The right stuff – essential travel equipment

24 Feb

During our time travelling we’ve used a vast array of equipment and gadgets – some obvious, some less so. We’ve thought a few times that perhaps the most important piece of equipment is the humble roll of toilet paper in a Continent where you’ll often find it absent in public toilets, restaurants and sometimes even your hostel! OK, arguably not equipment in the true sense of the word but it does have the same qualities that we’re looking for in all of our travelling gear – it’s lightweight and portable, it’s reliable and hard-wearing, it’s there for you when you need it, it makes your life easier, and it doesn’t let you down!

The equipment you’ll need will vary depending on where you’re going, what you’re planning to do whilst you’re there and the season you’re doing it in. There also needs to be a balance between ‘nice to haves’ and ‘need to haves’. What you can sensibly fit in your bag or are prepared to lug around will influence your decision, so consider which items are most important to you.

Most items can be bought on the road if and when you need them but keep in mind that some specific things may be difficult to find on your trip and you might not want to spend time looking for them. Also, some might be cheaper or better quality back home so you may want to buy them before you travel.

We’ve listed some of the items we’ve found useful during our travels in the hope that it might give you inspiration for what to take on your next trip.



A rucksack – Our best piece of advice is to pack light: you don’t need as many things as you think. If you take a bigger bag it’s human nature that you’ll fill it, so limit yourself to a smaller bag (between 30 and 50 litres is ideal). A main rucksack and a smaller day pack is a useful combination.

A waterproof jacket – If, like us, you’ve experienced starting a trek in glorious sunshine and got half way through only to be faced with torrential rain, you’ll know just how vital it is for your happiness and sanity to have decent top layer waterproofs to keep your clothes dry and rub free. The market is literally flooded (pardon the pun) with waterproof jackets and choosing something suitable for your trip and your budget can be really tough. For South America we wanted an all-rounder, suitable for four seasons, which looked good and wouldn’t break the bank, but also one that we wouldn’t resent carrying around when not using it. It was difficult to find something that fitted all of our criteria.

Dan and I took different approaches –

  • I took a heavier, lined gortex jacket by Mountain Equipment. It was brilliant for the cold or high altitude but it wasn’t so good when it was warmer but wet (jungle trekking). It was also very bulky to carry.
  • Dan had a lightweight gortex jacket by Haglofs which packed away small and worked for most temperate climates. However, he needed several layers underneath the jacket to stop the wind and cold.

Waterproof trousers – they may not be the most attractive of items but they pack away small and it’s possible to purchase a decent pair for around $25 USD. Most tend to come in small, medium and large sizes – with an elasticated waistband which makes them easy to pull up over your trousers. We found it useful to have zips at the bottom of the waterproof trousers to make the legs wider for pulling them on over trekking shoes.

Walking shoes – we chose to take shoes rather than boots for two reasons:

1) we didn’t want heavy walking boots to carry everywhere and

2) we wanted lightweight so we could also use them for jogging and sports if the chance arose.

We paid a little extra for decent brands, with good tread, ankle supports and cushioned inner soles. We found it useful to have inner soles than can be removed for regular washing to keep nasty whifs to a minimum. Only once have we regretted not having ankle high boots – when we were trekking in deep mud and heavy rain in the south of Chile.

Quick dry towel – some hostels and most hotels will provide you with a towel but when this is not the case a ‘travel towel’ is invaluable. They can be purchased from all good outdoors shops. The main benefit of carrying a travel towel over a normal towel is that they pack small, they’re lightweight and they dry quickly. We also carry sarongs with us which are a good alternative for taking to the beach or swimming pools.

A watch with an alarm clock – very important if you’re going to be on time to catch a bus or to get up in time for that excursion which departs at 6.00am. It’s advisable not to take anything too valuable or flashy in case it gets damaged, lost or stolen. Water resistant is preferable.

A torch – small Maglites and head torches are essential, but bring plenty of spare or rechargeable batteries or a solar power charger. We wish we’d brought our wind up torch due to the number of batteries we’ve had to buy – and sometimes the quality of batteries is poor. Note that some batteries aren’t available everywhere, including those needed for our head torches, rendering them temporarily useless.

Sleeping bag – when purchasing a sleeping bag it’s important to think about the climate you’re going to use it in. Down bags tend to be expensive but offer a small-sized, ultra-lightweight option, often covering extreme cold temperatures. However, down bags will take a long time to dry and can lose their effectiveness if they get wet. Synthetic material bags tend to be heavier but are usually more adaptable for a range of seasons. Our sleeping bags are essential for camping but we’ve also found them useful in some hostels where there is insufficient heating or where high altitude make it freezing at night (Bolivian Salt Flats). We’ve also used them on overnight long distance buses which, in South America, tend to be freezing! One of the most common forms of bag is a Mummy Bag which tapers from head-to-foot and offers good insulation and heat retention. Each sleeping bag will also offer temperature ratings and it’s important to look at the upper and lower range whilst keeping in mind the places where you plan to travel. Try to find a rucksack that allows you to strap your sleeping bag to the outside to save space.

Pillow – rarely provided on buses and the quality of hostel and hotel pillows can be poor. Inflatable pillows are good if you’re short on space or need extra neck support but they can feel a little hard and plastic-like. We obtained mini synthetic pillows on our flight to South America (thanks Iberia!) and these have been a great option for us – firm but soft and packing away neatly into our backpacks.

Money Belt – a slim and light belt can be worn under your clothes to keep passports, travel documents, money etc. safe when you’re travelling on buses or unable to leave valuables in your room.

Padlocks – we brought two combination padlocks which have been invaluable for using hostel lockers (locks aren’t usually provided) or to secure our bags to each other or something solid.

Swiss Army knife – a must have for every traveller because of its multitude of uses. Particularly handy if you’re camping but they can also be used for making picnic lunches, opening beers, removing splinters, cutting fingernails…the list is endless. You can buy cheap imitations but you probably get what you pay for.

Wipes and/or hand sanitizer – both are vital for personal hygiene if you’re trekking without access to showers or if you’re using busy and often grubby public buses. Wipes can be used to clean equipment when it’s got a little mucky and they are great for freshening up on a hot day.

Lighter – use for lighting a camping stove, camp fires, gas hobs in hostel kitchens or candles when there is no electricity.

Dry bags – if you’re heading to a rainy climate or the humid jungle you’ll need these to keep your PC, camera and important documents dry. We took two 8 litre bags and they have been great.

Ear plugs and eye mask – if you value your sleep as much as we do, these are essential in Latin America due to noisy fellow travellers in dorms or in campsites, early morning cleaners, traffic noise and loud music! We took spare pairs because they deteriorate over time.

Sewing kit – essential for running repairs as even us travellers don’t like the ‘big toe poking through a sock’ look. Lightweight and easy to store in your bag.

Duct tape – again, another item commonly found in the traveller backpack. Essential for dealing with the dreaded Bot Flies but also useful for securing open packets of food, taping curtains to walls to maintain privacy or repairing holes in your rucksack rain cover. We haven’t tried it for waxing hairy backs yet, but it’s a possibility!

Super glue – good for a quick fix, for example, sticking the sole of your shoes back down. Don’t get the Bolivian version on your jeans though as it’ll burn straight through as we’ve learnt through bitter experience!

Washing line – we took with us an elasticated version with hooks at each end, around 2 metres in length, which was perfect. Unfortunately, we forgot to take it down when we left from one of the many campsites we’ve stayed at – sorry mum!

Clothes pegs – we didn’t take any with us but acquired some as we travelled. Obviously good for hanging up your washing securely on windy day but also good for keeping your hostel room curtains closed when they (inevitably) don’t meet in the middle! We also use these for securing packets of open food.

Bungee cords – we took 4 of these (30cm lengths) because they are great for securing stuff to the outside of your bag. If you link them all together they also make a great clothes line if you’ve lost yours, or you can suspend them from windows or ledges to make clothes hangers.

Sink plug – most South American sinks in hostels and hotels won’t have a plug, so if you’re hoping to do some of your own washing or simply want to wash your face, make sure you take a universal sink plug.

Elastic bands – useful for all sorts of applications such as securing open packets of food or tying back your hair.

Door stop – we didn’t take one of these but wish we had as they’re ideal for better securing dodgy hostel windows and doors or particularly toilet doors with no locks or which don’t close at all!

Talcum powder – brilliant at drying out your feet (and shoes) after some tough hiking and reduces the risk of athletes foot and flaky skin between the toes (yuk!)

First aid kit – keep it basic as most items can be bought from pharmacies found just about everywhere but taking a supply of plasters, headache pills, lip salve, sun protection, eye drops etc. can be helpful.

Bug spray – The bugs in South America are BIG and find non-residents very tasty so it’s worth investing in some good spray. The golden rule is the higher the ‘Deet’ content, the more effective it should be. In South America it’s hard to find spray with more than 15% Deet so bring a bottle with you.

Sea sickness tablets – available from all good pharmacies and if it’s likely you’ll be taking a boat ride into rough waters, it’s best to be prepared. There’s nothing worse than being trapped below deck with your head down the toilet when others are admiring the sunset on the top deck.



Power adaptor – if you want all of your gadgets to work this is a must for your rucksack. We recommend taking two so you can charge the PC and camera at the same time. Also, our ‘World’ adaptor was useless in Brazil so we had to buy another!

Camera – obvious maybe but in fact it’s useful to have two. Perhaps an SLR and a digital camera or a headcam and an underwater camera. In some situations it’s not safe (a busy inner-city market) or the conditions aren’t good (sandy or wet) to use an expensive camera so consider taking one that you’d be less concerned about if it got broken or stolen.

Mobile phone – When travelling in Latin America a GMS tri or quad band phone is your best bet (many smart phones now have this built-in). If your phone is unlocked it may be worth purchasing a pre-paid SIM card for the countries you plan to travel for things such as making accommodation reservations or simply texting other travellers about meeting up for dinner.

Laptop or tablet – we still remember the days when computers weren’t small enough to be portable and a large part of your travelling day was spent in an internet cafe catching up with home. These days many people are travelling with a laptop or at least internet access on their smart phones. Things to keep in mind when choosing what to take are size, weight and battery life. They are fantastic for internet, movies, music, games, blogs, as well as storing and editing photos. Note that when abroad some key sites like Spotify (music) and Netflix (movies) don’t enable access in most South American countries so you should do your research and prepare well before you travel. If you decide to travel without a laptop in South America, internet access is still widely available and cheap in internet cafes and some hostels also have computers for communal use.

MP3 music player and speakers – it’s great to listen to a few tunes on long bus rides, in the morning whilst you’re relaxing in bed or in the evenings getting ready for a night out. If you feel a little homesick there’s nothing better to pick you up than listening to your favourite tunes. We took a lightweight travel speaker called a ‘Hamburger’ which connects to our iPhone or MP3 player.

Media storage – if, like us, you like to take a huge amount of photos to remember your trip by, it makes sense to take some additional storage not only for the space but also to back them up to avoid losing them in the event of accident or theft. We took two SD cards and a flash drive which we quickly filled up. In retrospect we should have bought a plug-in hard drive with 64 gig of memory. When we ran out of space we bought some cloudspace from Dropbox.

Binoculars – They’re certainly not just for geeks or train spotters. Binoculars are excellent for getting those close up views of hard to spot wild animals or for transporting yourself to the top of a mountain range. We took a small set with us and even though they were quite heavy and we sometimes forgot to pack them in our day bag, we got sufficient enjoyment to warrant packing them.



Tent – if you’re thinking about travelling with a tent, we’d strongly advise you to purchase this in your home country. The tents in South America are expensive and tend to be poor quality. The most important things to keep in mind when choosing your tent is the hydrostatic head, which in simple terms means how waterproof the tent will be, and also the ventilation. We’ve met campers complaining of leakage in the rain and condensation in the heat – both resulting in you and your gear getting wet! We’re travelling with a Vango Banshee 300 (3 person) tent and we’ve made excellent use of it in all conditions from snow and ice and torrential rain to searing heat. The extra space of a 3 person tent allows us to keep our gear inside with us for extra security. We’ve generally found that camping costs around half the price of a double room (or is sometimes free) and in many instances the campsites are located in beautiful spots with good facilities (hot showers, kitchens, BBQ areas).

Sleeping bag – see above.

Roll mat – to cushion your sleep and offer insulation from the cold ground. The older foam roll mats tend to be bulkier and less comfortable whereas the new therma-rest inflatable mattresses are lightweight and fold away very small. It seems to be a case of you get what you pay for with this piece of equipment and it doesn’t take many good night’s sleeps for you to get your money back.

Camping stove – many campsites will have kitchens with gas stoves, however, some do not so, to make your own cup of coffee in the morning or a bowl of pasta for dinner, a stove is necessary. We bought a cheap and simple stove and this has proved invaluable and extremely reliable. Gas is readily available in the countries we’ve visited (usually in larger towns) and prices have ranged from $5 – $10 USD. The cheapest gas tends to be sold by local Ferreterias (hardware stores) and the more expensive by outdoor adventure travel shops.

Cook set – we have cooked a lot for ourselves whilst camping primarily to keep costs down but also to cook dishes that may not be readily available in restaurants. We bought cheap pots, pans and plates when we arrived in South America which has been fine, but it wasn’t designed to fit together for easy storage in our rucksacks, so we ended up carrying a separate bag for all of our cooking stuff. On reflection, purchasing a purpose designed and compact cook set before we travelled would have been a better option, although a bit more expensive. Buying a second-hand set from someone returning home could be a reasonable option.

Spork – a combination spoon, fork and knife in a single implement, has proved essential as we have done plenty of camping. But we’d recommend spending a bit more on the titanium version as we’ve broken two of the plastic ones.

Tupperware – these containers are useful when cooking for yourselves. Of course they’re great for storing food in and anything else you can think of, as well as transporting packed lunches on treks. Consider getting the sort that fit inside each other to save taking up valuable storage space.

So, there you have it – not a fully exhaustive list of items but hopefully our experiences and advice may prompt you to pack a couple of things that you hadn’t thought of or perhaps to leave behind something which isn’t worth lugging around.

4 Responses to “The right stuff – essential travel equipment”

  1. Ade September 8, 2014 at 9:14 pm #

    Hi! Where is the photo taken right under “PRACTICAL EQUIPMENT?” I’d love to repost it on my south america themed instagram. I will give you photo credit and tag you in the post, if I have your permission.

    • latinchattin September 10, 2014 at 7:41 am #

      Hey! Really pleased you like our picture. We’re happy for you to use it on your Instagram but if you could credit us and add a link to our site – – that would be great. The picture was taken in Dientes De Navarino – a 5 day self supported trekking circuit in the very south of Chile – nicknamed the end of the world trek. We camped by a beautiful lake and watched a gorgeous red sunset and then next morning we woke up to 3 inches of snow. Quite possibly the best trek in the whole of South America but only a handful of people know about it and complete it each year.

      • Ade September 10, 2014 at 4:21 pm #

        That’s incredible. Thank you for the response. Do you have an instagram account I can link it to?

  2. latinchattin September 10, 2014 at 7:09 pm #

    Yes, you should be able to find the Instagram account if you serch under latinchattin. I’ve just started following you too so you should find me. Fabulous images on your Instagram- what a wonderful Continent hey! Keep in touch and good luck with your project.

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