Is creating a packing list for your expedition cruise to Antarctica driving you up the wall? We hear you. Antarctica is unlike any other destination on earth, and requires much consideration when it comes to 'what to pack and what to leave behind'.
But we’re here to help!
Our combined years of expedition experience at Viva Expeditions means we’ve learned what is worth taking, and what usually gets left untouched in your bag. We like to keep our gear minimal: pack the essentials and a few bits and bobs for comfort and leave everything else at home—easier written than done, no doubt.
This guide aims to help you pack like a pro for the Antarctica adventure of a lifetime.
Firstly, however, we answer the one all-important question that will help you determine how to pack for an expedition cruise to the ends of the world.
Click through the links to find all the information you need to pack for your Antarctic expedition:
How cold does it get on an Antarctica expedition cruise?
Flip through a social media post of an Antarctic expedition cruise, and you will be forgiven for thinking it is always bone-snapping freezing. You’ll see snow-covered terrain, loads of waddling penguins and adventure seekers seemingly donning 21 layers of clothing.
Of course, they are! They're on land. Yet that’s just for a few hours of their day. Ever wondered what everyone wears the rest of the time?
Here’s Tara, looking perfectly comfortable on the outer deck, donning just leggings and a long-sleeve merino top.
In the heart of the southern summer, even arid and icy Antarctica can actually be relatively balmy. Well, maybe not balmy, but certainly much warmer than you probably imagine.
If the sun is out and the wind is not blowing, you can enjoy time on your ship's outer deck without too many layers. Daytime temperatures in Antarctica in summer typically reach above freezing (highs around 5 °C or 41°F), which requires warm clothing but not polar bear-bulky clothing all the time.
But that’s the best-case scenario and what many expedition cruise passengers experience, most of the time.
However, even a little cloud cover and considerable wind can dramatically change the picture. And it can do so in an instant. Temperatures can quickly plummet to -15°C (5F°), and this unpredictability makes creating a packing list for an expedition cruise all the more challenging.
A group of Viva expeditioners dressed for the occasion on an Antarctica landing (the occasion being the gloomy dark clouds behind them!)
Thermal base layer – your most trusted daily companions
This is the first layer of warm clothing you'll wear before heading onshore or on Zodiac outings. Insular thermals, including long leggings and a long sleeve top, are an essential base layer. You may wish to add a t-shirt over the top.
Merino wool is undeniably the most recommended material for thermals. This natural fibre is renowned for wicking away sweat from your body, which is essential during on-land excursions. You might work up a sweat hiking around and always need to ensure you remain dry. Merino is also ideal for regulating body heat depending on your activity and being odour-resistant (which is always a big plus!)
Thick, woolly socks – keeping your feet toasty is imperative
A splash of cold water on your ankles on a windy Antarctic day can make you feel like you'll have frostbite in five minutes. And you might! Ensure your thermal socks are up to the task in extreme conditions, and don't forget to wear two pairs on frigid days.
Soft and warm fleece jacket – the great allrounder
Keeping warm on expedition cruises is all about layering. Pack a warm, soft, comfortable fleece jacket that you can easily take on and off. Typically, these jackets aren't windproof, so they are perfect for walking around the ship and hanging out on deck in warmer temps. Some people will use their down jacket instead, and just opt for a warm wool sweater. If you feel the cold, then the more layers the better. However, if you are used to the cold, then you might find a wool sweater is enough for you.
On warmer and sunnier days, you can wear this layer over your thermals, directly under your outer waterproof gear.
Mid layers – down jacket & warm pants (for very cold days)
On colder days in Antarctica, wear a down (puffer) jacket and pants (warm hike pants, tracksuit pants or ski pants would be suitable) on top of your thermals and under your outer gear. A down or fleece jacket may be included with the jacket provided, so you may not have to bring this. Please check this with your destination specialist.
This extra layer will ensure you can still enjoy hours of outdoor fun and explorations, even if the weather turns a little nasty.
Thin & warm: everything a down jacket should be!
Outer layers – waterproof gear is your first line of defence
The last and most important line of defence against the Antarctic cold is the outer layer, which consists of wind and waterproof pants, jacket, and non-slip boots.
Many Antarctica expedition ships provide guests with a waterproof jacket to keep and rubber boots on loan, eliminating the need to pack the bulkiest items in your luggage. That’s why you’ll see every guest on an expedition cruise wearing identical jackets. Don’t forget to pack your own waterproof padded pants as they are essential for all excursions, so you will need to bring or rent a pair.
Sometimes, the ship does not offer waterproof gear you can borrow, but you might have the option of renting it at your embarkation point. This is an excellent option for many, especially those on a multi-destination tour of South America, where bulky and super-warm gear isn't essential.
Ask one of our Destination Specialists about waterproof gear availability before booking your expedition cruise.
Waterproof pants are essential - don't forget these!
The most important advice is to ensure that all your layers are as soft and comfortable as possible. This ensures you are as agile as possible. Getting in and out of Zodiacs requires some mobility, as does walking around the uneven Antarctic terrain. Given that you'll be wearing at least three and possibly four layers on any given day, you must ensure you can still move with ease.
Accessories – keeping your extremities warm and dry is paramount
A neck warmer or scarf, beanie, and gloves are necessary, as we lose most body heat through our extremities. Taking some glove liners as well can be a good idea, or two sets of gloves in case one pair gets wet.
Two other essential bits of equipment that often get overlooked are sunscreen and sunglasses. The sun can be intense in Antarctica, and the reflection of UV rays on snow is considerable. Keeping your exposed skin and eyes protected is very important, too.
Polar plunge gear – the most important outfit you’ll pack!
The most epic dip you’ll ever take, anywhere.
The Polar Plunge is the ultimate challenge on Antarctica expedition cruises and the one activity you’ll need to pack for specifically!
Former NZ Prime Minister Sir John Key, and Viva's own Tara Sutherland, chose bright green for their polar plunge outfits!
Expedition boots will be provided for you onboard to use for shore landings and zodiac cruises. These will be knee high, made of waterproof material (usually rubber), typically lined to insulate against the cold and with thick, rubber, non-slip soles. Boots will be roughly knee-height because there might be splashing in shallows as you get off and back on your Zodiac when you land. *Please check the sizing provided with your destination specialist in case you have very small or large feet, to ensure your size is available.
However, unless you are on land, a pair of non-slip walking or hiking shoes are perfect for walking around your expedition ship and even wearing to the restaurant. You will find most expedition cruises to Antarctica have a very relaxed dress code! You might also want flip-flops or sandals to relax in your cabin. It feels divine to slip off your boots and air out your feet when you're back on board.
Viva’s Managing Director, Rachel, giving a talk onboard the Ocean Endeavour, donning her best sandals!
How to dress when you’re spending a whole day onboard your expedition ship?
Expedition ships are wonderfully heated, so most people wear casual pants or jeans, and a T-shirt. However, last-minute sightings of whales might have you propel yourself out on deck in seconds, and it can be pretty cold out there.
Even on sailing days, you might spend a few hours on the outer deck admiring the views of passing icebergs and marine life. Some passengers put on their thermals in the morning for this eventuality and always have their down jacket at hand, with their scarf, beanie and gloves tucked into the pockets.
Sightings on sailing days are common yet usually fleeting. You might miss out on the spectacle when you’ve run back to your cabin to grab a warmer layer. Be prepared!
As you can see, Tara is ALWAYS prepared!
What kind of equipment might you want to pack?
Antarctica is a photographer's dream destination. Whether you're a professional nature photographer or a lover of spellbinding nature and wildlife, you will have a field day on an expedition cruise. And take many more photos than you could ever imagine!
Aside from packing chargers (you'd be surprised how many people forget these at home!), you might also want to take spare batteries and SD cards. Cold temperatures tend to deplete batteries faster in Antarctica than elsewhere, so it always helps to have a couple on you. Don't forget to add an external hard drive to your packing list so you can download photos each day and free up your memory cards.
Packing a pair of binoculars is an excellent idea, as is checking the voltage of your chosen ship and if there's a need to bring adapters. Don't forget entertainment for downtime, be they books on a Kindle or music on your phone. Headphones are essential, as is a waterproof housing for all your techy gear.
What’s the best luggage for Antarctica expedition cruises?
A large, wheeled duffle bag is the best luggage for expedition cruises.
Some domestic flights in South America and all Antarctic fly + cruise options limit passengers to 20-23kgs, while many domestic flights to Ushuaia have a maximum allowance of 15kg for check in. Restrictions are non-negotiable on the flights to Antarctica, and for the domestic flights in South America, you will most likely be charged for overweight bags. It is best to pack as light as you can...it is not a fashion show in Antarctica, and you will find you will be wearing the same clothes most days!
A wheeled duffle bag like this is perfect for Antarctica cruises - easy to wheel around, and once you've unpacked, easy to store in your cabin!
However, if you are planning on more travel in South America, you may want to plan on storing an extra bag before boarding your cruise. Buenos Aires is usually a good place to do this – just ask your destination specialist to plan your itinerary to make this possible.
By now, you will have realized that the most crucial part of any packing list for Antarctica is related to landings. What you wear when you get off the ship, spending a few hours away from the warmth and comfort of the vessel, is the most crucial consideration. You will find the dress code onboard is very casual, you are NOT expected to dress up for dinner on most expeditions.
Here's what you MUST wear to make landfall in Antarctica:
Here's a downloadable packing checklist for you to use:
Packing for an Antarctica expedition cruise can be a daunting task. We get it! We hope our guide and checklists will help alleviate some of the stress.
Need to know more?
Our Antarctica Destination Specialists are always happy to answer queries and give more detailed advice, so don't forget to contact Viva Expeditionsto learn more.