31 things to pack for your Antarctic expedition

Does your Ph.D. involve an expedition to Antarctica? Mine did. Or, maybe you are just curious. 

I share 31 items to pack if you have to take a trip to the bottom of the planet, along with tips on the essentials for the trip and a very important note on hikes that could save your life!


On an Antarctic expedition to launch physics balloon mission ANITA for PhD


I was in Antarctica for 2 months during the period of October - December of 2016 to launch and support a NASA-funded balloon mission to detect ultra-high-energy neutrinos (ANITA-4).

I worked at the NASA Long Duration Balloon (LDB) Facility field camp during the day and stayed at McMurdo Station (Dorm 208) at night.




I have compiled a packing list with the help of Steph Wissel and Brian Hill that I share below.


If you are deploying from the USA and flying first to McMurdo, you will be taking commercial flights to Christchurch, New Zealand, where you spend a couple of days getting training and gear, and then taking a US Airforce C-17 (my guess) to McMurdo. This one's a jet and gets you to McMurdo in ~5 hours. The one on your trip back might not be so fast. It will look cool, though. I am guessing C-131 with skis.


You will be issued Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear at the United States Antarctic Program (USAP) Clothing Distribution Center (CDC) in Christchurch, New Zealand. I will share some tips on this process as well.



C-131 airforce plane to fly me back to New Zealand from Antarctica during PhD research expedition


What you need to pack:


1. TISSUES. If you use tissues to blow your nose, bring 'em. There are none on the continent but you WILL produce insane amounts of snot (sorry to be gross, but 'tis the truth)

2. Plenty of normal street clothes, like what you wear every day. In McMurdo you can do laundry once a week, but if you are traveling to field camps probably not as often. Bring them jeans, shirts, tops, blouses, skirts, whatever you regularly wear. I made the mistake of not bringing enough clothes :/

3. Several leggings for wearing under clothes as needed. Layering up is good.

4. Couple pairs of thermal underwear (e.g. from Cabela's) for when staying out for longer periods of time. Definitely for hikes. Remember, if it is nice in McMurdo it does NOT mean it will be nice everywhere and weather in a desert can CHANGE very quickly and drastically. Learned the hard way. Do NOT underestimate the desert when going for hikes.

5. Long thick socks (Costco has good deals). They gotta be long and they gotta be thick. Do NOT bring ankle length socks. I won't get into what happened to me once when I wore the wrong kind of socks.. :/

6. At least one warm hat, preferably one that preserves body heat (e.g. from Cabela's)

7. Earplugs and/or noise-canceling headphones to mitigate military plane LOUD noise, roommate's snoring, and loud talking. The plane rides are LOUD. You need some sort of ear protection. And, you will probably be with team members 24/7 during your expedition. Headphones will be your ONLY escape if you want some me-time.

8. Wipes for cleaning hands and other body parts on the plane or in a field camp. Military plane bathrooms are very interesting and may not have the stuff you are used to.

9. Good eye mask in case your roommate's schedule is different from yours, plus remember 24-hrs sunlight during Summer there.

10. Slippers for going to the bathroom. Some dorms have community bathrooms. Others share bathrooms between two suites.

11. Good Body Lotion, it is VERY dry in Antarctica. You will need lotion every day. I used Cetaphil and Vaseline.

12. Bring your own favorite sanitary napkins and/or tampons. These items are not found easily :/

13. Bathing suit. There are saunas.

14. Workout clothes and shoes. There are 2-3 gyms in McMurdo.

15. Warm, fuzzy slippers for wearing in the dorm and common room. I also wore a warm, fuzzy house-gown (from Macy's) a lot in the dorm and everyone else wished they had one.

16. Work gloves that you can grab screws with. Good to have these in addition to the gloves you will be issued. Throw in some hand-warmers if needed. You get free hand-warmers in McMurdo.

17. Decent-ish sunglasses, few pairs. You don't want really cheap ones since you really rely on them. They might break so you might want a few. I bought one $100 Michael Kors pair that lasted me the whole season.

18. Spare prescription glasses, contact lenses

19. Washcloth and towel

20. Power adapter for your time in New Zealand

21. Lightweight boots or decent shoes for hiking and wearing around McMurdo and other stations. The hikes are over snow, gravel, and rocks, you don't need anything extravagant but you probably want decent shoes. I say if you have a reliable pair of snow boots from Sorel or some such, bring those. If you are from a warmer place that never gets snow, Google "Sorel snow boots."

22. Some sort of music player, book, or something to keep you busy during rides to and from field camps. NO internet on your phone there, remember.

23. Nice Clothes for holiday dinners (Christmas, Thanksgiving)

24. Good camera

25. Backup hard drive (at least 1-2TB)

26. If you have space, backup laptop.

27. Medicines. Lots and lots of cold meds, pain-relief type meds, digestion/diarrhea meds, general first-aid kit stuff are nice to have. You can get some meds there too but bring your own supply.

28. Any arts and crafts supplies or games, etc. you really want to have. You can check out musical instruments and ski equipment at McMurdo Station. There is an arts and crafts room. Games are available in the wine bar. There are two gyms, one with aerobic machines and another with weights. There are also yoga classes and a knitting community.

29. For television, there are VHS and DVD players in the lounges. There is a TV in grantee's rooms that plays movies regularly. I packed a 256GB flash drive full of movies and shows.

30. Party clothes. There are several dance parties throughout the summer season. There's also a costume party on Halloween, but people just usually go to Skua (a place where people get rid of stuff and others pick it up for free.)

31. Some people buy whiskey in Christchurch at this whiskey wholesaler and then they have a nice bottle for the entire season. You can bring liquor in your luggage if it meets the weight restrictions (85 lbs).



Pressure ridges making beautiful shape in Antarctica


Tips on getting ready for the flight from Christchurch:

  • Most importantly, when you check in for your flight, you should assume that your bag is going to be taken away from you and you won’t get it back for a few days. So pack a change of clothes, shoes, underwear, and grooming supplies in your carry-on.
  • The CDC gives you orange bags to pack your ECW into. You can expand your carry-on to accommodate your backpack and shoes that way.
  • Make sure to use the restroom on the plane well before you land in Antarctica. You won’t be able to use the restroom for at least an hour or two after you land because you have to ride from Pegasus to McMurdo on a slow-moving people-mover (please say hello to Shuttle Bob for me, I miss him terribly!!!)


Tips on getting ECW gear at the CDC in Christchurch:

You will be issued a lot of gear at the CDC in Christchurch. Take everything and try everything on.


Make the following changes by asking nicely:

1. Swap the bunny boots for Baffin boots or if you can't get Baffin boots, switch to FDX boots. Do NOT accept the white bunnies or you will have regrets, I tell you.

2. Make sure you get Little Red. It has SO many pockets. Of course, nothing beats Big Red. But I often chilled at work wearing Little Red even inside. I am wearing it in the picture here! I miss Little and Big Red :/

3. If you are going to spend any time in the field, ask for gauntlet gloves. These are good for working outside with hand-warmers.

4. Swap the wind-pants they issue you for Carhartts. Carhartts are SO much better.


Note on the essentials while at McMurdo:

McMurdo has an ATM. Also has a store with limited hours and a limited selection of toiletries but they have soap, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, lotion, deodorant, etc.

Food...


...is free!! 

The galley is buffet system. Eat all you want but do NOT waste. Dealing with waste is a HUGE challenge there. Field camps have special chefs and the food is usually even better at these, but you can't go to a field camp unless you work there, so don't gate-crash their lunch just cuz you heard the food is good there. Unless you asked the chef first. Say hi to Lisa for me if you meet her, I miss her terribly!!!

Alcohol is available for purchase in the bars and above-mentioned store.


There is a gift shop in McMurdo and at the New Zealand base, Scott Base.


You can mail things from McMurdo, that includes postcards, letters, and packages. Because of the weight restrictions, a lot of people mail gifts back. They have postcards and stamps available for purchase there.




Note on hikes:

  • Follow the little green flags that map out the routes. Complete training, as instructed. 
  • Check out radios from the fire department, as instructed. Go in groups, as instructed. 
  • Carry a pee bottle, there won't be any bathrooms on hikes. 
  • Drink Gatorade, and do NOT go on a hike unless you are feeling a 100% well physically AND mentally. 
  • Do NOT take instructions lightly.
  • Stick to the marked routes! 

Green flag marks safe route to be taken on hikes in Antarctica

If you venture into uncharted areas, you might fall into a crack or crevasse aka fall to your DEATH and unfortunately, it might be too dangerous for others to even recover your body, so... just don't.


Crack made due to pressure ridges in Antarctica



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