Antarctica brings up a stark vision of snow, icebergs, glaciers, wind, and barren landscapes. With a high sensitivity to cold climes, it was not a place I was begging to go. The key to staying warm in Antarctica is to combine the right fabrics and fit for apparel and outwear. Head to toe, the key is layering. If I can stay happily warm in the cold, anybody can.
You see, I suffer from something called Raynaud’s disease. Simply put, it is an odd phenomenon where your nervous system in even the slightest chill can freak out and shut down blood flow to your extremities. Fingers, and sometimes toes or beyond, go white, like they are hypothermic. It is painful, dangerous and not a heck of a lot of fun.
Still, when the opportunity was given to us by Polar Latitudes to join an expedition in late summer to the southernmost continent, I couldn’t say, “no.” Think cute penguins, expansive oceans, huge birds and killer whales, not to mention mystical landscapes you can’t experience anywhere else. Despite that, most people just shudder when you tell them you were in Antarctica, with the response something like, “Must have been freezing,” or “Too cold for me!”
Antarctica not as cold as you think
Thing is, that vision of snow and ice doesn’t mean the average temperatures during the expedition season to Antarctica (about October through February) are all that low – In fact even on our late summer (departure late February) the temperatures, not counting wind chill or other factors, hovered mostly between -1 and 5 degrees Celsius (about 30-40 Fahrenheit) – heck, very doable! Of course, then you have to factor in wind, rain, sleet, and getting wet from the ocean. Those variables can quickly drop a temperature to a “feels like” of -7 Celsius (19 Fahrenheit), and perhaps even lower.
Of course, we know folks who have been on expeditions to Antarctica in mid-summer or in late December/early January who said they never put on thick waterproof shells and wore mostly T-shirts to sit on the outside deck between landings or on short cruises on the Zodiac boats. Even if this does happen, if you are serious about enjoying yourself despite the cold and enjoying the expedition’s experiences in possibly colder extremes, you must be prepared to stay warm in Antarctica.
Most expedition companies offer packing lists, so pay attention to them, but listen to your own needs too.
Staying warm in Antarctica means layering
1 – Basic outer layers
Boots – Most companies have tall, insulated rubber muck boots for use during the voyage. Make sure yours does or you will need to bring your own. Do not fit them too snugly so ensure you have room for TWO PAIRS of socks inside, preferably wool (thus, you will likely need four pairs for your voyage). You will be stepping into the ocean to get on and off the Zodiac boots. Staying dry is the first step to staying warm in the cold.
Waterproof/windproof outer shell jacket – Absolutely a must. Again, many companies will provide one, usually to keep as a souvenir. Otherwise, rent or buy one. It must be built for rugged wear, have a lining, inner pockets, not be too short, close securely, and have a roomy hood. Make sure it is loose enough to be able to wear SEVERAL LAYERS underneath, including on your head. Forget fashion. This is all about function and staying warm in the cold.
Waterproof pants – No matter what time of year, you will want these over pants to stay dry, and most companies will require them for landings. Make sure they are rugged enough to withstand sitting on the rubber boats and other abrasive situations (falling on snow?). An outer leg pocket (waterproof) is a great addition for carrying a smartphone or other gear. Same applies as above: Not too tight. One, you’ll want freedom to move for stepping in and out of boats; two, you’ll want room for a couple of layers underneath; and three, you’ll want room for a little air buffer which will help you stay insulated. “How does my behind look,” will not be what you are thinking about.
2 – Base layer and mid-layers – getting personal
Polar Latitudes suggested “at least two sets,” but we found that we wore the same set pretty much every day. That said, I took three sets of three different weights, knowing I could combine any or all of them as the temperatures demanded.
Bottom layers – Think wool or a dense fleece in various weights to combine as needed. I wore TWO layers every day under my waterproof pants – the mid-weight and the heavy weight. I found the heavyweight fleece layer called La Montana from Hot Chillys was divine as my top base layer/mid-layer. (Michael, for comparison, wore only one thinner wool base layer).
Top layers – Being so sensitive to the cold, I wore 3-4 layers (!!!) under my waterproof shell. I packed the same as with the bottoms: Four tops of different weights from thin to super thick I could wear all together, or separately, or combine as needed. The routine from the skin out:
- Thin wool or wool blend tee shirt (not worn every day)
- Medium-weight wool hoody that zipped high up to my chin, snugging over neck and ears
- Thicker wool or denser fleece quarter-zip top (I avoided a zipper to ensure no breezes snuck in)
- Hip-length. waterproof, windproof down jacket with a hood. I completely fell in love with my Floodlight Parka from Outdoor Research. It offered compact windproof warmth for my under-shell thermal layer.
Note that warmer-blooded Michael wore either a long or short-sleeve wool tee combined with a windproof fleece under his shell. That’s it. And he had no trouble staying warm even in -1 degree Celsius. I was a Michelin (wo)man in thickness – but a warm Michelin (wo)man!)
3 – Keep your noggin and neck covered
Keeping the head warm is the first step to keeping your entire body warm. Michael typically only wore one wool knit cap or brimmed waterproof hat and then a merino Buff he would pull up over his head and ears when needed, I was layered like crazy up top too. (Remember, everybody will have “hat hair” so don’t get all vain on us.)
- Hoody (mentioned under tops) zipped high to neck and pulled snug over my head. I could leave this down if it was warmer.
- Knit cap, wool – Make sure it is cut long enough to pull down to your eyebrows and over your ears. Wind-resistance is good, which you will likely have if it is a denser knit.
- Down jacket’s hood
- Shell jacket’s hood – If it were warmer I could leave this off since my down jacket was also water- and windproof (Michael never pulled out his jacket’s hood, but in our case the times it rained or sleeted, it was only light or sporadic. Therese, on the other hand, was the “lucky one” who was hit full-body from the back with a couple of rogue waves transiting to the ship on the Zodiac – and was quite happy she was wearing her shell’s hood).
An additional item to consider (and I had one as a just-in-case) is a warm, wide, possibly wool headband for slightly warmer days when a cap my be overkill).
When it comes to the neck, a circular wool scarf like a Buff works great or some other neck covering. My hoody zipped high did the trick for me.
4 – Keeping hands and wrists warm
Now it gets tricky. You must know how sensitive your hands are to decide what you need for gloves or mitts. I had an entire wardrobe of six gloves/mitts of different weights with me – no really, see below – and carried 2-3 extra with me for every outing. I knew I could combine them in various ways for various temperatures. Michael rarely wore gloves and then only a thin liner. One of the complications for me, as a Raynaud’s sufferer, is needing to keep my hands warm and dry while also maintaining finger touch for my DSLR camera’s knobs and dials. Consider a specialty glove with a flip-top for fingers and one for the thumb that can bare them for photos (bottom right in photo) – wearing a very thin liner under that then gives a bit of insulation from the cold. Missing from my collection was a waterproof shell for OVER the flip-top mitts.
In addition, everybody should have more gloves along than seem to be needed since you may get gloves wet. Meaning you may need to switch them out from morning to afternoon landings or day to day – extras are a must (although a hair dryer for a last touch of drying can come in handy too).
Heat packs, those oxygen-powered little bundles of warmth (in photo, top left), were my best friend. I had two sets with me each day.Most every day I had a pair warmed up with one in each glove. But there were a couple of days when the wind chill made the “feels-like” low enough that I opened a second pair to stash one in each jacket pocket. Between shooting photos, I stashed my hands in my pockets for double-heating action!
At least one of the tops I wore each day had thumb holes so I could wear them down over my wrists under my gloves to keep out chills and wind. Some studies show that you stay warmer if your wrists are covered, too.
5 – Timing to getting dressed
Timing your layering up before departure is another trick since on top of everything you will have a life vest (PFD) and any pack or camera gear you may want. If you start too early, you totally overheat waiting to head out. But you also don’t want to be late to board.
My personal routine was to put on the first two base layers as well as the rain pants, socks and boots. Then I’d grab my down jacket, shell, PFD, hat, gloves, pack and other gear and waddle down to the disembarkation room. When our group was getting close to departure, I’d layer up with everything else, leaving the jacket open. Then at the last minute, I’d zip up the jacket, pull on my PFD, yank hoodies and hats on the head, grab my gloves, and be ready to go.
I noticed some came to the disembarkation area fully dressed and then would just sit and try to chill. I’m not a sit-and-chill person since in this case I was usually adjusting my camera and shooting photos too.
Prior to departure, I was quite leery about going to Antarctica and even nervous prior to our first cruise and landing. But gosh darn I was pleasantly surprised how easy it was – with planning and organization – to stay warm and comfortable in the cold, even for me! Forget your worries about staying warm in Antarctica — this kind of adventure is one not to be missed.