Month: October 2014

Packing 101: Packing for Antarctica

It’s not that I don’t like the cold, it’s really that I don’t know it. I’ve lived in coastal California most of my life, so my idea of a chilly day is one where the high is 50F. Not exactly well-equipped for kitting out in preparation of visiting the polar regions. Luckily for me, early on I stumbled upon the TripAdvisor forums, more specifically the Antarctic forum. So. Much. Information. Amongst all the advice and tips there were some really handy items like a pre-made Google docs packing list. Special advice for photographers about gloves that enabled me to actually manipulate the camera controls.

In my experience, the ship was kept very warm but there will be cold drafts so plan on having some warm slippers or shoes to even it out. I bought some knockoff Uggs before the trip and I LOVED them. They were great for rushing out on deck to spot the whales, and warm enough that even the coldest drafts didn’t give me much trouble. Highly recommended.

The Gullet, South of the Antarctic Circle

It wasn’t quite as cold as it looks here, really.

The great thing about wearing several layers is that you can add/remove as needed to achieve your preferred temperature. This is easier if the layering items are of different weights. What does that mean?

  • Lightweight: silk or polypropylene
  • Midweight: thicker polypro/merino
  • Heavyweight (aka Expedition weight): yet thicker polypro, merino, fleece
  • Fleece (also comes in different weights from Polarfleece 100 to 300)

You want to have an assortment of these things in different weights so that you can mix and match according to the weather and your own cold sensitivity. I did learn on this trip that I am not very cold sensitive at all really, so your mileage will almost certainly vary. The temperatures can range from 20F to 50F, and the wind can be incredibly cold and biting.

Neko Harbour, Antarctica.

It actually got to near 50F that day, the penguins were panting in the heat.

For a fair weather shore excursion  (eg: no heavy wind, no snow or rain):

Feet: one pair silk socks, one pair heavyweight socks

Body: lightweight polypro longsleeve top, lightweight polypro leggings, midweight fleece top and bottoms.

Hands: midweight gloves (mine did not have the touch-screen capacity but the weight is the same)

Bonus: neck gaiter or buff plus lightweight wool knit hat (I have very thick hair so having a cold head is never an issue for me)

Top Layer:  Quark-provided parka and  North Face waterproof trousers (this is what you always wear ashore, regardless of what’s underneath). I removed the button-in fleece from my parka as that just made it too bulky for me and just wore it above my regular windproof fleece jacket. Quark loaned us muck boots for the expedition and they were very thick rubber and I found them quite warm.

Comfort quotient: Delightful. The only thing that was ever noticeably cold was my chin, cause the gaiter kept sliding down. Of course, your mileage may vary. The thing to remember is that for many North Americans, the summer temperatures in Antarctica will be WAY warmer than what you normally contend with in winter.

My friend Amy photographing the Adelies

My friend Amy here not long before the katabatic winds started up and the temperature dropped precipitously.

Questionable weather shore excursion (snow falling or imminent, windy)

Feet: Midweight socks plus heavyweight socks

Body: midweight polypro longsleeve top, midweight polypro leggings, midweight fleece top and bottoms.

Bonus: neck gaiter or buff plus Icelandic wool hat (incredibly warm)

Comfort quotient: nice. Occasionally the weather would change and I’d have to unzip my top fleece layer or even take it off and stick it in my backpack, but the choice was there which was nice

Zodiac Excursion in Gerlache Strait, Antarctica

Beautiful day for a zodiac excursion in Gerlache Strait, Antarctica

Zodiac Excursions (when you don’t move very much so cannot generate your own heat)

Feet: Midweight socks plus heavyweight socks

Body: midweight polypro longsleeve top, heavyweight polypro leggings, midweight fleece top and bottoms.

Bonus: neck gaiter or buff plus Icelandic wool hat (incredibly warm)

Comfort quotient: Well, hate to say it but your butt will get cold. Sitting for a while on the rubber raft’s edge will slowly sap a lot of the warmth from you. Nothing to be done about it really. Once you’re back on the ship you’ll warm right up.

So what did I end up bringing in the end? My expedition clothing consisted of:

  • 1 pair waterproof trousers
  • 2 pair lightweight long underwear bottoms (Patagonia capilene)
  • 1 pair midweight long underwear bottoms
  • 1 pair heavyweight long underwear bottoms
  • 2 lightweight long underwear top (Patagonia capilene)
  • 1 midweight long underwear top
  • 1 heavyweight long underwear top
  • 1 lightweight fleece (North Face)
  • 2 mid-weight fleeces (North Face)
  • 2 pairs fleece trousers (often worn on ship instead of jeans or whatever)
  • 3 pairs gloves: silk liners, midweight liners, ski gloves
  • 2 gaiters (light and medium weight)
  • 2 pair lightweight socks (silk liners, actually)
  • 2 pair midweight socks (ski socks)
  • 2 pair heavyweight socks (heavy wool “hunting” socks)

It sounds like a lot, but most of it packed up pretty small. I also employed some space-saving bags where you press the air out (useful for the fleeces).

While on the ship I had some fleeces and some cotton trousers for lounging around in. A couple of v-neck wool blend sweaters and a pashmina-like shawl if my neck was feeling particularly cold. The one thing to keep in mind here, is that is not some fashion show, not some fancy dress-for-dinner cruise. No one cares what you’re wearing, so bring only what you need. The ship has laundry of course, so you don’t need to have too large a wardrobe. One thing I will say is pack a large ziploc bag for those waterproof trousers, cause nothing stinks up a suitcase like penguin guano. You have been warned. I had to wash them twice when I got home to get the funk out.

One final note: this is a great opportunity to search out deals at those online retailers that sell last-season’s colors and closeouts for hiking/camping gear. Most everything I got was from these retailers and it saved me a TON on money. So I had bright turquoise long underwear? Who cares!

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Packing 101: Packing for Southeast Asia

Bicyclist on U-Bein bridge, Amarapura

I’ve started assembling my wardrobe for an upcoming trip to Myanmar so it’s got me thinking about dressing for the tropics. I visited Myanmar 9 years ago and even though November/December is considered “winter” there, highs of 90F are common and the sun beating down on the open-air temples is incredibly, skin searingly strong. Most people think about going to the tropics and get started packing their very thin, very small pieces of clothing. For lots of southeast Asia though, this is not the right way to go.

Three nuns at Shwegadon Pagoda, Yangon.

Why?

Southeast Asian countries are surprisingly conservative. For all the beaches in Pattaya filled with bikinied Europeans, most places you visit expect you to be fully clothed unless you are actually on the beach. You must have your shoulders and knees covered to enter temples. A couple of sarongs can be deployed in these instances, but if your trip is not based at the beach, it’s easier to avoid the stares and dress a bit more modestly.

 

Market at Kalaw, Shan State, Burma.

Additionally, if you’re pale like me, visiting the tropics actually requires a well-thought-out sun-avoidance strategy in order to return home unburned.

Mosquitos can be an issue as well, and need to be considered especially if you’re forgoing anti-malaria medication. Malaria is not a problem in lots of southeast Asia but in Myanmar the deadly kind is common, so better safe than sorry.

So the basics of my tropical wardrobe consists of:

Thin, nylon capris: preferably stretchy for long days of travel, not too tight because no one wants to wear too-tight clothes when its 90F and 80% humidity. These are from Title Nine.

Title Nine Take-a-hike capri

Trousers similar to the capris above. I cannot bring myself to have anything to do with convertible pants but some folks love ’em. I have some linen trousers I got for my India trip a couple of years ago but frankly I find nylon ones more comfortable and much easier to launder. They also wrinkle less.

Shorts for lounging around in. Whatever you have at home is probably okay, as long is it’s mid-thigh or longer.

Tank tops or t-shirts, preferably wicking so sweat is less of an issue.

A key piece of my sun avoidance strategy is long-sleeved overshirts to cover arms and shoulders. Ex Officio makes some good ones, but be careful on sizing; their stuff tends to run small. I wear them unbuttoned so they are more about sun protection than anything else, but this one has permethrin in the fabric to thwart mozzies as well.

ExOfficio shirt

Very comfortable walking sandals. You’ll be taking them off and putting them on a lot when going into temples so it makes sense to have something very easy to get on and off. The very last thing you want is lace-up shoes as you’ll spend all your time fussing with them.

Teva Sandals

Flip flops which are the standard footwear for locals, but aren’t great for lots of walking if your feet are not used to it.

Sun hat -anything from a booney to a gardening hat will work, but I suggest getting something crushable so you don’t have to worry about getting it on the plane like you would with a standard straw hat.

And my tried-and-true so very special element: the “clean clothes”. I stumbled on this accidentally the very first time I went to the tropics on a hiking trip. All day hiking in the jungle in 90% humidity left me absolutely deflated and feeling incredibly sticky and gross. After a quick shower it occurred to me that that last thing I wanted to do was put these sweaty clothes back on. But I did have one tshirt and one pair of stretchy loose trousers that I hadn’t worn yet. So on went the “clean clothes” and I went to dinner feeling great. I isolated those clothes from the jungle funk of the rest of my suitcase in a ziploc bag and wore them every evening for dinner. It felt so wonderful to have this set of clean clothes to put on every night. I’ve been repeating this trick ever since.

Lamp lighting ceremony at Shwagadon pagoda, Yangon.

Of course, this is not the most fashion-forward set of clothes, but frankly no one cares what you’re wearing, unless you plan to hit up all the fancy clubs in Bangkok or something like that. And if you are going to be doing that, just toss a dress in the mix. The most important criteria is to be comfortable, be careful of sun and bugs and then when you get home pack them all up in a box of “jungle clothes” and start planning the next trip where you can wear them.

One important note: if you are a North American or European with big feet and broad shoulders, don’t expect to be able to land and pick up local clothing that fits. On my last trip my guide and I looked around for some of the nice velvet flip flops the locals wear and they were all laughably small for my (women’s) size 8 feet.

Easy peasy: Iceland

Iceland. Vik i Myrdal. Black sand beach.

Black sand beach at Vik i Myrdal.

 

 

Seriously: how many times do I have to tell you people to go to Iceland?!

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I wish someone had found me several years ago, shook me by the shoulders and said, “Just go! Don’t worry about it! Don’t bother with those other places right now. Iceland!”

Your doubts, banished:

It’s so far!

No, actually it isn’t. It’s way closer than Europe. From Seattle it’s only a 7 hour flight. That’s scarcely longer than it takes to fly to NYC. And you do that without complaint. Well, maybe you don’t but I do. Suck it up, it’s not that long.

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It’s so expensive!

Well, yeah. But there are always ways around that. Take a clue from how the incoming passengers at the airport get dumped directly into a duty free shop that’s basically selling just alcohol. Stock up on some bracing (local hooch) Brennivin, pick up a bottle of wine. Or a 500cl of scotch. Liquor taxes are high there so buy duty free and don’t worry. Beers in a typical bar are nearly $10 each, so you won’t be having many of them. Then, stop by a supermarket and pick up sandwich fixings. Worried about keeping things refrigerated on the road? Don’t be. Surprisingly, they sell peanut butter there (most non-Americans find it disgusting), and jam does not need to be in the fridge if you’re going to be going through it pretty quickly. Hotels serve breakfast with the price of the room, make your own picnic lunches and just worry about dinner. See? Look at all the money you’ve saved.

 

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It’s so… lonely!

It is, but in a really wonderful way. It’s lonely in a wide-open-spaces way, not a “feels like a serial killer must be stalking me” kind of way, like some other places can (I’m looking at you, Hoh Rainforest)

Iceland. South Region. Lomagnupur.

 

Don’t they have erupting volcanoes?

Sure, they got volcanoes. But so does the West Coast of the US, and you never even think about those. Granted theirs are a bit more restive than ours, but that just adds some fun to the mix. They’re also incredibly well studied, not likely to blow up without warning.

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Do people speak English?

Yeah, they do. Better than you do actually, so prepare yourself. They also have a charming accent.

 

Is driving hard?

Well it is, but probably not for the reason you’re thinking. The landscape is so incredible, the scenery so breathtaking, that you do run the risk of running off the road if you’re not paying attention. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. If you want to go off road, you need to get a 4WD vehicle or the rental car company will have your head, so make sure to price that out as it will add more to the cost.

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Two final things to know:

The hot water smells like sulphur. That’s cause it just came from the ground and is, in fact, full of sulphur.

Yes, they really do sell minke whale and puffin in some Reykjavik restaurants. Please don’t buy either. The locals don’t eat it, and so these days it’s only served as a touristy gimmick you don’t want to encourage.