We had a great time during our recent stay at Al Natural Resort on Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama, but it was our first time vacationing on a remote tropical island and we weren’t completely prepared for the reality on the ground. It’s sort of like Gilligan’s Island except with a few more bungalows. I think we terrified the staff when we arrived with our massive travel backpacks, stroller and carry-ons but we visited as part of our year-long trek around the world.
Had we just gone to the island or on a typical vacation around Panama, each person’s needs could have fit in a small carry-on backpack – you don’t need to put much on your packing list for a tropical vacation! The good news is that packing for a tropical vacation doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. Here are some tropical vacation essentials that we brought, a few that we wish we had, and of course the things you shouldn’t bother to include on your list of what to pack for a tropical vacation.
Looking for more ideas for visiting Panama? Check out our complete guide!
What to pack for a tropical vacation on a remote island
Make sure to put these items on your tropical vacation packing list – this list is specifically geared to what to pack for a Caribbean vacation, but much of it crosses over with my Hawaii packing list and would be applicable to other hot, remote areas.
We used the ones on our phones and that worked reasonably, but a brighter dedicated travel flashlight would have been even better. There are no street lamps when you’re walking through the jungle at night in the rain!
Two swim suits
Nothing dries, especially anything with layers (like so many women’s swim suits). We were shocked, though, that even the boys’ swim suits didn’t dry overnight! So do yourself and put two swim suits on your tropical vacation packing list. I really liked this one for active pursuits like kayaking and snorkeling.
Self-explanatory, but my shades were the one thing I forgot to pack when gathering a year’s worth of gear for four people. It’s hard to imagine that I left it off my tropical vacation checklist, since my eyes are extremely sensitive and I usually have sunglasses glued to my face. It was very, very difficult to find a decent pair of shades that didn’t cost a fortune once we were outside the US, so I’d put sunglasses at the top of what to pack for a tropical vacation.
I recommend that you bring a pair of polarized sunglasses to cut the glare reflecting off of the water. (It took me months to find a suitable replacement.) Want to laugh at our other travel packing mistakes? Check them out here!
If you’re carrying on your backpack from the US, make sure to only bring a 3oz tube (we made that mistake once!). Sunscreen is one of those tropical travel essentials, but it’s generally expensive in the countries where you need it most and often the SPF is lower than our ghostly pale family needs. Sunscreen is one of the most important things to bring to an island vacation! We’re big fans of Thinksport sunscreen which is reef-safe; it can be purchased in 3oz carry-on approved size. Whatever you do, don’t leave this off your island packing list.
Are you sensing a theme? When you’re making your tropical island packing list, sun protection in all its forms should be at the top of your list. You can get all sorts of cute sun protecting shirts these days, like this long sleeve swim shirt from Prana that I drooled over (but didn’t buy). There are also fantastic options at Athleta and Lands End. If you’re traveling with kids, a UV shirt will save you 20 minutes of squirmy sunscreen application every 90 minutes.
Obviously a hat is critical for comfort and health! It should be at the top of every tropical packing list. I personally wouldn’t bring a big expensive insta-worthy hat due to the humidity, possibility for water damage, and the huge amount of space it takes up. I got tons of use out of my cute-but-practical trucker hat, chosen to coordinate (reasonably well) with my travel capsule wardrobe for our year abroad. Another great option is a packable straw hat, which I wish I’d brought with me.
A coverup like this one would be perfect for lunch or the afternoon coffee break, since you’ll still be in your swim suit until just before dinner. In truth, I just used a towel since we were already overloaded for the year! If I had the space, a simple coverup would top my list of what to wear on an island vacation.
You really don’t need much clothing on your list of what to bring on an island vacation! For dinner, sundresses for a Caribbean vacation are perfect for women – I love this one so much that I own two! Men can get away with shorts like these and a polo or button down shirt. During the day, you’ll basically be wearing a swim suit all the time, so maybe add in one extra pair of shorts (these are perfect) and a t-shirt or tank top for breakfast. Alternatively, you could bring one dress per day and be done with it!
Just remember: anything that gets wet will take F-O-R-E-V-E-R to dry.
In many ways, it’s easier to traverse the sandy jungle paths in bare feet. Indeed, that’s what everyone does. On Bastimentos there were many people who never wore shoes or flip flops during our four day visit. We wore our flip flops for walking at night just to offer a little protection from branches or bugs that we couldn’t see (since we didn’t have real flashlights). You’ll barely wear the one pair of flip flops, so don’t bother bringing more.
Which flip flops should you buy? For myself, I need comfortable flip flops with arch support and have been a long-time fangirl of these (and I’m not alone – two of my sisters-in-law swear by them too!). Ronnie ended up with these flip flops and they’re working out great for him. In my search for toddler flip flops with a back strap, Crocs came out as the winner and the kids absolutely love them.
Packable rain jacket or poncho
If you’re lucky, you won’t need your packable rain jacket at all. Unfortunately we got plenty of use out of ours since we visited Bastimentos during one of the rainiest months. We were glad to have jackets that packed down to almost nothing, and some of our fellow guests smartly brought ultra-compact ponchos. The kids’ new K-Way lightweight waterpoof jackets are awesome, but be advised that they run a little small so order up if your child is in between sizes.
Quick dry travel towels
Many resorts on remote islands don’t provide you with beach towels, probably because that would be even more for them to lug back to the mainland by boat to launder. So most that we know of are BYOT – and obviously a thick terry one isn’t going to dry quickly. Indeed, even our “quick dry” microfiber towels stayed wet/damp for most of the time we were there. Still better than nothing, and you could also consider linen travel towels too (I still wonder if we should have bought one of those instead). We own this nice quality set of quick dry towels and the large microfiber towel included is HUGE, and I also considered this linen towel for our family gap year trip.
Filtered water bottle
Unfortunately most islands don’t have a ready supply of drinkable water. They generally rely on large bottles of water brought in by boat or single-serving bottles purchased by the case. Help your hosts and the environment by including this awesome filtered water bottle on your list of things to bring on an island vacation.
I love how easy it is to use! It takes just a few seconds to sterilize 24oz of water, which you can then use for drinking, brushing your teeth, cleaning your contact lenses or whatever else you need. I’m glad we have one now, but it sure would have come in handy during our full-time travels!
If you want a more compact option, the original Grayl bottle has a 16oz capacity and is a little less expensive.
Self-explanatory and one of our vacation essentials since we seem to bait. Despite locals and staff saying that there were barely any mosquitos, we definitely got bit every time we forgot to spray. Make sure to bring a travel-sized bottle with you if you’re carrying on (annoyingly, most bottles seem to be 4oz).
Where should you store your never-quite-dry swim suits and pack towels when you need to transport them back to the mainland? How about the sandy flip flops you just can’t get clean?
You’ll want a wetbag to segregate them from the rest of your clothing (which will only be mildly damp if you didn’t wear it). We love this one because it’s big enough to hold swimwear for the whole family but folds down tiny.
Alternatively, you can bring one these amazing Logan + Lenora daytripper bags as your beach bag. They’re perfect as your airplane carry-on and for beach days thanks to tons of organization and a built-in waterproof section, and these are seriously waterproof. We’ve had a daytripper for five years and it’s still going strong!
Wet bags are on our list of vacation must haves because they’re just so versatile! On other types of trips we’ve used them for dirty laundry, wet rain boots, toiletries that might leak, bottles of wine and a million other things.
We didn’t bring a dry bag, but it sure would have come in handy for bringing extra clothing, towels or cameras out in boats and kayaks! Alternatively, you can get a pouch just for your electronics – some of them will even let you take smartphone pics through the pouch. We had one from our last remote island vacation and it was great – until we got to the island realized that it was from our flip phone days and was way too small for our iPhones.
Travel daypack for the beach or excursions
Of course you’ll want something to bring your daily needs around. Check out this Planetwise sport bag that has a compartment for your wet towel and swimsuit! It’s extremely compact and folds up tiny.
Alternatively, you can just bring the Logan + Lenora daytripper I recommended above. It can tackle lots of jobs on your tropical island vacation!
Waterproof budget action camera
Everyone loves GoPro, of course, but you can also buy a budget action camera that receives great reviews and comes with all of the accessories (seriously, around 20% of the price of a GoPro). We picked one up later in our travels and it worked great! Check out our full review. (If you’ve got a little more room in the budget, this one is even better.)
Looking for a more full-featured option? Check out the best cameras for backpacking!
Book or Kindle reader
Being on a remote tropical island is a great opportunity to disconnect, but you’ll want some good reading material for hammock time. The latest Kindle Paperwhite adds a game-changing new feature for an island vacation – it’s waterproof!!! If a Kindle tops your list of things to bring to an island, check out a free trial of Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited service to load up on great reading material without the weight of a whole library.
If traveling with kids:
Inflatable arm floaties
Our son is an extremely strong swimmer and our daughter is getting there. Before our time in Bocas del Toro, the kids had never used floaties – they’ll spend an hour playing in the pool while we lounge (and supervise) from the deck. But we knew that we’d be spending time out in the open water and currents can sometimes be unpredictable in the area, so we opted for the extra safety precaution in addition to our own close supervision. At times, the kids opted to wear life jackets in the water rather than their floaties as well. Check out a few more options here.
Kids snorkel set
We love to watch the fish swim beneath us as we snorkel through calm Caribbean waters, and snorkeling is a great activity for kids once they’re comfortable swimming. But tiny faces require tiny masks, and most hotels and resorts just don’t have a child’s snorkel set.
Be sure to purchase a kid snorkel with a dry top, rather than one that’s completely open. (You might think we’re crazy for dragging snorkeling gear for kids all the way around the world, and you might be right… but for those times when the kids want to join us for some memorable time in the water it’s important to us that we’re able to say “yes”). Here’s our full run-down of the best snorkel gear for kids.
What not to put on your tropical vacation packing list
When you’re considering what to bring to an island, it’s really best to skew to the practical rather than bringing a bunch of stuff you won’t end up using. Leave these things off your packing list for tropical vacation:
Extra shoes – You’ll barely wear your flip flops, and definitely not any other shoes!
Jewelry – Perhaps one necklace for dinner, but you probably won’t bother
Makeup – Ditto the jewelry above
Jeans or other heavy clothing – Even lightweight cotton clothes won’t dry, so jeans don’t have a prayer… and it’s too hot and humid anyway!
Laptop – Unless you’re a blogger on a year-long trip and absolutely need it, relax! You’re on vacation! And you probably won’t have WiFi anyway when you’re staying out in the middle of the jungle. (But if you really need a laptop, take a look at these top picks for travelers.)
What luggage should you use when your pack for an all inclusive vacation on a remote island?
You won’t need to bring much clothing or gear with you, so it’s best to bring a small backpack like a 40 liter backpack that opens like a suitcase. We have some great recommendations from that time I tested all the best travel backpacks for women, but my top picks would be the Tortuga Setout (best for petites), Osprey Fairview 40 or the REI Trail 40. They’re all are carry-on size and will be easy to move from boat to boat to dock to bungalow and back again.
To keep your clothes and gear organized, pick up a set of packing cubes – a medium for clothing, and then you can split your other items between the small and medium slim sizes.
What will you pack if you are going on a vacation to an island?