Planning your backpacking trip to Central America and not sure what to pack?
I've got you covered! I traveled through Central America for 6 months so, in this article, I will tell you everything you need to pack for Central America!
Must haves on a backpacking trip to Central America
Things you definitely don't need
Quick Geographical Disclaimer: I know Mexico is not part of Central America, but Mexico is a part of the route for 99% of backpackers that travel through Central America, so in this article, I refer to Central America + Mexico!
Also, just want to add that I have no affiliation with any brand I mention on this blog! I purely comment on and recommend things I personally enjoy and use.
Must haves on a backpacking trip to Central America
Most of Central America is quite humid and hot so prepare for tropical weather and constant heat! There are exceptions, of course, all the cities higher up in the mountains are breezier and cooler. So really there are 2 main outfits you have to prepare: Swimsuit & Long pants with a hoodie!
The good news is that it is way easier to pack for Central America than it is for South America. You do not need to worry about cold weather up in the higher cities. It will get cooler in some but not like in South America. I think the maximum regarding warm clothing is long pants (leggings will do) and a hoodie or jacket. I had one hoodie with me and one pair of leggings, those 2 pieces sorted me out for any cooler destination. You do not need more than that. I also had long hiking pants but those I purely used for hiking.
So when packing for Central America clothes wise, you need to focus more on swimsuits, beach wear, and clothing that is very, very light as it can get extremely hot while exploring towns and cities closer to beaches. So of course, pack clothes that you like and want on the trip, but if you can pick the lightest ones that will be ideal. Also, do not pack anything that you are not ready to ruin. With the humidity, heat, and constant sweating some clothes will get ruined. There were locations where I would simply leave the house, not even walk, just stand and sweat...like it can get really hot (🔥). I didn't know I could sweat this much. Also, of course, lovely laundry services always love to lose a thing or two. Anything white will be yellow by the end of the trip.
Sunscreen and a hat are must-haves! The sun can be very strong there. Even with sunscreen, I found that a hat really helped protect me from the heat. I felt a big difference when I wore one and when I didn't, so I'd say it's really important to have one. Good sunglasses can help too, but a hat makes a big difference when you're out exploring. As for sunscreen, I usually use SPF 30, but in Central America, I ended up using SPF 60+ due to the intense sun.
Another must-have is mosquito repellent or antiseptics. I backpacked South America before for 6 months and I thought everything that could possibly bite me had already bitten me... but turns out there was more to come! So I couldn't survive the trip without antiseptic creams.
A towel is definitely a must and I love the ones that you can fold really tiny. The ones that do not take much space in your bag and dry quickly. I have one from Decathlon and I love it.
I would recommend getting a raincoat too and also one that you can fold very tiny. Again, I got mine in Decathlon. I bought the one that is a bit thicker and better quality for around $10 for South America but it has served me very well in Central too! Here I want to add that raincoats will be more valuable for protecting your bags from getting wet rather than you. Because most of the time it is hot and you will enjoy a bit of rain but the bags will get wet and then with the humidity they will stay damp and you don't want that! So you might get away just with the bag covers, but as I said I have one big one that covers me and the bags and it has been very practical.
Flipflops is a must, and trust me, you will go through a few haha. That is just one of those things you will break and buy new as you go. Shoe wise I had sneakers for hiking and any longer walking trips, sandals for city exploring, and flipflops for pretty much everything else.
Very specific to Central - snorkeling goggles! If you have your own good ones and you do find space for them, take them with you. The 2nd largest barrier reef in the world is on the Caribbean coast, also on the Pacific, there are some amazing snorkeling spots. If you enjoy that you might want to have your own, so you can go snorkeling whenever. I personally prefer to have my own gear.
One thing I highly recommend that I didn't take with me but I wish I had is the waterproof bag. There will be so many boat rides you will take...not only as trips but just as normal public transport, so if I could teleport one thing from home during my trip that would be that one.
The charger is quite easy, it is the same one in every Central American country. The same one as in the USA - Type A, which has two flat parallel pins!
Must Haves for a South America find here: South America Packing List!
Things you definitely don't need!
As important as to what pack is what to avoid as you need to save space!
Warm big jacket! You won't need it. It doesn't get that cold. And for the one or two big trips you will do up the mountains or volcano, the tour operator will rent you out a jacket, gloves, hats, etc. Of course, if you travel for 2 week holiday it is different but if you are a backpacker, trust, you do not need a warm set! You will use it for that one trip and the rest of the time you will just carry the extra weight with you.
I personally had one thermo shirt with me, that doesn't take too much space just so I have that extra layer in case but I used it only once, when I hiked the Acatenango Volcano.
Hiking Boots! No! You totally and completely can do with sneakers or any kind of sports shoes anywhere. Even hiking the mountains and volcanoes! They are just way too clunky for you to carry them around.
So, my perfect combo is the main big backpack (max 40L), a small backpack, and then a tiny backpack that is easy to fold and doesn't take up too much space.
In the big backpack goes all the clothes, shoes and anything else not important. In the small backpack goes all things important to me (passport, wallet, cameras, phone, etc.), so that is the bag that comes with me on the plane and buses. That is the bag you do not leave out of your sight! And then I have a tiny backpack that is usually packed away in the big backpack during the travels and that is the one I use when I go sightseeing and on little day trips. Because I like to keep my important items secure in one bag and just use a daypack for excursions, sightseeing, and exploring cities. It is just way more convenient that way.
For the big backpack, I chose Osprey. Very trusted brand by many backpackers and I can confirm. I have now traveled 6 months through South America and 6 months through Central and the bag is in perfect condition! Love it and recommend it! My model is no longer available on their website but the standard metrics are: 40L & made for women.
My 2 other bags are from Decathlon. This shop has to be one of my favorites because it offers affordable prices and good quality! If you do not have it in your country you might want to check if it is possible to deliver.
Gadgets for a Central America trip
If you have a GoPro, take it! And get the underwater cover just to be on the safe side. Underwater life is incredible around Central America and you will definitely be taking loads of boat trips. Also surfing! If you enjoy filming your trips then you will do a lot of underwater videography.
Although the drone laws are quite strict and, as per my research, I was sure I will need to pay a tax upon entering each country no matter what size my drone was. In reality, every entry has been quite relaxed about it. Not sure if the people in the airports just weren't bothered or if there is a different reason but I wasn't stopped once! The only thing I am sure about, and I wasn't testing, is that you as a foreigner can't fly a drone in Mexico! Locals only.
If you wish to learn more about drone restrictions in South America check out this article: Traveling with a Drone in South America!
And one last thing I think is a must-have on any long trip is a portable charger. Some bus rides can take up to 12h! So you want to make sure you stay connected.