A small-ship expedition cruise to Antarctica is undoubtedly the best way to see this incredible destination.
With my latest trip to Antarctica, I've now been there three times and weathered all kinds of conditions. I also learned how to refine my packing for this type of expedition. Antarctica is becoming more and more accessible to adventurous travelers because of the growing number of cruise ships that are visiting this remote place. So, people want to know exactly what to bring along when they prepare for their trips.
With that in mind, this is your definitive guide for packing for a cruise to Antarctica -- tried and tested during my visits to the White Continent.
This is a tricky subject in my opinion. Your ship crosses the Drake Passage, one of the roughest stretches of ocean on the planet. It certainly can be fairly mild if you're fortunate. But the passage takes about two days to cross, and cruisers could find themselves getting tossed around in incredibly turbulent conditions with waves measuring more than 20 feet high.
Even in the milder conditions, you will feel a lot of movement on the ship. So, if you tend to suffer from seasickness, you'll want to take a motion-sickness prevention medicine such as Bonine or Dramamine to help. If you are generally pretty good at sea, even in rough conditions, you might want to hold off on the meds to take a chance (because the medications can make you feel very lethargic or sleepy).
Some best practices are to make sure you can look out a window to a horizon, consume some ginger chews (candies) and try focused breathing to help you relax. Also, make your way to the middle part and lower decks of the ship to minimize the movement that you feel.
You'll be outside in the elements a lot, and the weather can be mild and sunny. It's austral summer from mid-October until February in Antarctica, and you might see temps in the mid-40s with calm or no winds. But it can also be quite cold, windy, rainy and snowy.
So, the best practice is to layer up!
What you need: Bring thermal base layers. Long underwear and shirts of lightweight or midweight synthetic material work well as the first thing you put on.
Then, add (in this order) a wicking athletic shirt, a sweater or sweatshirt and a fleece before putting on your parka (parkas are typically provided by your cruise line; see more on that in section below). Pack a light rain jacket for any time you have to explore in port before heading to your cruise ship.
For your bottom half, you can add sweatpants, jeans or stretchy travel pants on top of your thermal base layer before topping off with a pair of waterproof pants. Waterproof pants are required by many outfitters for landings. The pants keep you dry during Zodiac rides and must be big enough to fit over your rubber boots. (Note that boots are also provided by your expedition team on the cruise ship.)
For time before or after your cruise (usually in Buenos Aires or Ushuaia, Argentina, or Punta Arenas, Chile), consider comfortable walking/hiking shoes for any activities that you will be enjoying.
Other warm gear: Bring good quality gloves, a wool cap, beanie hat, scarves, neck gaiters and disposable heating packets (optional, but they might come in handy if your hands or feet tend to get cold.) Pack a few pair of good-quality wool or thermal socks.
You'll also need comfy clothing for your time on the ship. The environment will be casual, so you don't need to pack formal wear. However, you will want a nice selection of comfortable athletic T-shirts if you plan to use the gym. Long-sleeve shirts, comfortable sweaters and nice jeans or khaki-style pants work nicely for your time in the lounges and restaurants. I also bring a pair of stylish boat shoes and sneakers (for the gym).
These ships typically feature hot tubs and some have pools, and you might want to take part in the polar plunge event, so bring a swimsuit for these activities.
When you're enjoying your time on the ship while it's at anchor or sailing, you want to be ready to move easily to the outer decks in comfort in case there are any good sightings of whales or seabirds, for example. So, keep your parka or other warm jacket and your hat and gloves at hand.
Now, the number of each of these items you want to bring depends. Does your cruise line offer laundry service or will you do your own laundry in the cabin if items get a little sweaty, stinky, muddy, etc.? You can get by with one pair of waterproof pants because they can easily be rinsed clean.
Socks, underwear and other items like your scarf, hat and neck/face gaiters can also be washed up the sink or shower. Pack enough of the other items to account for your laundry plans and length of cruise.
Be sure to bring sunglasses. The sun can be intense (even when it doesn't appear overly sunny) because the white snow reflects the rays all around you, and you are really close to the "ozone hole" that far into the southern hemisphere. I've seen so many cruisers here get nasty sunburns on their faces.
Antarctica is a great place for landscape and wildlife photography, so you want to bring along the right cameras and equipment to help you reach your goals. You might at least want a nice long lens and midrange DSLR camera for taking photos of the whales and albatrosses and other birds that you will see from the viewing platforms and outer decks on your cruise ship.
You also will have the chance to get really nice shots of the penguins and seals and sea lions that you will encounter on shore and floating on the icebergs in the region.
However, even if you aren't a huge shutterbug (like I'm not), you can get outstanding photos with your cellphone or a basic digital camera. Except for the whales, you will get plenty close enough to wildlife to get stunning shots to show off to friends and family back home.
I travel only with a GoPro action camera (to take out on kayaking excursions and to use ashore and on the ship for vlogging) and my cellphone. These have been plenty to create the content that I need.
I recommend a hard disk and computer, as well, so you can offload and back up your photos and videos at the end of each day. (You don't want to lose those precious photos if your disk gets corrupted or you lose your phone or camera.)
Other items that can be helpful: If you create videos, you can consider whether you want use a selfie stick, small tripod like a Gorilla pod, microphone equipment and head or chest straps to hold your GoPro in position (for when you kayak or do the Polar Plunge, for examples).
You also might want to bring along your favorite walking poles. The terrain is highly uneven and rocky at many of the landings. But your cruise ship will also be able to provide hiking poles for your use during the voyage. Also, check whether your ship will have binoculars available in the rooms or in the public areas, and bring your own if the line won't have them and binoculars are something you like to use for spotting wildlife.
What the Cruise Line Provides
You can really keep your packing load fairly light, especially when your ship offers laundry service and because these expedition cruises almost always will include a parka that is yours to keep as a memento of your trip. (This, obviously, can add a little more bulk when you try to get the parka back home; you'll see many people wearing them on the flights back from Ushuaia and Buenos Aires).
Your ship will also loan you boots to use during the cruise, as well as other items like special gloves and dry suits for kayaking and hiking poles. If you forget to pack a seasickness medication, you can usually ask for some tablets onboard, too.
Expect a hair dryer to be available in your cabin. These are great for hair care, of course (not an issue for me), and used to dry out wet clothing items.
Video Feature: Packing for Your Antarctica Cruise
You also can consider . . .
Lip balm (highly recommended for the dry conditions) and hand and body lotions (although, your ship might offer some).
Books or tablet loaded with books, magazines, movies, TV shows and games that you might like to have for your leisure time on the ship. Pack of cards. Many of the ships offer books, magazines, puzzles, games and cards available in the library onboard.
You might get a nice metal water bottle with the logo of your cruise in or expedition company to use at water-bottle-filling stations on the ship. I always travel with my own in case. I also bring along a concentrated flavor to add to the water to give it a nice taste. I use the Mio brand energy drink flavoring and powdered single-serving packets from Built Boost. These offer zero calories, vitamins and immunity-boosting supplements.
Take any other toiletries that you would bring on any trip, such as toothpaste and toothbrush, combs, brushes, etc.
There's your list of all you'll need to pack for your Antarctica expedition cruise.
OK, I'm sure that there is something I have not considered, but this is where you come in. Please comment below with any great tips, tricks and items you think cruisers should bring on their voyages to Antarctica.
Thanks for reading,