As a budget backpacker making your way through South America you are exposed to it all, from crowded dormitories to long bus journeys and multiday treks. Here are a few backpacker essentials that will make your travels all the more comfortable.
#1. A comfortable and durable backpack and rain cover
Spend enough time on the road as a backpacker and you will begin to develop a strong bond with your pack. It’s your mobile home containing all of your worldly possessions while offering the freedom to move around. Best of all, no matter how much retail therapy you partake in along your journey, you somehow manage to always find a space for the gringo souvenirs that you pick up along the way.
However, the bond between backpacker and backpack can quickly turn into a love/hate relationship if you are carrying around a heavy pack that is uncomfortable. As a backpacker in the market for a pack, there are numerous options available. Try a few different packs to ensure that you buy one that fits you correctly. Adjustable straps and back cushioning are key features to look out for. Ideally you want a pack that hugs the hips and waist taking strain off of your shoulders and neck. Different storage compartments are also useful for squirreling away your things.
Riding public transport as a backpacker unfortunately means that your pack will be exposed to all the elements. Whether strapped to the roof of a collectivo while driving through the rain or thrown into the hold of a bus underneath everyone else’s luggage. It is important to purchase a pack made from durable material with hardy clips and straps and a rain cover that will save your pack and its contents from exposure to water, dirt and general wear and tear.
#2. A smaller 20/30 litre day pack
As a backpacker out and about exploring an area you will want to leave your heavy backpack at your accommodation. A smaller day pack allows a backpacker to keep valuables together. It can either be safely locked away in a locker or taken with you. During a bus trip or when riding in other means of public transport, your valuables can be kept with you for safekeeping and not stored in your backpack which is generally out of sight.
A word of warning for every backpacker. Don’t store your day pack on the overhead shelves while on a bus as they are known to go missing. Similarly, a pack stored at your feet can be cut open from the seat behind. As uncomfortable as it may be, keep your day pack on your lap.
#3. Comfortable walking shoes
As a backpacker, you want to prevent having to carry the weight of numerous pairs of shoes designed for different uses. Investing in a decent pair of trail running shoes will see you through all activities, from hiking/trekking to exploring a city. Ever the naïve backpacker, I was adamant that I would be able to walk a few kilometers carrying a heavy backpack while still looking reasonably stylish. It wasn’t long before the battle between practicality and fashion was ended and the need for comfortable walking shoes overruled all else.
#4. A pair of flip flops/slops
Aside from needing a pair for the beaches and warmer regions, we’d advise a backpacker to wear slops when using communal hostel showers to prevent contracting a foot infection. Unfortunately there will come a day when you find yourself in a hostel that doesn’t necessarily prioritise cleanliness.
#5. A quick dry towel
One of the biggest challenges facing a backpacker on the move is trying to dry out wet items before repacking them. A towel made from quick drying material will help to curb this problem.
#6. A lock
Most hostels will have lockers in which a backpacker can store valuables, however they do not provide locks. A combination lock is best as you don’t need to worry about losing the key.
#7. A travel plug adapter
Gone are the days of carrying around a heavy travel guide. We travellers are gadget savvy using apps to source information and find our way around. However, along with technology comes a reliance on keeping our devices charged. Travel plug adapters are in high demand around hostels, so keep an eye on yours.
#8. A travel neck pillow
Backpacking South America involves a number of long bus journeys, some of which a backpacker may want to embark on overnight. Having a comfortable pillow will help you to blissfully snooze away the hours.
#9. Earplugs and an eye mask
While “party hostels” might be your vibe, there will be some nights when every backpacker wants to enjoy undisturbed sleep. Earplugs and an eye mask are the solution to blocking out noise and light. They also come in handy on overnight bus trips when bus conductors insist on blasting movies with Spanish voice overs. Old Jean-Claude van Damme movies seem to be a favourite.
Our South American counterparts might not be big on using sunblock, but for a gringo polar bear backpacker like me this is an essential item. Unfortunately sunblock is unbelievably expensive in South America so pack enough to see you through your travels.
Hopefully this article has helped you to plan and pack for your own South America travel sabbatical. Happy backpacking!