10 Explorers Share Their Best Arctic Packing List Tips

Traveling to arctic areas requires some preparation.

It isn’t a random cruise where you just need to pack your fancy clothes, so you need to make sure you don’t miss some crucial equipment. Equipment that is required to keep you warm and really let you enjoy the arctic nature and wildlife!

To improve how we pack our bags, we have talked with 10 experienced arctic explorers and asked them to share their best advice.

Read on and learn from their best tips and tricks (all the explorers have lots of experience, so they know what they are talking about!).

The 10 Arctic Explorers

What top 3 things do you bring besides the common stuff everybody brings?

  • Sunglasses! People tend to think that they won’t need them as they don’t exactly expect a lot of sunshine in the Arctic but in winter, you sometimes even need sunglasses on a cloudy day as the snow is really bright – and there’s lots of it!
  • Crampons! If you’re visiting in winter, regardless of whether you’d like to explore the outdoors a lot or not, crampons are essential on the icy roads. The weather in recent years has changed quite a lot so that there isn’t just snow around for the entire winter, but unfortunately, there’s a lot of ice as well.
  • Proper hiking or snow boots. Now, people usually remember to bring warm and windproof clothes but oftentimes underestimate their footwear. I’ve seen people go for a hike in the mountains in Converse and roam the streets of Tromsø in winter with UGG boots – neither of them is a good choice for the Arctic. You need waterproof shoes that have a good grip, even on wet/icy surfaces.

How do you bring things with you?

I usually carry a 4-wheeled suitcase which is big and bulky, unfortunately, but which is the best choice if I’m travelling in winter to store all of the heavy winter clothes. I sometimes use vacuum bags, for instance for my down jacket and for woollen sweaters, in order to save some space.

Suitcases in general, are not ideal in the Arctic, though, as they are pretty difficult to manage on ice/snow or gravel roads so if you’re used to carrying backpacks, you might want to bring a backpack filled with vacuum bags instead.

What are your top tips for other arctic explorers?

I always recommend people to leave the beaten track as that’s when the Arctic is at its best.

However, you need to come prepared and don’t underestimate the road and weather conditions in the Arctic. That means if you’ve never driven on ice and snow before, join a tour group instead. If you’ve never hiked a mountain before, don’t aim for the highest one you can find but start small and bring enough water, snacks, warm and windproof clothing, as well as proper footwear.

Last but not least, respect the local nature and any local rules that are in place. Don’t camp on someone else’s property, don’t leave any trash behind, and if you’re visiting Svalbard, don’t leave town without a tour group or someone who owns a rifle due to the danger of polar bears.

What top 3 things do you bring besides the common stuff everybody brings?

  • Coconut suntan lotion; I know its a protective item but I like to take coconut smelling suntan lotion when operating in the cold. There isn’t much to smell in the polar regions apart from your own body stench, so coconut reminds me of tropical beaches, sea and sand.
  • Dictaphone – I find it difficult to write down my emotions, inner thoughts etc so by using a dictaphone i become a lot more expressive and honest. Its then good to transcribe this as a diary when I am home (but difficult to read as its too honest)
  • Some kind of half way there treat for myself or the team if I’m not solo. This would be a chocolate cake or anything that is completely different from my daily diet. Bacon is good as I am in a freezer so it lasts.

Usual fun items have been my pen knife for mending equipment, hockey tape as its the best tape in cold weather and raps around the item your meaning and para cord as its great for binding items that are broke.

Useless items have been inflatable mats for high altitude and extreme cold (they don’t work)

How do you bring things with you?

On polar expeditions I use Pulks /sledges from Acapulka design or from Snowsled. I also use dry bags from OR – when I am in the mountains for high altitude, I use Millet ruck sacks – low altitude I generally use Mountain Hardwear.

I keep the food separate to the fuel for the cookers so there is no spillage. I treat my sledges, ruck sacks as wardrobes so it has to be neat and safe. Quick assess is also important – to have a warm jacket, a small bag of food and a gun near me in my sledge is also important.

If you have your equipment, food, clothing in order then you can focus on the tough stuff like going in the right direction and covering ground.

Don’t over fill your bags, if I am guiding i tend to half fill my rucksack or I carry etc jackets. This is so you can support your team – they are less experienced at times so to safe room to burden their weight can help for a short while.

What are your top tips for other arctic explorers?

Everybody has there own way of doing things so my advice to others is to don’t think you know everything. be humble and cherry pick from others. Build your own way of guiding – unique to you. Remain consistent in your character so your clients can gain confidence in you and respect your desision making / designs for a team sometimes don’t sit well with them but you see the bigger picture of safety. The worst thing to do is not to make a decision.

You deal with weather variations by packing the right equipment and by choosing a good route. Expect bad weather and then when it comes you can deal with it like a job description – naturally.

Go Outside
You don’t need to be a polar, mountain explorer to experience the world. Exploration is all about how it makes you feel inside. If you walk your dog on a cold day along a beach looking at the waves hitting the coast line – the feeling of freedom and open ness inside is the same feeling I get as i head into the extremes. Stand alone in a field and breathe – the feeling of being outside is remarkable and if you need your scent / view to be a mountain or ic fields then thats wonderful – but if you want to see your family walking through the woods, along a beach then good for you.

Its your planet – your home so have fun. My advice on expedition though is. ” pack light, think ahead and leave your fears behind.”

What top 3 things do you bring besides the common stuff everybody brings?

  • iPhone – That’s my number must-have when I travel as I use it for multiple purposes: take notes, listen to music, as an alarm clock, social media and communicate with family and friends.
  • Hat – I always have my Australian crocodile dundee hat with me wherever I go, just because it’s my best travel companion and it’s really useful for the Arctic sun.
  • Powerbank – I never travel without my Ravpower external battery charger as it helps power up all my devices.

How do you bring things with you?

I always travel with my LowePro ProTactic 250AW, a DSLR camera backpack that doubles as my daypack and hiking backpack. It’s the best camera backpack I’ve had to date and I really love how compact, lightweight and comfortable it is. It also has lots of compartments and allows me to carry my big SLR camera and two lenses, as well as my Macbook Air and Kindle ebook reader all in one pack.

I also really love my Eagle Creek packing cubes, which help me organize all my belongings and maximize the space I have. I’m all about packing light and these cubes allow me to pack efficiently.

What are your top tips for other arctic explorers?

I recommend bringing a dry bag when traveling in the Arctic. The weather in the Arctic can be really unpredictable and if you’re going to be active, it’s really useful to have a dry bag to keep your valuables and gear safe.

What top 3 things do you bring besides the common stuff everybody brings?

  • I bring my travelling Northern Ireland flag as a selfish quirky item! This is so that I can take a photo in every country or new land with my flag and share it with my readers as well as keep my parents happy that I am doing something I love and am proud of their upbringing and of my country! This flag can also be used as a towel, beach mat, cover, curtain, skirt, sun block etc. so it is multi-purpose.
  • At least two football scarves. They can work in so many ways! They can be used to keep warm and in the normal way to cover your neck but they can also double up as a towel. I can also show my support for my football teams in far away lands!
  • Empty notebook. While some people rely on their laptops and computers for keeping notes, I much prefer a traditional paper and pen, So I always carry a notebook to write my notes down each day!

The most useless things are items that are large and unnecessary such as bulky tent, sleeping bags and big jumpers. Anything heavy or bulky.

How do you bring things with you?

One large rucksack – Osprey Aether (grey and blue).

One small backpack for hand luggage – Travel Away Rotation 180 from Mindshift Gear (blue).

I separate all my things into sections – books, socks, toiletries, dirty clothes. All are well organised and separated. I always have just enough room as I have experience of being a long term backpacker for over 10 years now.

What are your top tips for other arctic explorers?

I think always charging your batteries for phones and cameras is important. Bring extra memory cards and save photos every night. I lost many photos down the years and I see other travellers losing photos so to prevent this, be ready with back ups and upload your photos every night to your computer or Flickr/Google/Facebook etc. accounts.

Weather is no issue to me. I simply don’t care about the weather when I travel. It’s only important if it kills people. If it’s something that we cannot change like the weather, we shouldn’t care about it.

What top 3 things do you bring besides the common stuff everybody brings?

  • Multiple pairs of gloves as they can get wet and take time to dry so you need alternatives to use. Also have underneath one of the gloves that will work with things like smartphone and you can easily se your camera and do tasks like changing SD card / batteries / lens without having to take off all your gloves and have no protection. This was key for me for taking pictures out and about and quickly.
  • Don’t bring much smart clothes as on board even in evening will be pretty informal and so pack a set of clothes that you can wear day and night and keep those to one side and then the layers and clothes for getting out and about. On Expedition cruises people do not dress up.

How do you bring things with you?

I just used my usual cases and rucksacks that I had. Many of the cruise lines that take travellers to the Arctic provide rucksacks. The key is to have one with lots of pockets that zip up so you can store things in different places and know were they are when out on excursions and trips – key for taking pictures

What are your top tips for other arctic explorers?

  • Layers and layers. This is the key. Just make sure you have packed lots of layers which you can then add or strip off based on the day. Really important to have big baggy waterproof trousers and jacket to go on top. Think of head and neck layers too as this can get really chilly, especially if you do not usually wear a hat / ear covering when it is cold at home.
  • The biggest and highest zoom lens you can afford. My tip is to hire one for the trip as you probably won’t need to sue it much again and there re lots of sites that will rent them. You will not get great pictures of some wildlife and birds without it as you do not get close enough to them. Liked to that take something like a small stuffed pillow thing that you can but inexpensively on sites like Ebay or Amazon. They are easy to use to prop up the camera and lens to get pictures or video without camera shake.

What top 3 things do you bring besides the common stuff everybody brings?

  • High calorie foods: When operating in cold weather or an Arctic context the human body burns through calories at a high rate in order to stay warm and fuel exertion. We need a lot of calories, but at the same time we need to keep our loads as light and compact as possible…so our diet is high in fat. On the way to the North Pole my expedition partner and I each ate a stick of butter every day of the expedition. Our menu also has included deep fried bacon, macadamia nuts, and homemade high calorie fudge bars. We often add olive oil or butter to breakfast and dinner. A typical Arctic expedition food plan needs to contain at least 5000 kcal per person per day, on longer trips I prefer more.
  • Vapor barrier sock and sleeping bag liners (VBLs): Moisture control is a main priority on Arctic expeditions. If insulating layers get wet from perspiration, that moisture turns to ice and greatly reduces the ability of the gear to keep a person warm. And, it can be very difficult to dry those layers. My sock layers are from skin out: wool liner sock, vapor barrier liner sock or 3 mil bread bag, thick wool sock. The VBL keeps foot perspiration from reaching the wool sock. In the evening one only needs to dry the thin VBL and liner socks, instead of thick wool socks and boot liners. The same goes for a sleeping bag VBL, it keeps moisture from collecting in the sleeping bag. I don’t use a sleeping bag VBL unless the temperature is below 0°F.
  • Nordic ski racing gloves: Mid weight and heavy weight cross-country ski racing gloves always find their way into my pack. My hands sweat a lot and often I find that these relatively lightweight ski gloves provide enough warmth when temperatures are above 0°F. They breathe well, are easy to dry, and hold up to the repeated motions involved. I like Toko gloves. In colder temperatures I use insulated Kinko work gloves or a breathable shell mitten, wool liner mitten, and wool or synthetic liner gloves.
  • Stainless steel teakettle: If I have space a 5L (or larger for long trips with teams) tea kettle is one my kitchen MVPs. Korean specialty shops carry them. Get one with a large top for fitting snow blocks. These teakettles greatly simplify melting snow and dispensing hot water safely.

How do you bring things with you?

I’ve used a variety of backpacks over the course of my career. If I’m pulling a sled, then the hip belt of needs to have some sort of attachment point for the sled traces. For the most part I prefer simple, mid-size 50L packs for pulling sleds and 95L packs if I’m not pulling a sled. I typically use zippered stuff sacks for organization and have a stuff sack or compartment with extra hand layers, snacks, sunglasses, etc… in the most accessible position. Extra room is nice to enable packing of bulky winter layers.

These days I use variations of the Mystery Ranch Saddle Peak and Terraplane backpacks. Mystery Ranch packs are bombproof and they get the fit and details right.

What are your top tips for other arctic explorers?

A key to Arctic and winter travel is being able to take care of yourself in the cold. If you start to feel cold or a nip in your extremities you need to change what you are doing to warm up, right away – every time. People often get frostbite and hypothermia when they ignore these telltale signals or lack self-awareness.

Arctic expeditions are remote and rescues can be high risk and expensive. Training expeditions in analogous conditions are essential to build the experience necessary to travel in safely in the Arctic. Arctic travelers have a responsibility go in prepared with contingency plans and a solid foundation of practical skills.

Learn how to Nordic ski.

Snowfall can drastically diminish travel pace and change route plans. It is important to have conservative route plans, extra food, and extra fuel.

Winter expeditioning can be a magical experience if you meet the environment on its own terms and take the time to prepare.

What top 3 things do you bring besides the common stuff everybody brings?

  • Ear plugs. On an expedition cruise, you may be sharing a cabin with another passenger and the ship often cruises through the night so make sure you are fresh for the following day’s activities by always packing ear plugs.
  • Binoculars. The wildlife in the Arctic is abundant yet not always immediate so binoculars (and a good drop of patience) will make your wildlife viewing experience a lot more pleasurable. Creatures such as polar bears can be hard to spot with the naked eye so always keep your binoculars close.
  • A notebook. Looking back at an Arctic cruise (especially if you travel during the summer months when the sun never sets) can leave you a little confused as to what happened on which days. Take advantage of the hours at sea to keep a daily diary of the areas you have been to and the various wildlife species you have seen.

How do you bring things with you?

A medium sized suitcase/backpack for a week on an Arctic expedition cruise is sufficient. I would recommend unpacking immediately so that you can ensure your outerwear is within easy reach when you need to dash out on deck to view a polar bear or whale at 3am. Also bring a smaller day pack so that you can take essentials like sun cream, a flask and camera with you on shore landings and zodiac cruises.

What are your top tips for other arctic explorers?

Go with the flow. The Polar regions are highly unpredictable and things don’t always run to schedule. Unexpected weather conditions or a polar bear on land can put a stop to that shore landing you were looking forward to. Unbreakable pack ice may mean a route change. This is all part of the adventure so relax, put trust in your highly skilled expedition crew and go with whatever the Polar flow may be!

Relish in no technology. this is one of the only places on Earth where you will literally have no mobile phone or internet signal. Although alien at first, it won’t take long to fully immerse yourself in the experience with no distractions from the outside world. Take time to read, experience the views out on deck and talk to the crew and your fellow passengers.

Step away from your camera. Catching wildlife on your camera is difficult. Sometimes it can be more enjoyable to simply watch the events unfold rather than trying to capture it through a camera lens. Whale watching for example is a more serene experience when observing instead of frantically changing the settings on your camera.

What top 3 things do you bring besides the common stuff everybody brings?

  • Water Purifier – Whenever I travel in the polar regions, I always bring a water purifier with me. I specifically use one from a company called Grayl. It allows me to take water from various types of sources and once I filter it I can trust that I have safe and clean drinking water for my adventure.
  • Satellite Communicator – When in the Arctic, as you can imagine there is no wifi or cell service so I bring a Satellite Communicator that lets me keep in contact with friends, family, and clients. I use a device called the Delorme InReach. It allows me to send a text message to someone’s email account and it also shows them my GPS location. As a safety, there is an SOS button which reaches a central emergency center if I am in trouble.
  • Buff – I am really careful with protecting myself from the sun on all of my adventures across the globe. However, one has to be really careful in the Arctic as the sun is especially strong and the rays reflect off of the snow, which can really cause damage to you. I always bring a Buff with me, which is a piece of fabric that goes around my neck that you can lift up to cover your face. It provides an extra barrier against the sun, in additional to sun screen.

How do you bring things with you?

I love adventure gear! If I could, I would bring bags and bags of gear, but I also like to pack extremely light when I travel so I don’t have to check-in bags at the airport. I tend to only bring one trekking pack with me so everything needs to fit in it. It usually is packed pretty tight and there is no extra room in it.

I always want to find the right balance between essential gear and keeping the weight of my pack low for each adventure. This is very important! It took me years to find the right trekking pack. Many of the packs I have used in the past hurt my back and shoulders. A good friend of mine who is an accomplished explorer recommended that I try a pack made by a company called Kelty. So I purchased the Kelty Redwing 50 Backpack and I have to say it is the best pack I have ever had. It is amazing how they distribute the weight on it. I feel no pain or uncomfortability when wearing whatsoever.

In terms of organization, I do tend to keep many smaller items in ziplock bags. As some items are liquid based such as food or gels, you want to ensure that if there is a spill or a cap gets loose that nothing will leak into your pack.

What are your top tips for other arctic explorers?

I always tell fellow explorers and adventurers to make sure they prepare properly for any adventure that they undertake.

Proper preparation comes in three parts:

  • Gear: We touched on this but you need to ensure that you have the correct gear for your adventure. Many tour operators provide packing lists. I suggest review it extensively and make sure that you have everything that you need. It is also good to consult with someone who has done the adventure before as they might have additional insight into the necessary gear.
  • Fitness: If you have not properly trained for an adventure you will become miserable and it could lead to injury or even worse. Make sure you know the distance and difficulty level. Once you have a good sense of what to expect then work with a professional and prepare a proper pre-adventure training program. Trust me, if you are prepared you will enjoy the adventure much more.
  • The Trail / Route: I have knows many people who have not taken the time to understand the route and who have then became lost. This is something you can easily avoid with proper preparation. Whenever I go on an adventure I bring a map of the route and trail and I make sure I have studied it in detail beforehand.

What top 3 things do you bring besides the common stuff everybody brings?

  • 2 Nalgene bottles: I get quite cold at night, so other members of my expedition recommended filling 2 Nalgenes up with hot water before bed and tossing them into my sleeping bag. Put them in a few minutes before you go to sleep, and they warm up your bag and keep you warm all night.
  • A tangle teaser hairbrush: When you wear a hat or balaclava all day, your hair gets unimaginably tangled. Using one of these helped with detangling and doesn’t hurt.
  • Camp boots: They make the camping experience a lot nicer. I had some down booties that keep your feet somewhat insulated without the hassle of putting on my trekking boots every time I needed to leave my tent.

(Bonus) Hot Hands: I didn’t use these too much, but they were really practical when needed. We snowmobiled most of the time, and the engine drew air for cooling from the right side, resulting in a very cold right foot. A few of us used these to warm our feet up (especially the right foot) one day, and the guys acted like I gave them the best gift. They even threw them in their camp boots when they were back at camp to keep their toes warm the rest of the evening.

How do you bring things with you?

To bring all of my gear to Antarctica for two months, I brought two The North Face Base Camp Duffels, one size large and the other size small, and an Osprey Ariel 65L backpack. The North Face duffels were great for getting gear to and from the continent. My Osprey backpack was what I used primarily in the field. It’s great for shorter trips, but when packing extra layers, the space was filled quickly. I’d recommend a bigger bag if you have a lot of bulky gear to carry. Others on my expedition used packing cubes to keep items in place, which on my next arctic adventure, I will do as well. It keeps things from shifting in your pack and makes routines easier to establish.

What are your top tips for other arctic explorers?

The best way to deal with weather variations is layers, layers, layers! I wore several wool base layers, an REI down vest, and a Patagonia Nano Puff jacket at most times. I also brought along a large Montane jacket and Montane trousers to use while snowmobiling or on especially cold days. Another student on my expedition told me to “be bold, start cold,” which was helpful on longer hiking days. Once we stopped to take rock samples, having those extra layers along helped tremendously.

This past field season was my first expedition to Antarctica, and I had only been to north of the Arctic Circle once before for field training. As someone new to polar trekking, I still have a lot to learn, but my time in polar regions has been some of the most memorable of my life. Don’t be afraid to try a new adventure!

What top 3 things do you bring besides the common stuff everybody brings?

Traveling to Antarctica captures part of your soul and drops you in a majestic, serene, unlivable and harsh world where you are disconnected from everything. It’s important to be mentally and physically prepared so you have the energy to explore as far as possible.

  • I always have a notebook and a few (ok, like 20!) colorful pens with me when I travel to track highlights of all my expeditions. Antarctic travel is mind blowing, and it’s important to take time to reflect on your journey while you’re there.
  • I won’t travel anywhere without my Skinny + Co Coconut Facial Oil! I ended up sharing it with multiple people during my time in Antarctica; it kept my skin in shape without any break outs, and aided in healing someone who got a really bad sunburn. (Vaseline also saves my lips in that harsh weather.)
  • I love my Teva Sandals very much and always have them with me on trips. Paired with warm socks, they are awesome to wear around the ship so I’m not in big boots the whole time, and are sturdy enough to wear outside on the decks, even during the Drake Passage.
  • Bring a few favorite treats from home to hold you over and perk up your spirits when you’ve been out in the rough sea with no land in sight for 36 hours straight.

How do you bring things with you?

Packing for adventures is a personal game. Everyone has their own thing of what works for them, and it constantly evolves as you learn on each trip.

I travel as light, lean, and organized as possible. A large hiking backpack and a daypack that I can carry on with me is all I’ll allow myself, and I make it work.

I bring what I only truly need, and make sure everything can mix and match. No one cares what you look like, so just focus on making sure you’re warm and won’t die. I keep things organized using pouches to separate out chargers / socks / bras / snacks / pens / camera gear / etc so nothing gets lost and it’s easier to find in the packs.

  • My daypack is the Arc’teryx ARRO 22 pack and I’m obsessed with it — you’ll never see me without it when I’m traveling, and we’ve been to 5 continents together so far. It’s light, but sturdy and holds a ton of shit, it’s WATERPROOF, and it kicks ass in all elements across the world without any sign of wear and tear. I experienced survival camping in Antarctica and it did perfectly fine layout out in the freezing snow overnight, keeping my cameras protected from the elements.
  • My large backpack is old and will need to be replaced soon, and I’ll definitely be investing in an Arc’teryx one. I always make sure to keep a rain cover to protect everything in my pack in case of rain (I got caught in a monsoon in Thailand once and learned that lesson the hard way).

If you’re traveling to Antarctica on a cruise, the company you travel with will provide you with a detailed packing list for your specific trip, which is really helpful and I highly recommend using. If you’re backpacking long term, you have the option of renting gear once you get to Ushuaia.

What are your top tips for other arctic explorers?

Do your own research about what’s needed for your specific trip, and know what you’ll personally need to be comfortable. Ask a lot of questions, and don’t be afraid to contact the company you’re traveling with directly if you have any doubts or concerns.

If you’re traveling to Antarctica, prepare yourself in advance for the Drake Passage. Our ship doctor had to put a lot of people on the Patch on for sea sickness once we hit the Drake’s giant waves. I got the Patch from my doctor at home and put it on the morning we left to proactively combat any seasickness and I had no issues.

Don’t forget extra batteries, chargers, and converters! Batteries die way more quickly when it’s freezing, so you’ll want to keep an extra charged battery or two on you when you’re doing activities.

Be mentally prepared for anything to happen!!! You never know what the weather will do. The equipment guide from my basecamp cruise to Antarctica states it best: Warm and efficient clothing (and a flexible attitude) are the best means to overcome sometimes harsh circumstances in Antarctica. Exploring remote and wild regions like Antarctica requires a sensible and flexible approach; although there can be bright skies with sunshine, the weather is unpredictable. Katabatic winds, caused by the icecaps and glaciers, can pick up suddenly and are a fierce opponent for polar travellers.

Remember to put down the camera and soak it all in with your own eyes. As with many life experiences, you can’t fully capture Antarctica in one photo or a thousand photos — only in the moment that you’re in, directly from your own reality and participation. Take time every day you’re there to disconnect, take a few deep breaths, and live in the moment.

I encourage you to prepare the best that you can, and keep an open and excited mind as you travel.

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