Planes, Planes & More Planes

In this installment of our ongoing series about trekking to Antarctica, Joshua Holko offers insight into packing and dressing for comfort and safety in an extreme environment

Travelling to South Georgia Island and Antarctica on a dedicated photographic expedition presents some unique packing challenges for both personal equipment and camera gear. Depending on where you’re departing from in the world, the journey to the departure point of Ushuaia in South America may involve up to four or five different plane rides spread across multiple days, or it may be as simple as an extended bus ride from Buenos Aires or other South American town or city.

Typically, most passengers will travel by air into the small town of Ushuaia, where they’ll be greeted by Polar Cruises’ Polar Pioneer. Travelling by air with camera equipment requires some consideration to ensure camera gear meets (or gets reasonably close to) airline carry-on luggage restrictions. With lost luggage being a fact of airline travel (much like hard-drive failure, it’s a case of “when” rather than “if”), it’s always advised to carry on all camera equipment. As an aside, should one be unfortunate enough to forget, lose or damage any camera equipment on the journey to the departure point in Ushuaia, there’s a camera store in town where last-minute items can be purchased.

Camera equipment (excluding tripods) should be packed into a single camera bag that meets airline restrictions for overhead storage bins. Any extra camera equipment can be packed into a secondary carry-on laptop or notebook bag such as a Gura Gear Chobe. Typically, laptop bags are classed as personal items and don’t count toward carry-on luggage allowances.

A large duffle-style bag or other large soft luggage bag are the ideal choices for checked luggage, as these provide plenty of room for cold-weather clothing and can be easily stowed on board the ship once clothing is unpacked into drawers and cupboards in the cabins.

In case of sea spray, it’s also highly recommended that you take a large dry bag with you to store a camera bag and camera gear when cruising on Zodiacs. Duffle-style dry bags are preferred, as they provide easy access to camera bags and gear. A large dry bag can also be used as a secondary checked luggage bag if all of the cold-weather clothing doesn’t fit in a single duffle-style bag.

In terms of clothing, it’s important to pack multiple layers. I recommend layering clothing with a base, mid and outer waterproof shell, so that you can easily add or remove items if you get too hot or cold during the expedition. I find a base layer of merino wool and a polar plus jacket or equivalent with a waterproof outer shell to be sufficient most days. If I get too hot, I can easily remove a layer. If you’re prone to feeling the cold, I recommend packing additional layers or duck or goose feather-lined down jackets.

The key is to dress in three or more layers, which allows perspiration, insulates you from the cold and protects you against the wind. The layering method also allows you to easily adjust your clothing when the weather and temperatures change.

The inner layer. Clothing next to your skin must get rid of perspiration from your body to keep you dry and warm. This layer should be close to your body and should be quite tight. Good materials for this first layer are wool or synthetic materials. Cotton should never be worn close to the body or preferably not at all.

The middle layer. This layer provides insulation and retains body heat without restricting movement. Suitable materials for this layer are polar fleece or wool. This way, you can control your body temperature. On a cold day, we recommend two or more middle layers. It’s better to wear several thin layers than one thick layer. On cold days, you may need extra insulation. Denim shouldn’t be worn, as if it gets wet, it becomes very cold and heavy.

The outer layer. The main function of this layer is to offer protection against the wind and water, but also to let out excess body heat. Therefore, it’s mandatory to have outer jackets and pants that are breathable and use materials such as Gore-Tex® or eVent®. Impregnated cotton and nylon materials aren’t recommended. It’s important to ensure that your outer layers are both windproof and waterproof, and not just wind or water resistant.

About 80% of your body heat is lost through your head. Your head is like the body’s funnel, and you should always wear a hat. The same principle applies here—preferable materials are synthetic fiber or wool, preferably windproof. You should be wearing a hat every time you step outside.

Hands. These parts of your body are extra sensitive. It’s important to keep hands and feet dry and warm. The same layering method applies here. Use inner gloves made of synthetic fiber, silk or wool, and cover with a wind/waterproof mitten. Mittens are much warmer than gloves! Please remember to bring an extra pair of mittens. You should wear inner socks of synthetic fiber and cover with layers of wool or synthetic socks.

You’ll generally want to bring thermal underwear, thick socks for warmth and comfort while walking, and a number of thin and thick polar fleeces and soft-shell jackets.

Go to Classes, Tours & Workshops, to see a video in which Holko walks us through all of his gear and explains how each piece fits into his Antarctica photography plans.