Antarctica gear guide: What you need to pack for a trip to the White Continent
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Packing can sometimes be as simple as tossing a few swimsuits into a bag along with some travel-size sunscreen. If you forget something, you can pick it up when you arrive at your destination.
But for expeditions to extreme climates and remote destinations, packing requires careful planning. It won’t be possible to buy something after you leave home, and not having the right gear can ruin your trip — or be downright dangerous.
Antarctica is one such destination.
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After I was booked on a December sailing to the Antarctic Peninsula as a guest of Atlas Ocean Voyages on board World Navigator, I received a leather folio with the details of my journey, including a comprehensive Antarctica cruise packing list.
“It’s important to layer up when heading out on an Antarctic expedition,” the booklet read.
Layers are critical to any outdoor adventure, whether you’re heading out for a day hike or traveling to the End of the World. If you’ve ever packed for a ski trip before, you probably already know (and have in your closet) the basics. Here’s everything I brought with me for my nine-night Antarctica cruise — and what I wish I’d packed.
What I brought to Antarctica
My experience winter camping was helpful when it came to packing for Antarctica, but if you’re new to cold-weather adventures, keep this key tip in mind as you create your packing list:
Avoid wearing moisture-absorbing cotton when you’re off the ship in Antarctica. Stick instead to wool, high-tech Capilene and synthetics like polyester and fleece. The temperatures during the austral summer, when you’ll likely be traveling to Antarctica, will typically be between 30 and 40 degrees Fahrenheit, according to materials provided by Atlas.
But it’s the wind (it’s the windiest place on Earth, after all) and the wet (you will get splashed on a Zodiac cruise) that can make it feel much colder.
So, you’ll want to be prepared with plenty of moisture-wicking, quick-drying performance materials. And remember, water-resistant is not the same thing as waterproof when it comes to considering outer layers and accessories.
I packed a couple of long-sleeve base layer shirts that I rotated throughout the sailing and a pair of long underwear (thank goodness for the luxury of onboard laundry service). I also brought standard synthetic performance leggings (think: Lycra and nylon) that I could comfortably wear around the ship, under waterproof outer layers or at the gym.
A pair of warm fleece leggings and a fitted fleece half-zip also went into my suitcase, along with a couple of full-zip midlayers of different synthetic materials and a lofted vest.
My winter camping friends and I have a saying: “You can never pack too many puffies.”
What we mean is, if you wake up in your tent shivering cold, it’s nice to know you have a cozy jacket to pull on over everything else.
I have a few of these, and I brought them all: a down Mountain Hardwear jacket, a synthetic Patagonia hooded jacket and a larger Mountain Hardwear down jacket that fits comfortably over both. All three are compressible and can be packed into their pockets to form a little pillow, perfect for camping trips or long-haul flights.
I packed a single, lightweight waterproof jacket to wear as a shell over my down and synthetic midlayers to cut the wind and keep my layers dry. It was a good thing to have on board when it was snowing or extra windy, but I still wanted to be outside to watch whales swim alongside the ship or listen to glaciers calving in the distance.
My cruise line provided all guests with a heavy-duty parka, so I didn’t need to worry about bringing any bulky outerwear. Crafted with an insulating layer and a wind-resistant and waterproof exterior, you’ll definitely stay dry and warm in an expedition parka.
What you’ll need to bring for your final layer is a pair of waterproof pants, such as a rain shell. Water-resistant trekking pants won’t suffice, trust me. I actually bought a second pair on board the ship when I found Helly Hansen waterproof pants I really liked. The point is that your outer layer should be as waterproof as possible, bottoms included.
I didn’t need to waste space in my suitcase with clunky boots because my cruise line provided all passengers with waterproof boots to wear outside the ship. This is true for all cruises to Antarctica, so all you’ll need to worry about is what you want to wear around the ship. Stick with closed-toe, slip-resistant shoes.
I brought a single pair of white sneakers, running shoes for working out and a pair of lightweight hiking boots that can pass as casual day boots. Remember, the deck can get wet and slippery, so plan your casual footwear accordingly.
I brought a handful of hats, a fleece winter headband, two pairs of polarized sunglasses and many pairs of wool and synthetic hiking socks. At times, I’d wear two pairs of socks inside my waterproof winter boots and my toes would still be cold.
After years of backpacking, hiking and camping, here’s what I’ve learned: You can’t pack too many socks. You really can’t. My first step off the Zodiac when we landed at Half Moon Island resulted in water splashing up over the top of my boots. Soggy feet are miserable, and there is no more gratifying sensation than switching into a warm, dry pair of socks.
Definitely make sure to pack a pair of waterproof gloves and at least one pair of glove liners. My gloves, which are usually sufficient for snowboarding, got soaked one day, so I wish I’d invested in a better outer layer.
I also brought a balaclava (which I’ve used while snowboarding on particularly cold days) but never used it, though there was at least one time when I found myself thinking about it with longing.
You’ll also want a swimsuit so you’re prepared for the polar plunge (ladies, I strongly recommend a one-piece) and an after-dinner dip in the hot tub on calm sea days.
Antarctica is a desert, which means the air is incredibly dry. By the end of the trip, my lips and hands were cracking. I was glad I packed plenty of lip balm and a heavy-duty salve for my hands and face because I used them liberally.
Environmentally friendly oxybenzone-free sunscreen is also important for your face. I often found myself standing beneath a hole in the ozone layer, blinking against the blindingly bright white light from the sun, which was amplified by the snow and ice. You might be cold, but you can definitely still get sunburned.
Atlas recommended that travelers bring heat packs (such as HotHands hand warmers) as well, which I grabbed at the last minute before heading to the airport. I was really glad to have these, which I would toss into the toes of my boots before going out. You can also keep them in your pockets to warm your hands.
Because trips to Antarctica typically require two days of sailing on the notoriously rough Drake Passage in each direction, I was urged by many to pack meclizine, ginger chews and other seasickness prevention methods (there are patches, bands and an assortment of other tools and tricks to calm queasy stomachs at sea). I am not prone to seasickness and we had a particularly smooth sailing to boot, so I never needed anything in my tiny pharmacy.
Finally, I brought a lightweight REI 18-liter pack with a waterproof stuff sack to carry extra layers, lenses for my phone and an external battery pack (your batteries will absolutely die faster in the cold).
Binoculars were provided for use while on the ship, so I did not bring a pair. Be sure to check in advance if this is a priority for you.
What I didn’t bring to Antarctica
I packed so much gear for Antarctica, it hardly seemed possible that I could want for anything onboard. Still, there were a few luxuries I would have appreciated if I’d had more room in my suitcase.
After a few nights on board, for example, I wished I had something nicer to wear to dinner, as the ship is quite upscale. Even though Antarctica cruises are informal (“you can keep it casual and comfortable” while on board World Navigator, the Atlas booklet says), it might have been nice to have a bit more variety in my closet. Still, I made do with leggings and a single pair of jeans, and a handful of lightweight long-sleeve shirts and turtlenecks.
Having another vest would have helped me stay warm on board while also mixing up my wardrobe.
Better waterproof gloves also would have been key, and I wish I’d brought a pair of glacier goggles. These special sunglasses protect the sides of your eyes, allow for less visible light transmission and are generally pretty badass. Some people had ski goggles instead of sunglasses, which seemed smart: More of your face is protected from the biting wind and the UV rays. Ski or glacier goggles aren’t necessary, but they make you more comfortable, especially if your eyes are sensitive like mine.
What I wish I’d left at home
Three puffy jackets turned out to be too many with the heavy-duty parka provided by Atlas (just don’t tell my camping friends). I would have been happy with one or two to wear around the ship. I never ended up needing them outside during Zodiac cruises or landings.
For this trip, I also decided to try a couple of ShiftCam lenses for my iPhone 12 Pro: a wide-angle lens and a 60 mm telephoto lens. It seemed like a great opportunity to try to enhance my photos without juggling a bunch of camera gear and lenses. I wanted to experience Antarctica, not spend it trying to remember what f-stop to use to get the perfect shot.
The telephoto lens became a real hassle. Even when it was lined up perfectly and didn’t cause any vignetting, I could still see some chromatic aberration at the edges of the photos.
The wide-angle lens was much better; it captured beautiful wide-angle shots without causing the kind of distortion you’ll find when using the wide-angle lens on your camera. But both were a hassle, and the quality of the photos wasn’t so much better that it seemed worth it.
If you’re comfortable with a “real” camera and lenses, you won’t want to leave yours at home. But if you’re not, invest in a new smartphone and leave it at that. Antarctica is stunning: Be sure to take it in with your own two eyes.
Here’s the brilliant thing: My Antarctica cruise packing list was long, and I brought a lot of stuff. But because almost everything I mentioned was lightweight, packable and compact, I was able to bring all this and more in a single 27-inch carry-on and a backpack.
The only thing I didn’t count on was that I’d pick up more belongings along the way. Antarctica isn’t exactly known for great shopping, but the onboard shop was packed with clothing from some of my favorite outdoor brands; in addition to the second pair of waterproof pants, I also came home with some Atlas-branded clothes (including pajamas provided for the charter flight) and my expedition parka.
So, even on a trip to the End of the World, you might want to leave yourself just a touch of breathing room in your suitcase.
Featured photo by Melanie Lieberman/The Points Guy.
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