What to Pack
No matter how much surf travel experience you may have, if you are like most of us, the day of departure is
always spent in a busy, nervous, anxious, state of adrenaline rush. This is due to the anticipation of good,
uncrowded surf; the hurry to get last-minute jobs finished so you leave with a clear conscience (never
possible); and most importantly, the only fear worse than a pintail-first sucking over the falls: forgetting to
pack something important. Even as I write this sitting in the Los Angeles airport I know that I forgot my
sunglasses—left in my car. I’m sure I forgot more, which wouldn’t be so bad except that I used my own
checklist. Which also means that the list you are about to read is better than the one I used when I first
wrote this paragraph. Or at least a longer one, because I am a chronic over-packer. (If after reading that
your confidence is waning, here's a website dedicated to helping you make your own packing list:
You really don’t need much beyond your trunks and a board, assuming you are good at and comfortable
with leeching off of your buddies. Otherwise, like a good Boy Scout, you will want to be prepared. So in no
particular order, here’s a pretty good list.
- Airline tickets: Or the receipt printout from your online order. Sometimes I carry mine around in my
backpack for a week before I go just to make sure I don’t forget them. If you are going paperless
and getting your eticket at the airport, don’t forget the credit card you used to make the purchase.
Some airlines won’t give you your eticket without having the purchasing credit card in your
- Passport: You are required to have a passport to get into Costa Rica, and it must be valid (not
expire) for 90 days following your entrance. There was a time when you could get in with your birth
certificate and your driver’s license, but that ended in 2003. A good idea is to also bring copies of
your passport. Whenever possible, give policemen and others who need to see your passport the
copy. Passports are valuable and go for a good price on the black market, so people steal them.
Don’t wait until the last minute to apply for a passport; they are issued by a government
bureaucracy. Check with the State Department’s web site for general passport information and the
specifics on Costa Rica.
- Surfboards: Since really big waves are rare, you most likely will not need a ten foot Brewer gun.
But you may luck into some eight foot waves, so you would not want to be stuck with a 5’6” fish.
Bring your small wave board, whatever that may be, and maybe a step-up, just in case. Basic rule
of thumb: bring the board(s) you have the most fun on most of the time. And don't forget to get the
best board bag you can afford. A good source for quality surf travel gear is SurfTravelGear.com.
They sell a great board bag in their gear section here.
Renting Surfboards: These days, you don’t have to pack a board as rentals are fairly convenient,
especially if you are heading to Tamarindo, Jacó, Nosara, Dominical, Mal País and other popular
surf centers. They have tons of boards, mostly epoxy and mostly longboards, but the selection of
shortboards has gotten surprisingly good. Considering the hassles of packing and lugging boards
along with the baggage fees the airlines charge, rentals are not a bad way to go, especially if you
are a novice.
- Fins and hardware: If you removed the fins to pack your boards, don’t forget to pack them along
with the hardware (key or screwdriver) for securing them. Or you might want to get The Tool. It's a
surfer's multi-tool with all the hardware you need for fins and other surf needs. Pack with your
boards as you won’t need fins if your board bag gets lost. Bring extra screws. Someone (aka
Bobito Sancho) always loses them.
- Clothing: You might consider packing or wearing one respectable-looking outfit (long pants, a “non
t-shirt” shirt, shoes, socks), because you never know when you might need it. The world is not fair
and book is judged by its cover, especially in foreign countries. At the very least you might get better
treatment by airline employees, especially when you need favors. (There isn’t always a fee for
surfboards as checked baggage.) At worst, you could find yourself in front of a judge. Otherwise, all
you will need are trunks, t-shirts, and sandals. Also pack or wear a long-sleeved shirt for cool
nights (rare), overly air conditioned airplanes and to fend off mosquitoes.
- Beach towel: The hotel towels aren’t big enough to blow your nose. Beach towels also make good
board-packing material, and double as pillows at the bargain hotels.
- Wax: You can buy wax in Costa Rica, but it costs twice as much as at home and shops are not
always convenient. Only bring tropical, and strip the wax from your board(s) before packing. Plan
on one to two bars a week. You may want to double that for your buddy and other “bro’s.” (The only
thing worse than a shoulder-hopper is one of those “hey bro, got some wax” guys who never, ever,
have any wax. I save old bars of cold water wax just for those jokers.) Pack a wax comb too. Always
bring too much wax and leave your extras with the locals. Wax is expensive for them. Good travel
wax is Mrs. Palmers Ultra Sticky surf wax. It comes in its own handy box, and the bars are scored to
break into smaller pieces more easily.
- Extra leash or two: (Assuming you already packed one with your board.) A spare in case you break
yours, and the second extra leash for your brah who never brings wax. Ocean & Earth is making a
leash that's supposed to be 40% stronger, so you might want to look into those.
- Ding repair kit: Depends on what kind of surf traveler you are. Typically, stickers, duct tape or one
of the packs of Quick Fix ding repair kits from Surfco, Sun Cure or Ding All will do the job. They’re
available at any surf shop or online at SurfTravelGear.com and other stores, and will do for most
surf trips of 2 to 3 weeks.
- Duct tape: The cure all. For dings and other things. If traveling in a pack, have one guy bring the
tape and another the ding repair kit.
- Soft surfboard racks (or foam tubing) and bungee cords and cinch straps (good ones): Some
rental cars come with racks, but none have straps. So the foam tubing and cinch straps can be
used to secure boards to the hard racks. Bungees are for back-up. But frankly, you don't want to
have to think about back-up. Get the best racks you can afford. We like the Lockdown Racks by
Curve. You can find them online at SurfTravelGear.com (click here).
Pack soft racks, tubing and bungee cords in your board bag. If the airline loses your surfboards the
racks may as well go along for the ride. Pack cinch straps in your backpack. If the cinch straps are
in the one board bag that gets lost then everyone loses.
- Trunks: Two to three. If you bring only one pair you’ll rip ’em, lose ’em, or both. And with a few pairs
you will always have dry boardshorts for walking around.
- Hats: Two—A trucker cap to look cool and a wide-brimmed hat to keep the brutal sun from roasting
you. If you are fair-skinned look into one of the many surfing caps designed to wear in the water.
This goes double if you do a boat trip to Witches and Ollies. I’ve seen many end up with blistered
lips after the Witches boat trip. Not only is that painful, but you can forget about extra-curricular
activities for awhile as you’ll look like a leper. (Not that it stopped or even slowed Bobito Sancho
from diving right into the Del Rey. Bobito!) And if you want to put in serious hours in the tropical surf
down south, get a surf hat. Good ones are found at SurfTravelGear.com.
- Swiss army knife: Pack in your checked luggage. Airport Security will not let you carry it on the
plane. If your knife doesn’t have pliers, pack one of those nifty multi-tools, too.
- Flashlight and extra batteries: There’s a shortage of electric power in Central America, and
sometimes you’ll get none at all. Between rolling blackouts and storm-caused power outages, it’s
pretty typical to lose electric power, as the country just doesn’t have a great electric power
producing capacity. In fact, in 2007 drought-caused power problems forced the government to
ration electricity. So pack a small flashlight and don’t forget extra batteries; they’re expensive in
Costa Rica. Headlamps are even better.
- Sunblock lotion: Lots of the highest UV rating you can find—you will quickly learn to appreciate
SPF 50. Buy the cheap stuff for your body (and the no-wax buddy); you will use gallons of it. Buy the
expensive stuff for your face. The cheap stuff stings your eyes more, ruining the first hour of every
session. Look for waterproof, rubproof, sweatproof, UVA and UVB protection. Wear a long sleeved
rash guard and you’ll save on sunblock. You’ll also get less grease on your surfboard. Get
sunblock chapstick too.
- Rash guard(s): For the sun, not wetsuit rash. I pack two since they are light and they tear easily.
Tee-shirts work, but long sleeve rash guards are best. As mentioned above, you will save on
sunscreen (which only lasts an hour or so anyhow), you’ll get into the water quicker (since you’ll
have less area to cover) and you won’t suffer the embarrassment of having your buddy lather up
your back. (Not that there’s anything wrong with it.)
- Mosquito repellent: DEET is the super-power stuff. But its label warnings include “Do not use on
face...wash treated clothing...avoid contact with plastics...” It’s even been banned in some parts of
the U.S., so it is a bit scary. An unlikely but healthier alternative is Avon Skin-So-Soft moisturizing
stick. Avon has no warnings about your skin peeling off like a boiled chicken—and it leaves your
skin feeling oh-so-soft, too! But it doesn’t work as well as DEET when the Costa Rican Air National
Guard comes out. Avon now has a cream that works well and doubles as sunscreen. There’s also
Repel’s Lemon Eucalyptus, the only organic repellant approved by the CDC. A recent Backpacker
magazine test rated its effectiveness at 4 hours. Eucalyptus is a known bug repellent. Long pants
and shirtsleeves work well too.
- Caladryl and cotton balls: You’re screwed. You’re gonna get eaten no matter what. Especially if
you are out near the beach early near dawn or dusk.
- Balls Protection: The boys down below don’t take well to warm, moist, tropical climates, where
fungus and bacteria rule. Keeping your junk dry is the best protection. The appropriately-named
Fresh Balls is about the best stuff you can get. It’s a lotion, but turns into a powder after application.
Then there are the usual talc-like brands – Gold Bond, etc.
- First aid kit: Start by buying Sick Surfers Ask the Surf Docs & Dr. Geoff, by Drs. Renneker, Starr and
Booth. Read it, especially the part about cuts. Get cut in the ocean and you stand a chance of
getting an infection. The more you surf the more you will get cut. And these are the tropics where
infections are more likely. The kit...
- Antibiotics – check with your doctor for a good prescription
- Antiseptic – like Neosporin
- Benadryl – or another antihistamine for allergic reactions from stings or who knows what
- Waterproof bandages – butterfly closures for the nasty cuts
- Snake bite kit – if you are camping
- Antibacterial soap – not necessarily part of prepackaged first aid kits
- Aspirin – for pain, fever or a cardiac emergency
- Pepto Bismol – Bob “Bobito Sancho” Towner doesn’t wait. He starts nipping at his Bismol as he
boards the plane.
- Tweezers – always sterilize before sticking into body holes
- Q-tips – for cleaning cuts and the sand out of your ears
- Hydrogen peroxide to pour into cuts
- Chemical cold compress –to reduce swelling and for stings and bites
- Mylar space blanket – for treating shock (yeah, it’s hot as hell in down there, but shock doesn’t
- Red Cross emergency first aid booklet – order at www.redcross.org
If you want to avoid all that work and don’t mind paying for someone else to put a great, lightweight
first aid kit together for you, look into the Atwater Carey products.
If you have an Internet connection find everything you need to know about medical emergency
treatment at Mayoclinic.org.
Unusual for a typical first aid kit, but invaluable for a surfer’s first aid kit is duct tape. It works great to wrap
over bandages to hold everything in place and keep out dirt.
- Super Glue: Fixes more than sliced surfer skin.
- Wetsuit: Wetsuits are practically unnecessary. But a vest or maybe a spring suit may be a good
idea in the winter if you are going to Witches where the water is cooler (but not cold). The
cushioning of a vest is also handy if you get sore ribs. And if you never use ’em, they pack well as
- Reef booties: A good idea if you decide to head for the reef breaks like Salsa Brava, Cabo Blanco
and others. (In fact, for Salsa Brava you might consider a helmet.) Booties are also good in the
event that you cut your foot and need to hold bandages in place and protect the wound from more
- Credit cards: Visa and MasterCard are most widely accepted. (Once you get out of the major cities,
however, you will have a hard time finding anyone who will accept credit cards.) American Express
is sometimes better at solving disputes. I have found erroneous charges months after returning
home. If possible, you want to work with a credit card company that gives instant credit when
disputing charges, then works on your behalf to resolve the issue. Amex is good at that.
But you also want to minimize your fees. When you use a credit card outside your home country the
issuing bank adds foreign-transaction fees. Those fees used to be small or nonexistent, but have
increased in recent years to where some of the majors charge 3% on any credit card usage. The
good news is that credit card companies give good exchange rates, so even with the fees you can
come out ahead. You can come out further ahead if you use a low or no-fee card, such as Capital
Before leaving home you should call your credit card company to let them know you will be using
your card outside the country. Some, like Chase, will reject your card when you try to use it out of
the country until you call to verify it’s you. That is not fun.
Waterproof wallets can be found here.
- Cash: The lower-priced eateries and hotels and some gas stations don’t take credit cards or
traveler’s checks. In fact, nobody really takes traveler’s checks, except banks, and the banks are a
big hassle. You can find ATMs in the bigger cities, but they still are not as common as back home.
So bring a bunch of cash. If you must, exchange a little money into colónes when you arrive at the
airport in Costa Rica, but don’t exchange more than $20 as the rate they give you in the airport is
horrible. Really, you only need enough to tip porters at that point, and they’re happy to get dollars (if
you are coming from the U.S.). Also, don’t exchange for colones in the U.S. as the rate there is
terrible too. Outside of the San José airport you will find that most of the hotels, stores and
restaurants will exchange at or near the official rate. And you’ll want to use colónes as your best
bet for accuracy. At the time of this writing the exchange rate was about ¢518 per U.S. dollar. (At the
airport they only gave about ¢480.)
- More money: Bring more money than you think you will need (but don’t tell your “can I borrow some
wax, bro?” buddy). Travel has a way of nickel-and-diming you to death. And if it’s flat you’ll want the
extra dough for more cervezas. Lastly, if you don’t have a credit card be sure to set aside $26 (or
more, it fluctuates) for the departure tax they charge at the airport.
- Calculator: For calculating the exchange rate. Bring a small, cheap one that fits in your pocket. Or
use your mobile phone.
- Address book: You never know when you may need to call someone back home or send a
postcard to your boss.
- Driver’s license: International would be great but not required unless you are staying more than 90
days. (You wish.) At that point getting a Tico license—which is pretty easy and cheap—makes
- Hiking boots: Or something to hike in that can get wet, muddy and protect your ankles. Don’t pack
them; pack your sandals instead. Wear your boots on the plane to save packing space and
luggage weight. Hiking boots are not essential if you don’t plan on doing any hiking. But if you are
walking at night in the rural areas much, they are good mosquito and snakebite protection.
- Map: You can get free maps from the travel agencies and rental car companies, but you will want,
need and appreciate the detail not found in free maps. Spend a few bucks on a good map.
- Compass: My bud Arnold Onaga insisted that I add this to the list. No matter how good your map
is, you’re gonna get lost. With the way the roads twist and turn I doubt that a compass will save you
from losing your way, but at least it will get someone else actively involved in helping you get back
on track. (Most importantly, Arn will now stop bugging me about the freaken compass.)
- Tee-shirts to give to the kids. Or try this: one travel plan is to pack clothes you plan to give to charity
and leave them in hotel rooms for the maids as you wear them and travel around. You will lighten
your load as you go, not have any dirty clothes to pack for home, and you’ll be doing a good deed.
- Surf stickers: Costa Rican kids like stickers so much they will stop you on the street for them.
Stickers are almost like cash. Even the airport porters like them. Keep them handy for when you
ask directions or other favors.
- Camera: If you still use film, bring lots, and extra batteries. Both are expensive in Costa Rica.
Consider bringing an extra camera as well. There is a lot of rain. I got the batteries in my camera
wet the first day of my first trip, wasting it (until I got it overhauled back home for over a hundred
bucks). Pack film in your carry-on bag; don’t check it. The security scanning machines damage film.
- Binoculars: The breaks are often not easily visible. (Actually, this a luxury item.)
- Walkie Talkies: (Another luxury item.) If you are going with a group big enough to travel in two cars
walkie talkies come in handy for things like arguing over directions and where and when to stop for
food or gas.
- Powerbars: Or whatever (Clif Bars are good as they don’t melt or get sticky from the heat), and
bring lots. While sodas (Costa Rican “cafes”) and other places for cheap grinds are plentiful, they
are not near every break, and you will want to surf the breaks where they are not (i.e., not crowded).
Powerbars make a good dawn patrol breakfast since the eateries don’t open that early. Then
again, bananas work great, they’re cheap and you can get them anywhere.
- Books: Da Bull, Life over the Edge, and In Search of Captain Zero.
- Tide chart: Click here or go to CRsurf.com or MagicSeaweed.com.
- Earplugs: You will be in the water a lot. An infection will ruin your trip. Mack's are the way to go.
Cheap and disposable.
- Toilet paper: You’re not going to Huntington Pier. Restrooms are few and far between, and those
on the road often have none. Forget TP and you can always use your beach towel. Wet sand works
too. Or you can pack toilet paper. By the way, be careful about flushing toilet paper. The plumbing
- Paper and pen to write down directions and take notes in this book. Better still, bring a journal
book and keep a diary and scrapbook of your trip. In time you’ll be glad you did.
- Watch or alarm clock: So you don’t miss your flight back. On second thought...
- Sandwich bags and trash bags: Trash bags are good for wet or muddy clothes, and double as
raincoats. Use sandwich bags to pack goop—sunscreen, insect repellent, K-Y, whatever your
goop-thing is—so if a leak develops your bitchin Bad Boy tank top won’t get ruined.
- iPod, headphones, charger and radio adaptor: If space, noise cancellation, and sound quality
matter, then you might want to check out the in-ear Ultimate Ears (www.ultimateears.com). They
pack well, sound fantastic and don’t draw undo attention to your stuff. The radio adaptor is for the
car. For some reason they seem to work better down there, so don’t let sound quality hold you
back. Besides, they’re tiny. Don’t bother bringing a cassette adaptor, most rental cars no longer
have cassette players and only have CD players.
- Chargers: For cell phones, iPods, etc.
- Airline tickets and passport: Just checking.
A final note on what to pack… You really don’t need to pack anything. You can buy it all when you get there
if you want. Costa Rica is no longer the remote Third World outpost it used to be. So you really could travel
light and buy as you go. Of course, shopping takes time you might rather spend surfing.
Excerpted from The Surfer's Guide to Costa Rica & SW Nicaragua, available at SurfTravelGear.com.
The Surfer's Guide to Costa Rica - What to Pack
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