If you really want to pack well for your South America trip, there are just a few important tips to remember:
1. Pack for the different altitudes. You’ll need thermals and warm clothes for the Andes where you’ll be 3000m + above sea level, and shorts and singlets for the tropically warm countries. Avoid bringing bulky coats - instead layer clothes in cold countries.
2. Pack variety. Different colours and materials - yes, darker clothes last longer when travelling, but you'll get bored with wearing them over and over. Don't bring a top that only suits being worn with a specific skirt or jeans, everything needs to be versatile.
3. Forget about buying special travel clothing. They’re overpriced, unfashionable and just unnecessary. The locals of South America will wear regular clothing, so you should too.
4. Most importantly - only bring clothes you like. You might have a vision of travelling South America in a vivid red dress, but if you don't like to wear red dresses at home, you won't suddenly want to wear one while travelling.
Of course, you won't have to bring everything you need from home, you can pick things up on the way, like alpaca knit jumpers - so soft and far cheaper than back home. So when I pack, I bring older clothes that I plan to throw away once I’ve found some local stuff I like. Or I pick up warmer clothes as I need them.
So as part of my guide I’m going to list what clothes are easy and cheap to find once in South America, and what you need to make sure you bring enough of from your home country.
My backpack is a 65L front zip pack from Kathmandu (basically the North Face of Australia/New Zealand), and it came with a 15L daypack and I paid AU$250 for both. I’ve used this bag on two six-month-trips in Southeast Asia and South America, and also for travels around New Zealand. So yes, it’s expensive but it’s still holding strong five years later, so I plan to keep using it for the next decade. I would never recommend you buy your backpack online, you have to go into your local hiking shop and try on the bags to find your fit. For a six-month trip or longer you will want a 65 litre backpack, although some travellers only ever pack carry-on luggage. At the end of the day it’s your trip and your call.
The majority of my South American travels were in the Andes (I travelled from Chile, to Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia) and spent much of my time at high altitudes in jeans and woolly clothing. If you plan to hang around Brazil, go to the Amazon, or just visit Colombia you probably won’t need items like thermal clothing, or if you plan to do multiday hikes in Patagonia, your clothes will be more geared towards exercise. So just tailor this list a little bit to your trip.
Some backpackers love packing cubes, I’ve never used them, so I can’t say – I just brought a few plastic bags with me to separate my belongings, but then I’m a pretty unorganised person.
This packing list is pretty much unisex, there will be a couple of items especially for women but for the most part ladies, you’ll be travelling semi rough in South America. Since you'll be washing your clothes every 7-10 days anyway, this South America packing list will suit anyone travelling for a week or for a year.
What to pack for travel in South America:
3 t-shirts, 1 singlet, 1 long sleeved top. The t-shirts you’ll be wearing over and over, so bring good quality ones if you have them. If you don’t, don’t worry about going and buying them especially, just replace them when they get a bit holey. The long sleeved top can be doubled as a dress shirt, the singlet is great for layering when it’s cold, or to be worn on the beaches.
1 pair of jeans, 1 pair of shorts, 1 pair of slouchy/track pants that can double as pajama bottoms (for cold overnight bus rides). If you’ve been to Southeast Asia, you’ll know all about the slouchy elephant print pants every backpacker wears. South America doesn’t have an alternative – shame, because there’d be a real market for alpaca print trousers. Choose denim for the shorts – this will probably the one item of clothing that won’t be falling apart by the time you return home. Durable for hiking and casual enough for the beach – the best investment for a backpacker. Your jeans can double as dress pants too.
7-10 pairs of undies and 3 bras. Bring quality, and plenty, because they don’t take up much room and you’ll really don’t want to re-wear them when you can’t find a laundromat.
5 pairs of socks – or more if you want, they’re easy to lose.
1 pair of flip-flops, 1 pair of running shoes or hiking boots, 1 pair of sneakers/ballet flats. If you plan to do a lot of hiking bring the hiking boots. I hiked to Machu Picchu in a worn-out pair of running shoes - totally fine. Flip flops are useful for beaches and hostel bathrooms and the sneakers/ballet flats are for general walking around cities.
A hoodie. I packed an old hoodie and threw it out three weeks later when I found an alpaca knit jumper in Bolivia.
One pair of thermals. I bought cheap thermal underclothes in a summer sale (NZ$20) and then threw them away once we moved to warmer climates.
A swimsuit. you only need the one, Jack just used a pair of light shorts, but I understand women like to carry an extra bikini as they’re useful as emergency underwear.
The most useful item is a smartphone and I recommend everyone bring one. They can take the place of an iPod, provide an internet connection, a calculator, a mini torch, an alarm clock and be a gaming device. I never bothered with sim cards at all in South America, preferring to do all my advance bookings online.
If you love to read, bring an e-Reader, because there won’t be any quality English language reading material in South America.
Only bring a laptop if you need it for work, or it’s light enough not to make much difference. There were computers and Wi-Fi available in almost every hostel we stayed at.
A camera. Either in the form of a smart phone, a point and shoot, or DSLR. It depends on how passionate about photography you are. If you’re bringing a DSLR, I wouldn’t bring more than three lenses unless you need them for professional reasons.
A power adapter so you can recharge your electronics South America is undecided on a universal plug, so look here to find the ones you'll need.
A medical kit:
Band aids, pain killers, cold and flu medication, antimalarial pills, tiger balm, insect repellent, sunscreen, comb/hairbrush, deodorant, nail scissors, antiseptic ointment, hand sanitiser, anti-diarrhoea pills, toothbrush and toothpaste.
The antimalarial pills will be prescribed by your doctor, and they are pretty nasty. I hate taking them, and only took them while in the Amazon. Your best bet is to prevent yourself from being bitten by mosquitoes in the first place. You also won’t see any mosquitoes at all in the high altitude regions of the Andes.
You may want to consider bringing: antihistamines, tampons, condoms, a little makeup and/or birth control pills. Tampons are difficult to find outside of major cities and lesser known condom brands can be of poorer qualities – best to stick with the brand you trust. As for makeup, I packed a mascara wand, up to you what you bring, but it’ll be easier for you if you keep it minimal.
Passport and a photocopy of your passport should you lose it.
Flight tickets on paper, not just digital.
Yellow fever vaccination booklet (some countries require proof of vaccination before entry), although we didn't encounter any.
Credit cards (at least two), so if one gets stolen or lost you have a hassle free back up.
US$500 in cash for emergencies, some towns in South America don't have ATMs.
Visas and their photocopies (if you need them).
Combination padlock (so you don’t lose the key). Lock your things away when travelling.
A guidebook - I used Lonely Planet’s South America on a shoestring (has a mini Spanish/Portuguese to English dictionary in the back).
Several plastic bags – for separating dirty clothes.
Towel (either a microfiber travel towel, or a light ordinary one),
a pen or two.
Sunglasses - bring a cheap pair – you’re almost guaranteed to lose them at some point.
Heels or a dress for nights out (could double as a sundress).
Something small that represents your country like a key chain or stuffed animal that you can give away to other travellers or children.
Needle and thread to repair holey socks and the like - or just take it to a local seamstress and she’ll patch it up on the spot for a couple of dollars.
A journal (or blog!) to record your trip.
USB to back up your photographs, or buy cloud storage.
a hair tie if you need it.
Tweezers for eyebrows and cactus thorns.
Remember, you’re going to South America, not ‘the land that time forgot’ so if you forget something, chances are you can buy it in South America for cheaper than back home.
Awesome things to buy in South America:
An Alpaca Poncho or woolly jumper – not only are these made from alpaca or llama wool but they have little prints of alpacas on the them too! They sell for $15-$20 in the markets of Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador.
A scarf and woolly socks and hat – more alpaca knits and range from $5-10 so barter down guys!
Sneakers – find them everywhere in Cuzco, they are made with South American textiles and are all sorts of funky colours. I got mine for $30 in Bolivia. (Like these, but cheaper)
Locally made jewellery – found in all countries!
I also bought maps, masks, and other handcrafted goods so try to leave room in your bags for purchases.
Everything you should leave at home:
Money belt – nobody wears them, they are uncomfortable and frankly, makes you stand out as a tourist. South America’s not scary you’ll be fine.
A raincoat/umbrella – just pick up a $1 disposable plastic poncho if you really need one, we found we didn’t see rain for weeks at a time.
Ear plugs and eye mask – the plugs won’t make a difference when the overnight bus you’re on decides to play music at full volume, and the eye mask can be replaced by pulling your hoodie over your eyes or wrapping over a scarf.
Hair dryer/tongs – embrace your natural locks, you’ll stop caring what you look like when away from our flashy culture.
Sleeping bag liner. Some backpackers don’t like to sleep in the sheets provided, but hostels are pretty clean these days, it’ll just take up room in your bag.
A large coat – I brought one with me, wore it a few times and then mailed it home because it was taking up too much room, much better to layer your clothes.
P.S. Find out how much I spent over six months in South America
Printable checklist to tick off (just copy and paste to word)
o 5 t-shirts
o 1 singlet
o 1 long sleeved shirt
o 1 pair of jeans
o 1 pair of shorts
o 1 pair of slouchy/PJ pants
o 7-10 pairs of underwear
o 3 bras (optional)
o 5 pairs of socks
o Hiking boots or trainers
o Sneakers/ballet flats
o A hoodie or jumper
o Thermal undergarments (optional)
o E-reader, laptop, iPod, USB convertible plug
o Medical kit
o Passport and photocopy of passport
o Vaccination booklet
o Flight tickets
o Credit cards
o Cash in USD$
o Plastic bags (around 3)
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