So, you’re feeling ultra adventurous and ambitious and have decided to take on South America as your next backpacking venture? To that we say: bravo! We’re impressed and super stoked for you!
As the fourth largest continent in the world made up of 12 countries – each with their own unique topographies and cultures – tackling South America is no easy feat. The place is huge. With varying extremes from scorching jungle to freezing glaciers – and activities from tango dancing to big-wave surfing – knowing what your South America packing essentials are is baffling.
And here we are to help, friends! We’ve put together this South America survival guide with you in mind. Together, we’ll walk through your what to pack for South America plan step by step.
So, get comfy, and prepare to absorb all this valuable information to get you primed and prepped for everything South America has to offer. One thing’s for certain, you’re in for a wild and unforgettable ride!
And off we go…
The Ultimate South America Packing List
Below you’ll find a top needs packing list, tips and tricks on what to wear in South America, a breakdown of overall seasonal weather conditions and how to pack for them – plus some special packing suggestions for guys and gals, and also what not to pack.
The Backpack and Luggage: Nomatic Travel Bag
Before you even take on the task of figuring out what to pack for South America, you’ll need an amazing backpack to pack it all into. For all types of travelers and destinations, our number one recommendation is the Nomatic Travel Bag.
The Nomatic travel bag covers every detail to make backpacking travel the best experience. Because of its smart design, it manages to provide loads of packing space in a convenient, carry-on size package! Its handy built-in pockets make plenty of room for all the necessities on your what to pack for South America checklist – you’ll find separate compartments for important items like shoes, water bottle, electronics, underwear and socks. As an added bonus, there’s also an RFID-safe and cord management pocket.
You have a choice between backpack or duffel bag carry, and extra carrying comfort for your back thanks to its innovative strap system and detachable sternum strap. And its black, waterproof material is every bit sleek and modern as it is durable and tough. There is a reason why most Broke Backpacker staff swear by this backpack.
A Suitcase: Nomatic Carry-On Pro
Backpacks not your thing? That’s ok. Our friends at Nomatic are back again with a great alternative to their badass Travel Bag; the Nomatic Carry-On Pro.
This suitcase is ultra-durable, sleek, and comes with a handy tech compartment for transporting your laptop and other electronic bits. Nomatic has been an industry leader when it comes to travel gear and that reputation is reflected in the quality build design and functionality of the Carry-On Pro suitcase. I’ll be honest, I would need more space in my luggage than a carry on allows for such an epic trip. However, if you can pack light for South America then you can take full advantage of budget flights.
Check out our Nomatic Carry-On Pro review to learn more about this epic suitcase.
The Camera: GoPro Hero9 Black
For most of us, our smartphones now feature cameras with stunning photo capabilities.
But… if you are an aspiring photographer who wants to take next-level photos and video beyond iPhone selfies, I recommend going with an action camera like the GoPro Hero9 Black.
It does deliver pro-quality video and gives you a bunch of a different angle options and shooting speeds to work with for photos (including a selfie-mode).
Think of a camera purchase like this as a long term investment that will have you capturing epic shots well beyond your time exploring here.
If you are looking for something cheaper for video specifically, check out these epic GoPro Alternatives.
What To Pack For South America: Personal Stuff
In terms of what to wear in South America, there is rather a lot to think about. Firstly, climates vary DRASTICALLY deepening on where, and on when you go. For example, November in Bogota is cool and autumnal but up in Cartagena they have tropical heat and tropical rain. In Argentina and Chile, they get full blown winters.
You will also need to be mindful of not dressing like a tourist all the time as this will make you a target for thieves.
South America Checklist
Packing for South America is now easier than ever thanks to our checklist.
Good Shoes – Salomon X Ultra 3 Low Aero
It is true that a lot of South America backpackers spent the whole trip in sandals and flip flops. This is however foolhardy for a number of reasons. Firstly, no matter where you go there will be a lot of walking involved whether this is simply exploring the cities or hitting the trails. Further, wearing flip flop in Cosmopolitan cities like Buenos Aires and Bogota simply screams “tourist”.
I admit that most shoes that are also good for hiking are not the most attractive pieces of footwear. But they are some of the most comfortable and deliver good ankle support for a long day of walking about town. I mean, your body is already going to be suffering enough from all of those 2-for-1 mojito’s, beers and other famous South American party substances.
Plus, the Ande mountains offer some of the best hikes in the whole world. From the Inca trail, to Colombia’s La Ciudad Perdida, get your walking shoes on and get out there!
Check out the women’s Salomon X Ultra 3 Low Aero.
Good Boots For Winter: Lowa Renegade GTX Mid Hiking Boots
If you plan on doing some serious hiking in South America, then you should consider bringing some boots. This is especially pertinent if you are going above 3500 metres, or are going hiking in Chile, Argentina or Patagonia.
A Down Jacket: Patagonia Down Sweater Hoody
Did somebody just say Patagonia?! Whilst most people imagine South America to be steaming hot, the truth is that a lot of regions get some real weather diversity. If you are headed to Colombia, Peru or Ecuador, then the evenings can get very cool in the elevated regions.
It weighs just under a pound and provides an excellent weight to warmth ratio. If you don’t go for one of the super bright colors, it is pretty stylish and city-worthy also.
Some form of jacket is absolutely essential for South America.
Check out our best travel jackets article for more inspiration.
Good Rain Jacket – Arcteryx Beta AR
Did you know that the surface of the earth is over 70% covered in water? And you know how that water got there? Yep because it tends to here rain here on planet earth quite a lot! It is almost a given that at some point in South America, you will come across some hardcore rain. Whether you hit the Caribbean monsoon season, or simply get wet in the afternoon Amazon downpour, a rain jacket will get a good workout.
There is no such thing as bad weather, only the wing gear for it. Don’t let a bit (of a lot) of rain ruin your trip and make sure you are ready with some top notch rain gear.
This is our pick of the many rain jackets we have tried. It’s reliable & stylish and looks good worn out in the mountains or in city bars.
So it rains a lot of in South America and all that water ends up somewhere! There are endless chances to get wet in South America. The beaches of Brazil should need no introduction by now but then there is the lush Amazon river (watch the piranha’s though) and even landlocked cities like Bogota have natural hot springs in commuting distance!
Swimming gear is an essential piece of South America packing.
Travel First Aid Kit
You don’t need to tote around half a pharmacy, but a well-stocked first aid kit should be in all our backpacks. Stuff happens on the road and it’s inconvenient and embarrassing when you can’t manage small situations like a cut finger or hangover migraine.
You can tuck this lifesaver away in a forgotten pocket – and it’ll be there when you need it.
Tip: Add a few bits and pieces to the first aid kit after you purchase it, like extra headache medicine, any personal meds you need (like allergy pills), whatever you take to calm your stomach and a few more plasters.
Travel Insurance From World Nomads
Here at The Broke Backpacker, we don’t do scaremongering but we don’t lie either. The fact is that South America can be very dangerous. Crime is high and tourists are often targeted – phones, cash and bags are often taken.
Furthermore, all of these exciting trekking, surfing and climbing options also carry some risk not to mention the ever present threat of tropical disease.
Some hospitals won’t even help you unless they see proof of insurance up front so this really is one destination where you must consider travel insurance.
We use either World Nomads or SafetyWing. You’ll be happy you did if the time comes to use it.
Sun God Sunglasses
A reliable pair of sunglasses is undoubtedly one of your South America packing essentials. Our favorites are SunGod Sunglasses because they deliver on quality and style.
They’re built tough with triple-layer scratch-resistant lenses and trademarked Adventure-proof Frame Material. You can also customize them with your choice of lense and frame colors to reflect your own style. Plus they’re covered by SunGod’s lifetime guarantee of free repair. Check our in-depth review here.
Another backpacker/traveler favorite for staying organized is a hanging toiletry bag. It’s extremely helpful to have all of your accessories neatly gathered in one bag that you can hang for easy accessibility, especially when counter space isn’t plentiful or even available. A well-organized bag is worth having whether you’re tree whilst camping or a hook in the wall – it helps to have quick access to all your stuff.
Historically, I have been the guy who has my stuff all over the bathroom, so getting one of these things really changed the toiletry game for me. Plus they are not too expensive either. A no-brainer essential.
Sandals: OluKai ‘Ohana Flip-Flops
Circling back to the footwear question, now we are going to talk about sandals. There is always a time and place for flip flops and sandals and South America is no exception. From the beaches of Rio to the poolsides of La Paz, you will not regret throwing a pair of these in your South America packing.
These Olukai flip flops are ultra-comfortable, well-made, and come in a variety of colors.
Check out the women’s OluKai ‘Ohana Flip-Flops.
Your Passport or Other Government ID
Your passport will get a good workout in South America. There are 12 borders and the chances are that you may even be zig-zagging and criss-crossing them. Make sure your passport has 6 months left on it, and has plenty of pages for stamps and visas.
You should also carry copies with you at all times as Police officers will ask to see it and will demand “fines” if you don’t have it.
Money Belt – By Active Roots
There is no point denying that South America can be VERY dangerous and tourists are sometimes targeted by thieves.
Therefore it is always a good idea to use a money belt to hide your cash just in case something does go wrong.
A Hat – Patagonia Fitz Roy Trucker
Even on cold days, the sun can be very strong in the Ande’s and can faces in minutes. A good hat is therefore a wise investment. They are also useful for going incognito when you don’t want to stand out like a sore Gringo.
Patagonia makes great hats. I have probably bought three or four of these over the last five years. Simple. Practical. Comfortable. That is what you are after.
Waterbottle – Hydroflask Vacuum Bottle 32 oz.
Packing a reusable water bottle is probably the best thing you can personally do to combat single-use plastic bottle use whilst traveling. There is simply zero need to buy plastic water bottles. Tap water is mixed bag in South America and its safety varies from one town to the next. Still, you can buy bags of water cheaply and use these to fill up your water bottle.
We love the Hydroflask Vacum Bottle for its quality and because it keeps cold water cold for many hours and vice versa for hot beverages. This bottle is the ideal water bottle to get not just for your South America trip but for daily use. Please don’t be that person buying plastic water bottles. We are all judging you…especially mother earth.
If you go with the Hydroflask, you’ll probably never need to buy another waterbottle again.
Headlamp – Petzl Actik Core Headlamp
Headlamps are great for traveling for many reasons. Firstly, they are useful as hell if you go camping or on an early sunrise mountain hike. Then, they come in useful for finding your way to your hostel bed at 3am without having to turn the lights on. They are also a Godsend if there is a power cut (pretty common in India, Nepal or Venezuela) and great for navigating darkened alleyways in Turkey & Spain.
Not all headlamps were created equal and this is one of the best. The Petzl Actik Core comes with a USB rechargeable battery (full recharge in 3 hours or less); however, it is compatible with AAA batteries. Water-resistance is another critical feature. This product can withstand splashing; but keep in mind, water-resistant does NOT mean waterproof.
Tent – MSR Hubba Hubba 2p
South America presents some awesome camping opportunities. To make the most of them, bring yourself a good quality backpacking tent.
This is more the choice for those in the market for budget backpacking gear. It’s got all the perks of a top-notch backpacking tent without all the freakishly high numbers on the price tag.
Yeah, it may not quite make the cut as ultralight backpacking gear but think of what you’re getting! The MSR Hubba Hubba 2p is mega-roomy and has multiple of pockets for keeping your self organized when settling in for the night.As far as budget backpacking tents go, this is one of the best. It’s a happy medium between the ‘prepared for anything’ mode and the ‘I wanted to go for a trek so I bought this for 2000 rupees’ afterthought.
Sleeping Bag – Nemo Disco 15
At some point in your trip to South America, you will probably go camping or at the very least will spend a night at a hostel with insufficient bedding, or with dirty bedding that you would rather not lay in. Therefore bringing a sleeping bag is often a great investment.
There are a LOT of sleeping bags on the market today and we have tried a lot of them. The quality and standards varies and not always in correlation with the price – pricey does not always mean better. The Nemo Disco 15 is a great all rounder sleeping bag packing in warmth, durability and a reasonable price tag.
The Basic Stuff To Pack For South America
On top of the essential items listed above, here is an additional suggested checklist of what to pack for a South America trip:
- A few pairs of comfortable pants/jeans
- 1-2 pairs of shorts (summer/late spring)
- A few pairs of socks
- (Sexy) underwear x 2/3
- Ladies: a few dresses, pants, outfits, or desired lady apparel for a night on the town. Whatever makes you comfy!
- Dudes: A few collard shirts or something half-way decent for a night on the town. Whatever makes you comfy!
- Smartphone with a good camera for photos if you are not bringing an actual camera
- Portable power bank for charging your phone on the go
- Phone charger
- Amazon Kindle for reading by the pool
- Copy of your passport just in case
- Cash (not too much, there are ATM machines everywhere
- Packable Towel
Final Thoughts on What to Pack for South America
And that’s it for your South America survival guide, amigos! You now have everything you ever wanted to know about what to pack for South America. As you prepare, refer back to the top-23 needs packing list, our tips on what to wear in South America and how to pack for the varying seasonal conditions. Remember that you also have our special packing recommendations for women and men – plus, what NOT to pack for South America.
Just keep in mind that South America is a BIG place, so be sure to do any necessary research for the specific countries on your itinerary for any extra gear or safety precautions you’ll need to take for more advanced activities. But, overall, follow our tips, and you’ll be ready for anything that wonderful South America throws your way!
Ok, you can get excited now!
Also – don’t forget to sort your travel insurance! We’ve put together a roundup of the best travel insurance for backpackers, or if you’re low on time, get a quote from World Nomads now, our favourite travel insurance provider.
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