Everything I Packed for Four Months in Central America Fit in a Carry-On

There are as many ways to pack for a four-month trip to Central America as there are personalities. But enough people have asked me what I packed for my latest trip that I thought I would share my list, with some comments about what worked and what didn’t.

First, I was determined to go light. I planned to do quite a bit of hiking and volcano climbing, but I didn’t want to take a full backpack. I thought I would miss my hiking poles, but there were hiking sticks at the trail heads of every volcano I climbed. Climbers just borrow them for the climb and then return them when they’re finished.

I opted to take a 42-litre pacsafe backpack, which is the largest size that can still be taken as a carry-on. It has a locking system, double-layered zippers, and mesh in the material to make it extremely difficult to break into. It came in handy when some people in one of the hostels I stayed at had some stuff stolen from their backpacks. Mine was moved, but I assume because it wasn’t easy to break into, they left it alone. I bought the backpack at Mountain Equipment Coop. It’s a bit pricey for the size, but turned out to be well worth it. I also took a very small folded knapsack for just wandering around the market.

42-litre pacsafe backpack


The locking mechanism for the backpack


Set up as a backpack


The straps fold in for a carry-on

Second, I struggled with what to bring for electronics. I wanted to bring my laptop, but I have a 15″ screen and thought it would be too bulky. My sister had an old iPad that she gave to Mom, who, becoming addicted to the computer games installed on it, gave it to me. I played with it, found that it could do everything my iPhone could do except make a phone call, and discovered that it was quite easy to write and post articles on my blog. If I had a wifi connection and I was bored, it would be better than my phone for movie watching.

I also took my Kindle, which I loaded up with old inexpensive classics before I left. Good thing too, because I read about three or four books per week.

The third electronic gadget I brought was my waterproof camera, which I loved because I could take underwater photos. The only downfall was that I couldn’t download the pictures to my blog while I was on the road because Apple only has a connector for the new iPads, not the old ones. So I could only use photos I took with the iPad. It was problematic at first because I felt like a bit of a geek using an iPad as a camera, especially in busy tourist areas. But when I realized nobody really cares about these things, it didn’t worry me anymore.

Third, I had never been to Central America before, so I wasn’t sure what to bring for a first-aid kit. I went to Travel Health in Canada to have my tetanus updated and I was told I should take malaria pills, since much of Central America is a hotspot for the disease. I took the malaria pills for five weeks and then stopped because they were really screwing with my body. I lacked my usual energy and I had some horrifying lucid dreams. During one dream, I lurched out of bed onto the floor. Thankfully I was on the lower bunk in the dorm room or it might not have ended well.

I spoke with several long-time travellers, who said they never take malaria pills. Also, a German traveller was told by her doctor that the pills weren’t necessary since it wasn’t ‘malaria season’ in Central America at the moment. After some thought, I packed a first aid kit based on what I thought would most likely happen to me – traveller’s diarrhea and cuts and bruises.

So I packed malaria pills, diarrhea pills, bandages, Polysporin, and water purification tablets. Except for the water purification tablets, I used everything I brought. I sustained two significant superficial injuries and was sick three times. As an improvement to this list, I would add cold and headache medication for my next trip.

With those things in mind, here’s my full packing list.

What I wore to travel on the plane

Hiking pants
Hiking socks
Hiking shoes
Watch with timer and alarm

What I packed in carry-on

Clothing (all in one storage cube)

T-shirts x 2
Shorts x 2 (doubled as bathing suits)
Quick-dry pants x 1
Underwear x 4
Socks x 2 pair
Sweater x 1
Sandals x 1 pair
Toque and gloves


42-litre pacsafe backpack
Toilet kit (in a storage cube, with carry-on sized bottles of shampoo, etc)
First aid kit (malaria pills, traveler’s diarrhea pills, bandages, Polysporin, and water purification tablets)
Toilet paper
Quick-dry towel
Mosquito net
SteriPEN (ultraviolet water purification system)
Small folded knapsack
Waterproof camera and charger
iPad and charger
Kindle and charger
Journal and 3 x pens
Small stuff sacks x 2
Water bottle
Copies of documents (passport, travel reports, certificates of vaccination)
Beginner’s Spanish workbook

Inside the pack before closing it up.

In future, I probably won’t take the mosquito net or the SteriPEN. Most hostels in the mosquito areas provide nets, almost all hostels provide drinking water, and I never used the SteriPEN once. For the few times I might ever need to purify the water, the purification tablets will suffice.

My favourite piece of kit, something I would never travel without, is my headlamp. It came in so handy, especially reading at night in a dorm room when people were asleep, or reading in a hammock in an unlit atrium under the night sky. I love it.

Hope you find this list useful in determining what you will take on your own Central American adventure. Happy travels.

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