Explorers Club Packing List
When anthropologist, photographer, filmmaker and all-round adventurer, Benjamin Pothier, got the call to join a Mars landing simulation in Iceland he was understandably excited, but a question soon followed: what to pack for such an adventure? And how could he get his hands on the newly designed MS1 suit? Here’s how it all played out.
I recently got invited as an expert in ‘human factor’ in extreme environments and an elected fellow international of the Explorers Club to join a team of explorers and researchers inside the Grímsvötn volcano. I would be traveling to Iceland and across the Vatnajökull ice cap, during harsh weather conditions and unstable terrain, to test the MS1 Mars analog suit in a martian-like environment. This was an Explorers Club flag expedition, and clearly an out-of-this-world experience.
The Iceland Space Agency (ISA) led this mission to Grímsvötn, Iceland’s most active volcano and a remote terrestrial analog. Terrestrial analogs are areas on Earth that mimic the conditions of other planets and moons and may inform how Martian life can exist on the planet today.
There are many locations in Iceland that have terrain, geology and the intense environments that are similar enough to Mars to develop mission operations successfully. Mars missions or even long-duration lunar missions require different kinds of training, including seeing how groups work together over months and years in isolation, confinement and extreme environments.(
Last February for example I spent 15 days on the slopes of a volcano in Hawaii in complete isolation at HI-SEAS, a habitat previously used by NASA for Mars missions simulation. I was there as a selected team member of the EUROMOONMARS campaign of the European Space Agency and ILEWG the International Lunar Exploration Working Group.
I got the opportunity during this mission to explore lava tubes, very similar to the ones we can find on the moon, in the company of Oleg Artemyev, a Russian Cosmonaut who had stayed previously a little over 365 days in space and on board the International Space Station.
Beyond learning more about astronaut training, this mission was also an opportunity to conduct research on human factors in confined environments, and to enhance my skills at cooking a decent meal with freeze-dried products, only. While I can’t talk about the research I conducted in collaboration with other researchers for obvious reasons, I can however confirm that my powdered milk and freeze-dried strawberries ice cream recipe has definitely convinced my crew mates and our mission commander.
But every expedition is different and after the warm weather of Hawaii our expedition in Iceland started a bit like on Star Wars’ planet Hoth, with much ice around and beneath us and a deep mist.
In modified off-road vehicles we drove for almost 10 hours on Iceland’s ice cap over 80 kilometers of very harsh terrain with very low visibility. Two Ski-Doo in front of us assessed the upcoming terrain, making sure that our vehicles wouldn’t fall inside a crevasse. Needless to say, the whole experience was challenging.
After this eery journey we finally arrived at our new and very isolated home for the next 6 days. We stayed on a mountain hut used by vulcanology researchers, situated literally inside the caldera of the Grímsvötn volcano, which had one room of bunk beds, no running water and involved long days of work under the almost constant sunlight of the midnight sun. The mist and severe winds were particularly intense when we arrived, but luckily the visibility increased several hours after our arrival.
Over the next few days we explored the area and tested the MS1 suit. The suit’s designer, Rhode Island School of Design’s (RISD) Michael Lye, a senior critic and NASA coordinator was on site with us, and I enjoyed long discussions with him about the future exploration of Mars and the moon.
Of course I had to bring a lot of gear during this mission, in order to protect myself from the harsh conditions, conduct filmmaking, and ensure that I would be able to augment my chances of survival in case of any technical issues or emergencies.
My main luggage was one of my favorites, a NARGEAR duffle bag, the well-named “Bodybag”.
This duffle bag was originally designed for parachuting firefighters and it’s one of the most rugged and versatile that I’ve had the opportunity to use for the past 3 years.
As it has accompanied me on various trips I thought I could do a 3-year review about it. (Note that my review is for the Gen1 Bodybag, the Gen2 having apparently some slight improvements and more visible logos throughout the bag.)
As mentioned on Nargear’s website, the duffle is “an extra large 122-liter FIRE gear weather-resistant travel bag with hidden backpack straps that can be stashed for a very clean exterior. Perfect for most major airlines’ ‘maximum’ check-in size limit (luggage parameters of 62 linear inches). This vinyl duffel bag is designed with an extra boot or sleeping bag compartment.”
First things first, I must say that it is extremely solid and that it definitely passed the 3-year test. Check it out: after having been carried by Sherpas up to 5300 meters high in the Nepalese Himalayas during an 18-day trek, up to 5500 meters high and through the Atacama desert in the back of our truck, having been to the High Arctic in Svalbard, crossed the US from East to West in a crazy Amtrak trip after a stay in Hawaii at HI-SEAS facility, been registered as luggage during flights for all those trips including the most recent one in Iceland, and dragged across the floors of many hotels and airports by Sherpas, guides and even myself, the Bodybag while not looking brand new is however still in astoundingly good condition. No holes, no strap broken, etc… and I can only agree with the statement on Nargear’s website: “Developed to take a beating from the outdoor elements. Perfect for the rigors of the wildland firefighter lifestyle and hardcore outdoor enthusiast pushing the limits.”
I am a big fan of the separated compartment in which I usually dump my climbing shoes, crampons etc… and on my way back my laundry bags. The hidden backpack straps have saved me time more than once at airports or anywhere else when I needed to carry the duffle from point A to point B, and I also like the outer small pockets for last-minute dumps before check-in.
It feels and is definitely solid. There is no overly flashy branding on it (even on the Gen 2). It offers many different carrying configurations, including carrying handles on four sides, and a proper insert for name tag or business card on top protected by a transparent plastic cover. If not absolutely waterproof as the zippers aren’t the waterproof type, the overall structure and design has so far protected my gear from rain, even after having the duffle thrown on the back of a pickup truck during heavy rain in Hawaii for a couple of miles.
I consider it for what it definitely is, a professional duffle bag for demanding professionals.
For the most part I participated in this Iceland mission as an analog astronaut and human factor expert, but I can hardly participate in an expedition without bringing some cameras and photography equipment.
I am the happy owner of an f-stop Ajna bag since October 2018, and I can barely explain how satisfied I am with this mountaineering camera bag.
The truth is that for an expedition documentarian, anthropology researcher and world traveler like myself the f-stop Ajna is the perfect camera backpack, and I really mean it.
So far, after almost exactly one year of use I’ve brought my f-stop Ajna to glacier climbs, heavy rain hikes and a quite dangerous speedboat ride (all of those in Svalbard in the High Arctic, up to 20 degrees from the North Pole), to hikes in Hawaii before and after our HI-SEAS mission, throughout the US from San Francisco to New York in the Amtrak California Zephyr, and during this whole trip in Iceland. I must say that when I wasn’t wearing an astronaut suit, or sleeping or eating, probably 60% of the time I was carrying my f-stop on my shoulders.
I really like the overall ergonomic design of the bag, the straps and EVA molded rear panel makes it incredibly comfortable to carry. The mix of oxford-weave ripstop nylon and Advanta, a thermoplastic polyurethane film makes the bag definitely weather resistant and rugged. Even if I am careful with my equipment, when shooting on the run you usually have to leave your camera backpack on the ground. I’ve used this bag on boats, glaciers and mountains and it has proved its ruggedness and weather resistance more than once.
I also never had any problems fitting this bag in the top compartment in planes and registering it as carry-on.
As I brought a lot of gear for this mission, including a couple of professional two-way radios for our team and my GOAL ZERO battery and solar panels that I always bring for my professional trips as a backup, I brought a bagjack Traveller Bag size large.
I am a big fan of this Berlin-based brand. I actually own a couple of their products, and even a 3A-5TSR that they produced years ago in collaboration with Errolson Hugh’s Acronym.
I definitely like the versatility of the Traveller Bag, with its hidden straps, and an overall focus on small details and sleek design that are undoubtedly the mark of bagjack.
It’s also a perfect carry-on size and has compression straps in the last compartment for clothes etc. I’ve used this bag often as carry-on as it is the perfect size for a short trip but it is also neat enough to attend conferences or professional meetings. It was perfect as a second carry-on along with my camera bag for this mission.
Finally, I also brought a bagjack Sniper Bag that I reviewed previously. This time I used the MOLLE system to clip a Pure Hydration Aquapure Traveller water bottle to it for our 10-hour drive, used the integrated/removable soft shell muff to keep my hands warm in between photography and filmmaking, and used it to carry my GoPro and its accessories, my phone and some energy bars for the trip. And I had a no brand packable black duffle to bring back gifts, gear and equipment from Iceland.
In terms of gear and EDC, I’ve put as always a focus on layering, safety and practicability, waterproofness and ruggedness.
From left to right, top to bottom:
A French clothing brand with some nice techwear products like this Bomber jacket. Perfect to be worn as a warm layer during a flight and useful as a second insulation layer during expeditions.
A very nice Gore-Tex jacket from Outdoor Research that was part of our Iceland Space Agency dotation for this mission.
I’ve used many balaclavas in the last 6 years, but few could beat the Aerogel fabric, a NASA material, in terms of weight/insulation ratio. I definitely recommend this one for extreme cold weather.
I totally enjoyed using these gloves during our mission, they feel durable and warm. I must say however that they are not appropriate for extreme cold photography.
That EC swag that will bring you that “The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou” touch, or the Jacques Cousteau legacy, for the older generation…
I am sponsored by Zeal Optics since 2013 and I definitely appreciate not only their sharp design but also their positive environmental impact.
Yak wool scarf that I brought back from the Himalayas
I bought this scarf at 18000 ft in the Nepalese Himalayas in Namche Bazaar, the Sherpas’ capital, and always bring it with me during expeditions. It’s large enough to be used as a small warm blanket or folded as a neck pillow during long-haul flights, and few things can beat the sweetness of the yak wool. Extra comfort for remote shelters life.
Great alpine down jacket that was part of our dotation from the Iceland Space Agency. Definitely kept me warm in the middle of the ice cap.
Very nice Gore-Tex pants from O.R. Basic and minimalist.
I bought this one in Hawaii for our HI-SEAS mission and was so satisfied with it that I now bring it for most of my expeditions.
A super lightweight towel that was particularly welcome in order to use the sauna in our remote shelter.
I’m not paid to say this but I definitely enjoyed those raw bars from Skratch Labs. 100% recommend for hiking and mountaineering. They are delicious!
I’ve been using these water filtration bottles since 2016 and never had to complain about them. The filter provides a needed safety during expeditions, as it provides me the opportunity to drink local water, even from glacier lakes, etc.
Great gear from O.R. as part of our uniform dotation from the Iceland Space Agency.
I probably don’t need to explain why I love this badass T-shirt from Black Diamond, one of my favourite outdoor and climbing gear brands.
Arc’teryx Veilance tech pouch limited edition from the Paris Fashion Week event
No, you can’t get one, unless you are a diehard techwear fan like me and you attended the FW event in Paris… I use it to pack my SD drive and cables.
Exploration’s finest since 1904, our flag has been carried by the first humans onto the top of Everest, the North Pole and South Pole, and with those crazy guys who went to the moon.
EUROMOONMARS European Space Agency / ILEWG Campaign name tag patch
Talking about limited edition, there’s only three of these. My official ESA name tag for our HI-SEAS mission.
I’ve been using Hytera two-way radios since 2013. I’ve used them from the High Arctic to the world’s highest active volcano. Rugged, waterproof, crystal clear sound and really reliable.
One of my favorite safety knives (I obviously own many). I particularly like its very non-aggressive design. Emergency glass-breaker and belt cutter included. It has a single-handed opening system that can be used by both left and right-handed users. 100% recommend for professionals. Made in Germany.
RISD MS1 patch offered to me by Professor Michael Lye, the NASA coordinator at Rhodes Island School of Design.
“There might be many of those, but this one is mine”. I had some amazing discussions with Professor Michael Lye and I am very thankful for this gift. Mission patches in the space sector are a bit like candies or Pokemon for grown-up men and women if you want… We want to catch them all!
I bought these Kevlar shoes from Naglev a few months ago and I am very satisfied with them. As a techwear aficionado I was first attracted by their design and the use of Kevlar. They are very comfortable, rugged beyond imagination and waterproof as well. I’ve been wearing them from the Paris subway to the top of the Grímsvötn volcano in Iceland… and plan to bring them on other trips. I love the innovative and quite futuristic yet minimalist and classy Italian design, and their awareness of environmental issues.
Definitely convinced by this model by La Sportiva, a brand whose reputation is more than established. These are very lightweight and still provide good protection from the elements and the risks connected to mountain climbing.
I also brought some Goal Zero batteries and solar panels, a medical kit, emergency chemical lights, and many Go Pro and DSLR accessories that are now part of my traveling kit.