A woman backpacking in Central America with a rucksack and walking sticks

What to Pack for Backpacking in Central America

How could any travel guide (okay, well, one that I’ve not finished yet) be complete without a packing list? Whether you’re the kind of person that will make a detailed list of travel essentials before every trip (aka me) or someone who can just wing it, it’s probably a good idea to give this list a read through to give you a general idea of what you’ll need to take with you on a trip to Central America.

Of course, everything on my Central America packing list is coming from personal experience – I spent over a month travelling in Central America this year before moving on to South America. 

Around here you’ll find a LOT of information about Central America and especially Guatemala, as I started my trip in Guatemala City Airport and slowly worked my way down, o keep your eyes peeled for those and many more travel guides to come! 

This list is aimed for someone doing a several month trip – that is to say, if you’re just going for a couple of weeks you probably won’t need everything on this list. I’ve also added some specialised categories at the end, so you can tailor your list to the activities you’ll actually be doing. (No point in taking a dry bag if you’re not planning on getting in a boat!).

An absolute essential for any trip has got to be a good quality rucksack, and a set of good quality packing cubes. Whilst I was travelling this year I saw sooo many people using packing cubes, and there is a reason for that: they make everything 100x easier. I wouldn’t travel without mine now. I also recommend taking a rucksack that can be opened like a suitcase – I switched to one of these part way through my trip because my old rucksack broke, and it was a game changer! 

The one I have is by La Fiebre de Viajar, a Costa Rican company (I bought it in Costa Rica). It’s got many great aspects, but I will have to write a full review on it because I’m not totally sure I would buy it again… 

Anyway, without further ado, let’s get into my Central America packing list!

A sunset on the water from Punta Jesus Maria beach, Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

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Absolute Packing Essentials for Central America

A day pack or small rucksack

Trust me, you’ll want somewhere to put your things that isn’t your main backpack when you go out on day trips. I’d recommend one around 20L with small pockets for easy access to your essentials. 

Bum bag / fanny pack / money belt

I always take one of these as well as a daypack and I never regret it. It’s a great place to keep your absolute essentials like your credit cards, money, passport and other important documents. Click here for my guide to money and currencies in Central America!

Money & documents

Speaking of which, don’t forget to bring your credit cards, money, passport and important documents! I’d recommend a printed version of any visas or immigration documents you need to enter your first country, both for peace of mind and in case your phone runs out of battery. 

Power bank

An alternative to your phone running out of battery! 

Water bottle

For Central America, you’re going to want a big one. Free drinking water will likely be available at almost every accommodation you stay in, so there’s no need to be buying plastic. 

Travel towel

I’m actually one of these crazy people that travels with two towels (and then loses them both during the first two weeks of their trip…). I always bring a travel towel, for activities and the beach, and a real towel, for the shower. The “real towel” is an IKEA special and takes up no more space than the travel towel, although I wouldn’t recommend it for anyone who doesn’t want to accidentally flash their bum on their way out of the shower (that is to say: it’s a bit small). 

First aid kit

This will of course depend on the kind of activities you end up doing, and can range from a full on malaria kit to a few band aids in the bottom of your wash bag. I always include a needle and thread, NOT for stitching up wounds (please go to the hospital) but for stitching clothes and other miscellaneous broken items. Beware that different countries have different security rules, so things like nail scissors could get confiscated by airport security (this actually happened to me in Colombia, not Central America, but you never know!)

Mosquito repellent

Whether or not you actually need this will, again, depend on where you’re going and what you’re doing, but I’d always recommend some just in case. Your accommodation will often provide mosquito nets if you’re in a mosquito-heavy area, but you can’t be too prepared. 

Toiletries bag

Of course this will change so much depending on who you are and what you use! But here are a few pointers:

You can try a shampoo bar, give it a go, but it will probably melt or disintegrate (I gave up on mine within the first two weeks). They’re a great idea and I REALLY tried, but they are not suited to a warm or humid climate.

Take sun cream and a lip balm with SPF in it, and don’t forget to put them on! Think about what you’ll really use whilst you’re away; I brought quite a lot of skincare and a lot of it has gone unused because you can’t use it with sun exposure, or because I was too lazy to put it on! Bare essentials is the way to go. 

Underwear

I can’t remember who told me “take half as many books and twice as many pairs of underwear”, but they were right. I always find that pairs of socks go missing, but it’s not the end of the world, they are easy to pick up along the way. I bought some smiley socks that I LOVE when I was in Panama and, magically, all three pairs are still with me! (By the time I found time to write this, I’m all the way down in Argentina.)

For people with boobs: this time I came travelling with 1 x sports bra and 1 x normal bra, and surprisingly it’s been fine. I do have quite a few tops that I wear without a bra, though. 

Swimming

I brought two bikinis, but one of them has stayed in my suitcase and the other has had a lot of wear. I didn’t spend huge amounts of time on the beach, but when I did it was for many days at a time and I always just threw the same bikini back on. So, take two if you like variety but one bathing suit is probably enough.

Shoes

As a salsa dancer I make a bit of an exception here: I travelled with a pair of hiking shoes, a pair of dance sneakers, and a pair of flip flops. Although I put my dance sneakers to very good use when I got to Colombia, I hardly danced in Central America. I was too busy having more generalised fun! Next time (Colombia being the exception) I’d swap dance sneakers for regular trainers or maybe even a pair of sandals, again depending on my intended activities! 

Pants/Trousers

Of course, if you’re going through several different countries in Central America then you are bound to see a few different climates, even if that only includes the chilly air conditioning of a bus! I always take at least two pairs of long pants/trousers and two pairs of shorts, plus a pair of athletic shorts for sports and wash days. I usually end up taking more pairs of both, but keep 2 of each as a minimum! 

Tops

Tops and underwear are the two things that you will go through insanely quickly, so take as many as you can reasonably fit into your backpack. Everyone’s style is different, and there’s definitely room for expression here, but personally I take tank tops and T-shirts with thin material because they dry quickly and take up less space in my bag. Be sure to pack layers like floaty tops to wear on top of others and a long sleeve shirt to cover your shoulders from the sun. 

Jackets

If you’re not planning on doing any serious hiking or mountain/volcano climbing (see below) then you can probably get away with a light jacket. I’d recommend an extra layer that you can put under your jacket if necessary, as it can get chilly even when you just climb up a little in altitude, for example at Lake Atitlan in Guatemala or Monte Verde in Costa Rica. 

A view of a volcano in Guatemala on a colourful street in Antigua

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Add these things if you’re going on hikes

If you’ve been hiking before, you’ll know the number 1 rule of packing your hiking bag is to pack light! This doesn’t mean your whole bag needs to be lightweight, but keep some light pieces in mind for the days that you’ll be hiking. This is especially important if you’re doing multi-day hikes because your stuff can pile up surprisingly quickly. 

Walking poles

Now, this one is arguable, because on just about any organised hike you will be offered walking poles to rent. And, you could argue if they’re really necessary or not, but in my opinion they are a must if you’re climbing or descending steeply. I just recently started carrying my own because I’ve been doing more independent hikes, but they’re not a necessity, especially if you’re doing more organised hikes. 

Layers

Think about taking more layers if you’re climbing more steeply. You don’t necessarily need to be at altitude to get cold! Open spaces and wind can really make you wish you’d brought another jacket.

Gloves

Again this mostly applies to hiking at higher altitudes, but don’t underestimate your fingers’ abilities to get chilly (especially when you have walking poles, because then you can’t put them in your pockets…)

Head torch

If you’re only doing day hikes you may not need one, but if you’re doing any multi-day hikes like the Acatenango Volcano Hike then a head torch is a very good idea. Whether you’re in tents, cabins, or full accommodation, there will come a moment whether you’re hiking or peeing in which you will be grateful to have a head torch.

Sleeping bag or sleeping bag liner

I met one person on one hike that had their own sleeping bag, and I have to say I was pretty impressed. I don’t recommend it unless you’re really picky, because you’ll always be offered a good quality one if you ever need one on a hike. If you really want to, you could bring a sleeping bag liner so that you know it’s washed, but I usually don’t. (In fact, scratch “usually” – I don’t even own a sleeping bag liner!) 

Add these things if you’re going to high altitude

Altitude sickness tablets

Altitude is a funny thing, and altitude sickness is even funnier. I mean, weird. Not ha-ha funny. As long as you acclimatise sensibly for higher elevations, you’ll be fine, but of course this isn’t always possible. I got more sick doing the Acatenango Volcano Hike (4,000m) with altitude sickness tablets than I did on the Salkantay Trek (4,600m) without altitude sickness tablets. This was because I was able to spend four days in Cusco (3,300m) acclimatising before I did the Salkantay Trek. I always try and plan to acclimatise first because I know I can be sensitive to altitude, but I carry the pills just in case. 

Layers

Layers are absolutely essential if you’re going to altitude, whether you’re planning to do any hiking or not. It gets cold quickly the higher up you are, especially at night time! A woolly hat, gloves, warm fleece and cosy socks are a good idea. 

Add these things if you’re going to the jungle/rainforest

There are many great opportunities to go into the jungle or rainforest in Central America, the most popular being the cloud forests in Costa Rica which are truly incredible!

Mosquito repellent

I put this in the main list because I would always take it just in case, but it is really essential if you want to go into the jungle! 

Waterproof jacket

Even during the dry season, the weather in the rainforest can be temperamental. I’d take at least a packable, water resistant jacket just in case! 

Add these things if you’re going in the wet season

I’m at risk of repeating myself here, but if you’re going in the wet season I would take three things especially for the rain:

A rain jacket

Of course, I’m just stating the obvious now, but don’t forget to put it on your list! 

A rain poncho or packable cagoule

There will always be a day that looks so amazingly sunny that you decide to go out without your rain jacket. So, when the inevitable happens and the heavens open, you’ll be grateful for this tiny rain poncho you’d forgotten you stuffed into a side pocket of your backpack. 

A cap

When you’re walking through the rain, putting a cap underneath your raincoat or poncho is really useful at keeping the rain off your face!  

Add these things if you’re getting on a boat

A dry bag

A small dry bag for your essentials and precious items will go a long way for your peace of mind when you’re going on a boat trip. Especially during windy season! Just wait for my crazy stories from my trip through the San Blas Islands…

A ziplock bag for your passport

I bought one of these right before my San Blas trip and I have kept it with me for the rest of my trip. If I’m ever in doubt, I can stick my passport in there and know it’s safe. (I also have a giant zip lock bag for my laptop, but most people do not travel with their laptop in tow!)

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