Visiting from England when I was 18, I nervously Greyhounded around Canada on my own for a month. With a random itinerary (three nights in Portage la Prairie?), I dived into exotic cuisine (what's in these Twinkies?) and stayed in hostels that should have been condemned (a Montreal fleapit springs to mind).
There were fraught moments, but for many years afterward I fondly recalled my grand solo adventure. It fuelled an enduring travel amour I've never quite shaken off. The point? Independent backpacking is one of the best things any young person can do to launch their adult life.
But a little foundational planning is vital for success – and to assuage the fears of worrywart parents.
"Aim for at least a month in each country – larger destinations like Brazil or Indonesia may require more," suggests Michael Huxley, author of the Bemused Backpacker guidebooks (bemusedbackpacker.com). "Be aware that stays in more expensive countries, such as those in Western Europe, may be limited to how far your budget stretches."
If budgeting is a concern, as it often is, how about working en route?
"Employment – often bar work or seasonal labour – can top up your travel funds and extend your trip. But be sure to have the correct working visa and don't expect to earn enough for the whole trip," says Huxley, adding that volunteering can also lend purpose to your travels. "Don't pay to volunteer, though: This generally only benefits voluntourism companies."
Getting around also needs some pretrip consideration. "Sometimes a series of one-way fares combined with budget flights and overland travel works out cheaper and more flexible than round-the-world airline tickets," advises Huxley, adding that travel insurance is essential. "Aim for comprehensive cover and check it includes everything you'll want to do, such as diving or rock-climbing."
Beyond these practicalities – including required vaccinations – first-timers should also consider initial accommodation. "If it's your first trip or you're arriving late at night, book a hotel room for the first few nights to help you acclimatize. After that, it's easier and cheaper to organize everything as and when needed."
Backpacking specialist Greg Rodgers (startbackpacking.com) also eschews overplanning, while offering some handy tips of his own.
"The biggest mistake newbies make is bringing too much along," he says. "Forget fancy travel gadgets and remember the old adage: Bring less stuff and more money. Plan to purchase locally whatever you need to survive."
Which brings up the dosh issue. "Carry one credit card for emergencies and flight bookings, but use local ATMs for currency – they usually give the best exchange but check this with your bank," Rodgers says. "Also, don't forget U.S. dollars are still a great backup."
And while it's tempting to Instagram your every movement, Rodgers advises against it. "Don't fall into the trap of always being connected. That isn't why you got on a long-haul flight. Instead, start a blog – which will also be an archive of your trip when you're back home."
Even if you're not Facebooking with your mom every day, though, you should keep her caution in mind. "Young travellers sometimes think changing continents is a licence to do risky things they wouldn't do at home. Listen to your gut: Run when it tells you. The real hero is the traveller who lives to tell the tale."
For Rodgers – who recommends Southeast Asia for first-timers – the secret to a life-enhancing year-long trek is simple. "Talk to everyone you encounter, both locals and other travellers. You'll meet amazing people, learn new things, fall in love, make new friends and find unexpected adventures."
Huxley agrees that connecting is the key to great backpacking odysseys. "Travel slowly or you'll end up missing everything. Leave room for spontaneous experiences, new places to discover and courses or activities you never thought of doing. You'll enjoy your trip so much more if you do."
OUR READERS WRITE
- Take digital pictures of your passport photo page, credit cards (front and back), all important papers, groups of clothing with brand tags showing, electronics, toiletries, etc and e-mail all to yourself. Don’t forget to take photos of your baggage and if you’re taking these pictures with the camera you’ll be travelling with, borrow a camera to shoot your trip camera too. Record all serial numbers for later claims and don’t share e-mail access with anyone. Tim Mosher
- Reading some fiction set in the places you’ll be travelling is a good way to build understanding in advance for the cultures you’ll be experiencing. Sets up empathy for and knowledge about the people you’ll encounter. @Tours_By_Locals
- Bring a quick-dry towel, flip flops for the shower, bag lock, sheet sleeping bag (when the hostel sheets are nasty). And visit every place with the mindset that you will return. Don’t try to see everything – leave time to relax. @themguy
- If someone doesn’t understand you the first time, yelling to repeat yourself will likely result in the same blank stare. Take the time to learn a few phrases in the local tongue – they will go a long way. @_rtc
- Book overnight travel, i.e. trains, when possible to save accommodation costs – great experience and you meet interesting people! @Treizlou
- Invest in a pack with solid back support and with a detachable small backpack. And a cotton shopping bag is great as a beach bag and useful when your pack is full. Also, a collapsible cup to dip your toothbrush if the tap water is gross. Last one: a waterproof folder for your passport and booking confirmations. @alilaw6
- For women: pack sarongs (or buy them en route!). Can be used as a housecoat, skirt, beach coverup, towel – and they take up no room at all. @iamTheMaritimer
- Pack everything you think you will need. Then remove half. At least. @ChrisGNguyen
- Read/research as much as possible, save as much as possible, get vaccinated and know information in case of emergencies. Research so you know which places you are going to at what time of year. It’ll be hard to pack for all types of seasons: stick to mild to warm climates, so you don’t have to pack so much. Researching when to go – especially avoiding wet and cold seasons or extremely hot weather – will help you plan the route much better. @Chiqee
- Always bring toilet paper and savour the moments when you’re lost – sooner or later you’ll find your way. Embrace the journey. @brandon_sousa
- A mosquito net bought at a Bangkok market for 200 baht gave hours of undisturbed sleep all over Asia. But buy rope and a roll of tape, too – so you can string it up anywhere! @aucuagmo
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