London based Charlie Smith is quickly becoming recognised as one of the next generation in top British explorers and has been a friend of Nordic Outdoor since a chance meeting in Germany four years ago. In this time he has completed expeditions across the Arctic in Greenland, Norway, Sweden and Iceland. Specialising in the most cold, remote and isolated places at the extreme ends of the earth - exerting himself in everything from ultramarathons, long-distance cycling and overnight skiing through the Arctic Winter.
With a history in Arctic exploration Charlie recently joined the Aclima family as a brand ambassador testing their Merino Wool products in some of the worlds most unforgiving environments. For his first trip with the brand Charlie undertook a once in a lifetime trip to the Ends of the Earth. Starting in Oslo a small team of friends and explorers began their 2000 mile journey from the Baltic Sea to the most Northerly point in Europe. During the journey Charlie documented three of the worlds most reknowned endurance challenges; The Lapland Arctic Ultra, Finnmarkslopet Dog Sled Race and the Ski through Lofoten.
Now back on UK soil Charlie has sat down with Nordic Outdoor to discuss the trip, his experience with Aclima throughout the journey and what the future holds for the adventurer. Read the interview below and make sure to check out Charlie's instagram to keep updated on the next step in the adventure.
Can you briefly talk us through where you brought up and what you studied please?
Originally I’m from Rugby in Warwickshire - fairly certain it has a plaque that says it’s smack bang in the middle of the country. I do love Rugby, but after getting an Art Scholarship, I headed off to a boarding school just outside the lake district called Sedbergh where I studied design, maths and physics. After that I headed down to London and haven’t quite managed to escape..yet.
How did your explorative nature first come to the fore and do you remember how it then unfolded?
Other than being surrounded by the Howgill Fells (my number one favourite place in the north of England - it really gives the Lake District a run for its money - without the tourists), I’d have to say it all came about after I took a pretty bad Rugby injury. As a sport it was pretty debilitating - teachers would joke that I was on crutches at some point of each school year - but this injury was bad. I somehow managed to completely syndemose my ankle. Three lots of surgery, 6 months on crutches and a fair amount of physio helped, but mentally, I needed something that made myself feel strong again, so I set off on a hike in Iceland. That’s probably where my first taste of ‘exploration’ came from.
Did you have any other particular career in mind for yourself and how would you describe your career now?
I’d love to say that Rugby was a career that I’d have followed through with, but after hearing how many supposed rugby prodigies there are sat at bars in London watching the Six Nations with the rest of us, I’ll spare the cliche.
The recent expedition to Scandinavia, can you talk me through the purpose and the different elements to the trip. It was quite a complex thing no?
This trip was an entirely different beast altogether. Usually, I’ll aim to do one sort of physically challenging, mentally enduring trip, which revolves around me constatntly saying to myself ‘just a couple more steps’ (inferring from the famous Scott expedition statistic - if he would have taken 12 more steps per day, he’d have made it, probably).
This one was different. Some brands I work with each had events in Scandinavia around the same time of year. I was left in a bit of a dilemma because, although Scandinavia shares some very distinct similarities, geography is not one of them. They were all around 600 miles apart from each other, about 30 hours via public transport - and so the challenge became how I managed to get from point a to b to c on time, with all my equipment and during the tail end of winter. A car seemed to be best option, and after trading countles emails with Land Rover, we found the best option.
What have been some of the most eye-opening expeditions you have undertaken and why?
I’d say the expedition that has been the most eye-opening would be filming out in North East Greenland, seeing the incredible scenery, meeting the people and the wildlife was pretty magnificent. I also went snowblind in Greenland because I was filming without goggles for too long in the bright sunlight - so maybe not as ‘eye-opening’ as you’d expect.
The Northern Lights also never seem to get old either. There’s something that really stands out every time I see them.
How did your trip with Aclima come about? As a Scandinavian brand in the UK how did you first find the brand and what attracted you to them?
I’ve been working with Aclima for a while, ever since my first winter trip I’ve worn their clothing. After I started wearing their clothing more and more - and as I started to get deeper into the design of outdoor clothing - I noticed that their garments were really something special.
Some of the earliest polar explorers used garments which had the same physical features as Aclima products - like the WoolNet - just back then they couldn’t manufacture the wool in the same way. Seeing that blend of using modern technology to enhance and improve old-school ideas and concepts is something really special. It takes it away from fashion and makes it more something to be proud of.
When you’re travelling to these extreme locations how important is it to have the right clothing for your environment?
Honestly, vital. Products allow you to survive in these environments, good products allow you to thrive. I’m very particular about looking after my equipment when I get back from a trip - everything is pretty meticulously cared for and treated before being stored safely, because at the end of the day - this kit is what will keep you going in the wild, if you look after it, it looks after you.
Having worked with a number of brands over the years and having spent a lot of time in Scandinavia, how do you see their approach to the outdoor and to outdoor clothing?
Scandinavia as a whole seems pretty pragmatic, nothing seems to phase them. They approach challenges with a pause, a consideration and an action. I like that. I can see this translating into their products too - everything seems to be form following function.
Having worked with some of the biggest ‘technical’ outdoor brands in the market how do you feel the performance of natural fabrics such as Aclima’s merino wool can compare in such extreme environments?
Merino is my absolute go-to. Sometimes blends work well - at least better than purely synthetics, but if there is an option, I would choose a high-quality Merino base layer over anything technical. As it stands, Aclima make the highest quality base layers that I’ve found. I think there is definitely room for both ‘technical’ outdoor brands and natural fabrics to co-exist. Short answer, no comparison. Merino all the way for base layers.
Can Natural fabrics ever be described as ‘technical’? Aclima have obviously made some giant leaps in the way we use Merino Wool with the likes of Woolnet and Fleecewool but where do you see natural materials fitting into the new outdoor wardrobe?
From a user perspective, those giant leaps that Aclima has made have produced some of the best base layers I’ve ever worn. The Woolnet and Fleecewool materials are genuinely a feat of engineering. Those production methods weren’t possible before Aclima and they’re such a step up from the competition of synthetics.
I’m also a big believer in sustainable clothing - especially for outdoor equipment. The people who are meant to be stewards for the outdoors should wear the clothing that does minimal damage to it - and the idea of synthetics wearing down long before natural fibres and then becoming micro-plastics, is quite disheartening.
Now for day-to-day use, especially in Autumn and Winter, there is nothing I like more than having a wooly jumper on and a thin Gore-tex rain jacket. It’s a great blend of warmth, function and aesthetic.
Do you see a trend of brands moving towards the use of natural materials for outdoor clothing. What do you think is driving this change?
I think people are becoming more aware of their direct impact through what they buy. It’s an interesting situation, but I believe purchasing power is becoming vitally more important to the consumer. With the advent of eCommerce, online shopping and so much information available for research, where you spend your money is becoming more of a ‘vote of confidence’ rather than just ‘oh the outdoor shop in town sells X’ and that translates into the products that you buy - not just the retailer.
As a consumer, I’d much rather wear garments from a company like Aclima that is doing so much for the environment - to the extent of recycling wool - than a company that is churning out masses of plastic and synthetic base layers.
As a Norwegian brand Aclima have adopted a Scandinavian approach to their materials, fit and culture – how does this match up with the way outdoors is viewed and approached elsewhere in the world.
There is a reason Amundsen got to the South Pole first. Scandinavians are renowned for their approach to the outdoors and that is seen in the products they used to get there. As a culture, people are outside significantly more than in the UK. It’s no big secret that every Norwegian has a cabin. Their products have to work and function - and so they do. I admire that things work, things last and because of that, they are respected.
Aclima’s Fleecewool collection was one of the world’s first Merino Wool Fleeces and was designed to reduce the shedding of microplastics into the ocean which is commonly seen with classic Fleece fabrics. How do you see brands like Aclima changing the way we use natural materials to create a more sustainable culture in the outdoor clothing industry?
I’m not really someone that likes to buy clothes. I used to have two pairs of jeans which I’d cycle through, and then just purchase another pair once one started to wear thin. It’s a little different now. I think the beauty of companies like Aclima and their approach to product is that they make garments specifically to last - it’s not seasonally coloured on the whole, it’s ever-green in a sense. To the point, I believe any products (like sustainable merino wool products) that don’t inherently damage the environment and products which are designed to last, have to be a good motivator for consumers and companies to ‘up their game’ ecologically, ever improving sustainability.
Your trip was called ‘The End of the Earth’ and involved going to some pretty remote and pretty extreme locations. Is the use of technical merino limited to these extreme adventures or does it have uses for the normal outdoor enthusiast in the UK?
Honestly, at the complete other end of the spectrum from ‘The Ends of the Earth’, I’m sitting in my flat in central London right now wearing my LightWool Merino. On all my journeys, versatility is pretty integral to my product choice, now, that’s not to say that I wear my expedition down jackets to the pub on the weekend, but there are benefits of wearing merino in the UK mountains and trails - their functions and features are not dismissed because they aren’t in the Arctic, it’s still as breathable, quick drying, lightweight - I’d argue that it actually performs better in the UK because you’re not pushing the material to its durability limit and then asking for it to perform.
Having seen how people live ‘at the end of the earth’ during this trip what are the takeaways that you’ve found that you think could improve the way we live closer to home?
I think the people that live ‘at the ends of the earth’ seem to approach challenges better than we do. I can’t make my mind up whether it is pragmatism, the pace of life or their practicality, but somewhere between those three lies the characteristics which are on-the-whole shared by people who live in the extremes of our environment.
As you’re now a brand ambassador for Aclima where do you see your next adventure being?
I’m looking through maps as we speak, but after 6 weeks filming and photographing throughout the Arctic, I’m feeling the need to endure more again now. I feel the need to push myself in a different way, combining the creativity of the last trip with the endurance aspect of my previous journeys. It’ll almost certainly be cold, remote and somewhere other explorers don’t tend to go.
Charlie Smith is a British filmmaker, Storyteller and Adventurer specialising in pulling heavy things for long distances in very cold climates. You can keep up to date with Charlie's adventures through his instagram page or via his company Basecamp Studios. Charlie will be releasing a five part documentary following his trip to the Ends of the Earth in 2022 so make sure to follow his social channels to catch the launch. Photos in this article courtesy of Evangeline Modell.