The Ultimate Packing Guide for South America
South America, wonderfully diverse, and a real pain in the ass to pack for. Think you could be one of those people who travels for months on end with nothing but a carry on? Well for us, the answer is simple… absolutely not. Now, depending on where you’re going and what you plan on doing, packing can be a little more straight forward, but for those who know us, they know that we like to do everything and anything, not a stone left unturned. If this sounds like you, then you’ve come to the right place.
Our South America trip includes Peru, Bolivia, and Brazil between the months of September and January. Between these places alone, you’re looking at going through the snow-capped mountains of the Andes and Cordillera Real, dry dessert heat in southern Peru; rain, humidity and temperatures in the mid 30s in the Amazon Jungle, and endless stretches of beach along the coast of Brazil. We have found ourselves needing 5 layers of blankets one week, then being too hot to even think about sleeping the next. Disclaimer, we have not received any endorsement for recommending the products listed below, we have tried and tested many great brands over the years, but these are some of the ones we’ve really come to love.
What We Love: Osprey has a huge line of high-quality packs in all shapes and sizes. I love these packs so much that I actually have the 10, 22, 33, and 65L packs. Both the Ariel 65L and the Aether 70L have the following useful features:
- Internal Hydration Reservoir: This is self-explanatory.
- Isoform Harness and Hip Belt: At the retailer, they put your bag into a heated machine that softens the foam in the harness and hip belt. You will then put the bag on, adjust to fit, put some weight in it, then walk around the store for about 15 to 20 minutes as the foam takes your shape. The purpose? Your new backpack is now perfectly formed to your body, almost completely eliminating the break-in process.
- Convertible Top-Lid Daypack: We’ve seen a lot of other packs with a similar feature, but this little daypack is legit. It has its own reservoir for your water bladder, chest strap, mesh shoulder straps, and trekking pole attachment. When the top-lid is removed, the main-pack still has an integrated flap with buckles to protect your gear inside.
- Main Compartment Zipped Access: This one has proven to be pretty awesome. Hate having to take everything out of your pack to reach something near the bottom? Yeah, we did to. With a large J-shaped zipper on the front of your pack, you can access everything inside, similarly to how you would use a suitcase.
What We Love: Lightweight, functional and with a large stretch mesh front panel and side pockets, you can really pack a lot in there. Not everyone will choose to bring an additional day pack, but for us, these packs have been essential, and we use them every day. Our day packs ensure that all of our most valuable items (i.e. the stuff we really can’t afford to lose) remain with us at all times (at least while flying or busing from one point to the next). This includes: camera gear, laptops, tablets, chargers, passports, wallets and phones. Key features to look for in a day pack:
- Waist Strap with Pockets: Anybody who does a lot of hiking will understand the importance of a waist strap, even in a day pack, especially if your lugging around camera gear and other heavier items. A waist strap takes the weight of your pack off your shoulders and onto your hip, where you can carry much larger amounts of weight with much less discomfort and strain. When your struggling to get up to that mountain peak at 5,200 m above sea level, you’ll be thankful for any help you can get. As for pockets, they can be incredibly handy on your waist strap, it’s the perfect place to store items that you want quick access to such as your phone, lip balm, cash, important medication, headlamp, etc.
- Comfy Straps and Mesh Panels: On a hot a humid day, no matter where you are, you’ll be glad to have a pack that’s comfortable and that breathes.
Packing Cubes: This one is a MUST. We didn’t know how great these were until we started travelling, but about a week into our trip we both looked at each other and thanked God we decided to buy these. Whether you’re travelling for several months like us, or travelling for a week or two, an organized pack means one less little annoyance in the stockpile of your future travel annoyances. To get the best use out of these, buy them in a couple different colours, then pack the cubes according to use. For example, my cubes are packed for casual wear, active wear, underwear and bathing suits, and warm layers. No more rummaging through your bag and making a mess of your pack and hotel room every time you need to find something.
Dry Bags: Always a good idea if you have loose travel plans and may not know exactly where your travels will take you, or if you know exactly what you’re doing and what you’re doing includes WATER! Going to the ocean? Down a river? To a giant waterfall? Who knows! And who cares so long as your stuff doesn’t get soaked. Your clothes and other soft items will live, but your camera might not, and why risk it, just bring a dry bag. We brought one 35 L dry bag for each of us, big enough to line the inside of our day packs and put all our electronics safely inside. These bags have also come in handy for other random tasks such as hand washing clothing, or bringing dirty laundry to the laundry mat.
We Recommend: Sea to Summit Lightweight Dry Sack. Durable, lightweight and rolls up small when not in use.
Compression Bags (Optional): If you find yourself needing some bulkier items (i.e. sleeping bags or down jackets) a compression bag can save you a lot of space. They can also be used for similar functions as a packing cube but I find it doesn’t offer the same organizational potential.
We Recommend: Outdoor Research Airpurge Dry Compression. These are the compression bags we use for multi-day hiking and we love them. In addition to being a compression bag, they are also waterproof and fully seam-taped, ensuring your items remain dry in the unpredictable mountain weather.
|X1 Hiking Pant||X1 Hiking Pant|
|X1 Khaki Pant or Jeans||X1 Leggings and/or Jeans|
|X2 T-shirts||X2 T-shirts|
|X1 Collared Shirt||X1 Collared Shirt or Blouse|
|X4 Tanks/Sleeveless||X4 Tanks (2 cotton, 2 active)|
|X4 Shorts (Combination active, swim and casual)||X4 Shorts (Combination active and casual)|
|X1 Fleece sweater or Hoodie||X1 Fleece Sweater or Hoodie|
|X1 Rain Jacket||X1 Rain Jacket|
|X1 Down Vest||X1 Down Vest|
|X1 Hiking Shoes||X1 Hiking Shoes|
|X1 Sandals (Functional, waterproof with a heal strap)||X1 Sandals (Functional, waterproof with a heal strap)|
|X1 Casual Shoe||X1 Casual Shoe|
|X1 Sunglasses||X1 Sunglasses|
|X1 Toque and Baseball Cap||X1 Toque and Baseball Cap|
|X7 Underwear||X7 Underwear X4 Bras (3 sport, 1 reg)|
|X5 Socks||X5 Socks|
|X2 Swim Suit (One bikini, one cute one-piece)|
|X1 Scarf (Buy when you get there)|
|X1 Dress (Something that can be dressed up and dressed down)|
|Hanging Toiletry Bag||Hanging Toiletry Bag|
|Body Scrub Towel||Travel Sized Hair Brush|
|Bar Soap||Body Scrub Towel|
|Lip Balm with SPF||Nail Scissors/Stone Nail File|
|Skin Cream/Face Cream||Lip Balm with SPF|
|Sunscreen (SPF 60)||Face Wash|
|Hand Sanitizer||Sunscreen (SPF 60)|
|Insect Repellant (Min 30% DEET)||Hand Sanitizer|
|Diva Cup/Sanitary Products|
|Insect Repellant (Min 30% DEET)|
For the ladies – stay tuned for an article on “Health & Beauty On The Road” for my economical, space saving, and natural alternative health and beauty picks for hiking and travelling.
|Electronics||Miscellaneous||First Aid Kit|
|Laptop or Tablet||Headlamp||Band-Aids /Polysporin|
|Kindle||Silk Sleeping Bag Liner||Benadryl Tabs & Topical Cream|
|Headphones (Leave the bulky sets at home)||Locks (Combination lock for lockers at hostels, and small pack locks for your zippers)||Gravol/Pepto-Bismol tablets|
|Camera and Accessories||Plug Adaptor||Probiotic|
|SD Cards X2||Bug Net (If headed into the Amazon)||Diamox and Other Prescribed Medications|
|External Hard Drive to Back-Up Photos||Canteen/Large Plastic Water Bottle||Tape|
|Headphone Splitter (If travelling as a couple or group)||Travel Documents – Passport, Visas, Immunization Records, Travel Insurance||After-Bite|
|Chargers||Ear Bugs & Eye Mask||Tweezers|
|Full Size Travel Towel|
Other Purchasing Recommendations:
Travel Pillow: For those long journeys on the plane, in a bus, or in a train. We recommend the Sea to Summit Aeros Pillow Traveller. It packs impossibly small, and has a multi-function valve to control firmness.
Sleeping Bag Liner: This one is optional, but something I’ve found useful on a few occasions. Super lightweight and packs to be about half the size of a paperback book. I used it primarily on our multi-day treks where we had to use company owned or rented sleeping bags. Not only do they increase the thermal performance of the sleeping bag (which comes in handy on those frigid nights at high altitude), but it also protects you from potentially sleeping in somebody else’s night sweats. I’ve also used the liner as a blanket for overnight bus trips. We have the Sea to Summit Premium Silk Travel Liners.
Canteen: I’m all about buying things will dual purposes, so naturally the Yeti Rambler was a good fit. With double-wall vacuum insulation, it keeps cold drinks cold and hot drinks hot, and gives you the flexibility to use it for ever you decide.
Pack Towel: Now there are much smaller pack towels out there, and we use them for our multi-day hiking trips at home, but for travel purposes I opted to use a pack towel that was still lightweight but plush and nice to use for the beach. The Nomadix Go-Anywhere Full Size Towel still packs small compared to a traditional towel, is ultra-absorbent, quick drying, and anti-microbial.
Shoes: You’ll need a good pair of trekking shoes if you plan on doing any hiking in South America. We both have great boots, but really didn’t want to bring those bulky gargantuans with us for eight months of travel. What we brought with us instead are the Saloman XA Elevate GTX trail running shoes (comes in both men’s and women’s). They’re Gortex and therefore waterproof and have great traction in the sole for slippery conditions. The only thing we miss is the ankle support you get in hiking boots, but these are much more versatile and pack friendly overall.
Clothing: Over the years we have tried and tested a lot of different active wear, but we both agree, nothing compares to the functionality, flexibility, style and comfort of Lululemon and Merino Wool. We have a few other specialty brands we really love for more specialized gear but always come back to these two for our basic clothing needs. When packing for long haul travel, you need clothing items that are going to last, that are going to wick away moisture and odours, that can be layered up to keep you warm, and that breathe when layered down. As an added bonus to all these things, both brands have always done a great job at combining style with function, so with a few strategically placed accessories, you can avoid looking like that grungy traveller we all feel like on the inside.
Hope this was informative! Feel free to send us a message with any of your packing questions!