Whether you’re doing your own research or having friends put their two cents in, your first big trip comes with a bombardment of backpacking advice. This guidance all seems to have one thing in common: they state the obvious. You’ll be told to stay safe and avoid dark alleyways, but no one will tell you the essential backpacking tips that will get you through every day … until now. So, take my advice and follow this simple but necessary backpacking advice, so you don’t learn the hard way (like I did!)
1. Pack all the medication you could ever need
Travelling can give you the feeling of invincibility. I hate to be the one to burst your bubble, but you are far from it. You’ll get sick and, when you do, being able to reach into your bag and take whatever medication you need will be much easier than trying to locate the nearest pharmacy, dragging yourself out of bed and somehow learning and correctly pronouncing the Spanish word for ‘throat lozenge’. Bring a variety of basic medicine that you trust to tackle any sickness. Even if you don’t use it, it’s way better to be safe than sick.
2. Download Offline Maps as soon as you hit WiFi
As soon as you open Google Maps for the city you’re in, the data is stored in the app. Even as you lose that precious WiFi connection, the app will be able to show you the city roads and remember any recent searches. As a traveller, this is incredibly valuable as you can go forth with your life-changing adventures and get lost in a city. Now you can do this with the peace of mind that Maps will know where you are and how to get you home. If that doesn’t make Offline Maps the real MVP, nothing will. (Oh wait – maybe you’re not a massive sports fan like me? By MVP I mean Most Valuable Player and you’ll quickly learn Offline Maps are your new travel essential).
3. Tell your bank you are going overseas
If your bank sees any suspicious transactions, they will suspend your account immediately and try contact you to establish if it’s legitimate. Bless their hearts, I’m sure this is done with good intentions, but it can be a traveller’s worst nightmare. Their idea of a ‘suspicious transaction’ is basically any transaction made from a country you apparently aren’t in. Informing your bank of where you’re going and what dates you’ll be there as part of your travel preparations will ensure you aren’t left stranded on the other side of the world with no money. This is one of the best tips for backpacking, as we generally don’t travel with access to many sources of money so remember to keep your bank in the loop.
4. Don’t look like a tourist too much
Unfortunately, some people like to pick on travellers because we are easy targets, especially for thieves. These people can spot a tourist from a mile away, so it’s always a good idea to try and fit in with the locals. That means you should use Maps on your phone and not a giant paper map. No visible belt bag/fanny packs/bum bags; if you really must wear one, hide it under your clothes. Don’t carry a backpack that looks packed to survive an apocalypse just to walk through the city for a day. Ultimately, you’re a tourist and should always embrace that, but not making it so obvious could keep you out of trouble.
5. Don’t pack your whole wardrobe
Everyone would love to have the choice between their nice casual, semi-nice half-casual, super nice not very casual and not nice but kind of casual shoes, but when you’re travelling, carrying all of these is a nightmare. Less is more and simplicity is best when it comes to packing your wardrobe. Bring versatile clothing that can go with anything. Basic tops, jeans and anything black will be your best friends. You’ll have limited space, so don’t bring anything you might only wear once. Try to bring clothes you can wear multiple times that suit a variety of occasions and you will achieve that ever-elusive balance of fashionable and functional.
Staying in a hostel? (Of course you are). Check out this hostel packing list for all the essentials you’ll probably forget to pack.
6. Familiarise yourself with common public toilets
You never want to get caught needing to go with nowhere to go, especially on holiday AND in a foreign city. Some public toilets that are easy to find in most cities and it’s a good idea to know where they are. For example, shopping centres always have public toilets; hotel lobbies are good too and are on the higher end of the public toilet cleanliness scale. As you get more desperate, you can try fast food places but beware they may not be the cleanest and some may charge a small fee to use. Knowing these could save your life (or at least your underwear and dignity).
7. Carry some plastic bags with you
There’s nothing worse than having a wet towel or wet clothes lying around in your suitcase (or, you know, if you’re looking for underwear and you put on a pair that may have already been used. Yeah, gross right?). If only there was a way to separate and store your wet or dirty clothes to keep them away from your lovely clean ones whilst you’re travelling? Hello, plastic bags to the rescue. Having a couple of plastic bags takes up minimal space, has multiple uses and is always a handy addition to any suitcase.
8. Set out a rough budget – and be prepared to blow it
Having a rough idea of how much you can afford to spend is always helpful but sticking to a rigid budget can suck all the fun out of your trip. Spontaneous trips, thrill-seeking adventures, fancy dinners and late-night parties all cost money. The last thing you want is to miss out on a lifelong memory or life-changing experience just to save money. Those are priceless and exactly what you’ve been saving your hard-earned money for. By all means, know what you’d like to spend, but rather than feel guilty when you go over budget you should embrace it.
Backpacking around Europe? Read this guide for how much to budget for your trip.
9. Familiarise yourself with common public WiFi
Today’s traveller can get away with not buying a SIM card with all the public WiFi networks available. If you’re stranded needing to catch a ride, look something up or just need your daily HostelWorld Instagram fix, knowing where these are will be your saving grace. Most fast food places like McDonald’s, Burger King and Starbucks will have free WiFi. The same goes for most shopping centres. Retail giants like H&M, Primark and Marks & Spencer also provide free WiFi for their customers, so you can surf the net while you pretend to look at clothes.
10. Take plenty of photos
You may feel ridiculous taking selfie after selfie (whilst secretly loving it) but you’ll thank yourself for it one day. Nothing brings a smile to your face more than looking through your memories and remembering all the great times you had. Your photos are the most unique souvenirs you can have and will be a timeless keepsake of some of the best moments of your life. Of course, making all your Instagram followers jealous too is always a bonus, but this one’s really for you.
Check out our tips on how to take awesome travel photos
11. Jot down a few things you’d like to do in each city
Whether you’re a meticulous planner or a free-spirited wanderer, it’s always good to have some knowledge of the best things a city has to offer. Lists can be found online, but the only person that can make a list perfectly suited to you and your interests is you. Whether it’s visiting a museum or gallery, going for a hike or attending a sports game, you can create a list of fun exciting things that you’re guaranteed to love. A little planning can make sure you leave every city with wonderful memories and zero regrets.
Looking for ideas for your trip? Search for your destination on the Hostelworld blog for amazing travel advice and things to do around the world.
12. Brush up on the cultural basics of the places you’re visiting
Cultural customs can be unfamiliar to many travellers and when you’re a guest in another country it’s important to be respectful of their culture. Doing a little research into what to expect could help you avoid accidentally offending someone. Things like tipping in the United States, or how the Spanish siesta impacts business trading hours, or not being able to litter, smoke or spit in public in Singapore can all be tricky customs for those not used to or aware of it.
13. Roll up your clothes when packing
Many minimalists have tried and failed to stop accumulating random things in your travels. It’s almost inevitable that you’ll pick up more clothes, souvenirs and keepsakes that will take up space in your luggage. One of the best space-saving backpacking tips is to roll up your clothes so they’re more compact and they’ll look wrinkle-free and fabulous. They can also be wrapped around your valuables for protection, like souvenir shot glasses or that precious bottle of vodka you’ve been nursing along the way. You can never be too careful when it comes to protection.
14. Ask locals for suggestions
If you’re ever stuck for ideas of what to do, are looking for somewhere to eat or just wanting something different to do than the standard tourist stuff, your best bet is to find a local and ask them. Generally, everywhere you go people are quite friendly and always happy to show off their city and help a guest in need. Chances are they’ll know some hidden gems their city has to offer and would love to share them with you.
15. Check the weather before you go
This may seem like a simple one, but it’s the simple ones we often forget. The importance of knowing the weather ahead of time when preparing for travel can’t be underestimated. It influences what you’ll wear, what you’ll eat and what activities you can and can’t do. You don’t want to be stuck wearing layers of clothing in 35-degree heat or going for a scenic hike in the pouring rain. Unless certain parts of your body can tell that there’s a 30% chance it’s already raining, it will serve you well to look at the weather and plan accordingly.
16. Bring some entertainment
Whether you’re jet-setting or taking the scenic route, you’re going to have a lot of downtime while you’re in transit. Even the shortest of trips can feel like a lifetime without anything to occupy your mind. If you’re a TV or movie buff, bring a laptop, tablet or even phone loaded with movies and TV shows. If reading is more your style, bring your favourite book, or by a new one along the way. Even a video game, book of puzzles or a travel journal to write in can help you reach your destination in no time.
17. Don’t forget to channel your inner E.T. and phone home
It’s easy to get swept up in the whirlwind of travelling and completely lose track of your life at home. It may feel like a world away, but it still exists and it’s closer than you think. When you have some downtime get on FaceTime or Skype to your loved ones to touch base. Share your amazing stories, photos of where you’ve been and how you’re having the time of your life because they care about you and will be dying to know. Phoning home is a win-win; it will cure your homesickness and brighten up their day.
18. Try everything
Travelling allows you to push the boundaries and venture outside of your comfort zone and, with this you will be faced with some new challenges. The best advice I can give is to try them all and have no regrets. It doesn’t have to make sense or seem like a good idea, but you will never know unless you try. Learn how to make paella or salsa dance. Demolish that plate of snails. Sing karaoke with locals. Go off-road quad biking. Whatever you don’t normally do, do it. Embrace everything that comes your way and you’ll learn so much about yourself and be left with incredible stories.
About the author
Alex is a passionate traveller, traversing the globe to meet the most amazing people, party, chase sport and try figure out if there is more to life than being really, really, ridiculously good looking. Follow his adventures on Instagram.