For camping lovers, Antarctica offers the ultimate experience. Spending a night on the most remote continent on Earth, dug out in the snow, amongst penguins and seals is something that will stay with you forever.
I was hesitant about camping on the ice the first time I travelled to Antarctica as, even though I live in Montana, I tend to be prone to the cold. Thankfully, my travel partner was far more enthusiastic about the experience and managed to convince me that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, so we signed up. It was one of the best decisions ever.
You may have your mind made up about camping already, but Antarctica simply isn’t comparable to the average experience. To help you decide if camping in Antarctica is for you, I’ve written this guide on what to expect.
Camping under the stars
Sleeping under the stars is what makes any camping experience special. The weather can be awful, or the wind can howl through your tent like a possessed spirit, but when the conditions are good there is nothing better than taking in the starry sky as you fall asleep.
The good thing about camping in Antarctica is that the expedition team will wait until the weather is good enough to camp. That’s not to say camping excursions are guaranteed, but you can rule out blizzards and high winds if they do. If you’re dreaming of starry skies you should travel in the shoulder months when there is more darkness.
I can still remember lying down in my bivy* and watching the clouds of mist from my breath drift up towards the orange and blue sky as I drank in the awesome sight of the White Continent stretched out as far as I could see, enveloping me on all sides. Plus, it’s a great story to say you’ve slept on the Antarctic Continent, it will impress at any party or dinner.
*A bivouac sack, ‘bivy bag’ or simply ‘bivy’, is a weatherproof cover for a sleeping bag with a breathing hole, allowing you to sleep out in the elements without a tent.
How cold will it be?
This is one of the most common questions I get asked when talking about camping in Antarctica. Given that the White Continent is the coldest place on Earth, the question is very justified. All camping gear is provided by the operator and each piece of equipment is designed to be used in Antarctic conditions. The sleeping mats we received were thick and insulated and our sleeping bags were rated to -15°c comfort.
The thing that you will have control over is your clothes. Some people sleep in several base layers and fleeces, whilst others just sleep in their base layers. It’s really up to you how layered up you are depending on how well you deal with the cold. It’s also important to wear thick wool socks, a hat, and gloves, plus Buff neck scarves help you if you feel the cold.
I personally found a base layer and fleece was enough to keep me warm and toasty inside the thick sleeping bag. I am fairly experienced when it comes to camping and I did speak to a few guests who struggled to get to sleep because of the cold, but most people had no trouble overnight and didn’t feel the cold.
My top tip for anyone considering an Antarctic voyage with camping is to pack some disposable hand warmer pads to throw into your sleeping bag to warm it up. They typically last for a few hours and should keep you nice and cosy overnight. Stick foot warmers on your feet too and do some jumping jacks (star jumps) before getting in bed to make sure your core temperature is up so you don’t get into bed cold.
Getting close to nature
In terms of camping in Antarctica, getting close to nature was probably the best thing about the whole experience, and that’s saying something. I sailed in December when the sun was still visible late into the night and this gave us campers the opportunity to just sit and watch the penguins go about their business all evening, long past the final shore landing of the day when non-camping passengers had returned to the ship.
Keen photographers should definitely consider camping in Antarctica, as there is plenty of time ashore as the sun sets to capture beautiful pictures of the landscape and wildlife.
Hearing nothing but the sound of penguins calling, seabirds squawking, and the sea gently lapping against stone is incredibly special, especially when falling asleep. You’ll no doubt leave with amazing stories of the wildlife to share when you get back. We had a fur seal waddle through our camp in the night and the expedition leader eventually had to chase it away!
Will there be a toilet?
As Antarctica is a pristine environment untouched by humans, all operators and guests must follow the Leave No Trace principles, which state that nothing can be left behind. This means that you can’t take anything ashore except for your water bottle, clothing, and camera.
The Leave No Trace principles mean that all waste must be collected and taken back to the ship after camping. Urinating in the snow is not permitted, neither is bringing snacks with you. Most operators will tell their guests to make the most of the ship’s facilities prior to departing.
Once ashore, a special toilet station will be set up by your expedition crew when you arrive at your camping location. This will be dug out from the snow to create two walls and a ‘loo (toilet) with a view’. There will be two buckets – small toilet units as shown in the picture above – and a flag system to alert other guests if the loo is being used.
Some operators will allow you to bring a pee bottle or ‘shewee’ (a Feminine Urinary Director) with you if you wish. This is useful as it saves guests from having to get up in the middle of the night and venture to the toilet in the cold. That being said, the ‘loo with a view’ is really quite special and well worth giving a try!
Tent versus bivouac sack*
Depending on which operator you sail with, you’ll either be given a tent to sleep in or a simple bivy. A tent offers a more traditional camping experience, whilst the bivy option feels far more rugged as you literally dig out a large hole in the snow to sleep in without any cover.
For me, personally, the bivy experience is more fun as you can literally gaze up at the sky whilst you fall asleep. However, if you’re worried about getting cold, then the tent option may be the better bet. There really isn’t much between the two options and you’ll still be able to watch the wildlife and the sun go down from outside your tent before bedding down for the evening.
*A bivouac sack, ‘bivy bag’ or simply ‘bivy’ is a weatherproof cover for a sleeping bag with a breathing hole, allowing you to sleep out in the elements without a tent.
If you’re looking to book a trip to Antarctica, make sure to speak to one of our experts to make sure that the voyage you’re interested in offers camping as an excursion. Generally speaking, camping usually costs between US$150-400 extra per person, but this can vary depending on the operator.
I can’t recommend camping in Antarctica enough. It might not be the best night’s sleep of your life, down to the excitement as much as anything, but it may just be one of the most memorable – for all the right reasons.