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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