Here is what to pack for Central America based on what we had in our backpacks when we visited
If you’re starting to plan your first or even just your next big backpacking trip, you will undoubtedly get to the stage where you wonder, what should I even pack for Central America?
I don’t blame you.
On my first backpacking trip to Southeast Asia, I packed all kinds of weird and wonderful things that I never touched. I also definitely missed a few things.
This time around I put in a lot more thought and planning and created a packing list that learnt from previous mistakes. After 3 months of backpacking and using just what’s on this list, I am more than happy that we have everything we need.
This is a full packing list of everything I have bought with me on our year-long backpacking trip through Central and South America.
If you’re doing a multi-country trip and not all of Central America, this post is still for you!
It has everything we could need to cover hot Caribbean beaches to freezing volcano summits, all packed into 2 backpacks.
This is my list specifically, so as a woman it will be a little different to a man’s. Essentially, Guido and I have packed the same things in the same quantities (just swap out the bikinis for swim shorts etc. and you’re good to go).
What To Pack For Central America – Complete Packing List
I would recommend this packing list to anyone looking to travel for 3 months or more across varying climates. For any less than 3 months you won’t need nearly as much as I have listed here.
In fact, you could probably half it!
What to pack for Central America – The backpack and other bags
- Large 50-60l backpack and rain cover
We are both using Osprey backpacks that have a zip-up cover for the straps so they don’t get stuck in airports. We also like the fact that they open up from the front, not the top. It means we don’t lose anything in the depths of our bags.
Our big backpacks also have a smaller backpack that zips onto the front. This gives us extra room and also a small day bag each.
- We also had to buy This is the exact day backpack that I have
✔️ This is the same one as Guido’s
The great thing about Osprey is they are of excellent quality without breaking the bank.
- Tote bag
I have a material tote bag that I got from a market in India that we use as our regular shopping bag, this way we don’t need to use plastic bags when we buy groceries.
- Bum bag (fanny pack)
These may make you look and feel like a true backpacker but they are super handy for holding any valuables you want to keep close while out and about, or even on public transport.
- Packing cubes
These are a lifesaver, honestly!
I have 4 packing cubes and they allow me to keep my clothes organised and also compressed down into a much smaller space so I can fit more in my backpack.
- Dry bags
Dry bags are so useful so we have a few different sizes with us. We both use a medium-sized dry bag to store our laundry in. I have a smaller one for holding valuables in when going on boat trips etc. Lastly, we have a large, substantial dry bag for taking on dive boats etc.
What to pack for Central America – Shoes
- Hiking boots
Depending on how active you are, these will be really useful. We have done a few long hikes now in Central America where wearing anything other than hiking boots would’ve been a huge mistake.
They can be a pain and take up a lot of space. So I recommend wearing them on flights and attaching them to the outside of your backpack the rest of the time.
✔️ These are the hiking boots I have! I love them because they have no leather and are super comfy and lightweight.
- Trainers/ sneakers
Once you are away from the beaches and in the towns and cities you are likely to want a comfy pair of trainers or sneakers to wear. We both made the mistake of buying new shoes from a new online brand and not wearing them much before we left.
Within a month or so, Guidos had holes in them and mine were so painful to wear that I had to replace them.
Lesson learnt; buy from brands you know and make sure they are comfy before you take them travelling with you. I now have Reeboks and Guido has some Sketchers.
Perhaps the comfiest shoes I have ever owned are these Vegan Birkenstocks.
What to pack for Central America – Clothes
The mission is to find a fully waterproof raincoat (preferably Goretex), that is also super lightweight and folds up really small.
- Warm coat
In addition to a waterproof layer, it is sensible to have a thicker warmer layer. For this, we both have similar padded jackets. Still thin enough to roll up nice and small in our bags but plenty warm enough.
✔️ This is the warm jacket I have and it’s perfect!
It’s all about the layers. I chose to have a zip-up hoodie with me and Guido has a pullover jumper.
As we ended up in Peru and Bolivia during winter we did end up buying an extra jumper each.
- Button-up Shirts x3
- T-shirts x4
- Vest tops x4
- Crop tops x4
When it comes to tops most of them are pretty small and don’t take up a lot of space. I love loose button-up shirts to wear either at the beach or as an extra layer in the evening. This might sound like a lot of clothes but I wear them all and it means I’m not doing laundry constantly.
- Denim shorts x2
- Cycle shorts x2
- Loose shorts x3
I live in shorts while in hot countries so having a mix of denim, loose and cycle shorts was great. I wouldn’t normally travel with denim because it takes up a lot of space and doesn’t dry fast but shorts are not too bad.
- Hippie pants x2
- Outdoor trousers x1
- Leggings x1
When it comes to longer layers it is good to have a few different options too. The looser hippie pants are great for covering up to avoid sunburn and in religious buildings etc. The leggings and Outdoor trousers are what I wear for hikes and in colder weather.
The beauty of leggings is they can also go underneath if you need to layer up in colder weather.
- Swimsuits x2
- Bikinis x5
Ok, hear me out. I know this sounds like a lot of swimwear BUT when I was in Asia for 6 months I had 2 bikinis and it never felt like enough. In a lot of Central America, you will be by beaches and in lovely hot weather so it’s nice to have plenty of swimwear to choose from.
Plus they really don’t take up much space at all.
- Thick socks x3
- Ankle socks x3
- Underwear x14
- Bras x4
When it comes to underwear, I wanted to have enough to last me 2 weeks. This works well with the amount of clothes I have packed too. So we only have to do laundry once every 2 weeks.
I also have a mix of sports bras and bralettes. No wire or padding both for comfort and space saving.
If you don’t own a buff then I highly recommend you run out and grab yourself one. I prefer the thinner ones. They are great because you can use them in so many different ways. For example a hat, headband, hair tie, bandana, neck scarf etc.
- Hat (sun and winter)
Ok so I’ll admit I actually took neither of these from home, but it didn’t take long before I bought myself a baseball cap and a woolly hat.
Baseball caps or sun hats are so useful in hot sunny countries and I definitely took that for granted. Also hiking up chilly volcanos made having a warm hat really nice too. So now I have both and have worn both on multiple occasions.
- Sunglasses x2
I personally like to travel with cheaper sunglasses because things easily get broken or lost while backpacking. Guido for example lost his prescription sunglasses so now has a lovely pair from Walmart.
***Don’t forget if something is special to you or really valuable it might be best to leave it at home.
- Reading glasses and case
What to pack for Central America – Hygiene
- Micro fibre towels x2
We each have one small towel for showering and a large one to use as a beach towel. We have used the larger beach towels A LOT in Central America. They are so handy to have. They dry really fast and pack up nice and small.
However, we haven’t really had to use the smaller towels for showering because ALL accommodations we have stayed in, in Central America have provided towels. This is everything from hostels, basic guesthouses, hotels and AirBnBs.
- Wash bag
I love my washbag! Having travelled a lot over the years I have settled for a bag that unfolds and hangs up via a hook. It is great, it has 4 storage compartments and because it has the hook I can hang it in hostel showers when there is limited space.
In AirBnBs I can hang it up and feel like I’m not really living out of a bag. Something that becomes a novelty after a while on the road.
- Moon Cup or OrganiCup
Having used one of these for years I can safely say they are life-changing! No more tampons or pads, you save so much room in your bag and never have to worry about trying to buy any abroad.
You only have to buy one Moon Cup and you are set for ‘life’. Or at least 5-10 years. Seriously, these little guys are a game-changer and perfect for travel life.
I have shampoo bars and also a bottle of shampoo with me. When travelling I try to use less so I can make a bottle of shampoo last around a month or more.
Another great product I have on this trip that lasts a long time is a conditioner spray. Great for saving time in not-so-nice showers and helping your hair out after a day in the sea.
- Electric toothbrush and spare heads, charger
I have had my electric toothbrush for about 6 years and it hasn’t failed me yet.
Having both a face and body moisturiser will come in really handy. Life while backpacking can be harder on your body and skin than you are used to.
We left home with a factor 50 and a factor 30 sunscreen. At the start of your trip, it is sensible to use a stronger factor while you are getting used to being out in the sun more.
Also, don’t forget to look for ones that are reef-safe.
- After sun gel
We shouldn’t need this but I have to see it has come in really handy. I recommend trying to avoid getting sunburnt in the first place for obvious reasons. But if you get caught out like I have a couple of times then you will be glad to have some after soon cooling gel with you.
- Mosquito repellent
This is so important! Mosquitos are all over Central America and they are a nightmare. Especially, if like me, they find you really tasty. I have to apply mosquito repellent a couple of times a day to try and avoid getting too many bites.
You will run out quickly though if you are away for a long time, so keep an eye out in pharmacies and supermarkets for the repellent brand called ‘off’. This is a great brand you can get in every country in Central America.
- Razor and spare heads
On my mission to save the planet one piece of plastic at a time, I am in the phase of using the same razor handle and I carry a bunch of spare heads for it. Rather than constantly buying whole disposable razors.
The best thing to do would be to switch to a metal razor with blades but I am yet to make the switch.
- Electric shaver
For anywhere that doesn’t require a close shave, ladies and gents I know you know what I mean. A small battery-powered shaver is perfect.
Sometimes I like to smell like a human again so I have a small bottle of perfume with me from the body shop.
My personal favourite that lasts FOREVER (no seriously mine lasts me around 6 months) is Salt of the Earth, spray deodorant. Another great one that I have with me is a solid cream-style deodorant in a pot from a Dutch brand called Lekker.
- Lip balms, Nail files, clippers, Tweezers, Hair ties, Bobby pins
All the last essentials every woman (or man) should have in their washbag.
What to pack for Central America – Electronics
These are all the electronics we have with us so this will depend on your personal preferences as to how much you take.
- Laptop, case and charger
I have a MacBook Air because it is nice and small and light. Easier to carry around all the time. I keep mine in a soft but well-padded case that has a lot of pockets for wires etc.
- Phone and charger
One piece of advice I will give to anyone who gets anxious while travelling. Bring a second phone with you. We have an old Nokia with a pay-as-you-go sim card in so if anything happened to either of our smartphones we can still contact home.
Also having a strong case and screen protector on your phone is so important. Life can be hard on our phones but that is amplified greatly when you go backpacking. It is better to be safe than sorry.
- Universal Plug adapter
All of Central America uses US plug sockets. So if you are from the US then you will be just fine. The rest of us need to have an adapter of some kind and we love our universal adapters. We can use them all over the world and you can plug multiple things into charge at once.
Perfect for hostel life especially if you head to a coworking space.
- Extra wires and chargers
We have a few spares just in case we lose any. We keep all of our wires stored in a small wire organising case.
- Camera, charger, batteries, cleaning kit, camera bag
I am no pro, in fact, I am just starting to learn how to use my camera but let me tell you now they take up a lot of space. If you are into your photography then great definitely add it to your packing list. If you aren’t sure then maybe consider if you want to use that space on the Camera or something else.
I have a casual camera bag that can be used as a regular shoulder bag, to try and not look too flashy when in poorer areas.
We had also bought a tripod along with us but didn’t use it once and ended up leaving it. They are big and bulky so be absolutely sure you want to bring one with you before you pack it.
- GoPro, charger, batteries, accessories and cases
We absolutely love travelling with our GoPro and mostly use it when diving or hiking. It is ideal for both and takes up a lot less room than the traditional camera.
The one accessory we wish we had bought with us would be the red filters for underwater filming. That and our cheaper waterproof housing is already leaking, so it is worth investing in a proper one.
- Fitbit watch and charger
How else can we count our footsteps and share them with you?
✔️ This is the Fitbit watch that I have and it’s great because the battery lasts me all week!
- SSD drive and memory cards
We have a few spare memory cards for the camera and GoPro with us. As well as a small SSD drive with photos from our previous travels. The storage size is 1TB. This is so we can save all of our photos as we go on here as well and have a backup.
- Wireless mouse
I have a Logitec Pebble, wireless mouse with me and it is awesome. It is so small it fits into the pocket on the front of my laptop case and weighs practically nothing.
- Apple air tags
These are great to keep tabs on your backpack if flying, or if it has to go on the roof of a bus for example. We have us in our bigger bags to make sure they follow us when they go out of our site.
- Power bank
Having a portable power bank on you is really reassuring, especially on long travel days. You don’t have to worry about your phone battery dying.
If you love music as much as Guido then you can’t leave home without some earbuds. We both have noise-cancelling ones too which is a MUST for blocking out the chaos around you in Central America.
What to pack for Central America – Misc
- First aid kit
This is a pretty important addition to your backpack for any trip. We bought a generic first aid kit and took out the things we wouldn’t need or there were duplicates of and added some extra things.
We added antihistamines, painkillers, waterproof plasters, mosquito bite cream, antiseptic cream, travel sickness pills and a few more bits. You can add whatever you feel you might be more inclined to need along the way.
- Head torch
It is not something that we use often but we have used them on hikes or in power cuts. Which can happen often in Central America.
- Water bottles and filters
We are using Water-to-Go bottles and loving them!
We can fill them up from any fresh water source or tap and have safe clean water to drink. Not to mention how much money you save not having to buy bottled water.
The filters last around 3 months for us so we have a few spares with us.
- Note pad & Pens
How many times have you been on a plane and needed a pen but not had one on you? Exactly, so we now have a couple of pens and a notebook, well because I love notebooks and you never know when you might want one.
- Portable washing line
Our washing line is roughly 5 meters long and packs away into a tiny little case. We use it every single time we do laundry or have wet clothes to dry. It is so handy, I would never travel without one again.
- Ear plugs
Not something I would normally use at home but whilst travelling ear plugs are vital. Whether you are in a hostel dorm or a fancy Airbnb, I can almost guarantee you are going to be able to hear dogs barking or music playing from somewhere. Such is life in Central America.
Especially when you are in a new place and your mind is taking everything in, it can be hard to shut off and fall asleep. So having some decent earplugs really helps.
If you plan to stay in any hostels then you are going to need to take a padlock. Hostels usually have lockers for your belongings (don’t stay in one if they don’t have lockers). But they won’t provide the lock so you will need to have your own.
- Needles and thread
This is one of those things that my Dad suggested I take with me and I honestly couldn’t understand why. That was until my clothes started falling apart and I could fix them up myself. I have mentioned it before but things just don’t last as long when you are backpacking.
So rather than having to keep replacing things, if you have a needle and thread you can do a quick repair job yourself and save some money.
- Spare purse
I have one regular purse that I carry with me with some cash and 1 bank card. I then have the rest of my cards and cash in a separate purse locked away in our accommodation. It is always sensible to spread things out just in case.
- Metal reusable straws
Fancy a coconut on the beach but don’t want the straw? That could be fun to try and drink without it. Instead, we have our own metal straws with us so we can so no thank you to the plastic ones and not have to end up wearing our coconut water.
The ONLY thing we don’t have with us that we have both said we wish we did, is a travel pillow. Funnily enough, I had one in Asia and donated it as I didn’t use it. However, this time around we have had a few VERY long bus rides where a travel pillow would’ve been amazing.
Other than that, everything else that we could possibly need we have with us.
What Not To Pack For Central America
Here are a few things that you need to make sure not to pack when heading to Central America.
- A Drone
Ok so technically you can take one if you want but be warned now, many countries in Central America have banned drones from even entering the country. For example, Belize and Nicaragua have full bans and they will be confiscated at the borders.
We took our DJI mini drone with us and had to ship it home from Mexico which cost $100. If you want to take it you will need to try and apply for the correct permits but I would save you the time and money and just leave it at home for this trip.
- A Thick Coat
You just won’t need it. It may be cold occasionally but it is best to have several thinner layers than having to carry around a big thick coat that you won’t use.
- Expensive Jewellery
Parts of Central America are not the safest and it is strongly advised to not wear super flashy or valuable jewellery.
For more advice on what you can and can’t take into any given country, you can check out the country you are looking for here on the UK government website.
What to pack for Central America – Final Thoughts
There you have it, exactly what’s in my backpack and all you need to know about what to pack for Central America.
My biggest TIP for packing for any trip is no matter how much you think you need to take with you, you always need less. Lay out everything you want to take and then take away half of it.
Trust me, you won’t use it and you’ll just end up carrying it around.