Let’s face it, the amount of gear you need to travel to Antarctica is a bit overwhelming. There’s that big parka, and the boots, and all those layers….it seems like a lot of stuff. It IS a lot of stuff—I had to check a bag for the first time since I can’t remember when. But while I felt I was a little over-packed, I was warm and dry (almost) every day.
The crew loads luggage onto the M/V Plancius
Here’s the best of my kit, along with some advice about options:
Boots: Many of the cruise lines provide boots, saving you the hassle of hauling your own. Boots take up lots of space in your luggage, they’re awkward to wear on the plane, and they’re just a hassle to deal with. But guess what? I packed my own boots. I was not sorry—they fit beautifully, there were broken in prior to my departure, and they were warm and dry. My feet were happy. My cabin mate, who had some orthopedic issues, complained often about the poor fit and discomfort of her loaner boots. I’m a big fan of proper footwear as the key to a good adventure. If you have any issues about footwear, pack your own. Sacrifice the space. Speaking of boots…
Foot warmers: Those chemical warmers that everyone advises you to buy, they work just fine. But I had some rechargeable insoles that may be the second best thing I packed. I felt really weird about the chemical ones. After all, they’re single use and I was torn by using something that comes in plastic packaging and just gets thrown away—especially against the backdrop of Antarctica. I felt a lot better about plugging in my battery-powered insoles, and reusing them every day. Plus, my feet were never cold.
Serious outerwear: My three-in-one parka from Columbia was a huge win. I wore the down liner when wandering about the ship in between stops, the rain shell during my stopover in Ushuaia, and the liner zipped into the shell for landings. I also had a pair of Merrell snow pants that I wore every day on land. There are a number of places in Ushuaia where you can rent outerwear, and if you’re a sturdy type who doesn’t mind getting a little cold and damp, again you’ll save lots of space in your luggage. But I remember Hans, the German, saying, with great disappointment, “Today is the day I discovered my waterproof pants are not so waterproof, really.” Renting your gear is hit and miss—you may want to pick it up a day or two prior to your departure and wear it in your hotel shower. I’m not joking.
Quality socks: Two pairs of socks, “they” tell you. Yeah, but then your feet get bulky, unless you’ve done it right and got true sock liners along with your quality outer pair. I packed Really Good Socks. Merino wool and alpaca blends. Expedition or hiking weight with lots of padding. I wore one pair only, and because of my good boots and warm insoles, my feet were fine. But also, I packed plenty of extra socks—that way, I had enough so I could change socks between landings. Our cabin had a warming rack for towels in the bathroom (a very nice touch) and so often, I’d put my socks there before putting them on.
Hard-soled slippers: I was a little surprised by the amount of downtime we had on board. It was nice to sit in the observation lounge and watch the ice go by, and I was happy to not be in street shoes for all of that time. I finally understood the recommendation for Crocs. Birkenstocks would work too, or any casual slip-on footwear. The hard sole means you can rush out on deck for whale spotting, but you can be relaxed, too. In fact, informal attire was very much the norm—clothes that were easy to change in and out of made the most sense.
Waterproof outer mitts: Gloves are essential on those cold, wet Zodiac rides. I had lightweight inner gloves—the best ones had little silicone pads on the thumb and forefingers, allowing me to work my camera controls. But my outer mitts were key for those wet landings. I was cold only one time on my trip—and that was the day that I’d left my mitts on the ship. My gloves got wet and I just couldn’t get dry and warm again until I’d changed out of my excursion attire into my regular clothes. Typically, when we got to land, I’d stuff my mitts into my pack and, even in bad weather, I was fine—but on the Zodiac, they made all the difference.
Books on tape (or the digital equivalent thereof): I spent many hours in my bunk, not seasick, but medicated against it. This made me drowsy and a little unable to focus. With the rolling of the ship, I couldn’t read, but thanks to all that delicious audio, I was not bored. I had hours and hours of radio theater, short stories, all kinds of stuff, on my MP3 player—and a good pair of headphones, too. I’m convinced that this saved me from the tedium of crossing the Drake Passage. I’d recommend it for anyone, even those who are seaworthy. Audio is great on the plane, too.
I packed too many changes of long underwear. I packed Gore-Tex pants that I never wore because I wore my snow pants every day. (They still smell, I imagine, just a little like penguin.) I packed chemical warmers that I never used. I packed a cute little black dress that I never took out of my suitcase and a tripod that was a hassle to carry to shore and extra batteries and sunscreen and lip balm and one hat too many. I was wildly over prepared—we could have been blown off course for a week and I’d still not have needed laundry services. I also packed shorts and shirts for stopovers in Santiago and Buenos Aires where it was high summer. And I had a daypack stuffed with photography gear and electronics—not nearly as much as some carried, to be sure, but still plenty to haul around.
Antarctica is not a “traveling light” destination. As a regular world traveler who swears by the world of carry-on luggage only, this was a difficult concept for me. But while I was a little flustered by the length of the list and the size of my luggage, it’s better to have a little too much stuff than not enough, should conditions require it. Keep it under control, though. I was in my cabin and the expedition crew was helping haul luggage up on deck. “What on earth is in this bag?” protested the overloaded Brit. “A ten-year-old child?!?!” I went to Antarctica, over-packed, with one standard suitcase and a daypack. You can too.