Latin America Backpack Equipment Essentials
Vancouver, United States
A comprehensive snapshot of the contents of my backpack after more than 16 months of travel throughout the Caribbean, Central and South America.
I look at the photo of the innards of my backpack, taken back in 2005, and reflect on how much my gear has changed, how much hasn't, and how new everything looks. I had spent excessive amounts of time researching what should go into my pack (and almost none on where I was going).
I thought I had things pretty well figured out, but sometimes all the research and preparation in the world can't make up for raw experience.
So as my backpack sits and soaks for a moment in a (now) very dirty tub of water, I invite you to see what it is that I was ultimately carrying around on my back when I left Latin America earlier this month.
Inside My Backpack…
A world atlas; a pocket dictionary (Spanish to English and back); and a beefy Lonely Planet guidebook (South America on a Shoestring). I cover my guidebooks to conceal what it is that I'm reading, as targets are made of out people with such things on display.
A rain-fly for my backpack; a light, water resistant jacket (designed for cyclists); a cheap umbrella bought in Guatemala (that's completely falling apart); and a waterproof Pelican enclosure for my digital camera (rarely used).
A silk sleeping bag soaked in Permethrin; a mosquito net donated to me in Colombia, and some extra mosquito coils (burned over several hours to confuse/repel the bloodsuckers). Most any experienced traveler will tell you a mosquito net is absolutely essential backpack gear. Even if you use it once a year, in that one instance it will be invaluable.
Locks and (a sense of) Backpack Security
Four padlocks that use keys; three padlocks that use a combination; compass; mini-light; springy, vinyl-coated wire; and a Pacsafe wire mesh enclosure. My Italian buddy, Giovanni, teases me about the number and weight of locks that I carry—he's right, it's a lot—but locking mechanisms vary so much that I end up using each and every one of these items often. Locks with combinations are best left to places where you don't have to deal with them in the dark, and carrying a padlock with a long neck allows you to lock things like closets that you normally couldn't.
I should add that it's wonderful it is to carry a compass and a small light attached to a keychain with you. I'm already carrying the keys to unlock my gear when I'm out walking around, so both items are always with me always. The compass is very useful for orientating to maps (when you come off a bus or out of a subway). The light is useful for finding your lock when you return to a dark dormitory room and people are sleeping. I've gone through several of both, though, as they are subjected to quite a beating on a daily basis.
Repair, Cords, and Miscellaneous Items
The sturdy bag that holds all my locks also contains picture frame wire; electrical, scotch, and duct tape (without the cardboard centers); twist-ties; strong waxy string that is good for repairs or jewelry; nylon cord for a clothesline; bottle opener; and a spoon.
An Item Not to be Forgotten
Clothespins. If you're stringing up your own clothesline, you're going to need your own supply of clothespins. They're invaluable for not only securing clothes, but for pinning things up or together in your living environment.
Bags and Towels
An orange day/beach bag (details here); yellow shawl; red bandana (that hasn't stopped turning the sink water pink when washed since the purchase over a year ago); waterproof Sea to Summit sack; micro-fiber towel; and a mini-backpack.
Using a shawl as a towel at the beach (instead of something made out of cotton) is the way to go. Not only does it weight nothing and consume little space, but is easy to wash and dries fast. Ditto goes for the micro-fiber travel towel—it's sort of a like a shammy that you'd use on a car, but for people.
I can't imagine traveling without my small Dakine backpack. Purchased at a skateboard shop in San Diego, this sturdy little bag functions as the enclosure for all my valued possession when I get on a bus or plane (removing them from my backpack for purposes of safety and theft). I lock the zippers with a padlock and use the skateboard on the front of the pack to secure a jacket (or other items) to keep my hands free.
Health and Hygiene
I carry lots of goodies inside of a small bathroom bag and a blue stuff sack, such as items for dental, eye, ear, hair, nail, and skin care; clothing repair; a bottle of powdered laundry detergent; a bottle of naproxen (Aleve); Tiger Balm; drain stopper (an essential item, most often used when washing clothes); shatterproof mirror; extra contact lenses (stored in an old first aid kit); moleskin (and other general cut/blister aid); and a small pharmacy of pills and anti-itch creams (damn biting insects).
Spare USB cable; immersion heater (boils water); current tap (gives me a pair out outlets by screwing it between a light bulb and the socket); outlet multiplier (turns one into five); homemade extension cord; beard clippers; outlet adapters; rechargeable battery charger (AA/AAA); rechargeable batteries; and a tiny radio from Guatemala I bought for a dollar (great for the beach, when you don't want to risk something more valuable).
Palm Pilot TX with carrying case, power supply, and collapsible keyboard (this is what I use to write for this site); USB card reader and cable (used to pull photos off my digital camera and Palm Pilot memory cards without any driver/software installation); thumb drives; an iRiver MP3 player (donated by my friend Matt); headphones and extra headphones with a Y splitter, to share music; an earbud headset/microphone for use with Skype Internet calls; nine 512KB SD memory cards; padded camera carrying case; and digital camera (I've gone through a Canon SD300, SD400, and an A530 on this trip alone)—all stored inside a Sea to Summit dry sack.
Passport with mini-calendar (excellent when debating or calculating time in country with a border official); quick currency converter calculator (so convenient until you adjust to the new mental math); pocket watch (discrete and sophisticated—like me!); flashlight; cases holding prescription glasses and sunglasses; pipe and tobacco; laminated postcards of Arizona and Oregon (to show locals); laminated photo of my mom (who passed away from cancer in '97); various pens and highlighters; piece of paper from a notebook with weight and volume conversions; note cards; and Monopoly cards taken from a hostel with no gameboard (fun for writing contact information on the back of—especially the cards printed in Spanish).
A pair of Diesel shoes and Reef sandals. I'm more prone to lay on a beach than trek through a jungle, and my gear matches that lifestyle. I don't carry hiking boots or camping equipment. These shoes are the middle ground for me—between nice enough to wear to an urban nightclub, yet practical enough to walk through a jungle whilst sneaking into Machu Picchu. Oh, and I love my Reef sandals, love them to death. I'm going to buy another two pair here in the U.S., in case they stop making this model.
Other clothing, not photographed here (because I'm wearing it in every snapshot for the past 16+ months), includes: One pair of cargo pants and shorts, boardshorts (swimsuit); pajama pants (even though it's hot, long pants help against the bloodsuckers); three pair of boxers; three pair of socks; three everyday button-down shirts (I don't like cotton t-shirts); a synthetic t-shirt (designated my sleep and travel shirt because it's soft, durable, and dries quickly when I sweat in it); a nice button-down shirt for special occasions; a nice polo shirt for embassy visits and government offices; a fleece pullover; and a hat (although I am currently without, having lost two sock hats and a cap sent to me from my friend in Canada).
New for Asia!
I'll be dropping or replacing some items as I prepare for my incursion into southeast Asia. Items like my barely functional umbrella have been swapped out for a nice, slim little number. Smaller items that I'm adding (or replacing) include a real compass; military-issue can opener; new keychain light; zip-ties of various sizes; a fisheye camera lens (plus other camera accessories such as a charger and batteries); a fleece sock hat (that I will try my best not to loose); a homemade security cable; and a new USB card reader that also includes a 3-port USB hub (because there are many times that a PC only has one open USB port, so I have to keep juggling my thumb drive and card reader).
New, big purchases, include a Kelty Redwing 3100 panel-loading backpack, and a Nikon P5000 digital camera. The Redwing is a full 6-liters smaller than my current pack (think of three, 2-liter bottles stacked horizontally on top of each other), a Kelty Moraine 3600, but eliminating the top-loading lifestyle will allow me to drop the Pacsafe mesh I've been using. Instead I'll be locking the zippered compartment and using the security cable I made to keep it from being carried away.
I have been a Canon loyalist my entire life, but feel recently the brand has nothing to offer me (in terms of their model lineup) that fits with my lifestyle. I've gone through three Canon's in the past year and a half—and I treat my cameras well. The recently released Nikon P5000 was recommended to me by my friend and photography mentor, Craig Strong, and after sizing one up with him, decided to invest. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.