In the Pacific Northwest, we’re lucky to live in a community that thrives on outdoor activities in unpredictable weather. We’re eagerly inducted into the cult of Gore-Tex and we wholeheartedly embrace the mantra of the outdoorsy: There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing. We understand the concept of dressing in layers, we embrace the wonders of wool and well-engineered synthetics, we know what to wear for the weather. Mostly.
When I started piling up my gear for Antarctica, I found I was surprisingly well outfitted from the get go. I was missing some of the “loft” layers that are good for extreme cold and I was a little confused about what, exactly, I should do about boots. But with the addition of a down sweater and a pair of wellies, I was just about ready to go. And all that gear had been field tested—used for camping trips in foul weather, long day hikes, cross-country skiing in bitter cold…I even tested my boots by stomping around in the cold waters of Puget Sound.
Don’t see the video? Here’s a link.
I did take advantage of this opportunity to pick up some nice new gear. I hadn’t updated my kit for some time—and a lot of my best cold weather gear remains stored in Austria (my husband’s homeland). My base layers were showing some wear and tear, my rain shell was losing its weatherproofing, and gear manufacturers are always making advances in materials and design. Armed with a list of industry contacts, I went on an acquisition spree—filling in the gaps in my kit, replacing the bits that were worn out, and adding a few extras, just in case. And I gave myself plenty of time to try out the gear at home—I didn’t want to be zipping up for my first shore excursion only to find that I couldn’t move in my jacket or that there was a wind gap at the back of my pants that sent cold air right down to my, um, ankles.
There are a few things I learned—hopefully, my experience will help you pull together a kit that works perfectly and leaves you focused on enjoying yourself, not on your discomfort due to bad outfitting choices. Take all this with a grain of salt—what works for me may not work for you, and vice versa.
Nothing fits. It’s tempting to go online and pick up everything on clearance, but the range of sizes I had to go through to find gear that fits argues against using online shopping as the first step. If you want to shop online, go ahead; often the prices are better. But make sure you find a store to try everything on first. I had to exchange almost everything—across brands—for one size larger than I would have thought I needed. I’m 5’2″, I wear a size 10. I am not, by American standards, a large person. Yet I exchanged my outer shell and Gore-Tex pants (from Outdoor Research), my parka (from Columbia) and my fleece base layer tights (from Polarmax) from a size medium to a large.
The wind gets in. During my “stomp around in the water” test, the wind found its way up the bottom of my jacket and down my neck, making my back cold. This was a surprise to me—the rest of my body was quite well protected. Because of this, I added a neck gator. And my snow pants (from Columbia) have a nice touch—a fleece inset along the back that also helps keep cold out.
Head, feet, hands. This isn’t new. I’m sure many of you have heard the saying that if you’re cold, you should put on a hat. I added a liner to my expedition hat, and it made a big difference. Also, in spite of the fact that my boots are rated for -40, I have cold feet. I’ll be stuffing foot warmers in there and wearing good wool socks. I got a pair of glove liners (from Icebreaker) and I really like them. They’re warm, but lightweight enough that I can absolutely work my camera’s controls without taking them off.
Bulky and clumsy, that’s how it’s going to be. I put on my base layers at home, then I pulled on my outer layers while sitting on the cold, windy beach. Dealing with zippers, snaps, all that stuff while buffeted by the wind was challenging. Keeping my pack full of camera gear out of the spray or the sand added another layer of complication. The rain cover for my pack kept slipping (note to self: add safety pins!) and I wasn’t able to manage the zippers with my gloves on. In my full kit I was weatherproofed, but slowed down considerably by the bulk of all that extra stuff. It takes time to get bundled (and unbundled) properly—so I’ll be sure to give myself time to do so and be patient with others who are facing the same issue.
What about those boots? Boots take up a lot of space in your luggage and you probablydon’t want to fly wearing your wellies while transiting a South American summer. You can rent or buy boots in advance and pick them up in Ushuaia (try Ship to Shore Traveler), buy them in Ushuaia (if you have time in your itinerary), or wear the loaners provided by many of the cruise lines for their guests—check the detailed information provided with your booking to find out. I decided—after much hand wringing—to pack my own. There’s nothing quite so critical for me than having comfortable shoes when I travel. I’ve been wearing my boots for about two months now—I picked up a pair of Bogs—and I know that I can walk comfortably in them all day long. I won’t have to break them in, I won’t get blisters, they work for me. That’s worth sacrificing some space in my checked bag.
With all my heavy weather issues resolved, I’m now focusing on gathering the odds and ends that will help make sure my trip is great. On that list? A pair of binoculars, a backup hard drive for my digital photos, extra batteries, cables, all kinds of gadgets, a tiny “sopranino” ukulele, noise canceling headphones, seasickness meds, treats to bribe my cabin mates into friendship…I’m sure I’ll forget something, and that I’ll manage. But I know—because I’ve taken the time to test my gear—that I’ll be well outfitted for the excitement of Antarctica.
Columbia, Outdoor Research, Polarmax, and Icebreaker generously provided some (but not all) of the gear I mention above.