At the age of 21, he participated in his first expedition, which led him to Russia. Two years later, he travelled alone and on horseback through the Pamir mountains. 1903 to 1905 he led an expedition through Tibet.
Following his return from Tibet, he was tasked with organizing a German expedition to map Antarctica. After a training expedition to Spitsbergen, they set off with their ship Deutschland on May 4, 1911. The expedition entered the Weddell Sea and discovered Luitpold Coast and the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf, which Filchner had originally named after the German emperor Wilhelm II. They were the first expedition to enter further into Weddell Sea than James Weddell some 80 years before.
The ship overwintered in the pack ice after attempts to set up a base on the ice shelf had failed because of an iceberg calving. It wasn't until September 1912 that the Deutschland was free again and could return.
In the World War II he was interned in India: 1940 in Patna in the Cottage-Hospital, from 1940 until September 13 1941 in the Parole Camp in Purandhar and from September 1941 until November 1946 in the Parole Camp in Satara. Later on he lived in Poona in the Maharashtra state of India.