April 27, 2007

Latin America Backpack Equipment Essentials
Vancouver, United States

Backpack contents, 2005

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).

Washing my dirty backpack

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…

Reference Books

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.

Water Protection

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).

Bug Protection

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've talked about the Pacsafe many times, and used it to both deter opportunistic theft and keep my pack from walking away without me.

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).

Electrical Accessories

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.

Other Accessories

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.



May 6th, 2007

I'm very eager to find out how the Nikon works out for you. I'm a Canon loyalist myself. While not subjected to quite the abuse you put them through, my old Canon Powershot G2 that I use for budget travels is becoming flakey - lens motor is failing and such. I think it's time to replace with something more advanced now, and with a more pocketable size. I also have a high end Canon SLR but that's only good for travels to a single city, usually on business trips. :)

The United States

Craig | travelvice.com

May 7th, 2007

Speaking of cameras, I thought I'd share a remark I made to someone recently about camera memory.

I carry an excessive number of memory cards so that I can shoot without fear of running out of space between opportunities to unload images — I wish I did not have these. The investment made to purchase so many of a certain type of memory card has ultimately locked me into cameras that only take this type of card.

If I was to do this all over again, with today's prices, I would invest in USB thumb drives, and no more than three memory cards. It's very easy to unload images onto a thumb (flash) drive — most any PC you're using will accommodate this. With prices they way they are today, buying thumb drives are actually cheaper than camera memory (not to mention much more versatile).


May 8th, 2007

The price point of flash memory is extremely cheap these days. I find swapping memory to be annoying, so large capacity cards are a must.

2 GB SD cards can be had for as low as $15. A 4 pack of 1GB cards is #23 on another site I know. With a little digging, I know I can find similarly priced cards with a read-only lock.

Your Nikon is SDHC compatible. I may end up donating to your cause in the form of a high cap 8GB card. You could use one card for photos and internet tools then. Just a thought, if you're interested.


May 8th, 2007

I notice that you were carriying quite a lot. Even MY backpack was not that filled.

Hope to see you in Malaysia (in a nice beach resort ;) )


Craig | travelvice.com

May 14th, 2007

I'm missing the ability to do inline color accents (such as this)…

Byron J. Gaudette

May 20th, 2008

I always love finding out what other people take with them traveling. It looks like you downsized a LOT from your first bag to your new one. I have heard nothing but good things about Kelty backpacks.

Oh and some other great sandals are ones made by a company called Rainbow. I have the hemp ones and they are soo comfortable. I have had the same pair for over 2 years now, and they have pretty much become a part of me. You can usually find them at skate/surf shops.


December 30th, 2008

hey there i am going to be leaving to go to south america at the end of january to begin my nomadic journey.

i don't have an exact date to come back and i was wondering if you could tell me the best way to book my ticket - buy one way or or pay the fare difference for changing my return.

i am starting off in colombia and then i was going to make my way down to argentina, unless you can suggest a more efficient way of travelling around south america.

thanks for everything you have posted till now. VERY HELPFUL

quarter-century nomadic recession traveller


Craig | travelvice.com

December 30th, 2008

I'm a huge fan of one-way tickets. Get one. You never know what country, airline or month you'll end up departing from.

Travel safe,

//craig in Turkey


December 30th, 2008

hey craig thanks for your feedback. can you recommend any good websites to purchase one way tickets???


Craig | travelvice.com

December 30th, 2008

I tend to start all my searches for the Americas with Kayak.com.

Also, for more packing tips, check out the 2008 successor to this post, What's Inside My Backpack for Europe, and Beyond.

Costa Rica Hotels

September 14th, 2009

Incredible that are able to fit all that into one single backpack, it looks like you are able of organizing everything pretty well

Meredith Rae

September 17th, 2009

Great post! I'll be leaving for Argentina in november 2009 and making my way to Colombia. I'm just starting my research, as i plan on staying in colombia long term (possibly 6 months). I'm curious if you had many problems with border crosses, via bus without return trip tickets?

Again! Thanks for all the tips! I'll be sure to bring some locks with me :)



Craig | travelvice.com

September 17th, 2009

None at all. When in doubt, before you cross the border, just print out a fake plane ticket:
Fake Onward Tickets

(also don't forget to have a peek at the updated version of my pack's contents — link in the comments above.)

Meredith Rae

September 17th, 2009

Thanks Craig!

I'll def. check out the updated version of the pack's contents. As I'm already a little perplexed about how a girl can fit all her essentials in one pack! I'll manage though.

One great thing, I might add are the traveler's space bags. You can roll them up, and push out all the air.

The best part about it is they are waterproof. My friend had a horror story with luggage while in Buenos Aires. They were flying to Mendoza when a storm brewed. Apparently, the airlines just left all the luggage outside in the storm. I think I took a few days for everything to dry out.

BTW I'm traveling with US passport.


November 18th, 2009

Planning a two month trek in Latin America and I'm basing my list on yours. Anything else you'd recommend or keep in mind?

The United States

Craig | travelvice.com

November 18th, 2009

Good luck Cory!

Be sure to check out the 2008 successor to this post:
What's Inside My Backpack for Europe, and Beyond.



July 26th, 2010

This is really helpful - We aren't heading to S.America for another year or so, but I didn't even think of mosquito netting!!

The United States

Dakine Backpacks

July 27th, 2010

Well written blog! It seems to be a good resource on Backpacks. I found you in google while doing research on my recent page about , here: http://www.bagking.com/dakine.html I think my points are relevant :) In any event, I found your article very helpful and informative.



March 23rd, 2011

Great post, thanks!! I'm planning a trip for about 12-18 months (depending on funds) to South America in Jan '12, was just wondering about getting around- when to bus or fly given the distances?
Also, I'll need a return ticket from Brazil, but I'll be heading off to other countries in South America after that- how do I work that out?
Thanks so much!


Craig | travelvice.com

March 23rd, 2011

@Cozzy: You'll need to make a fake return ticket for your Brazilian visa application.

The United States


January 4th, 2012

This website has been so helpful! We are doing Central and South America for four months and it's been great to have a packing guide with pictures as well as detailed info about Carnival.

One question, what size dry sacks did you use? Anything in here you'd now leave out or change?

The United States

Craig | travelvice.com

January 4th, 2012

Thanks, Jade.

Be sure to check out the 2008 successor to this post to see the evolution:
What's Inside My Backpack for Europe, and Beyond.

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