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The women in our group had started calling me shoulders – not necessarily because there was anything spectacular about mine, but because they could see them. Which was a novel concept when we were hiking across a continent covered in ice.

In fact, Antarctica is the coldest, windiest and driest continent on earth, and summer temperatures average just above freezing. So stripping off my carefully planned out layers wasn’t something I expected, or originally had in mind.

But the sun was beating down, and I was ridiculously overdressed. I had even started sweating! So there I was, hiking across a glacier, with bare shoulders, now recommending that every traveler to Antarctica packs sunblock. Because the biggest killer in Antarctica is the reflection off the ice.

The Time I Got Sunburn in Antarctica … Watch Out for the Reflection off the Ice!

The biggest killer in Antarctica is the reflection off the ice.

Expect the Unexpected

Before traveling to Antarctica, you might have an idea in your mind of what the experience will be like. It might be cold. The landscape is likely to be white. You’ll probably see penguins. There’s the high probability you’ll see ice and snow.

But for everything you expect Antarctica to be, the continent is likely to hit you with a few surprises. Like the fact that it can be beautifully sunny which will send you stripping off your layers. Which means you’re vulnerable to sunburn from the reflection of the ice.

Sounds weird, doesn’t it? But I highly recommend you pack solid sunblock before you go.

Summer in Antarctica

As winter in Antarctica is severe and inhospitable, trips are only run during summer months between November and March. And even though summer temperatures might dip below zero, the sun can shine out in full force.

Summer is a great time to experience Antarctica, because you benefit from extended hours of sunlight; it’s almost never dark. But this also means that the Antarctic sun can loom for 24 hours at a stretch some days.

And don’t let the chilly conditions fool you – the hole in the ozone layer and the light’s reflection off the water and ice means high levels of UV exposure, which is a real opportunity for sunburn even in frigid temperatures.

Most days are even sunny enough for the crew to set up an outdoor BBQ lunch.

Visiting Argentina Antarctic Research Base

Getting Sunburned in the Snow

Antarctica may not exactly be a tropical location (though palm trees did sway on the green shores of Antarctica 50 million years ago), but you can easily get sunburned in the snow.

UV radiation is reflected from light surfaces on the ground, and because snow reflects up to 80 percent of the UV light from the sun, it means you’re often being hit by the same rays twice.

So to protect your skin, make sure you pack water-resistant sunscreen (at least SPF30+) and wear sunglasses.

“Snow blindness (sunburn of the eyes) is a real thing and it totally sucks. Protect your eyes against the incredible glare which reflects off the ice. Wrap around UV-protected sunglasses are the best choice.”

Protect your eyes against the incredible glare which reflects off the ice.

Summer in Antarctica

Clothing Tips

When you’re packing for Antarctica, it’s important to aim for quality of clothing over quantity (also remembering you have to fit everything in your bag). Make sure your jacket is windproof, waterproof and comfortable, and that it covers your lower back.

The temperatures are cold, but they’re not extreme. Sensible warm clothing is a must, and your best course of action is to layer up. Utilizing layers means you can easily bundle up or strip down depending on the weather changes. Because the weather is unpredictable in Antarctica.

Don’t be surprised if you’re too warm. But do make sure you pack protection from the sun. You should wear sunscreen on any exposed skin, even when you’re rugged up.

Travel Info

Getting There: Cruises leave from Ushuaia in Argentina. Flights leave from Buenos Aires daily via LATAM and the local Aerolineas Argentinas. 

Travel Insurance: mandatory with every Antarctica cruise due to the remoteness and isolation of your destination.

I used Cover-More travel insurance as they offered premium cover, affordable policies, and included our land based activities (other insurance companies told me they would only cover time spent on the ship, which is pointless for an adventure cruise). Click for a quote

Disclosure: Special thanks to Chimu Adventures for providing our cruise. As always, the opinions expressed here are entirely our own. We are grateful to have had the opportunity to travel with a vibrant, committed and socially-responsible company. 

More info: For more information on Antarctica travel visit the Chimu Adventures Antarctica Resource Centre.

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Megan is an Australian Journalist and award-winning travel writer who has been blogging since 2007. Her husband Mike is the American naturalist and wildlife photographer behind Waking Up Wild; a website dedicated to opening your eyes to the wild & natural world.

Committed to bringing you the best in adventure travel from all around the globe, there is no mountain too high, and no fete too extreme! They haven’t been everywhere, but it’s on their list.

If you enjoy getting social, you can follow their journey on FacebookTwitterYouTubePinterest and Instagram.

    30 Comments

  1. Ouch! That looks sore :-). It’s funny to think you need to protect yourself from the sun in Antarctica because most people think it’s so cold there! But in their summer, it can be quite warm in the sun, as you discovered. (I, Janice – that’s me writing this – did an Antarctic expedition cruise with my mother, and I know what you mean about how you can overheat if you’re hiking and the sun’s out.) Anyway, your mention of Antarctica brought back nice penguin memories :-).

    • It was indeed very sore!! So glad you had a fabulous time in Antarctica too … and glad I’m not the only one who felt like I was overheating haha!!

      Definitely feels like a contradiction to be stripping off in Antarctica, but it’s an unpredictable continent, so will run with it!!

  2. I once got sunburned in Northern Lapland, Sweden at almost midnight! Yep, that’s right! I would have never thought that midsummer nights can become so intense – I guess we’re underestimating places with snow/cold, the sun reflects and can really make your skin sizzle like a burger!

    • Haha that sounds like something I would do lol! Crazy to think of the power of that midnight sun!

      I’ve learnt to travel with sunblock everywhere, because my skin really does sizzle like a burger. Seems to be no matter where I go!! One thing I’ve realized is that different countries and continents have different levels of UV exposure, so it’s definitely not something to underestimate :)

  3. My gosh I never thought about Antarctica in this direction that one can get affected by sunburn & reflection. I always thought yay snow as I have never seen snow before in my life. Thanks for the heads up now definitely sunscreen is a must here!

    • Sunscreen in the snow is a definite must – as strange a concept as it may seem! I hope you have the opportunity to visit a destination with snow at some point – it’s a magical experience for the first time!

  4. That sunburn looks painful. Strange I’ve never really thought of sunburn in the Antarctic but it makes sense. I’m sure the trip apart from sunburn was amazing and on our bucket list. I’ll just have to remember to pack the sunscreen.

    • It was pretty painful! Not something I thought I might come home with!

      Sunburn aside, yes, the trip was absolutely incredible, and I can highly recommend a cruise here. Just pack sunscreen when you do :D

  5. Youch. My most severe ever sunburn was when I got cooked in the snow. Now I’m even more vigilant about sunscreening and covering up on ice than I am atthe beach.

    • You seriously get hit by the UV twice – once when it comes down, and a second time when it reflects back up at you. It sounds crazy, but like you I got one of my worst burns on the ice.

      Good to hear that you’re vigilant about sun safety in the snow – granted I went to the beach today and still got burned lol so I obviously don’t learn!!!

  6. Yeah I totally understand this one! On our two trips, we often found the temperature was very pleasant, especially when the skies were cloudless and the sun was beating down. We had our many layers but sometimes had to strip them right down because we overheated. I didn’t get sunburn but I totally overheated a couple of times before realising I just HAD to shed those layers. Sunblock a very good idea indeed, especially for the pale skinned among us!

    • So glad I’m not the only one who ended up stripping off my layers – quite a surprise but it’s a pretty comfortable temperature once you get hiking!

      So glad you enjoyed your time – Antarctica twice is incredible! We would love to head back at some stage :)

  7. Sunburn?
    Not the first thing that comes to my mind when someone says Antarctica. But I guess in extreme weather like this, everything becomes extreme.

    And whatever I have been hearing about the ozone layer all these years now seems to be true. It is only a matter of time before the snows start melting rapidly. Hope I will be able to see it before that happens!

    • Haha I know right! But yes, you actually get hit by the sun twice, because the reflection back up at you once it hits the snow and ice is the big killer.

      I swear I’m hearing of big chunks breaking off from Antarctica every day now – for those who don’t give credit to Global Warming, they really need to open their eyes!

    • Glad the advice was helpful for you

  8. Ouch this looks like a super heavy sunburn. What did you do there? Were you just on the cruise and you did a bit of walking around or did you do any activities as well? Although not tropical this must be a great destination to travel to!

    • It really is such a fabulous experience visiting Antarctica – we took an expedition cruise, so there were onboard activities during our days at sea (a wonderful library, great expert lectures, fabulous bar), but we had 6 days of activities on Antarctica as we cruised to different ports there. Hiking, wildlife viewing, zodiac rides, visited volcanic islands, camped out on the ice.

      We traveled with Chimu Adventures and loved their approach to smaller tours, with a focus on adventure and sustainability. Can highly recommend using them if you take a cruise :)

  9. oh! What a sight for the sore eyes …oooops What a sore sight for eyes! :) :) . Very good tips and these are valid not only for Antarctica but also in the mountains. After getting severely sun burnt once, I always wear at least a light piece of clothing that covers my shoulders and arms. Sunblock cream , of course, is a must.

    • Haha yes indeed! It was a pretty bad burn :S! Glad to hear you cover up with light clothing – I make every attempt to do the same when we travel – even when I’m out swimming now I try to cover up. This one definitely took me by surprise!

  10. Ouch that sunburn looks painful! I always get burnt in summer climates, but I could never imagine getting so burnt in Antarctica. I guess in that part of the world you are very close to the sun, so if you are hiking as you were, the sun would get hot! Thanks for your tips – I don’t know if I’ll ever make it to Antarctica, but I’ll never forget this post and the sight of your poor shoulders if I do!

    • It was very!! I’ve gotten so careful with my sunblock application in summer climates, but yes, Antarctica took me a bit by surprise!!

      Glad we could make you aware of the risks even in the snow / ice. Yes, it’s absolutely about the difference in UV Radiation and the hole in ozone as opposed to necessarily what the weather is like.

      Safe travels!

  11. My husband and I are wanting to go to Antarctica for our 5th wedding anniversary (in about 3.5 years) and we’ve already started looking into it, so we know what to expect for budget, etc. However, the one thing I didn’t expect was to worry about sunburn! That’s so crazy! Your poor shoulders! I’ve had snow blindness before from snows in the Ozarks when I was a little girl and refused to come back inside. It is not fun. Thanks for the great, unexpected tip!

    • That would be such a special wedding anniversary – one to remember for sure!! Sounds like you’re all over the planning – but yes I highly recommend to include sunblock on our packing list!

      Ouch sorry to hear you’ve had snow blindness before – I can’t imagine how painful that must have been!! Definitely pack glasses for Antarctica to protect your eyes from the sun.

      XX

  12. Antartica looks like quite the challenge! I am bery impressed with your courage to go there. I hear it’s quite an expensive excursion though. I hope one day to be able to affort such a unique trip.

    • There are definitely challenging aspects to being in a new environment (like sunburn!) but nowadays it’s actually a very accessible and comfortable journey; with luxury expedition ships you don’t have to face the same hardships as adventurers have in the past.

      It’s a pretty expensive experience – the cost could vary anywhere between $5,000 to $20,000 depending on the cruise and the level of luxury you choose. You can get some great discounts if you’re willing to rock up in Ushuaia and try and get a last minute booking though :)

  13. Ouch!! Though I can definitely relate – the worst sunburn I ever had was hiking in snowy mountains in sunny weather. I was laid up with a fever for a day with a face that looked like a tomato! Sunscreen all the way now!

    • Oh no! Sorry to hear that Sam – I think the snow is so dangerous because it’s something people just don’t think about. It’s drilled into us to wear sunscreen outdoors, at the beach etc, but we seem to assume it’s a summer thing.

      Lesson learned though right!!

  14. Sleeves in Antarctica? Hmmm!!

    • You would be surprised at how warm it gets once you start moving and hiking across the ice lol :D! But yes, sleeves would be a good idea in this sense!

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