Photo: Lauren Breedlove

What It's Like to Sleep on the World’s Coldest Continent

Antarctic Ski and Snow Cruises Camping
by Lauren Breedlove Dec 18, 2023

“There is no pooping allowed,” our guide leaders advised us for the third time, as we loaded our bundled-up bodies into a Zodiac boat bobbing enthusiastically in the choppy waters. I had won the South Pole lottery, but it came with that one very specific caveat.

As it turns out, camping on the world’s coldest, windiest, and driest continent came with a tight set of rules, and going “number one-only” was top of the list. If anyone wanted to back out, the time when we climbed into the Zodiac boats would be the last chance. My stomach growled with anxiety as a reminder that bowel movements are anything but predictable, especially when traveling. But it seemed like a worthy risk for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Photo: Lauren Breedlove
Photo: Lauren Breedlove
Photo: Lauren Breedlove

It was after 10 PM and I was just going out for the evening, akin to my college days. Except this time, I’d only be drinking water, and late-night snacks were forbidden. Oh, and I was destined for a large swath of ice in a place called Paradise Bay, Antarctica, not my local college dive bar for $2 beer night. My loaner gear sat in a giant dry bag to one side of me, my small backpack with extra clothing layers and my camera on the other. It was all I really needed for a night spent camping on Antarctic soil (which is actually just ice) in zero-degree weather. Though I suppose I needed all the warm thoughts I could muster, too.

I was a handful of days into my trip to Antarctica, aboard the MS Fridtjof Nansen, on a 12-day trip with HX (Hurtigruten Expeditions). The weather gods had granted one evening for a small group of guests to slumber in the Antarctic wilderness.

Dubbed the “Amundsen Night,” the excursion pays homage to early explorers Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott, and Otto Nordenskjöld. With only 30 slots available and 345 people on board, the company employs a lottery system to select the campers, who are required to pair up in same-sex tents. That means if you’re a solo traveler, or your adventure buddy isn’t interested in going, you’ll be paired with a stranger.

As a member of the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators, or IAATO, Hurtigruten follows sustainable guidelines for all landings and camping expeditions, pairing guests to minimize the number of tents used and reduce its travel footprint. This helps preserve the continent’s delicate environment and minimize impacts on wildlife. They leave absolutely no trace behind, and make sure they don’t inadvertently introduce any foreign species to the continent’s unique ecosystem.

This is how I ended up snug as a bug next to Ali, a lovely journalist from the UK who I had just met at the start of the trip six days ago. Despite being basically strangers, we quickly bonded over the prospect of sharing the wild endeavor together – and over the two penguin onesies I had brought with me, anticipating finding the perfect opportunity to wear them. And this was it.

DO NOT USE- just for one story in dec 2023. Camping in antarctica penguin suit

Photo: Lauren Breedlove

We waved at guests perched on the deck, as if we were departing for a long, arduous journey like true explorers. A short boat ride later, we arrived at our campground next to a glacier (no big deal) and were instructed to set up our tents and sites. This involved using a sled-like device to haul our supplies up a small hill to our living quarters for the next eight hours, and stomping down snowy areas until they were flat enough to put up our tents. I was huffing and puffing from inside my carefully curated layer cake of wool and GoreTex materials, including Smartwool long underwear, fleece-lined leggings, waterproof pants, insulated boots, a sweater and down jacket, and waterproof shell.

DO NOT USE - just for one article. camping in Antarctica - tent set up

Photo: Lauren Breedlove

“The more effort you put into setting up your tent and sleeping area, the better your four hours of sleep will be,” one of the expedition leaders joked.

“He’s exaggerating,” his colleague stated with a chuckle. “It’ll be more like two hours.” Sounded promising.

Next, we were introduced to the bathroom situation: a bucket barely hidden behind a snowbank. Two poles with flags were meant to be crossed if the “toilet” was occupado, and only number ones were permitted. For about an hour, anyone who chose wrong at dinner and felt the rumblings of an incoming number two could hop on the Zodiac back to the ship, though they’d forfeit returning to the campsite; the small boat wasn’t coming back until the morning. So if nature called in a big way in the middle of the night, no one would be there to answer.

Photo: Lauren Breedlove
Photo: Lauren Breedlove
Photo: Lauren Breedlove

It was still somewhat light out after setting up our tents and getting the lay of the land, despite being nearly midnight, which is typical during the Antarctic summer. This made it an ideal time to romp around in penguin onesies and take in the campsite scenery. Towering mountains and icebergs of every size surrounded us, everything untouched and pristine. It was a canvas of white and dark blues, and, aside from a few quiet murmurs from other campers and a nearby colony of penguins settling in for the night, a rhapsody of stark silence.

Minutes later, the glacier adjacent to our campground calved, a low thunder sounded in tandem with my gasp from witnessing it from underneath the beak of my penguin suit. The break sent ripple-effect waves to our side of the shore. It was one of those moments where your inner voice tells you that this is major: slow down and soak it all up, because you’re going to want to remember every bit of this.

With everyone else tucked into their tents and the 30 mph wind beginning to get to us, we opted to retire to our canvas abode for the next few hours. Settling in, Ali panic-whispered into the semi-darkness, “my zipper just broke.” I turned towards her in disbelief. “Wait, what?”

DO NOT USE- just for one story in dec 2023. view from icy tent

Photo: Lauren Breedlove

She demonstrated, and her sleeping bag zipper was, in fact, completely incapable of doing its one job. I looked to my bag for something that might help keep her warm, but apparently, the only extra clothing I had was about a week’s worth of thick socks. Forgoing the only alternative – the two of us attempting to fit in one sleeping bag – Ali declared she’d be fine, using the sleeping bag as a blanket for the few remaining hours until our 5 AM wake-up call to break down camp. The penguin suits I’d impulse-bought weren’t just a fashion win – they added much-appreciate extra warmth, too.

But sleep doesn’t come easy in pure silence, and the cold, hard ground didn’t help, either. But I had already accepted that catching Z’s wouldn’t be the priority for this particular night; being present was. “We are on the far outskirts of the world,” the captain of our vessel had stated the day before during our visit to the bridge (the command center of the ship).

Now, in our tiny red tent more than 9,000 miles from home, with no one but our fellow campers in sight, I felt the full extent of what he had said.

Camping in Antarctica mirror reflection

Photo: Lauren Breedlove

In the morning, we woke to a mirror; the mountains, sky, clouds, icebergs, all a perfectly still reflection that rendered me speechless. I’d have painted the scene if I was more artistically inclined. Instead, I took an unhealthy amount of photographs, my shutter struggling to keep up with my constant demands. Our Zodiac returned to retrieve us at 6 AM on the dot, and the unbelievably calm ride back to the ship showed a different side of the world’s last great frontier. In the daylight, it seemed softer and less inhospitable. If it had a soundtrack, it’d be a light piano solo. But the night before, the soundtrack would have been dramatic, atmospheric, and maybe even a bit ominous.

DO NOT USE- just for one story in dec 2023. certificate for camping

Photo: Lauren Breedlove

Back on the ship, we were treated to a special breakfast where Ali and I toasted to our survival with bubbly mimosas. Our overnight quest had been simultaneously wild and not-so-wild, but certainly one for the books. We had camped in Antarctica without pooping our pants or committing the unforgivable sin of pooping in the camp toilet, and now, we had certificates signed by the captain to prove it (proving that we camped, not that we followed the poop rules). But the adventure wasn’t over yet, as there was a polar plunge in our future as well – but I opted to leave the penguin suit behind for that one.

How to camp in Antarctica

DO NOT USE- just for one story in dec 2023. Camping in antarctica tent and camp gear

Photo: Lauren Breedlove

HX (Hurtigruten Expeditions) is one of a handful of small cruise companies that offer camping in Antarctica as an overnight excursion, though it’s the only offers tent camping. Aurora, Poseidon Adventures, Quark Expeditions, and One Ocean offer bivy camping — sleeping in a very minimalist, shell-style fabric layer, with a mummy-style sleeping bag inside). Camping excursions are not offered by cruise ships with more than 500 guests, as regulations from IAATO and the ATS (Antarctic Treaty System) don’t allow landing activities for ships above that size.

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