This week we are pleased to present a guest post by Carin Clevidence, who is the author of the novel, The House on Salt Hay Road. She lives in Northampton, MA, with her two children and travels with them whenever she can.
The first time I went to Antarctica I completely overpacked. I pictured myself shivering in a frigid wasteland. So, I added layer, after layer, of polar fleece to my overburdened suitcase. It nearly burst, stuffed with fleece and polypropylene, ski masks, neck gaiters, and a fleece-lined deerstalker hat.
Most of it waited out the trip in my cabin closet.
Yes, it’s important to be prepared in the coldest and most remote landscape in the world. But unless you’re a research scientist, you’re going to Antarctica during the austral summer, December through early March (which is, of course, winter in the northern hemisphere). On the Antarctic Peninsula, the temperature averages in the thirties (Fahrenheit). Chances are you’ll be glad you brought your sunscreen.
So, what should you really pack when you’re headed to Antarctica?
Start with what you put it in: a travel backpack. Getting on and off of ships and navigating narrow corridors and tiny staterooms means roller bags are a liability. Travel with a carry on sized travel backpack and you’ll have plenty of room to pack the essentials without sacrificing freedom of movement.
Here’s the complete list:
Essential Antarctica Packing List
You’ll need one, but don’t bother to bring your own. Again, unless you’re a researcher, you’re going on a cruise ship. You’ll be given a parka in a bright color – usually red – because they want you to show up against the ice.
Knee High Waterproof Boots
These should be good ones, preferably insulated. You’ll use them to get from the cruise ship to the uninhabited shores, riding in an inflatable landing boat.
Called by their brand name, Zodiac, these run-abouts are made of heavy duty, rubber-like material. They carry about 12 people at a time, and are nearly indestructible. There aren’t docks or jetties in the Antarctic. You disembark from the Zodiac directly onto the beach, often stepping into the water. Your boots should come up at least to mid-calf. Ankle high boots will not cut it. Trust me, you do not want wet feet!
If you choose to bring your own, don’t worry if they aren’t insulated. I wore a pair of LL Bean Wellies with two pairs of warm socks, and that worked fine. The pros prefer Bogs or Muck Boots.
A note on tread: Avoid rubber boots with a deep tread. Penguin guano can be hard to wash out of those little nooks and crannies.
Zodiacs are open boats. You’ll be exposed to spray and the occasional wave. Lightweight waterproof pants in a pull on style are best. You can wear them over a warm insulating layer. Make sure to get good quality ones that won’t tear. Once on shore, you may want to sit on the ice while taking photographs. In some places, like Paradise Bay, you may be able to slide down a snowy hillside.
In general, you want clothes you can layer. Pull on waterproof pants are a better choice than snow pants, because you can easily take them off if they’re not needed. Also, they’re easy to clean. Depending on the weather and the time of year, penguin rookeries can be very messy. Waterproof pants are essential.
Pack a couple of pairs of thin, warm base layers that don’t itch. Silk, polypropylene, Smartwool, whatever you prefer, or have on hand.
If you’re not sure how to pack for a cold weather trip, you’ll want to think layers, and good quality fabrics that will wick sweat and keep you warm.
Pack plenty of socks. They can get wet. Cold, wet feet are not only uncomfortable, they can be dangerous. Buy quality if you can. The Tortuga team members are big fans of Smartwool for durability, warmth and long term value.
A note about laundry: Some ships give you the option of a public laundry room. Others offer a laundry bag that you leave for the cabin steward. The latter is convenient, but expensive. Adjust your sock and underwear allotment accordingly. Hand washing socks and underwear during your shower is another option to stretch your wardrobe and minimize what you pack.
Hat, Gloves & Scarf
Your hat does not need to be a fleece-lined deerstalker. But it should cover your ears. There will be cold wind on the boat and the ice. Be prepared to stay warm.
I’m serious. Pack high SPF sunscreen and make sure to wear it. The ozone layer is at its thinnest above Antarctica, and there is significant glare from the white snow and ice.
Everyday Clothes to Wear Onboard
Onboard you’ll want to dress in comfortable clothing. Bring footwear you can slip into quickly. There are great views of wildlife and scenery from out on deck. You don’t want to risk missing a pod of orcas because you had to lace your shoes.
A note on footwear: Unless you plan to dress up, you can get away with only two pairs: waterproof boots, and something comfortable to wear onboard, both inside and on deck. If there’s an exercise room available and you plan to use it, bring sneakers. Otherwise, I’d avoid anything with laces.
Some ships are more formal than others. In general though, passengers on expedition cruises tend to leave the sequined ball gowns at home. Do pack something nice to wear for the Captain’s Welcome Dinner. In my family, this is known as “tidy wear.”
The last time I went, I brought a pair of lightweight flats in addition to my wellies and my onboard pull-on boots. If, like my mother, you believe that packing light trumps fashion, don’t worry. The Captain isn’t going to take offense if you show up in a nice sweater and a pair of slacks. But change out of those rubber boots, and brush your hair.
Other Gear to Pack for Antarctica
You are going to one of the most dramatic landscapes on earth. And it’s inhabited by penguins! Pack the best camera you can afford.
These are particularly useful for spotting whales and sea birds from the ship. A small, packable pair is best. If you don’t have a pair and are unsure about what to buy, check out this binoculars buyer’s guide, which compares the options by size, field of view, weight, rating, and cost.
For the Zodiac ride to shore, you need a lightweight daypack to store camera gear, binoculars, hats, and gloves. The last company I traveled with, A&K, gave these out with our parkas. Waterproof, like the Outbreaker daypack is best, because Zodiacs can get wet.
Waterproof Camera Bag
This is good insurance in the event of a wet Zodiac ride. A heavy ziploc bag works fine. Traditional expedition grade, roll top dry bags are another option if you don’t want to invest in an expensive waterproof camera bag.
Again, it’s summer down there. The sun can be very bright, blazing on all that ice and snow. You don’t want headaches from constantly squinting, nor do you want to miss something spectacular. Polarized lenses in your sunglasses are a great idea.
If you are prone to seasickness, bring whatever works. Some people swear by acupressure bands, others prefer scopalomine patches, Dramamine, or ginger. Bonine is a brand name, once per day, anti-nausea med that will not put you do sleep the way Dramamine has a tendency to do.
The Drake Passage between the tip of South America and the continent of Antarctica is the roughest stretch of ocean in the world. I’ve been incapacitated on crossings of the Drake, and other times felt fine. Some of it depends on weather conditions and some on the ship’s stabilizers. You may get lucky, and experience the Drake Lake. But come prepared for stormy seas.
Something to Read
You’ll have some days at sea. Assume that you won’t be seasick, and pack a couple of good books. Some of the best adventure stories ever written take place in Antarctica. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing, is a classic.
I particularly recommend The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard for his descriptions of a sledge journey during the Antarctic winter. Put it on your Kindle, though – the book’s the size of Moby Dick.
Consider Renting Gear
Some Antarctic travel companies now offer the option of renting gear. You fill out an online form and your selections are waiting for you onboard. It’s not cheap, but it keeps you from having to haul bulky rubber boots halfway around the world. It’s less expensive than purchasing a whole range of new gear that you may never use again if you live in a warmer climate.
Renting gear is one strategy for managing to pack light, and keep it to a carry on, even when you take gear heavy, expedition grade trips. If your Antarctic explorations are just part of a larger journey, then renting might make a lot of sense for you. It’s worth checking out.
Unless you’re a research scientist, you’ll be traveling to Antarctica during the austral summer. Temperatures on the peninsula are in the 30-40F range. Don’t forget:
- A parka will be provided onboard your ship.
- Insulated waterproof boots that reach at least mid-calf
- Waterproof pants are essential
- Warm socks: several pair
- Wool is best for warm base layers
- Hat, scarf & gloves
- Seasickness medication
- Consider renting the gear you need
And don’t forget sunscreen and sunglasses! The glare on the ice is intense.