Traveling the world is an idea as old as time. Many young adventurers have set out to see the world and expand their horizons. Life is simply too short to stay in one small town for too long, right? If you agree and long to get out there to discover and explore new places, please keep reading. If the only thing holding you back has been your low budget and questions about how to go about it, let me introduce you to the art and science of backpacking.
What is backpacking?
Backpacking is a form of tourism that has become quite popular in recent years. It is a low-cost, independent way of traveling where you carry everything you need in one backpack, move from place to place and stay in very affordable lodgings wherever you are. Some backpackers travel cities, countries and around the world this way; other backpackers put a stronger emphasis on the great outdoors and set out on grand hiking and backcountry camping ventures.
Whether you are looking to explore the natural world or faraway cities in exotic places, there are a few things all backpackers should know before starting their first big trip. It is important that you think this through carefully and prepare well, or a grand adventure can quickly end in a catastrophe.
How do I travel with little to no money?
First things first, one of the greatest appeals of backpacking is that it is supposed to be so affordable. One of the biggest factors here is catching a cheap flight. If you already know where you want to go, be on the lookout through search engines like momondo or skyscanner to find the best deals possible. If you don’t have a specific destination in mind, research places that are cheap to get to. The flight will most likely be your biggest expense.
Once you are where you want to be, check into cheap accommodations. There are many backpacker hostels, couchsurfing options, airbnbs etc. almost anywhere around the world. Backpackers are famous for staying in certain hostels where they meet, hang out together, share experiences, and make new friends. Stay there with them, meet them, talk to them. Learn from fellow backpackers’ mistakes and let them give you pointers on how to travel within your budget.
Speaking of a budget, before you set out, you should understand how much money you have to spend and carefully budget that. Look up local prices ahead of time and don’t choose a location that you can’t realistically afford. Once you know what expenses you can reasonably expect, plan how to stretch your money, allow some flexibility for unexpected costs, and live within your means as you travel. Some backpackers prefer to keep a journal of some sort, so they don’t lose track of their finances and get stranded without any money.
In some countries, you also have the option of working for your accommodations, sometimes even for food, or for a little spending money. If you want to travel for longer, this is definitely something you should look into. Jobs are as varied as people and places. Working in a place can make for a very unique experience of local culture that you might really enjoy.
Where and when should I travel?
Maybe you already have a destination in mind, or maybe you are just intrigued by the idea of backpacking and really want to try it out. If you belong to the later group, you might want to opt for a shorter trip that’s not too far from home for your first adventure. That way you can see how it works and how you like it without a huge commitment or investment.
Regardless of where you choose to go, be sure to check which hemisphere your destination is in and what the weather will be like – before you go. Many a backpacker in their naivety has been surprised by monsoons or winter conditions in a place they thought was going to be tropical. May through September does not universally mean summer.
If you choose your destination based on a special event or place you want to see, verify that it is actually available and you can get in. Yes, backpacking is about being independent and spontaneous, but you don’t want to miss what you specifically came to do. In any other case, the rule of thumb is: plan your stops and how you will get there but stay flexible. Don’t book every ticket and schedule every departure. You might end up in a place you really like and want to stay longer. Allow for changes of plans and dates. You will probably find that overall, it is better to spend more time in fewer places than to rush around to fit everything into very few days.
What should I pack?
The grand question: with only one backpack, what should I pack. First of all, one potential misunderstanding needs to be cleared up right away: when it comes to your backpack size, bigger is not better. The bigger your backpack, the more you will pack … and the more you will carry – everywhere. Your backpack will be your constant companion, remember that as you pack. This is the greatest difference between you and other tourists: you carry everything you bring in one backpack on your own shoulders.
Now that that’s been said, let’s focus on the essentials. If you forget everything else, you cannot forget your important documents which include your passport, tickets, a credit card, and insurance papers. Without these, you won’t get very far. Pack them first, in a safe place in your pack, and know where they are at all times.
Beyond that, of course you can pack other things. For clothing, be sure to check the local weather forecast and bring thin, light clothing that’s easy to combine multiple ways and good for layering. That way you can get much use out of a few items. Don’t forget that you can always wash things too. You might want to consider compression packing bags, a travel towel, an inflatable pillow, shower sandals, comfortable walking shoes, a small travel dictionary (unless you have that on your phone), adapters, a travel water bottle. For toiletries, try to keep it simple. A bar of soap can go a long way while saving space in your backpack. Be smart about what you choose to carry.
If you are planning to spend your nights outdoors, you will also need to include a sleeping bag, a tent, a sleeping pad, some sort of flashlight, potentially a cooking system etc. There are many great lightweight and small options available. Ideally, you set aside a good amount of time to research online or be advised in a camping store to pick the gear that is right for your needs.
What else do I need to prepare?
Last but definitely not least, there are a few other considerations before you set out on your first trip. Spend some time thinking through these questions and make sure you have them all taken care of. Time spent preparing now, will make you traveling safely:
- Insurance: Do not travel without proper international health insurance – this is not the time or place to be cheap. Make sure that the insurance plan you choose covers all eventualities. Other insurances you might want to consider are travel insurance and insurance for stolen or lost gear. A quick search online will reveal many backpackers’ tragic stories because they opted out of insurance. Don’t be silly, be safe!
- Visa requirements: Check the visa requirements of any country you visit, even if just for a layover. Allow for time to get everything processed before you leave. Border guards aren’t known to be very gracious.
- Credit card: Pick a good credit card. Pay attention to international fees, rewards points, security, insurance. There are many options out there, choose wisely.
- Cultural norms: Research cultural norms for your destination. Some mistakes may just cause awkwardness, others may land you in jail. Be sure to know the big ones to avoid!
- Trip details: Have all your trip details mapped out and clear. It may seem incredible, but it happens quite often that backpackers end up at the wrong airport in cities that have several.
- Local safety: Look up areas that aren’t safe where you’re going so you can avoid those. Some countries are also known for specific scams and tricks. Prepare and don’t fall for them.
- Language: Learn some of the country’s language. It can only help you to know important words and phrases. If you understand what’s going on, it reduces the risk of you being scammed as well.
- Local food and drink: Look up what locals eat and drink. Part of that is to be informed and prepared, but also, be sure to check whether tap water is safe to drink. Getting poisoned by a drink of water can quickly ruin the whole trip.
Finally, just relax and have fun with it! This can all sound a little daunting and overwhelming, but in the end of the day, all that matters is that you discover your own travel style. That’s what backpacking is all about. Safety matters but beyond that, everyone has their own way of doing things. Though it is recommendable to compare notes and learn from fellow travelers, don’t just do what others do. Pick out your own pack, your own destination and your own way of seeing the world. That’s where the fun begins!