Most travellers travel with a large camping backpack along with a regular backpack for small belongings. I packed this way last year, but determined I brought way too much and there were many things I didn’t need.
On my second trip to South America I packed my things based on my experiences on things I needed on my first trip that I didn’t have, along with things I brought that I did not need and were dead weight.
A lot of people are surprised by how little stuff I bring. However, I have exactly what I need and no more. The keys is to pack only what you need and as compactly as possible. I think I have perfected what to bring for South America backpacking trips.
I bought an oversized backpack made by Osprey called the Porter 46. The backpack is the exact dimensions for the maximum size of a carry on, with tuck in straps so nothing is exposed if you decide you want to check it. With airlines charging fees to check bags these days, and the hassle of checking bags, it is much easier if you can just carry on all your baggage in my opinion.
It has straps for your shoulders, hips, and chest. It has many pockets, along with a great warranty. I love this pack. I paid $100 for it.
Along with the large backpack, it is handing to carry a small backpack for day trips, or to keep your valuables separately at times. I kept my small backpack inside of the large one, with my netbook, passport, etc.
In my small pack I bring:
Pocket translator dictionary
Inflatable neck pillow for traveling
A lighter (comes in handy for “cutting” string, lighting stoves, etc)
A laptop or netbook- I elected to bring a netbook because it is much smaller, lighter, and has better battery power than a conventional laptop. Good for backing up pictures as well or you can put movies on it for the planes and busses.
MP3 player/headphones- For those long bus rides, I found a 2gb no name brand for $10.
Camel Back- a sack to hold water with a straw, so you don’t have to remove it from your bag to get water. Very compact and holds about 2 liters.
Caribeaners- These I use all the time for hanging my bags, hanging things from my bags, etc. The ones I got from REI for $5 each also enable you to tie rope around them to create a clothes line etc.
Duct tape- self explanatory. Infinite uses. I usually wrap some around a pill bottle to save space with medications I want handy.
Personal prescription medications with documented proof that you need it
Zantac (I get heartburn..)
Malaria pills if necessary where you are travelling
Travellers diarrhea pills- also work for urinary tract infections
Travel wallet- good to have when in sketchy places. You can hide it under your shirt.
Credit/debit cards- bring several different cards, stash some in your small pack and some in your big pack. In case you get robbed, lose cards, or they don’t work in your location. Make sure you alert your credit card companies that you will be traveling so they don’t put a hold on your card. I have had this happen and it is very inconvenient. You have to alert them of your travel plans once a month.
Also bring a student ID card if you have one (and/or a AAA card) as you can get discounts at some places.
In terms of clothing, you have to expect that you will be buying some clothes while you are away, such as t-shirts. I planned accordingly, bringing with me:
5 pairs of underwear
5 pairs of socks
1 pair of zip off pants (functioning as both pants and/or shorts)
2 pairs of gym shorts (to act as a bathing suit/hiking shorts, etc)
1 wind breaker
1 fleece jacket (light weight and warm when wet)
1 pair of hiking boots
1 pair of sandals- In the past I brought Tevas instead of sandals, but I have found that sandals are overall more convenient to use when showering, slipping on and off etc. To keep it light, hiking shoes are the best choice because they are waterproof and you can you use them for both everyday use or going on hiking excursions.
Sleeping bag- I like to bring a small compact sleeping bag, it is good to 45 degrees farenheit. It is small enough to squeeze into the pack without adding much weight but is good for a dirty hostel bed or if you get cold on a bus etc. You can also add liners inside of these to increase their warmth.
Hat and sunglasses- bring cheap ones you don’t mind losing
(hat and sunglasses)
In most places I have travelled it is easy to do laundry either right at the hostel or at a laundramat. The good thing about gym shorts is that they don’t really get dirty that easily, and you can swim in them to clean them, they also dry fast. Mine have a small hidden pocket which is good for securely hiding money keys etc.
You could probably do with less pairs of underwear or socks if you needed to, but these don’t weight much anyway. I wore my sandals almost all the time.
All of the clothes I store in a waterproof compression sack made by Sea to Summit. This compression sack is awesome, I fit all of the items above in this small package. They are compressed, and if you are stuck out in the rain, it will keep all your clothes dry.
Chargers- don’t forget camera battery chargers, netbook chargers
Electrical Adapter- to change over for the plug pattern in the country you are visiting. Usually electronics these days do not require a power transformer to account for differences in voltages.
Waterproof bag-small bag good for small electronics like cameras if you need to keep them dry.
(small waterproof sack)
Also coming in handy are zip locks bags. These can be used for anything from storing food to bringing your camera by the water to take pictures.
Speaking of keeping things dry, you need some sort of poncho. I got a cheap one from REI for $10.
Emergency blanket- small and light weight, you never know.
First aid kit
Water sanitizing tablets
Multitool- (if you are going to check your luggage). I prefer the Skeletool.
Small Lock- needed for lockers in hostels and/or to lock your luggage. Combination lock better as you don’t have to worry about losing a key.
Toiletries (remember to bring carry on size if you bring everything carry on)
1) Call credit/debit card companies to let them know you are traveling:
It is important to tell them you are doing this, otherwise they may not allow you to use your card. And keep in mind you might have to renew the notice; when traveling in Peru I lost my debit card. I tried using my credit card for a cash advance, but it wasn’t working. After somehow finding a way to call them (which proved extremely difficult) they informed me that you need to let them know once a month otherwise the card being used in a foreign country will trigger an alert and cause all transactions to be declined.
2) Make sure the countries you plan to go to do not require visas for entry
3) Make sure you have all of your shots.
5) Sleeping bagliner