Packing for any kind of adventure can be tricky. If it’s your first time hiking it through a rainforest, spending nights swinging in a hammock, or surviving off whatever you have in your boat, here are some pro tips from our trip to the Amazon.
Together, Madeline and I had the trip of a lifetime in Leticia, Colombia. It was nothing short of a wild and new experience for both of us. And although it’s been a couple of days, we are still finding those undiscovered mosquito bites and deciding whether that pink dolphin was just a mirage- how could it be that pink?
I’m not going to beat around the bush, you’re going to the Amazon. You will be wet, covered in mosquitos, and hot. Your first job is to accept that and then do everything in your power to mitigate it.
Fortunately, we have the answer. The key is synthetic, lightweight, and loose.
Anybody who wants to go full Tarzan, hats off to you, but I would say proper clothing is the key to an enjoyable experience and there might be more to it than you think. When you’re sitting at home with everything you own spread out on your bed like a yard sale ask yourself this question: Is this the best thing to keep me dry, protected from the bugs, and the sun?
Synthetic: Although there is an argument for cotton (the retained moisture works like an air conditioning unit for your body in moderate temperature), it’s simply too wet. You’ll want to be dry any chance you can and if you’re rocking full cotton, you’ll get soggy, very quickly.
Lightweight: for the sake of the heat.
Loose: As Madeline exclaimed many times, there are a ton of bugs and mosquitos. Bugs bite less through lightweight clothes. Anywhere you have skin-tight clothes, you’re an open buffet. Shoulder blades, butts (as Madeline found out all too well), and thighs are hot spots.
1.) Long sleeve shirt (x2). Long sleeves protect from sun, mosquitos, and sharp branches. Here is a great comparison for synthetic over cotton: Madeline showed up in her Columbia fishing shirt and I had my grandfather’s L.L. Bean cotton button-up. It wasn’t the death of me but I think if she had to smell my cotton shirt for one more day, it was going to the piranhas. The synthetic Columbia shirt also curbed most of her mosquito bites versus the cotton pants she wore.
2.) Long pants (x2). You can not get away with anything but a pair of synthetic pants. Cotton pants won’t cut it and wet jeans would be a nightmare. I’m far too proud of my prAna travel pants. They have served me on African safaris, multi-day trekking in Patagonia, interviews in college, and now hiking the Amazon.
3.) Underwear. I recommend a pair a day up to about 5 days. After a couple years of intense traveling, I can say I’ve found the world’s best underwear: Exoficio. I don’t say this lightly. Whether I am going for two days or four weeks, I only take two pairs of Exoficio underwear.
4.) Tall socks. This is the same prescription as the underwear because they will likely get soaked: a pair a day up to five pairs. Anything you’re doing in the Amazon is going to be in rain boots. Unless you are working with a merino blend synthetic sock (in which case I recommend 2 pairs irrelevant of the trip duration), you’ll find some relief having a fresh pair of socks when you go to bed or to start your day.
5.) Boots. Just about every excursion company should include tall rubber boots, but it is wise to ask ahead. Rain boots are used during the duration of any hikes through the jungle as the walks are mostly through sloshing mud. The only other shoes you really need are for your campsite/hostel/houseboat on the river. For the most part, you’ll still be stepping in the mud, so it’s up to you to either use sandals and accept dirty feet or use tennis shoes. Madeline lives and dies by her Crocs as the perfect second pair.
6.) Hat. You’re going to need a hat. It blocks any extra sun from your neck and face, as well as shields your eyes from pounding rain. I rocked a baseball cap but I was pretty jealous of Madeline’s stylish safari hat (found in Leticia for ~$4 USD).
7.) Sports bras (x2). These will dry fairly quickly and can double as your swimwear for jumping into the Amazon River.
**Leave the rain jacket behind. As a Floridian who has dealt with hard rain in hot weather all my life, I don’t recommend a rain jacket. It may protect you on the outside but you’ll be sweating inside so much it voids the whole purpose. Rather focus on something that will dry quickly. If you were going to wear a jacket at all it would be the lightest jacket you could find to wear at night to fend off the swarms of mosquitos.
8.) Toilet paper. Be prepared for your needs with a waterproof bag for your TP. Even if you find a zip lock and steal it from your hotel or hostel before you hit the river. It would have really come in handy when we left the group toilet paper behind in a village on the second day. We were one pack of mentholated tissues away from going full jungle.
9.) Tooth brush and paste. These daily routines are important to keeping your sanity.
10.) Deodorant. It’s the little things that keep you comfy when consistently facing those soggy socks and days without a shower.
11.) Bar of soap. At some point, a cistern shower or river bath. will be an opportunity you must take. Water just won’t cut it after a day or two of sweat, dirt, and bug spray. Bring a bar you can wash your hair, scrub your clothes, and clean your hands with.
12.) Feminine products. Just like with toilet paper, expect any other belongings to get wet. Not only are tampons and pads going to soak up outside moisture, but they will be difficult to dispose of properly. Diva Cups or Flex menstrual cups may be the best option as long as you can bring a backup and find sanitary way to clean them.
13.) Contacts/meds. Don’t forget the things you need that money can’t buy and can’t be found in rural areas. Medicines, extra contact lens, etc.
14.) Camera- but maybe not your best one.
This is where I was most surprised. The last thing you want it to be caught on a jungle hike in a rainstorm with all your gear. The best camera is the one you have when you need it. That’s can be your iPhone or equivalent. Any iPhone beyond the 7 has some serious water resistance. It’s going to be there to take just about every picture you’re going to want on the hike. Due to the thick brush, there isn’t a whole lot to take pictures of in the actual jungle. I wish I left the camera on the boat to save me the stress. Maybe it’s her artistic eye, but Madeline’s iPhone 11 pictures were flawless and a lot less stressful to get.
15.) Nicer camera- for the dry areas and on the boat. I use a Sony a7II with a peak design rain cover. I’ve put my camera through hell in the rainiest part of the world (interestingly not the Amazon) and without a solid rain cover, a camera is in serious jeopardy. The only time we felt we needed a high-quality camera with some zoom was when we were on dry land overlooking the river at pink dolphins.
16.) Flashlight. A quality flashlight or head lamp are ideal at night. As soon as the sun starts going down, it gets quite dark to see in the forest.
**Colombia uses the standard outlets found in North America. **
17.) Insect repellant. For sure, you’ll need something to wage your war against the mosquitos. From sprays to bars to digestible pills, there are plenty of options.
We stopped by the local pharmacies in Leticia asking for recommendations. I’ve had more than one unsolicited recommendation while living in Colombia that Nopikex is the go-to for any local. It comes in a compact dish that you rub on your skin like a bar of soap and is deet free. We also walked away with a fairly common non-arousal spray bottle containing about 25% deet. To be honest, this was our go-to. I can’t guarantee it’s more effective than the Nopikex but it is easy to apply once you are dressed in your gear.
There’s also a variety of homeopathic remedies such as the MOZI Q Mozi-Q Chewable. It has been explained to me as a dietary supplement that reduces the frequency and severity of bites by changing your scent. I don’t have any personal experience but a friend who volunteered in the Amazon for a month said she couldn’t notice much of a difference using it.
18.) Sunscreen. The jungle seems very shaded but after an extended morning hike, we definitely had some burn lines on our necks.
19.) Reusable water bottle. The guides will typically have purified water access, but you need a bottle to put it in. We just used plastic water bottles from the store. The less big and bulky, the better.
Unless you’re going on a multi-day trek I also would recommend carrying whatever you need in your packets for these hikes. You could put a rain cover on your backpack, but the truth is you probably don’t need whatever’s in there on the hike and the rain will get in one way or another.
Never forget while you’re traveling, you are there to take advantage of your own time, to live in the moment with either yourself or the people you are there to enjoy. Cut yourself some slack. You’re going to be wet and hot no matter what you pack or how much money you spend. Accept that now and enjoy the important parts: good company and a wild adventure. When you can spend less time organizing, protecting, losing, finding, and fixing things you’ll have more time to enjoy cookies in a hammock with the people you care about. I guess maybe bring cookies then.
Remember: it’s you against the bugs, rain, and sun! You got this!