First time backpacker? Here’s a few of my top travel tips for new (or old) backpackers

So you’ve decided to become a backpacker?

That’s excellent news!

The Tor Goes Travelling Again mantra is to Make Travel a Habit.

I believe anyone can become a backpacker no matter what your age. I recently dragged my 75 year old mother across Russia and Mongolia, giving her an insight into how I travel. That’s cheaply, with a light backpack, staying at hostels or budget guesthouses and doing lots of walking.

Snowcapped sand dunes framed in a ger doorway, Gobi
View of snowy sand dunes from our Khongoryn ger

Of course there’s different interpretations of backpacking. For some it’s following intrepid walking trails for weeks carrying just a backpack, for others it’s 18-25 year olds living it up on the Australian Gold Coast in between fruit picking stints. For me, backpacking is simply a state of mind and having very flexible travel plans.

Whether you backpack with a wheelie suitcase or a 40 litre daypack, join a organised tour group or go it alone, travel in South America or Australia, these are my top tips for all new backpackers.

It’s not really the best time to be planning a world trip. Travelling during Covid-19 is probably not for the fainthearted. However a lot of fun is to be had just planning for a backpacking trip.

Just do it! Go travelling now! (or as soon as the Coronavirus lets us)

Trying to decide whether to go travelling or not? The answer is always yes.

My favourite travel quote is I’ll go anywhere as long as I haven’t been there before.

There’s loads of cute little quotes about travel being the way to find yourself or discovering the true meaning of life. I’m not sure I’ve ever found myself whilst travelling but I’ve definitely had a great time!

You do learn lots of useful things when travelling, especially as a solo backpacker. You’ll learn map reading skills, research skills, communication skills and organisational skills. You’ll get fit, develop new taste buds and learn how to budget your money. And your maths skills will definitely improve with all the currency conversion sums!

Pack as light as possible but take what will make you happy

There’s a lot of backpacker rivalry over packing light. I’m personally a massive fan of packing light. Check out my blog post here about what to pack for a three month backpacking trip. I pack lightly mainly so I can walk distances with my pack (saving money on taxis) and can easily store my pack under my seat on crowded buses.

Puente Internacional de la Amistad, Brazil to Paraguay Border crossing
Walking into Paraguay from Brazil

However if taking three choices of footwear, ten changes of clothes and a vast selection of toiletries makes travelling better for you, then do it! Travelling is supposed to be fun not an exercise in deprivation. Just be prepared to balance how much you want to pack with the disadvantages of lugging it around. Also remember you can buy pretty much whatever you need along the way.

Deciding on a backpacking destination

Anywhere is a good start! But like many other travel bloggers I’ll always recommend
South East Asia as a great introduction backpacking for newbies. It ticks off the top ten of most backpacking highlights, from tasty and cheap food to amazing beaches to easy overland transport links. One of my earliest trips was travelling from Malaysia to Laos, taking in Singapore, Thailand and Cambodia and it still ranks as one of the best travel experiences I’ve ever had.

South East Asia is great for first time backpackers with South America coming a close second.

When backpacking in South East Asia you can make it as easy or difficult as you like. Follow the travellers trails, island hopping in Southern Thailand then head into Cambodia for a bit of culture at Ankhor Way or get off the beaten path and try hill trekking in Vietnam or exploring the temples of Myanmar

Learn to use Google Maps or Maps Me

You may be batting away concerns from your mum or best friend about safety but don’t underestimate how important it is to think about this. There’s no need to get super stressed about it but some sensible precautions are good practice.

Being aware of your surroundings is always Safety Tip Numero Uno and a simple way to do this is using a maps app to check out areas in advance. I always feel much more confident in knowing where my hostel is in relation to the bus station before arriving in a new city.  Can you easily walk to your accommodation without fear of getting lost or stumbling into a suspect area? Is a taxi a better option?

Ella, Sri Lanka
Which way is my guesthouse?

I use the GPS feature a lot on my maps app. Fur example as I’m arriving into a city on the bus, I’ll turn on Google Maps and watch the GPS dot whilst looking out the window checking out street signs and landmarks. It gives me a sense of my surroundings and the layout of the land. When you hop off the bus you’ll feel a lot more confident about which way to walk and look as though you know where you’re going.

Have a read here of  my top stress-free solo backpacking tips.

Don’t plan too much of your backpacking journey in advance

It’s good to have an idea of where to go but don’t pre-book every night. One of the innate qualifications of ‘backpacking’ for me is having a flexible schedule. I do sketch out an itinerary, mainly so I can fit in everywhere I want to go before flying home but I’m constantly revising it as I travel. I tend to commit to plans for two days ahead by booking a hostel or buying a bus ticket, but leave the rest undecided.

It’s really difficult to research every last inch of a country before getting there.

I’ll read some blogs, get an idea of the highlights or some off-beat attractions I want to see, work out how long a trip I want to do, but once arriving in the country you get a far better idea of what’s achievable. You may think that it’s feasible to do a ten hour overnight bus journey every other day but is it really?!

When my friend Sarah joined me for two weeks during my South America trip this past winter, I’d sketched out a perfect two week itinerary for us. As it turned out we changed this four times during the fortnight, resulting in an entirely different trip to what we originally planned. The only thing that stayed the same was that it started and ended in Buenos Aires!

Mix up solo travelling and short tours

For new backpackers I really recommend mixing individual travel with some group tours, even if they’re just one day tours. Many first time backpackers like to book a multiday group tour with a reputable travel company and while this is a great introduction to travelling, I’d highly recommend staying on for a few days after the tour ends to have a go at being a solo traveller. It may sound scary but it’s a great practice run if you’re not too confident about being on your own.

Dhulikhel, Nepal
Contemplating life in Dhulikhel, Nepal

Alternatively of course joining a group tour might sound scary! I definitely tend towards that category, worrying that I might be stuck with people I can’t stand for several days or get frustrated being herded on and off a tour bus. However I still enjoy planning the odd day tour into my longer trips. I get to have a break from all the planning and research that goes into travelling, allowing the tour guide to take over and also get to spend the day with other travellers.

Another great tip is to take advantage of the ‘free’ walking tours, conducted in many cities, usually by local students. These walking tours aren’t actually free, a tip is expected at the end, but for the price of a couple of pints you’ll meet other travellers, get some insider local knowledge and see the main sights. I’ve done walking tours in cities from Prague to San Salvador and they’ve all been excellent. The best ones end in a bar or cafe!

Don’t be afraid to have a holiday from travelling

On a longer backpacking trip I often have a impromptu mini holiday halfway through. I’ll find a guesthouse I like in a peaceful area and just stay put for a few days. There’s no shame in this! I prefer usually to move on every couple of days, seeing as much of a country as possible, but it’s also nice to take a break.

Tors feet with a can of Uruguay Patricia beer outside a cabin
Just a typical evening at my Uruguayan cabin

One of my favourite mini holidays was in Coroico in Bolivia. I stayed in a simple ensuite room that opened directly onto a terrace overlooking a green valley, enjoyed a simple breakfast in the attached cafe each morning and apart from doing a couple of local hikes, I just relaxed and read my book. After six nights I was rejuvenated and ready to move on to explore the rest of Bolivia.

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