How to pack for backpacking Central America

How to pack for backpacking Central America

From T-shirts to travel towels, torches to trousers, read on to find out how to pack for backpacking Central America and other tropical destinations.  I’ve got you covered …

Tips on how to pack for backpacking

  • Save space – and the hassle of trying to find an iron – by rolling your clothes instead of folding them.
  • Remember the humble laundry. For a two-week trip you don’t need 14 T-shirts. Take a small travel hand wash or send clothes to the laundry for only a few dollars.
  • Skip the white / best clothes if you’re going to a developing country – you can’t guarantee hot water will be on-tap to get your whites sparkly.
  • A lightweight sarong can be used as a pretty scarf, a beach cover-up, or an improvised towel. A must-take!
  • In some countries it’s best to save shorts for the beach. Check your guidebook on clothing etiquette.

My trip backpacking in Nicaragua, Central America

Two months backpacking in Nicaragua, including two weeks in language school. Overall, this was a reasonably active trip.

I needed clothing suitable for hiking volcanoes and other outdoor activities, experiencing the rainforest in the south-east of the country, exploring the scorching hot cities, visiting the cooler highlands, and relaxing by the beach.

How to pack for backpacking Central America
Lightweight clothing works well for those jungle endeavours!

My flights

Luggage limits are a consideration when considering how to pack for backpacking.

My flights were with Virgin Atlantic from London to Miami; then onward from Fort Lauderdale with budget airline Spirit to Nicaragua. I returned from Nicaragua to Miami with American Airlines.

Spirit is the strictest on luggage limits both in the cabin and in the hold (15kg is the cheapest hold luggage option and the one I opted for, you pay more if you want more). Exact dimensions and weights of luggage allowed can be found on the airlines’ websites.

My packing list for backpacking Central America

How to pack for backpacking Central America
Packing Armageddon!

After packing Armageddon had hit my bedroom floor, here’s what I packed for my trip to the tropics.

Clothes  bottoms

  • 1 pair jeans
  • 1 pair light long casual trousers for hiking that could be rolled up to 3/4 length
  • 1 pair cotton/linen light three-quarter length trousers – ideal for cities or hiking
  • 1 pair shorts (for the beach only)

Clothes – tops

  • 1 kagool – good for those tropical showers!
  • 2 light sweaters (serious error, 1 would’ve been enough)
  • 1 x long-sleeved T-shirt (ideal for the highlands, or for avoiding sunburn or mosquitoes)
  • 5 x short-sleeved T-shirts (1 of which got so engrained with dust I had to banish it)
How to pack for backpacking Central America
Lightweight trousers – check. Super versatile handbag – check. Top that hides the dirt – onto a winner!

Clothes – underwear

  • 3 bras
  • 8 pairs quick-dry underwear
  • 3 pairs hiking socks

Shoes and accessories

  • 1 pair hiking boots (closed-toed footwear is pretty much essential for hiking in countries that have tropical wildlife as well as tropical temperatures)
  • 1 pair flat sandals
  • 1 lightweight scarf
  • 1 sarong – you can also use sarongs as a cover-up/substitute beach towel
  • 1 woolly hat and 1 pair gloves – handy for the top of a blustery volcano!
  • 1 bikini
  • Microfibre travel towel

Books / guides


  • 2 x UK/World adaptors
  • Apple Mac laptop and sleeve – for my writing, hopefully most readers won’t need to take a laptop!
  • Mobile phone
  • E-reader
  • Chargers for laptop, phone, E-reader
  • Camera with small tripod and spare battery

Toiletries and other girlie essentials

  • Toiletries – all in small bottles apart from the following:
    • Sun screen (available in Nicaragua, but it’s fairly expensive)
    • Contact lens solution (only available from opticians in Nicaragua, not pharmacies; and at a price)
    • Shower gel (not readily available in Nicaragua, though the choice of available soap will astound you when you run out!)
  • Tampons (not readily available in Nicaragua)
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Razor
  • First aid kit which included: antihistamines, plasters, antiseptic wipes, imodium, rehydration sachets, ibuprofen, tweezers, insect repellant with DEET
  • Make-up (SPF foundation, lipstick, eye liner, blush)
  • 2 beaded necklaces – a girl’s gotta accessorise!


  • Swiss army knife with essentials such as a corkscrew and mini scissors
  • Head torch – developing countries don’t always have reliable electricity supplies. Plus there are caves to explore!
  • Small umbrella
  • Glasses
  • Sunglasses
  • Watch (my 8-year-old £50/$75 watch was VERY up-market by local standards and I wish I’d taken a $10 market cheapie)
  • Earplugs – essential for developing countries to avoid being woken up by chickens/pomping horns at 5am (or earlier!)
  • Paperwork – US ESTA, copy of travel insurance, spare copy of passport photo page and flight details

and not forgetting …

Postcards to show people where I live.

How to pack for backpacking – luggage

How to pack for backpacking Central America
My rucksack just before returning home – there was room for a hammock 🙂

One 65l rucksack backpack, packed two-thirds full. I’ve since switched to a 55l version, which is the perfect tactic to stop me overpacking!

Day pack rucksack for hiking etc

Waterproof versatile cross-body and foldable handbag big enough to fit in my camera, guidebook, sun screen and money

Small purse/wallet with dollars in small bills (or relevant exchangeable currency), credit card, passport, travel insurance details and phone number, drivers licence

Dirty laundry bag

What else do I wish I’d packed in my backpack?

A zoom lens for my camera, and binoculars. I’d have loved to have viewed and captured Nicaragua’s prolific wildlife in more depth and scale. Next time … next time …

What are your best tips on how to pack for backpacking Central America? What do you wish you’d taken, or left behind?
Julie Sykes of The Gap Year Edit


Hi, I'm Julie, a York (UK)-based travel blogger and comfort-zone pusher. Join me as I bring you pics and musings from my mildly adventurous travels around the globe. My mission is to hear you say, "I"m so glad I did it!" instead of, "I wish I could, BUT ..."

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