How to Pack for the Tropics
Chris Parrott has been travelling to the equatorial tropics since 1960, almost exclusively within Latin America. In the last couple of years he’s been four times to the Guianas to research and lead our pioneering tour, Trail-blazing through the Guianas. In this packing guide he shares his tried and tested tips to help ensure you are adequately prepared for a visit to the extreme climate of the tropics.
The “tropics”, technically, are those regions of the world which fall between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn – i.e. 23½⁰ north and south of the equator. This packing list is aimed at lowland areas 6⁰ north and south of the equator, but also applies to lowland rainforest in Central America. The humid equatorial stuff.
Ambient temperatures rarely fall below 27⁰C, day and night, although altitude reduces temperature by about 5⁰C for every 1000m above sea level. Sea breezes and wind chill make us feel cooler, but thermometers don’t notice wind.
This packing list allows for the fact that you might be leaving or arriving in your temperate homeland in winter; and it also is subject to one of my idiosyncrasies: I travel light (see note 1).
Passport (with at least 5 spare pages and 6 months’ validity after return date)
Money, travellers’ cheques (if using), credit/debit cards
Vaccination/yellow fever certificate
Photocopies of all the above + 2 passport-size colour photos
[You may also like to carry a list of all items packed with their value for insurance purposes]
Clothes (for 1 week in the tropics)
1 Breathable lightweight waterproof rain-jacket (2)
4 Lightweight long-sleeved shirts
4 Lightweight short-sleeved shirts/T-shirts (female travellers may prefer vest tops)
1 lightweight pair shorts with belt loops (3)
2 pairs lightweight, quick-drying trousers with belt loops (3)(4)
7 pairs cotton underpants
10 pairs short socks
1 pair DVT socks
2 foldable/squashable sunhats (5)
1 swimming costume
1 small towel + flannel
1 pair lightweight walking boots (good grip on sole)
1 pair flip-flops
1 lightweight long-sleeved thermal vest (2)
Roll-on/gel insect repellent (6)(7)(8)
Sun block/sun cream (7)(8)
Malaria tablets (9)
Antiseptic cream (7)
[Emery board (10)]
Tick lasso (11)
Paper tissues (pocket packs)
Toothpaste/brush/floss, and your other usual toiletries
Lightweight luggage (1)
Lightweight day-pack (1)
Money belt (to fit through belt loops)
Cotton money belt (worn inside clothing)
4 Waterproof roll-top stuff sacks (12)
Electrical adaptor plug(s) to suit destination
[Small laptop computer (etc) + power + charger + memory stick)]
Camera + charger + film/SD cards/
Very small torch
Elastic bands/fold-back clips/cable ties/string/tape/safety pins
Washing line (13)
Strong nylon straps (1)
Silk sleeping bag inner (14)
[Impregnated mosquito net]
[Lightweight (nylon) hammock]
[Universal sink plug]
[Penknife – not in carry-on baggage]
Bracketed articles are optional. Depends how commando you’re intending to be. See (1) below...
1) By light I mean under 10kg in total in my bag – although of course some of the list I’m actually wearing. This means I can carry it on the plane and it won’t get lost if I’m transiting via another airport. I use a lightweight waterproof rucksack (Forclaz 37 from Decathlon, weighing about 1kg). Inside it I put a 15-litre capacity day-pack, weighing only a few grams. The nylon straps are to squash it into the max. dimensions for carry-on baggage.
2) I use a cycling jacket – it serves several functions, apart from the obvious ones. Useful for arriving in London in November-February (thermal vest ditto, and useful for fierce air-conditioning); tropical rain is warm, but in an Amazon canoe, wind-chill becomes a factor after half an hour.
3) My main money belt looks like an ordinary belt, except it has an integral zip, so you can fold high-value banknotes to fit inside.
4) One pair is one waist-size bigger than the other – I can wear them both together (if arriving back in winter, etc).
5) I use bandanas – they fold to nothing, and serve also as emergency first-aid sling. Not flattering however.
6) I don’t use aerosols. They work fine, especially for spraying your socks or sleeping bag inner, but some small aircraft where baggage is just stashed in the back won’t allow them on board (in any of your baggage).
7) Maximum 100ml container if in hand luggage.
8) If you’re using both, put insect repellent on after sun cream.
9) I used to use Lariam (mefloquine) but all the advice now (2015) is that the side effects are much worse than originally realised. Get your doctor’s advice – Malarone is now usually prescribed.
10) Weighs nothing – but in the humid tropics, fingernails don’t seem to break anyway.
11) You can buy online – weighs nothing. Ticks are common in transition zones between rainforest and savannah. There’s a technique to ridding yourself of them.
12) These are wonderful. An ordinary plastic bag is OK for most British rain, but sustained tropical rain will get in. Roll-top waterproof stuffs will keep it out – you can buy them at good outdoor clothing shops.
13) More of a drying line really. I use 15m of very strong, very thin, climbers’ rope. Very light - not as handy as the twisted elastic ones, but they’re much too short, and less versatile.
14) Applicable to the independent travellers – if you are think you may end up staying in cheap accommodation, it's best to be prepared in case the bed sheets are not up to the standards you would like.
15) Buy local newspapers as you go along. Might help with the local language, might end up being a souvenir – but there’s no better way to dry out your sodden footwear than stuffing them with screwed-up newspaper.
Total weight including rucksack itself 9½ kg.