30 Jan

What to pack backpacking through Central and South America

What to pack backpacking through Central and South America

Brian and I left for Costa Rica last week! We had been talking about it and saving our money for a year, and now have finally begun our open-ended month trek across Central and South America.

For weeks I was planning what to pack, making lists, and getting excited! And yet strategically packing only a  single backpack was a daunting task. In the past, I have notoriously been the type of packer that would wind up packing half of my apartment for a seven-day beach vacation. Yup.  What can I say? I like to be prepared.


Unfortunately, I will not be able to carry half of my apartment on my back. And anyway, I was a cheapskate with our departure tickets and had to abide by Spirit Airline’s 40lb weight restriction.  Sigh. Needless to say, this time around I had to downsize my list of “necessities”.

Now, we don’t have a concrete itinerary.  We are planning to come and go through countries and cities as we please and hopefully gather route suggestions  from other travelers we meet along our path. Our tentative route, as of today, is Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia with the possibility of travelling as far as Argentina, Chile, or Brazil. We will see.

So, here is my complete list of what to pack when backpacking across Central and South America.

Let’s start with clothes…

clothes and backpack

  • Tops

    • 3 simple tank tops

    • 2 layer-able long sleeve shirts

    • 1 sweater

    • 1 sweatshirt

    • 2 casual short sleeve shirts

  • Pants

    • 2 pairs athletic capris or shorts

    • 2 pairs black leggings – 1 standard, 1 fleece-lined

    • 1 pair of travel pants*

    • 1 pair jeans

    • 1 pair jean shorts

    • 1 sun dress – nothing fancy or flashy

*Travel pants are comfortable, non-sexy pants to travel in and not draw attention to yourself. Mine are a loose-fitting, army green pair that I picked up for $20 at Marshall’s.

Bear in mind when reading this that I am someone who is comfortable wearing leggings as pants! In fact, they are my pant of choice! If leggings are out of your comfort zone, try a lightweight cargo pant instead! A good rule in packing is that if it’s not something you feel comfortable in at home, you’re not going to want to wear it on vacation either!

  • Under-things

    • 2 comfortable bras* – convertible/ removable straps? Even better

    • 2 sports bras

    • 5 pairs of socks

    • 10 pairs of underwear –

*Choose your bras wisely and according to the tops you pack! Maybe opt for a tan or nude one and a black one? No one wants hot pink bra straps visible in photographs!

  • Accessories

    • 2 pairs of earrings I can wear with anything

    • 1 pair of sunglasses

I didn’t bring much in the way of accessories because (1) I know myself and that means I know I will lose them and (2) who doesn’t want to buy a vibrant handmade scarf in Peru and a beautiful piece of costume jewelry in Panama?

  • Miscellaneous

    • 2 pairs of pajamas

    • 2 bikinis –  I packed 2 so I can wear one while the other is drying

    • 2 beach covers

    • 1 winter coat


  • Shoes

    • Sneakers – I’m not a hiking boots gal…  Too heavy and clunky. To each her own.

    • Plain old cheap flip flops

    • Crocs sandals– “Sexi” flips … I like Crocs. These are great. They are comfortable and stay on my feet  and really not that bad looking at all.

Another suggestion would be to roll all of your clothing. It packs down smaller and doesn’t leave as many awkward creases and wrinkles as folding does. When all was said and done, clothes (packed tightly) took up about half of my backpack. Packing a winter coat was a tough decision to make, but we’re planning to make it to Machu Picchu in Peru and the temperatures can be as low as 40 degrees. The solution: a jacket in a packet. I bought mine from UNIqlo on sale for $59.99 and I love it! It’s a knee-length, hooded, down jacket that weighs next to nothing and  folds up into a bag about the size of a football. Shorter and hood-less versions are available, too, and take up even less space. The jacket is the only real piece of cold weather gear I’m bringing. If we need hats, gloves, or scarves, we  will pick them up along the way.

I packed about a week’s worth of outfits, these clothes are going to be subject to a lot of wear and probably some tear. Because of this, I tried to pack items that I like enough to not get sick of, but that I can live without if they get ruined. A great reason to NOT overpack is souvenir shopping! I’m looking forward to shopping for a few native pieces along the way and I made sure to save a little room in my bag.


  • Gadgets/ tech

    • Cell phone – My plan doesn’t cover international calls, but I still want my phone to surf the web.

    • Google Chromebook  – I love this thing. It is extremely lightweight, boots up in 7 seconds or less, and has a 7 hour battery life on a full charge. Not a bad buy for $200 and definitely beats lugging around my old dinosaur laptop.

    • Digital Camera and SD cards

    • International outlet adapter

    • headphones

  • Travel Documents

    • Driver’s License

    • Passport (Note: Costa Rica won’t accept a passport that expires within 6 months)

    • Copies of passport and driver’s license, along with credit card numbers and credit card companies phone numbers

Email the copies to yourself. If your backpack is stolen, at least you’ll be able to head to a local internet café and print out the copies.


  • Medication – this will vary person to person, but here is what I brought

    • Tums

    • Dramamine

    • Antibiotic Rash Cream

    • Migraine Relief

    • Prescriptions

    • Ibuprofen

Some people also suggest Imodium.

  • Toiletries – This is where I met my over-packing dilemma. How much do I really want to go without? Here’s what I took:

    • Shampoo

    • Conditioner

    • Bar of soap

    • Face wipes – because having a clean face will feel like a luxury when traveling in dirty buses to cheap hostels

    • Toothbrush

    • Toothpaste

    • Floss

    • Deodorant

    • Lady products

    • Razor/ Refills

    • Chapstick

    • Sun screen

    • Make-up – just the things I need to survive and can’t live without!

    • Unscented lotion

    • Extra contact lenses and solution

Everything I brought is travel-sized! When things run out, I will refill my travel bottles or buy new. I’ve read that all basic toiletries are pretty easy to score on the road, unless you’re picky about brands. The only things I’ve heard to bring a sufficient amount of is contacts and contact solution, as they can be low quality in some areas and very expensive. Also, some have said that tampons can be hard to come by in Bolivia. Mosquito repellent with DEET will be something we’ll pick up along the way.


  • Miscellaneous

    • Travel towel – Mine is a PackTowl in the XL size. They are super absorbent, lightweight, and compact. Best of all: quick-drying! I’m sure this is one item I won’t regret packing.

    • Money belt – It’s no secret that many backpackers have had their backpacks stolen in a matter of seconds when they were not paying close attention. It can really happen to anyone. Money belts are a great place to store your cash and passport, in case the worst happens. Mine is a FlipBelt. Its actually made for wearing during a workout, but i love it because its stretchy and has no zippers, which makes it comfortable to wear all day. And its machine-washable.

    • Day pack – Any string backpack or sling-back purse will do. This is just for when I’m leaving my big backpack locked up back at the hostel. An ideal day pack is collapsible to store easily in your backpack.

    • Headlamp

    • A book – I’m limiting myself to one.

    • Yoga mat

    • A sink stopper – for washing clothes in the sink

That just about sums it up! Did I forget anything? I’ll give updates along the way and let you know how this works out for me. Happy travels!

3 comments Kate Reder

3 thoughts on “What to pack backpacking through Central and South America

  1. Paz Romano says:

    What a great post! Enjoyed hearing a female’s perspective as I’m used to packing for myself only.

    Would be curious to hear your thoughts in a couple months on what revisions (if any) you would make to your packing list (subtractions, additions) for the next trip!

    Thanks for all the great tips you threaded throughout the whole post…. really helpful & interesting 🙂 Love the idea of a money belt that you can keep concealed at all times, sleep with, workout with, etc.

    Excited to follow your travels on Lucid Practice!

  2. Babs says:

    I really enjoyed reading your comprehensive packing article for backpacking. I’ve never done a backpacking trip, but have a lot of experience traveling so I can appreciate the need to abbreviate your packing list of items according to where you are traveling. I hope you have everything you need and will look forward to reading about your additions and subtractions. Safe travels.

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