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Ask Gadling: How do I pack for a trip to Antarctica?
"I've just found out that I may be going to Antarctica at the end of the year. I have no clue what to pack but feel like I need to dress like an Eskimo. Any tips as to what I should buy or bring?"
Gadling: Antarctica is the coldest place on earth, so bear that in mind, however, know that most recreational travel to Antarctica takes place in the austral summer (November to March), which is comparatively warmer than usual with average air temperatures that hover around freezing (32°F, 0°C). That's a whole lot warmer than either Moscow or Montreal in the winter.
What causes discomfort in Antarctica is the wind and the wet, so preparing yourself against the elements is what matters most. The weather changes constantly, so like San Francisco or Scotland, the key to real comfort is wearing layers. Your packing list also depends on what you plan to do in Antarctica. Are you taking a cruise or are you going to live on a base? How much time will you spend outside?
DIG IN YOUR CLOSET
Before you run off and drop a thousand bucks at REI, dig deep into the back of your cluttered drawers and see what you already own. Anyone who survives a snowy North American winter should already own a lot of necessary clothing for a trip to Antarctica. That horrible homemade sweater embroidered with pineapples that you got for Christmas last year? It'll keep you toasty and nobody will actually see it when you wear it.
Start with the important stuff--long-sleeve long underwear is essential. The generic cotton kind you grew up with (the kind favored by Seattle grunge rockers) is fine, but the synthetic blends that wick away moisture are far superior and will keep you both warm and dry. Nylon and polyester are optimal, as is silk. Basically, you want you first layer to be warm and form-fitting so that you look and feel just like a sexy superhero.
You absolutely, positively MUST have a pair of waterproof pants--if you're going to spend money on something, make it this outer layer (ranging from $75-$100). These can be nylon or gortex but just make sure that it's 100% waterproof and not simply water-resistant. A strong pair of Insulated snow-boarding or ski pants add extra warmth, but if they get wet, you'll be miserable. This light outer shell layer can be worn right over your long underwear or you can add a pair of sweat pants or nylon action pants underneath.
For your upstairs, add as many layers as you need or want: long-sleeve t-shirts, flannel button-downs, or a good, strong polar fleece. Turtlenecks with sweaters are good, but again, avoid cotton if you can help it. Wearing so many layers will cause you to sweat and wet cotton just stays wet and makes you cold. Wool outer layers will keep you very warm. Once you get to Antarctica, you can judge how many layers you'll need to feel comfortable. Always have an extra dry layer available to add in case the wind picks up or the temperature suddenly drops (which it does frequently in Antarctica).
Obviously, the coat thing is kind of important. Realize that most coats you find at the local mall are not up to Antarctica standards. Overall, you want a parka that is fairly heavy-duty, waterproof, insulated (!), long-ish (going well past your waist) and with a drawstring hood. Zip-out insulated liners are great. Also, consider wearing a coat that's one size too big in order to accommodate all the extra layers you'll be wearing. Be sure you can move comfortably in it.
Please note that if you are taking a cruise, most shipping companies will include appropriate parkas for passengers, and that the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) also issues coats to its employees.
You might also want to bring a lighter, waterproof windbreaker for those times when the you are going to be particularly active or when the air is warmer.
Bring lots of dry socks--preferably long, over-the-calf socks. Thick, woolly hiking socks are good. No matter how "warm" the air is, you will often find yourself wearing two (or three) pairs of socks on your feet in order to keep your feet warm. That's because you are likely to be walking in snow or on ice, exposing your feet to the lowest temperatures around.
Knee-high rubber boots or "wellies" (wellingtons) are the overshoe of choice for Antarctic cruisers as you will be landing from a small zodiac boat right into the waves. These provide total protection from the water but are not very warm or supportive once you're on land. If you plan on hiking a lot, then bring a very sturdy, dependable pair of waterproof, broken-in hiking boots. Put your waterproof pants OVER your boots or wellies to avoid water seeping in.
Bring gloves that allow you some movement which close tightly around your wrist (stuff the outer glove inside your coat sleeve to prevent cold wind from cooling your wrists). Mittens are especially warm but not everyone's thing. Snowboarding gloves are both waterproof and durable (and my own preference). Some travelers also like to wear a pair of tight, knit gloves under a pair of mittens. Also (personally), I found my pair of neoprene wetsuit gloves allowed my hands to get warm while keeping them dry (when kayaking). Pack two pairs of gloves for your trip, and always keep one of the pairs dry and available.
HEAD & NECK
Pack a wool or polar fleece-type hat that covers your ears. Ear muffs work, too, but you always want something covering your head. Also, bring a scarf. There will be moments when you don't need it and other moments when you'll be readjusting and re-tying it around your neck to chase out that one little knife blade of wind. Neck gaiters are also very useful and comfortable.
Take your very best camera and a way to backup your pictures regularly (laptop, extra flash cards, external hard drives). Bring a dry bag and carry your camera in it as often as possible. Be vigilant in keeping your photography equipment dry. Otherwise, you'll end up with an expensive, camera-shaped paper weight.
Unless you're trying to ski across the continent or circumnavigate by kayak, you don't need a lot of specialized gear so leave the compass and MRE's at home. What you do need is sunglasses (polarized), serious sunblock (30+ SPF), a day pack (small, light waterproof backpack with a dry pair of gloves and an extra layer), a water bottle, seasickness pills, chapstick and some intense skin moisturizer. Last of all, be sure to bring a swimsuit. Most ships and bases will have a jacuzzi, and Antarctic plunges are a common tradition.
In conclusion--don't fall prey to the ideology that you are going on some major, unprecedented expedition and that you need to special order a ton of gear. You don't. Antarctica in the summer is far warmer than most people expect, and as long as you have the essentials, you'll be fine.