While preparing for this trip to Antarctica, I was completely lost for what clothes to bring. Normally a few hours filing through the bowels of the internet produces more information than I desired. Antarctica was different. And I didn’t really understand why until having been through the whole experience. The majority of people who come through the U.S. station stay at McMurdo. That means they are in a small village, with heated buildings, unlimited hand and toe warmers, warm and cooked meals three times a day, access to drinking water of a variety of temperatures, access to motorized transportation, and within a very short time from a SAR team.
I was not preparing for that type of experience. I was preparing to spend weeks in the middle of nowhere living in a tent. The activities involving skidoo travel and hiking around. My support team a party of two plus me. There are people going out like we did, but apparently none of them (or few enough that I could not find their blogs) are writing about the clothing situation. So as a service to future field people going to Antarctica, I want to add my thoughts to the internet searching.
The CDC (Clothing Distribution Center) in Christchurch issues a bunch of clothing called the Extreme Cold Weather (ECW) gear. Briefly, the ECW issued to me included:
1x Big Red – the giant red down parka;
1x Little Red – a small wind jacket;
1x polar fleece jacket;
1x polar fleece pants;
1x Bunny Boots – insulated rubber boots
1x fleece balaclava
2x fleece neck gaiters
1x polar fleece cap
1x insulated leather work gloves
1x waterproof mittens
1x leather mittens
2x polypropylene gloves
1x Bear Claws – “fur”-backed gloves
2x duffle bags
Everyone receives slightly different allocations depending on where they are going and their expected weather conditions. The items I brought myself are explained further below:
BOOTS and SOCKS.
Per John’s advice, I specifically bought boots for this trip since I needed warmth and the ability to hike in them. I bought La Sportiva Spantiks. And I loved them! They were recommended to me as the boot of choice for Denali climbers. I wore really thin silk sock liners under thick expedition-style wool socks. That combo was perfect. My feet were never cold as long as my feet were not cold already prior to going into the boot or the boot was wet. This was most noticeable on the skidoo rides, when I didn’t have the ability to pump blood back into my feet. Even with the thick socks, one size larger than I would wear without socks in the Spantiks was perfect. While hiking, especially after my socks had been worn awhile, they almost felt loose. But I liked these boots best because the heel is snug, so my feet didn’t move around a lot. It is a double boot, and both boots use a single hand threading system to eliminate the need for tying knots. Occasionally my outer strings would come loose, but I could put them on and tie them up without taking off my gloves. And the inner boot never untied because the strings end at a Velcro attachment so the boot itself didn’t come loose. The Spantiks are considered the warmest boot of their style, especially considering how light they are for an expedition boot. I normally hike in running shoes, so it took me a bit to figure out the difference in balance and foot size, but overall I was extremely happy. I used both the Smartwool and REI brand expedition socks. They are the only thick wool socks of their kind. I didn’t notice a difference in warmth or odor blocking. I do think the REI socks maintained shape better after repeated wears without washings. The downside to both brands is the expense. But as I already alluded to, I wore the same few pairs of socks instead of having an abundance of spares. The silk liners, in fact, did not block odor and I definitely wanted to change them more than I ever felt the need to change the wool socks.
I wore Patagonia wool unders beneath Smartwool midweight thermal pants under waterproof ski pants. The ECW coveralls were more comfortable, but I liked the ski pants better for toilet use (bonus toilet section at end of this post). Plus my coverall straps were not actually long enough and I didn’t like dealing with them. The issues pants would have been sufficient, it was a personal choice to favor the pants. If hanging out at camp in the tent, I would prefer the coveralls because the legs completely unzip, making them a lot faster to slip on for a quick run to the toilet tent, like we had set up at our Gabbro Hills camp. Our Miller Range camp toilet was outside unprotected, so I preferred regular pants for lower skin exposure. The coveralls would have been nicer for skidoo travel because I frequently caught drafts up my back that only windproof layers could protect for. I don’t have a lot to say here. My legs don’t typically become cold, so pants were not an issue for me. I do really love Patagonia’s Barely Bikini wool underwear. It is soft, odor resistant, and durable. I have been a few generations and they are a quality item. I honestly think they are the only wool underwear I would recommend. Most brands have unflattering styles are uncomfortable cuts, in my opinion. Not even Smartwool makes the cut. Their underwear seams break easily and quickly unravel. They aren’t very flexible around the leg holes either, I often chafe in Smartwool unders.
I wore an Athleta Full Focus sport bra beneath a midweight long sleeve top covered with a Patagonia zip up fleece jacket. ECW includes a fleece jacket but I found it too bulky for comfort with all the other layers. Then I would wear a combination of outer layer jackets depending on the weather and activity. For skidoo travel, I liked Big Red best. My biggest issue was pockets. I never had enough pockets. Even with a pack on, I needed quick access to my field journal, Sharpee markers, GPS, and camera. And technically I had a satellite phone on my person too. Sometimes I would then add a hammer and/or chisels. So pickets were my problem. Yes, I could have stored all of that in my pack, constantly taking it off and putting it on. But when you are in -30 degree Farenheit weather before accounting for the wind, the goal every time is efficiency. Rummaging around in a pack is not efficient. I liked tops with thumb holes best. Sometimes I had so many layers on that a lost sleeve meant frozen fingers if I de-gloved to fish it out or a cold arm if I did not. Thumb holes also usually means longer sleeves in general, which I personally really like. I find that REI has really jumped onboard with adding quality thumb holes in their winter tops. Patagonia also does a fine job. I had one top with a slim hood. I do not normally find hoods useful as a hat is always warmer, but I really liked the added neck cover without the bulk of a balaclava. My last advice would be to always tuck in your shirt. As mentioned already, the back draft was wretched. Sometimes the skidoo ride would be so bumpy that I needed my hands to hold on and if my coat came up, a tucked in shirt was my only line of defense from freezing winds cutting through the fleece layers.
I am obviously of the crowd who favor layering over fewer bulkier items. The worst thing was to sweat because literally the moment you stop walking, your damp clothes become cold. This was frustrating when balancing skidoo travel with short hikes up outcrops. It was a constant change between producing no heat and too much heat. Hence my love of Big Red. I could put on a huge jacket for the skidoo ride and then quickly shed a bunch of heat as we started walking. I liked putting Little Red over my own wind shell jacket. Both had a few pockets and Little Red was quite large, so they fit nicely together will stopping the wind without over-insulating me while hiking.
This is where I struggled most. ECW includes so many gloves, I didn’t really think about needing to prepare here as much as I should have. I brought one pair of two-layer waterproof down gloves. I wore these a lot for skidoo travel. They were too warm when driving because the skidoos have heated handlebars, but they were perfect as passenger. I rarely wore liners with these gloves, they are designed to not need additional liners. I ended up wearing the polypropylene gloves as my liners for the leather work gloves. That wasn’t quite warm enough, especially once my leather gloves gained holes. Part of the problem was not having gloves that fit well. The leather gloves either had too slim of fingers to fit liners under or the fingers were way too long. I needed to be able to go from the padded protection and dexterity of a work glove for hammering rocks to extra dexterity for taking field notes and pushing GPS buttons. I do not think that I accomplished an appropriate glove setup, so I will stop here. I also had a weird numb hand problem that compounded that problem.
HATS and NECK GAITERS.
I mostly wore fleece-lined knit hat of my own. While on the skidoo, I would put on another hat that has ear flaps. When sleeping I wore a thin wool Ice Breakers beanie. The ECW included two fleece neck gaiters, but I found them coarse and for some reason they would frost over really quickly. I bought a silky to the touch fleece gaiter in McMurdo. I liked it best. I wish it had been longer though, so I could have pulled it up over my nose without exposing the bottom of my neck. That said, I still preference it over the issued ones which were longer. I brought wool gaiters with me that I normally like for skiing, but I never wore them. I think they would have frosted too quickly.
It isn’t much, but maybe someone will get some tips from this. The last section is mostly on female toilet advice.
I am told females are normally issued pee funnels and given a run down on female hygiene. This was not done for me or even mentioned, so my advice is my own and likely does not reflect the habits of other females in Antarctica. I have a device called the P-Style. It looks like a scoop spoon. Most female pee aids are funnels, but I am not a fan for several reasons. The biggest reason is that when I am cold and need to pee, the last thing I want to do after stuffing a frozen plastic funnel against my lady parts is have to hold back the force with which my bladder wants to evacuate. It is also unsatisfying to not just let it all out. I find funnels limiting in this regard because they can only drain at a maximum rate. An open sided device like mine, however, will simply flow faster since the fluid is only restricted on three sides. This in fact leads to the second selling point for me, I only have to worry about positioning the device far enough back, rather than pay attention to both the backward and forward positions. Maybe other females don’t find that to be a problem, but I often started peeing without feeling 100% confident that the device was in the correct place. The reason you want a simplified design, in my opinion, is because it was bloody cold. Every task, no matter how basic, it a challenge when it requires the exposure of skin at -40 degrees Fahrenheit. This is one reason I preferences pants over coveralls. I could pull down the pants just far enough to gain access to my thermals and then shove the P-Style in place and the solid plastic kept the waist band pushed out of the way. All I had to do was sort of dip my hips down forward so the device could drain down. One brilliant gear item in Antarctica is a pee bottle. It is a white Nalgene with blue lid and big yellow sticker. As long as I was peeing into a bottle, I could expose the least amount of skin while peeing. I even mastered peeing into the bottle while kneeling in my sleeping bag. A big challenge for funnels is that you not only need to keep the whole top flush with your skin to prevent gaps, you also have to allow for the angle of the funnel spout at the bottom. The only design change I would make is either slightly taller side walls or maybe a tiny ridge around the top. With gloves on I didn’t have much leverage to hold the device without having at least one finger pressing down the top to keep my grip. I very nearly pressed that finger down into the pee flow on more than a few occasions. Other than that, it is brilliant. And very easy to clean since it’s a single shape with no connecting points. And there is the option for a little canvas pouch to store it in. Mine has octopuses on it.