Before we left for our long term trip – which started with backpacking in South America – we spent months researching what to pack for South America (or rather, I did – Jeremy’s less persnickety about these things). Well, after 5 months of backpacking through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Argentina, we can safely say that we’ve fully field tested everything that we packed for backpacking South America! While we made a few mistakes – you can read about what we wish we did and didn’t pack – we also packed a lot of fantastic travel gear that was perfect for backpacking South America and incredibly helpful! We wanted to share our favorite travel gear for South America with you. This isn’t a comprehensive list of what to pack for South America (you can find plenty of those elsewhere), but rather a best-of compilation of our favorite, field-tested recommendations. Whether we use them daily or they’re just incredibly handy in a pinch, this list is a compilation all of our favorites: the best things that we packed for South America that we will bring again the next time we visit! I hope you find our packing tips handy when creating your packing list for South America.
What You’ll Find in Our Guide to Packing for South America
- General packing tips for backpacking South America
- The best clothing for backpacking South America
- What to pack to keep you healthy in South America
- The best travel gear for backpacking South America
Please note: this is NOT a sponsored post! All opinions are my own and I paid my own money for ALL of our gear. Well OK, some of them were wedding gifts, but I picked them out and listed them on our registry! The point is, these aren’t paid or promoted recommendations and I have no incentive to talk them up except that I really like them. However, this post does include Amazon affiliate links. Using these links costs you no extra but the commission that we receive goes towards helping over the costs of running the site.
Packing Tips for Backpacking South America
South America is huge. Like, literally an entire continent. With many countries. And within those countries are many different ecosystems. Wow, I’m not making this sound any easier, am I? To make a huge generalization, South America mainly consists of coast, mountain, and the Amazon rainforest – all of which are incredibly different in terms of climate and gear needs! I’ll do my best to summarize a few packing tips from our backpacking trip through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, and Argentina.
- South America isn’t terribly hot. It’s hot at the very northern tip, on the Carribean coast. It’s hot in the Amazon rainforest. And it’s hot during the summer seasons in Chile and Argentina (November-March)… in certain spots. Otherwise? South American weather is actually usually around a cool to comfortable temperature. The western coast that we traveled is generally kept cool with sea breezes trapped by the mwountain ranges to the east. The mountains and higher altitude towns range from cool to cold. We were perfectly prepared for the weather with a few warm layers, a packable down jacket, and a single pair of shorts each. Basically, pack whatever you’d bring to spend a day San Francisco: lots of layering pieces, a couple things for warm weather, a few things for cold weather. Oh, and if you get cold, just pop into a mercado and pick up something made of Alpaca!
- Don’t bother trying to dress like a local. You’re going to stand out no matter what, whether you’re visibly Gringo or just wearing a backpack and a camera. If you like to pack to blend in, try to look like you aren’t wealthy. Looking wealthy will get you nothing but trouble and overcharged taxis.
- Bring your own hair and beauty supplies. Hair and beauty supplies are expensive and very poor quality in South America (I think it’s because everyone has naturally perfect hair and skin, so jeal). Bring what you’ll need or your hair will hate you (mine’s still recovering)! For more detailed recommendations about makeup and beauty tips for travel, check out my ultimate beauty guide for backpacking.
- It’s easy to find whatever you need to buy in South America. Other than high quality hair products, we never found ourselves desperately needing anything (OK, other than Cinnamon Toast Crunch). So don’t feel like you need to pack for a thousand what-if scenarios. There’s always a market/mercado, corner store, or supermarket selling a random assortment of anything you might want. And if you can’t find something in a small town, just stop in the next city. (That said, if you need something very specific, bring it.)
- Most countries have American outlets; some have European/Australian outlets. To make things exciting, some have a mix of both! Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru all had US outlets. Chile had European outlets, mostly. And Argentina had a mix of everything. Honestly, we didn’t even really use the bulky travel adapters we brought with us. We just bought whatever travel adapter was being sold in the town we were in. It was cheap and easy to find a little adapter the minute we realized we didn’t have the right one. Don’t stress about packing the right adapter.
- There is Wi-Fi pretty much everywhere. Hostels, coffee shops, restaurants … Wi-Fi is very common and easy to find everywhere in South America. Mind, that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to stream Netflix whenever you want (we tried. There were a few heartbreaking nights of Netflix-free chill). But if you’re on the fence about bringing something that needs Wi-Fi (like my travel Chromebook), you’ll be fine!
- You can buy a SIM card absolutely anywhere. We brought unlocked phones with us and picked up cheap SIM cards with data plans in each country, so that even when we were out of a Wi-Fi zone, we had a backup plan. It could not possibly be easier to find a SIM card: every corner shop and roadside stand sells them. The hardest part is just choosing which company to go with (we mostly used Tigo and Claro). However, if you’re not fluent in Spanish, you’ll want to go to a store that can help you set up and activate your card. I recommend an electronics or phone store. Once you have the SIM card installed and activated, you can top-up anywhere.
The Best Clothing to Pack for South America
If you’ve ever spent a long day exploring while wearing uncomfortable clothing, you know how miserable packing the wrong travel clothing can be! From the weather to your activity level, it can be hard to predict what you’ll need. And if you’re trying to pack light, you want to bring as few multi-functional clothes as possible! We’ve found a few technical travel clothing items that were fantastic from the tropics of northern Colombia to the chilly Andean plateaus in Peru and Ecuador. (You’ll notice that an embarrassing amount of these have his & hers versions that we owned both of. We matched for basically an entire 4 month trip, no shame.)
- Wool Clothing: Merino wool is a miracle fabric. It’s cool when it’s hot out. It’s warm when it’s cold out. When it gets wet, it keeps you warm while it dries. It naturally resists the growth of fungus and bacteria, so it never stinks – key for re-wearing clothes every day! It’s even flame retardant. What more could you ask for? Performance wool isn’t like the itchy blanket wool of the past – it’s thin and brushed, and super soft to the touch like cotton. Honestly, most of what we brought was wool, and we found that wool clothing was perfect for backpacking in South America. Here’s what we brought:
- Travel Sweatpants: I’m so glad I brought along comfy sweatpants. There’s nothing to make you feel cozy and happy than changing into warm sweatpants or PJs at the end of a long exhausting day! This pair of ExOfficio travel lounge pants is lightweight and rolls up small, unlike the usual bulk of fleece sweatpants. And as a HUGE bonus, they’re coated with Permethrin, a long-lasting bug repellent that adheres to clothing, so I’m protected from bug bites while I wear them! This makes them perfect for sleeping in areas with mosquitoes or no-see-ums and even lounging around bungalows and hammocks without having to worry about bug bites.
- Outlier Shorts (for men): Jeremy picked up a pair of these shorts to double as both his warm weather daily clothing item, and his swimsuit. They’re expensive, but they’re a 2-for-1, and they work great! They dry in a ridiculously short period of time, making them perfect for hopping in and out of waterfalls, rivers, and the ocean and then resuming your normal travel activities. They never got dirty or wrinkly and always looked fashionable. Honestly, I’m incredibly jealous that this company doesn’t make women’s clothing.
- Packable Down Jackets (His & Hers): We didn’t need big bulky jackets for South America. These super lightweight packable down jackets are insanely warm and insulating – plus, they pack into teeny tiny little balls to stuff into our backpacks when they aren’t needed. In the coldest of the cold places in South America (like chilly Cusco, Peru!) we added a sweater (made out of alpaca, of course, because when in Peru ...) and some cheap gloves and felt perfectly warm.
- Ultra-Light Rain Jackets (His & Hers): It rained quite a bit while we were in South America. We didn’t bring an umbrella, but we did bring these fantastic rain jackets (and their rain pant counterparts, which we didn’t wear as often). They’re ultralight and pack down into nothing, just like our down jackets, so together they’re the perfect layerable & warm waterproof jacket. They jackets are super waterproof whether we’re in a downpour or snowboarding!
- Hiking Pants (His & Hers): Hiking in South America is not like hiking in the United States, as we found out several times (in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru … twice.) We needed hiking pants that were up to the task of handling mud, rain, gravel, sand, and jungle, with a lot of butt-sliding and knee-hitting – AND that were comfortable enough to actually hike in. Normally I wear leggings to hike, but you can’t butt-slide and knee-hit properly in them. Luckily, our hiking pants were designed with technical hiking in mind and were perfectly suitable for our needs!
- Travel Jeans (Hers): One important thing to pack for South America is jeans. Why? Because you don’t want to look like a backpacking gringo every single day, and for those days when you just want to go out to a bar or maybe check out a salsa club, jeans are perfect. Jeremy was able to just wear regular jeans, but I bought jeans specifically made for travelling from PraNa, one of my favorite travel clothing companies. They’re stretchier and comfier than regular jeans, quick drying (which is crucial, as regular jeans take ages to dry) and frankly, they look exactly like jeans. I wore these pretty much every day I wasn’t wearing hiking clothes.
- Waterproof Socks: Whether you’re hiking in the mud or exploring, rain doesn’t have to ruin your day! We just threw on our packable raincoats and these super handy waterproof socks and didn’t have to worry about wet feet all day long. We don’t carry bulky hiking boots with us, so these are great addition to our trail runners.
- Cute Travel Flats: These lightweight travel flats roll up small and are perfect for spending long hours exploring. They’re super-thing soled but built to withstand puncturing, meaning they’ll last forever and protect your feet for years! Most importantly, they’re barefoot shoes. I’ll skip the lecture on why barefoot shoes are the healthiest choice for your feet and overall musculature (although let me know if you want more information – I only wear barefoot shoes, and VivoBarefoot is my all-time favorite shoe brand!) but one thing that I will say is that these shoes are wide enough to give your toes plenty of room to move, and flexible enough to allow your foot a full range of motion, meaning that even a long day of walking on pavement won’t cause next-day foot pain! I pair my flats with little wool liner socks for added moisture absorption.
- Leather Sandals: I’m completely in love with my Capri Teva sandals. These things are amazing. Not only are they actually cute, but they’re incredibly comfortable. I wear them on my cute “dressed up” city days with a dress or cuffed jeans, on long hikes, to the beach, white water rafting, anything. They’re comfy enough to stand and walk in for 12+ hours, versatile enough to hike in, and perfect water shoes. They’re lightweight and well made. After near daily use in sand, dirt, and rocks, my Tevas are barely showing any wear at all. I’ll never buy another brand of sandals again.
- Trail Runner Shoes: When we weren’t wearing sandals, we were usually wearing these lightweight, zero-drop, wide toebox trail runners. Yes, I said we – I had a pair of these men’s shoes too. Don’t judge, they’re fantastic. These were our primary hiking shoes before we left on our trip, and they have stayed our favorite hiking shoes. Honestly, we’ll never go back to clunky hiking boots! Our feet can move and breathe in the flexible mesh, and when they get wet – with our waterproof socks on underneath, of course – they dry quickly as you walk. Plus, they’re lightweight, so when you’re not wearing them they fit easily into your backpack!
What to Pack to Stay Healthy in South America
South America has a reputation for being less than safe in regards to health. From Zika to undrinkable tap water, these concerns aren’t totally unfounded. However, we really didn’t experience any issues. Sure, sometimes our stomachs were a little wobbly. But by always drinking purified water, avoiding raw fruits and vegetables, and getting all of the recommended shots before our trip, we stayed perfectly healthy! Read on for our recommendations on the most important health-related items to pack for South America.
- Steri-Pen Water Purifier: This handy little water purifier saved us a LOT of money (not to mention illness!) in all of the places in South America without safe drinking water (which, frankly, was most of the places we went). It purifies water in 90 seconds, using an UV light to kill living bacteria and viruses in even the most untrustworthy tap water. Rather than have to buy multiple bottles of purified water per day, we were able to purify our own and save money every single day. We calculated that the Ster-Pen earned back its cost after a month of daily use – a must for travelling to a country without potable tap water! We use ours with our foldable Sawyer water bottle or our hydration pack and it works like a charm. (Note: you can also use a Sawyer mini filter or water purification tablets, both of which we brought just in case, but we found that we preferred the Steri-Pen for ease of use and taste.)
- Permethrin Spray: When we found out that there was a bug repellent which adheres only to fabrics, leaves no smell or residue on clothes, and doesn’t harm human skin, we bought a few bottles and sprayed all of our clothing, paying special attention to hems, cuffs, and socks. Permethrin spray lasts for up to 6 machine washes, but since we’re not washing our clothes very often and rarely using machines, we’re hoping it will last longer. It worked like a charm in Colombia: even in mosquito ridden areas we had way fewer bites than our fellow travelers. Note: this is something to buy and use BEFORE you leave for your trip!
- Hydration Day Pack: My trusty hiking hydration pack came with us on the trip and I’m so glad. It’s a comfortable daypack with room for snacks and the necessities, plus 100oz of water: enough for an 8 hour hike or a day of exploring a new city! We purify water using the SteriPen and fill up the 100oz bladder with safe drinking water. One of us is wearing the pack nearly every day. It may not be the cutest backpack, but it’s lightweight, comfortable, and incredibly useful!
- Stomach Enzymes: I have an easily upset stomach. My body doesn’t like dairy …or gluten …or corn… or anything processed … or anything delicious…. FML. But it’s really difficult to control what’s in your food while travelling, and sometimes the only thing that’s available is something that my stomach won’t like. So I brought my trusty stomach enzymes. They contain the things my stomach seems to lack to help it break down the elements in various foods and digest them. Since taking stomach enzymes I’ve greatly reduced instances of heartburn or indigestion, and seen a huge increase in my health from the more readily available nutrients that my stomach is now able to unpack and utilize! These are a lifesaver for me while travelling.
- Spices and Seasonings: I know what you’re thinking: how is this related to health? Hear me out. 4 months of rice, fries, and bread does not equal a healthy, high-functioning human. So, we cook our own meals whenever we can, using fresh, locally purchased fruits and veggies from the mercado (washed with purified water, of course)! Hostel kitchens usually have a few things for cooking like salt, oil and a spatula or two, but one thing they never seem to have is a variety of spices. Making a good home cooked meal in a hostel kitchen requires spices. So, we brought some from home in little ziploc bags: dill, rosemary, cumin, ginger, cinnamon, curry powder, etc. When we need to cook a meal, we’ve got a variety of flavors to choose from, which makes building a healthy meal from available ingredients a lot easier and saves us money on eating out.
- Menstrual Cup:Yes, vag things. Skip this paragraph if natural processes of women’s bodies make you uncomfortable. Pads and tampons down here are hard to come by and expensive. Plus, trying to stuff a package of them into my backpack to use only once per month would be irritating, not to mention they’re wasteful and not terribly vag-friendly. So I’ve given up entirely on pads and tampons and fully embraced cup life. And it’s fantastic! No leakage whatsoever – which is a relevation for me. I can leave it in for a full day or more without having to worry about toxic shock syndrome or whatever. No smell at all – it turns out its the pads and tampons themselves that smell, not the life-giving nutrient rich tissue that your body is discarding. And maintanance is easy: just wash the cup with gentle soap and water to clean it. I spritz it with a little vinegar as well, some ladies boil theirs. I keep it in a little drawstring bag – no fuss, no mess, no environmentally harmful waste! Oh, and don’t worry, they’re super easy and intuitive to put in. If you’re considering making the switch, do it!
- Apple Cider Vinegar: Random, right? But I LOVE ACV. It’s so useful! We bought a bottle down here and have gotten so much out of it. I first discovered ACV’s uses for beauty purposes: it’s a fantastic facial toner as it kills acne-causing bacteria on contact. It’s also a gentle clarifying wash for hair, great for stripping away salt or hard water buildup (which is super common in South America). Turns out it’s also amazing for sunburns! Our first bad sunburn was so painful that we turned in desperation to apple cider vinegar, soaking washcloths and laying them on our skin. Sure enough, not only did it ease the pain, but the spots we applied the vinegar to healed WAY faster! Apple cider vinegar is also great for heartburn and the healing and prevention of itchy topical yeast rash (say, from a long sweaty day of hiking, or a long boat ride in a wet bikini bottom.) And yes, you can put it up in there too, if you have a different kind of yeast rash. We’ve got ours in a little travel sized spray bottle and use it regularly.
- Dramamine: Dramamine was our lifeline on the many, many long bus rides we took throughout South America. Oh, and it came in handy on ferry boat rides in the Galapagos, too! Even if you’re not prone to motion sickness, it’s best to bring a few along just in case.
- Altitude Sickness Pills, Malaria Pills, Anti-Diarrhea Pills: These are all prescription medications you’ll need to talk to your doctor about getting before your trip, but we used them all fairly regularly. Altitude sickness medication is absolutely necessary because chances are you’ll be heading into, through, or up to mountains with regularity. Malaria Pills aren’t actually as needed if you’re staying away from the Amazon Jungle – malaria isn’t common in most of the well-populated towns and cities we went to., But if you’re hopping into the jungle at any point, you’ll need them. Anti-Diarrhea is just something you’ll need, trust me. You’ll also need some vaccinations before you leave, like Yellow Fever and Tetanus. Consult with your doctor for a full list of recommended medications from the CDC!
What to Pack to Stay Safe in South America
Safety while traveling abroad is a huge concern, and for good reason: tourists are like a walking bulls-eye. And in a place like South America, just being a Gringo with a backpack can make you a target. Luckily, aside from 1 incident, we experienced complete safety during our 4 months backpacking in South America. Read more about the basic travel safety precautions we always take.
- Lightweight Combination Locks: As any hostel-hopper knows, you always need to have a lock! But in addition to locking up your valuables in the hostel locker, you also want to have locks on your day-packs and on your bag when you’re in transit! These little locks are more of a deterrent than anything: obviously any dedicated thief can just cut open our canvas backpacks if they really want to. But most casual thieves are looking for an easy mark: a pocket to slip their hands into quickly, a bag left unlocked on a bus, etc. We lock every zipper on all of our bags with these little locks and aside from someone running off with our entire bag once (don’t worry! We got it back!) we never had anything stolen.
- Lightweight Packable Day Pack: We brought 2 lightweight bags which fold down into nothing: a small backpack, and a duffel bag. We’ve been using them every single day. The backpack is our day pack, perfect for some snacks, a couple of jackets, cameras, phones, and whatever we need for the day. It also doubles as our lockable carry-on valuables bag while on transit, which is key for safety – never let your passport, camera, or laptop out of your sight! We also carry around various groceries from city to city, and it’s nice to not have to stuff food into the top of our backpacks. We use this bag daily!
- Bra Pocket: AKA “brocket” for short. What a missed opportunity! So, confession: I can’t stand purses. It’s not just because they’re easily snatched and stolen. They’re also just a giant hassle. From leaving them behind to aching shoulders to getting tangled up in coat sleeves, purses and I just do not get along. The obvious travel alternative is a money belt (until someone, somewhere, realizes that girls just want to have pockets in their clothing.). Except that a money belt is totally useless for a huge amount of women’s clothing … like, uhhh, dresses? Who the hell designed these things?! Probably the same assholes who refuse to put pockets in women’s clothing!!! My solution is the Bra Pocket. It snaps onto my bra and hangs out inconspicuously between the girls, ready the moment I need to take out a card. Nothing got lost or stolen. I often sleep in it, that’s how comfortable and innocuous this thing is! I highly recommend one. I’ll never go back to purses & wallets!
What to Pack for South America: The Best Travel Gear
Sometimes random travel items end up being indispensable for travel. In this post, I’m skipping the basic stuff you’ll find on every “what to pack for South America” post out there (everyone knows about packing cubes by now, right?? If not, here’s an amazing packing cube guide). Instead, here are the surprise favorite travel items that we ended up being really glad we packed for backpacking in South America!
- Travel-Friendly Chromebook Laptop: Our Chromebook is our primary travel laptop. It’s capable of anything you need while on the road – yes, even managing your blog! It’s super lightweight and incredibly fast. Yes, you need Wi-Fi for most of its capability, but we never had any issues finding Wi-Fi in South America (GOOD Wi-Fi was more of a challenge). Plus, it’s relatively inexpensive, so you don’t have to be as afraid of it getting broken or stolen. Honestly, we wish we’d brought 2!
- Travel Friendly Cameras: We didn’t bring a DSLR to South America – it was bulky and we didn’t want to look like targets. Instead, we had a super portable GoPro which was perfect for sweeping views of mountains and hiking. For all of our other photos, we used the travel friendly pocket-sized Canon Powershot, which appears deceptively cheap and old-fashioned to potential thieves but actually takes AMAZING photos.
- Travel Clothesline: This is a super handy tiny little clothesline that is easy to hang up almost anywhere. We bought it initially for laundry purposes, but it’s also really handy whenever we have wet bathing suits or towels that need to be dried. It weighs nearly nothing but is strong enough to hold a ton of wet clothing!
- Kindle Fire: These little portable libraries are so handy for travel! Not only do they save you the effort of lugging around books – much as the charm of the hotel book exchange appeals to me – but they’re also great travel tools. You can load them up like a tablet to use with wi-fi, with apps, downloaded movies, audio books, and music. We put our travel PDF on ours: we create a PDF loaded with information pulled from all over the web about the places we’re going, our flight and hostel information, itineraries, emergency numbers and embassy locations, maps, our insurance information . That PDF is our travel bible, and it’s easy to use on either of our Kindles!
- Solar Powered Flashlight: We haven’t had to think about batteries once, but we always have light when we need it. Super handy for finding the bathroom or packing in a dark hostel.
- Silk Liner Travel Sheet: These super lightweight cozy silk sheets sound luxurious … and they kinda are, but they’re also super practical. We used our silk liners whenever a hostel bed looked less than entirely clean; on cold nights at high altitudes in Peru; and even sleeping in a hammock in Minca, Colombia. Bonus: we Permethrin sprayed them, so that they act as bug-repellent sheets too!
- Travel Sewing Kit: Along with using cheap lightweight foldable bags comes the regular rips and tears, not to mention holes in our clothes and popped buttons. I brought a small lightweight sewing kit and make regular repairs on everything to keep us from having to buy new stuff! The travel sewing kit saved us many times.
- Travel Backpacks (His & Hers): How could we have a post about backpacking South America and not talk about our actual backpacks? Yes, we packed everything we needed in our handy backpacks (using those handy packing cubes!) We chose to bring our backpacks instead of a suitcase because of the amount of walking we did while backpacking South America: in addition to multi-day treks like the Quilotoa Loop that we brought our backpacks on, we just had to walk around carrying our stuff pretty frequently. Whether it’s walking from your hostel to the bus station, crossing a border in a chicken truck, or a taxi dropping you off wherever they feel like it, you’ll be schlepping your bag all the time, and it’s so much easier to schlep when it’s attached to your back. These are the same backpacks we use for hiking and camping, and they’re super comfortable (although each backpack fits everyone differently, so make sure to try your pack on with at least 25lbs in it before you commit)! If you’ll be doing some flying too (and in a huge continent such as South America, that’s very likely) take a look at these carry-on size backpacks.
Phew, I think that’s everything! Like I mentioned above, I skipped the basics entirely, because there are so many helpful resources already out there with great advice on what to pack for South America and I don’t feel like I should tell you exactly how many pairs of underwear or t-shirts to pack anyway – everyone’s different! But if you have a question like but seriously how many t-shirts do I REALLY need then just leave a comment below or send us a message!