What to Wear to the Arctic

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 in weather from summer to summer and people often say to us that they didn’t use all their cold weather clothing. But it is certainly better to have more than not enough warm clothing.

Spitsbergen is well north of the Arctic Circle. In summer the average air temperatures in the areas we will visit are between 10°C and -5°C. There is considerable climatic difference between the west and east coasts of Spitsbergen. The west coast is swept by the Gulf Stream so the climate is mild and moist. In summer the temperature varies between 10°C and 3°C, the skies are often overcast and it is not uncommon for rain to fall. The east coast is a polar desert where the skies are generally clearer and the summer temperature varies between 5°C and -5°C.

Those who complain, ‘It’s not the cold, it’s the wind,’ are right! Wind removes the layer of warm air your body has heated around you to keep itself warm. A mere 6 k.p.h. wind can carry away eight times more body heat than still air. The so-called wind-chill factor measures the increased cooling power of moving air, whether it’s wind that is blowing over you, or your movement through the 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. In other words, avoid overdressing as this leads to perspiration.

Body heat is most likely to be lost from where we have most surface area in comparison to total mass – namely, the hands and feet. Keep them warm and dry and you will be much more comfortable in a cold climate.

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.

For anyone out in the cold, it’s far better to wear LAYERS of relatively LIGHT, LOOSE, CLOTHING than one thick, heavy item. 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. Synthetic fabrics that spring back into shape after compression are also good (i.e. polypropylene). When damp or wet, polyester is a better insulator than goose or duck down.

The temperature on board the ship is between 17° C and 25° C, so there is a big drop when we venture outside to get into the Zodiacs and travel ashore. The most important layer is the waterproof outer garment. Underneath that you will need 3 and in some instances 4 layers depending on the day – thermal underwear, thick long sleeve shirt, jumper or fibre pile jacket. Your legs are generally not so susceptible to the cold but on most days you would also need thermal long johns.

Arctic Packing Checklist

Using the principles explained above, your wardrobe for an Arctic voyage should consist of the following 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.


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 are 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.


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 work 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 ‘Walrus or Bear’ 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 garbage 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

There is a supply on board, but it is highly recommended to bring your own pair.

A standard European two round pin socket.

The electrical supply on board ship is 220 volts 50 Hertz, for Australian appliances there is no need for a converter.


These may be useful if sharing a cabin with a snorer.

A stretch clothesline

Very handy for drying wet clothes in your cabin and if you plan to hand wash your smalls.

Ski pole or walking stick

Definitely useful when walking over snow or ice.