Return to Packing for Antarctica (thing)

So you're going to the ice. The day draws near. Plane tickets arrive. Tomorrow you head to the airport. What the hell do you bring to go to The Worst Place on Earth?

First--here's an excerpt from the United States Antarctic Program Participant's manual.

***(begin excerpt)***

Summer Participants are allowed 75lbs of personal luggage. Winter Participants are allowed 145lbs of personal luggage.

The weight of USAP issued ECW gear is included in your allocation. This typically takes 20-25lbs. ed note:So for all intent and purposes, a USAP participant for the summer can bring ~50lbs of his own stuff, max.

You can send yourself goods via US Mail, though the US Mail travels on the same hercules C-131 flights between Christchurch, NZ and McMurdo as all the science gear and participants. Science gear and participants have priority over all and any mail. ed note: Thus, mailing yourself stuff is not an expedient way to get stuff to the ice.

What you should not bring to Antarctica:

***(end excerpt)***

Now what? Do you have to bring your own clothes or do you just wear USAP issue stuff all the time? Will your street clothes survive where Scott died? Will you get frostbite wearing your favorite ski parka? Will your toothpaste become an environmental hazard?

Packing for Antarctica is as individual a process as there are people. That fact alone should convince you there is an inherent safety to modern Antarctic travel which the explorers did not enjoy. If you're going with the USAP, you're not going to find yourself alone on the ice for months eating breadcrusts and eyeing your teammate's thighs for tenderness. Things are different. We have tequila and GPS'es now. Unless you're going to spend a year at the Russian base at Vostok, you'll probably not suffer scurvy (but you may suffer early-onset liver cirrhosis).

Here are the practicalities of packing for Antarctica as I have experienced them.

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Regular Clothes McMurdo Station, or "MacTown", or just, "Town", is the disembarkation point for all USAP arrivals. While everyone wears the USAP issued parka or wind-jacket (because it has your name velcro'ed to the chest), in Town people wear their own clothes. Jeans. T-shirts. Long underwear. Ski hats. Only the true hermits and social outcasts walk around in USAP-issued ECWs. And nobody wears those infernal bunny boots unless they're about to get on a plane or helicopter.

So, if you want to be a regular, normal person, you need to pack some stuff for being around Town. This means bring your jeans. Bring your very one-of-a-kind snappy-logo T-shirt.

There are laundry facilities in every dorm. You can wash stuff you've been wearing continuously for weeks, if you feel like it.

There are two gyms in Town. Bring stuff to work-out in if you're inclined to lift weights or run on a treadmill. Bring stuff to run in if you're going to do one of the several MacTown races (the Turkey Trot is a 4-mile run across the sea ice on (American) Thanksgiving day. Sort of like jogging across a hockey rink the size of Montana).

As with any outdoors, potentially cold-weather activity, you want to dress in wools or synthetics that wick sweat away from you. Since the time of Scott we've known a terrible enemy to a polar explorer is his own sweat. You exert yourself in heavy gear, sweat, then stop working. When you stop, you freeze.

Therefore, as all skiers know, you should never wear cotton when you know you're going to be outside for a long time.

Shoes The terrain around Town is the same as a construction site. The soil is volcanic ejecta, a combination of very fine silt, pebbles, and medium to large rocks. MacTown is built on the side of a hill. Everywhere you go will require walking up or down a slope. And of course, it's freaking cold.

Sneakers are not a good idea for walking around town. They are generally not warm enough, and the soles offer no support when walking over fields of stones on an incline. Also, in the mid-Summer (December and January) the ice occasionally melts on the dark ground so there's mud everywhere. Mud is uncomfortable in your sneakers. Your sneakers slip on muddy slopes, which is all of MacTown in the summer.

Hiking boots (waterproof) are the best alternative for wandering around Town. Everybody will be wearing them, so if you wanna be a cool cat (and convince people you will not become a casualty they will have to rescue) you should bring some.

Fancy clothes It is de rigueur for some to wear formal clothes to certain events. There are people who wear tuxedoes and formal evening gowns to Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner. People wear their best clubbing attire to go to raves, art festivals, or big dance parties. (Yes they have these things there and they are very very fun.)

Dressing like you are not in Antarctica, even though you are, puts you into a bizzare mental state attainable in civilized places only through the use of strong psychedelic drugs.

Personal cold weather gear If you're going to the field, you're going to be in ECWs a lot. It's generally colder in the field than Town (except in the Dry Valleys).

It's interesting to me that all the ECW gear issued by the USAP is available in your local REI or Any Mountain--which are medium-to-high end sporting goods retailers. Thus, logic would dictate you should be able to buy stuff there and bring it with you.

And to some extent, you can. Many of the FSTP (Field Safety Training Program) guys who do mountain rescue wear a combination of their own gear and the USAP issue stuff. Scientists deploying to the slopes of Mt. Erebus tend to have their own, heavy-duty, Everest-grade hiking boots.

The USAP discourages the infrequent participant from bringing his own cold weather gear. They know theirs works, even if it comes from the same store you got yours. It's all good-grade, comfortable stuff. Why argue for style sake? (Do you want to be known as the guy with the PURPLE parka by everyone in town? Do you know the trouble that can cause for you, in a closed-off community of survival-centric individualists?)

So, you will not be bringing your favorite yellow North Face ski anorak. You might bring your windpants. Maybe you have a favorite fleece you wear under your ski jacket. Favorite socks. These things worn under other things are fine. Just remember that unless you've tried them out for weeks in the cold, the risk belongs to you.

What you absolutely SHOULD bring is your own warm wooly hat. The USAP issue hats could make John Wayne look like a dork and they're no better than a cool one you could pick yourself.

Sunscreen I feel this warrants its own category. There is no ozone between you and the sun when you go to Antarctica in the summer. You will be bombarded with more ultraviolet radiation than doctors recommend for those desiring to avoid melanomas. The UV gets through the clouds. Even if it's overcast, your exposed flesh is burning.

To survive you must wear SPF 15 or higher sunblock all the time, anytime you're outside. All exposed skin surfaces must be covered. This includes inside your nostrils and ears (sun reflects off the ground--you only need get burned under your chin once to learn this).

Despite the fact it's a survival item, the USAP does not provide sunscreen. You have to bring your own, so do. You can also buy it in the store in building 155.

Sunglasses You must wear UV blocking wraparound sunglasses all the time, anytime you're outside. You will absolutely go blind otherwise, much more rapidly than you ever expected. Bring two pair. There is nothing else to be said about this.

Financial items Yes, you can use money in Town (or at Pole) but you don't have to. Currencies of many nations is accepted in the store. I never tried to use anything other than American or New Zealand dollars in the bars, but I know both are accepted at Scott Base (NZ) and all over Town.

You will need money to buy stuff in the store. Toothbrushes. Toothpaste. Clothes detergent. Nifty T-shirts that say, "Antarctica", and "Not Without Peril". Penguin coffee mugs.

Booze.

You also need money to mail things at the post office.

How much money you bring is most directly related to how much you drink. People who don't drink very much don't need much money. $100 could last you three months and you'd go home with change if you don't drink in the bars.

For those who drink, there are two Wells Fargo ATMs. Bring your ATM card. Make sure you have money in your account back home. It KNOWS your account balance.

I took money out of the ATM just so I could get the receipt that said, Location: Antarctica. (I still have it.)

Personal hygiene items I've noted in other wu's that personal hygiene in Antarctica requires some rethinking of civilized ways. In many ways things are much simpler. Some ways, more complicated.

First of all, you'll need your own soap, shampoo, etc. If you take prescription drugs regularly (like blood-pressure pills), you need to bring a big enough supply of those to last your whole trip. There is no pharmacy there but they do sell aspirin and cold-medicines and all that over-the-counter stuff.

And yes, you can catch cold in Antarctica. People coming from the north bring the disease-of-the-week with them, and colds and flus run through the population like wildfire. The bad news is everyone gets it. It's called the McMurdo "crud", and there are signs all over about "catching the crud", which everyone seems to do despite precaution. The good news is it's over fast, and then everyone is immune (until the next bug flies down inside someone).

In the field, liquid water is limited to what can be melted from ice. It is melted on demand to drink to sustain life (or to dilute cask-strength single malt scotch). Consequently, there is no such thing as a load of water with enough volume you could pour over yourself to call a "shower". (There are "field showers" which is an interesting concept covered in another wu.)

So, you will not be bathing while you are in the field. As you are not bathing, deodorizing is a senseless gesture. Also, there are no bacteria in Antarctica. Stuff that eats your body sweat to make smells does not exist there. And it's cold, usually. Stuff doesn't smell in the cold.

Thus, it is my own experience is that deodorants are largely unnecessary. You will not find it being used by people in the field.

In Town, the water supply is derived from a reasonably new reverse-osmosis system which pulls water from under the ice in McMurdo sound. As long as the generators keep running, the water supply is unlimited. While there used to be a "once-per-week-two-minute-shower" rule in Town, that is now outdated. People shower every day if they like, and they take showers of lengthly duration known as hollywood showers. Some of these people smell flowery or perfumey from their deodorant soaps and strawberry shampoos.

As they are so clean, they will probably be the first eaten if the supply flights stop.

At Pole, the water supply is derived from melting the ice pack. Water is rationed, and so the one-two-minute-shower-per-week rule is largely enforced.

Even though you don't smell so bad when you don't bathe in Antarctica, not washing your hair has certain consequences to your appearance. Hat-hair is prevalent. Fluffy heads stand out.

In the dry valleys, you will not be shaving your body, anywhere. Leaving hairs is a violation of international law. If you're male, you will grow a beard if you have enough testosterone. Hair will accumulate on your legs and underarms.

In icy places, you can shave and toss out the hairs with the gray water. In Town, you may as well be in college. So, there are uses for razors on the ice.

Bottom line, you don't need a whole lot of soapy things. You can use a razor. If you run out of stuff, get more at the store.

You do need a toothbrush and toothpaste, even in the field. Not brushing your teeth is considered very bad form. (If only because a toothache will incapacitate you and you'll have to be hauled out.)

There is an interesting habit exhibited at field camps that's worth mentioning here briefly. This is the evening toothbrush ritual. When someone determines it's time for him or her to retire to the tent for the evening, that person will stand up, take his toothbrush out of the little nook where he stashes his stuff, and will begin brushing his teeth, usually sauntering around the room while he does so.

This invariably causes the bulk of the community to do the same, until the tent or hut is replete with people milling about while brushing their teeth. Once the teeth are brushed and foam is spit into the gray water, everyone goes "home" to sleep.

If not for dental hygiene, you need a toothbrush to take part in this important ritual.

Personal electronics & laptops Contrary to what you might expect, you will not be spending any long stretches "alone". That is, you will always be a stone's throw from someone else, and you will never be out of radio contact when you are in Antarctica. There is very little "privacy" in Antarctica. This is actually a feature. Being seen continuously helps people determine if you're lost or accidentally killing yourself.

This lack of physical privacy leads to Antarcticans practicing a good deal of "staying out of other people's way". In general, whenever you find yourself not busy, everyone else still is. Interrupting them is considered very poor form.

So, the best thing to do when finding yourself un-busy for some reason is to crawl away into some corner and play with your CDs or your laptop, or get onto the internet on one of the numerous PCs scattered all around Town. Self-amusement is one of the most valuable ice person traits.

You must bring a CD player and CDs. People burn and trade CDs down there. It's primary entertainment, especially in the field.

You don't need a laptop, there are computers EVERYWHERE (even in remote field locations) and you are provided with a USAP e-mail address and a UNIX or Windows login and disk where you can store your data (like your numerous MP3s or digital pictures) and access the net.

Laptops serve the additional purpose of becoming impromptu movie theaters if one brings DVDs. While in the field last year I was one of 15 people huddled around a laptop screen while we watched a lousy horror movie and old episodes of Sex and the City. (And we had microwave popcorn, too.)

As of this year (2002), RPSC will inspect your laptop before it's allowed to be put onto the network. They're checking to make sure you don't bring any viruses with you, and that you have an approved virus checker with the current level of virus definitions on your machine.

Due to wireless networking there are 10-base T RJ45 drops all over McMurdo and in all the field camps within about 100 miles of McMurdo. Pole is similarly equipped. In some places, like the landing strips, 802.11 is broadcast, so you can sit in a truck with your laptop and the appropriate PCMCIA card and be on the McMurdo network with full internet access.

Set your laptop TCP/IP connection to DHCP and everything works seamlessly. Naturally, bandwidth is limited. There's only one T1-class satellite channel open to all of Antarctica, and 1/2 of that is occupied by voice comms. So the sum and total of all digital communicaions from Antarctica to the rest of the world is 1/2 a T1, and that's being shared by hundreds of experiments, and 1800 summertime personnel. You will have full, unrestricted access to the internet. However, you should not expect to be streaming audio or video from your favorite sites while you're down there. Bandwidth is strictly rationed. They run Packetter network throttlers. Low priority transactions wait while high priority science gets done--and that's just about all the time (except Sunday).

PDA's are fine to have, but you won't notice a whole lot of them. They tend not to work well if you're out in the cold for a long time.

Books Most of us couldn't imagine traveling anywhere without at least one book. Though, most places you go, after the book is read, it can be jettisoned without creating an environmental statement. In Antarctica there is a library. People bringing books down donate them to the library before they leave, but that leads to a weird distribution. (Lots of Jackie Collins and Tom Clancy, not enough Joseph Heller or Mark Helprin.) So they don't always take 'um.

In general, you shouldn't bring any book you don't mind carrying with you for your entire tour on the ice and the trip back home.

Food While McMurdo has no official "law" from a customs (or any other) standpoint, you have to go through New Zealand (or Chile) to get there. New Zealand has reasonably clear food import laws. You're not supposed to bring food into the country, in general. This means if you try to bring food with you to Antarctica, it may be confiscated in New Zealand and you'll get in trouble there.

However, it is customary to risk search and seizure if you're traveling to a remote field location. You should bring a gift to your hosts you feel is commensurate with the value of your life as your survival now depends on the goodwill of these folks. Gifts include tequila, vodka, M&Ms, and Mars Bars. Oreos are especially appreciated.

Gifts aside, there's not a whole lot of logic to bringing food. Every camp that's staffed by human beings has enough food and fuel to last two years if the camp is somehow isolated from civilization. And yes, that means the number of people allowed at any camp at one time is closely regulated.

Cameras and associated gear Nobody in your family has been to Antarctica. None of your neighbors. Unless you work for Raytheon Polar Services or a research lab, none of your friends or work pals have been there, either. You may know someone who has been on one of those tourist cruises, but they didn't go where you're going to go.

So you're going to take pictures. Antarctica is absolutely one of the most beautiful places on our planet. Though most of it is one flat sheet of ice, the parts that stick out are quite beautiful. And everybody who finds out you're going is going to ask for penguin pictures (even though chances are quite high you'll never see one).

You're going to take the same picture of Ob Hill and Scott's Discovery Hut that thousands of people have taken before, and a lot of them are better at taking pictures than you are. But you're going to take it anyway, because it will be YOUR picture. And someone will take your camera and put you in the frame with something famous and icy.

You will do this because you will discover that having adventures is one of the main reasons to have a life in the first place.

So bring cameras. Two if possible, one as a backup. If you bring an SLR you won't need any telephoto lenses unless you're doing wildlife shots and you won't be doing those unless you're working at a penguin rookery or the penguin ranch or the seal camp. Everything else is way too big to fit into a tiny frame. And when you take pictures of people, you're going to be close. Stick with the wide angle lenses for the landscapes, and a medium focal length lens for taking pictures of your drunk friends.

Though the purists will have me shot for saying this--I suggest one of those medium-focal-length zoom lenses. Something like a 28-70mm is nice. While the photographic quality is nothing like the fixed length lenses, hell, are you working for National Geographic? And carrying one lens requires less weight than two.

I was warned off bringing polarizing filters as the effect is too intense and you already have a terrible contrast problem. I didn't try any infrared photography, but I suspect UV photography with a hot mirror might be interesting. And irrespective of the purists suggesting putting a UV or 1A filter on your lens cheapens the effect of your expensive glass, it is always windy in Antarctica and your gear will be sandblasted. There's no need to wreck your lenses. Put a filter on. Keep them capped when not in use. You'll get enough wind blown junk in them anyway, why make it worse?

Bring rechargable batteries for your camera. That means you need to bring a charger, too. Do bring a flash if one isn't built in. Contrast is outrageously high on the ice. Things are either full-on white or totally black. To get a nice blend of tones you're going to have to stop down to catch detail in the bright background, and use a fill flash to get detail in the shadows (presuming you're taking a picture of something human-sized and not too far away).

Digital cameras work great in Antarctica. Less moving parts is better when things are bitter cold. The main problem is keeping the batteries warm, which you can do by keeping your camera under your parka until you have to shoot. Keep a spare set of batteries in a pocket close to your body.

Video works good, too, though the problem of high contrast plagues most consumer-grade video equipment so expect things to be totally black or washed out. And, unless you're taking a picture of people or penguins, things generally don't move very much unless they're being blown to pieces by the wind. Most Antarctica video I've seen, including the shots taken by my boss on the ice, are horrendously boring to anyone who isn't in the video. Still pictures would have been a better choice in almost all cases.

Phones If you have an Iridium satellite phone it will work at certain times of day. Bringing one is not a waste of cargo space.

Cell phones are non-functional in Antarctica. There isn't a single cell site on the continent or within 4000 miles of McMurdo.

Stamps, Postcards, Notebooks, Etc. You can buy U.S. stamps at the post office at McMurdo, though bringing them is no big deal because they're small. You can buy postcards at the McMurdo store. You can also buy notebooks, pens, etc.

Lots of ice people carry around tiny shirt-pocket sized notebooks known as "green brains". PDAs are unreliable if you're going to be outside a lot (my own experience is that the display freezes below +40F (~+2C)). And you're generally not going to lug your laptop around on long hikes. Pencils don't have ink to freeze, so they've been the preferred writing implement since Shackelton's time.

One thing I found useful to do was to print up a bunch of address labels at home of all the people I wanted to send post cards to, buy a roll of stamps, and then buy a boat load of Antarctic post cards at the Antarctic Centre in New Zealand (which is where you depart from to the ice). When I got to McMurdo I spent a couple of hours doing postcards one day, then mailed them at the station post office before I went into the field.

They have cool passport-style stampers at the post office. I stamped my postcards with those and the cards got a McMurdo postmark besides, so folks could tell they actually came from Antarctica. You're not supposed to stamp your passport (it's actually illegal) but everyone does and nobody arrests you.

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Ok. That's the stuff. So now what?

You will bring two bags. One is called "carry on" and one "hold" (as in the "hold" of a ship). You are required to keep certain items in your carry on bag that would be required for survival should the hercules transport make a forced landing before you reach McMurdo or Christchurch. You keep this bag under or behind the canvas seat you sit in during your flight to McMurdo (or back to Christchurch). Your "hold" bag gets put on a pallet with everyone else's hold bag and they put a big net over it and lock it down so you can't get to it. Then they put it right in front of you, because everything is cargo in a hercules, including you.

So now there's a long list of potential things to bring with you and we come back to the cruel facts. Most of us only get to bring between 50 and 55 pounds of stuff with us to the ice once our issued ECWs are factored in, and these are divided between two bags, so you're only going to have about 25 pounds of stuff per bag.

While this sounds substantial, let's break it down. Let's say you want to bring a laptop. If it's one of the light ones, it's going to weigh around 4-6 pounds. That's 10% of your total allotment right there and you haven't even packed your toothbrush or an extra battery.

Couple of shirts, underwear, jeans, socks, etc. Depending on how long you're there and how long you can go between washing before you gross yourself out, you're going to need a couple of changes of each. Your travel bag has weight in of itself and that counts. If you're bringing your own cold-weather gear, it's bulky and weighs a lot. Figure by the time you've packed with as few things as you can stand taking for a month trip, you have 25-30 pounds of clothes and bags combined. That's one of your two bags.

Your sneakers (that you're never going to wear but simply must have) weigh a pound. If you bring an SLR camera and a decent lens, you have a couple of pounds there. Spare batteries. Hygiene items. Chargers and cords. Your CD player. Your must-have-if-I'm-lost-on-a-desert-island CDs weigh something. And then the goddamned books. Why do they weigh so much? Do you want to bring "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" or do you want your toothbrush and camera?

If you're like most people, it may take you the better part of a day to agonize over your 50 pound allottment. The nice thing is that while you're flying commercial airlines to Christchurch, you're not lugging huge suitcases around the airport with you. And you're going to learn the meaning of traveling light--because you will not be allowed on the plane to McMurdo if your bags are too heavy.

Your Return: SKUA You have the same problem on return as you have going out. You can only bring 75 pounds of stuff divided between two bags, and about 20 pounds of it is going to be heavy cold weather gear that you will not be wearing.

Now, Antarctica is not Paris. Antarctica is not Disney World. Antarctica is not Lincoln, Nebraska. Taking things out of Antarctica is generally illegal unless you're a scientist with a scientific reason. And there are no souvenirs to acquire. So you have the same amount of stuff going home, or less, depending on loss and breakage. Right?

Au contraire, mon ami. Why? Because you have rocks. You will bring a rock home because everyone does. You're not supposed to, but you will. And rocks are heavy.

And what's that? That's a tooth from the ice-core drilling machine. It's a big lunking piece of metal. You have to have that. Nobody knows why. You just do.

What about that? That's the wind-blasted remains of last-year's science experiment. It's so cool how destroyed it is even though it's SOLID TEMPERED STEEL.

And, holy shit, you bought HOW MANY T-shirts that say, "South Pole" on them? They only have two kinds but you have three of each.

And patches that say "U.S. Antarctic Program."

And about a thousand other little doo-dads that will mean absolutely nothing to anyone when you get back.

So you mail a lot of stuff home instead of carrying it. The nice thing about this is the postage from Antarctica is equal to the postage from the nearest airport to your destination. So it's reasonably cheap.

But you still have too much stuff. What do you do?

Skua. There are big purple bins all over McMurdo labled "Skua". Skua's are giant man-eating seagulls. They're scavengers.

So when you put something in the box labled "Skua", you're leaving it for human scavengers. Who are these people? Everybody. People wind up needing something all the time, and there's only the one little store that's like an anemic 7-Eleven on a crowded day. By leaving things to Skua, you're helping out your fellow ice people and recycling besides. Happy people. Happy earth. Happy ice person who will now be allowed to go home.

------- And so now having mailed home your rocks and t-shirts, left your CD's and CD player to Skua, and tossed out those socks that are now part of the earth's historical record, your luggage weight is down to 75lbs total, and you fly back to whatever life may await you at home.

Just remember to be patient with those people back north who don't understand why you persist in shoving sunscreen up your nose.

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