Packing for Tropical Travel




Introduction: Packing for Tropical Travel

What and how to pack for a trip to a warm climate of indefinite length. You may be surprised at how little you can get away with packing, and at how long you can travel with a light pack.

There are a few underlying principles:
- Pack in a travel backpack, with a separate small daypack and an optional camera bag
- Don't pack too much, keep everything well within carry-on limits
- Make packing and unpacking easy by compartmentalizing
- Wash clothes every day

This is my actual load-out for an upcoming short trip to Central America. It's the distilled result of three medium length (>1 month) trips (to Central and South America, and Southeast Asia), and a variety of shorter trips ( Hawai'i, various places in California and the Eastern US).

The main pack in this load-out weighs 22lbs, including the daypack packed inside. My camera bag weighs 5.5lbs, but that's optional.

I'm male. If you are not, you might want to swap some pants for skirts, or shaving cream for mysterious things that I know nothing about. But you can probably use this as a basic guide anyway.

I consider myself fairly conservative about packing. There's a bunch of stuff here that other travelers may scoff at as unnecessary. This load out can certainly be lightened further, and it wouldn't be hard to get rid of the day pack/main pack distinction and just carry everything all of the time.

I use a travel backpack with hip straps and an internal frame. I've found this to be very comfortable when loaded, and it's fine over terrain that would make a wheelie bag annoying. I like a backpack that zips open all the way, rather than a top-loading pack because it makes my daily packing/unpacking easier. I prefer a separate daypack to one that zips on and off of the travel pack. I've found that the latter are poorly constructed and don't have straps wide enough for my shoulders.

I think my pack is supposedly 2400 cubic inches in the main compartment + 800 cubic inches in the expansion pouch. This is a little too large, and encourages me to pack things I don't need. The expansion zipper is always closed when I leave, but sometimes I buy enough souvenirs that I need to open it on the way back.

Step 1: Clothes

One of the important things about traveling for a long time is washing clothes often. This lets you carry very little bulky clothing. Pack the supplies you need to wash in sinks, and pack clothing that hand-washes well, and dries quickly.

When you arrive at your destination each day, wash the clothing you intend to wear the next day and let them dry overnight. In the morning, put on your newly-dry clothes on (if they're a little damp, your body warmth will help dry them quickly) and pack your dirty clothes from yesterday. You may be tempted to pack damp clothes instead of wearing them the next day. Don't do this. It gets smelly fast. If you have to pack damp clothes, do yourself a favor and don't pack them with your clean clothes. At least put them in a plastic bag.

This load-out has an extra set of most things, which lets you miss a wash day if you're exhausted. You can lighten this load by removing one of the long sleeve shirts, and one of the t-shirts, with only a little loss of flexibility.

I use a packing folder for clothing. I feel that it helps organize the interior of my pack a lot, and it means that I can grab one thing and take it with me to the shower and have all of the clothes I need right there.

The clothes I pack:
- 1 light long sleeve button-up shirt (for sun and mosquito protection)
- 1 long pants
- 1 long sleeve t-shirt (for sun and mosquito protection)
- 1 short sleeve t-shirt
- 2 pairs of underwear
- 2 swimsuits (double as shorts)

The clothes I wear when I leave:
- 1 heavier long sleeve button-up shirt (for cold airplanes and cool nights)
- 1 short sleeve t-shirt
- 1 long pants
- 1 pair underwear
- 1 plastic watch with alarm
- 1 belt
- 1 pair socks
- 1 pair sock liners
- 1 pair walking boots

All of these are made from modern, quick-drying synthetic cloth.

If you're visiting mosquito-infested areas, I recommend choosing light colored clothing. Dark colors seem to attract the bugs more. Consider soaking your clothes in Permethrin insect repellent before you leave.

Step 2: Pack Socks

One of the most important things to pack is socks. They make a huge difference in how comfortable you are. I like to wear fairly thick socks with sock liners (basically thin socks) inside them. It might sound like overkill to wear double-socks, but I don't like thin socks when I'm doing lots of walking, and the sock liners breathe well. In very hot weather, you can wear just the sock liners. The sock liners dry quickly, so they get washed every day, but the thick socks don't. Like underwear, you want to keep your sock liners really clean.

I pack:
- 2 pairs socks
- 3 pairs sock liners

Because socks make good cushions, I pack electronic items in with them. I use a zippered cube for these items.

I pack:
- Camera battery charger
- Portable music player charger
- Cables

It happens that my music player's charger provides a standard USB jack, which I can use to charge other electronics (namely my GPS unit) that can charge off of USB.

Step 3: Pack Rain Gear

Rain gear is another one of those things that can make a huge difference in your comfort.

I pack:
- 1 rain jacket
- 1 rain pants

The pants are less necessary.

Step 4: Pack Flip Flops

After a day of walking around, a change of footwear feels great. These also make it much nicer to use less-than-immaculate showers.

Step 5: Pack TSA Liquids Bag

This is for the TSA's benefit. It's a 1 quart zip-lock bag containing "liquids". You'll move some of these things around when you're done with your plane trip.

I pack these from my daypack:
- Insect repellent
- Sun screen
- Antiseptic wipes
- Antibiotic ointment

And these from my bathroom bag:
- Tooth paste
- Shaving cream

Notice that the sunscreen and insect repellent tubes are in zip-lock bags of their own? Zip-lock bags don't turn out to seal very well, so I double-bag items that are likely to make a mess if they ooze.

Step 6: Pack Bathroom Bag

This bag contains three separate sets of things: toiletries, laundry equipment, and medication.

I pack these toiletries:
- Toothbrush
- Toothpaste (from TSA bag)
- 2 Hotel soaps
- Razor
- Blades
- Shaving cream (from TSA bag)
- Antiperspirant

I pack this laundry equipment:
- Powder detergent
- Universal sink drain cover
- Elastic braid clothesline

Experiment with hand-washing at home before you leave, in order to get an idea for how much detergent to use for a sinkful of clothes. It's not much.

I pack this medication:
- Aspirin or Ibuprofen or Acetaminophen (for pain)
- Immodium (for diarrhea)
- Pepto-bismol (for upset stomach)
- Sudafed (for colds)
- Benadryl (for allergic reactions)
- Travel antibiotics
- Antimalarials (if you're traveling in a malaria-prone area)
- Probiotics
- Other medications I take regularly
- Moleskin (for blisters)

I've gotten sick in foreign countries. It was something that a quick course of antibiotics would have dealt with handily. Finding a doctor when you're really sick sucks. So does trying to explain what's wrong in a language you don't speak. So does getting boxes of medication from a pharmacy and finding that they're half-empty. So now I get a prescription for travel antibiotics filled before I leave.

The CDC website will tell you if you need to pack antimalarials or other medications for the area you're traveling to. It'll also tell you which vaccines are recommended before you go.

Probiotics are capsules filled with living microorganisms of the kinds that live in your gut. The premise is that having lots of "friendly" microorganisms will help you avoid getting "unfriendly" ones that cause traveler's diarrhea. I haven't seen any research that says that they're effective or not, but I haven't gotten sick on the trips where I've taken them. Please feel free to comment with Pubmed citations or the like.

Step 7: Pack Books

Books are great for those long plane/train/bus/boat rides, or for when you're sitting on the beach. I like to take at least one travel guide, some pleasure reading books, and a dictionary if I'm traveling in an area where I sort of know the language. If it doesn't drive you crazy to know that you knew the word for that thing in high school, but can't remember it now, you can skip the dictionary and rely on a phrasebook instead.

I find that 1 pleasure reading book per week is about right for me, assuming that I have access to book swaps. That's the kind of thing that varies a lot by person, though.

Step 8: Pack Daypack

The daypack is the bag that you'll carry with you on day trips. You can leave your clothing and bathroom bags where you're staying. The daypack will have things that you'll want ready access to.

I pack some simple first aid supplies:
- Antiseptic wipes (from TSA bag)
- Antibiotic ointment (from TSA bag)
- Bandages
- Gloves for cleaning small wounds
- Moleskin for foot blisters
- Aspirin or Ibuprofen or Acetaminophen for pain
- Immodium for diarrhea

These suffice for simple cut, scrapes, and bruises. If something more serious happens, I'll need to get help.

Other handy things:
- Sunglasses
- Sunscreen (from TSA bag)
- Insect repellent (from TSA bag)
- Fasteners (safety pins, zip ties, duct tape)
- Phrasebook
- Notebook
- Writing implements
- Tissues and Toilet paper
- Trash bags (good for laundry and in rainstorms)
- Zip lock bags
- LED Flashlight

One handy trick is to wrap some duct tape around a pen. Duct tape can patch up lots of tears and hold things together.

Notice that the interior of this bag is empty! I'm packing all of this stuff into the front pouch. That leaves room for things like this in the main pouch:
- Bottled water
- Guidebook
- Pleasure reading book
- Snack food
- Rain gear
- Souvenirs

Step 9: Camera Bag

I recommend traveling with a camera that fits in your pocket. If, like me, you are addicted to a larger camera, you may want a dedicated camera bag. This is my "personal item" when flying on airplanes, so I keep a little extra stuff in it.

I pack:
- Camera
- Spare memory cards
- Spare battery
- UV Filter on camera
- Portable music player
- GPS recorder
- Earplugs
- Sleep eye mask/Blindfold

It is convenient if this will pack inside of your daypack. They could easily be the same bag.

I strongly recommend having a UV filter in front of your lens. I've opened my camera bag to discover that something had hit the front of my camera and shattered the filter. I shudder to think what would have happened to my lens if it hadn't had that layer of protection.

Step 10: Stuff It All in the Backpack

Now that you have all of the sub-units packed, it's time to put them in the travel pack. Since everything is compartmentalized, it should be quick to pack and unpack.

I pack in this order:
- Rain gear
- Clothes folder
- Flip flops at the bottom of the bag
- Sock Cube
- Toiletries
- Books around the edges
- Camera bag (optional)
- Daypack

Normally, I don't pack the camera bag into the travel pack, because I want to have the camera handy for taking pictures, but it packs comfortably into this pack, if I decide to do that. If you're going to carry something heavy like a camera all day, pack it at the bottom of the pack, not the top. The weight will be much more comfortable if it's near the hip belt of the pack.

This pack has quite a bit of extra capacity with this stuff in it. There's plenty of room for souvenirs or things picked up along the way. It easily meets the carry-on limit for airlines. If I find I need to carry a lot of extra stuff, I can even wear the daypack separately on my chest and the travel pack on my back.

Step 11: Stash Stuff!

It's a good idea to stash a copy of important papers and some money somewhere in your travel pack. That way if you get mugged or your daypack gets lost or stolen, you have something to fall back on. I keep this stuff in a zip-lock bag hidden in my luggage.

I pack:
- Copy of the identification page of my passport
- Traveler's checks
- Spare credit card
- Some cash
- Some extra passport-sized photos of myself

Make sure you note the customer service numbers of any credit cards that you're carrying, so that you can call them if the card gets lost or stolen. I like to leave a list of the important details with a trusted friend at home. That way I can call them and ask them to report my card lost or fax a copy of my passport somewhere.

I leave this stuff with a friend:
- Emergency contact info for my family
- Information about my health insurance
- A copy of my immunization record
- Information about my credit cards
- Information about my traveler's checks
- Serial numbers for my electronics
- Scan of my Passport
- Scan of my Driver's license
- Scan of my Scuba diving certification card

It's also a good idea to keep your important documents in a plastic bag, when you're carrying them around, to protect them from rain, sweat, and mud.

Step 12: Don't Pack: Packaging

If you purchase local crafts or tchotchkes, you'll often find that the sellers are... overzealous about packaging. They'll wrap an object the size of your thumb in foam and sealing tape the size of your fist, if you let them. Often you'll discover that you can pack some of your tchotchkes in other ones, for example, a shot glass for your sister who collects them inside of a larger cup, or a plate inside of a hammock. If you're worried about damaging fragile items, socks and clothes are good cushioning material.

Step 13: Don't Pack: Hats

Hats are awesome. They provide protection against both sun and rain. However, the hats where you're going are much, much cooler than the hats where you come from. You can take an uncool hat from your home area and swap it for a cooler hat where you visit.

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    11 years ago on Introduction

    Modern synthetic clothing? For the tropics, 100% cotton. You'll drown in your own sweat with "modern synthetic clothing".


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    I've never had a heat problem in synthetics, and they sink wash really well and dry very quickly.


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    Not a heat problem. A breathability problem. Nothing breathes like natural fibre.


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    I'm very comfortable in "wicking" synthetic fabric t-shirts. If you prefer cotton, more power to you. I'm actually carrying both synthetics and cotton right now on what promises to be a very hot trip. We'll see which I end up wearing more.


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    Guys, I LIVE in the tropics. Right smack on the Equator. It's hot and humid as hell here. So I think I know what I'm talking about when I say synthetics that breathe and wicks away moisture, like those used to make jogging shirts, are best. Whenever you get a breeze, you'll feel cool and refreshed, and your shirt is not soaked in sweat like a cotton shirt will. A cotton shirt absorbs sweat, which means : 1. They are soaking wet with your sweat and stink 2. If you are wearing a light colored shirt, like grey or light blue, a big wet patch appears around your collar. Ugly. 3. If you do walk into an airconditioned place after being soaked in sweat, the shirt starts to feel wet and clammy. The only problem I have with these synthetic materials is that they are not durable. Wear it daily on your trips and they start to fray, esp in areas where they rub against your backpack straps. As Aneel pointed out, synthetics dry incredibly fast. Wash them at night and they are dry by next morning, even in the tropics. Cotton shirts take at least 12 hours to dry.


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Did you ever try thin merino wool shirts? Best of both worlds and far breezier than cotton.


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    No. In Asia ( at least here in Singapore ), merino wool clothes are bloody expensive, whereas synthetic clothes are much cheaper. I'm not sure if it's worth 5 times the price for any improvements.

    I don't have a problem with the smell of the synthetics, and since I wring the clothes pretty rigorously to minimize drying time, i'm not sure if the wool shirts will fall apart. I'm not willing to bet that kind of money to try them out (yeah, I'm cheap).

    If there's some place where I can order these and have them shipped cheaply, then maybe I'll give them a go.


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    I got my wool shirts and underwear at REI. I'm not sure if they ship internationally. They were about twice the price of the synthetic equivalents, but I wear items like this often enough that I don't mind the investment. I'll give sink-washing them a go and see if I can recommend them for that.


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    I tried some of those quick-drying microfibre underwear, which costs about twice as much as regular underwear. They dry faster, but are very fragile. I gave one a good wring, and quickly discovered large holes forming around the areas where the threads penetrates the fabric. I guess they were not meant to be hand-wrung.


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    I've actually been trying out some merino wool shirts and underwear on my current trip (motorcycling around the US, with conditions varying from snow to 110+F heat). I think they're holding up quite well. They definitely seem to smell less than the synthetics, and I haven't noticed being uncomfortable at any temperature. However, I haven't been trying to sink-wash, them, so I don't know how well they do at that.


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    I never followed up on this one, did I? It turned out that I wore the cottons when I wanted to look "cool" (they had interesting designs/logos/etc.), but they were often not dry in the morning, if I sink washed-them at night and dried them on a line indoors (if the line was hung outdoors, they were usually dry, unless it rained overnight...). For packing light and sink washing, I think synthetics definitely beat cotton in my usage.


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    BTW, I would like to pick your collective brains. Anyone knows of a really lightweight and thin flipflop that is water proofed so that I can wear them into a shower ? Regular flip flops are too bulky and heavy, and typical travel flip flops are made of cloth and are not waterproof nor durable.


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    To be fair, cotton is horrible with breathability. Rather than allowing for the sweat to leave your skin, cotton simply absorbs it and than doesn't release it. That is why wet jeans are so heavy and stay that way for what feels like forever. If you want to have a natural fiber that actually wicks moisture away from your skin, use wool.


    Reply 10 years ago on Introduction

    I should get around to updating this one of these days. One of the things that totally won me over on the past couple trips was light wool socks. Teko and Smartwool brands, "Light hiking" or similar models.

    Oh, and on the very hot trip that (across Central Asia in August), the synthetics were far and away more comfortable than the cotton shirts. This was a car-based trip, so I had room for more clothes, but when I'm packing in a backpack, I'm definitely not going to bother with cotton.


    12 years ago on Introduction

    Good ideas, but still too much. If you are packing for tropics, you actually need very very little clothes.  My backpack for my last trip to Vietnam weighed in at 16 lbs ( about 7kg), including a laptop and its charger !!   Minus the laptop, my pack's weight dropped to 12+ lbs.

    Here are few suggestions to make your pack lighter :

    1. Use a even lighter backpack. Your REI Tour weights in a 4 lbs 8 oz ( 2kg ) and is 4000 cubic inches. That's way too big and heavy. I use a lightweight hiking backpack at 1 lb 12 oz ( 800g ) with a 25 litre volume( 1500 inches cube).

    2. Bring less clothes. I only brought 3 short sleeve Tshirts, including the one on my back, plus 1 thin lightweight long sleeve shirt ( which I really didn't need ), 3 pairs of lightweight shorts ( < 3 oz each, which doubles as boxers and swim trunks), 2 pairs of socks, a mini travel towel, and 1 pair of convertible cargo pants.

    3. If you are spending most of the time in the city, ditch the boots and get a pair of lightweight walking shoes. They are all you need in the city and an occasional walk in the countryside.

    4. Replace the heavy duty daypack with a scrunchable, packable daypack made from very thin but strong nylon. Mine weighs < 8oz, and is strong enough for daily use, including carrying a 1.5liter bottle of water.

    5. Ditch the camera bag. Carry a pocketable camera in your pocket, and you won't need a camera bag.

    6. Minimize the number of books. Use a "smartphone", and carry all your reading materials in your phone, including novels, tour guides and maps.

    7. A first kit is important, but I think your's is a bit of an overkill. I just bring some aspirin/ibuprofen, some plasters, and diarrhea pills. You can buy other medication if you really need more.

    8. Dump the meds into a ziplock bag and lose the heavy case. Ditto for your toiletries and clothes. I use either a stuff sack ( 1-2oz ) or ziplocks. I betcha all your pouches for your meds, clothes, toiletories, etc add up to another lb or more of weight.


    Reply 12 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks for the tips! Definitely some good ideas.

    As it says in the intro, this is a fairly conservative packing guide. It's not trying to be the lightest it could be, but to strike a balance between size and utility.

    1. You're thinking of the new backpack called the REI Tour.  They made it much bigger when they reworked it a few years back. As it says above, mine is 2400 cu in + an 800 cu in expansion pocket. I agree that 4000 cu in is too much.

    2. It looks like the difference between your list and and mine is that you have one more short sleeve t shirt and one more pair of shorts, and I have a long sleeve button-up shirt and one more pair or long pants, and that you wear the same shorts as underwear and outerwear and I carry sock liners.

    When hiking through clouds of mosquitos in the Amazon jungle, I was really glad to have a the button-up shirt. The mosquitos bit right through t-shirt fabric. I'm also more comfortable layering it on in the evenings for extra warmth.

    I don't wear shorts when I'm not on beaches, so I need two pairs of pants. I used to travel with just one pair, but after I destroyed a pair climbing on some rocks in Peru, I've decided that a spare is worth it. Makes laundry easier too.

    3. Yes, if you're going to stay in highly civilized areas, you can wear lighter shoes. I don't tend to stay there.

    4. Finding a daypack that fits you well is a good idea. I have pretty broad shoulders, so many of the tiny daypacks quickly become uncomfortable on me. If a smaller/lighter one works for you, that's great.

    5. I used to travel with a Canon Elph. I recommend it. Unfortunately, I got addicted to the superior capabilities of a DSLR with a big lens. It adds a lot of weight to my luggage, but my pictures are much better. Since I tend to take thousands of pictures a week when I'm traveling, it's worth it for me. But if you're happy with a small camera, it does make traveling easier.

    6. I've been toying with the idea of an ebook reader, but I haven't made the jump yet. A smartphone is less handy for me because I don't always get to recharge things much. Not carrying the weight/bulk of books would be great, but not having anything to read on long bus trips would be awful.

    7. I must tend to go places where it's harder to buy medicines. On a trip to Guatemala, I got really sick and had to ask my hotel to call a doctor for me. It was really hard to explain to the doctor what was wrong, and when he did end up prescribing me medication and I managed to get it, I discovered that half of the containers were empty and I had nowhere near the dosage that I was supposed to. I'm happy to carry around a couple medicine bottles to avoid that happening again. I've had similar problems telling people what was wrong in Austria and Vietnam.

    8. Be careful about where you're going if you're carrying unmarked pills in unlabeled bags. Some places have really harsh laws about drug smuggling. Lately I've been favoring medicines that come in blister packs instead of bottles. They pack flat but still have the identifying information.

    You're right that my containers take up space, but I find that having an organized pack where I can find anything quickly is worth it.


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    re : DSLR vs compact. Have you considered on the new "near SLR quality" compacts, like the Panasonic LX, LX2, LX3, or Canon's recent S90 ? These little guys are the size of regular compacts, sport nice f2.0-2.8 lenses, have big sensors and produce images far better than your everyday compact. Still not as good as DSLRs, but a fraction of the size and weight. Might be a nice compromise.

    BTW, nice to see fellow travellers packing sensibly. I'm always amazed to see folks lugging 2-3 huge luggages or struggling with 70L backpacks bursting at the seams. We all have our own systems, but so long as it serves us well without breaking our backs, its cool. Cheers.


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    Unfortunately, those cameras don't have much zoom range. I travel with a lens that goes from 18mm-200mm (24mm-300mm equivalent on a full frame), and I use both ends of that range a lot (and would use even more telephoto, if those lenses weren't so large and expensive). There are a few cameras that might fit the bill that have been announced in the last few months (Maybe the Samsung HZ30W?), but I don't think they're available yet. I think a compact camera that could fully replace my current setup is still a few years off. But for anyone who's not spoiled by DSLRs, there are some great cameras out there already.

    Re. #6 Above: I just did a trip to Greece & Turkey using Lonely Planet PDF guidebooks instead of the paper ones and it went great. I printed out selected pages tiny and maps larger than full sized (8.5x11). If I get an eBook reader before my next trip, I'll just print the maps. It would be cool to download sections of Wikitravel too.


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    I use my HTC Touch HD Windows mobile phone extensively when I travel. I download destination info as off-line websites and PDF from places like and I use Plucker and iSilo for this, so I don't have to carry heavy travel books, although sometimes I'll bring a small pocket size guide book as well.

    I also print out a couple of maps as well. I then download detailed maps of the entire city from googlemaps onto my HTC to supplement the paper maps. These googlemaps are used in offline mode, so  comes in real handy. I don't incur any data charges which is insanely expensive overseas. The GPS feature of the phone comes in handy too. Obviously, my HTC smartphone plays a big part in my travel kit.


    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    What a difference 2 years make. I now have a Android phone ( a Galaxy Note with a massive screen) and instead of printing maps on paper and carrying a paper guidebook, I now carry all maps and guides in my phone in digital format.

    I use Locus Free and MapsWithMe for the maps, Triposo for the guidebooks, all stored on my phone offline. This alone cut a couple of pounds of my luggage weight.

    I'm now aiming to move from lightweight travel to ultra-light, with the aim of having my entire luggage weighing around 4 pounds, without compromising comfort or safety.