So, you’re going to Antarctica and you don’t know what to pack? You’re in the right place. Get ready to embrace your inner onion as you become all about the layers.
Considered packing is the key to making the most of your time on the Great White Continent – this certainly isn’t a trip that you want to pack for the night before departure! Preparing to travel to the coldest, windiest and highest continent on Earth takes some planning, but don’t be daunted – we have decades of polar experience under our belts to share with you. While a steadfast winter layering system and wellington boots are among the obvious prerequisites for travelling in Antarctica, this list includes some of the more clandestine items that we have come to class as indispensable over the years (keep reading to learn why we never leave for the continent without rubber knee pads and zip-lock bags…)
The Base Layer – ideally made from merino wool or a synthetic material like polypropylene or polyester, base layers sit directly against the skin and regulate body temperature whilst wicking moisture away from the body. Merino wool is extremely effective due to its versatile, insulating and antimicrobial characteristics, while synthetics are suited to high-intensity activities like snowshoeing as they are quick drying even in very cold conditions. We recommend a few long-sleeve tops and long johns.
It is important to steer clear of cotton when selecting a base layer since it absorbs moisture without wicking it away from the skin. This combination can be dangerous as not only will it make you feel cold, but it can (in really extreme circumstances) heighten your chances of developing hypothermia.
The Mid-Layer(s) – also known as the insulation layer, the mid-layer is a warm and versatile layer that should provide a level of warmth that is suited to the Antarctic weather conditions and whatever activity you are doing. Typically either an insulated jacket or fleece, the mid-layer retains any heat lost through your base layer while preventing cold air from reaching your body. It should be sweat-wicking and breathable and, as with the base layer, should not be made from moisture-retaining cotton.
Merino wool tops and micro-fleeces are popular mid-layers for milder conditions, while thick fleeces and thin insulated jackets are popular options for harsher conditions. Insulated jackets can come in the form of compact and light down jackets or synthetic jackets that can retain heat even when wet. For Antarctica, it is advisable to bring a small selection of options to allow you to customise your bespoke layering system depending on the climate and how you adapt to it, but we generally recommend that you opt for two mid-layers that are stackable so you can add or remove them as you wish.
The Outer Layer(s) – designed to shield you from the elements, the outer layer is intended to keep the rain and wind at bay while allowing excess heat and moisture to escape. Options for outer layers typically include hard shells, softshells, and insulated jackets, but for the very cold Antarctic conditions, we recommend a synthetic or down insulated jacket. This layer should also include a pair of thick and warm trekking trousers.
A pair of waterproof over-trousers and a waterproof jacket are essential, to protect you from both the possibility of snow and potentially splashy zodiac rides to landing spots. For over-trousers, we suggest a light-weight pair with zips down the legs, for ease of pulling them on and off over wellington boots. Many ships hire out waterproof jackets, so please talk with your Travel Expert before purchasing your own. If you do purchase one of your own, we recommend you choose one with zippable pockets to store your gloves (and preferably in a bright colour for more impactful photographs).
Socks – now that you’ve mastered the art of clothes layering, it’s time to move on to sock layering. We recommend a thin, moisture-wicking pair underneath a thick woollen pair for warmth. Your toes will get extra nippy on zodiac cruises, so we suggest you pack a pair of winter insulated insoles if you tend to run cold (or some nifty feet warmers to stick on the underside of your socks).
Gloves – you guessed it, more layers. We cannot stress enough the importance of a warm and comfortable glove system. We suggest that you bring two pairs of gloves: an inner and an outer pair. The inner pair is a liner glove that works as a base layer for your hands, keeping the elements at bay while allowing you to use your camera and change out lenses. The outer pair is a thick and warm waterproof glove, which functions to keep your digits warm and dry – we like the pairs with extra-long cuffs to cover the wrists and are fans of tucking hand warmers in between the inner and outer pair. Oh, and consider bringing extra gloves if budget and packing space allow – missing gloves are more common than you might think, and there are no kit shops in Antarctica…
Headwear – a cosy hat that covers your ears is essential for protection against the wind and cold. Opt for one made from merino wool or a wind-stopper material, and steer clear of bulky bobbles that get in the way of hoods and catch the wind. If you have sensitive ears, you might like to pack some woollen earplugs to give extra protection from cold draughts and wind.
Neckwear – a cosy neck gaiter or Buff, made from anything from merino wool to Polartec fleece, is one of the most versatile and indispensable items on any polar explorers’ kit list. With their seamless cylindrical construction, they are all at once non-irritating, heat-packing, moisture-wicking and don’t flail about in the wind!
Footwear – a thick-soled pair of rubber waterproof boots is essential for walking over snowy terrain and making wet landings. Most of our voyages include the loan of these boots, so please talk with your Travel Expert before purchasing your own pair. Your warm trousers will tuck into these boots, and then the waterproof trousers will be pulled over the top of everything. You might also like to bring some traditional hiking boots if your trip routes to the Falkland Islands or South Georgia Island, and they are especially essential if you are intending on doing The Shackleton Walk.
Eyewear – snow glare can be harsh on the continent, so polarised UV sunglasses are a must, even if you wouldn’t typically wear them at home. Remember that the sun is almost always up in the Antarctic summer season, so the landscapes will be bright even on overcast days due to water and snow reflections.
Rucksack – a lightweight 20-litre daypack that is either waterproof or has a waterproof liner is essential for carrying your camera and an extra layer, and one with side mesh panels to hold your water bottle is a plus. It should be comfortable and able to fit over your layered clothing system.
Shipwear – ok, shipwear isn’t a real thing, but with so much focus on packing the right polar gear, it is easy to overlook casualwear and loungewear. Trust us, while sailing across the Drake Passage or resting after exhilarating days on the continent, you will want to be comfortable and practical: think jumpers, trainers and trekking trousers. Remember that the ship is always warm, and no one dresses up in Antarctica, so suits and ballgowns can stay at home. For on-board footwear, we love hard-soled down slippers, which slide on easily and can be worn to the mudroom and onto wet decks. And don’t forget your swimwear in case the opportunity arises to do a polar plunge!
All the Rest
Camera Equipment – whether you’re a full-frame professional or a polaroid-wielder, Antarctica brings out the inner artist in everyone who visits. No matter your personal camera kit list, make sure to pack extra batteries, a charger, memory cards and/or film and a dry bag to keep your gear water-free on zodiac drives. To fight internal and external condensation when bringing your equipment back onto the warm ship, consider bringing along a reusable zip-lock freezer bag to seal the camera in before boarding (make sure to expel any air and allow it to slowly adjust to the boat’s temperature). Anyone travelling with lenses will want to bring along a polariser to lessen any glare, manage reflections and darken skies. Oh, and unless you’re shooting long exposures or macros, you are unlikely to need a full-sized tripod – but mini travel tripods and little camera bean bags can be useful.
Knee pads + Sit Mats – photographers will benefit from bringing knee pads (we find rubber is the most comfortable), which are ideal for kneeling in the zodiacs or on hard terrains while trying to capture that perfect penguin profile. Fold-up foam sit mats are another great option since they will prevent damp and muddy bottoms while perching in wait for the perfect shot. A sit mat can also be used as a kneeler, as a seat in a sea kayak, or simply convert an uncomfortable airport seat into something a little more comfortable.
Travel Cups – along with your Steppes water bottle, pack your own travel cup so that you can take a steaming hot chocolate, tea or coffee with you to lectures or out on deck.
Documentation – keep your paperwork organised in your Steppes wallet, not forgetting your in-date passport, your personalised itinerary (and airline references), insurance details, cash/cards, emergency contact numbers and any applicable visas and/or vaccination certifications. We highly recommend that you travel with scanned copies of your important documents and would be delighted to add them to your personalised Steppes Travel App upon your request.
Media – while, we don’t think you will have much time to twiddle your thumbs – let’s be frank, Antarctica is a grown-up’s playground – we always count a book (and perhaps an additional field guide), some music, a few downloaded documentaries and a blank-page journal (and a pen) as necessities for the 48-hour Drake Passage crossing.
So… you’ve checked layers upon layers of wearables off your list, your camera batteries are charged, and you have the whole season of Blue Planet II downloaded – you are a soon-to-be Antarctic explorer, and the exhilaration is building. But wait, we can’t let you forget “the mundanes” – be sure to pack your: binoculars, pocket heat packs, pyjamas, wash kit, high factor sun cream, heavy moisturiser, phones and chargers, SPF lip balm, medical travel kit, prescription medicines, glasses, contact lenses, underclothing, and maybe personal snacks like nuts, sweets and protein bars (but don’t worry, you will be well fed on board).