South America Backpacking Packing List

South America Backpacking Packing List

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It can be tough to know what to bring and what to leave behind when you’re setting out to travel, but that’s the beauty of the internet and blogs these days, and that’s why I put together this South America backpacking packing list with everything I brought with me…

My buddy Jeff and I will be jumping on a plane bound for Cartagena, Colombia to spend the next 6+ months traveling around South America on a budget.

Undoubtedly, the bulk of our time will be in hostels, couch surfing, volunteering abroad, and busing around from city to city.

But I do hope to get in plenty of time in the mountains, at least camping and hiking, hopefully, a little peak-bagging (renting gear).

It is extremely challenging for me to balance the competing demands of city life and mountain life with only what I can carry on my back. I have never actually done the nomadic backpacking thing before.

I’ve traveled overseas, I’ve studied abroad, but I’ve always kind of had a home base when I arrived.

I’ve never had to fit EVERYTHING I need and want on my back for months on end. I’m pretty sure I want to take my sleeping bag, shelter, stove, etc in addition to my sweet travel laptop and camera gear.

All in all my FINAL packing list is clocking in at around 32 pounds, with no food and water. It all fits into my CiloGear 40L Pack with enough wiggle room for food and other stuff, and it makes for an awesome travel backpack, at least for us guys. Sorry ladies, I can’t help you, but you may be better served by this comprehensive guide to women’s travel backpacks.

Below you will find photos and my complete packing list for 6+ months in South America.

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Packing List for South America

Backpacking South America Packing List

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South America Backpacking Packing List

Item Pounds Ounces Notes
Pacsafe 85L 1 4.8 Wrap up bag in wire and lock
Gregory 4300ci Pack Cover   5.6 More for neatness/discretion than rain
First Aid / Repair Kit   11.8 Deet, Cipro, Ibu, Potable Aqua, Seam Grip, etc
Black Diamond Z-Pole w/ bag   14.2 Hiking poles
MLD eVent Soul Bivy Sack   12.8 Jeff has a tent
Feathered Friends Vireo Sleeping Bag and stuff sack 1 2.8 Hoodless, zipperless sleeping bag.
CiloGear 40B Work Sack 4 1.2 Weight with all straps, support, etc.
Neoair X-Lite   13 Sleeping pad
REI Flash 18   11 Daypack/carry on pack.
SUBTOTAL (lbs)   10.8  
REI TiWare 1.3L Pot and Ti-Tri Caldera Cone Stove   10.4 Alcohol and wood-burning stove
Aeropress with a metal filter   9.8 Make coffee anywhere at all
Hario Mini Slim Mill Grinder   8.6 Coffee grinder for fresh beans
Mesh kitchen sack   1.2  
Alcohol fuel bottle w/ bag   8.4 (weight when full)
Sea to Summit Alpha Light spoon   0.2  
REI blue plastic cup/mug   1.8 The light blue plastic one
28oz glad bowl + lid w/ DIY cozy   4.4  
SUBTOTAL (lbs)   2.8  
MLD Shoulder water holster     Included in pack weight
MLD Waist pockets     Included in pack weight
REI 20 oz Water bottle   5 Hard sided–odd size
Passport, immunization doc, visa photo, and document copies   1.6  
SUBTOTAL (lbs)   0.41  
Feathered Friends Jackorack   4  Wind shirt, light rain resistance, but not a rain jacket
Patagonia Houdini wind pants   3.2  Light rain resistance
Remington Electric Razor and case   11.4  USB chargeable
Outdoor Research Sun Sombrero Hat   2.4  Stay protected from the tropical sun
SPOT GPS   4.8  Emergency beacon
Sea to Summit Bug headnet   0.6  Mosquitos…
Sea to Summit waterproof bag and S-biner   1.2  Extra to keep electronics dry.
REI MultiTowel   3.8  Very portable towels
Altice Eclipse glacier glasses and case   4.8  Sunglasses as well
Petzl Tikka Plus 2 headlamp   2.8  Illumination at night, very important
Leatherman Squirt PS4 mini multi tool   2  Handy multi-tool
Compass   1.2  
Steripen Ultra   6  USB chargeable version to purify questionable water
2L Platy (no hose)   1.6  
Gatorade Bottle   2.2  
Large Opsaks x3   4.4  Waterproof, smell-proof
Toiletry Bag  1 2.8  
Travel Lock x2    1.6  
Two small spare stuff sacks      
SUBTOTAL (lbs)   4.77  
Patagonia R1 Full Zip fleece   12 Favorite jacket
Prana Stretch Zion pants   13.6  x2 (wear one)
Smartwool Light Hiker socks   2.6  Longer socks
Smartwool PhD Running Light short socks   1.8  Lightweight and fast-drying socks
Smartwool PhD Running Light short socks   1.8  
Mountain Hardwear Power Stretch Fleece Gloves   1.4  
Buff   1.2  
Columbia Long sleeve PFG sun shirt   7  x2 (wear one) I love these shirts.
Swim trunks   5.6  
Under Armor x2   4.8  (wear one)
Patagonia Capilene 2 long underwear pants   5  Extra base layer for cold nights
Icebreaker Merino Bodyfit 150 short sleeve T Shirt   5  Wool t-shirts don’t stink!
Montbell Light Alpine Down Parka 1 0.8  
La Sportiva Boulder X Approach Shoes      2lbs 8oz WORN
Crocs Men’s Prepair II   11.8  Look COOL
SUBTOTAL (lbs)   5.68  
Asus T100 Transformer Book 64GB Transformer 2 14.2  An amazingly portable laptop ideal for travel. Total weight with case and charger
Mini USB Mouse      
JOOS Solar Charger 2 11.6 Since replaced with the BioLite SolarPanel.
Sony NEX6 Camera + Accessories 2 2.2 One lens, Case, Blower, brush, GND, Filter holder, extra battery, mem cards, charger
Joby Gorillapod   2.2 Handy little tripod
SD USB Card Reader     (No SD card slot on ASUS)
Samsung Galaxy cell phone and charger   8  Map, phone, camera, MP3 Player, Kindle, etc
x2 32GB Mini SD Cards      additional phone and tablet storage
My Passport 1TB external hard drive      (Not much hard drive space on ASUS)
SUBTOTAL (lbs)   8.4  
 TOTAL   32.9  

Bearing in mind that this packing list is meant to balance camping, city travel, WWOOFing, and a variety of situations, I think it is pretty comprehensive and overall pretty lightweight. In retrospect I was very happy with all my decisions.

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Packing List for South America

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Head Writer and Adventurer at Desk to Dirtbag
Ryan is an author, adventurer, perpetual wanderer, and self-proclaimed dirtbag (but that might not mean what you think). Originally from Seattle, he headed to Washington D.C. where he spent five years working for Congress before heeding the call of the wild. He set out truck camping to road trip across the American West, and then across all of Central America and South America. When he isn't on the move, you can find him living as an expat in Colombia. He is also the author of the best selling book: Big Travel, Small Budget that will help you travel more for less. Follow the adventures on social media or read more.

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Comments 27

  1. Great packing list, but I am sure it can still be trimmed further. For example, I would leave the sleeping pad behind since I already have the tent so I guess the tent floor would be enough insulation between my sleeping bag and the ground. But that’s just me lol!

    1. Post

      Not a great idea without a sleeping pad if you’ll be sleeping on the cold ground. It’s not just for comfort, but a critical piece of insulation below you. Muy importante if you’ll be sleeping in the mountains.

    1. Post
  2. Hello Ryan!

    I’m planning on doing something similar to what you’re doing, starting next year in the fall. I estimate two years to backpack through every country in Latin America. My original plans were to bring stuff for both city and backpacking (in a hiking/camping sense). Unfortunately, I couldn’t seem to find anyone else who brought their camping gear with them…until now! I had just about given up on camping in Latin America…

    A lot of the backpacking that I want to do, is in the higher elevation of the Andes and Patagonia areas, but also jungle and other treks, not to mention random camping to save money.

    What degree-rated sleeping bag would you recommend? I want to bring as light of a sleeping bag as possible, due to size in my pack, weight, and being too warm to use in the Northern half of South America and all of Central America. I had considered the Feathered Friends Vireo in the past, but the footbox is supposed to get really hot. True?

    Was it worth it for you to bring your camera along? I have a DSLR camera that I love, but I worry about theft and pack space/weight.

    Did you ever wish you had brought hiking boots? I’m so torn as to what footwear to bring with all of the walking that I’ll be doing. I was considering bringing some sport sandals (regular wear around towns, when it’s raining, crossing streams, and beach life) and hiking shoes.

    Have a great day,
    -David G

    1. Post

      Hey there David! Thanks for the questions, I’ll do my best to hit on everything.

      It’s definitely a little challenging to pack for all the different circumstances you’ll be encountering. Lightweight and ultralight style backpacking/hiking gear is the ideal way to go, in my opinion. It allows you to bring along a full camp setup while also having room/weight for all the other stuff you’ll likely be bringing. Then when you are out on the trail you can usually just stash your excess gear with the hostel/hotel.

      I think something around a 30 degree bag is the most versatile. You can push it a little below that with other clothes or cold weather sleeping tactics, while also making it work in warmer temps while not suffering. If I buy or bring one bag I go for that temp. While camping in Colombia I never really had moderate temps. It as cold in the mountains, and scorching hot on the coast. I’ve used the Vireo numerous times and have never found it to be uncomfortable in terms of heat. You can always make adjustments–take the socks off, lower the bag around your waist, kind of just drape it over you, etc. I like the bag, for what it is–super light and portable. The footbox is definitely narrow though.

      The camera thing depends on how much you adore taking DSLR photos. I didn’t use the camera as much as I thought I would–in reality only when I was out in the mountains or the pueblos. Usually I felt a little uncomfortable carrying around a big camera in the cities. I think I would have just preferred a really high end point and shoot like the Sony RX100 that I could have placed in my pocket but is still versatile enough to shoot in manual or RAW.

      I never wished for hiking boots, no. But I made the transition to UL backpacking a few years back and have long since abandoned the idea of boots, except for when I need crampons. Trail runners are great, but they have a limited life span–so it kind of depends on how much use they’ll be getting. Approach shoes were how I went–a little more robust and durable. I would only bring two pairs — the hiking shoe or low cut boot, and a pair of lightweight sandals.

      Let me know if you have other questions!

  3. Great detailed post. This is a perfect example for packing when you also want to camp. For those travelling South America who do not expect to camp (but stay only in guesthouses, hostels, etc.) it’s of course possible to not bring a lot of stuff including cooking utensils, sleeping bags, etc. etc. πŸ™‚ Must be more difficult to prioritize when hiking gear must be included as well! Have an awesome trip πŸ™‚

    1. Post

      Hey Marek, thanks for the comment! Yeah without the camping and outdoorsy pursuits my list would look totally different and be considerably lighter as well. I’m definitely of the less is more mindset when it comes to life and travel. I’m able to fit this whole variety of stuff in my 40L pack–smaller than many backpackers I’ve met who are NOT bringing along any camp gear, but just traveling through the cities.

      It has been a great trip, thus far. No complaints! πŸ™‚

  4. Hey! I thought this packing list was great, as I’ve been thinking about a South American trip that includes a lot of time in cities as well as some extended backpacking/trekking. I would be really interested to hear how this has turned out–what you wish you had left, what you wish you had started with, etc.

    1. Post

      Hey James! Thanks for checking in… Most everything that I brought has been used at one point or another–I am overall happy with how I chose to balance the outdoorsy/city stuff. Although I have definitely used the outdoorsy stuff less than I thought I would, especially as I settled down in Medellin (just use it for weekend trips). Initially the camping stuff got a lot more use, camping out on the beach, volunteering on rural projects, heading to the mountains, etc.

      My situation was unique in that I was travel with my buddy, who has sense returned home… We mostly packed so that we could remain totally self sufficient for camping purposes (for exactly that reason–if one of us left), ie two little stoves, little first aid kits, etc, etc. But he did have the tent which we mostly used. I brought the bivvy sack thinking that would be my replacement when he left. But I haven’t used it once. Since then I have borrowed tents or traveled with others, not just going solo. Upon reconsidering it, maybe it would have been better to bring my own tent… But I’m not sure.

      Plans do change… I never thought I’d be settling into Medellin like this. One thing I wish was that I had more clothes… At least here. I didn’t care when I was traveling every other week or whatever. It was fine to have so little. My mom came down to visit me in July and I had here bring a few normal clothes (jeans and cotton tshirts) to add to the mix.

      Some things that people recommended I don’t bring, like my coffee kit, I am absolutely happy that I brought it. I think it is good to include at least one luxury/splurge item that you enjoy and will regularly use.

      The only other item that has been added really was an ENO DoubleNest Hammock that my buddy’s girlfriend brought down with here. That thing is an amazingly comfortable luxury campsite addition.

      Hope that proves somewhat insightful–maybe down the road I will have some additional thoughts.

      1. Ryan,

        Thanks for the additional information! Many of the things you have done sound a lot like what I’m interested in, and I’m enjoying reading about your adventures, even though I’m just beginning to read through your blog. I have an ENO Nest and really like having it on camping trips–it’s on my initial backpacking list too. I hope to be setting off on a similar trip one day!

        Thanks again!


      2. One other question. Did you find you needed/used the pacsafe? I’ve heard people say they used it the first week and pretty much stopped. I’ll be staying in hostels and small inns for the most part, but I’ve never actually seen anyone using this. I haven’t backpacked in South America though.


        1. Post

          I did use the PacSafe during my time backpacking here… I have mixed feelings about it. It did give me a piece of mind that no one was going to jack some little thing out of my pack when it was out of site on buses, in hostels, etc. I mostly kept my actual valuables (camera, computer, etc) in a small daypack that I kept with me while traveling on buses. The PacSafe was definitely nice to have while camping… There’s no way to protect your valuables out there, so my buddy and I would use the pacsafe and then lock the bags together. But it can be annoying to put on and take off. My buddy was frequently cursing at his PacSafe. Soooo… The answer is a definitive “I’m not sure”. If you tend to worry about your things, it’s price and weight are probably worth it. Thieves here in South America are definitely opportunists that will steal stupid things that you wouldn’t even think would be worth stealing if the opportunity presents itself. But they also rob at gunpoint–and if they want your entire pack, the pacsafe can’t stop that. I also feel a little conflicted about it, because just having the pacsafe on your bag says “I have valuable stuff inside that I don’t want you to steal”. So if you do go the PacSafe route, be sure to get a pack rain cover which will draw much less attention.

  5. Sounds like a sick trip! List looks good only things I might add are a full body bug net for warm nights sleeping out (if you can find a light enough one) and rehydration powder and/pepto tablets. I have a fairly weak stomach though and spicy food always gets me in trouble when I travel. Have a blast, look forward to your stories!

    1. Post

      Thanks for checking it the list, Ben. I will likely pick up a cheapo bug net down there at some point… for jungle adventures in particular. The Pepto would probably be a good addition to my kit though, for sure.

      Hope all’s well out east. Jealous of your icy adventures. I’m gonna miss a season… πŸ™

  6. Ahhhh, lucky!! I have been so curious to hear about your trip since you first mentioned it. Tonight I packed for my own South American adventure that I’ll be leaving on on Wednesday! But I’ll be headed for Ushuaia, Argentina, and Antarctica. I won’t have much internet access while I’m on the boat to Ant, so I will look forward to reading your updates when I get back to Ushuaia for a bit!

    I am also in vote of minimizing the coffee equipment. I 100% understand about wanting a good cup of coffee while backpacking. Could you maybe stock up on a bunch of Starbucks VIA packs or something similar? Or if you wanted to actually make coffee these things work super well:

    As my mom would say, “Have fun and be careful!” πŸ˜€

    P.S. Your “Crocs – look COOL” cracked me up! πŸ˜‰

    1. Post

      Ahh lucky you! Antarctica that should be incredible. A buddy of mine just left to go work on McMurdo for the season… I look forward to reading your updates–I hope to maybe make it as far south as Ushuaia, but probably not Antarctica–I expect it would be a little to pricey for my budget at that point.

      Man, I just don’t know if I can drop the Aeropress. My buddy and I are both from Seattle, ya know? πŸ˜€ It will probably come along… Heading to some primo coffee country. We’ll see, might be something I regret…

      1. That’s awesome about your friend! I was just looking at jobs there the other night. They need a postal clerk and I have all the requirements. πŸ˜‰ (Which are not many, ha ha!)

        Hey, normally I don’t tell people they should support Starbucks (which is also from Seattle, right? Ha ha) but so this ups my vote for the ultralight pour-over!

  7. Ryan,
    Good list and good luck on the adventure!

    I assume you are checking your bag? If not, I would guess the pocket knife will cause you some trouble at the airport in a carry on bag.

    I haven’t used the aeropress before (not a coffee drinker) but if you are going to be buying coffee, why not just consider something super light like a GSI Outdoors Ultralight Java Drip? You will barely notice the weight and it should work with your mug/cup. I’m sure if would be more time consuming to use but would save you on the weight and bulk of your aeropress it looks like.

    Shoot me an email and I’ll hook you up with one for your trip to test out if you are interested in going that route!

    The Gear House

    1. Post

      Hey Chris! Thanks for dropping by and checking out my packing list. Yeah, I’ll be checking the bag… Just easier than dealing with those overhead compartments with a pack.

      Thanks for the offer and mention of the GSI product. Down to the wire here in terms of when I leave though. Might check it out down the line though…

  8. Yep, ditch dictionary/books.

    I would ditch the entire coffee making setup. That’s just me though. The cost of buying a coffee in South america would probably be 1 dollar?. I mean, its up to your preference but i suspect many a time you will be staying in a hostel or house that has some kind of coffee maker. I know it is really cool to make coffee with the aeropress and fun, but how often would you really be spending time making coffee. Spend the time seeing stuff and/or switch to tea which just requires boiling water. Its only 6 months.

    ok, at minimum ditch the thermometer.

    Bring a picture of family or back home to show people you meet and stay with. Look into a small gift to give people you stay with.

    otherwise, good list and have an awesome adventure

    1. Post

      Hey Zach, thanks for chiming in… Yeah, it isn’t a huge priority to bring it, more of a luxury item to have in the backcountry while camping. It’s on the possible ditch list, though I really would like to bring it to the mountains. πŸ™‚

      Good tip about the photo and gift, didn’t think of that really. Thanks.

  9. For the stove I recomend you a Caldera Cone. Canisters are hard to get, and alcohol is cheap and easy to find.

    for the record, I’m a trekking guide in Colombia.

    1. Post

      Manuel, gracis por tus recomendaciones! A wind resistant pant would probably be a good, light addition to my pack that would certainly boost my comfort level at times. Might have to be a last minute purchase…

      Thanks for the confirmation that alcohol is readily available…

      If I make it to your area in Colombia, I’d love to meet up and chat!

  10. I think there is a lot of room for improvement in your “kitchen” section and I would 100% ditch the dictionary and the frommer’s guide – you’re already bringing your laptop! If you want to know a word write it down and look it up later. Also, do you have a bivy sack? Way easier to manage than a tent/tarp.

    I backpack with my MSR pocket rocket and – you’re cooking for yourself, not a family of 4… I also just check the full fuel canisters (oops?).

    You’re not bringing climbing shoes? Those are the most frustrating thing to rent if you can hire ropes/rack.

    Why not drive the truck down? Then you can bring all the gear you want for any weather conditions. I’m sure you can hire a ferry for the Darien gap.

    I’ve backpacked southeast asia, central america and india with my sport climbing set-up (60m, 12 draws) on buses, trains and motorcycles. In rural area I would sleep with families or temples along the way, didn’t do any backcountry adventures solo. I would usually just buy new clothes once I started to get holes so I never carried more than what I was wearing (wash/air out at night) – more stuff, more hassle. I’m always happiest with what I’ve packed for a trip when I’m nervous that I don’t have everything. Good luck!

    1. Post

      Awesome Kelly, thanks so much for your feedback! Actually the plan from the beginning was driving the truck down with my buddy, haha. But plans changed, unfortunately.

      Yeah, I figured I would ditch the books… πŸ™‚ And I’ll have my phone (used as a tablet) so I can look stuff up. Redundant.

      You take the Pocket Rocket? No problems finding canisters? I have a Pocket Rocket and Jetboil… In my current setup most of my stove stuff nests inside the pot, so it isn’t too bad. I like the multiple fuel possibilities with the Ti Tri, as well.

      Good tip about the climbing shoes… Maybe I will rethink. I don’t know how much pure cragging I will do though… Alpine scrambles or peakbagging seems much more likely, thus the approach shoes. I will hit up Google.

      I do appreciate you taking a look though! Some good tips and things to think about there…

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