling huge sleds instead of tires, but it all feels familiar. That level of comfort can be a big mental advantage.

Knowledge and experience go hand in hand. One of the most rewarding aspects of the three years of preparing for the North Pole was seeking out veteran explorers to learn from. We talked with people from several different countries, synthesized the knowledge into what we thought would work for us, and put it to the test with several training expeditions. Training expeditions also gave us a chance to play with our routines and our equipment. We had never been to the Arctic Ocean before, but we had a well-honed system, a lot of experience with all of our gear, and a good foundation of information on Arctic Ocean travel.

John Huston during a strength workout designed to simulate the motions experienced when pulling sleds through sea ice rubble. © John Huston

MR: What do you eat and drink that keeps you moving?

Huston: I like good-tasting, real-food calories – lots of them. A sufficient polar expedition diet starts at 5000 calories per person per day and goes up from there. On our North Pole trip, I ate about 7000 calories every day. I’ve been on multi-month expeditions with insufficient calories; the body begins to starve and pulls calories from itself or essentially eats itself – not a good feeling. To pack as many calories as possible into a small, lightweight package, we eat a lot of fat. We’ll add calorie boosters like olive oil, butter, and whole milk powder to lightweight ready-made meals. I take meals with a lot of flavors and real ingredients, like Backpacker’s Pantry, another sponsor of mine. Early in 2019, Backpacker’s Pantry is launching a new Outdoorsman line of calorie dense, single-serving meals, designed specifically for backcountry hunters. For a snack or lunch food, we eat high-calorie nuts, like macadamia nuts and pecans, high-calorie homemade fudge bars, chunks of parmesan cheese, butter cut into bite-size pieces, and my favorite bite-size pieces of deep-fried, thick-cut bacon. We eat all of our lunch food with a spoon, so we don’t have to take our mittens off. On our way to the North Pole, I ate a stick of butter every day. One of the keys to consuming a lot of calories is for the food to be appetizing. Another key is to break down the travel day down into regular fuel stops or breaks. On polar expeditions, we stop every 90 minutes for a 15-minute food and water break. In the cold we never want our energy and hydration levels to drop too low. I just drink water and make sure my diet has enough salt and minerals.

John Huston taking a sustenance break on Canada’s Ellesmere Island with his skijor companion Elle. © Tobias Thorleifsson

MR: How do you stay motivated and determined during long expeditions?

Huston: On expeditions, we break down the day into small steps that we can easily accomplish in sequence. These travel and camp routines simplify things and motivate us by keeping our focus on the next step rather than the daunting big picture or uncontrollable variables. For example, on a -50°F morning, we know we just have to go through our steps of breaking down camp, and we’ll soon be on the move and generating some body heat. Routines also add efficiency, keep us healthy (we put cream on our feet every night), and keep us safe (we have routines for tasks that involve risk like handling fuel in the cold or testing ice).

We break down the primary expedition goal into intermediate goals. Every time we crossed a degree of latitude on the way to the North Pole we drank a couple thimbles of scotch after dinner to celebrate. Scotch freezes solid at -40°F.

Mentally I work hard to stay optimistic and solution-orientated. We outlaw complaining on our expeditions and try to go in with realistic expectations and a sense of humor. The tough situations are not going to feel as tough if you have a fun, positive team dynamic rolling. I’m pretty good at letting my mind flow or detach a bit – where I’m 100% dialed to what I’m doing (route finding, for example) and don’t have a lot of noisy thoughts crowding my head – and time seems to pass quickly.

MR: What do you take away from a big trip when you re-enter “real life” again?

Huston: The first thing I do after a big trip is… eat a lot. Once I gained 35 pounds in about two weeks.

Expeditions always give me an appreciation of what is important in my real life. After two months of skiing 8 to 10 hours every day the people and the experiences that are most valuable to me readily rise to the top of my thoughts. On the ice, I’m always making lists of what to do when I get home. I try to make good on a few of those goals right away before life gets busy again.

Perhaps my biggest take away from long expeditions is an exhilarating feeling that traveling self-sufficiently, under my own power, at my natural pace in the backcountry day after day after day has unlocked mental and physical aspects of me that are impossible to attain elsewhere.