Backpacking Essentials For South America

Posted 16th Nov 2019
Your Backpacking Essentials For South America

Before I left for my 6 months of South American backpacking, I spent some time researching what exactly to pack for South America. With so many different terrains, extreme weather conditions and unique cultures, it was a nightmare to plan for! But, after 6 months of backpacking through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, I can safely say I now have a much better idea of what backpacking essentials you will need in South America and what travel gear you should leave at home!

Because of the few mistakes I made and the realisation of missing out some important travel gear essentials, I wanted to share with you my favourite and most used travel gear for South America. This packing list has everything you need for backpacking in South America and all tried and tested by me and the Go Travel and Talk team!

I hope you find this packing list helpful when creating your packing list essentials for South America!

Packing Tips For Backpacking South America

South America is HUGE and home to many countries with different climates, weather conditions, terrains and cultures - which makes deciding on what to take with you fairly difficult!

I have done my best to summarise what you will need to pack, focusing on Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, but I am confident that the backpacking essentials that I list, will also hold true for other South American countries. 

Weather in South America:

  • The weather in South America is completely dependent on where you go, the time of year you go and the altitude of the place you are visiting. For example, in the capital city of Colombia, Bogota, the weather is cold and there is lots of rain, but in Cartagena, a beautiful town located on Colombia's Caribbean coast, temperatures can reach up to 32°C (90°F). If you wanted to do the Salkantay trek or Inca trail to Machu Picchu in Peru, you will spend 2 days walking in hot and humid weather, and two days walking in cooler temperatures with spells of heavy rain.
  • Thankfully I packed well, including warm layers, a good waterproof jackets as well as shorts and t-shirts for the beach side towns and cities. But remember, there are lots of markets and shops in South America, so you can purchase items you need out there. Taking this and the vast weather conditions into account is crucial when packing for South America, luckily Go Travel and Talk can help!

WIFI in South America:

  • There is WIFI pretty much everywhere in South America, unless you are hiking in remote areas. But be warned, even if there is WIFI, it is often very weak! I would suggest downloading a bunch of your favourite films and TV shows on your Netflix before you set off!

Adapters in South America:

  • Don't stress about packing the right adapter. Most countries have American / European outlets, and sometimes a mix of both! And you can buy adapters really cheaply out there which cuts down on how much you have to pack!

SIM Cards in South America:

  • You can buy a SIM card absolutely anywhere in South America. Bring an unlocked phone with you and pick up a cheap SIM with a data plan in each of the country you are visiting if you feel you need to - I got by just fine with WIFI and maps.me downloaded. The hardest part is choosing which provider to go with. I know a lot of people used Claro and picked up some really good deals. If your Spanish is rusty, the guys in the store will help you to set it all up and activate your card. Once you are good to go, you can top up pretty much anywhere in South America. 

Pack Light for South America:

  • This is the most important advice I can give you when considering your backpacking pack list. Whilst everything in this article is useful and handy to have, remember you can always buy things when you are out there. Also when you are packing clothes - pack dark! Dark clothes hide stains much better, and therefore involve less washing!

Travel Insurance for South America:

*Remember before you set off on your trip - get yourself some rocking insurance! I LOVE World Nomads. They are a great choice for backpackers, super affordable, easy to understand and great customer service. Below is one of those affiliate links I spoke about above. Grab your insurance through there and we will keep bring you awesome content ;)

Essential packing items for South America

1). The Ultimate Backpack For Backpacking:

This is the most important thing to get right. The Osprey Farpoint / Fairview series are great choices.

    

Both are great backpacks with lots of cushioning and very light to carry. I can personally vouch for the woman's Fairview and 100% recommend getting it. 

You do not need more than 40L for a large backpack, and with a small 15L attached (they can connect to each other), that gives you 55L to play with, which is more than enough. The bigger the bag, the more you will pack and the heavier it will become so PACK LIGHT. 

Alternatively, you could buy the same backpacks but the 40L versions.

Both come without the smaller day sacks. This is personal preference, but from experience, the zip off 15L day packs are not great for multi-day hikes, as they do not have a waist strap, which really helps with support on multi-day hikes. However, if you buy a day pack separately, make sure you can comfortably carry it on your front whilst wearing your larger Osprey backpack on your back. 

     

Waterproof cover: Unfortunately, all of the Osprey backpacks mentioned above, do not come with waterproof covers. However, we at Go Travel and Talk highly recommend buying one separately, you will definitely need it in South America and we are putting it as a packing list essential item. You can buy them for a great price on Amazon. 

2). Favourite Day Packs For Backpacking:

For hiking, this is a backpacking essential. Make sure you have a proper day pack with a waist band and cushioned shoulder straps. it makes all the difference on multi-day hikes.

    

Both packs allow for air circulation, have a waist belt to spread the weight, hip pockets for easy access to your phone / snacks and they have a hydration reservoir and mouth piece hole (you will need to buy the camel bag separately). The is really important for staying hydrated when hiking in South America (or anywhere!) and so much easier than carrying a water bottle. 

For more detail reviews and information on what are the best day packs out there, check out the Clever Hiker's blogthey have some awesome tips and lots of detailed information for when deciding on what backpack to buy. 

Don't forget to buy a waterproof cover as well. 

3). Backpacking Necessities - Essential Packing Aids: 

Packing cubes

  • These are an absolute backpacking essential. They will not only save you space, but the packing cubes will help separate your clothes, electronics and toiletries, giving you easy to access to what you need when travelling. 

Reusable Food bags (Eco friendly!)

  • This is one of the things that most people do not think about (or forget!) when packing for long haul trips, but they are a packing list essential item and one of Go Travel and Talks top tips! Reusable food bags can be used to transport leftover food to prevent waste, as well as preventing liquids from spilling in your backpack. They do not take up any space, are great for long bus journeys and travelling between places, leak-proof and plastic free! Yeyyy.

Dry bag

  • A dry bag is essential for when you are travelling by boat, hiking in heavy rain or if you are spending time at the beach / close to water. For me, mine came in really handy when I was travelling down the Amazon river in Ecuador and hiking in Colombia where it rained, a lot! I bought a brilliant one from Amazon, 10L, and it came with a waterproof phone protector.

Reusable bag 

  • This is a backpacking essential people tend to forget or leave out. A reusable shopper bag is super helpful for when you are shopping for groceries or when you are out and about and don’t want to / can’t use your small backpack. Go Travel and Talk highly recommend the reusable shopper from Amazon. Super affordable for a 5 pack, which come with a little pack-away pouch, compacting it down to a small size.

Combination Padlocks

  • Go Travel and Talk recommends 3 combination locks because you can use one for your hostel locker to store valuables and the other one on your small backpack when you are out and about and one as a spare. Go Travel and Talk's top tip is to make sure they are small enough to be used with hostel lockers, if the lock is too large, you won’t be able to fit it to most hostel lockers. Also, buy combination locks rather than ones that require a key, it is safer and you wont loose the key!

4). Backpacking Pack List - Clothes:

Regardless of the length of your trip, pack enough clothes for 1 week. You can then do laundry when you need to. 

7 x Underwear | 2 x Sports bra | 1 x Bra | 3 x Trainer socks | 2 x Hiking socks | 1 x Waterproof socks | 1 x Pjs

2 x T-shirts | 2 x ports tops | 1 x Long sleeve top | 2 x Smart top | 1 x Jumper/Sweater (wool)

  • A long sleeve top is really important, especially when at higher altitudes as the weather is a lot cooler. They are also good when in the Amazon rainforest to protect yourself from the bugs, or when you need cover on your arms in the evenings / hiking. 
  • Wool jumpers/sweaters are the best as they retain heat. If you are bringing a fleece jacket there is technically no need for this, however it is nice to have, especially if you are out in the evenings and your fleece jacket is dirty from the days hiking you just did!

1 x Hiking trousers | 2 x Sports leggings | 1 x Jeans | 1 x Sports shorts | 1 x Dress | 1 x Skirt  | 1 x Shorts

  • I didn’t pack any sports shorts with me and instead hiked in leggings, and at times it was tough, especially in the heat. The Go Travel and Talk community would strongly advise bringing both. Leggings have their benefits such as protecting your legs from mosquitoes, but there are times when shorts will be better. 
  • Jeans: There seems to be some debate over whether to take jeans to South America or not ~ take it from me and the whole of the Go Travel and Talk community, TAKE THEM WITH YOU. You will live in them in the evenings when you go out and even when you are exploring cities during the day, especially when at altitude and it is a little colder!

1 x Board shorts | 1x Bikini | 1x Swimsuit | Sarong | Quick dry towel

  • A Sarong may seem like a luxury items, but they are so helpful when travelling. You can use it as a blanket for buses, a pillow when on the road, a shoulder cover for visiting religious temples, as an aid in protection from the sun or to sit on when camping out on a road waiting for your bus. Definitely add this to your packing list for South America. 
  • Quick dry towel - an essential packing list item for South America and anywhere else you go on your travels! As described, they are quick drying, pack down really easily and need minimal washing, so if you are on a 5 day multi hike, its not a problem!

1 x Fleece jacket | 1 x rain jacket | 1 x packable down jackets

  • A fleece jacket is a really good under layer for a lightweight rainproof jacket, and you can wear it out in the evenings if it is a little cold.
  • A lightweight rain jacket is the MOST important thing to have when travelling around South America, because despite the time of year, if you are moving around, it will be raining somewhere. I can personally recommend Peter Storm as make. It was perfect for backpacking in South America and kept me nice and dry when in the rain! If you don’t want to pack a rain jacket, pack a poncho - you are going to need it!
  • Packable down jacket - An alternative to a fleece and lightweight rain jacket is a packable down jacket.  can personal vouch for the North Face Woman's Trevail Jacket. It is super light, packs down really easily and heats up like a sauna! It is expensive, so check out Ebay first and see if you can find a second hand one for a little cheaper. For men, Go Travel and Talk recommend The North Face Men's Trevail Jacket. 
  • Go Travel and Talk suggests taking all three because in some places, whilst it rains, it is still hot and humid and both types of jacket pack down really well. 

1 x Flip flops or Sandals | 1 x Hiking shoes or boots | 1 x Trainers 

  • You do not need more pairs of shoes than this. Trainers are great for city exploring in South America, sandals or flip flops will be your best friend in seaside towns and on the beach, and hiking boots or shoes are required for when you are exploring off the beaten track in South America, as. the terrain can be tough. I would advise not hiking in your trainers, save those for the city exploring in South America. Hiking boots or shoes are both fine, it is more a personal preference, although I found the ankle support of hiking boots very helpful. 
  • Berghaus Womens Fellmaster Gore-Tex Walking boots are exceptional and super comfy!

Sunglasses | Baseball cap

  • One thing I left off my South American packing list was a hat and I really regretted it. If you are a big hiker, it can get really really hot in South America, so a good baseball hat is the perfect way to protect your head and your face from getting too much sun. 

Warm items - Thermals | Scarf | Hat | Gloves

  • Really really important for hiking in South America, especially when you are climbing mountains and going to higher elevations where it can get really cold. However, as mentioned above, if you are not hiking until later in your trip, leave these items off your packing list and buy them when you need to in South America. It will save space and weight in your backpack and by buying local items, you will be supporting the local communities you are visiting and they will be a nice keep sake. 

1 x Small handbag | 2 x Wallet or Purse | Money Belt

  • Bringing two wallets/purses is really important. If you are a solo traveller and nervous about travelling on your own, this is a great safety precaution when moving around in South America. Put some of your money in a purse in your backpack/pocket, but put most of your money and cards in a money belt around your waist and under your clothes, leaving one card hidden in your big backpack. This way, if anything does happen, like having your backpack stolen, and I am sure it won’t, you have kept most of your money safe and hidden out of sight.  
  • Money beltAn absolute South America packing list essential item, or in fact, for anywhere you travel to. Make sure you get one with multiple compartments, that is well made and fits around your waist snuggly under your clothes. I highly recommend this one from Amazon. 

5). Backpacking Pack List - Toiletries checklist:

Waterproof toiletry bag | Toothbrush & toothpaste | Deodorant | Women's Hygiene Products | Biodegradable soap | Shampoo | Moisturiser | Nail scissors | Razor | Lip Salve | Set of cotton buds  | Anti bacterial hand gel | Sunscreen / bug spray | Aftersun | Hair brush | Sleeping mask | Earplugs | First aid kit | Vitamin B Tablets | Vitamin C dissolvable Tablets.

  • Biodegradable soap is especially important when washing in nature during your hikes.
  • Women's hygeine products ~ Go Travel and Talk highly recommend the Menstrual Cup when travelling for long periods of a time and most likely going through lots of cycles. It is not packing efficient (or good for the environment) to take loads of tampons with you. You can buy Sanitary Towels in South America but they are comparatively expensive. Not only is the Menstrual Cup environmentally friendly, it will save you money and space when travelling. A menstrual cup does not need to be changed as frequently as a tampon and it can be washed after use and put back in your bag, making it easy and helpful when on multi-day hikes, where changing and disposing of tampons can be difficult / impossible. 
  • First Aid kit - you can buy this from Amazon and add to it. Go Travel and Talk highly advise that you include: Imodium, Charcoal tablets, paracetamol, rehydration sachets, motion sickness tablets, altitude sickness tablets, anti malaria, ibuprofen, plasters, antiseptic spray. 
  • Vitamin B tablets are amazing for keeping the mosquitoes away! Take one table a day for 2 weeks before your trip, and you will notice such a huge difference with less bites from pesky Mosquitoes. They are also great for helping with energy. Go Travel and Talk top tip packing item!
  • Vitamin C dissolvable tablets - great for a little immune boost when on the road. I used all of mine and gave some out to other travellers. These are a really handy item to have when packing for a long haul trip and not something you can buy easily when on the road. We recommend Berocca.  

6). Backpacking Pack List - Electrical Items:

Phone | Shock-proof Iphone case | selfie stick | Camera | Ipad/tablet/Kindle | Go Pro or Akaso | Memory cards | Headphones | Ipod | Portable charger | Adapter | Charging cables | Portable speaker

  • Shock proof phone case and screen protector This is so important when travelling around South America, or anywhere! Especially if you are into hiking or adventure sports or just clumsy like me! I got one from Amazon and it was brilliant.
  • Ipad ~ Make sure you have Netflix downloaded on your Ipad when packing for your trip to South America! It will be a lifesaver on bus journeys
  • Go Pro or Akaso? I took an Akaso EK7000 as I couldn’t afford a Go Pro and I am a complete amateur at making videos, but it was a great alternative and worked so well ~ especially for the underwater shots and capturing moments across South America. Make sure you buy the accessory kit with it ~ the chest strap is SUPER helpful when you want to take some hiking action shots. 
  • Memory cards - make sure you have a couple for backup. The WIFI in South America is poor at the best of times, so you may go long periods of a time when you cannot download your video footage or save it into your drive. 
  • Headphones - ALWAYS have a spare set stored separately. 
  • Ipod - If you feel nervous about getting your phone out on a bus or want to reserve battery, a cheap Ipod is a great addition to your South America packing list. 
  • Portable charger bank - Probably one of the most important items to pack. I strongly suggests getting a Solar Power Bank from Amazon. It has a great output, charging up to two devices at a time, with 4 solar panels and it charges your Iphone 10 times before you need to recharge it. It was an absolute packing list essential for me and the community at Go Travel and Talk 100% agree. 
  • Portable speaker is always a hit at hostels and great when camping out somewhere. I HIGHLY recommend the Betron KBS08 Portable travel bluetooth speaker. I take this everywhere with me and it was amazing when travelling! It has a great battery life, anyone can link to it through bluetooth and the sound is fantastic. 
  • USB Flash drive and card reader (if you are into photography)

7) Backpacking Pack List - Gadget checklist:

Spoon/Fork/Knife | Inflatable Travel Pillow | Life Straw | Water purification tablets | Solar powered flash light | Head torch

  • Spoon / Fork / Knife set Is super helpful when on the road, especially if you prepare food at a hostel and take it on the road with you. I did this alot with early morning hikes and taking Overnight Oats with me or when trying to eat an avocado! Sounds crazy, but it helped alot! Non essential but helpful. Especially when camping.  
  • Travel pillow - This is essential! Especially for long bus journeys! I would suggest getting an inflatable one, so it is easier to carry and pack. I loved my Ryno Tuff pillow and in addition to comfort and being easy to deflate/carry, the brand plant a tree for every purchase!
  • Life straw - This is an amazing accessory to have when you are trekking and a cheap alternative to buying water along the way, it also saves on buying plastic bottles and for every purchase, a child in a developing country, receives clean drinking water for 1 school year!
  • Water purification tablets - these are great for extra care alongside using your LifeStraw. You will only need them when you are doing multi-day hikes and even then the tour operators clean the water for you, but you can't go wrong in being extra careful. 

8) Backpacking Pack List - Documents | Money | Safety

Waterproof document bag | Visa and passport holder | Cash in local currency | Travel insurance | Bank cards | Vaccination certificates | Flight details / printed booking forms | Photocopies of passport | PASSPORT | Journal | Pack of cards

  • Go Travel and Talk HIGHLY recommend using World Nomads for your travel insurance, which has been specifically designed for travellers. They offer 24/7 emergency assistant and medical cover, gadget cover, flexible cover (if you wanted to extend your trip, your insurance cover is just extended) and cover for most adventure activities. The customer support is fantastic and always there if you have any questions, they are super responsive. 
  • Make sure you pack two or three bank cards - because if you loose one, at least then you have two as back up. Also, in some places, the ATMs can be sensitive, so have three different cards can be particularly helpful in these situations. If you are from the UK, I recommend Monzo and the Starling Bank - both come with very handy apps on your phone to track your spending! 
  • Passport photos for visas on arrival
  • Vaccination Certificates - In some places in South America, they will ask to see your Yellow Fever Vaccination Certificate. Make sure you bring this with you, this is an essential packing list item for South America. 
  • A pack of cards will always be a big hit in hostel and a great way to meet people. 

9) Backpacking Pack List - Adventure travel checklist:

If you are a keen hiker or adventurer, you will need to take a couple more items with you. Again, if you are not doing your adventure travel until the end of your trip, you can buy most of this stuff out there, but it is important to be prepared and know what will be needed. This section will outline the camping and hiking gear you are likely to need on your South American travels. 

Tent | Sleeping bag and pad | Reusable water bottle | Purification Tablets | Head Torch | Hammock | Mosquito Net | Camping Ties | Carabiners | Travel Liner | Sewing Kit | Attack Alarm | Multi Tool | Stove 

  • Head Torch - Once of the most useful items on this list. Head torches are great for hiking, camping, caving and even just getting to the bathroom in the middle of the night!
  • Travel liner - is always handy when you are renting used camping equipment (like sleeping bags) or staying in questionable places. This is not essential, but very comforting to have. 
  • Travel Sewing Kit Trust us, this could be your life saver, for last minute clothing stitch ups to repairing your bag or shoes! Make sure this is on your essential items for your ultimate South America Packing List. 
  • Attack Alarm - This is something my mum begged me to take and I am glad I did. It was comforting to know I had something on me should I get into trouble. 
Frequently asked Questions For What To Pack For South America!

Jeans or no jeans for packing for South America?

Definitely jeans. I lived in mine in the evenings, especially in the cities. 

Backpack vs suitcase when travelling around South America?

100% backpack. It is so much easier to carry in comparison to a suitcase. 

What couldn’t you live without when packing for South America?

Earplugs | Extra headphones | Battery pack and definitely our trusty sarong (see picture below!)

What don’t you need to pack for South America?

Excess shoes, mosquito net (I never used mine), swiss army knife, fancy clothes and heavy guide books, just use the Go Travel and Talk website instead ;)

Disclaimer - please know that this is NOT a sponsored post. All the items listed below have been used, tried and tested by the Go Travel and Talk community and we can personally vouch for every item. It does however contain affiliate links and if you click on them, Go Travel and Talk will receive a small commission, AT NO EXTRA COST TO YOU. These funds help keep the website going and will eventually go to supporting our GTT charities and social impact organisations. 

Cj

Go Travel and Talk Writer Cj Sinclair
Written By
Lover of psychology, nature, animals & adventure.
Blog Tags