What to Wear in Antarctica

The choice of clothing for cold climates is a very personal matter. It depends on your individual experience with cold conditions and can even depend on whether you feel you are more susceptible to the cold than other people. The following tips should help you to be comfortable and healthily warm in cold weather.

We have found over the years that there can be considerable variation from summer to summer and that the weather in the polar regions is generally milder than most people expect. People often say to us that they didn't use all their cold weather clothing. But it is certainly better to have more warm clothing than not enough.

In summer the average temperatures in the areas we will visit are generally between -2°C and +8°C. Big storms are rare, but if one comes through the temperature might drop to about -8°C. These temperatures are similar to most ski fields in the winter but the poles are generally much drier, however, be prepared for rain. If you are a skier, your ski clothing will be perfectly adequate for the occasion as long as you are satisfied it is thoroughly waterproof.

The Layering Principle

The secret to keeping warm is the ‘layer principle’. This says that you are better to have several light layers of clothing than one heavy layer. Between each layer, there is trapped air which, when heated by your body, acts as an excellent insulator. Avoid tight clothing, since it leaves no room for trapped air. Wool and silk are superior to cotton because they can trap warm air.

The most important layer is the outer waterproof and windproof shell because a small wind of 6 kph can carry away eight times more body heat than still air! Being wet accelerates the loss of body heat. Air is a very poor conductor of heat, but water is an excellent one. If your skin or clothing gets wet, your body will lose heat much more rapidly. Even at 10°C you can suffer ill effects of cold if you are wet.

Avoid overdressing as this leads to perspiration; and in wet weather, wear water-repellent outer garments that will keep you dry on the outside but still allow you to ‘breathe’ enough that moisture from your body can escape. Body heat is most likely to be lost from where we have the most surface area in comparison to total mass - namely, the hands and feet. Keep them warm and dry. If all the rest of your body is covered, as much as 90% of the heat you lose can come from your head; so be sure to wear a cap, beanie or balaclava.  

The temperature on board the ship is between 15°C to 25°C, so there is a big drop when we venture outside to get onto the Zodiacs and travel ashore. We usually find that people overdress on our first few excursions ashore, but it is better to be a little over-cautious at first. Underneath your waterproof outer layer, you will need 2 or 3 layers depending on the day - for example, thermal underwear, jumper and fibre pile jacket.

Using the principles explained above, your wardrobe should consist of the following:

Antarctica Check List

  • Waterproof Trousers - A pair of light, waterproof nylon trousers are critical for keeping you warm in a wind or in the Zodiac where you might get splashed, and when it rains.
  • Fibre-Pile Jacket - There are many choices of fibre-pile (polar fleece) jackets available these days, but a 200 - 300 weight is ideal. If you do not plan to spend a lot of time in the outdoors after the trip then you may be better advised to bring another warm jumper rather than buy a new fibre-pile jacket.
  • Warm Trousers - Ski, tracksuit, or fibre-pile pants are suitable or even woollen army pants.
  • Thermal Underwear - You should select medium to thick thermal underwear; long sleeve thermal top, trousers and socks. Polypropylene fibres are warmer when damp or wet than silk or wool, although the CSIRO has recently developed a fine wool product called Sportwool, which is sprayed with a synthetic, thus combining the value of both fibres.
  • Woollen Sweaters - Thin ones are a good layer over your polypropylene underwear and are useful onboard.
  • Inner sole for gumboots - They will keep your feet warmer when sitting in the Zodiac for longer periods. 
  • Socks - Two pairs of socks and your inner soles in your gumboots are more than enough to keep your feet snug. It is advisable to take thick and thin socks, as thick ones are too warm on board and you can work out the best combination for your gumboots, as too many socks can restrict the circulation. It is a good idea to take at least 4 pairs of thick socks in total just in case you get a boot full of water.
  • Mittens & Gloves - These are another very important item of clothing, as cold hands make you feel miserable. To keep them warm a pair of polypropylene or woollen gloves covered with a waterproof mitten is fine. A spare pair of gloves should always be carried in case your first pair gets wet. We stress that it is important to have several pairs of gloves. A pair of fingered gloves under the mittens make camera handling easier. Some people find a large pair of rubber washing up gloves very good for keeping hands dry in the Zodiac. Ski gloves are also very good and thick fleecy-lined rubber gloves used in freezers are great.
  • Headgear - You will need a woollen cap or beanie that can be pulled down to protect your ears and forehead. These items are also available in a polypropylene or Polartec material, so a combination of these fabrics works well. The neck also needs protection with a woollen or synthetic scarf that can be wrapped around the face, when travelling against the wind. A turtleneck is a very good item made from Polartec it slips over your head to protect your neck.
  • Ship Attire - Note that dress on the ship is informal. You may wish to bring something outrageous for the Captain’s drinks, but leave your formal gear at home. Normal clothing on board is jeans, casual slacks or trousers, light long sleeve shirts or t-shirts and the parka should never be far away in case the call of 'Whales' comes over the loudspeaker and you have to dash outside. Lightweight walking boots are handy to wear on the ship and some people like to take them ashore on occasions.
  • Useful Sundries - A waterproof nylon backpack, rucksack, or similar bag for carrying your camera and other gear during shore excursions. Be sure to choose one with shoulder straps so that your hands are free when boarding the Zodiac. It is very important that you have some way to keep your camera dry (perhaps a dry bag), particularly while you are on the Zodiacs.
  • Good quality sunglasses - Note that the glare from the water and surrounding snow/ice can be quite penetrating, even when the sky is overcast. These glasses do not have to be glacier glasses, your normal sunglasses will suffice but we find polarized sunglasses to be the most effective. Tinted ski goggles can also be useful especially when the conditions are windy and snow or sleet is blowing in your face.
  • A pair of binoculars - Although we do have some pairs on board, we highly recommend bringing your own.
  • Earplugs - These may be useful if sharing a cabin with a snorer.
  • A stretch clothesline - This is always handy for drying wet clothes in your cabin and for hanging any small items of washing.
  • Ski poles or walking sticks - These can be useful when walking on snow or ice.
  • A standard European two-round-pin socket - The electrical supply on board the ship is 220 volts 50 Hertz. For Australian appliances, there is no need for a converter.
The staff and crew were excellent and all worked hard to make the trip an experience to remember.
Karen Bonthrone, UK - Weddell Sea and Antarctic Explorer, February 2016
Thanks for making a life long dream become a reality. The ship, the Drake, Antarctica, the staff, and the whole experience was better than I had hoped for. I am so glad that I finally did this trip and thanks to people like you who make small ships and small groups possible.
Wendy Smith - Spirit of Antarctica, 2015
I would like to commend the staff and crew - it was them who made the trip both a learning experience and something to be enjoyed. They were always prepared to go the extra mile.
Helen Veivers - Christmas in Antarctica, 2015
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