Pitching Tents on Ice

In 2017 I slept in various ice-camps in Greenland in spring, summer and autumn. Living on ice requires some specialist techniques different to camping on dry land, and they vary depending on the season. In summer, the main problem is the melting surface. A tent pitched directly on the ice surface will descend into a wet ditch because of the heat generated by a person inside. To counter this, tents are pitched on sheets of ply with reflective insulating sheets underneath. These slow the ablation under the tents and provide a flat surface to sleep on; however, they often work too well and leave the tents wobbling on raised platforms after a few days.

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A recently repitched tent sitting next to the platform left behind in its previous position (Greenland Ice Sheet, July 2016)

The most important thing is securing the tent to the ice surface, because it can get very windy on the ice sheet. The ice surface can descend several centimetres per day, meaning short stakes or pins will melt out very fast. For that reason long bamboo or plastic poles are drilled up to 1 metre into the ice at an oblique angle under the tent, providing points to secure the tents to. This is especially important for geodesic dome tents, where tension is required roughly evenly across the poles for the tent to keep its shape. In 2017 the combination of strong winds and very fast surface lowering meant the large mess tent quickly became raised above the surrounding ice and, despite our best repitching efforts, the poles floated freely above the ice. With no ground to push against, the poles became structureless and weak and eventually collapsed.

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Drilling holes for 1m bamboo stakes to secure the tent-tags and extra guy-lines in a summer storm (Greenland, 2017)

In winter, a stronger and more permanent solution can be achieved using Abalykov threads. These are loops of tape or rope frozen into the ice itself. There is no surface melting in autumn/winter and the surface does not have a weak weathered layer. The strong, cold surface ice is perfect for drilling obliquely with short ice screws so that two drill-holes meet 10-15cm below the ice surface an create a tunnel from the surface and back. A pipe-cleaner can then be used to drag rope or tape through the hole and tie the tent down. the hole can then be packed with snow or water which will quickly refreeze around the rope and form a super strong tie-point to secure the tent. Using a snow shovel to cover the tent’s snow-skirt with snow helps prevent wind and snow from getting between the flysheet and the inner, keeping it cosy inside and helping to keep the tent a bit better streamlined against the wind.

This Youtube clip posted by Glenmore Lodge (Scotland) explains how to make an Abalykov thread for ice-climbing – it’s the same for securing tents in an ice camp.

The Abalykov threads stood up to extremely strong winds in Greenland in September/October. The poles and fabric seemed more at risk of failure than the threads!

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