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Gearing Up For A Polar Expedition Cruise

Gearing Up For A Polar Expedition Cruise

Ernest Shackleton and crew of his ship, the Endurance on Antarctic Endurance Expedition, photographed July 1915. Photo by Public Domain


“The time to prepare for your next expedition is when you have just returned from a successful trip.”

 Robert Peary, Polar Explorer


Out on the Arctic sea ice north of Svalbard, Norway. Photo by Jett Britnell

For many people, a polar expedition cruise ranks right up there as being the adventure of a lifetime. Indeed, few travel experiences can compare with the feeling one gets knowing they’re traveling in the historic wake of legendary polar explorers such as Fridtjof Nansen, Robert Peary, Roald Amundsen, or Ernest Shackleton. Not unlike during the “Heroic Age” of polar exploration just over a century ago, participating in a modern-day polar expedition cruise does require substantially more planning than a vacation trip to Greece or Hawaii.

Historic trapper’s cabin “Bamsebu” in the High Arctic in Svalbard, Norway. Photo by Kathryn Britnell

Knowing what to pack, or not to pack, ahead of time could mean the difference between coming home with fond memories of a fantastic trip, or your mind being plagued with pangs of regret over the fact you did not do enough preparation before departure. There are several items you’ll want to invest in before leaving home. Your polar expedition cruise operator is likely to pass along a packing list of the essential things you should bring tailored to your specific expedition. Be sure to check it over to ensure what items are included as part of the expedition package as some few include as part of their package an expedition parka or gear rentals onboard.

Since there are no Walmarts, or pharmacies, in remote polar regions you must bring everything you need, and take it all back home again when you disembark from the ship. The following is not meant to be an exhaustive packing list, but is intended to provide some suggestions as to what high quality gear we packed and felt served us well during our polar expedition cruise last year circumnavigating Svalbard, Norway, with PolarQuest Expeditions.

Packing Light

Luggage weight restrictions imposed by commercial airlines, along with the limited storage space in most ships’ cabins, the mantra is to pack light, pack light, pack light. You won’t need a lot of clothing, but you will need to be prepared for sudden changes in the weather even during summer months. Temperatures in polar regions seasonally vary from mild to extreme. For example, average summer temperatures on Svalbard, Norway, ranges between 3 to 7 °C (37.4 to 44.6 °F) in July, and winter temperatures from −13 to −20 °C (8.6 to −4.0 °F) in January. Since the majority of time on polar expedition cruises is spent outdoors, both ashore and while on deck observing some staggeringly beautiful scenery, you definitely need clothing that will not restrict your mobility while getting in and out of Zodiacs or hiking across rugged and rocky coastal terrain.

Shore hikes are plentiful in Svalbard, Norway. Photo by Jett Britnell

Ship Attire & Footwear

The atmosphere onboard polar expedition cruise ships are decidedly casual and informal. Loose, comfortable clothing runs the gamut from jeans, casual slacks or trousers, Polar fleece tops, long sleeve shirts, turtlenecks or t-shirts. Muck boots are used for shore landings, but onboard you will need one pair of casual, lightweight, and comfortable running shoes, or light hiking boots, with good grip sole for slippery boat decks. The most important packing tip to remember is to bring loose clothing that can be layered for warmth, and taken off to adjust for temperature variations. Ideally, clothing made from modern fibers like polypropylene that wicks perspiration and moisture outward and away from your body is best as perspiring can be as dangerous as under dressing in terms of loss of body heat in polar regions.

Dress onboard a Polar Expedition cruise is casual. Photo by Jett Britnell


“I believe it is in our nature to explore, to reach out into the unknown. The only true failure would be not to explore at all.”

Ernest Shackleton, Polar Explorer


Parka & Waterproof Pants

Jett Britnell in Helly Hansen Outerwear. Photo by Kathryn Britnell

For comfort and safety, outdoor clothing must be both waterproof and windproof to retain warmth against the cold polar temperatures and to avoid getting your skin wet. A windproof and water-resistant shell parka with hood is required for outdoor deck use and shore landings. Splash and spray are inevitable as you are being ferried from ship to shore by Zodiac, one pair of Gore-Tex or similar waterproof fabric pants is an absolute necessity. Ski or snowboarding pants may suffice so long as they comfortably fit large enough so you can bend and move as needed getting quickly in and out of zodiacs.

For our outerwear, we chose to dress in Helly Hansen’s offshore coastal sailing jacket and bib pants. Both clothing items provided full outer layer protection against wind and waves and also kept us toasty warm and dry when paired with some thermal underclothing.

Helly Hansen SKAGEN Offshore Jacket        Helly Hansen Pier 2 Bib Pant

Thermal Underclothes

For polar regions you will often hear the most optimal underclothing is a Merino wool layered system matched with an outer layer that is waterproof. The air between the base, mid and outer layers provides additional insulation. This system of layering provides warmth and works great, but we decided upon an entirely unique approach that worked out great!

Bird photography from a Zodiac. Photo by Jett Britnell

Since we are scuba divers, we are accustomed to using thermal undergarments beneath our drysuits when cold water diving. We decided to use Weezle Oxygen Expedition undergarments which are hand made in England by Weezle Diving Services. Specifically, their Oxygen Jacket and Salopette Bib Pants. The advantages of wearing Weezles were many. Extremely light to wear, they also pack into a small stuff sack and took up very little room in our luggage. A lot of fabric design science goes into making these garments that draw moisture from the inside and spread it over a large surface area, from which any moisture can quickly evaporate. Weezle’s fabric’s pores are the perfect size and shape for rapid transmission of water vapor, which allows perspiration out, but also prevents water from seeping in. In the event of a total accidental dunking while getting in or out of the Zodiac, these garments can be hand-wrung and dry out quickly. Both clothing items can also be worn during shipboard activities. We could not have been happier wearing our Weezles every day.

Weezle Oxygen Jacket                    Weezle Salopette Bib Pants


Weezle’s bib pants feature adjustable shoulder straps. Photo by Kathryn Britnell

Expedition Boots

During some shore landings we had to step from the Zodiac into icy water up to 10″ (25 cm) deep. Hence, it’s vitally important that our expedition boots were waterproof, insulated and were above the calf. Since we were to wear these boots while doing a fair amount of walking ashore, they needed to provide a comfortable fit for extended wear and walking. Expedition muck boots should not be too tight, but loose enough to wear two pairs of socks for maximum warmth and with enough foot room to still be able to wiggle your toes. Since this piece of gear is bulky to pack, some Polar cruise operators may provide or rent boots to guests. Many seasoned polar travelers prefer to bring their own boots. If you do bring your own boots you must ensure they are thoroughly cleaned of any foreign soil before traveling.

Arctic Sport Tall Wellington boots from The Original Muck Boot Company. Photo by Jett Britnell

We brought along Arctic Sport Tall Wellington boots from The Original Muck Boot Company which are purposely designed for extreme winter weather conditions. These boots also have a stretch-fit top-line binding that kept the boots snug to our legs, thus keeping cold air out, and toasty warm air in. After 10 days of heavy use during a countless number of shore landings and moderate hikes over Arctic terrain, not one blister for either of us.

The Original Muck Boot Company

Hats, Socks & Scarf

Dress warm in polar regions, even in summer. Photo by Jett Britnell

A woolen or fleece cap to protect your ears from the cold, and a baseball cap or sun hat for when it is exceptionally warm. Neck gaiters or a warm scarf can provide additional warmth. Two to three pairs of wool socks worn over a thin pair of synthetic or silk socks should provide ample insulation for your feet.

Polar expedition cruise guests must be prepared for shore excursions by Zodiac. Photo by Jett Britnell

Water Repellent Gloves

Water repellent gloves are a necessity and you must also be able to operate your camera or binoculars while wearing them. Mittens will keep your hands warmer than most gloves, but for dexterity with camera dials gloves are needed. Thinner polypropylene liners can be worn underneath mittens which helps enable camera setting adjustments. While a pair of waterproof gloves designed for skiing will work, we wanted something better. The solution for us proved to be some multi-functional outdoor gloves that were originally developed for military units in Germany and Austria.

Manufactured and sold by The Heat Company, the Heat 2 Softshell is a finger-less glove and mitten all in one. Highly wind and water repellent, these gloves boast many features such as,

Thinsulate insulation for optimum thermal performance, a fold down thumb and mitten, extra-long knitted cuff for warm wrists, and a unique inner pocket that you can insert a HEAT Hand-warmer into for a boost of warmth. We did not need any extra warmth and these gloves eclipsed our expectations. Our gloves were envied by other passengers and if we had brought any extra pairs, we could have sold them on the spot in the zodiac.

The Heat Company’s HEAT 2 SOFTSHELL



Shooting from a Zodiac. Photo by Kathryn Britnell


“Victory awaits him, who has everything in order – luck we call it. Defeat is definitely due for him, who has neglected to take the necessary precautions – bad luck we call it.”

~ Roald Amundsen, Polar Explorer


Cameras & Accesories

Kathryn shooting from the a Zodiac. Photo by Jett Britnell.

For a once in a lifetime adventure you should take along the best cameras and lenses you can afford. The camera model does not really matter. What you will want is a camera with fast shutter speeds and a good zoom reach to capture the wildlife. Many people will use smartphones which is fine onboard, but you will miss out on too many photo ops on shore if you do not have a high-end compact, DSLR, or Mirrorless camera with good optics and a longer zoom lens. It is also a good idea to keep a camera within easy reach wherever you happen to be on the ship as photo ops can and do happen fast. The bottom line here is if you want to capture some stunning wildlife photos, you need the right tool.

Arctic fox. Photo by Jett Britnell

Between us, Kathryn and I brought along one Nikon Z7, Nikon Z6 and Nikon 7500 camera bodies with a small assortment of interchangeable lenses that included a 24-70mm, or wider for landscapes, 70-200mm for polar bears, walrus and Arctic fox, a longer zoom 150-600mm and a 500mm fixed lens with a 2X teleconverter for birds & distant wildlife, and a 105mm macro lens for plants and flowers.

Other photo accessories to bring are extra batteries, extra memory cards, microfiber cloth, battery charger, a spare camera in case of malfunction or accident. along with a polarizing filter to enhance some photos.

Nikon Mirrorless Cameras

Camera Bag

So long as airline luggage restrictions allow for a carry on baggage allowance, carry all your essential camera gear as carry on even on the smallest planes. We opted for a Think Tank Airport Essentials backpack style camera bag which allowed us to also pack a 15-inch MacBook Pro laptop and headphones. This camera bag meets most international and US carry-on requirements which is important when flying with airlines that impose stricter carry on luggage restrictions. This bag also comes with a removable seam-sealed rain cover.

For quick carrying a camera while onshore, or around the ship, we used a Think Tank Digital Holster 20 V2.0. This unique camera holster was developed for a standard DSLR, 24-70 f/2.8 with hood in shooting position or 70-200mm f/2.8 with hood reversed. Easy to carry on and off the zodiacs, especially when we did not want to carry all our camera gear along for shore hikes.

Think Tank Airport Essentials Camera Bag      Think Tank Digital Holster 20 V2


Camera Sling Strap

Black Rapid SPORT X camera sling strap. Photo by Kathryn Britnell

For shooting on the fly around the ship, or while hiking on shore, we found our Black Rapid SPORT X camera sling straps to be far more comfortable to wear for long periods than a standard camera strap. The cross shoulder design with its Quick-Detach swivel connector allowed for quick and easy aiming of the camera in a zodiac while wearing a life jacket and a parka. Black Rapid camera straps are great for all uses and all types of cameras, but especially DSLR and Mirrorless Camera bodies. They are akin to being the Rolls Royce of camera straps. Suffice to say, “Once you go Black Rapid, you’ll never go back.”

Black Rapid Camera Strap


Camera Rain Cover

Taking photos in blowing snow, rain, freezing rain, or high winds can be done if you have a good rain sleeve, or rain shield, for your camera and lens. It’s one of the accessories you hope to never have to use, but when you need one during a once in a lifetime polar cruise expedition you would buy, borrow or steal one just so you can keep shooting. We brought along a water-resistant fabric RUGGARD RC-FC500B camera rain cover. It features a clear control window at the back with a view of the top and back screens of your camera. One nice thing about this rain cover is you can use it while shooting handheld when your camera is not attached to a tripod. Extremely lightweight, they can be stowed in its drawstring case in your camera bag.

Ruggard Rain Cover


Polar bear on Iceberg. Photo by Jett Britnell


If you wear prescription glasses, bring a second pair if you can. Consider sunglasses with UVA filtering, or polarized, to be a must have. Normal sunglasses will suffice, but our preference is polarized sunglasses as they greatly reduce the glare off water and ice. Additionally, depending upon the anticipated time of year weather conditions, a pair of tinted ski or snowboard goggles may come in handy during heavy snow or windy conditions.

Prescription Medications

When you sign up for your polar cruise you will likely have to fill out a medical questionnaire. You must pack enough prescription medicines you may require for the duration of your trip. Sea conditions can also turn rough so prepare for the worst by bringing along seasickness medications such as Dramamine, or some equivalent drug. Our personal preference are Transderm scopolamine patches placed behind one ear. These always work for us, but you will have to obtain from over the Pharmacy counter. Kathryn cuts her patches in half as she finds this lessens known side effects such as dry mouth.

Sunscreen & Lip Balm

Ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun’s radiation can be quite strong, especially when reflected off a smooth white surface. Ice, snow and water reflect the sun from every direction, so if you wish to avoid getting a sunburn, be sure to pack protective sun-block lotion for your face, lips and hands.

Walrus – Photo by Jett Brtnell

Waterproof Rucksack

Invest in a waterproof, lightweight, nylon rucksack or backpack with shoulder straps to take your essentials ashore. To make extra sure our camera backpack remained dry, we purchased a waterproof dry sac large enough to put our camera backpack into while traveling in Zodiacs. Please note that the use of Ziploc plastic bags to keep cameras and electronic equipment dry is increasingly being discouraged, or prohibited, on polar cruise expeditions for environmental reasons.


PolarQuest’s expedition guides educate and demonstrate their ability to shape shift ice. Photo by Kathryn Britnell

A good pair of binoculars for spotting seabirds and whales from the ship’s deck, or wildlife while ashore, are highly recommended.

Earplugs & Eye Masks

If you are sharing a cabin with a snorer, earplugs may be useful. While most cabins onboard have blackout curtains, some people still prefer eye masks for sleeping.


Yes, be sure to pack a swimsuit if you wish to participate in the notorious polar plunge. It takes courage to jump into a freezing ocean as it is, but even more so if you choose to do it in the nude.

Taking the polar plunge. Photo by Kathryn Britnell

Travel Insurance

A polar cruising expedition will take you to places that are far off the beaten path and beyond the reach of WiFi. Speak to your travel insurance provider for advice and ensure you have appropriate medical insurance in the event that an emergency evacuation is required.

Going ashore. Photo by Jett Britnell


“With sufficient planning, you can almost eliminate adventure from an expedition.”

~ Roald Amundsen, Polar Explorer


Planning Makes Perfect

Magdalena Fjord in North-west Spitsbergen. Photo by Kathryn Britnell

Whether it is a polar expedition cruise focused on wildlife sightings, indigenous cultures, history, or natural wonders or diverse scenery, you will be seeing things that just over a century ago represented the far limits of terrestrial exploration. Embrace the spirit of exploration be prepared for the unexpected, and allow the adventure to unfold. You are certain to return home feeling changed, as you are likely to have learned something about yourself that was just waiting to be discovered.

Until our next dispatch, dare to Explore…Dream…Discover.

COVID-19 Polar Expedition Cruising Update

Airport kiosk. Photo by Jett Britnell

In response to the declaration of a global pandemic, governments worldwide issued travel advisories aimed at reducing the spread of the virus against all non-essential and international travel. As a result, the Polar Expedition Cruise industry had to temporarily suspend their operations worldwide and cancel all sailings. In anticipation of the travel restrictions and advisories being lifted in late 2020 or 2021, Polar Expedition Cruise lines have adjusted their payment and cancellation policies to allow concerned passengers to book future trips knowing they can cancel without penalty, in some cases up to 24 hours before departure, should travel restrictions be further extended into 2021.


Experience a once-in-a-lifetime adventure in one of the world’s most remote wildernesses with PolarQuest Expeditions. To learn more visit


Whether you are looking to experience the wonders of the Arctic, explore the Amazon, climb Machu Picchu, trek the Himalayas, cruise down the Nile or just relax on a beach, Randi Winter from Paradise 2 Perfection travel company can help make it happen.





About The Author

Jett & Kathryn Britnell

Jett & Kathryn Britnell are professional Underwater, Wildlife & Expedition Photographers, Explorers, internationally published Scuba / Adventure Travel Writers and Public Speakers. Both are Fellows in the world renowned and exclusive Explorers Club in New York, Fellows in the prestigious Royal Canadian Geographical Society in Ottawa, and Fellows in the famed Royal Geographical Society in London. Both are also League of Underwater Explorers Ambassadors and Jett is a member of the highly esteemed Ocean Artists Society, a unique alliance of the world’s top marine life artists, painters, sculptors, photographers, filmmakers, and writers, one of approximately 70 of the World's top underwater photographers who have donated imagery to support The Ocean Agency's conservation initiatives, and is a consultant to Elephanatics, an elephant advocacy organization based in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

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