Whether you’re planning for a few days on a long layover or a few weeks of reckless adventuring across the island, make sure to pack the following travel essentials for Sri Lanka.
I just spent four weeks driving a rented tuk tuk around Sri Lanka, exploring as many unique sights, sounds, smells, scenery, experiences, and of course tastes I could find. And even though my mean three-wheeled machine topped out around 44 kmph (that’s not fast) it was an absolute blast.
But you don’t have to rent a tuk tuk to have the time of your life in Sri Lanka. In fact, all you need are a few key items and a slim, lightweight carry on backpack to gear up for your Sri Lankan adventure.
From the stupas and cave temples in Anuradhapura and Sigiriya, the waterfalls in Kandy, the grueling hike at Adam’s Peak, jeep wildlife safaris in Yala, and the world-class surf in Mirissa, Weligama, and Hikkaduwa in the south—there’s something for everyone in Sri Lanka.
Whether you’re a foodie, photog, or a budget traveler, here’s a complete list of everything you need to pack for Sri Lanka for a few days, a couple of weeks, or even a month in a tiny little tuk tuk.
Lightweight Hiking Shoes or Trail Runners
Sri Lanka is absolutely littered with stunning day hikes, trekking loops, scenic vistas, and “can’t miss” temples, caves, stupas, and more. That means you’re going to walk a lot in Sri Lanka, even if you take a taxi or a tuk tuk everywhere.
A lot of the more popular hikes in Sri Lanka—Adam’s Peak and End of the World—are strenuous, but not particularly rugged. I actually hiked Adam’s Peak this morning (we started at 1am!), and there were locals climbing those thousands of concrete stairs barefoot or in sandals. But do yourself a favor—don’t do as the Romans do.
Most hikes, waterfalls, temples, etc are located at the top of a hill, down a steep slope, or perched atop a seemingly never-ending set of stone stairs. I don’t mean to scare you, none of the hikes and temples I’ve visited are “expert” level treks, but you will put some miles on the tires while you work up a sweat to visit many of the more popular sites and attractions around Sri Lanka.
Pack comfortable, sturdy hiking shoes or trekking sandals.
I’ve seen a lot of Chacos (basically any open-toed trekking sandals), but I’ve never been a fan. They’re just too heavy, especially for all those stairs. I recommend a nice comfortable lightweight trail shoe, runner, or approach shoes.
The Scarpa Crux approach shoe is my hiking shoe of choice since it’s lightweight yet sturdy enough for rock climbers, and comfortable for hot days thanks to the low cut. You can also wear these shoes in any big city (not that Sri Lanka has a ton of those). I’ve worn Scarpa Approach shoes all over Spain, SE Asia, and can’t recommend them enough for the kind of everyday wear and tear that you’ll experience not just on the trails, but just getting around the streets (and dirt roads) of Sri Lanka.
If a full blown hiking shoe isn’t for you, my girlfriend has been wearing the Xero Z-Trail Sandals literally every day. She can’t stop talking about the superior traction (even on slippery surfaces) and overall comfort of these trekking sandals. They’re also about two pounds lighter than other trail sandals and can pack flat in your bag. So give those a look if you’re looking for something really lightweight and easy to pack for regular to heavy use.
Slip On Shoes or Sandals
If you’re not into the whole trekking side of Sri Lanka or you want a comfy pair of regular shoes, make sure you pack shoes you can take on and off quickly. Like many other parts of Asia, people in Sri Lanka typically remove their shoes or sandals before entering homes and many businesses. That means you’ll be taking your shoes off at least a few times a day, especially if you plan to visit a lot of temples (which you should).
Pack a pair of Toms or Rothys slip ons to save some hassle. I will warn you that you might not want to bring your favorite pair of slip ons. The ground is dusty, rugged, wet, and dirty in a lot of places, so your shoes are going to take a beating.
Personally, I’ve been wearing my Dollar Store flip flops most days when I’m not out trekking, and it’s been great. Don’t overthink it, and don’t spend a ton of money on new shoes before you go.
Temple Attire in Sri Lanka
Broken record alert: Sri Lanka is absolutely packed with stupas, temples, altars, and sacred trees.
Sri Lanka is considered the oldest continuous home of Buddhism, and it shows. It’s wild how many stupas and bodhi tree shrines you see on the side of the highway, let alone the dozens of “must-see” religious sites scattered on rocky cliffs and caves throughout the country.
To enjoy these breathtaking sites, you have to wear “appropriate temple attire.” That basically means you have to cover your shoulders and knees, remove your shoes, and don’t wear a hat.
Covering your legs and shoulders (no shorts or tank tops allowed) is the required dress, but you can go a step further to show your respect for the majority of Buddhist sites by wearing modest white-colored clothing. Almost everyone at religious sites will be wearing white linen shirts and loose-fitting pants or jeans. White clothing isn’t “required” but, trust me, you’ll feel out of place in your black Metallica t-shirt surrounded by the sea of white linen temple goers.
I didn’t have a white shirt during my visit (white doesn’t travel well), but I wish I’d packed a white linen shirt for temple visits. It’s just so much more respectful and self-aware than wearing a green or black t-shirt.
Guys, make sure you have a lightweight pair of travel pants (something that breathes for long walks in the heat), and ladies bring a pashmina or scarf to cover up as well as comfortable pants, a loose fitting skirt or dress for temple visits (white or light colors preferred).
Long Sleeve Shirt
In keeping with the temple dress code, it’s important to have at least one shirt and pants/dress that covers your shoulders and knees. However, it’s also nice to have a shirt that covers your arms for (slightly) chilly evenings and extra mosquito protection, particularly if you like to sip tea or cocktails on your balcony as you enjoy sunset.
There are a few parts of Sri Lanka that can get a little bit chilly at elevation—mainly the highlands down south and tea country south of Kandy near Nuwara Eliya. To be clear, you don’t need a sweater or fleece, and really shouldn’t pack a bulky outer layer unless you get cold really easily. Pack a long sleeve merino shirt or flowy button up shirt as an extra layer when you need it and you’ll be fine.
Bonus: Merino wool is great for hot or cold weather. Heck, maybe you can just wear it on the air-conditioned flight.
Clothes for Warm Weather
- 3-4 merino t-shirts
- 2 pairs of shorts
- 1 pair of lightweight travel pants or linen trousers
- 1 skirt and a dress
- 1 swimsuit
Sri Lanka can get hot. Like, super hot. If you plan on hiking and sightseeing during the peak heat of the day (and you should), it’s important to pack for the heat.
Bring at least one merino t-shirt for hikes and treks (more if you can get your hands on them), loose fitting pants or long shorts for sun protection and temple visits, and a couple of pairs of shorts you can cycle through for long train rides or hoofing it around the Kandy or Ella when you get in.
Sri Lanka is still a fairly modest culture. So ladies, try to pack at least a few modest pieces of clothing, especially if you’re going to be heading inland or staying in a lot of homestays with Sri Lankan families.
Short shorts and skin tight tank tops are fine for the beach, but my girlfriend has said that she feels most comfortable in her baggier, knee length shorts and a t-shirt. Just good a heads up.
Bathing Suit + Sarong or Quick Dry Towel
If you’re headed to the popular south coast beaches you’ll obviously want to pack your swimsuit and a sarong for long beach days. It’s also important to bring a quick dry towel because while most accommodation includes a towel, it’s not a guarantee—even at nicer hotels and homestays.
Plus, you never know when you’ll go swimming in a lagoon or one of the hundreds of epic waterfalls in Sri Lanka. Be prepared with a good suit and quick dry towel.
Carry On Only: 35L Bag or Less
Sri Lanka is about half the size of Iceland, so driving a tuk tuk or just hopping on a few trains, busses, and the occasional taxi or Uber means you can see as many temples, stupas, viewpoints, lakes, rivers, windy roads, charming cities, national parks, wild elephants (yes, they’re on the roads), peacocks, as you want.
But don’t let the smallness of the island fool you.
It can be tough to get around Sri Lanka—doubly so if you have a huge bag or bulky suitcase. You don’t want to try to find a seat on the train from Kandy to Ella or jump in a tuk tuk with a rolling suitcase, 70L treking pack, or tons of extra bags.
I’ve been rocking the Tortuga Setout Divide Backpack for the past month, and it’s the perfect size bag for exploring Sri Lanka. I actually keep my bag in “26L mode” as I like to think of it to keep a slim profile and make it easy to stow or stash behind the back seat of our tuk tuk.
It’s also great for navigating tiny hallways in homestays (yes, that’s a thing). A small backpack also helps you keep a low key profile while walking around town or looking for your homestay. Fun fact: a lot of homestays and hotels in Sri Lanka are at the top of steep hills.
You can always expand your backpack to 34L if you go souvenir crazy, but it’s important to note how many travelers I’ve seen struggling with either too many bags or massive bags that just don’t fit on the cramped busses, trains, and tiny tuk tuks.
Sri Lanka is hot. You don’t need a ton of stuff. Pack lighter than you think you need to. You’ll be glad you did.
Rugged Day Pack
No matter how you travel—bus, train, or tuk tuk—you want a small easy to carry day bag for hiking and exploring the temple. Make sure it’s rugged enough for the occasional snag on the trail get one with an expandable water bottle pocket on the side (or two if you’re thirsty).
I’ve been using the Setout Daypack for most hikes thanks to the water bottle pockets and lightweight feel. Whatever you pick, make sure it can handle a heavy load if you need to bring snacks, your camera gear, water, and layers for early hikes.
If you’re like me you don’t always need to lug around a fully loaded day pack. While it’s nice to have on longer hikes and all-day expeditions, I prefer a lean mean fanny pack or small shoulder sling for my Everyday Carry (EDC).
The Patagonia Ultralight 1L Black Hole fanny pack is my EDC of choice thanks to the two simple zippered pockets, rugged build, and small footprint. I keep my front pocket wallet, tuk tuk keys, DJI Osmo Pocket camera, iPhone, passport, and a few snacks in the fanny pack for daily use in Sri Lanka.
A Good Hat
You have to take off your hat at most temples and historic sites, but you’ll still want the sun protection on the way there. I’ve been loving the Wallowa Trail Hat since it takes a beating, and I can fold it up and put it in my back pocket when we get to temple town.
In addition to your hat, it’s nice to have a small tin of zinc sunscreen or a tube of daily face sunscreen.
You’ll be covered up for most temple visits and a surprising amount of the hikes are best before dawn (go figure) so I’ve actually spent less time in the direct sunlight in Sri Lanka than other places in Asia. However, the sun is no joke here. Put face sunscreen on everyday and you’ll be fine.
Go with SPF50+ zinc-based sunscreen for your face, neck, and hands. I love the AllGood zinc tin (it lasts forever), and my girlfriend swears by the Badger Damascus zinc face sunscreen for a less “I’m wearing sunscreen” look. And if you need more protection, you can pick up a tube of sunscreen in Sri Lanka for a fraction of what it costs in the US.
Water Bottle with a Filter
You need to stay hydrated in Sri Lanka. If you don’t want to buy any more single-use plastic bottles that means bringing your own water bottle. Unfortunately, unlike many other destinations in SE Asia, Sri Lanka doesn’t have a ton of places to fill a water bottle.
The solution to questionable tap water is a water bottle with a built-in filter like the GRAYL ultralight (a favorite among our team at Tortuga) or Lifestraw water bottle. If you want a smaller collapsible water bottle with a great filter, you can pick up the Katadyn BeFree Water Bottle (it’s great).
Small Dry Bag (but no other rain gear)
If you’re trying to figure out the “best time to visit Sri Lanka” to avoid the rain it’s important to note that Sri Lanka doesn’t just have one uniform rainy season across the whole island.
In a cool twist of season fate, Sri Lanka splits the rainy seasons evenly on the island:
- May to September: Rain in the South and West Coast
- December to April: Rain in the North and East Coast
You can avoid the monsoons by adjusting your destinations, not your departure dates. While that’s great news for time-sensitive travelers that want to explore the stunning sights of Sri Lanka, it does pay to have a little extra weather protection just in case you get caught in a storm.
I visited during February and I didn’t see a single ominous looking cloud. Call it good luck or just geography, but you don’t need a ton of rain gear in Sri Lanka as long as you plan accordingly.
A small dry bag (10-15L) is more than enough for a laptop, camera, and other assorted electronics and documents. I use a 15L dry bag with two shoulder straps to keep my camera and electronic gear completely safe on longer day hikes. But another option is to choose the Outbreaker Daypack, which is made of waterproof sailcloth. It’s not as hard core dry as a drybag (it’s stitched, not seam sealed), but it’s more than enough for most rainy days.
Sri Lankan Power Adaptor
Sri Lanka’s electrical outlets are… unique. Thanks to a complicated colonial past and an array of standards your accommodation in Sri Lanka might feature one (or all) of these three different style outlets all in the same room.
I’ve come across all of these outlets in Sri Lanka:
And they each have their own quirks.
Type-M plugs are the hardest to accommodate because you probably haven’t come across them before. They look a lot like Type-D plugs (three circular plugs in a triangular shape), but the prongs are a little bigger. Fun, right?
That means that your travel adaptor might fit in a type M outlet, but not always. So using a Type-D plug with an American appliance requires not just a travel adaptor with voltage converter (Sri Lanka uses 230 volt electricity), but also another plug adaptor with the right pins. You’ll probably have to ask your host for an adaptor to use these outlets. I’ve been using the Type-G or British pins to connect to these extra adaptors when I can.
Most travel adaptors can handle Type D and Type G, but make sure you know which ones are which before charging up your devices.