Knowing what you need and what you don’t need can make a huge difference when packing for South America. As you will be moving around and lugging your bags with you, it is important to pack light, which is much easier said than done, but the advantages are beyond belief. After my experience of backpacking South and Central America for three months I have put together a guide on what to pack for South America.
Firstly, what size backpack will you need when packing for South America?
A 50 Litre backpack plus a small daypack (15-20L) will be plenty of room. You may also wish to pack a laundry bag. It takes up hardly any space and helps you separate the dirty items from the clean ones.
What to pack for South America
The greatest challenge of packing for South America is the fact that you will most likely be travelling from high altitude and snowy mountain environments to tropical beaches, the Amazon Rainforest and everyone in between. You need to be prepared for many different climates and experiences. But fear not, I was prepared for all occasions with a 50L backpack and I am here to share my packing list with you.
3 Pairs of legging/spandex, Short and long – These are great to wear on hikes and around the hostel/hotel. I basically class them as pants.
1 Pair of comfy pants – for sleeping, overnight bus ride and flights.
1 pair of jeans – A pair of black jeans will always come in handy.
3 shorts/shirts – Packing neutral coloured shorts and skirts will help you when matching them with shirts and jackets.
7 shirts/singlet’s – include a mix of singlets, short sleeves, and long sleeves so you can layer if it gets cold. Stick with neutral colours so it will be easier to mix and match with other items.
3 Summer dresses – It is nice to have a couple of summer dresses to wear in the warmer destinations and on nights out.
1 big jacket – Invest in a lightweight jacket designed for cold environments. One good quality jacket will take up less space in your bag and will keep you warm in the cooler destinations. Under this, you can layer your other items if needed.
1 Rain jacket – It is always handy to have a light rain jacket with you because it is inevitable that at some point you will get stuck out in the rain.
1 jumper – A comfy jumper is essential for the bus rides with freezing cold aircon. This can also be used under your rain jacket or warm weather jacket when needed.
1 Cardigan – It is always a good idea to have a light cardigan in your bag in case the sun disappears or the day cools down. There is nothing worse than spending a full day on a tour, feeling cold the entire time.
10 pairs of underpants and 10 pairs of socks – This gives you 10 days until you will need to arrange for your washing to be done. Or if worse comes to worst, you can always wash some clothes in the hotel bathroom.
2 bras – 1 strapless and 1 normal
1 pair of swimmers – for when you arrive at beach locations.
In South America, you can get your clothes washed, dried and folded for a low cost so don’t worry about running out of clean clothes.
Good Hiking Shoes – if you plan on doing lots of hiking, including multi-day hikes, it is worth investing in a good quality pair of hiking shoes. If you will only be doing an occasional hike here and there, then you could get away with wearing sneakers.
Sneakers / Comfortable walking shoes – On an average day in South America, you can expect to walk ALOT as you explore new destinations / get from the hotel to the bus stop etc. I recommend wearing sneakers out most days. These are the ones I travel with
Thongs/Flip flops – It is great to have a pair of thongs to slip on when you are going to the convenience store around the corner, and to wear in showers at hostels.
Sandals – You may also wish to pack sandals to pair with a summer dress on a hot day.
- A hat – for long days in the sun.
- Gloves and a scarf – if you plan to visit colder destinations.
I recommend packing all your toiletry items as you may not find the same range of products in South America. At a minimum, you will need:
- A bar of soap
- Small shampoo and conditioner
- FACE WIPES (Shower in a bag)
- Hand sanitizer
- Makeup items (Minimize products using less than you would at home)
- Insect repellant
- Nail cutters/Tweezers
I carry all my toiletry items in a large ziplock bag as it is weightless.
First aid kit
When travelling across South America, it is very important to carry a basic first aid kit. There will be times when you are very remote and if something does go wrong, it is good to have some basic items to attend to your medical needs.
I prepared my own with:
- Band-Aids Disinfectant cream
- A bandage
- Altitude sickness tablets
- Malaria tablets
- Travellers diarrhea tablets
- Spare tissues
- Spare pawpaw/lip cream
- Cold and flu tablets
- Panadol / Tylenol
- Tampons / Menstrual cups
These are the only items that I thought would be practical and therefore the only ones I wanted to take, so I opted to make my own first aid kit instead of purchasing one. Not only did I save money, but I also saved space.
I put all my first aid items in a Ziplock bag as they are weightless.
If you have any personal medications, make sure you pack enough to last you the duration of your trip.
Copies of important documents – Take a copy of your passport, travel insurance, visas, credit cards etc. Email these documents to yourself so you can ALWAYS access them.
Pen and paper – To make quick notes, write down addresses, fill out immigration forms and keep a travel journal. These items will come in handy more often than you would expect.
A spare bank card – if something does go wrong, you will be thankful that you arranged a backup!
Travel adapter/converter – unless you are travelling from a country with the same style power outlets, this will be essential. Countries within South America have different adapters, so try and find a multi-adapter, instead of buying multiple.
Travel Insurance – Travel Insurance is an absolute must for your trip to South America. Get travel insurance here.
Now if you are reading this because you want to know how to pack light for South America, now is the time to say NO! Everything below here is optional for your trip to South America.
Extras for South America (optional)
Money belt – They are totally unfashionable, but they do give you peace of mind when you know no one can get to your passport and credit cards. I only used mine on long overnight bus rides.
Bag Locks – Locking your bags when you leave it in the hostel, or when you catch public transport will give you peace of mind. Carry enough locks for each bag.
An Umbrella – Be prepared for rainy days. I never travelled with an umbrella because it takes up to much space.
A headlamp – Headlamps are great when staying in hostels as instead of turning on the light in the middle of the night, you can use the headlamp to help you find your things. If only all backpackers knew about headlamps. They are also great in power outages which are common in South America.
A filtered water bottle – I purchased so many bottles of water and feel terrible, as there is minimal recycling in South America. Not only that, I have spent way more money than I would have if I purchased a filtered water bottle. The cost is about $100 but over a 2-3 month trip, it is worth it.
Neck Pillow – You will be taking a lot of long bus rides if you are travelling around South America, so a neck pillow will certainly come in handy. I never travelled with one because it takes up to much space, but there were times I regretted not having one.
Lonely Planet Guide
A travel towel
Eyemask and ear plugs
Phone and charger – For keeping in touch with friends and family, Google Maps, Social media, Netflix and Downloading Kindle books.
Portable Phone charger – This item will no doubt be a lifesaver at one point on your South America journey.
Camera and charger – You must carry a camera; you don’t want to miss any photo opportunities. A small camera, such as a Go Pro or Canon Powershot will get you great shots without taking up to much space.
Laptop and charger -A laptop isn’t essential. I packed a mine so I could continue blogging and working on other personal projects. If possible avoid bringing a laptop. An iPad or iPhone should be enough to keep you connected to friends and family.
Headphones – Opt for small earphones instead of noise-cancelling headphones if you are looking to save space.
Tips for keeping your luggage safe
- Label your luggage with a name, contact number or email and home address.
- Don’t pack your passport in your luggage, keep it on you at all times.
General Packing Tips for South America
- Pack clothes you can layer. This is essential because you’ll be travelling across different climates.
- Pack clothes you can easily mix and match.
- Don’t worry about getting everything you think you need into your luggage–you can buy things when you get there.
- Roll your clothes to save space.
- Don’t worry about being the best-dressed person. Worry about having a good time in South America, and packing so you can get around with ease.
- Read – The benefits of packing light when backpacking.
- Read – Backpacking Travel Essentials.
- Read – 12 Tips for backpacking South America.
- If you want to pack light for South America, be prepared to re-wear the same outfits again and again.
Download – Overseas Travel Checklist
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Disclosure – this post on how to pack light for South America contains affiliate links.