Woman on sled pulled by dogs in heavy snowfall

10 things you need to live in the Arctic

Publication date: 20 March 2020

Over thousands of years, Arctic Peoples have survived and thrived in the extreme climate of the Arctic.

Here are 10 essentials you'd need to live in the most northerly place in the world.

10 things you need to live in the Arctic

1. Boots

Boots are vital in the Arctic for keeping feet warm in cold temperatures and for allowing you to traverse ice and snow.

These beautiful boots are from the Gwich'in People of northern Canada and Alaska. They are made from beaver fur and caribou hide and decorated with beading. The boot soles are made from moose hide that has been smoked over a fire to create a soft velvety leather, smelling of wood smoke.

Moose hide, caribou hide and beaver fur boots with floral decoration at top and tassels
Elizabeth Cadzou (1936–2019, Gwich'in), boots. Moose hide, caribou hide, beaver fur, cotton, sinew, glass beads. Alaska, USA, 1993.

2. Snow goggles

The intense sunlight reflecting off snow and ice, particularly in spring, can be very harmful and even cause blindness. To protect their eyes, Arctic Peoples have long fashioned their own snow spectacles. This Dolgan example from north-central Russia is made of reindeer skin. Decorated with beads, they were worn when riding reindeer across the taiga, the forests of the Arctic.

Reindeer skin goggles trimmed with coloured beads, framing eyes and along sides
Man's snow-spectacles. Reindeer skin, metal, glass beads, uranium beads. Dolgan, Russia, before 1879.

3. A winter parka

Warm clothing is essential to cope with the blistering cold during Arctic winters. This Inupiat coat, for a small child, was made by Nancy Myers of Kivalina, Alaska. She chose a number of different materials to make it both beautiful and cosy, showing her skill and knowledge of animal fur and materials. The hood, for example, is trimmed with wolverine fur, which doesn't freeze against the face as it doesn't absorb moisture.

Predominantly blue parka with fur hood and trim around sleeves
Toddler's parka. Nancy Myers (1941–2014, Inupiat), toddler's parka. Cotton, musk-rat, wolverine, beaver and otter fur. Alaska, USA, 1993.

4. A sled

Sleds enable people to travel easily and for long distances. These hard-working vehicles need to be flexible enough to withstand the constant jostling of travelling across rough terrain.

This sled was made in the early 1800s by the Inughuit people of northern Greenland. The sled is made of narwhal and caribou bone, willow and spruce driftwood, and sealskin. It is an excellent example of the technological innovation of Arctic Peoples, despite limited materials, as they scavenge wood and waste nothing from the animals they hunt.

5. Needles and a needle case

In the Arctic, warm tailored clothing is essential for survival. The earliest Arctic innovations came with the needle 30,000 years ago. This enabled people to sew and mend well-fitted clothing that allowed the wearer to stay warm and to move around easily.

This needle case from the mid-19th century secured a woman's precious needles so they would not get lost or broken. Such cases were attached to a belt along with other sewing tools.

Ivory needle case with carved decoration and tools attached by length of leather
Ivory needle case. Yupiit or Inupiat, USA, before 1855.

6. An ulu

Ulus are multipurpose tools, used for slicing meat, skinning animals and even cutting fabrics. While regional styles and materials vary, all ulus share the elegant crescent shape designed to reduce wrist fatigue during long hours of processing food and hides. This ulu has a copper blade and musk ox horn handle.

Ulu (knife) with crescent-shaped copper blade and bone handle attached to the centre
Copper and horn ulu. Inuit, Canada, before 1835.

7. Waterproofs

Waterproofs, like this parka made from seal gut, help the wearer stay dry. They serve various functional, decorative and ceremonial purposes. In the past, gut parkas were used for kayaking, so that even in bad weather or in the event of capsizing, the wearer would stay dry.

This parka from western Alaska, was made and used by its owner, Flora Nanuk, for berry picking, keeping her dry when it rained and protecting her from being bitten by the mosquitos of the summer tundra.

Beige-coloured coat of bearded seal gut with hood, arms outstretched
Flora Nanuk (1925–2004, Yupiit), women's gut parka. Bearded seal gut and colon, beach grass. Hooper Bay, Alaska, USA, 1980s.

8. Knife and pouch

Knives are one of the most important tools for reindeer herders. Men use them to castrate and slaughter reindeer and, in the past, to score their unique ownership marks onto their reindeer's ears. This knife from Russia hangs from a belt, which also held bags containing personal amulets, fire starters and tobacco.

Belt with knife and bag, made of reindeer fur, cloth, metal and wood, coloured beading decoration
Belt with knife and bag, made of reindeer fur, cloth, metal and wood. Khanty or Nenets, Russia, before 1898.

9. Cooking equipment

Animals continue to be the main source of food and materials for many Arctic Peoples. Fish and meat are prepared in a variety of ways in the Arctic. Before propane stoves were used, Inuit boiled food in soapstone kettles, like this one, over a flame. But kettles and other vessels were also essential for melting ice into drinking water.

Part of a kettle, solid rectangular vessel, made of soapstone, iron.
Soapstone kettle. Inuit, Canada, before 1904.

10. Guardian spirit figure

Along with practical items, spiritual help has also been called on by Arctic Peoples to help survive in the Arctic. This wooden figure embellished with beaded eyes and mouth and ermine or sable hide clothing was a personal guardian spirit that protected households. It was made and used by Evenki People of north-central Siberia.

Read more blogs from the Citi exhibition Arctic: culture and climate. 

Lead supporter Citi

Supported by

Julie and Stephen Fitzgerald

AKO Foundation

Arctic exhibition book cover showing title and prow of boat in icy water

Buy the beautifully illustrated book accompanying the exhibition.

Included in The Times' Best Art Books of the Year 2020.