Packing Guide for Polar Expeditions
Embarking on a polar expedition is a monumental and thrilling journey into a land of true wilderness. Whether on an Arctic Photo Tour, Antarctica cruise or Wrangel Island cruise, these photo tours take you to the icy extremities of the planet where both zodiac excursions and landings are the order of the day.
The combination of outings and time spent on the ship means you are exposed to potentially adverse weather conditions such as hugely variable temperatures. The type of clothes you pack and when to wear these items is an essential skill, especially when you are out on the ship’s deck or on an excursion.
You are not alone in wondering what clothing items are essential and should be on your packing list. This preparation is as important as your expedition itself, and I am here to make it as seamless as possible for you.
Let’s get packing!
The dress code here is relaxed. There is no need to dress smartly unless that is how you prefer to dress in general. Being on a ship for long periods of time means that comfort is the biggest priority, especially during sea days. Layers are the best way to dress, consisting of long soft pants or comfortable jeans, a warm to light jersey, and a thin long-sleeved shirt. Generally, expedition cruise ships are heated well so that you do not need to wear a lot of layers. You will mainly be sitting for much of your time onboard, so soft and comfortable pants are a must.
Two types of footwear are necessary while on board. When inside the ship, comfortable crocs or sneakers are recommended for when you leave your room for the dining area, or to relax and explore other indoor areas. As the ship can rock due to turbulent weather and high seas, closed-heeled shoes are recommended (your crocs should have a heel strap). Crocs (or similar) are great especially when you are changing in and out your muck boots pre and post excursions as you do not have to worry with tying/untying your shoelaces. The ease of sliding in and out of your shoes saves a lot of time.
The second type of footwear while on board should be sturdy with a good grip which is essential when navigating the ship’s decks. These areas can become very slippery due to the rocking of the ship combined with the potential for water and / or ice underfoot. Warm and thick socks are recommended for these outings over your thin inner heat-regulating socks. During these deck excursions, it may be necessary to put on waterproof pants over your pants, and wear a waterproof and wind proof jacket. Many polar photo tour ships offer these items to guests, but you are welcome to bring your own along.
Zodiac and landings
Dressing in layers is important when embarking on excursions as the weather changes rapidly. It is best to rather take layers off should you need to.
Thin, heat-regulating socks with large thermal socks over them. Should your thermal socks get damp for some reason, the inner socks will keep your feet dry and offer extra protection from the cold. I suggest that you pack more pairs of socks than what you may initially think is sensible. Some days are much colder than others and doubling up on thermal socks may be necessary.
Breathable thermal underwear will always keep you warm even when you are removing outer layers. This layer is key to an enjoyable excursion especially when you are out on landings and the temperature and weather is not constant.
Your middle layer consists of casual clothing that you will wear over your base layer and remove as and when you need. A warm, long-sleeved top or thermal shirt with a turtle neck can be accompanied with a fleece pull-over or zipped hoodie with fleece lining.
Comfortable and soft pants such as what you would wear on the ship will go over your thermals pants.
For your hands, I would highly recommend wearing an inner and outer glove. The bite in the air (exasperated by the wind chill) can be frigid when on a zodiac. The inner and outer glove will come in great use during these scenarios. Once you start to take your polar photographs, you can easily discard your bulky outer gloves and just keep your thin inner gloves on.
We highly recommend packing a scarf or buff to keep your neck and face warm, and a beanie for your head.
These are the layers that will protect you the most from the Polar elements. On our Antarctic Photo Tour, Wrangel Island Photo Tour and Arctic Photo Tour the ships provide you with a hooded wind and waterproof pants and jacket that will be yours to use solely for the duration of the expedition.
Should you wish to bring your own, make sure that they are of a good quality. Some excursions can be very wet and windy, and this is where your outer gear becomes so important. Your trousers will need to fit over your muck boots, so keep this is mind when bringing your own.
Our ships provide the option to rent muck boots which are needed for all off-ship excursions. As with the outer-clothing, you are welcome to bring your own muck boots. Please ensure that they have a deep tread and good grip.
The above is standard that I would wear for each excursion. In Antarctica, there were times during our land excursions where I would take off my jacket and wrap my fleece top around my waist as I got quite hot while walking around, especially up hills (also, weather dependant if it is snowing or clear). For all Zodiac excursions, I wore my full gear as it can get pretty chilly.
Dry bags are provided to each guest for excursions. These bags are very useful to pack away unwanted clothing layers, especially as sweating on landings is common. From a photography point of view, you can place your camera lenses and bodies into the dry bag with the idea of reaching in and quickly pulling the desired equipment out of the bag easily. Should you do this, I would recommend wrapping your equipment in a towel for added padding.
Alternatively, ensure that you use a waterproof camera bag, however, you should repack and lighten it prior to each excursion to minimise weight and exclude unwanted items. The reason for this is that it can be slippery getting in and out of the zodiacs, and furthermore, you may cover some distance walking during landings and, thus want to optimise the weight of gear you may carry. Your ORYX Photo Tour Leader will discuss the photographic scene of each landing and assist you with packing for that excursion accordingly.
Laptop and charger
As you embark on either our dedicated Antarctica Photo Tour, Wrangel Island Photo Tour or Arctic Photo Tour, your ORYX Photo Tour Leader will conduct editing sessions during sea days, as well as after your excursions. Most of the ships do have computers with an editing software loaded onto it, but bringing your own laptop will allow you and the group freedom to discuss and edit your images in different areas on the ship.
Camera and lenses
2 camera bodies would be the ideal situation on your Polar expedition as you can have a wide angle on one for landscape photography and close encounters with wildlife, such as King Penguin photography in Salisbury Plain (South Georgia), and a telephoto lens for photographing pelagic birds and mammals from the ship, zodiac and on landings. Should you only have one camera body with you, you ORYX Photo Tour Leader will instruct you on how to best change your lenses when in the field.
For a more detailed description on lenses that best suit your Polar Photo Tour destination, your ORYX Photo Tour Leader will happily share their recommendations well ahead of time.
Binoculars allow you the reach to view far-off bird and mammal life as well as marvel at the incredible landscapes that your photo tour takes you to. This is not a necessary item to bring, but one more for your added viewing pleasure.
Passport and Currency
It is best to ensure that you are traveling with a valid passport that has an expiry date of a minimum of six months post your tour commencement date. Most destinations will require you to obtain a visa, but your ORYX consultant will confirm this with you. Most polar expeditions will take payment in the form of American dollars for onboard purchases (eg: Falkland Islands on our Antarctica Photo Tour), as well as at destinations you may stop off en route for curio/meal purchases.
Please clarify this with your ORYX consultant ahead of the tour.
Toiletries & related items
Most cruise ships have shampoo, conditioner and soap in your cabin’s bathrooms. Should you need a specific product, it is advised to bring your own. Please keep in mind that you will need to ensure that they come in travel-ready sizes.
Sunblock and a intensive moisturiser is essential. The sun’s glare off the snow can be intense at times and lead to burning. With us spending potentially a lot of time outdoors, your skin care regime is of the highest necessity.
Sea sickness remedies and tablets are recommended as the ocean swell and its effect can certainly keep the hardiest of us bed ridden. The doctor onboard will have a patch or tablets available to give to you, but the best would be to bring your own medications and use when needed.
Polar expeditions are wondrous, adventurous and soul-stirring. I hope that the above packing list has given you key insights on what you need to pack for your polar packing list.
Penny Robartes is a dedicated Private and Scheduled worldwide Photo Tour Leader for ORYX Photo Tours.