This is a continent of cities in the clouds, endless deserts, impassable jungle and epic coastlines. With so many different climates on offer, you’ll understand why packing for South America can be tricky.
As someone who likes to be prepared, travel light, and feel nice occasionally, this is my list of South America travel essentials that can take you from dancing in Brazil to hiking the icy, windswept trails of Patagonia.
But before we start, a few quick notes on the changing climates across South America.
What you need to know about the climate
Firstly, it’s not that hot in South America. At least, not under the equator. Popular tourist destinations like Santiago (Chile) and Lima (Peru) have an average annual temperature high of just 22°C.
But it’s stinking hot on the Carribean Coast. Areas north or close to the equator will have hot, humid, tropical conditions including cities in Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela.
Watch out for high-altitude cities. To throw a spanner in the works, some cities like Bogota (Colombia) sit high above sea level and can drop to single digits overnight. The same can be said for La Paz in Bolivia and Cordoba in Argentina.
And the weather can be wildly unpredictable. In short, you’ll need to be prepared for both hot and cold weather conditions, the occasional storm, as well as any activities you might want to do — and there are plenty of them.
Packing tips for South America
Layering is key. Unless you’re exclusively visiting the Amazon or the Carribean coast, it’s highly likely you’ll experience cooler temperatures. At a minimum, you should have some base layers, a midlayer and a waterproof shell.
Where possible, pick versatile, adaptable clothing that can you use outdoors and in the city. For example, the hiking pants I bought protected me from the wind and cold but were smart enough to wear everyday (yes, really).
Laundry services are affordable and readily available across the continent, but choose materials like quickDRY men's briefs so that you don't have to spend so long doing your washing.
Pack as light as possible. I’ll typically choose clothing made from merino wool because it’s light, offers temperature regulation for both cold and hot weather, and has natural odour resistance. The list below doesn’t skimp on the necessities but my pack only weighed 10kg at check-in. My daypack/personal item added an extra 2kg.
The packing list below is a universal guide for both men and women, and can be used for short and long-term trips. Just mix and match items according to your preference, locations and activities.
For instance, if you’re hiking the O Circuit in Patagonia, you’ll definitely need the ‘optional’ extras like waterproof pants, a beanie and gloves. But if you want to spend a month exploring the Carribean Coast, you might need an extra set of swimwear.
Hat: ideally a visor or with an adjustable chin strap for outdoor activities. If you’re headed for the jungle you might want to consider a buzzGUARD hat for added protection against mosquitos.
Fleece headband and/or beanie (optional)
Fleece gloves (optional)
Merino neck gaiter: use as a scarf, eye-mask, hair-tie/headband or protection from dust.
Silk sleeping bag liner: for questionable mattresses, camping, or lying on the beach.
3-piece cutlery kit
Stainless steel water bottle
1-2 drybags: to protect your phone and other electronics. I usually keep at least one small one in my daypack just in case.
Pack rain cover (optional): you can choose a pack cover for your backpack or daypack instead of individual drybags. Some travellers also swear by pack liners, especially for multi-day hikes.
50L-65L backpack: I use a 65L Entrada backpack. It’s light, strong, secure, has a proper harness to protect my back and comes with its own matching daypack. It also means I never struggle to fit everything in and I have plenty of room to buy gifts/souvenirs at the end of my trip. You can absolutely get away with 55L or under depending on what you pack.
Foldable tote: as a shopping bag and casual beach bag.
1-2 plastic bags: for dirty shoes, wet clothes, etc.
First-Aid kit: Should include plasters/band-aids, powdered electrolytes, paracetamol, wound disinfectant, Imodium/charcoal tablets and general antibiotics (just in case).
Water purifying tablets (optional). Unfortunately, most of the tap water in South America is undrinkable, but bottled water is available for purchase. You can choose to pack a few Aquatabs in case of emergency, but some travellers prefer to use a UV sterilisation pen or Iodine tablets to save on money and plastic bottles.
Yellow Fever Certificate. Airport custom officials in South America may request proof that you’ve received a vaccination for Yellow Fever before they let you in. Ask your GP for an immunisation card and keep it in your passport for easy access.
Female sanitary items. Tampons can be hard to come by in South America and are often mucho expensive. Bring your own for the time you’re there, but long-term travellers might want to consider a silicone menstrual cup instead.
Documents & Other Important Stuff
Photocopy of passport
Spare photo ID (license)
Spare Debit Card: Keep it separate from your wallet in case your main card is stolen, lost, or accidentally chewed by the ATM machine
RFID money belt:easy and secure access to money and cards.
2 x pens: keep them in your daypack for your arrival cards.
Copy of Travel insurance Certificate including emergency numbers
Letter from your GP outlining current prescriptions (if carrying personal medication)
International Driver’s License (optional)
There you have it! Whether you’re off for two weeks or 12 months, this list should see you through all sorts of weather, activities and destinations. Before you head off, research your destination and alter the list to suit your individual needs.