Having spent six months travelling throughout South and North America with only a 40L pack and day bag each, we’ve learnt exactly what’s essential and what’s better left at home. This no-fuss guide will help you to pack light for your South America travels too!
The truth is, in my day-to-day life, I’m a bit of a hoarder. Get me out on the road though, and I’ll gladly preach the benefits of packing and travelling light.
With less gear to cart around, you’ll have much more freedom in your travels (and you’ll save on pesky baggage fees if your gear falls within carry-on limits). Plus, you just can’t help but feel a little like you’ve nailed the travelling game.
Go on, get your carry-on on!
Pack Light Year-Round
Packing light for different seasons is one of the biggest challenges you’ll face. There is some gear you’ll need regardless of the season though – we just suggest you amend this list slightly depending on your own requirements.
If you’re only travelling over the course of summer, for example, you’ll probably have a little more room in your bags than we did.
Essentials: Clothing and Shoes
- 2-3 t-shirts. We prefer the quick-dry sports tops as they tend to stay looking nice for longer, are easy to wash, quick to dry and take up very little space.
- 1 pair of cotton shorts.
- 1 pair of quick-dry nylon shorts. Great for aquatic activities and to wear on washing days.
- (For women), a pair of exercise tights.
- 2 pairs of socks.
- 1 zip-up hoodie.
- 4-6 pairs of underwear (+ 1 bra and 1 sports bra for women)
- A pair of light-weight running shoes. I love Nike Freeruns as they squash down small when not being worn.
- A pair of jandals/flip flops. Great for around hostels and in grubby showers.
- A cotton neck buff. These beauties take up no space in your packs but help keep you warm in winter and the sun off your neck in the summer.
- A light-weight towel. Some prefer sports towels but they’ve only ever shifted water around on us! We prefer Turkish cotton towels.
- Mini bottles of shampoo/conditioner/body wash and any other shower products you use (eg. moisturiser, cleanser). I love hair oil as it’s a lifesaver if I’m in and out of the ocean.
- (For women), hair ties, tampons etc.
- A bar of clothes-washing soap for handwashing in the shower/sink.
- Ziplock bags to keep everything dry and organised.
- First-aid gear. Painkillers, plasters, sleeping pills, cotton buds etc.
Essentials: Electronics and Entertainment
- A smartphone. We didn’t worry about getting local sim cards as free WiFi was pretty easy to find. We used our phones all the time though so you’ll definitely want one on you. Currency conversion, translation, maps and more – we’d have been lost without one!
- Your Netflix subscription. With the ability to download series and movies onto your phone/iPad, it’s a subscription that really does pay for itself on long bus/plane rides.
- Travel power adaptors.
- An amazing pack to put everything in! We love our Osprey Farpoint 40L packs – they’re hands-down the best bags out there.
- Packing cubes. In the past, we’d tried to use them and never bothered pre-packing into our cubes. We found them to be invaluable though for multi-season travelling though! #1, they allow you to fit more into your pack by compacting your gear down and #2, you can pack anything you don’t need for a while into specific cubes and hide them down the bottom of your pack.
- A day bag so you’re not left carting everything around on day trips. Again we love Osprey for this; I have a Tempest 20 and Nathan has a Talon 22.
Essentials: Travel Gear
- Your passport and an understanding of visa requirements. We were lucky as we didn’t have to pre-apply for any of ours, but we checked before leaving. Colombia was definitely the most interested to know of our travel plans though – they almost turned us away because we didn’t have accommodation booked! Fortunately though we were able to get onto the WiFi at the airport to quickly book a hostel.
- A small, discreet wallet.
- Two different credit cards. In most places we were able to use our normal credit card but for some reason, it decided not to work in Colombia. Luckily, our other one did though! Definitely have a backup in case one stops working or is stolen/lost. Store them separately from one another.
- An eReader or old-fashioned book.
- Better quality camera gear. Your average traveller might be happy with a cell phone camera but unsurprisingly, we wanted more. We took our Fuji X-T20 (which we adore) and also our DJI Mavic drone (which we sent home about three months in).
- A laptop. For us, these we essential (as we were working and blogging on the road) but probably wouldn’t be for many.
- Cutlery and a drink bottle.
- If you’re planning on lots of hiking, hiking poles.
- A pair of jeans. Because we were away for six months, I didn’t want to be without my jeans. In the end though, track pants were often the better option as they were more comfortable, easier to wash and took up less space. If I were to head away on another six-month backpacking trip, I’d probably leave mine behind.
Summer really is the best season to test out your carry-on only skills. With warm weather, light clothing and the ability to get things dried quickly, challenge yourself to leave excess clothing behind. As long as you can wash your clothes in the shower or basin as you go, you really won’t need as much as you’d think.
- Swimming togs.
- A cap or hat.
- Insect repellant.
- A long-sleeve rash top. I love my Billabong one as it zips open at the front, making it comfortable when worn for extended periods and flexible in different temperatures.
- Keens or water shoes/sandals. Though we didn’t take our Keens with us on this trip, they’re normally a staple in our summer travels – great for rafting, canyoning and general water adventures.
With cold weather comes a few more pack-light challenges. There’s no doubt, winter gear takes up more room and quality items are often expensive to replace (so you won’t want to dump them as you go).
With a few quality pieces though, it is possible to keep your weight down and your winter clothing to a minimum. Layers are key so don’t be afraid to put your summer gear to use to help keep yourself warm.
- 1-2 merino/thermal long-sleeve tops.
- 1-2 pairs of merino/thermal long-johns.
- 1 pair of track pants or hiking pants.
- A packable jacket that is both waterproof and warm. We love the Kathmandu XT driFILL down jacket!
- A snuggly beanie.
- Water-proof hiking boots.
- 2 pairs of merino hiking socks.
- Gloves. We started without them but purchased a light-weight pair each in Chile to get us through.
- A thick scarf. If you’ve got room, a square one will double as an extra blanket in a squeeze.
How Did We REALLY Get On Travelling Light Through South America?
All in all, really well.
We weren’t too strict on ourselves though.
It’s really important that packing light works for you, not against.
If we fell in love with something, we weren’t afraid to buy it. If it didn’t fit into our packs, we picked up a cheap duffle bag and carted it around with us.
Is that ideal? No.
Am I happy we did it? Absolutely!
As I look around our home, I have all sorts of awesome reminders of our travels that just wouldn’t have been possible had we held firm to our ‘pack light’ ideals.
Afterall, travel’s meant to be a pleasure, not a chore.
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