In the early years of polar expeditions, packing involved loading a wooden ship with a year’s worth of supplies, growing a beard for frost to settle on and wearing seal fur coats.
Thankfully, times have changed! You might think you need a suitcase the size of a small truck but you’d be surprised. Here’s how to pack for an Antarctic cruise and avoid excess baggage fees.
How to pack for Antarctica
The Antarctica cruise season runs from around late October to late March: spring and summer in the southern hemisphere. But the seasons here aren’t like other places around the world.
Throughout the season temperatures are low. Some days are bitterly cold, and high winds can make it feel much colder. Other days the temperature is glorious, even t-shirt weather on occasions.
It can rain, sleet or snow and it can do all of this in any one day.
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Antarctica packing tips
Your cruise could be anything from 8 to 22 days long. Most ships have a laundry onboard though so you don’t need to pack 22 evening outfits.
While laundry isn’t cheap, it does save you the hassle of oversized luggage. The bathroom may have a short washing line in the shower area, perfect for hanging your smalls.
Pack a small pot of washing detergent and wash your smalls as you go.
Leave your ball gowns and dinner jackets at home
There’s no need for formal attire onboard an Antarctica expedition. Most days will be spent layered up outdoors. In the evenings and on sea days, the dress code is casual.
Even the Captain’s dinner is an informal affair. If you dress up to the nine’s you’ll stick out like a sore thumb.
It’s not as cold as you might think
The Antarctica cruise season runs during the Austral spring and summer. Temperatures usually hover around 0°C or 32°F.
It can feel pretty cold on zodiac cruises if you’re not dressed for it well but on shore excursions it can feel quite warm. Layers are the way to go.
Don’t forget your travel insurance
Your Antarctica cruise is a big investment so getting the right Antarctica travel insurance to cover you for any unfortunate circumstances such as long delays or even trip cancellation!
Antarctica’s notorious weather, especially that of the Drake Passage, often dictates when a ship can depart.
At the mercy of the weather, delays can be long so it’s vital to purchase an Antarctica travel insurance policy that covers you for the worst.
Essential Antarctica packing list
So what do you really need to pack for an Antarctica cruise? Here’s the complete essential Antarctica packing list to get you off to a flying start.
The best luggage for the Antarctica
Most travellers to the Antarctica will fly into Ushuaia from Buenos Aires or Santiago after a long haul international flight. The flights into Ushuaia are mostly on small planes so you’ll want to keep your baggage weight down.
Onboard the ship, your cabin has limited storage space. We had quiet a lush cabin but the wardrobes wouldn’t have coped with large suitcases. And you must make sure things are packed away properly.
The Drake Passage has a habit of being quite rough and being woken in the night by a flying suitcase would get your trip off to a really bad start!
Soft duffel bag
The best luggage for the Antartica is a soft duffel bag; one that can be rolled up and stuffed in a drawer when you’ve unpacked onboard.
Bear in mind almost every excursion involves getting into a zodiac boat off the back of the ship in the Southern Ocean. You will get wet so you’ll also need a dry bag to carry your camera gear!
These aren’t cheap but they are completely necessary. Get one that acts as a backpack too so you can carry it hands free.
What clothes to pack for the Antarctica
With an informal dress code and cold, yet changeable weather conditions, plan on packing layers.
Merino wool makes a perfect material for base layers. It’s lightweight, ultra warm and dries really quickly even when hand washed.
Packing 2 sets of base layers is perfect but you can easily get away with 1 and hand wash them every few days.
These layers will make all the difference to your comfort on excursions. If you’re off out for a zodiac cruise, dress up in a long sleeve sweater and a fleece jumper to really keep out the chill.
For shore landings, just the fleece jumper will probably be ok but you can always shed a layer if you’re too warm once you start hiking.
For your legs, fleece lined trousers are perfect. You may spend time in sea kayaking and sitting on the ground to observe the penguins and these will help keep your butt cosy.
The following items are completely essential for all zodiac cruises and shore landings. You’d catch your death if you got wet so getting good quality items is worth every penny.
However, before you spend a fortune on new gear, check with your expedition company first.
Some provide waterproof jackets to keep, others provide all the gear to borrow and some can arrange for you to hire the equipment you need. It’s often cheaper to hire, especially if you’re unlikely to use the gear again.
Our expedition company provided us with a fabulous parka to keep and lent us waterproof boots onboard. The agent we booked with lent us waterproof trousers free of charge.
Waterproof parka, trousers and waterproof boots ensure you stay super dry when climbing in and out of the zodiacs.
Don’t underestimate the difference a good pair of gloves will make.
Cold, wet hands will ruin any excursion.
We wore a pair of thermal lined gloves and an outer water resistant pair too. They weren’t cheap but we stayed dry the whole time.
Footwear for a trip in Antarctica
Don’t cut corners when it comes to keeping your feet warm either. We often wore 2 pairs of socks on the zodiac cruises, 1 pair being merino wool thermals.
We only brought 1 pair of shoes too. You don’t where them off the ship anyway so they won’t be ruined by penguin guano or elephant seal poop! And don’t wear flip flops around the ship.
The Drake Passage and Southern Ocean can be rough and the ship will often roll around a bit so you need a good sturdy pair of shoes.
Packing for the ship
There’s little time to relax on an Antarctic expedition. Most days are spent on excursions and you’ll be so tired after dinner, you’ll probably turn in early anyway.
As the dress code is informal, pack for a comfortable trip. And leave a little room in the waist too!
Clothing accessories for the Antarctica
We’re not talking about fancy jewellery and shoes here. These are essential accessories to include on your Antarctic packing list.
Don’t forget your hat!
You want something to cover your ears that you don’t have to hang on to in strong winds.
And a buff and balaclava are fabulous for keeping the cold from your nose, chin and neck too.
Antarctic summer days are often bright and sunny and you need to protect your eyes from the harmful rays.
Make sure to pack a pair of UV sunglasses or you run the risk of snow blindness and missing this incredible beauty.
As strange as it may sound, don’t forget your bathing suit! The hotel you stay at either side of your expedition may well have a luxury spa.
Even if you don’t want to take advantage of such facilities, you’re bound to want to do a polar plunge! Aren’t you? It’s a tradition for all first time visitors to the south polar region.
And after the initial shock (that’s an understatement), it’ll make you feel buzzing with life (and that’s an understatement too)!
What toiletries to pack for the Antarctica
Our cabin included lovely toiletries and if there was anything we’d forgotten, they were available to buy.
Just make sure to pack your suncream and moisturiser. I’m not kidding. It’s easy to get sunburnt in Antarctica.
What electronics to pack for the Antarctica
You’ll want to capture this once in a lifetime experience for sure. Don’t forget to pack your camera and GoPro.
We’ll write another post on camera gear but suffice to say, the best camera to bring is the one you already have and can use.
Most expeditions have an onboard photography coach in the expedition team so they’ll help you make the most of your equipment.
We brought our laptops with us too. It helped us when we wanted to download our images each day and edit a few for the onboard photo contest!
Check with your expedition company if they provide a pair of binoculars. Some do. Ours didn’t but the binoculars are an essential piece of kit, especially for watching the amazing ocean going seabirds.
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