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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.
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.
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.
5 x shirts: 1 x long-sleeve activewear, 1 x long-sleeve everyday, 3 x breathable T-shirts (like merino). You can also replace a T-shirt with a collared shirt for going out or as a light layer.
2 x singlets: 1 x activewear, 1 x for everyday.
1-2 x shorts: 1 x activewear, 1 x everyday.
1 x lightweight travel pants: lighter and faster drying than jeans, but still appropriate for a night on the town or a day of sight-seeing.
1 x hiking pants: choose softshell for added protection against rain and cold. Otherwise a dashing pair of zip-off convertible pants will work for hikes in warmer weather.
1 x black leggings (optional): comfy alternative for cold planes, buses and anytime you’re in transit.
1-2 x lightweight dress: I prefer loose dresses in hot weather, so if you’re headed to the Carribean coast, consider one for the beach and one for nicer occasions.
1 x merino jacket or lightweight fleece: for mild overnight temperatures, in-transit and outdoors.
1 x merino cardigan (optional)
1 x down jacket: compressible, light and super warm, this 5-in-1 down jacket converts to a down vest for more versatility.
1 x waterproof rain jacket: With a hood and tapered sleeves.
1 x waterproof pants (optional): highly recommended if you’re hiking in cold/wet weather conditions, otherwise you can leave them out.
1 x swimwear
1 x set of merino thermals (top & bottoms): Crucial for layering and cold-weather hikes. Very handy to sleep in as not all accommodation in South America has heating.
3 bras: 2 x T-shirt bras, 1 x sports bra.
5 x underwear: At least one pair that is quick dry for when you’re in a tight spot.
1 x breathable pajamas (optional): but essential if you’re staying in a dorm room with strangers. Please and thanks.
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.
4 x packing cubes (optional): I say optional, but I’m a convert – these are amazing for packing organisation. One for warm weather gear, one for cold weather, one for dirty laundry, and one for undergarments and socks.
Compression bag (optional): I used one to keep my cold weather gear as compact and out of the way as possible.
3 TSA bag locks: 2 x for backpack, 1 x daypack.
Documents & Other Important Stuff
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.
Want to do a little camping on your South American travels? Learn more about how to travel with camping here.