My travels are usually geared around photography and I know that I don't feel the cold massively so you may need to re-balance this to your own requirements. Through multiple trips I have learned that I overpack and can definitely function on less clothing that I thought I'd need so keep that in mind too.
Clothing splits into a couple of categories – Everyday on board clothing and stuff you'll wear on a landing, with a crossover for days where you might be out on deck of the ship a lot. For on board, I've rarely come across a ship that had a dress code, but if you're on one of the larger or more luxury ships (Seabourne springs to mind) that have formal evenings, check trip notes before you pack. For every other voyage, casual is the order of the day.
Starting at the bottom – shoes need to be grippy and with space for extra socks when standing on deck, these tend to go along the lines of hiking boots/shoes or Ugg style boots. Think about how easy they are to get on if something is spotted and you need to dash on deck. Do not bring flipflops or anything without a good grip- even in your cabin, flipflops in heavy seas are a terrible idea. On the bottom half, almost everyone will be wearing an assortment of jeans, hiking/outdoor trousers or track pants.
Heading upwards tees, long sleeve tees, hoodies, sweaters, hiking shirts and vests make an appearance. There will be days where you're going to be spending lots of time fairly still – whether it's in lectures, at meals or at the railing of the ship watching the ice go by, so you want to wear things that are comfy. No-one will be aghast at you wearing the same outfit for days in a row.
Thinking about leaving the ship is where the stress normally comes into things – but this is crucial to remember - for most people, the average day at the poles is the same temperature or warmer than winter at home, but something about the idea of going to those latitudes makes everyone think it's going to be the coldest they've ever been. During tourist seasons the Arctic is around 0 to 8C and Antarctica is -2 to 5C. Don't panic, it's really not that cold. (If you're an Aussie, then yes, ok, it's pretty chilly!) You can go all out with supertechnical expensive fabrics and layers or just wear your normal clothes but more of them, neither is wrong, but do keep in mind how well your fabrics wick and move sweat away from your body – cotton and denim are pretty terrible at this and you can end up cold and smelling less than fresh so it's worth looking at other options.
Almost every excursion will be preceded by a briefing, so you'll be told if it's a long and bumpy transfer, a quick jaunt to shore or several hours on a zodiac cruising around. You'll be told what you'll be doing on shore whether it's a hike, a polar plunge or staying close to shore and staying fairly still. Pay attention to this information and use it to guide your clothing choices.
So let's get down to layers. Extremities are the most important as that's where you feel the cold first. Your ship may or may not provide boots for you to wear on shore landings or have a facility to rent them, but if not you'll need to source your own. These need to be fully and completely waterproof – gumboots, wellies, rubber boots, muckboots, whatever you call them, are the standard footwear. Hiking or winter snow boots that have had a waterproof spray applied will not work, you need boots where you can stand at least ankle deep in water and nothing will seep in. Boots should be big enough that you can fit in a pair of thin liner socks with thicker hiking or ski socks too, and depending on your comfort levels look at sheepskin/wool insoles.
Bottom layer, underwear, tights, leggings, vests. Depending on how much you feel the cold you may prefer to bring one set of lightweight and one heavier set.
Mid layer – if you're particularly chilly then a jumper, fleece or bodywarmer can also slot in before top layers.
Top layer – waterproof trousers. Almost every ship will not let you off if you're not wearing waterproof outer layers, do not skimp here. Look for things with a waterproof rating/hydrostatic head of 8,000mm or more, 10,000 is better, 5,000 should be ok but could be risky. These can be known brands like GoreTex or just whatever your outdoor shop can provide. Rainproof or water resistant are no good. These pants will be going on over your boots and you'll be stepping into water, plus splashing from waves, so if you feel like standing under a shower and seeing how they hold up, go for it. High quality ski pants will also work here, but confirm how waterproof they are as heavy snowfall is actually pretty dry.
Many ships provide a parka or can arrange the loan so no need to worry on this front – if the boat provides it, it will be good enough. They usually consist of an inner thermal layer and an outer waterproof and windproof shell in a very exciting bright colour. If you're bringing your own those qualities are critical as while the actual temperature may be fairly mild, windchill can drop things down drastically. Make sure that any parka has a hood that you can pull tight around your face, you don't want anything that will catch the wind on a zippy zodiac ride. Lots of pockets are also an advantage. The main time these items are truly critical is not when you're on shore or deck, but it's in the zodiac transfers which can be fast, windy and wet.
By landing two you'll have sussed things out but remember, you're going to want to be able to bend knees and elbows so don't go overboard with clothing. (Probably best not to go overboard at all)
As an example, for getting up and going to breakfast I'll wear knee-high socks, hiking trousers and a long sleeve tee with a zippy microfleece over the top and my Uggs. For the excursion, the trousers come off and are replaced by ski-pants and the microfleece is replaced by the parka on top of my long sleeve tee. Add a hat, scarf, gloves, and ski socks and done and ready to face the elements! If the weather is frightful or I know that we'll be zodiac cruising then I might add leggings under the ski pants and keep the microfleece on too.
Getting prepared doesn't have to be scary and involve a lot of expense!
Use this as a base and modify for pre and post trip activities too. Also great to print off and use as a reminder of what was in cases in the event of airline chaos
|Clothes||Toiletries & Meds||Accessories||Technology||To do before leaving|
|Jacket for Ushuaia||Shampoo & Conditioner||Selotape/electrical tape||Laptop + charger||Passport photocopy - copy with you, copy at home.|
|Fleece lined walking trousers||Face and Hand cream||Waterproof rucksack||External hard drive x2||Backup laptop|
|Hiking trousers||Plasters||Wandering round ship bag||Flash drive x2||Put contact info onto memory cards|
|Jeans for Ushuaia and evenings||Antiseptic/Antibiotic cream||Spare glasses/contacts||SLR1 with charger and batteries x2||Print all itineraries/emergency contacts|
|Leggings/thermal underwear x4||Scopolamine patches||Sunglasses/goggles & cord||SLR2 with charger and batteries x2||Download apps- GPS tracking and offline maps (AlpineQuest)|
|Jogging bottoms for travel days||Dramamine/Bonine/Stugeron||Antarctica guidebook||GoPro with charger and batteries x2||Load memory card recovery software onto laptop|
|Vests x4||Painkillers||Dry bags||10-22mm lens||Print list of bag contents|
|Long sleeve tees/thin wool sweater x4||Toothbrush & paste||Hand warmers||150-600mm lens & hood|
|Pants for every day of the trip||Nail file||Boot liners||18-200mm & hood|
|Sports bras||Suncream - factor 50||Journal and pens||18-55mm lens|
|Socks for every day of the trip||Pocket tissues||Snacks||Travel tripod|
|Thick hiking or ski socks x3||Nail scissors & tweezers||Notebook||Mini tripod - ultrapod/gorillapod|
|Pyjamas x2||Dental floss||Gum/mints||Lens cleaning fluid & tissues|
|Smart top for formal dinners||Deodorant||Travel pillow||Circular polariser & stepping rings|
|Swimsuit for polar plunge||Lip balm with SPF||Water bottle||Waterproof camera|
|Waterproof ski pants||Immodium & rehydration salts||Superglue||Phone & charger|
|Waterproof light outer trousers||Aloe vera gel||ziploc bags||4-way extension lead|
|Walking shoes||eye drops||Walking poles||Memory card reader|
|Uggs||Hairbrush & bands||Lanyard for cabin card||Binoculars|
|Silk or merino liner gloves||Wet wipes - hands and face||Reading/watching material for journeys||Headphones|
|Medium gloves for on deck||Mini screwdrivers/penknife|
|Ski gloves for zodiac transfers||Power adaptors|
|Fleece headband||Sensor cleaning kit|
|Buff/scarf/neckwarmer||Memory cards – (c250gb)|
|Fleece/hoodie||Ebook reader and charger|