Backpacking Essentials for Traveling South America
South America offers a unique backpacking experience for those who are adventurous enough to go. Depending on where you start and finish, you could possibly be going from cold to tropical weather in the span of a day. This offers some unique difficulties when it comes to packing a backpack. If you intend to go from Argentina to Colombia (or reverse) packing for multiple seasons is important. Don’t let packing for multiple seasons intimidate you, we spent three months backpacking South America with a 45L pack and did just fine.
Layering is going to be key if you are visiting multiple countries in South America. If you are unsure what this means check out our guide here. When it comes selecting clothing styles, we follow the Argentina rule. Since Argentina is an extremely stylish and formal country (similar to Paris in Europe) we pack all our clothes to be able to look good in Argentina. That way we are prepared for nice areas, and in countries with less formal attire we still look good.
What Clothes to Pack: Dress for Buenos Aires Across South America
If you’re traveling to South America it’s best to pick clothing that you would wear to more formal countries like Argentina and Colombia. This will save you packing space.
Argentina is probably the more dressy culture with Colombia and Chile not far behind. Neutral patterns and dark fabrics wills serve you best while traveling from country to country and allow you to keep your layering stylish. As you migrate to warmer climates you should begin storing your heavier layers and lean on lighter layers. Take at least one ultra formal outfit if you plan on going to Tango and Salsa Clubs.
- Shirts/blouses. Depending on how long you are traveling through South America you will need quality shirts or blouses that can be layered or worn independently. Bring five short sleeve shirts/blouses and three long sleeve shirts/blouses. Long sleeves can always be rolled up and used as short sleeves, to sleep in, or layer over t-shirts.
- Pants. Consider bringing two pair of jeans and one pair of slacks. Select something stylish and functional that will allow you to blend in while traveling in Argentina and gain you access to nightclubs.
- Shorts and Skirts. In South America shorts aren’t very common for men or women outside of the tropics. That being said, if you are visiting the Amazon, you will want a pair of shorts because it gets hot. Stay away from unflattering cargo shorts or anything too long. Lightweight chino fabrics in khaki and navy work great. Skirts are also appropriate.
- Underwear. Quick drying underwear that is easy to wash will be imperative while traveling South America. Bring 3-5 pair of these.
- Shoes. One pair of durable walking shoes, one pair of nice dress shoes for dancing, and a pair of flip flops for showers and the beach. Regular walking shoes won’t cut it if you plan on traveling for multiple months.
- Sweater. Wondering how to pack light for winter travel in South America without freezing? Try to find two lightweight sweaters or fleeces that are stylish, dark in color, and can be easily layered. Nothing too bulky. They also sell awesome sweaters in Peru and Bolivia, so keep some room for those.
- Socks. Absolutely bring wool blended socks for traveling down South. They will allow you to stay warm in Patagonia and cool in Colombia.
- Jackets. A denim or leather jacket with a hoodie underneath will serve you fine from Chile to Brazil. Consider bringing a water resistant windbreaker and, if you’re headed to Patagonia, a collapsible winter coat.
- Scarf. Scarves are the most diverse piece of clothing when it comes to traveling. We recommend picking one up as a souvenir from Peru or Bolivia.
- Swimsuit. A lot of places in South America require a proper swimsuit. Get something fun and functional.
- Sleepwear/Thermals. You will need thermals in South America, especially for Salar De Uyuni.
- Hats and Beanies. A beanie will keep you warm in the Southern most parts of SA and a hat will protect you from the harsh sun in Colombia and Brazil.
- Going Out Clothes. Two to three nice button up shirts for guys. Flannel styles are a bit foreign to many parts of SA but go with what makes you comfortable. For women, bring a dress for dancing the Salsa and Tango.
Things to Travel With: Toiletries and Personal Items
Don’t forget basic hygiene while traveling South America. Pack a robust toiletry kit that will allow you to stay clean, smelling good, and comfortable.
- Toiletries kit. We have an excellent toiletry article on what to bring, check it out
- First-aid kit. Always pack these.
- DEET Bug Spray. This bug spray will protect you from mosquitoes carrying Dengue and Maleria. It smells like gasoline but will protect you. If you’re not going into the Amazon you probably don’t need it.
- Permethrin. (Optional) If you are traveling to the Amazon and tropics you should consider treating your clothes with insecticide to protect yourself from bug borne diseases.
- Small towel/washcloth.
- Hairdryer, Curling Iron, Straightener.
- Medicine and vitamins. If you have food allergies or medical conditions make sure to have them translated into Spanish and Portuguese.
- Condoms. STI’s are prevalent in South America so ensure to protect yourself.
- Tampons/Feminine Hygiene.
- Wet Wipes/Moist Towelettes.
Additional Essential Travel Items
There are a lot of long bus rides and over night flights in South America. Traveling between countries can sometimes take up to 20 hours so it’s recommended to bring some comfort items to make it easier. Always stock up on extra food and water befor these trips.
- Small day pack. A day pack will allow you to hike Maccu Piccu with little weight.
- Stuff Sacks. These are great for separating clothes ad storing dirty clothes.
- Water bottle and Water Purifying. You will for sure want water purifying tablets for SA.
- Headlamp. If you plan on hiking Maccu Piccu with a tour they start at 4am. It’s pitch black so bring a lamp.
- Inflatable neck pillow and earplugs. For those long bus rides between Argentina and Colombia.
- Tiny locks. Theft is common in South America so deter thieves with locks.
- Sewing kit. Things fray and break. Keep one on hand.
- Duct tape and zip ties. Wrap about three feet of duct tape around one of your backpacks straps to have on hand for emergency repairs.
- A good book. Specifically one by a famous author about the country you are visiting. Absolutely check out Gabriel Garcia Marquez if you are Colombia bound.
- Seal-able plastic bags.
- Bandanna. These are great for hiking and as a back up handkerchief.
Extra Things to Take to South America
The below items are not necessarily needed in South America and things like expensive electronics can make you a target in many countries. The countries aren’t as dangerous as people make them out to be but you should still be careful. We highly recommend a money belt to hide the majority of your documents and currency.
Backpacking Tips: How to Carry Money and Documents while Travelling South America
- Money belt. There are a lot of pick pockets in SA and they are good at what they do. Protect your peso’s with a hidden money belt.
- Documents. Take copies of your passport for renting cars and motorbikes.
- Travel Insurance. It’s a good idea to get Travel Insurance for South America. If your stuff gets stolen it will reimburse you, plus if there’s unrest they’ll help you get out of town. World Nomad is the best.
- Vaccine Card. A lot of countries require proof of Yellow Fever vaccine, so ensure you carry documentation that you have received it for customs.
- Visas and Entrance Fees. This can change at anytime, but Argentina has an entrance fee you have to pay before you travel to the country.
- Guidebooks and maps.
- Small notepad and pen.
- Journal or Blog:
Packing List Extras: Electronics
South America, depending on country, can have spotty wifi and service, so be prepared for no technology in countries like Bolivia.
- Smartphone/mobile phone. Smartphones are great for travel but don’t keep them out too long or they will get snatched.
- Digital camera.
- Tablet. These are great for photo editing, blogging, and keeping in contact with friends while in South America.
- Laptop. If you have work to do then you’ll probably need one but if not leave it at home.
- Headphones/earbuds. Noise cancelling headphones will allow you to rest on long bus rides.
- Chargers. and batteries.
- Plug adapter(s). Adapter outlets are all over the spectrum in SA so carry a universal outlet pack.
Backpacking South America Checklist Summary
Crossing borders in South America is nerve wracking so you’re going to want to have a light pack that border agents can rummage through (and chances are they will). The above list is the minimal amount of stuff you’ll want to pack for a multi country trip in South America and will be fine for two weeks or three months. If you’re looking for fun things to do in South America check out this guide.