Going backpacking? Good choice! Hundreds of thousands of backpackers around the world are getting to know cities and towns, beaches and deserts, famous sights and local stories – and they’re heading from place to place with all of their possessions on their back and living a little on the wild side. We all need that from time to time, and backpacking – and all the trials and joys that come with it – promise to leave you with life-long memories. Here are some tips and tricks for backpackers to make this journey-of-a-lifetime a little easier.
Photo By: Lori
Plan – But Not Too Much
Do a little planning, particularly if your itinerary involves being somewhere at peak season or around major events because at these times accommodation and cheap flights can be hard to come by, but leave the rest to spontaneity. Find out what’s good – and what’s not – from locals and other travelers. Take risks. See what you feel like doing the day you wake up, instead of planning each day out weeks in advance. Have a rough guide for how long you might like to stay in a general area, but if a city’s boring then leave early, if you fall in love with a place have the flexibility to stay days – or even weeks – longer.
Set a Rough Budget
Set a rough budget but always plan for blow-outs. Some examples might include nights of heavy drinking, or a special meal at a nicer restaurant, but they could also include things like a more expensive day trip or special activity you really want to do. Set a budget, but always have a bit of spare cash for fun extras – or a not-so-fun emergency!
Travel Insurance is a Must
If you don’t have money for travel insurance, you don’t have money for travel. It’s true. Now with cheap online travel insurance options, there’s no excuse. Get one that suits your specific destinations, and make sure you’re covered in all the ways that are important to you.
You probably don’t need it. That’s the fundamental truth. One or max two pairs of shoes are enough and take clothes you can wear over and over! Think about where you’re going and what you’ll be doing and pack with purpose in mind. Only pack things that can be washed in a hostel washing machine – so leave silk dresses, and sequinned tops at home. Think you’ll be ironing? Think again! Everything you should take should be light and easy to wear without ironing, dry cleaning etc. Always have flip flops (thongs), though. These are great for beaches but also dirty hostel showers.
Finally, consider that you might be wearing your backpack for several hours, lifting it on and off ferries and buses and lugging it from spot to spot. We recommend max 10 kilograms! Your shoulders will thank us!
Easy to Recognize Backpack
Some of the smaller airports you travel to will just dump all luggage in a giant pile. Have an easy to recognize backpack so you can quickly find yours or spot it on a carousel. Yellow, red, purple these are all unusual backpack colors. Black, navy and khaki green are the colors of literally everyone else’s backpack. If in doubt, add a bow or large swing tag.
Check visa requirements in advance. You don’t want to be stuck at an overland crossing between Laos and Vietnam and realize you don’t have the right visa. Worse yet, you don’t want to make an expensive flight somewhere and then realize at the airport that you don’t have the right visa and be bundled back to wherever you came from. Also, make sure your passport has much more than 6 months validity remaining (as 6 months is normally the cut-off), and check you have enough empty pages for visas stickers and stamps. Many visa stickers take up a whole page! Finally, you don’t want to mess with visa restrictions, you don’t want to be kicked out and banned from countries or whole regions (for example the European Schengen Zone) for years to come.
Tiny First-Aid Kit
You don’t want a bulky first-aid kit taking up valuable room in your backpack with bandages and swabs and other things you likely won’t need – or if you do need them you should probably be heading to a hospital anyway! But things like a pain killer, band-aids for blisters and small cuts, and some kind of anti-food poisoning medicine are a must!
Annoyingly, countries have different types of electrical plugs. International adaptors can be purchased at airports, luggage stores and travel shops. International adaptors that suit ALL countries are the best, otherwise you’ll have a dozen different adaptors that you might just use once.
Eye masks and Earplugs
You never know when you’ll be desperate for sleep in a hostel, airport, on a plane, on a long train trip or wherever. Eye masks and earplugs are small items that can make a real difference just when you need it.
Take the plunge! You’re backpacking to step out of your comfort zone back home, so say yes to seeing and doing things you might not normally do. You might not be back in a certain place for a long time so don’t pass up seeing things just cause you want a lazy day in the hostel common area watching movies. Having said that, if you’re amid a year-long backpacking trip you will want down time. That just means you need to factor in longer stays in places so you can both see things and get some much-needed rest (and hangover days *cough cough*).
Some border crossings are harder than others. Most are just a formality, but at some you might be asked a lot of questions. For example, how much money you have in savings to cover the costs of your trip, why you are travelling, what work you do and so forth. Answer the question simply and honestly, don’t lie or start adding lots of detail and additional information for no reason.
Pack Snacks Ahead on Travel Days
Airports are like a black hole for money. The food there is expensive, and random bus stations in some remote areas might not even have food shops. So, head to a supermarket on travel days and grab some fruit, snacks and drinks so you don’t get stuck on a 12 hour bus journey with no food and water.
Have a Book or Playing Cards
During a long train or bus trip, or an afternoon on the beach you’ll want a book or playing cards to keep you occupied. You’ll have more down-time than you think and this is great time to do some reading. Most hostels have book swaps too so you can start with one book and swap-swap-swap your way through your trip. Playing cards are a great way to meet others and be social as well with fellow travellers.
Don’t Be Patronizing to Locals
Not everyone in the world speaks English or whatever your native language is. It’s not their job to speak your language in their own country. Speaking LOUDER also won’t help them understand. There are better ways to get yourself understood, by using body language or maybe a local language phrase book etc.
Also, follow local customs. If a country has a conservative dress culture then don’t wear shorts. If a mosque or church asks you to cover your knees, shoulders and hair then follow suit. Some countries frown upon kissing in public, or even chewing gum! In some countries these kinds of rules are just about respecting local customs, in other countries such “inappropriate behavior” can land you a fine or even in jail!
Many backpackers want to collect souvenirs, which is fine. Obviously keep sustainable travel in mind, but also pick souvenirs that are quite light, like magnets, shot glasses or backpack badges. An alternative is to pick souvenirs you can wear while travelling like t-shirts, jewellery or string bracelets. If you want to buy larger things like pottery then it’s probably best to mail them home, so you’re not lugging heavy, breakable things half-way round the world.
Be Alert Not Alarmed
Try not to fall for scams and other tourist traps, but also don’t assume that everyone is out to get you (aka tourists). Be alert about people’s motives, but don’t see bad in everyone otherwise you’ll be jumpy your whole trip. You can do little things to protect yourself. For example, check taxi prices before you land in an airport so that you know roughly the fair prices. Shop around on accommodation tours and day-trips, haggle in markets for souvenirs, and try to eat and drink in local spots as opposed to al the spots listed in your guide book.
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
You’re backpacking to get out of your comfort zone. So get out of your comfort zone! Go on a bicycle tour, head on a pub crawl, visit an apartment restaurant, jump out of a plane… Whatever pushes you out of your comfort zone is probably a good sign you’re living a little.
Don’t Expect Home Away from home
As with the above, you’re not backpacking to have the familiarity and comfort of home – exactly the opposite! Hang out with locals, hang out with other backpackers who are different to your friends back home, expect – and actually enjoy – things being different from home. If you really don’t want to meet new people and experience different things, it’s cheaper to stay home! Plus, some things will run better or worse than they do back home. Cultures are different, traditions are different and ways of life are different. Not better – necessarily – or worse, just different. Enjoy being exposed to something new and respect that people and countries are different. Backpack without judgement!
Check Out the Guidebook, Then Put It Down
There’s no problem with guidebooks. They can give you history and context, give you your bearings so you know what’s where. They can give you tips for what to see and do. But once you have the essential basic info, feel free to put the guide book down and explore the city for yourself. You can also just ask people in the hostel, other travellers, and of course locals! You’re likely to find things that aren’t listed in the guidebook can provide some of the most memorable experiences. And once you’ve seen some of the main sights, why not just go for a long walk around and see what you find, or sit in a cafe and watch the world go by.
Take Care of Your Essentials
Almost nothing is more crucial when you’re backpacking than protecting your money sources and passport. It won’t be the end of the world, but you’ll be pretty devastated at the time if they get lost or stolen and you have to race around getting things sorted. Have a spare credit card – kept separately from your other cards – in case of an emergency. Your passport is your most important document while abroad, so make sure you keep it safe. Don’t flash your cash (it’ll be a magnet for pickpockets), and try not to lose your passport on a drunken night out. If you feel the lockers in your hostel are safe, keep your important items there.
Have Some Toilet Paper on You at All Times
You never know when you’ll need it, and you never know when you’ll really need it and there won’t be toilet paper around. Stuff some in your pocket or handbag. You’ll thank us later.
Get Comfortable with Using Drop Toilets
Drop toilets (aka squat toilets) are more common than you think. Rural parts of Asia, Africa, the Middle East, South America – and even France – often have only drop toilets. The key is to squat down so low that you’re resting all your body weight on your calves – that way you’re not bobbing in the air, but resting on your calves instead, which is actually surprisingly comfortable. It’ll take a little practice, but you’ll be fine.
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