Packing for adventures is a personal game. Everyone has their own thing of what works for them, and it constantly evolves as you learn on each trip. There are two different sections to my Antarctica Packing List -- the actual gear you’ll need to survive in Antarctica, and then the miscellaneous packing items that will make your trip much more pleasant.
Whatever company you travel with to Antarctica will provide you with a detailed packing list for your specific trip, which is really helpful and I highly recommend using. I traveled on a cruise to Antarctica with Oceanwide Expeditions, so I’ll be referencing their provided packing list in this post that I personally used. I wanted to note that if you’re backpacking long term, you also have the option of renting gear once you get to Ushuaia!
The polar experts I talked to all recommended to do your own research about what’s needed for your specific trip, and know what you’ll personally need to be comfortable. Ask a lot of questions, and don’t be afraid to contact the company you’re traveling with directly if you have any questions or concerns. I’ve never done a (freezing) cold weather trip like this, so I went to Paragon Sports here in New York City, where they had a department for everything I needed, and I got to pepper everyone with all my gear questions.
Waterproof & Windproof jacket
A well fitting jacket with attached hood that can be worn over your under layers -- it is most important that this garment is thoroughly waterproof. The waterproof jacket (Gore-Tex is ideal) is the most important layer of clothing!
Warm Trousers & Waterproof Trousers
These items confused me when I first started gear shopping -- I didn’t understand how I was supposed to layer for basecamp activities! Luckily the Paragon Sports crew helped me translate and figure out my layer situation -- I wore thermal underwear as the first layer, then ski pants as the second layer, then these badass durable water repellant Arc’teryx pants on top of it all. We spent a lot of time in the snow, so these layers were critical.
Fleece Vest or Jacket
My winter jacket has a fleece layered inside of it, and I brought an extra fleece zip up which was great for layering and wearing around the ship.
I brought one hat, and ended up buying an extra one in Ushuaia which was helpful when one hat got wet.
The weather in the Antarctica and the hole in the ozone layer is no joke. The wind is wicked and everyone got sunburnt -- protect your neck and your face from the elements!
Staying warm is all about the layers! I brought two top and bottom sets with me for basecamp activities.
Thermal Under Gloves and Warm Gloves or Mittens
Hiking, falling, and playing in the snow will freeze your fingers -- layer up and bring an extra set or two!
Thick Hiking Socks and Thin Under Socks
Bring plenty of socks for your entire trip. My Darn Tough socks SAVED me on this trip -- they were comfortable, layered well, and most importantly kept my toes and feet super warm during basecamp activities. We would be outside on Antarctic land for hours, and having warm feet was critical to having fun, successful adventures. My best friend Mary had Darn Tough socks with her as well and agreed that “all you need are Darn Tough socks to keep your toes and legs toasty warm, even in the Antarctic weather madness!”
Rubber Boots for Zodiac Landings and Walks
Oceanwide Expeditions provided the rubber boots needed on our basecamp activity cruise, but this is definitely an essential item to make sure you get right!
Critical -- especially for camera equipment that you’re going to take in the zodiac and on land. I got my tough and watertight Arc'teryx Arro 22 backpack at suggestion from Paragon Sports, and it did incredible protecting my gear against the Antarctic elements (even when I left it in the snow overnight while camping).
These items below may be miscellaneous, but they are critical to your success adventuring in Antarctica. There is nothing available for you to buy once you board the ship -- so think hard about what you’re going need for 10+ days at sea!
I used to judge Teva Sandals... but I wore them every day on my trip (from Antarctica through Argentina) and you can now consider me obsessed. They were awesome to wear around the ship so I wasn’t in boots or sneakers for 10 days straight, but were sturdy enough to wear outside on the decks, even during the Drake Passage. (Bonus: My Darn Tough socks were cute, comfy and warm enough to pair them with my Tevas throughout the entire cruise.)
Most folks (myself included) got sunburnt right away, and some got burnt pretty badly. Bring your favorite high SPF facial sunscreen, and use it!
A tip learned from a passenger who had gotten burnt was to make sure to put the sunscreen layer on your face and neck first, then layer whatever else on top of it after it’s had a chance to soak in.
SPF Chapstick & Vaseline
My lips got fried the first day in the sun. Don’t forget to pack this, or forget to put it in your coat pocket before leaving for basecamp activities!
Once my lips had gotten burnt, I realized I forgot to bring Vaseline (and Blistex), but luckily my BFF Mary did and was kind enough to share with me. I used Vaseline on my lips the entire time to avoid cracking lips and it made a world of a difference.
I didn’t have anything to do with makeup on the cruise, but having a solid moisturizer is key for keeping your skin healthy in all the crazy weather elements. I packed a 2 ounce jar of Skinny + Co Coconut Facial Oil, and ended up sharing it with multiple people during my time in Antarctica; it kept my skin in shape without any break outs, and really aided in healing someone who got a really bad sunburn.
Favorite Snack From Home
Bring a bag of your favorite candy or snacks with you! The meals and tea time desserts provided on the cruise were incredible -- but it was nice having a taste of home with me, and I enjoyed having some extra snacks to settle my stomach on the Drake Passage.
Extra Camera Batteries and Converter
Obviously you’re going to bring your camera -- but don’t forget extra batteries, chargers and converters! Mary Lamberti got this pro-tip before we left: “Batteries die more quickly when it’s freezing, so you’ll want to keep an extra charged battery on you when you’re doing activities.” Bring a travel charger for your phone too while you’re at it.
It was impossible to see on land without sunglasses -- the bright glare from the snow and the sea is harsh. I brought two pairs with me just in case.
Our cruise to Antarctica was adventure casual, so you were free to wear whatever was comfortable on board. Warm and comfortable jeans, leggings, t-shirts and sweaters made all the difference in enjoying my time on the ship.
If you take daily medicine, bring extra supply with you as you never know what can happen on a trip, and you want to make sure you have all that you need. I also always travel with allergy medicine, dayquil, nyquil, vitamins, advil, tissues, etc... just in case, because shit happens and you need to be prepared to take care of yourself!
Ginger Pills / Dramamine / The Patch
Surviving and embracing the Drake Passage is a whole post in itself -- but you should prepare yourself in advance because you don’t know how you’ll feel once the ship embarks. Our ship doctor was incredible, and a lot of people put the prescribed Patch on for motion sickness once we hit the waves and they began to feel sick. I got the Patch from my doctor here in NYC and put it on the morning we left to proactively combat any seasickness and it totally worked for me!
My friend Candi shared a black Resto Presto with me before I left on my trip, and it was so awesome to have throughout my time in Antarctica and Argentina. It conveniently rolls into a small ball so wasn’t an issue to fit in my backpack, and we used it to take photos and for writing breaks everywhere.
Binoculars -- I did buy a pair of waterproof binoculars specifically for this trip, but my Canon camera has an amazing zoom, so I ended up using that most of the time because I wanted to take photos of whatever we were trying to see anyway. A lot of people on board had binoculars to share as well, so it just depends on your preference.
Thermos Bottle -- I bought one last minute in Ushuaia because it was on the packing list, but I didn’t use it as often as I thought I would since I drank heaps of the free tea and hot chocolate on board!
Hand + Feet Warmers -- My friend Mary brought a pack of these with her, but they got taken at the airport in Buenos Aires so we weren’t able to use them! We survived without them, but they would have been nice when we camped outside in the snow overnight.
The equipment guide I got from Oceanwide Expeditions states it best: “Warm and efficient clothing (and a flexible attitude) are the best means to overcome sometimes harsh circumstances in Antarctica. Exploring remote and wild regions like Antarctica requires a sensible and flexible approach; although there can be bright skies with sunshine, the weather is unpredictable. Katabatic winds, caused by the icecaps and glaciers, can pick up suddenly and are a fierce opponent for polar travellers.” I encourage you to prepare the best that you can, and keep an open and excited mind as you travel.