Packing List: Antarctica

It took Ernest Shackleton years to prepare for his expedition to Antarctica. Modern-day travelers will need to plan in advance as well.

Here are a few practical tips to get you started:

When to Go

Cruises to the continent run during the southern summer, from November through March, when pack ice is thin enough for ships to pass through, storms abate, and temperatures warm to slightly above the freezing mark. January is a great time if you want to see whales and penguin chicks.

Most cruises run about two weeks, though tours can range from eight days to a month. Departure points include Ushuaia, Argentina; and Punta Arenas, Chile.

What to Bring

Lisa Kelley, who spends most of the year aboard the National Geographic Explorer as a trip leader and naturalist, offers up her gear tips:

1. Calf-high muck boots. Almost all landings require you to step in ankle-deep water. You may also be walking on soft snow, ice, and guano. Try on your boots (make sure they have good tread) with the socks you plan to wear to ensure a proper fit.

2. Waterproof/windproof trousers. 
A must, these can be ski pants or trouser shells. Think of them as your ticket to be at eye level with the animals in the snow or mud. You’ll stay dry, and dirty trousers are easily hosed down.

3. Waterproof bag for your camera. It does not have to be expensive custom underwater housing for your camera — a Ziploc bag does a great job. Whatever your camera equipment, bring extra memory, especially if an external storage device is not available. You’ll take more pictures than you can imagine.

4. Combo walking stick/monopod. There are no trails in Antarctica, and surfaces are uneven. A walking stick can be helpful even for the most agile. Choose one with a removable top, which can be used as a monopod.

5. Long underwear of differing weights. People have different comfort levels. Jackets provided by expedition companies are waterproof and windproof, so on a nice day you may need only one layer of long underwear.

What to Read

The Worst Journey in the World, by Apsley Cherry-Garrard (1922). This riveting adventure tale recounts Robert Scott’s doomed race to be the first to reach the South Pole. Scott did get there on January 17, 1912 — 34 days after Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Cherry was one of the youngest members of Scott’s expedition, and his story remains an Antarctic classic.

Terra Antarctica: Looking Into the Emptiest Continent, by William L. Fox (2007). Chronicling his three-month journey, Fox paints portraits of the hardy souls who live and work at places like McMurdo Station, as well as the landscapes and weather conditions that make Antarctica “the windiest, coldest, highest, and driest continent on Earth.”

Bonus Expert Photo Tip: How to Shoot in the Cold

“Don’t change your lenses outdoors,” says longtime National Geographic Traveler photographer Cotton Coulson. “You never want to get moisture or condensation inside the camera body. Put your cameras and lenses into a plastic bag and seal them up before you bring them indoors. Once inside, place them in the coldest area you can find so they slowly warm up to the new temperature.”

This piece was written and reported by Amy Alipio, Lisa Kelley, and George W. Stone. For more on Antarctica, check out the “The Great White Hopein the October 2013 issue of Traveler magazine, on newsstands now. 



  1. Rick
    September 12, 2013, 11:21 am

    May I add:
    1. Layers
    2. the purpose of a sealable bag for your camera is also to prevent moisture settling on the contacts when you return to the ship. allow your camera to warm up slowly.
    3. take spare batteries. If you are a keen photographer, take a spare camera body. A 70-200mm f2.8 is an ideal lens, anything longer is a waste, also a mid range zoom (e.g. 15-85)
    4. two layers of sox – light cotton, and wool over them. for that reason, boots should go up one size.

  2. Nik C
    September 12, 2013, 8:34 am

    Thanks for the tips! Heading down there this coming January.

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