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Day 4: How to sleep outside in Antarctica and live to tell about it

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By Kerry Sanders, NBC News Correspondent

There are ways to appreciate what Falcon Scott, Sir Ernest Shackleton and other explorers achieved in their time in this environment. I joined some 30 or so other hearty souls for a night on the ice, thinking perhaps sleeping outside would help us better understand the forces of nature they battled. Of course, the ice on which we chose to set up shop was firmly over land, and it was a safe distance from the glaciers.

I decided it would be best to enjoy the fresh air and twilight of the short nighttime with a bivi bag instead of a tent.  If you’re unfamiliar, a bivi bag is basically a sleeping bag inside a giant Ziploc bag. The outer shell keeps you dry, and the sleeping bag -- at least in theory -- keeps you warm.  Since you’re on ice, and so much of your heat loss is through the ground where you sleep, we put down camping mats (fancier versions of yoga mats) as well.

What none of us anticipated was the rain followed by snow.

I was fortunate to have had some camping experience and  understood the value of having a waterproof backpack. I slipped my outerwear into the pack and gingerly tip-toed, so as not to soak my socks on the snow and ice. That can lead to wet and very cold feet overnight.

Karine Bengualid / NBC News

Kerry Sanders waking up after a night spent in a sleeping bag.

In my long-johns, I wiggled into my bivi bag and settled in for the evening. I used my waterproof boots, one tucked into the other, as a rubber pillow. With my head protected by a fleece ski mask, I laid on my back staring up into the clear sky. Then the rain came.  Drop after drop hit my face, so I turned to my side, and as the rain turned to snow, I finally fell asleep.

What I could immediately appreciate is how this one night, with our modern camping gear, compared to the perils faced by the explorers of the early 1900s. We have fleece and waterproof mittens. They had canvas, wool, and an early rubberized boot. Many developed trench foot, when the sweat in their boot mixed with the cold air. In contrast, my toes stayed toasty warm.

Also, I spent about nine hours on the ice. They spent months.

NBC's Kerry Sanders meets up with the decedents of legendary polar explorers Sir. Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott.


I slept well, awakened only by the occasional boom of a glacier calving. The process sound like a bomb going off in a war zone. And while anyone in the path of a calving glacier would feel the same destructive force as a bomb, we were thankfully camping a safe distance from where any tonnage of crushing ice might give way.

And thankfully, no Leopard seals came to shore that night with curiosity (or menace).

Finale: Antarctica isn't just for scientists