Silversea’s Ultimate Polar Packing Guide: the Arctic and Antarctica

I started assembling a mental checklist for my expedition trip to Arctic Greenland a few weeks ahead of departure, and, unexpectedly, panic set in.

I usually pack a day or two ahead of a big trip. That’s cutting it close for some people, and I knew better than to take it down to the wire for this journey. But cruising the unofficial Facebook page for Silversea guests — past, present and future — sparked that anxiety.

Fellow passengers cautioned other cruisers about the 48.5-pound weight allowances for luggage and explained which sunglasses I would need in an environment that could be blindingly white. Some were concerned about formal wear for dressy evenings; others were worried about how to use touch-screen phones while wearing thick gloves. If I was lucky enough to kayak amid the icebergs, what gear was I responsible for and what would Silversea’s expedition crew provide?

Just what does one pack when traveling to the polar ends of the Earth?

What I didn’t need

First, let’s define the Arctic as the polar regions truly at the top and bottom of the world: Greenland, Iceland, Canada’s northern islands and the Northwest Passage, Svalbard and, at the other end, Antarctica. Next, let’s clarify that what goes for Silversea’s expedition ships — Silver Cloud, Silver Wind, Silver Explorer, Silver Origin and Silver Endeavour — does not apply to the Classic ships in the fleet, where more formal dress is expected some evenings.

Let’s start with what you don’t need to take a Silversea expedition cruise.

Dress-up clothing for formal nights. I packed a sports jacket and used it once (sans tie), for dinner at La Dame, Silversea’s elegant French restaurant. The jacket wasn’t required, and I wouldn’t have felt uncomfortable if I’d been wearing a decent button-down shirt alone, so that was one bit I’d leave behind next time.

At dinner time, most passengers I sailed with on a Silversea expedition ship adopted casual wear.

Cotton, for off-ship exploration. Clothing made from cotton retains moisture, so when it gets wet — and it will — its effectiveness unravels. This is doubly true of jeans. Wet denim is one of the most useless items for a body to be saddled with in polar regions. Furthermore, once wet, it takes forever to dry.

A fleece jacket. A lovely keepsake you’ll find waiting for you in your cabin is Silversea’s red fleece jacket. You’ll be asked for your size prior to the sailing, and the first night of the cruise you can exchange it for a different size if needed. Silversea also provided us with an umbrella and lightweight backpack.

Kayak gear. Getting out onto the water in a two-seat kayak provided some of the most memorable moments of my Greenland cruise. Fortunately, I didn’t need to have a dry suit, kayak skirt, booties and life vest; Silversea provided all of it. Plus, the expedition team can provide a dry bag for safely storing electronics such as a phone or camera while out on the water.

The yes list: Here’s what you should pack for a polar cruise

Think layers. On colder, wetter days, I wore three layers of clothing, starting with an inner, base layer designed to keep me warm and to wick moisture from sweat (yes, while hiking or kayaking, we sweat in even the coldest temperatures). A pair of long underwear was essential for my legs, and I wore T-shirts made from a thin layer of snug Merino wool for my torso.

A looser synthetic garment made up the middle layer of clothing, the one designed to keep me warm. This was either a fleece vest or lightweight wool sweater, and I saw others wearing a fuzzy synthetic pullover. I really like having a pair of “convertible” pants with zipper-off legs that could double for shorts for the occasional day when temperatures allowed. These were ideal even when it was raining.

Wet weather solutions: When wet weather was likely, the outer layer for my legs was rain pants. These kept me dry during the near-daily Zodiac transfers that sometimes involved a bit of spray when wind or waves kicked up.  For my upper body, the red Silversea jacket worked fine as an outer layer.

These are indispensable: Other items I’m glad I packed included several pairs of wool socks and underwear, a hat that covered my ears (a few wore a balaclava, which covers the whole head, except for the eyes, but a neckwarmer would do), and UV-protective sunglasses. Proper hiking shoes are a must.

I brought a pair of snow mittens. I never needed them, except for their fleece liner inserts; they were a nice extra layer to have during kayak trips, yet thin enough that I could scroll the touch screen on my phone. I didn’t need waterproof boots, but I can’t imagine the discomfort one would have without them after wading through a bog. (For South pole sailings, Silversea provides the boots, and the crew cleans them nightly.)

Is packing for Antarctica different from Arctic packing?

As she has recently returned from an Antarctica cruise on Silver Endeavour, I checked in with Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor in chief of Silversea’s Discover blog, to see how different packing was for the Arctic vs. Antarctica. The big difference with Antarctica is that visitors are subject to strict requirements about what they wear ashore, particularly boots that are cleaned daily by the crew. Silversea will rent you the boots as well as waterproof pants that you can wear over leggings or other pants. Here, Silversea also gifts all guests with a super-warm parka which you can take home (make sure to leave room for it in your suitcase as you’re packing to head home).

“I bought a few pairs of moisture-wicking leggings and t-shirts from Patagonia, and these were my uniform for excursions,” she says. “Onboard, I found that a couple of sweaters and a couple of silky jackets over black pants were more than enough for the entire cruise.

In the mudroom on Arctic and Antarctica cruises, you put on your gear, preparing to head out on the day’s expedition.

“The best thing that kept me warm — that I didn’t bring me with me — was a wool Patagonia neck warmer that I scored at Silver Endeavour’s gift shop. It also filled in as a hat if necessary. And one other tip I’d add: Bring super-comfy shoes (I brought a pair of worsted wool mules made in Germany) to wear to the mudroom where you exit and enter the ship; there, you have a locker where you can store them once you’ve put on your boots.”

Packing a swimsuit may seem strange, but trust me

Polar plunge in Arctic and Antarctica
The polar plunge in both Antarctica (pictured) and the Arctic offers supreme bragging rights. Photo by Imagery.

You don’t want to miss out on the adventure of a polar plunge, so named because you literally leap into the Arctic or Antarctic oceans for a (very) quick swim. A touch more comfortable is the chance to sit in an alfresco whirlpool and soak in hot water while the glorious glaciers of the polar regions sail past you.

You really can be a light packer

At all times, dressing while onboard your Arctic or Antarctica cruise is all about being comfortable

One last thought. Some people have a knack for traveling light. On a multiweek group trip to India, I marveled at one woman who moved quickly in and out of taxis, trains and planes with a surprisingly modest amount of luggage, yet she managed to look smashing night after night. It wasn’t until a week into the trip that I figured out her secret: She packed three pair of nearly identical white blouses and black slacks — a uniform that was worn most days and every evening.  But she brought at least a half-dozen silk scarves and lightweight necklaces that were alternated nightly to keep her look fresh.

Although I haven’t resorted to an all black and white packing list, that fellow traveler is a reminder to me on every trip that you can do more with less.