Confused about what to bring or leave behind? Our South America packing list has the answers.
Collectively, we have travelled three times in South America in the last 10 years, with a total trip time of 20 months.
During this, we have been fortunate to slowly explore a lot of what the continent has to offer - from the beaches of northern Colombia, down to the glaciers of Patagonia, and so many hikes, cities, and cultural moments in between.
In short, we bloody love travelling in South America - and already have dreams of going back for a fourth time.
We’ve made this South America packing list for the travellers who are going to be spending a few weeks to a few months, or even a year, on their own adventure. It's primarily aimed at backpackers (the absolute best way to experience much of the highlights and fabric of South America), but it will also give anyone visiting the continent for a shorter period or in a bit more of a luxurious way important tips and ideas on necessary items for the best and most sustainable travel experience.
This packing list is fully based on our own experiences and travels, and the items we have personally purchased and used on our travels in South America. It’s important to note that, over the years, we've definitely made many a mistake in our packing (from Emily insisting we needed intravenous fluid packs to carrying nearly 50 kg across way too many bags on our two year Latin America trip from 2014-2016). The existence and affordability of several sustainable travel products - and an increasing appreciation by us and others of our responsibilities as travellers - has also changed the items which we view as essential for every curious traveller.
This list talks about some of those overpacking mistakes, but is more aimed at sharing the lessons and improvements we made so that you can avoid them. As we have travelled in South America a few times, we're also able to give you clear, honest answers about common first-time packing concerns like whether you really need a sleeping bag or mozzie net, how to keep your valuables secure, and what toiletries you really can just leave at home.
Here's our definitive South America packing list for backpackers and travellers.
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A short note on affiliates | This post contains affiliate links, which means we make a small commission on products purchased directly via our website. This is what keeps Along Dusty Roads alive, so we'd sincerely appreciate you to use these links if you purchase anything on our South America packing list from Amazon. However, for backpacks and hiking shoes, we highly recommend that you don't purchase them online, and instead try them on in person to ensure fit and support your local outdoors gear shop by purchasing there.
The South America Adventure Profile
Although the 12 countries which make up South America all have different stories, different demographics, different climates, and different issues, for travellers there are actually a lot of clear consistencies and commonalities to every trip itinerary.
This makes packing a lot easier.
So, let's say you're going to Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, for two months (excellent idea by the way!). That is almost certainly going to involve a lot of beach time, a lot of hiking, and spending a few days in capital cities and backpacker towns. If you are instead covering Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Brazil - or just going to Chile in summer season - that is going to likely involve the same range of activities, location types, climates, and conditions as the Colombia to Peru trip.
The moments, the microclimates and the views may differ greatly between the Inca Trail, Salt Flats, Amazon, Patagonia, Galapagos, a night out in Rio de Janeiro, but you'll need to carry much of the same stuff in your backpack whether you’re visiting some of them or all of them.
What you specifically bring will of course also be dependent upon whether your itinerary has a specific flavour or curation to it. For example, if you are spending three weeks mostly hiking in Peru or Patagonia, then you'll clearly have to bring more hiking stuff than someone who is focussed on learning Spanish and surfing along the coast of Ecuador for a month.
Based on this profile, we've structured our South America packing list thematically. It includes advice of on clothing or equipment you will need for the majority activities and conditions in the region, alongside the general toiletries, tech, medication, and safety-support items which we think all travellers should bring with them regardless of differences in budget, travel style, and trip length.
Underpinning it is the philosophy that you need to focus on packing several essential items, several specialist clothing items, and the rest of your clothing and footwear needs to be practical and versatile.
Your South America Backpack
Suitcases just ain't the jam for South America; the backpack is king, queen, and emperor.
Your trusty companion on the road needs to fit you, as well as fitting everything you'll need. If you don't already have a tried-and-tested backpack, we highly recommend visiting your local outdoors specialist shop to check out their range and get fitted for your backpack (this is a free service). As there are female specific fits and sizes, ones for long backs and ones for short backs, it simply isn't worth a lifetime of backpack pain (ask Emily) from lugging around something which just isn't the right fit for you.
In terms of backpack size (which is measured in litres), for shorter trips of a few weeks to a couple of months a 45-60 litre pack would definitely be sufficient. If you are travelling for longer and not a minimalist backpacker or someone who likes to smell, then we'd recommend going for a larger backpack in the 65-85 litre range (although 85 litres will be far too large and heavy for some people - remember you are the person who has to carry it!)
What We Travel With
Andrew has had the same 80 litre (65:15) Lowe Alpine backpack for 14 years. The thing is bloody indestructible, but the model is unfortunately no longer available on the market. Andrew’s total packed backpack weight for our most recent four month trip was 20 kg.
He recently purchased this lightweight Osprey Talon 44 Men's Hiking Backpack for shorter backpacking trips - it would be a really good shout for 2 weeks or 2 months in South America.
For the four month South America trip, Emily used her Lowe Alpine Manslu 55:65 Rucksack - it was the perfect size, and she actually had a little room to spare. However, all her kit would have struggled to fit in a smaller bag. Total packed weight was 18 kg.
However, she has also recently purchased this woman’s Lowe Alpine Altus ND 40:45 litre for our shorter backpacking trips and multiday hiking treks. It has incredibly good back support - much better than other bags offering the same litres - as well as a u-shaped front opening. It’s ideal for 2-6 week trips or even longer (providing you don’t have to carry a lot of hiking gear).
The numbers for these rucksacks, e.g. 50:60, means the main compartment of the backpack is 50 litres but its storage volume increases to 60 litres due to an extendable lid or front /side pocket storage.
Both Osprey and Lowe Alpine backpacks come with a lifetime guarantee, with an emphasis on repair rather than replace.
South America Travel Tip | If you’re going on a multiday tour or trek, it’s good to know that most hostels in South America offer a luggage storage service. This means you can leave your big backpack behind and only take the essentials in your daypack. However, we recommend that you do not leave any valuables in the big backpack you’re leaving behind- take them with you or stay at a hostel which also provides individual lockers for your valuables.
Your South America DayPack
Your daypack should never ever leave your side in South America unless it's safely locked up in a hostel locker.
It's going to be out in the city with you, packed for day hikes and multi-day trips to the jungle, on your lap on overnight buses, carried in your front when you’re moving between places with your big backpacker, and the holder of all your very most important things.
The size and type of daypack you bring to South America really depends upon what sort of trip you're planning. As photographers and bloggers, we carry WAY more technology than is acceptable, and so 80% of the space across both our daypacks is actually taken up by cameras, lenses, cables, laptops, and a whole lot of other camera nonsense. Seriously.
If you're not carrying such ridiculous amounts, you just need something to hold a tablet or laptop, water bottle, paperwork, some cards + cash, a notebook, an extra layer or two, snacks and maybe a camera. A daypack in the 20-25 litre will be perfect for most, but if you have zero plans to use it as your main bag for multiday hikes in South America, you could even go down to the 15 litre range.
What We Travel With
Andrew carries the 32 litre Millican Marsden the Camera Pack. It has lots of features we like and Millican are a great little British company doing things right, but this is primarily a travel bag for photographers or those carrying a lot of tech.
Due to this, it’s a much bigger daypack than most people would require for a trip in South America.
Emily used to use the Millican 25 litre Fraser, but it’s unfortunately it causes back issues for both of us. In this summer’s travels in Europe, she switched to a lovely Fjallraven Kanken 16 litre which is more comfortable but wouldn’t really be suitable for overnights, challenging hikes, or if you have to carry a lot in your daypack generally. For the next backpacking trip, she’ll be on the lookout for something better.
We also carry a packable daypack, which is stored in Andrew’s bag and is incredibly handy. Three women in our Inca Trail group actually used this type of bag as their main daypack in South America and over the four days of trekking!
Day Pack Alternative Options
Osprey Talon 22 litre | Excellent for hikes | View here
Pacsafe 22 litre | Anti-theft and anti-slash daypack |View here
Lowe Alpine Aeon 27 litre| Larger and good for hikes | View here
South America Travel Tip | Never ever ever leave your daypack unattended in a hostel, and never ever ever leave it under your bus seat, under the bus seat in front of you, or in the storage space above you. This may sound like the rantings and ravings of two paranoid travellers, but it’s actually the realistic advice of two people experienced in South America. In a few countries in particular, covert bag slashing and theft on public transport is a significant issue for travellers - the best way to counter it is keep your bag with you. And although hostels are full of lots of lovely interesting new people, they’re also a place where people are waaaay too trusting about leaving their valuables out and about.
South America Clothes | The Essentials
Versatility is key.
There are a few special bits of clothing that you'll need to bring to South America, but by and large you'll be wearing and rotating the same shorts, t-shirts, and vests for much of your trip and across most of your experiences.
Remember though, it is NOT always warm and sunny in South America. Despite how the movies and TV series may regularly depict it, there are microclimates within microclimates and such climate diversity across the continent, and anybody going on a trip longer than a month or two is almost guaranteed to go from one place where it’s dry season to another where it’s wet season (or at least feels and acts like it).
Also, many of the the most popular cities to visit (i.e. Cusco) are at high altitude. This means that, regardless of season, it gets pretty chilly at night and you will be incredibly thankful to have packed that lightweight fleece or jumper and a thick pair of socks.
Lastly, it’s a personal bug bear of ours that some travellers to South America exclusively dress like they're in the Amazon, on a hike, or that they're at the beach. This is regardless of whether they're actually exploring a cool city like Medellin, the ephemeral beauty of Buenos Aires, or a colonial masterpiece just as Salvador da Bahia. Just pack some relatively nice or stylish clothes that you'd, you know, wear at home if you were going out in a city!! Of course, nobody should backpack based an Instagram-driven aesthetic, but it really is nice to feel and look nice sometimes when you're on the road and doesn't make you any less of a traveller.
Ok, rant over.
This is what each person should pack for their South America basics.
one x lightweight mid-zip fleece | An absolute essential for South America, whether you’re travelling in dry or rainy season. We bought a couple which would be suitable for all our hikes and any chillier evenings in high-altitude cities (spoiler: there’s a whole bunch of these), but wouldn’t take up too much room or weigh too much. Emily’s Berghaus fleece did the job and is a very affordable option, whilst Andrew spent a bit more on this North Face fleece as he’d gone through cheaper ones too quickly before.
one x hoody or cosy jumper | For bus days, hostel days, adding an extra layer days. The lightweight fleece could easily replace this option, but we liked to have something a bit more snuggly and which didn’t make us look like we were just about to go on a hike.
one x waterproof outdoors jacket | Note that this needs to be waterproof, not just a cool-looking water resistant one like this (basically useless after a few minutes of heavy rain, as we discovered in the Dolomites). Unfortunately proper waterproof, windproof, lightweight jackets cost quite a bit (£75-£200 depending on brand), but should last for a good few years of travel. We both have the same jacket by North Face. If you are travelling in dry season or not really doing a lot of outdoors, then this packable poncho is a good, affordable alternative.
a hat or cap | Or just buy one up out there.
seven x pairs of underwear | Honestly, you can never have enough pants!
seven x bras | Technically, four lace bra-lets as they weigh nothing, and one proper bra, plus two lightweight sports bras.
five x pairs of socks | This doesn’t include the hiking socks, which we’ll discuss later. Make these a mix of trainer socks and longer ones to cover all eventualities.
one x pair of skinny jeans | Ladies know how versatile these are. The darker the denim, the longer you can get away without washing them! You could also consider bringing another pair of lightweight cotton trousers, but they’re not essential.
four or five x vest tops | Mostly in basic colours, with perhaps a bright one thrown in. These will be perfect for layering, for chucking on with shorts, a skirt or a pair of dungarees. We’ve also discovered that if you can afford to, invest in better quality ones as the cheap and easy H&M style offerings tend to get bent out of shape by launderettes here and generally don’t make it the distance of the trip.
three or four x t-shirts |Preferably not white as they just get so minging (although Emily does not follow her own advice).
two x long sleeved cotton t-shirts | Perfect for those chilly days - either in the city or up a mountain.
one x long sleeved shirt | Either flannel or denim. Flannel is excellent for hikes, but we’ve found it to be a really versatile piece of clothing both for cooler evenings on the coast as well as extra layers when at altitude. Also, because we are both short-arses, we’re able to mix and match these with each other, doubling our options.
five x dresses / jumpsuits | This is the section that may well have true-backpacker girls scoffing, but after many years of just chucking whatever partially clean item of clothing is in her bag, Emily now likes to look a little pretty sometimes when we travel - decent linen or cotton dresses and jumpsuits seem to do the trick.
one x pair of denim short dungarees | Bet you've never seen these on a packing list before?! But seriously, they're the most versatile item of clothing any travel girl can own. Emily has hiked in hers, roamed cities and chucked them over a bikini to head down to the beach. Indi-bloody-spensible.
two x pairs of denim shorts | Preferably lightweight, plus one pair of hard wearing shorts that can be hiked in (or worn in a city, at a push) and some quick-drying sports shorts. Depending how much beach time you plan on having, you may want an extra pair.
two or three x bikinis or swimsuits | If you're a big boobed lady, don't assume that you'll be able to buy swimwear when you're out there - it's verrry difficult to get anything good quality unless you track down a fancy department store..
one x light scarf | Culturally, there are no real taboo items in South America. Dressing appropriately and respectfully is of course important, particularly in indigenous or rural areas, but women do not need to be concerned about covering up hair or not showing ankle or anything silly like that. That said, scarves are useful for an extra layer or warmth on a sunrise hike, something to wrap around your head if it gets too hot, to use as a blanket on the bus, or a makeshift sarong on the beach. There’s actually a travel security scarf for women, which includes an hidden zip pocket for cash, cards, keys, or a phone!
one x pair of 'slouchy pants' | Essential for those times when you need to just veg out in the hostel, ideal for travel days and double as pyjama bottoms when at altitude.
one x set of pyjamas |lightweight and ones you’re happy to wear in a mixed dorm.
a widebrimmed hat | Emily travels with one - and it ain’t just for the ‘gram!
read next | Beauty, Bras and Backing: Being a Girl on a Budget is Emily’s article about the difficulty of being on the road long-term in the age of Instagram flashpacking expectations and aesthetics.
seven x pairs of underwear | The dark ones are way better to bring as, well, you can get away with wearing them for a cheeky extra day when you can't get the washing done. Enough for 7 days.
seven x pairs of socks | You can never bring enough socks. Enough for 7 days is solid, including few pairs of trainer socks.
three x pairs of shorts | Two smarter pairs (one denim, one canvas or cotton) for cities, the coast, and general tomfoolery, and a lightweight versatile pair which can be used for hikes as well worn casually.
two x pairs of jeans / trousers | If two pairs of jeans take up too much room or weight, take versatile cotton or linen pair of trousers.
one x pair of lightweight pyjama bottoms | These double up as lazy day trousers in the hostel.
five x cotton vests | Perfect for the beach, wearing under an open shirt, or for hikes.
eight to twelve x t-shirts | The amount depends wholly on space and personal preference, and most people definitely won’t need more than 7 or 8. However, Andrew goes through t-shirts and sweats and always drops food on himself, so takes a few extra. Keep white stuff to a minimum and wear it selectively - the sweat and laundry of a South America trip will soon make it a permanent off-white colour.
one x light long-sleeved cotton shirt or thin jumper | For extra warmth or to cover up if in the jungle with mozzies in the evening.
four x holiday shirts | For the beach, summer, and nights out. Andrew wears a lot of Hawaiian or retro shirts in the summer over t-shirts or vests, so probably packed more than most for the last South America trip.
two x lightweight hiking and cool weather flannel or denim shirts | Perhaps not essential for every bloke, but these are versatile, great for hikes or colder weather climates, and long-lasting.
two x pairs of swim shorts |two are better than one.
Those are the clothes and quantities we each packed for four months in South America (minus hiking gear). We really learned from overpacking mistakes of previous trips, and felt it was a good amount. We had enough items to not always waste time doing laundry, versatile outfits to cover every travel ‘moment’ and destination, and they didn’t take up more than 50% of our backpack space.
If you’re a lighter packer than us or have a smaller backpack, you could cut down on the vests, shirts and t-shirts by a quarter. If you’re travelling for a few weeks or a month, then you can bring less overall too.
South America Travel Tip | Laundry is cheap to do in South America and a really common service wherever you find yourself on the traveller trail. Hostels provide the service, but you're always cheaper to go out and find a business and spread your money around. A 12-24 hour turnaround is usual, and you're charged by kilo. It is not unusual for a few items to get mixed up, so check your bag there or back at the hostel rather than leaving it too long. Also, split up your whites and darks rather than expecting them to do it. When going off the beaten track for a number of days, we've also hand washed our clothes as facilities are often there. You don't have to take anything special for this, but we always pack a universal sink plug, a travel washing line, and this small bottle of biodegradable travellers’ soap if we know we’ll be going off-the-beaten-track for days or weeks at a time.
As tempting as it may be to fill half your backpack with shoes for all occasions, you only need to pack three types for South America.
sandals / flip flops | We prefer a pair of Birkenstock Arizonas to flip-flops these days. They’re ideal for bumming around beach towns, but then also smart enough and comfortable enough to wear whilst exploring a city or walking from A to B with your backpack. If you do opt for a pair of Birkies, we’d recommend trying them on first as the sizing doesn’t always align with your actual foot size.
everyday trainers | We tend to have a pair of Converse each on the road as they're perfect for everything.
hiking boots | If you ain't got hiking boots in South America, then you're not doing it right. We used to use lightweight hiking trainers (see here for an idea). They will be fine for you if you are doing moderate hiking in South America during dry season, and also take up less room and weight.
However, we changed last year to diehard fans of the proper hiking boot and haven’t looked back since. They’re heavier, but sturdier, harder wearing, and with much better grip and ankle support. Just remember to wear them on the plane out to South America to keep your backpack weight below the limit, and just store away in your backpack until required on your trip.
wildcard | If you have space at the END of your packing, then you can absolutely feel free to throw in a wildcard set of sexy flats for nights out or making yourself a little more fabulous. Just remember you may hardly ever wear them once you're on the road!
South America Packing Tip | The public bus network across South America is pretty fantastic (and a large part of the travel experience). Alongside the odd taxi, uber*, or colectivo, it's going to be your primary mode of transport for your trip. However, depending on you route and time, you may also end up taking one or two flights. Therefore, when packing, keep your main backpack below 20 kg so you don’t face any extra charges or weight restrictions on flights.
Uber is common in many cities in South America now, and provides a safe and convenient way to get around.
Essential Travel Kit
These are items necessary to keep everything organised, provide you access to safe drinking water, get you out of various jams, and reduce your environmental impact.
Everybody backpacking South America needs them.
travel filter water bottle | It sickens us that we used so many plastic bottles when travelling prior to 2017. However, we really didn’t know any other way to reliably and practically access safe drinking water in various destinations.
That’s why our travel filter water bottles were an absolute game-changer for us.
With them we could access clean, safe drinking water instantly anywhere in South America - and that is not an exaggeration. It looks like a normal water bottle, but the technology of the internal filter removes 99.9% of bacteria, bacteria, viruses, chlorine, fluoride and heavy metals. And so we filled up from taps, rivers, streams, waterfalls and lakes all over South America and never once suffered an issue. Seriously, every single traveller in 2019 needs a filter water bottle.
If you don’t care about the environmental win, then you may also like to know that a filter bottle removes a daily spend of £1-2 on plastic bottles of water whilst travelling South America - budget backpackers rejoice!
We used these 75cl Water-to-Go bottles in South America, and it’s still the best value travel filter bottle on the market. However, the design and functionality could be improved as you can’t glug and, at high altitude the water expands.
As an alternative, we have heard great things about The Grayl Ultralight; it’s bulkier and more expensive but allows you to hold more water, fill and filter instantly, plus glug like a m*therfucker.
refillable water bottle | When the drinking water is safe, or there's a large dispenser in your hostel, it's better to use your own refillable water bottle. This is great to glug from, easier to carry around, and also keeps your filter active for longer on the other bottle. It also means you can fill up after airport security rather than waste money and plastic buying water for the plane.
packing cubes | We never used to use them, now we're complete converts. We stick all our hiking kit in one, underwear and socks in another, keep our 'smarter' things clean and compartmentalised in another, and then put our first aid kit and meds together in another.
These excellent value PRO Packing Cubes have been with us for the last four years.
cloth bag | Instead of taking a plastic bag at the market or supermarket, always have a cloth / canvas carry bag in your daypack or when you pop out. You can read more tip in this article on how to use less plastic when you travel.
swiss army knife | Wizards have their wands, travellers have this. For female and male travellers alike, a Swiss Army knife is just the gold-standard piece of travel kit to carry. When travelling long-term in Latin America, we used it on a near daily basis for all manner of things and wouldn't go anywhere with out it (just remember to never leave it in your carry-on luggage!)
The Victor Equinox Huntsman has been with us for five years.
travel insurance | You should not travel to South America without it.
We use and recommend True Traveller, whilst World Nomads is another respected global provider. Whoever you insure with, just make sure you do it! If you’re confused about travel insurance, read this post.
emergency teabags | We're British, deal with it. It was sad day in Quito when we ran out.
ear plugs | If you are spending any time sleeping in hostel dorm, a hammock, or on an overnight bus, you WILL need these. It’s best to spend a little more on reusable silicone ones which last so much longer.
passport photos | You may not need them, but having 4 spare ones with you is always useful. Also, remember your passport.
metal straws | They like to give out plastic straws a LOT in South America. We now say no and use our own metal straws.
toilet paper | You don't need to bring it from home, but we thought we'd let you know now that it's really useful to always have some tissues or toilet paper in your daypack. It isn't uncommon for toilets to have none available, or charge you for a couple of sheets.
head torch | Keep it in your daypack, and use it on multiday hikes in the jungle, when the hostel power fails, or reading in your dorm. We’ve both used this Petzl headtorch for the last five years, and it’s been great.
sunglasses | Go for a stylish or a sporty pair depending on preference.
Lots of people message us to ask two very specific questions about their South America packing:
Do you need to bring a travel mosquito net?
All we can say is that, in two years of carrying our own in Latin America, we used it for one night only; we didn't bring one for our next trip. Where mosquitoes are an issue, most hostels will have mosquito nets on the beds (although these are in varying degrees of repair). If you don’t bring a net, just cover up and /or use your mosquito spray - we highly recommend incognito bugspray.
Do you need to bring a sleeping bag?
This really depends on, well, whether you know you’re going on hikes or experiences where you have to camp! On our first trip together, we simply rented sleeping bags (of varying quality) directly from the tour company or from outdoor kit companies (there’s always a few of these in South American towns and cities where hiking is a big thing. On our last trip though, as we knew we’d require good sleeping bags for the Inca Trail, we took our small, lightweight sleeping Rab Neutrino bags with us! If you’re really struggling with space or only need a sleeping bag for 2 nights out of 4 months on the road, then it’s best just to rent one in South America.
However, lots of people DO pack a sleeping bag liner with them and swear by it! This makes sleeping in a rented sleeping bag more pleasant, but also gives a hygenic and comfortable separation barrier between you and the bed linen in a hostel where the cleanliness standards ain’t high. For complete transparency, we didn’t pack these for our last trip either.
Read Later | How to choose a travel sleeping bag
South America Travel Tip | When you take a night bus in Colombia, you have to bring some warm, extra layers on with you as the bus drivers ALWAYS put the air-conditioning on so that it’s absolutely freezing.
As mentioned, hiking in South America is a huge and meaningful part of the travel experience for us. Indeed, someone once told us that the biggest difference between travellers in south-east Asia and South America was that the latter all had hiking boots strapped to their backpacks!
If your trip is bringing you to Peru, Chile, Ecuador or Bolivia, but you have zero plans to hike, then we'd encourage you to maybe have a rethink of your itinerary. So many of the best experiences and sights in those countries are found on a dusty trail or up a mountain, and you'll be missing out if you don’t stop at any of them.
However, if you already know all the single or multiday hikes that you plan on doing in South America (like the Inca Trail, the Lost City Trek, the Quilotoa Loop, Torres del Paine, Rainbow Mountain, or a few days exploration in the Amazon), then you need to pack several items in addition to the 'clothes essentials' and hiking boots listed above.
This is what we packed and recommend.
hiking trousers | Andrew wore this lightweight pair of hiking trousers - did the job absolutely fine.
hiking leggings | These are becoming a really popular choice amongst female hikers, and Emily was very happy with the trail leggings she used in South America.
shorts | We both hiked in our shorts a lot, so remember that one pair of the shorts you bring as part of your 'clothes essentials' should also be suitable for hiking. We also packed a pair of running shorts for hikes as they take up zero room or weight.
running vests | We both packed two high-wicking running vests for hikes - essential for the Lost City Trek.
hiking socks | Four pairs of good quality hiking socks, which will double up as your night socks when it’s cold. We used these hiking socks by Brasher.
beanie hat | On high altitude hikes, you’ll appreciate it.
blister plasters | Remember, put these on before the blister fully develops! The best way to avoid blisters is however wearing in your hiking boots and wearing good hiking socks.
hiking poles | We never ever, ever thought we would use hiking poles, let alone bring them on our last trip to South America. However, as we had so many multiday hikes, we thought it wasn’t a bad idea (no matter what the cool kids say!). The vast majority of travellers to South America won’t need to bring their own poles and can rent them for specific hikes. However, if you plan on doing lots of independent hikes with kilos on your back, or have knee issues, we highly recommend the lightweight packable hiking poles we bought.
You can find more specific hiking advice and tips in our Peru Hiking Tips post.
Safety + Money
Lots of people will warn you off South America due to their own fears about safety. Often, those people have never visited it.
We would hate for anyone to not visit such a wonderful and welcoming part of the world due to safety fears, and we’re here to reassure you that South America is generally very safe for travellers. The continent of course has issues (for example, we would not go to Venezuela right now, more out of respect for the the population who have been facing such a horrendous situation for the last five years rather than fear), and travellers should always understand these, respect them, and take a common sense approach. Doing this, and not being an entitled dick with zero awareness of your surroundings, is the biggest thing you can do on the road to minimise risk (read this article for more tips on how to travel safe in South America).
This is what you need to pack in order to minimise risk and keep your money safe.
digit padlock | If you stay in a hostel dorm, you will usually have access to private locker; you have to supply and use your own padlock on this. On all our South America trips together, we have used this sturdy 10-digit padlock. It’s perfect, and also means we don’t have to worry about losing a key. We never stay in a hostel dorm which doesn’t have a private locker for us to store valuables, and we would not recommend anyone else doing it.
bank cards | The safest and most economical way to access your money in South America is to carry a bank card which provides free foreign ATM withdrawals and spending overseas - there are a few of these on the market. This post - ‘How To Manage Your Travel Money Better’ - has a lot more details and advice about how to avoid bad exchange rates, how many cards to take, how to not pay ATM fees, and tips on carrying your money when travelling.
emergency cash | In South America, we always take crisp US dollars in various denominations as our emergency money supply. We’d recommend $150 - 250 per person.
anti-theft kit| We don’t use a moneybelt. Instead, we prefer to hide money across a few places in our daypacks, divide it between us strategically, store a bit of emergency cash in our backpacks, and only take out what we need on the street in our pockets. If we have a lot on us after visiting the ATM, then it’s all about going straight back to hide it in our private room or dorm locker.
However, we know a lot of travellers swear by wearing moneybelts (this is a decent one) under their clothing when out and about.
documents |You should have your insurance details, vaccination record, passport photocopies, and emergency contract details in hard copy somewhere in your daypack. These should also be stored digitally, and ideally shared with a parent or friend before you travel. You should also keep your Yellow Fever certificate safe with these; not all countries require this in South America but it’s best to have the vaccination.
travel insurance | Like we said, do not travel in South America without it - read this post before buying.
South America Packing Tip | When should you start packing? Well, firstly you need to write a list and prioritise buying everything that you really really need first - make sure that's done and dusted a week before you leave. To save on time and stress, the latest you should have everything laid out on the floor in front of you is 3 days before you fly. This lets you see if it all fits, if you've forgotten everything, try to pack and repack, and then make the inevitable purge of shoes and clothes. At the very least, aim to have 90% of everything packed and ready two days before you fly - under no circumstances should you start packing the night before you fly, because it just ain't fun (we say this as people who know the folly of staying up until 2 a.m. in a packing panic, then having to catch a bus to the airport at 6 a.m.). And always check things off your own list as you go along!
Most of your essential toiletry items can be purchased all over South America. If you are concerned about your backpack weight on your flight out, then just buying them out there is one surefire way to cut down on a kilo.
However, the choice is really quite limited for certain items (especially sustainable and cruelty free toiletries) and things like suncream, moisturiser, and bugspray are often more expensive than back home.
So, if you have specific brands you like, ethical preferences or travel with less plastic, we’d recommend you bring them over in your backpack.
These are the toiletries we recommend as a minimum for South America.
toothbrush | If you need to buy a new one, please consider getting a pack of bamboo toothbrushes (we use these).
bugspray | We swear by this DEET-free insect repellent by incognito. It’s 100% natural, not tested on animals, and actually smells quite nice too! Importantly, we can confirm from personal experience that it also works against mosquitoes in South America! One bottle should be sufficient for a solo traveller heading over for 1-2 months (available on Amazon).
By the way, when you use spray your bugspray (whatever type),apply it directly to your hand or skin, rather than spraying indiscriminately in the air and close to flora. Plants need insects to be attracted to them and bugspray floating around stops that!
shampoo bar |The weight and space taken up by toiletries can creep up on you. For our last trip, we switched to cruelty-free shampoo bars by Lush. Small, lightweight, and plastic-free, they’re good for about 75-95 washes in our experience.
conditioner bar | As above. Emily found the shampoo bar to be a lot better than the conditioner bar.
tins | If doing for a shampoo or conditioner bar to save space or weight, remember to buy the small tin in which to store them.
toothpaste tablets | We’re split on the toothpaste tablets we took to South America. Although fantastic in several ways - plastic-free, don’t require water, save a lot of space, and great on hikes - our teeth teeth never felt as clean or fresh as we’d like. You can find out more about toothpaste tablets, or plump for your regular product.
soap |A bar of soap takes up less room, weighs less, and lasts longer than a bottle of shower gel. Store in a tin or baggy.
travel towel | Do not leave with out one, they’re absolutely essential. We use these LifeVenture XL travel towels which are quick-drying (in both ways) and lightweight in the backpack.
suncream | Factor 30 or 50 as a minimum. We have struggled to find a good suncream which does the job, doesn’t stain, is reef-friendly, and cruelty free. In the UK, Boots, Superdrug, and supermarket own brand suncreams are definitely cruelty-free, but in our experience often stain and aren’t always reef-friendly - UltraSun has previously been recommended by readers as a good option.
Emily also uses a 50 SPF face-specific suncream every day on the road.
moisturiser | For face and body. It can take up a bit of space though, so feel free to purchase out there.
roll-on deodrant | We have definitely met many many travellers who seem to think that not using any sort of deodrant is part of the travel experience. Unfortunately we haven’t found a good brand yet which doesn’t involve plastic in the packaging - if you do, please let us know.
facewash | Get rid or the sweat and grime.
multivitamins | As we’re vegetarian and our diet sometimes goes a little all over the place on the road, multivitamins help keep us topped up. Nobody wants to get sick on the road.
razors | We shared the blades from a non-disposable metal razor from Cornerstone.
travel tissues | Keep in your daypack as emergency toilet paper.
condoms | Naughty.
after-bite stick | For those moments when you don’t have the bugspray or that renegade mozzie slips through hole in the hostel mosquito net and you don’t want to scrape all your skin off scratching at bites.
paracetamol | For sore heads and hostel hangovers.
hand-sanitiser | Keep a travel bottle of it in your daypack.
antiseptic cream | For any minor cuts, grazes, or scrapes.
plasters | See above.
duct tape | A small roll of this is fantastic for odd jobs on the road - it tapes up any backpack tears or splits, went around Emily’s hiking boots on the Lost City Trek, and fixed up some tech.
non-plastic cotton buds | Make sure they’re paper or wooden.
personal medication | If you have specific allergies or conditions, ensure you pack enough for your trip.
malaria medication | Your requirement for malaria medication depends on the risk and exposure factors on your route - we advise that you visit your travel clinic before you travel to confirm current requirements. However, please do not be one of those idiot travellers who thinks that malaria in South America is not a risk. For more info, read Malaria, The Myths, and the Medicine.
We stored and carried everything in two clear vinyl toiletry bags. Although plastic and cheap as chips, there are a few reasons we went for these:
The material is much easier to clean and dry if something leaks than a traditional fabric travel washbag.
The size (24cm x 5cm x 20cm) held everything we really needed, and stopped us from trying to overstuff.
Being able to see toiletries is much easier when you’re in a hostel or in a hurry, rather than having to rummage or tip out.
If you’re a couple, you can also buy this 6-set of the washbags here. It includes the two medium-sized toiletry bags, three smaller bags that Emily uses for jewellery and make-up, and one massive clear bag which we use to store all our tech cables, chargers, hard drives, and SD cards.
menstrual cup | Honestly, from the point of view of reducing plastic consumption (did you know that one sanitary towel has as much plastic in it as TWO plastic bags?), every woman should invest in one of these. But it's when you travel that a menstrual cup really comes into their own. Tampons can be sometimes be difficult to source in South America, they're relatively expensive, and take up much needed space in your backpack. Emily uses and recommends the Lilycup Compact by intimina. You can also purchase via their store on Amazon.
emergency sanitary supplies | That said, it's always good to have a couple of tampons spare for times when it might be difficult to change the cup, such as on hikes where toilets are the back of a bush, or long bus journeys where the toilets are kind of gross.
contraception | Alongside menstruation, this is an area which female travellers need to discuss more openly as there are various options and restrictions - you can read more of Emily’s advice in this article about women’s health on the road.
hairbrush | Invest in a smaller, travel size brush to save space
make-up | Emily takes very limited makeup with her on backpacking trips, but it's always nice to have a mascara, concealer and a bit of blusher for nights out or when you fancy looking a little more, well, fancy. All her 'The Ordinary' serums, face and eye creams, plus the makeup get stored in the smallest of the clear toiletry bag set that we have.
micellar water | A great product to remove make-up on the road, whilst being sensitive to your skin. We use this one.
bamboo cotton pads | Standard cotton pads are not a sustainable product, and Emily bought these reusable bamboo cotton pads for face-washing and make-up removal in South America - they worked an absolute treat! Highly recommended.
sustainable baby wipes | We discovered after our overland trip in Africa that babywipes use a shit-ton of plastic within them, and therefore take a really long time to degrade if left outdoors. Therefore, a biodegradable babywipe is the responsible choice.
perfume | Again, not an essential, especially if you only have heavy glass bottles, but Emily loves travelling with a small metal bottle of her favourite perfume.
shaving gel + post-shave moisturiser | Sensitive skinned lad he is.
hair wax | For hair, obvs.
aftershave | Covers up the stink.
South America Packing Tip | If you have space in your bag, please take a look at Pack for Purpose. All they ask is for travellers to give up a small amount of space in your luggage to pack supplies needed by community projects around the world (including dozens in South America).
What we are sharing below is what we took on our South America last trip - it is by no means what you should be taking on your own trip to South America! Therefore, we’ve split it into two sections.
smartphone | Like it or loathe it, having a smart phone and an internet connection is now a big part of how we all travel. Take yours to South America for maps, apps, podcasts, audiobooks, and emergencies - just try not to spend too long on it on your travels.
phone charger | For charging the phone, obviously.
universal plug adapter | You need at least one plug converter, but two is better if you have a lot of tech. If you travel a lot, a universal adapter is an essential and space-saving piece of kit - find one here.
powerbank | For multiday hikes or long bus journeys when you need to keep your phone alive. We use this one by RavPower, but most solo travellers would be better with this small, light, and portable one by Anker.
bluetooth headphones | Andrew could not travel without these. They help to pass the many hours spent on buses in South America, and also form a soundshield between you and any dorm room buddies you don’t feel like chatting to. If you don’t want to spend too much on a pair, the Jabra Move are a fantastic choice - Emily has pair and highly recommends.
a tablet | Unless you’re a blogger or need it for work, we don’t recommend taking a laptop with you to South America; for most travellers, a phone will be all you’ll need. However, a tablet is absolutely perfect for watching Netflix downloads on bus journeys or in hostels, booking and researching the next stage of your trip, or doubling up as your personal library for ebooks. If you pair it with a stand keyboard cover, then it also becomes a really lightweight travel computer!
laptops | As we mentioned, the tablet + keyboard combination is going to be better for most travellers than a laptop. However, if you do bring a travel laptop, we use and recommend the lightweight and slimline 13-inch Macbook Pro.
cameras |You can check out what’s in our camera bag in this post.
sd cards | The cheapest and best place to buy SanDisk SD cards (the only brand we use) is on the company’s official Amazon store - never ever buy them at the airport or other stores as the price mark-up is huge. The Extreme and Extreme PRO models are best.
sd card holder | When you have a lot of SD cards to carry, you need a good SD card holder. We use this one, and it’s great.
hard-drives | For backing up our photos on the road, we use these 1TB Military-tested hard-drives.
plug extension | A bit of an odd one, but as hostels so infrequently have multiple plugs, we struggle to charge everything we need at once or overnight. And so, carrying a 4-plug extension cable from the UK solved that problem pretty easily!
storage | All cables, chargers, filters, hard-drives, SD card holders etc, were stored in the largest bag from this set of transparent bags - the other ones were used as our toiletries and make-up bags!
insurance | Travel insurance policies don’t cover high-value photography equipment as standard, and it’s more economical to purchase a standalone specialist photography insurance policy.