Backpacking Central America Packing List
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Central America is a unique and wonderful place! Full of spectacular beaches, volcanic mountains, lush jungles, Colonial Spanish cities, and ancient ruins, it has something to inspire nearly any visitor. Aside from the beautiful landscape and wonderful sights, there are several travel hacks for the minimalist traveler; and thanks to the warm climate and water activities, backpacking Central America is simpler than ever. As a lightweight digital nomad, I’ve spend quite a bit of time in this amazing region. Let me share a guide to the region, along with my personal Central America packing list and tips to help you get the most out of your trip.
Backpacking Central America: What to Expect
The weather in Central America is mostly warm and tropical, but you will be surprised how many different micro climates exist in a relatively small area. As for seasons, there are only two, wet and dry. Even in the dry season you are likely to visit a rain forest, waterfall, or beach, so moisture is a constant concern when traveling here. Just be prepared and expect to get wet at some point.
If the climate seems a little foreign, the sense of time may really throw you. Things move slowly here. It’s best to embrace it. Try to slow down and enjoy the experience; and don’t expect anything to happen quickly.
The people you meet are genuine, helpful, warm, and friendly. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, you will find a way to communicate. Overall, they share western values, although they tend to be a bit more traditional. You might want to dress slightly more conservatively than the weather dictates when sightseeing around town. However, bikinis and swim shorts are perfectly acceptable for beaches and water sports. Each area is a little different. Just be respectful of the local customs and you’ll be fine.
Backpacking Central America: Packing
If you are staying at only one or two destinations, any sort of luggage will work. The clothing and gear you need for Central America aren’t bulky, so you can travel for weeks with one bag. Just do your laundry along the way. Your luggage is important and there are many options to choose from, but we recommend a backpack. Carrying a suitcase or duffel is physically more difficult and leaves you without free hands. Bags with wheels aren’t much help either because the sidewalks probably won’t be flat enough to roll on. If you intend to maximize your trip and visit multiple destinations, a backpack is the answer for Central America. They’re more versatile and easier to travel with than traditional luggage and they allow for packing light and staying agile.
Slinging your stuff on your back is the way to go. I ordered a Mountaintop 40 Liter Hiking Backpack from Amazon. It was inexpensive, but it has been great so far. You really need to plan for the unexpected and pick something that can stand up to rain, bus storage compartments, luggage racks, and even a “chicken bus” or two when backpacking Central America. It is a bonus that this pack has the right pockets and straps to be used for light backpacking as well, if you need it.
If you want something with a better (read: lifetime!) warranty that comes from a great company, try the Osprey Kestrel 38 liter pack. It’s small enough to fit in the overhead bin on a plane, yet packs an amazing amount of stuff. Plus, it comes with an integrated rain cover that unfurls from a pocket on the back (perfect for a sudden rain storm down here). It’s very streamlined and has all the right storage compartments, including a top-loading flap and a front-loading “sleeping bag compartment.” My friend swears by this pack and has carried it throughout Central America as well as Europe and to the top of many mountains.
If you haven’t tried them yet, you should! Travel packing cubes are a solid travel hack for any trip. They make packing and unpacking simple, they help compress your stuff to maximize space in your bags, and many brands are water resistant. I ordered an inexpensive eight piece set on Amazon from L&N Always. It is more than I needed, but you can use them for all your travels and pick the right bags for each trip. The shoe bag is a bonus to keep your shoes separate from your things. For our current recommendations, check out the Best and Lightest Packing Cubes review post for some great options.
You will want your favorite soaps and toiletries from home. Many hotels don’t provide them and if they do, they are not the luxurious sample bottles that you take home and horde under your sink. A hanger is also a nice feature to have since counter tops in the bathroom seem to be scarce in Central America. I use the Travel Toiletry Bag from ProPacking Cubes. At first glance it looks too big, but I like the side pockets for my travel towel, socks, and underwear. It’s a great addition to your Central America packing list.
Backpacking Central America Packing List: Clothing
Consider the activities you plan to do during your trip. If you don’t intend to leave your beach resort, you can probably get by with sandals, boardshorts, and bikinis, with a cover up for the girls. No joke! But if you plan to venture out, here are some tips to help you pack light for backpacking Central America while staying comfortable.
Short Sleeve Tops
Bring one nice wrinkle-resistant collared shirt or blouse so you can dress appropriately for a night out. Comfortable button-ups and t-shirts are fine for the rest of your wardrobe. No need to get any travel specific clothing here.
Bring a comfortable light hoodie, flannel or long sleeve shirt. You will appreciate a little extra warmth if you visit places with higher elevations or breezy evenings. You won’t find snow, but it’s chilly enough to see your breath on some of the mountains and volcanoes.
This is an essential for your Central America packing list – especially in the wet season. I went for the lightest waterproof option Columbia offers, the Watertight II Jacket – it’s pack-able and It keeps me dry without adding extra warmth. It works great in the heaviest rain and you can use it as an added layer and wind breaker at higher elevations.
Shorts, Skirts and Dresses
My trick for shorts is to use board-shorts that look like regular shorts. Rip Curl Boardwalk Boardshorts are my favorite – they give me style and versatility. No one will ever know that you are wearing a pair of swim trunks! Girls should pack a couple of light, comfortable shorts or skirts. Not too much need for travel specific clothing here, just think light. And ladies remember the ever so useful, lightweight, wrinkle resistant, little black dress (or convertible skirt). Dress them up for a night out or use them with your other tops for variety.
Convertible travel pants
One of the few travel specific items you want is at least one pair of lightweight convertible travel pants. Silver Ridge Stretch Convertible Pants from Columbia are a great product. These pants are water resistant and they help protect you from bug bites and scratches. The light breathable fabric will keep you cool and comfortable, and changing them into shorts is easy and offers versatility without taking up more space in your bag. They have all the right features and quality that you expect since you are likely to visit at least one jungle. They also make a fantastic women’s version. So, these check all the boxes for your Central America packing list.
We don’t normally recommend jeans. However, if you have room in your bag and know that you will be visiting higher elevations, jeans could come in handy. Use them to dress up for a nice night out or to keep warm in the mountains.
Boardshorts and bikinis
This region is famous for beaches, sunbathing, swimming, and water sports. Your favorite trunks or bikinis are a must have while backpacking Central America. Girls should bring a one-piece suit for unexpected adventures such as surfing, cliff diving, white water rafting, etc…it happens.
Light hiking trainers or cross trainers
I picked up a great pair of Nike Cross Trainers on sale. They weigh practically nothing and the light breathable material helps them dry fast if they get wet. A friend of mine has also had great luck with the Merrell Moab. These are sturdy, lightweight hikers with mesh panels. He prefers the shoe model with Gore-tex liners. They breathe well and are waterproof – both excellent qualities for this climate. They also make an excellent mid-boot, if you need something a little taller. Consider this type of footwear a must for backpacking Central America.
I’m from Southern California so I love my Rainbow Sandals! I picked up a pair of the new Classic Rubber Sandals with Nylon Straps. Rubber and nylon work great since leather will become hard and cracked when it gets wet. Chacos and Teva make some great options too and both are a bit more rugged than the Rainbows. However, and this is a BIG however, roads and sidewalks in Central America are often in very poor condition. Pot holes, uneven ground, loose gravel, stumps from broken sign posts, and even missing manhole covers are a common sight! I quickly traded my favorite sandals for tennis shoes when walking around town. Keep the sandals for the beach.
Only take these if you intend to do some serious hiking! My boots were only useful for climbing young volcanoes with lots of rocks, pebbles, and sand. They are recommended for ankle deep mud in the jungles as well. However, I used travel sandals and let my feet get gross! It was fun and the cleanup was easy, but you might get an extra scratch or bug bite. Long story short – if you need them, wear them on the plane, because they are probably the largest item you need for your visit to Central America.
Socks and Underwear
You might not consider these things when planning on backpacking Central America, but don’t! Get the “good” socks and your feet will thank you! I picked up a few pairs of Thorlo Lite Hiking Crew Socks for all the sightseeing, trekking, hiking, and strolling around colonial towns. The added breath-ability, padding, and comfort is well worth it. Pack your most comfortable undergarments with light fabrics and breathable materials.
Undergarments meant for exercise work great. Consider upgrading to something non-cotton with water wicking fabric for your Central America packing list. We’re really fond of ExOfficio’s Give-N-Go and Modern Travel options. They’re quick-drying, odor resistant, breathable, lightweight and super comfortable. We just sink-wash them and they dry in no time.
Backpacking Central America Packing List: Equipment
Backup Battery Charger
This is a must for traveling. All your electronic gadgets have made backpacking Central America more accessible and easy to navigate. If your Spanish isn’t great, it will be difficult to get directions after your smartphone is dead. I ordered an Anker PowerCore 5000 from Amazon. It takes up very little space and has saved me a few times.
This is different from your main pack. You’ll find these useful for quick excursions or trips to the beach. They take up very little space but expand to become a full backpack, perfect for day trips. I ordered a cheap one on Amazon and it has been one of the most useful gadgets in my inventory. Some of these even fold up into one of the front pockets, creating a package about the size of a baseball. Best of all, when you’re ready to head for home, you can pack it with souvenirs and check it at the airport.
Your Central America packing list should include inexpensive sunglasses that you can scratch or lose – you will be amazed how bright it can be in the tropical sun. It’s best to look for something polarized with UV protection. The sun is vastly more intense down here. You may also want to consider a pair with interchangeable lenses. Not only can you change up the color to match your style, they come in handy should you get significant scratches.
Sunblock and Bug Spray
Sunblock and bug spray are both important to protect your skin. Sun and bugs are more plentiful near the equator. So, lather up and save yourself the woes of burning itchy skin! I’m a surfer so I use Headhunters SPF 45 Mineral Sunscreen Face Stick to keep the sunblock from getting in my eyes.
For the rest of me I use Sun Bum – their products are safe for sea creatures and coral, which means those technicolor beauties will still be there next time you go snorkeling! You have lots of options too.
A good idea for the girls, or anyone with long hair. In the hotter parts of Central America, warm water may not be available, so it’s nice to get rid of knots and frizzy hair without a shower.
The outdoor beauty of the area is one of the main attractions, so you will probably find yourself on boats, fording rivers, or stuck in an unexpected downpour. Dry sacks are perfect for keeping electronics documents, towels, and anything else you need dry. I bought several different sizes of the Sea to Summit Ultra-SIL bags. They’re among the lightest available and I like the size and color selections.
If you need something more durable and abrasion-resistant, try the Sea to Summit Big River dry bags. They’re a bit heavier, but still considered mid-weight. However, they’re made from sturdy 420D nylon and all the seams are reinforced. Consider these if you plan to do any heavy water activities.
Recommendation (lightweight): Sea to Summit Ultra-SIL Nano Dry
- Waterproof siliconized 15D nylon
- Ultra lightweight
- 7 sizes from 1 L to 35 L
- 3 color choices
Recommendation (more durable): Sea to Summit Big River Dry Bag
- Heavy duty & abrasion resistant 420D nylon
- Waterproof, double stitched, reinforced, tape sealed seams
- 7 sizes from 3 L to 65 L
- 5 color choices
You need a camera to capture all the beauty of this spectacular area; but the hot, humid and sandy conditions can be a bit harsh for some models. For trips like this, I prefer my GoPro HERO 7. It is easy to use, durable and has great picture and sound quality. I can play around with shots and videos to get exactly what I want and there are tons of accessories available to further expand its functionality. It’s probably one of the best all-around values in the photography/video space for adventure travel.
This one is easy to overlook, but it’s hard to beat relaxing in a hammock listening to your favorite tunes. I like my JBL Clip 3 Portable Bluetooth speaker, it has great battery life and it’s waterproof. Best of all, it doesn’t weigh much or take up excessive space. Yet it can set the mood or keep you in good spirits on a long hike. You can even clip it to your bag while you backpack through Central America.
Clothesline and Universal Sink Stopper
For more minimal travel, add a clothesline and universal sink stopper to your Central America packing list. These allow you to wash a few articles of clothing at a time in a sink and hang them to dry. You can also find “lavanderias” connected to your hotel, hostel, or in town that can clean and dry your clothes for cheap, and often in only a few hours. Now you can pack a few days of clothing or less!
Surprisingly, a good cup of coffee is hard to find. The good stuff gets shipped away. You can find a decent brew in the larger cities, but for smaller towns and time in transit, I like Starbucks Via. It is one of the best tasting instant coffees on the market and comes in convenient individual packs, perfect for travel. So, don’t be stranded without your brew. Add some of these to your Central America packing list to ensure you wake up on the right side of the mug each morning.
A regular towel takes up entirely too much space, so a travel towel is a must. Use towels provided by your hotel whenever you can. But when you’re out and about or in transit, think small. The travel towel will come in handy for waterfalls, swimming holes, and secluded beaches. No need to be fancy here; I ordered an inexpensive Relefree microfiber towel set on Amazon and it has survived six countries and counting.
Other than a good packable hat to keep the sun off your face, don’t bring any other accessories. Treat yourself to some great earrings, bracelets, or necklaces from local artisans while you explore colorful shops and markets.
Final Thoughts on Backpacking Central America
Overall, Central America truly is the land of perpetual summer. Packing light is easy since your main goal here is to stay cool and dry. Opportunities for adventure are everywhere, and truly getting away from it all only takes a ten-minute stroll in the jungle. Remember the culture is colorful, rich, and vibrant. Your imagination will run wild when you feel like you’ve been transported back in time to Colonial Spain or conjure up images of Indiana Jones in the ancient jungle ruins of the Maya. Slow down, relax, take it all in and be glad you packed light.
As they say in Costa Rica, Pura Vida!