We’re the type of family that owns ten pairs of rain boots and cries, “We’re melting, we’re melting!” when the sun comes out, so packing for a trip to Costa Rica is no small feat. I have a lifelong goal of being a minimalist, carry-on-only packer, but since I have three adventurous boys and a fishing-obsessed husband (TSA officers do not approve of fishing hooks and knives, as you know) let’s just call those #lifegoals.
My husband will spend eight hours prepping fishing gear and then announce that he’s all packed, so my brain is currently on overload trying to remember everything we need for Costa Rica that is not related to catching a live animal. I’m not a natural list-maker, but here I am, making lists, because on our vacation last year, the the two-year-old arrived at the beach in sneakers.
Here’s hoping that I can learn from my mistakes, and maybe help somebody else in the process. If you’re wondering what to pack for a family vacation to Costa Rica, read on. And maybe take notes. Make lists. Don’t be like me.
Things to Pack for a Trip to Costa Rica with Kids
Clothes (or, What to Wear in Costa Rica)
Costa Rica is generally hot and can be very humid in regions. I usually pack a few shirts, shorts, a tank top, and a light easy dress for evenings. Heavy cotton items are very difficult to get dry in humid climates like this (even if your house rental has a dryer!), so avoid them if you can. Look for light cotton or other quick-drying items.
I strongly recommend swim shirts/rash guards for everyone, not just the kids. The sun is strong, and you’ll notice locals and guides wearing these while surfing and on kayak and boat tours. You’ll be glad you had a long-sleeved swim shirt while snorkeling, too, as the combination of sun directly on your back and reflecting off the ocean can quickly cause severe burns.
If you’re going to be doing serious hiking, consider at least one pair of long pants, possibly the kind that zip-off in to shorts, and a long sleeved shirt. In cooler mountainous regions you’ll need this for warmth; in serious jungle like Corcovado National Park you’ll want it for protection against bugs like mosquitos and ticks. I’m not planning anything that intense with my little boys, so my kids get a few pairs of sports shorts and shirts each and some underwear; they’re pretty easy to pack.
Everyone will need one light sweatshirt or jacket. You’ll probably never need it if you spend all your time on the beach, but in the mountains you may, especially at night.
I have yet to find the perfect water shoes (I’m open to suggestions!) but water sandals or other footwear that is not flip flops is a must. Whether you’re going to Hawaii, the Caribbean, or Central America, chances are there will be some type of rocky adventure for which you will wish for more foot protection than flip flops can provide.
If your water shoes don’t double as closed-toed or hiking shoes (Keens are one brand that can do both in some situations) you’ll want to consider packing some form of hiking shoe. Zip-lines require closed-toed shoes, and there’s tons of hiking in Costa Rica you don’t want to miss out on.
But you’ll still need standard beach flip flops for everyone in the family. Yes, that means I’m trying to remember four pairs of all this stuff….
I bring along a camera in addition to my phone, because my phone is way too valuable to trust on the beach and around the ocean, but I still want those shots of my kids having fun. I recently upgraded to a GoPro and found it was absolutely worth it for the underwater shots and the indestructibility. I’ve also started packing a kids camera like this one. It’s worth the space not to have my kids steal my camera. As a bonus, children sometimes take surprisingly good photos, and being a photographer can keep them happy and distracted while waiting in lines or hiking.
I strongly recommend mineral rather than chemical sunscreen, as chemical sunscreens are known to damage coral reefs (Hawaii banned them in 2018). Additionally, chemical sunscreens can frequently sting sensitive kids’ skin. Look for sunscreens containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, like this one.
Lots of tropical paradises will, unfortunately, have a few mosquitos. There’s all kind of opinions on the mosquito repellent front, but when I am traveling anywhere the mosquitos could potentially carry malaria, Dengue, Zika, or any other number of tropical diseases, I get serious about my chemicals. Traditionally DEET was most effective against mosquitos, but can really sting skin. Picaridin has been shown to be as effective against biting insects (here’s more info for my fellow nerds), so I’m trying this product this time.
Sun hats. Fedoras. Baseball caps. Whatever your kids will wear with a brim. I do love this Sunday Afternoons play hat, but the point is: grab something your kid will keep on. Here’s where I remind myself to actually pack myself a hat, too, because my face isn’t getting any younger…
My threenager still tears these apart for fun, so despite my desire to see less plastic in the world, I did buy this giant pack from Amazon to ensure we’d have a few intact by the time summer rolls around.
Binoculars and Butterfly Nets
You can read more about the travel gear that we take everywhere with our little explorers here, but if your child is likely to want to catch a butterfly or a tadpole or look for birds (or monkeys) from your balcony, they’ll be happier if you’ve made space for a butterfly net or these indestructible binoculars.
Flashlights are great for hunting toads after dinner, reading your book in that shared hotel room, and otherwise surviving close quarters with a lot of people. In some countries (We like headlamps because catching frogs requires one hand on a net and one hand on a frog.
I’m old school like this. I tried to only use my phone on my last trip, but I kept losing Wi-Fi, being terrified by phone would die, and missing a map at the exact moment I wanted it. I’m back to packing a paper map. And yes, I know that dates me. Depending on where we’re going, I might even pack a guidebook.
These camping/travel towels are the best. They work great for all kinds of things: makeshift blankets, toweling off, relaxing on the beach. They dry faster than any other towels and the sand comes off easily. I also use the small sizes as handkerchiefs now that I no longer have to travel with burp cloths—they wipe up all kinds of spills and can be washed in the sink at night.
Possibly controversial, but a little bottle of this is still is the best for getting sand off kids as well as being helpful in humid chafing situations.
If you think you’ll be anywhere you can snorkel off the beach, it may be worth packing a kids’ snorkel rather than trying to rent one at your destination. We like to be spontaneous, so it’s worth the space in our luggage. In the kids’ snorkel department, there are also these full-face snorkels available now; the full-face snorkel worked great for one of my kids but not so great for my other child, and it did take up more room in the suitcase.
I only make space for lifejackets for my kids who can’t swim. The toddler needs one, and we often stay in house rentals with pools. Also, on boat tours, I find that I can’t always depend on them having exactly the right size for a small child.
First Aid Kit
I pack a very complete medical kit when I travel. You can find decent pharmacies almost anywhere in the world, as the minimalist packers will tell you; however, I don’t like finding myself with a febrile toddler and no Tylenol in the middle of the night at a house rental, or short of Band-Aids on a trail, so I pack appropriately. You can read about what’s inside my complete medical kit here.
If you know you’ll be able to pick up a cheap sand bucket and shovel at your destination, it’s easiest to do that. In Costa Rica, for example, I found them pretty much everywhere. If in doubt, a collapsible sand bucket would be easy to fit in the top of a suitcase. Now that my older boys like to spend every minute not in the ocean in a swimming pool, it’s also worth it to pack a few small pool toys such as these diving rockets.
If you’re going to shlep all those kids and all that stuff to the beach, a lightweight bag is a necessity. After experimenting with more fashionable options, I’ve settled on foldable, reusable shopping bags as the best way to go. They pack up super small, sand falls right off of them, they’re waterproof and wash out easily, and they multitask like a boss: use one for car snacks, make one a beach bag, keep another as the dirty clothes bag. I’ve also starting packing along a lightweight, packable backpack/ Packing bags inside of bags always seems a little crazy, but I find I need a light backpack for short hikes or walking around a city with three kids.
Optional: Portable Fan
This is definitely NOT in my suitcase (remember how I’m an aspiring minimalist?) but on our last trip both grandmothers packed along portable battery powered fans, and they were huge hits with the kids. If you have children who are sensitive to heat, or complainers, or babies, these may be worth the inches of bag space.
What’s in My Carry-on
You can read here about what my kids pack in their carry-on bags. I always admire those shiny graphics in women’s magazines about what should be in a female jet setter’s travel tote, because they usually feature a lovely scarf and travel-size make-up. I’d like to remember Chapstick, but realistically it’s mostly scattered dollar bills and candy to bribe my kids, all encrusted in Goldfish dust. Here’s the stuff I can’t forget to pack or my kids will never let me live it down.
I carry all five of ours in a travel wallet, along with cash and cards. My husband also carries cards, cash, and copies of our passports. We stash extras of everything buried in other places, too, just in case one of us gets robbed at any point in the trip…because crime happens everywhere.
Inflatable Seat Extender
An inflatable seat extender like FlyTot is very helpful for little kids if you are taking red-eye, like we are, allowing them to put their legs up and lie flat. Sure, I’d like to make the kids carry this themselves, but realistically it’s going in my backpack.
I already have a little tinnitus, so I am paranoid about noise levels in airplanes. We all want to watch our own movies on long flights, so I carry noise cancelling earphones for myself and make sure that my kids have appropriate volume-limited headphones. Puro Sound Labs makes some great quality earphones for kids; you can read my review of them here.
My husband hates these. I love them. We are five people taking a red-eye on super economy tickets where they probably won’t want to give us water, much less a pillow, and the toddler will probably sleep on my arm the entire time. I’m bringing my damn neck pillow. I still haven’t decided, however, which model is best—inflatable, memory foam, etc. Look for that scientific study in the future.
My lovely mother gave me this magical travel blanket and insisted I needed to carry it on every future plane trip, and she was totally right, like she always is. It folds up super small, but unfolds big enough to cover multiple kids or double as a sheet and looks nice enough to be a shawl. You need one.
One of my kids can currently be trusted to carry an iPad in his bag. The others are likely to drop their backpacks in fountains. I carry all the electronics.
For me. Just in case the kids fall asleep and I have insomnia. So, not likely I’ll have time to read, but a person can dream, right?
This used to be in case the plane got stuck on the runway, but they don’t feed you much on planes anymore. I aim for a variety of bars, fruit, nuts and crackers: stuff that won’t melt, provides some protein, and includes something for everyone. Zbars are probably my current top option as a snack that all three boys will eat, is non-perishable and won’t end up as crumbs at the bottom of the bag.
Everyone in my family carries an insulated water bottle and fills it up after security. For toddlers, I always bring a sippy cup, too, and put any drinks on the airplane (e.g. juice) in that.
For normal hunger, I offer healthy snacks. If things start to go a little south, I have fruit snacks. But if we are getting the red zone, I bust out the big guns. I believe in the ability of emergency sugar hidden deep in your bag to get you through toddler tantrums or other kid emergencies during long trips. In my family, lollipops have worked great for this, because it’s hard to cry and lick a lollipop at the same time. I’ve heard of people using M&Ms, too, but chocolate can melt, so for now I’m still in the lollipop camp. Regardless, find some kind of treat that works for you!