Backpacking through Central America with just a carry-on

As perhaps some of you may know, I am a scrawny weakling with embarrassingly atrocious upper body strength huge fan of minimalist travel, and the unhindered wandering it allows. I haven’t checked a bag onto a flight in a decade or two, and my spine hasn’t crumbled into oblivion under the weight of an immensely overloaded pack that smashes my bones into a fine powder to be whisked away shortly thereafter by a cool breeze. Not anymore, anyway. I have learned my lesson.

And yet, despite the innumerable advantages of minimalist travel, everyone seems to think I’m a crazy person. “Where’s your real bag?” they’d ask, along with “I could never do that.” I’ve given up trying to convince them by now, but I still look with bewildered confusion at their gigantic luggage, wondering what on Earth could possibly be inside. I don’t even know how to pack something that big, let alone carry it.

So, after having returned just days ago from a month in Guatemala, I wanted to provide a concrete example of a streamlined packing list for backpacking through Central America, or really anywhere, with a tiny little pack that’ll fit in the overhead bin on the plane, or conveniently underneath the seat in front of you.

That’s me on the left:

Synapse vs Humongous Monster Pack
He might as well use a wheelbarrow.

That guy was old, too. I don’t know how he did it.

I’ve already written about what to pack for ultralight travel, which is more about how to accomplish this, whereas this list focuses more on the specific items used, and why. Hopefully it’ll provide specific details about what to include, and how this is a whole lot easier than most people think.

A minimal packing list for backpacking Central America

Here’s a photo of absolutely everything I took for a month spent in Guatemala (except for a couple things I forgot to include in the photo), which included everything from jungle treks to city walks; torrential rains, to burning sunshine; and high-altitude chill, to body-temperature heat in 100% humidity. Argh, I hate humidity.

Central America packing list, unpacked
Hopefully this’ll put things into…perspective.

And here’s the gear:

Packs:

  • A Tom Bihn Synapse 25, (reviewed in ridiculous detail here) which is actually supposed to be a “normal” backpack, but if you’re an ultralight travel junkie, it’s juuuust big enough for everything you might need, and it’s quite a nice pack that I thoroughly enjoy. I was especially interested in it because of how it places the water bottle in a centered and zippered pocket, meaning it’s never off balance, and can never fall out. My water bottle is also a filter, so this was a big deal to me, as I don’t want it getting lost. (Normal people will likely prefer a larger pack, so check here for some favorites of mine that are still carry-on sized, and highly functional.)
  • A ChicoBag Daypack 15, which is a packable backpack that stuffs down to the size of a t-shirt or two, so it can hide away in the main pack until you need it.

Basic clothing:

  • 4 t-shirts, 2 of which were made of merino wool (both from Nau, a company which does a good job making travel clothes that are still fashionable), and 2 of which were polyester. Merino wool is generally better (read why here), but it’s pricey, and it’s nice to have at least one or two cheap shirts that you can really beat up and not feel bad ruining.
  • 4 pairs of underwear, all of which were Uniqlo Airism polyester boxer briefs. I refuse to wear anything else (read why here). Certain alternatives could potentially work, but it’s just such a hassle trying non-returnable undies that I just don’t care to bother trying anymore, and these are great.
  • 3 pairs of ankle socks, made of synthetic materials. Merino is probably a better choice, but these are what I happened to have, and they worked fine.
  • 2 pairs of pants, one from Bluffworks (reviewed here), and one from Royal Robbins (another company that thinks travel clothing doesn’t have to look silly). Both were made from synthetic materials, with velcro or zippered pockets so nothing falls out, while still looking quite like normal pants.
  • 2 pairs of shorts, one from Columbia, and one from Royal Robbins, both with zips or velcro for safety. Both were made of synthetic materials, which allowed them to double as swimsuits.

So, if you have only 4 changes of clothes, you could travel indefinitely if you do laundry twice a week or so, even if you only wear each outfit just once (which, given the 100% humidity I was encountering, was exactly the case).

But if you bring 7 or 8 changes of clothes, you can travel indefinitely if you do laundry once a week, which I think is a good sweet spot in terms of variety, packability, and not-too-often laundry errands, which basically anyone should be able to do, and that’s what I generally recommend.

All those people who say “Ah, I see, you’re only traveling for a month, so you don’t need much” simply don’t know how laundry works.

Sweaters and jackets:

  • A lightweight merino wool sweater from Ibex, known as the Shak Lite Full Zip, which I adore (though mine is an older version than the current one). Fleece works fine too.
  • A super lightweight rain jacket, known as the Marmot Mica (the women’s version is known as the Crystalline), which is one of the lightest rain jackets I’ve ever found. Check out a list of others here.

That’s all the warmth I needed on this trip, but if you’re going somewhere really cold, add a down jacket over the sweater. They’re the absolute best for lightweight compressibility.

Footwear:

  • 1 pair of Tyvek shoes, discussed here. Tyvek is water resistant, super breathable, and light weight, so they work nicely as travel shoes (and I only ever travel with one pair), although the particular model I had wasn’t particularly comfortable for all-day wandering on concrete or cobblestones, but I expect others could be.
  • 1 pair of sandals, which are the Chacos Updraft 2. These are lighter than the regular Chacos that everyone recognizes, but they use the same exact strapping system, so they’re just as comfortable. All other currently available Chacos screw up the strap layout (including the original version of the Updraft) and they’re awful and I hate them. Argh. But these are great. Get these if you think Chacos are awesome, but a little too heavy.

Toiletries:

  • I have a full list of toiletries here. This list is long enough as it is. Just take mini bottles of everything so you can take them on the plane with you.

Papers and stuff:

  • 2 books. I’m probably going for a Kindle on the next trip, but I was being cheap.
  • The Guatemala chapter of a Central America guidebook, cut apart and taped like this so it fits into a back pocket so I don’t have to carry around a giant guidebook all day.
  • Passport. Duh.
  • Post-it Notes, because I was being too cheap for a real notebook.
  • Business cards, though I didn’t bother using them.
  • A tiny wallet, only big enough for an ID and a credit card or two. I only carry one card with me at a time, and hide the other one somewhere else, and carry cash in a separate pocket anyway. Eggs, baskets, all that.
  • 1 pen and 1 mechanical pencil. Check out JetPens for great writing utensils.

I didn’t bring a money belt, because I had pants with zippered or velcro pockets, which are pretty safe, but more comfortable.

Electronics:

  • An iPhone 5S. I upgraded to this model because it had the best iPhone camera I could get at the time (because it was going to be my only camera), and the fingerprint ID is a million times faster than typing in a passcode. Oh, and switch to T-Mobile to get free international roaming with no stupid fees (if you’re primarily living in the US, that is). Really, no roaming fees.
  • A phone charger. Weirdly enough, you could probably travel without one, and just make new hostel buddies by asking other people if they have one. Sneaky!
  • A universal travel adapter, which wasn’t necessary, since Guatemala uses North American plugs, but I had read that it sometimes uses others, so I figured I’d bring it along.
  • Headphones, in a “protective case,” which was a breath mints tin.

I didn’t bother taking a laptop, because I’m paranoid about traveling with pricey electronics, and I figured I’d just catch up on “real” work after I got back (it was just a short trip), and since I could roam internationally on my phone at no extra charge with T-Mobile, I could handle basic communications with friends and family without visiting an internet café.

Other snazzy gear:

  • A Grayl water filtration bottle, reviewed here (using the purifier unit, rather than the standard filter). This meant I could fill up from the sink or the river without worrying about silly viruses and what have you. Now I just need to figure out a better way to deal with scorpions than by stepping on them, and I’ll be all set.
  • Sunglasses, in a case. I am utterly blind in broad daylight, as I am apparently part vampire.
  • A Scrubba manual laundry bag, reviewed here. It allows you to manually wash your clothes without having to use a dirty hostel sink, and generally gets things cleaner than a shower wash, though not necessarily faster.
  • 2 energy bars, for reducing the need for pricy airport meals during transit.
  • A 100% linen towel from Outlier. I will be reviewing this in more detail soon, but the short version is that it’s just objectively better than any other travel towel you can possibly find, and if you can handle the price, get it. If you can’t, just pick up 2 yards of linen fabric from any fabric wholesaler and take it to a tailor to sew up the edges. The reason it works so much better than a regular travel towel is that it’s naturally odor-resistant, and even more absorbent, yet still packs just as small, and, shockingly, dried just as fast as a 100% polyester towel I had. I was utterly bewildered when I tested that out.

Packing cubes and other pouches:

  • 1 large-ish packing cube for clothes, from Tom Bihn. This was quite useful in making the pack more functional, because the pack was a “regular” pack, rather than a lay-flat-and-open-all-the-way-around sort of pack.
  • 1 bag for toiletries, known as the Tom Bihn Side Effect. It has just enough organization to keep things in line, and a detachable shoulder strap for hanging from bunk beds or whatever.
  • 2 smaller organizer pouches, both from Tom Bihn; one clear-sided for liquids for stupid airport security protocols, and one solid, both of which can attach with little clippy straps to the interior of their other bags, so you don’t lose them.
  • 1 drawstring shoe bag, so if my shoes are dirty, nothing else gets dirty.

Things I forgot to include in the photo:

  • The phone, as mentioned previously, because it took these photos.
  • A tiny LED flashlight. I could have used my phone instead, but this one had a little clip so I could hang it on a t-shirt color and use it in the bathroom, kind of like a poor man’s headlamp.
  • A collared, button-up shirt for classy occasions. Just a cheap cotton/polyester plaid button-up. The polyester helps it stay non-wrinkly and helps it dry faster if you do a sink wash. I never wore it, because I am not a classy person. But I have hope!
  • One other tiny organizational wallet-sized pouch, also from Tom Bihn.
  • A photocopy of my passport, laminated with packing tape so it’ll last forever. Or rather, until the date expires, and I have to make a new one.
  • An S-biner, which I clipped onto a pant belt loop, to which I clipped my camera. I used one of those point-and-shoot camera wrist straps, hooked onto my phone’s case. That way it couldn’t fall out or get pick-pocketed without yanking me along too.
  • My immeasurable sense of wonder and devilishly infectious charm, because why bother traveling without them? The world would mourn.

Alright, that’s it! Here’s what it all looks like when it’s all folded up and stuffed away into packing cubes and other organizers, with the outfit I’d be wearing unpacked along the right:

Central America packing list, partially packed
Packed up and good to go

You can start to get a sense of how small all this stuff can be once it’s all packed up, and see just how easily it’ll fit into a tiny bag, even though there’s enough gear for traveling long-term, if you do laundry twice a week or so.

And remember, even if you bring twice as many clothes, you still don’t need a pack twice as big, because you’re only bringing twice as many basic clothes, rather than packing twice as many rain jackets and sandals, and so on…so look at that photo above and imagine doubling just the packing cube full of clothing and nothing else. It wouldn’t be that much bigger overall, because only part of the gear list is doubled. So even if you can’t possibly travel with just 25 liters of gear, you could still carry twice as much basic clothing, in a pack of maybe 35 liters, which is still well within carry-on limits.

And here’s what it looks like when it’s all packed up and ready to go, reflected upon what I later realized was a very poorly cleaned bathroom mirror:

Central America packing list, fully packed
My first ever bathroom mirror selfie. Argh, I feel so dirty.

I refuse to retake the photo again under cleaner conditions, because I am of such noble character that I choose to accept my self-inflicted failure and render myself unto public scorn. Or I’m just too lazy. One or the other.

But yes, that’s all there is to it. A minimal quantity of items, and frequent laundering. That’s the “secret.”

Stuff I got for free

In the interest of full disclosure, a few of the items were graciously provided for free, for testing and review purposes. These were:

  • All the Tom Bihn gear, which included the main pack, the packing cube for clothes, the hanging toiletry kit, and a couple smaller organizer pouches.
  • The Bluffworks pants.
  • The Grayl water filtration bottle, and the purifier unit inside.
  • The Outlier linen towel.

All this gear was great, and I wouldn’t have traveled with any of those items if I didn’t love them.

Minor objections, and counterarguments

“But I want to look good!” is usually what people say. I’ve never understood this, as looking good is about the quality of clothing, not the quantity. Instead of bringing along 4 scruffy outfits like I did, just bring along 4 classy outfits, and you’ll look good all day, every day. Shouldn’t that be easy? Especially if it’s regular clothing you just plan on throwing in a laundry machine anyway?

I actually met a girl towards the end of the trip, who was on an even longer adventure than I was, with a pack just as tiny as mine. But she brought nothing but fashionable clothing, so she looked ready for a fancy night out at all times. So not only can girls do this too, but they can look every bit as nice as they want. Just don’t bring ugly clothing! Done and done.

Well, hopefully this’ll help someone, even though I’ve never managed to convince anyone of any of these ideas at all. But somewhere, someday, I shall meet a loyal disciple, who packed one less thing than usual, and I shall rejoice.

And though I usually travel just so I can accumulate awesome travel gear, I also had lots of fun there. Here’s a list of things I enjoyed in Guatemala, which you probably will too.

About SnarkyNomad

Eytan is a pretentious English major whose rant-laden sarcastic tirades occasionally include budget travel tips and other international nonsense. You can follow his every narcissistic word on Facebook, Twitter, or Google+.

View all posts by SnarkyNomad

77 Comments on “Backpacking through Central America with just a carry-on”

  1. Have you considered Crocs for your travel footwear? Super lightweight and super comfy! You can walk in them all day. All kinds of styles. I usually take one pair of their sandals or clogs and one pair of their dressier styles!

    1. I’ve heard great things about them, and I like how they’ve expanded beyond the clog style to give people more options. I haven’t tried them, though.

    1. They made it pretty easy with the sizing; there is only one size that is about the size of a regular bath towel, which is the size large. The smaller ones are square-shaped hand or face towels, and the extra large is a huge picnic blanket sort of thing, so I used the large.

      Of course it’s possible that you could dry yourself off with one of the smaller ones, but I was also using mine to wring out wet clothes, and maybe use it as a beach towel, so I wanted the bath towel size. It’s also big enough to wrap around your body, and quite long when you do this; I think this is for the ladies, so they can wrap themselves up without the lower end being scandalously short.

  2. You are not alone My husband started it and now I see it as a sport to pack as little as possible. Women need only a nice lightweight patterned top, a plain skirt, and ballet flats to look good. The clothes replace one shorts/T-shirt set. In summer I use Hush Puppy walking mocassins for town trips instead of trainers. Comfortable and less touristy looking. Love your blog, by the way.

    1. Thanks. Always happy to have a fan. And yeah, I’ve never understood people who think they need lots of stuff to look good. Don’t they know you can only wear one outfit at a time?

      1. Yeah I wanted the gray one. I suppose if you do get to do a write up on them you may want to discuss the pros and cons of some of the colors. Although white is great for regular at-home bath use, I can’t imagine that staying looking white for long. Some of the other colors are too bright/gawdy, so the gray one was sort of by default. Unfortunately sold out.

  3. Airzone Z20 all the way for me for one month trips including most recently to Peru. (20L backpack and my first attempt – got the breathable airzone back support, can take heavy loads, waterproof cover, external pockets etc). Packed all of the above but with more underwear and socks, ultralite montane wind jacket which was kind of a waste as I had a waterproof too. The lightweight Ibex looks better than my bulky montane fury fleece which took too much space. 2 x trekking trousers plus 1 x shorts. Plus a macbook air and charger fitted into the bag.

    All thanks to your site and packing tips though.

    Going for the Bihn 45L when I do a year-long trip some time from now.

    1. Merino wool is more compact than fleece, because it doesn’t rely on those fluffy hairs sticking out, like fleece does. But there’s an advantage to the fur of fleece: It won’t get snagged on cat claws. But if you’re economizing on space and can afford it, then merino is the way to go.

  4. I dig it! I could easily travel this light except for 2 things:
    -I need my laptop!
    -I need a real camera and all the lenses that come with it.
    -Then there’s the backup camera and waterproof case for diving.

    I personally love photography so I could never explore new places without a nice camera. And for those of us traveling long-term and not returning home after a month… got to have that laptop :)

    1. Yeah, hardcore photographers might need a little more room, or cut something out from this list. There was a bit of room though, but probably not enough for extra lenses.

    2. Escaping Abroad – I photograph too and in the coming year will be carrying 2 x mirrorless cameras plus about 5-6 lenses & other accessories. I’m planning to use a Bihn aeronaut (45L) which is good for 6-12 month trips and inside that I will have my camera equipment in another bag, a Hadley Billingham Small camera bag which fits 2 bodies and a few lenses. Other lenses stashed amongst clothes in the Bihn. Like that you have one carry on and your camera bag inside which you can take out and use separately from the Bihn as needed. Both these bags are pricey but top.

    1. I put them up against each other here. I much prefer the Airism, for all sorts of reasons, though I can’t promise it’ll be perfect for everyone.

    2. I’ve been wearing Ex Officio boxer briefs for about 5 years now. I tried the Airism boxer briefs, the material was nice but the legs feel too short for me.

  5. At some point people are going to realize that 1) A lot of nice clothing is easy care and therefore travel-worthy 2) If you pack the right things (as opposed to every thing) you don’t need much.

    I think the biggest problem is that many people have a horrible time doing risk assessment. In their mind everything has a huge consequence and then they have to bring lots of extra gear to compensate. Either that or they mitigate the risk incorrectly. On top of that they evaluate problems separately Vs. in the whole (system thinking).
    Snow gear = snow jacket instead of snow gear = merino + puff jacket + rain jacket.

  6. How much space, if any, was there left over after packing it all in? You know for trinkets, souvenirs, etc, which you pick up along the way.

    1. Small souvenirs would be fine; at one point I was actually able to fit 3 pretty sizable books in there along with everything else, so if you have a Kindle, you’d have free space equivalent to about 2-3 medium/large books. So maybe enough space for…let’s say a couple t-shirts, a souvenir wallet, lots of tiny jewelry…things like that.

        1. I’ve tried, but I just can’t…for some reason I can read on a computer, so maybe it’s just the size, but something just doesn’t click, and I can’t do it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.