Overpacking for Antarctica
For someone who likes to travel, I really have no grasp on the concept of packing light. I own a backpacking backpack which is still brand new, and unused 3 years later. At the airport I always have to check a bag (thanks to my drone which along with its batteries, and my cameras gobble up my entire allowance of carry-on baggage) so I take this as an excuse to load up a checked bag with nearly the full 50 lbs of allowed weight. Ugh.
The thing is that I rarely pack anything that I don’t use, and I travel to other countries as prepared as if I was going to… Antarctica. So you can imagine how obsessively I packed to actually go to the coldest, most isolated continent on Earth.
The most important thing I had to consider was what clothes to pack. I live in winter-less Southern California and only occasionally visit cold weather when making trips to mountains or New York. I get cold easily, even in mild temperatures, so I knew I needed the most practical and effective cold weather clothing. I read several blogs, product comparisons and reviews, and learned that the best way to dress for cold weather is to wear layers. Not just layers, but layers of the right materials. I am not a big fan of technical outdoor clothing, and have avoided buying zip-off pants and nerdy fleece sweatshirts and puffy vests at all costs (ever since my college days in Eugene, Oregon where a Columbia jacket and Nalgene water bottle were every OTHER student’s fashion staples). As a result of avoiding “outdoors” clothes I have had to pack way more in the past, because 2-3 layers have not done their job to keep me warm, and my under-layers were not moisture-wicking or anti-microbial and got sweaty after just one wear. For this trip I gave in and dressed as the outdoorswoman I have so long fought to not become— and I have to say that I was very warm and happy. The brands I most recommend are Patagonia (they have an awesome lifetime warranty and great products), Icebreaker (a better brand than Smartwool for everything merino wool), and Uniqlo (for really affordable “Heattech” pants and undershirts. They’re not anti-microbial merino wool, but they’re cheap!)
When I visited: Late summer, from late February to early March
Weather: 0°C – 4°C
So temperatures were roughly 30°-40°F. Anyone from anywhere other than Southern California would think the temperatures were quite mild. Occasionally it would be very windy, or we would be sitting still on the moving zodiacs for long periods of time, so you were susceptible to the chilly temps.
Things I packed that I’m super happy I did:
Mahabis Slippers: On the boat the majority of the time I wore my wool Mahabis slippers with the detachable rubber sole attached. I was SO HAPPY I brought these. I would wear them to the mud room to get suited up in my pants and boots, and they were so easy to get on and off. They were also waterproof (enough) to run up on the wet deck when a humpback whale sighting was announced over the loudspeaker.
Mizu insulated water bottle: It was nice to have hot tea or water to take on deck on cold days to warm up, or to sip at the end of a shore excursion.
Sunblock and SPF chapstick: There’s a hole in ozone over Antarctica, you’ll get burned even when its cloudy if you don’t block up!
Sunglasses: It is very bright in Antarctica with all the white reflecting light. Also when the wind picks up and blasts icy snow into your eyes, you’ll want glasses for protection. I love Crap Eyewear and Quay sunglasses (because they’re decent glasses and I like the styles).
A variety of warm hats: You are going to be wearing knit hats a lot, and since you will be wearing the same jacket, pants and boots in every photo (most boats provide these for you to borrow), it’s nice to have different hats so you don’t look exactly the same everyday and in every photo. It’s also nice to have a warmer and lighter knit hat, and I especially loved having an insulated hat with a brim, because it’s warm, has ear flaps, and a small bill that kept the glare out which was super useful while taking photos on bright days (The Pinnacle by Coal is an awesome hat).
Warm glove combinations: You’ll want warm waterproof snow mittens or gloves, but you’ll also want glove liners so that when you take off your big gloves you can use your camera or touch screen phone without exposing your bare hands. I eventually gave up on the bulky mittens and used my touch screen glove liners under fleece-lined wool fingerless mittens (from Muji). This combo wasn’t waterproof but with the exception of one very wet zodiac ride, it was the most practical and warm option. I had also bought a pair of sleek waterproof gloves from REI, but they were horribly cold and not touch screen compatible, so they were useless.
Camera(s): My camera goes with me everywhere I go. I brought a digital camera with 2 lenses and a film camera with 2 lenses. I would say stick to one camera and two lenses, or two cameras with different lenses. The 24-70mm lens on my Sony A7S was the most versatile, and only occasionally did I wish I had a wider lens for taking photos inside the cabin (so I used GoPro). At times I would have liked to have a longer lens than the 200mm, but in general I tend to take wider photographs showcasing the entire landscape rather than close up portraits of wildlife. If I had all the money in the world I would have had two Sony cameras, one with the 24-70 and one with a 100-300 or something like that so I never had to choose between photographing wide vs narrow.
And a note about camera gear in the cold: I never had issues with the temperature (0-4 Celcius) affecting my camera gear. My battery life was fine and my lenses never fogged.
For the full list of everything I packed to go to Buenos Aires, Patagonia and Antarctica click here. I keep lists like these that I copy and update for future trips, adding and removing things depending on what was and wasn’t useful, and the weather and my needs for each trip. Especially useful items are highlighted in red, and things that I didn’t use and shouldn’t have packed are crossed out. Like I said, I overpack!
If you have any additional tips about what to pack for cold weather trips, let me know in the comments below!