The harshness of the Arctic region means that even if you’re visiting on an expedition cruise at the height of summer, you’ll likely experience climatic extremes. Packing for all eventualities is absolutely essential for Arctic cruise passengers, as is having good-quality gear that’ll keep you warm and agile simultaneously. Sudden climatic changes are common this far north and the very nature of Arctic expedition cruises – every day bringing new and exciting outdoor adventures – mean you’ll need to still remain quite active and nimble. And you can only do that if you’re wearing the right gear.
Knowing what to pack for your Arctic cruise could mean the difference between braving the experience with clenched teeth or having an exhilarating and enjoyable adventure of a lifetime.
Keep it simple – and light!
When it comes to Arctic cruises, you’ll want to keep your packing and your daily outfits light and manageable, both for the sake of luggage transfers and your own physical movement. Don’t weigh yourself down with extra-thick clothing: this will restrict you far too much when getting in and out of Zodiacs or hiking across rugged, rocky terrain.
Nowadays, there are a host of high-tech fabrics that are designed especially for Polar expeditions: thin yet warm fabrics that insulate your body heat and keep you toasty and dry. Keep in mind that you don’t need a lot of clothing for your Arctic cruise – you just need a few pivotal, high-quality pieces.
Functionality trumps fashion!
When you’re packing for an Arctic cruise, you should prioritise quality and functionality rather than quantity and trend. Practical attire (ie. casual and comfortable) is all you’ll ever need aboard your ship. If you’re extending your travels to include other destinations, you can always pack your non-expedition clothing separately so that it can be safely stored at your embarkation point.
Layering is king
Practical attire which can be easily layered is your best bet, especially as expedition ships are heated and totally comfortable yet the outdoors, are not. It’s also worth noting that the infamous ‘climatic unpredictability’ in the Arctic works in both directions: not only can the weather turn in an instant, but it can also warm up quickly. Sometimes, you’ll be all bundled up to land ashore on a windy and freezing morning only to see the wind suddenly cease and your body temperature sharply rise. Layering your clothing is the best, fastest and most convenient way to keep up with Mother Nature’s erratic mood in the Arctic.
Gearing up for the Arctic – the 1-2-3-4 layers you should be packing for the Arctic
Your base layer’s job is to stimulate your body heat and trap it next to your body, whilst absorbing moisture to keep you warm and dry. When searching for a great base-layer, you’ll no doubt come across many new fabrics, all promising to retain your body heat whilst simultaneously wicking away any sweat. Whatever fabric you choose, make sure both your top and bottoms are long enough to cover your limbs and comfortable enough to wear all day long. Merino wool is still one of the best fabrics out there for base layers, despite the new generation of smart fabrics that have inundated the market in recent years.
You should aim for two mid-layers: a pair of warm leggings and a long-sleeve top to wear above your thermals (both stretchy) as well as a turtle jumper/sweater/fleece and a pair of winter pants, or insulated expedition trousers. Pack a few sweaters so you can easily layer them on if you find your tolerance to the cold is not as high as you’d imagined.
Outer layer/Outer shell
When it comes to your outer shell (your expedition jacket and pants) you’ll want gear that is windproof, waterproof and long enough to cover your back and ankles.
Expedition jackets, as they’re often called, can be padded or not, depending on your preference and must always be hooded. Do note that your outer layer’s job is not to make you warm but rather to keep you warm, so make sure it’s not too padded and bulky, or you won’t be able to move much. Skiing or snowboarding pants and jackets work wonders, for very obvious reasons: they’re designed to work in extreme conditions whilst not compromising the wearer’s agility.
Top tip: The wind-chill factor in the Arctic is the biggest issue you have and make it seem far colder than it actually is. That’s why it’s imperative that your first layer of defence against the elements – your outer shell –be completely windproof. This is also why you must ensure that there are no gaps in your clothing which can expose bare skin – should the frigid wind pick up, this is the fastest way to freeze yourself to your bones.
Flexible, durable, insulated and comfortable, rubber-soled Polar expedition boots are the most distinctive bit of gear you’ll need for your Arctic cruise. This kind of Polar-worthy Wellies are ideal. Don’t forget that they need to be a size larger to accommodate thick woolly socks.
Relaxing on your ship
When it comes to onboard attire, it is totally up to you what you decide to pack. Some people walk around in T-shirts and sweatpants whilst others don their base and in-between layers all the time, ready to grab their jacket and head to the outdoor deck should the ship pass a pod of whales or spot a Polar Bear floating on ice. Comfort should be your top priority but do keep in mind that, sometimes, wildlife spotting from the ship can last merely a minute. Be ‘at the ready’ and you won’t be wasting that minute running back to your cabin to get changed into something warmer.
Don’t forget your Head, Hands & Feet
You could wear a heated bodysuit and still freeze in the Arctic if your head, hands and/or feet are not warm enough. No joke! Don’t neglect your extremities as these are your main ‘insulation exit points’. We’ll tell you how to pack for those, below.
Top tip: If you don’t envisage ever using your outer expedition gear again after your Arctic cruise – or simply don’t wish to take it along (especially the boots) – ask us about the option of gear rental, at your point of embarkation. Most expedition ships provide outer shell jackets and boots anyhow so double-check with us before going on a mad shopping spree!
Here’s your ideal packing list for Arctic expedition cruise:
Outer Shell Parka Jacket & Pants
Thermal Base Layer (top & bottom) – we recommend two sets
3 x Sweaters/Jumpers/Fleeces
3 x Long-sleeve Tops, 2 stretchy leggings 1 T-shirt – To wear underneath jumpers
Thin Gloves & Insulated Padded Mittens – Wear only one pair of insulated gloves and you’ll freeze your digits off when you need to change your camera batteries or SD cards. So wear two pairs: one thinner pair of gloves you can do everything with, and thicker, warmer mittens on top
Woollen/Fleece Beanie or Balaclava
Woollen/Fleece Scarf – That gap on your neck, right between your outer shell jacket and beanie? Fill it with a warm scarf
Woolly socks & a couple of thinner – Many people choose to wear two pairs of socks: an outer (thicker) pair for when they’re out on Zodiac expeditions and a thinner pair underneath for when they’re on the ship. Wear them both together and you’re good to go
Yoga/tracksuit pants – For sleeping or simply chillaxing in your cabin
Daypack – You’ll need a sturdy and waterproof daypack for Zodiac excursions, where you’ll keep your water, camera gear and a spare pair of woolly socks. This is a genius little hack: should your feet get wet, you’ll ruin your outing by having to go back onboard to change your socks. Be ready!
Sunglasses – The chances for sunburn in the Arctic is huge and, coupled with the reflective landscape, it can do some serious damage to your eyes. Make sure your sunglasses have maximum UV filter.
Sunscreen – Particularly for your face and hands
Binoculars – Yes get youself the best night vision monocular and binocular…cause you want to be that guests everyone envies
Swimsuit – If you’re super brave and want to take the Polar Plunge, be our guest, but note that some ships and hotels also boast swimming pools and jacuzzis, so pack your swimsuit, just in case.
Camera gear – Pack extra batteries & SD cards as you’ll likely drain the first and fill the second without having time to charge/download
Sturdy, zip-lock plastic bags – Your new best friends in the Arctic, you’ll want to pack everything in them, especially your camera gear and socks
Travel clothes – Whether for your long-haul flight a few extra days at your expedition points or if you’re continuing somewhere else, don’t forget to pack some extra non-expedition clothing
Prescription medicine – Taking any medication, regularly? Don’t forget to pack enough for the duration of your trip and don’t forget a spare pair of prescription glasses, if you use them.
A few insider tips:
At Chimu Adventures, we’ve been there and frozen that and have compiled a few tips to help you deal not just with the cold but with Arctic expeditions in particular.
Stop and readjust your clothing, constantly – we find this to be the best way to prevent the worst of all scenarios, sweating. You’d be amazed how quickly you heat up when you’re walking around in the Arctic and if you’re not consciously ‘feeling’ your temperature you’ll start sweating before you have the chance to take one thing off, be it your scarf, beanie or thick mittens. When you sweat and then stop, that’s when you’ll freeze faster so the idea here is to prevent sweating, at all costs.
The coldest you’ll be is wildlife-watching on your ship’s outer deck – land excursions are designed to keep you moving, not standing still, so you may find those to be the most comfortable and warm times outdoors. Wildlife-watching form the deck of your ship, however, is a different beast altogether. If you’re particularly lucky, you could be standing still, outside, for half an hour and that gets cold, real fast. Keep your beanie, scarf and gloves in the pockets of your jacket and you’ll always have them handy.
Your head is your body’s primary thermostat – The fastest way to warm up or dump excess body heat is to put on or remove your scarf and beanie.
Need more advice or info on Arctic cruises? You know what to do! Contact us, right here.
Author: Laura Pattara
“Laura Pattara is a modern nomad who’s been vagabonding around the world, non-stop, for the past 15 years. She’s tour-guided overland trips through South America and Africa, travelled independently through the Middle East and has completed a 6-year motorbike trip from Europe to Australia. What ticks her fancy most? Animal encounters in remote wilderness, authentic experiences off the beaten trail and spectacular Autumn colours in Patagonia.”