Unlike packing for a Mediterranean or Caribbean sailing -- where swimwear and casual clothing are the norm -- packing for an Antarctica cruise requires considerable thought. Count on ever-changing and unpredictable weather, from sunshine to rain and snow -- sometimes, all in one day. The temperature might be above freezing, but it's often cold and windy, particularly when out on Zodiacs. Adding to the packing conundrum, you could spend time in embarkation or debarkation ports like Buenos Aires or Santiago, where it's their summertime, and the weather is hot.
So, what's an Antarctica cruiser to do?
Expedition cruise lines provide precise lists of what to pack for an Antarctica cruise. Heed their advice to ensure your comfort and safety on an upcoming sail. There's no guarantee an onboard shop (if there is one) stocks what you forget to pack. Also, check to see what your ship provides for passengers (either complimentarily or to rent); some offer parkas, hats, boots, rain pants, reusable water bottles and backpacks, yours to keep or at least borrow. To supplement your ship's bring-along list, here's our selection of must-haves when you're packing for an Antarctica cruise. Consider yourself ready for an adventure of a lifetime.
Layers make all the difference on an Antarctic cruise where the weather can rapidly fluctuate. You'll even layer gloves; consider liners, or under gloves, to wear beneath an outer waterproof pair (look for Thinsulate). Plus, if you want to change a camera lens, or any other task requiring dexterity, you can do so wearing only under gloves without exposing your fingers to cold temperatures. The best provide excellent dexterity and wicking properties. Layer your socks, too -- one thin and one thick wool blend -- for extra warmth on excursions.
Pack both top and bottom thermal underwear for base layers. (They might feel thin, but they sure keep you warm.) Bring waterproof trousers to wear over pants for wet landings, or if the weather is inclement. You might also wish to pack a fleece or down vest to wear underneath your parka for an extra layer of warmth.
While Antarctica has a reputation for being cold, don't be surprised if you find yourself exploring without your parka on warmer, sunny days. Wearing layers gives you the flexibility to strip off items, too.
Some cruisers prefer using the zoom on their DSLR cameras or smartphones to view and snap pictures of wildlife, but if you like using binoculars, pack a high-quality waterproof pair. Make sure the pair you pick is light -- much easier to hold when they're in frequent use. Look for a neck strap, to keep them safe over the water and in Zodiacs. Also, practice using your binoculars before the cruise; you don't want to be fiddling with focus knobs and eyecups on the cruise and miss bucket-list wildlife. If you wear glasses, select binoculars that offer enough space between your brow and the eyecups so you can see through them properly.
(Some ships might provide each cabin a pair of binoculars, so doublecheck before you pack.)
If your ship doesn't provide a complimentary parka and waterproof rain jacket with a hood that fits over it, bring your own. Waterproof knee-high boots, for wading in and out of Zodiacs on wet landings (and most landings in Antarctica are wet), are an absolute must. Some ships provide them to borrow or rent, but if your shoe size is less common, consider bringing your own.
You might want to wear waterproof hiking shoes or boots with traction for walks ashore, as paths could be muddy or snowy. Some Antarctic cruisers wear the same waterproof knee-high boots used for wet landings while hiking. We find them bulky with less traction on icy trails. For potentially slippery walking, hiking shoes or boots provide a far better grip.
Despite cold temperatures, Antarctica can surprise you with a bad case of sunburn due to the reflection off snow and ice. Apply a sunscreen on all exposed areas of your skin, which will primarily be on your face. (Don't forget a moisturizing balm for your lips, too, as they can chap easily in Antarctic's climate.) Pack proper sunglasses; they must provide protection from UVA, UVB and UVC radiation to block harmful ultraviolet rays, reduce glare and improve vision. Consider polarized lenses, which can cut down on the glare from the water, helping you see wildlife underneath better. Don't skimp here; it's critical to wear sunglasses when outdoors as snow and ice reflect 85% of ultraviolet radiation.
For a once-in-a-lifetime trip, only the best photo gear will do if you're a shutterbug. Bring your DSLR and at least two different lenses (wide angle and telephoto, for sure) for wildlife shots and multiple SD cards. A camera rain-cover comes in handy, too. (A shower cap can work in a pinch.)
For many cruisers, your cell phone will be a good enough option, as you'll be in close proximity to penguins and seals ashore. Make sure you keep it handy: You could be dining and suddenly the captain announces he sees whales starboard. No time to run to your cabin for your fancy camera. Or you might be zipping along in a Zodiac and spot otherworldly icebergs, but it's snowing hard and you're afraid to take out your pricy DSLR from its protective backpack. If your committed to using your cell phone but want to boost your quality, consider purchasing lenses -- wide angle and zoom -- that work with your device.
Don't forget to pack extra batteries, chargers and converters, and always recharge batteries before heading out on excursions. They lose their charge faster in cold weather.
Although the Drake Passage gets all the notoriety for its potentially tumultuous waters (and many ships sail two days each way through this passage), storms or strong winds can appear nearly anywhere along an Antarctic-bound route. To avoid seasickness, some cruisers swear by wrist bands such as Sea-Band, others pack over-the-counter remedies like Bonine.
You can also ask your physician if a prescription-strength medication, such as a scopolamine transdermal patch, or sublingual ondansetron (Zofran), is right for you. Most expedition ships offer complimentary over-the-counter seasickness pills, too.
As a natural backup, green apples and ginger tea and candy often calm queasy stomachs.
Some expedition ships provide water-resistant backpacks. To fully protect all your electronic gear (such as smartphones and camera equipment) bring your own waterproof backpack, which is more protective than a water-resistant one. One ocean tumble, big wave crashing into a Zodiac or drenching downpour can ruin your equipment stashed in a water-resistant backpack.
If you're using a water-resistant -- rather than waterproof -- backpack (or you're just extra-cautious), bring dry bags for smartphones and camera gear. Dry bags provide extra protection if your backpack gets soaked. Plus, they're great for protecting a smartphone or small camera that you keep in your pocket, rather than in a backpack.
Heat packs, popular with hunters and cold-weather football fans, keep your hands and feet toasty-warm, even in wind-whipped frigid conditions. Place a single-use heater between your socks and boots, and between layers of gloves; never let warmers touch bare skin. These will keep your extremities warm for hours.