Isabella walks us through her packing essentials from her trip backpacking through Mexico.
7 Essentials to Pack for Backpacking Through Mexico
At the end of 2021, I spent three months backpacking through Mexico. I arrived in Mexico City at midnight (7am my time) after a 12-hour redeye on which I slept – you guessed it – zero, with a one-way ticket and a backpack.
Now, this is kind of besides the point, but I do have to say that arriving in Mexico so late was a horrendous idea. The time difference, the language barrier and the altitude are already enough. (If you’re reading from La Paz don’t @ me, I’m not ready, I grew up at sea level, ok!) It’s worth the extra hundred euros for a better-timed flight. You can thank me once you’re on the beach on Mexico’s pacific coast, Mai Tai in hand.
Again, I don’t want to put anyone off. The majority of my trip backpacking through Mexico was truly incredible. But… it didn’t start well. To be exact, it started with having my rucksack stolen straight off of the conveyor belt. I ended up taking several flights during my trip (which continued through central America), and I do regret taking hold luggage.
My rucksack was probably small enough to take as a carry-on, but I hadn’t packed with this in mind so I had to check it in for every flight, and this was a mistake I won’t be making again.
I did get my rucksack back, after teaming up with a very glamorous-looking Spanish girl in Mexico City airport. Or, at least, she seemed very glamorous to my bedraggled, slightly unable-to-breathe self. (It didn’t help that I also (unknowingly) had Covid, but that’s a story for another day). Almost having my backpack stolen during my first hour in Mexico confirmed for me that travelling with hand luggage is the way to go. And, if you have to check a bag, at least take a spare pair of pants in your carry-on.
Beyond this list of packing essentials, my ultimate advice for any trip (and any rucksack) is this. Keep it light, only take the bare essentials, and don’t take anything especially precious. (If there’s one thing I’ve learned after many years of travelling, it’s that no matter how hard you try, you’ll always come home from the laundrette with a bleach stain or two).
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Here are my 7 must-haves for travelling in Mexico
1) Take a Lightweight Water Bottle with you to Mexico
It might seem obvious, but it wasn’t to me! When I was packing for my first trip to Mexico, I thought: Why bring a refillable water bottle, when you can’t drink the tap water in Mexico, anyway? Well, it turns out that not everyone in Mexico buys their water in 50cl bottles (yes, looking back, I sound dumb to me too). Most hostels and Airbnbs in Mexico have water coolers you can use to refill your water bottle (“agua potable” is going to become your favourite new Spanish phrase). If not, and you have to buy it yourself, you’re still better off buying a larger bottle to refill your travel water bottle.
Staying hydrated is important in general, but in hot climates like the coastal cities of Mexico you’ll realise water has never been more important to you. Even in places with cooler temperatures, the knowledge you can’t drink from the tap will make you want to carry drinking water with you at all times. Simply to reduce weight, I’d recommend an ultra-lightweight metal canteen or a collapsable cooler.
If you’re feeling low on energy, try drinking alkaline water or vitamin water. The pure, filtered water you get from bottles doesn’t have the same vitamins and minerals that you get from tap water!
2) Essential Shoes for Backpacking in Mexico: Crocs
Okay. I get it. It’s controversial. But you tell me a more versatile kind of shoe and I’ll eat my words! I actually didn’t take crocs on my backpacking trip through Mexico, but I look back on it now and see that I was foolish. They are a truly invaluable addition to your rucksack. You could take flip flops, but they chafe your toes. You could take sliders, but they slide off your feet (you can use your imagination on how I learned that the hard way). You could take water shoes, but who wants the hassle of getting them on and off?
Crocs can do everything. You can slip them on to wander around your hostel. You can wear them in the shower, in the sea, or through a rainstorm, and you can dry them in seconds with a towel (even water shoes don’t give you that luxury). They’re even comfortable enough to wear whilst you’re wandering around the city, as long as you don’t overdo it. They are easy to clean, cheap to replace, and most importantly comfortable.
Generally when I travel, I take two pairs of shoes: sturdy hiking trainers, and crocs. I know a lot of people who travel with one pair of shoes, but who wants to get stuck wearing hiking shoes when the temperature is soaring?! Not me, that’s for sure. When I’m travelling from hostel to hostel, I’ll wear my trainers/hiking shoes and clip my crocs onto the outside of my rucksack to save space.
3) Travel in Mexico with Sun Protection (For Your Skin and Your Hair!)
It’s important to remember that the sun is strong year-round in Mexico, even during their relatively cold months. Whether you’re hitting up Yucatan, Mexico City or pacific coastal towns like Puerto Escondido, suncream is a true essential. To protect your skin, of course make sure that your sunscreen is high-SPF and broad spectrum (covering UVA and UVB rays).
Remember that you should never go into the sea or natural water with suncream on, unless it is certified reef safe.
For travelling with hand luggage only, these 100ml pouches of suncream are perfect for making the most of the small liquids bag you’re allowed through airport security. (Airports security rules in Mexico are almost identical to those in Europe and the US).
Being out in the sun all day long can also be really damaging to your hair, especially if it is long or bleached (mine was both, so I can attest to this personally). If you can squeeze it into your rucksack, I’d really recommend taking a hydrating hair mist with SPF protection on your travels in Mexico. It might not seem like a top priority whilst you’re away, but I promise you’ll notice the difference once you’re back on home soil.
4) Take Insect Repellent & After-Bite Bug Spray when you Travel in Mexico
When packing for a trip through Mexico, insect repellent is essential (and no matter how well it works, you’ll want an after-bite spray too!). Mosquitoes and other bugs will be around everywhere, but especially by the coast and in the jungle. On my first day in Mexico, I ended up walking barefoot through the jungle and someone from our group got bitten by a spider. Her hand went numb. You can believe I whipped out my bug spray faster than you can say Tom Holland.
Insect repellents that contain DEET are the most effective, but they can be harmful to wildlife and are harmful to you if you breathe it in. You can purchase insect repellent in a spray bottle or wipes from most outdoor shops and pharmacies. If you prefer more natural options, there are many commercially available repellents that contain essential oils like citronella, geranium, and lemongrass instead.
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5) Make Sure you Take a First Aid Kit Backpacking
I’d recommend taking a small first aid kit or medical kit on any backpacking trip, but there are some essentials I’d highly recommend for travelling in Mexico that you might not need elsewhere. For reference, my medical kit is a small, clear plastic bag around the size of an A6 sheet of paper.
Tweezers are must-haves. From plucking my eyebrows to picking glass out of the bottom of my foot, there are always moments when I’m glad to have tweezers in my medical kit. I always keep two needles and some thread in there, too. As well as being especially handy for holey clothes on the road, I have used a sterilised needle more than once on splinters that were just too awkward for a pair of tweezers. Gross? Yes. Useful? Totally. Not gonna lie, I save these from hotel rooms and Christmas crackers. I don’t think I’ve ever actually bought a mini sewing kit. Has anyone?
I’d also recommend some kind of aloe or cream containing aloe to soothe burns and sunburns. Painkillers and diarrhoea medication are also pretty essential. There is nothing worse than trying to buy diarrhoea medication in your non-native language when you’ve got the worst headache of your life. (Trust me). Places that contain more or types of bacteria that your body is used to takes its toll on even the hardiest of stomachs. I thought I had a strong stomach until I went to Mexico.
6) Thin and Breathable Clothes for All Climates in Mexico
The climate in Mexico can vary wildly, so layers are an essential to packing light. In an ideal world, you want the kind of clothes that you can wear one of to stay cool, or three of to keep warm. Cities in Mexico do get cold, but you’re unlikely to need anything heavy unless you’re travelling in the North, or during Mexico’s winter. Bringing lightweight clothes will also keep your backpack’s weight down, which you will be grateful for when you’re moving from place to place.
Beach towns in Mexico like Sayulita and Puerto Escondido can be especially humid, so bring lightweight, breathable clothes. This includes shorts and floaty trousers (which you really won’t want to wear, but you will, once you realise how many mosquitoes are around!). Not only will lightweight clothes be practical in terms of Mexico’s humidity and keeping your backpack to a minimum, but it will also help them to dry quickly when they’ve been washed.
A light rain jacket is also a must, especially if you’re travelling during a rainy season, but make sure it is really thin otherwise it will be too warm to wear.
7) A Comfortable Day Bag for Day Trips in Mexico
If you’re travelling with a fairly small rucksack, you wouldn’t think to put *another* rucksack inside of it, but you won’t regret it. You’ll need something small and easy to sling over your shoulder, just big enough to fit all your daily essentials – snacks, water, camera, sunglasses, and maybe a good book!
A good day bag should be lightweight and have adjustable straps that make it comfortable to wear. If you have one that can be worn multiple ways, even better! (Wearing a bag all day long on a sunburnt shoulder is NOT the one). I would recommend a waterproof bag. Although it’s not necessarily an essential quality, a waterproof day bag will keep your mind at ease on boat trips, beach adventures, and unexpectedly rainy days!
The right bag can make a big difference when it comes to packing, and this applies to your larger backpack and your day bag. Whether backpacking in Mexico or travelling in any other destination, having comfortable bags that fit your needs will make your life so much easier.
If you’re interested, I still have my full list of every single thing I packed for Mexico (yes, I’m that kind of traveller!) Let me know if you’d be interested, and I can share it with you. Stay tuned for more travel advice from me and our resident travel columnist, Laura (Lauz Explores)!