Coming from a culture where everybody’s closets are filled to bursting with stuff, I can understand why it is bewildering to think about traveling extensively with only a backpack. But it’s not only possible, it’s incredible! I find it very liberating to have everything I need strapped to my back.
My bag is 40 liters – only slightly larger than the average school backpack. However, I think you will be surprised by how much I can fit in such a small bag. Everything I need for the next three months of travel fits neatly into this portable, compact package!
For those of you still in disbelief, I’m sharing my packing tips and Central America packing list as an insight into how the whole process works. If you’re packing for your own adventure, use this as a guideline that can be altered to fit your own personal style and preferences.
- Pack less than you think you need – Remember that you can buy just about anything on the road. I whittled down this list dozens of times. Ask yourself why you need to bring each item. If the answers starts with “In case…” then you probably don’t need it.
- Pack items that serve multiple purposes – Multipurpose items are key in a backpack. Take the humble sarong for instance: while traveling I use my sarong as a cover-up, a beach towel, a blanket, a scarf, a shawl, and more! Items like this save you space and are guaranteed to come in handy time and time again.
- Pack clothes that are modest and easy to match – You don’t want to attract too much attention to yourself when traveling in a foreign country anyway. Control your inner fashionista and make sure that every shirt works with all of your bottoms and vice versa. I packed almost entirely solid-colored shirts and neutral bottoms.
- Pack clothes that fold small and clean easily – Skip the bulky sweaters and instead go with lightweight clothes that can be layered if need be. This takes up less space in your bag. Also choose items that dry as quickly as possible, so that you can clean them at night and pack them in your bag the next morning. (Bonus: Quick-drying clothes also mean your sweat dries quickly, which is extremely useful in the sweltering heat of Central America.)
I’m traveling with a Kelty Women’s Redwing 40 Backpack. I did a lot of very stressful research to choose this bag. It’s small enough to fit as a carry-on bag, it has an amazing suspension system, and it features a bunch of awesome pockets. I love it.
Before you choose a bag, be sure to try it on and make sure it works for you. Everybody’s different and the fit of a bag is key to your comfort and happiness on a long trip.
EDIT: Having completed my trip I can officially say my backpack is amazing. If you think you can fit your life into a 40L bag, I HIGHLY recommend this one. There is also a men’s version that is 44L if you want a little more space.
Besides, it’s such a pretty color!
Central America Packing List
- Collapsible daypack – This holds my laptop and valuables during a bus ride but packs very small into my larger backpack for when I’m walking with everything
- Soft, packable purse
- 2 packing cubes – I pack my clothes in these zippered nylon cubes for organizational purposes. Without them I would always be digging through an overwhelming mess of clothes.
- 7 pair microfiber underwear
- 5 pair socks
- 3 bras – 1 sport, 1 regular, 1 comfortable
- 1 bathing suit
- 3 t-shirts
- 4 tank tops
- 1 long sleeve t-shirt
- 1 cute blouse
- 1 lightweight sweatshirt
- 1 cotton dress
- 1 pair athletic shorts
- 1 pair hiking shorts
- 1 pair lightweight capris
- 1 pair leggings
- 1 light raincoat (with underarm vents – a lifesaver in heat)
- 1 sarong
- 1 pair sneakers
- 1 pair flip flops (for hostel showers and casual situations)
- 1 pair outdoorsy sandals (I use KEEN Rose Sandals. They may look dweeby, but they’re waterproof, thick-soled, and the comfiest shoes I have ever worn.)
- Kindle (featuring e-book versions of travel guides)
- American cellphone (used for WiFi access and photos only)
- Portable charger
- 1 microfiber towel (amazing – dries quickly and folds up small)
- 1 bag of carry-on sized toiletries, condensed as much as possible
- First aid kit
- 1 tiny bag of makeup and jewelry
- 30% DEET bug spray (vitally important, but check out airport policies before you pack — mine got into the United States easily but got confiscated in Costa Rica. Shrug.)
- Hand sanitizer
- Copies of Passport
- Health Insurance and Immunization information
Other Necessary Items
- Lock (for hostel lockers and to lock my bag while traveling)
- Earplugs (to sleep in loud hostels)
- Swiss army knife (must buy in-country if carrying bag on flight)
- 1 liter water bottle (I’ve been using a CamelBak Chute for years and I love it)
Other Helpful Items
- 2 nylon laundry bags for dirty clothes
- Needle & thread
- Pen & notepad
- Powdered Detergent (to do laundry by hand in emergencies)
- Head lamp
Wondering about all these blurry pics? In my original plans for the post I was going to make a video showing you some of the more important items in my bag. Three hours into editing it I said, “Screw it, I’m a writer! What was I thinking?!” and stormed out of the room with my hands in the air.
But it wasn’t all for waste: these are all screenshots from that catastrophe of a project. In case you didn’t get enough silly low-res pics of me, I leave you with these:
*Disclosure: Some of the links above are affiliate links. This means that if you make a purchase through that link, I earn a commission at no extra cost to you. Hey, thanks!
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