Planning Solo Travel

15 Must Know Tips for Your First Backpacking Trip

When I set off in 2019 to backpack for an undetermined amount of time, I figured I’d be gone a few months- at most.

Even though I’d booked a one-way flight, I knew how long I’d be able to travel would depend on how well I did working from the road. And, while I figured I’d love having the freedom of being able to bounce around from place to place, I knew that privilege and luxury wouldn’t come without its challenges.

I’d done plenty of weekend trips and even two weeklong trips solo before, but never months at a time.

In the end, I travelled non-stop for a year before deciding to take a job offer to move to Ireland and work for a tech company (for a slew of personal and professional reasons, as well as the desire to see more of Europe).

And while I may have a permanent residence at the moment, I fully expect I’ll live the nomadic life again one day. The next time around though, I’ll have the benefit of knowing everything I learned my first time out.

The entirety of what people don’t tell you about being a digital nomad is a topic for another post (coming soon!). More relatable, is the process of planning a backpacking trip of any length.

Whether you’re on the road for 3, 6, 9, 12 months or over a year, these planning tips will help set you up to get the most out of your time travelling.

15 Must Knows for Planning Your First Backpacking Trip

Decide whether you’re going to live off savings or earn on the road

Once I decided I’d do a combination of both- saving enough to serve as a cushion to get me started, and with a plan to work two jobs from the road- the rest of planning for my trip fell into place.

With WiFi infrastructure improving around the world, especially in Southeast Asia and Europe, earning while travelling made sense for me.

As part of my plan, I knew I’d earmark a few weeks- sometimes months- at a time throughout the year to just travel, as I did in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka and India. Those parts of my trip were faster paced- I moved around more because my days were just spent sightseeing or relaxing.

When I was working, I tried to spend at minimum 1-2 weeks in each place to ensure I had time to work and experience the destination without feeling too frazzled.

In the end, I still burned out. When I relocated to Ireland at the end of March in the midst of a global pandemic, I felt grateful.

Grateful for the opportunity to move abroad again, to have a job during a time of mass uncertainty, and for somewhere safe to rest and recover from a non-stop year of adventures.

When it comes to deciding whether you can work from the road, think outside the box. Working for yourself affords a ton of flexibility traditional roles don’t offer.

Ten years working in digital advertising prepared me to make the transition to a digital consultant, and as a back-up (big believer in diversified income), I started teaching English online with VIPKid.

Whether you learn to code, become a virtual assistant or scour the boards of freelancing sites to see where your skills could be applicable, chances are you can earn money on the road doing something you already know how to do, or can learn how to do.

Sell your belongings and save to travel

Once you’ve decided you’re going to do it- to travel on an extended trip or without a set return date- it’s time to work on selling everything you own, and saving money to travel.

There are loads of things you can do, some of which are habit adjustments, to help save money over time. Although my decision to travel firmed up months before my trip, I’d been saving for a ‘bigger trip’ for over a year.

Get intentional with your budgeting and saving. Even if you don’t have a concrete goal, as I didn’t when I first started saving, having the ambition to travel for an extended period of time was all the motivation I needed.

Decide where you want to go, and check the weather

When I decided to travel without a return date, I debated destination(s) for a while- should I stay in Europe and make my way around countries I’d never visited? Venture to South America or backpack Southeast Asia?

All places I’d long hoped to experience.

SE Asia won out in the end for a few reasons- the timing was right, I’d be visiting at the edge of the high season in many countries like Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Indonesia.

The biggest deciding factor in me choosing to backpack SE Asia over further explorations in Europe?

Cost.

I knew I’d be able to stay in poshtels or Airbnbs, plus eat out, experience cities, and treat myself to a few splurges for a fraction of what it’d cost to do so in Europe.

While South America intrigued me, everything I’d read suggested SE Asia had better backpacker infrastructure, more ‘digital nomad’ havens, and overall, a more affordable cost of living.

Plus, SE Asia meant other nearby continents and countries- Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, India, Sri Lanka, Turkey- could be a part of my trip.

And so, the trip planning began.

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The first thing I did in my planning?

Google’d dry/wet seasons and started mapping out an initial country route accordingly. Be sure to look up burning seasons, as well. In northern Thailand and parts of Indonesia, I struggled with asthma flare-ups.

Resist the urge to plan too much up front

Heading into my trip, I’d planned the first ~six weeks, accounting for quick passes through Singapore and Kuala Lumpar, before spending several weeks in Thailand, and then visiting Cambodia and Laos.

I knew I wanted to make it to Vietnam, as well as Indonesia and a few other places, but didn’t plan anything beyond my first couple of weeks.

I’m so glad I didn’t.

Being able to learn from what went well and what I would have done differently in my first few stops allowed me to plan a more relaxed venture around Vietnam, and opened up the question of living in Indonesia for a few months.

Not planning too far in advance also meant I was able to make an impulse decision to see Taiwan and South Korea, as well as Penang in the first few months of my trip. And, later in the year, it meant I was able to take a month off work to travel Sri Lanka and India- something I could have never envisioned doing when I first set off.

At times, especially in Thailand and Laos, I wished I had a more flexible itinerary- more time in some places, less time in others. But, the luxury of having flights and accommodation booked in advance those first couple of weeks allowed me to get used to traveling full-time.

Don’t pack too much- seriously, you don’t need much to live

Backpacking for over a year, I couldn’t even remember what I left in storage in London.

Truthfully, it wasn’t that much- a few boxes and suitcases. But, when you live out of a backpack, you learn just how little you actually need.

In backpacker hot spots, I was stunned at the number of 80L bags (sup, Koh Tao). So big, so heavy, and presumably, filled with so much stuff.

I backpacked with a 55L Osprey bag, which ended up being the perfect size to fit everything I needed.

Here’s every single thing I packed to backpack for a year, through SE Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and parts of Central and South America through varying seasons.

Be mindful of what you pack, both for comfort and environmental impact

When backpacking, it’s inevitable you’ll get dirty.

For the most part, I packed lightweight materials, and things that wouldn’t be expensive to replace.

Those nice outfits, great shoes and cool jewellery? It all went into storage in London.

What I packed to backpack was minimal and functional, which paid off time after time.

Along the way, I ended up donating some clothes to make room for new additions of varying nature. Not having to worry about parting with my favourite items reaffirmed my decision to pack simple.

And, on the topic of being environmentally friendly, there are certain things that will make your life easier.

For instance, a menstrual cup or period underwear to avoid having to find tampons or pads in places they may not be readily (or cheaply) available.

And, I started using shampoo and conditioner bars to reduce my plastic impact overall, but only having to worry about packing two small bars made a world of difference in saving space.

One of the most important bits? A water filtration system.

I travel with a LifeStraw when I’m going to be in countries where the water isn’t potable. Over time, it’s much cheaper than buying plastic, and ions better for the planet.

Look up visa requirements and bring spare passport photos

No, you don’t need to arrange all your visas before you travel. But, be sure to check requirements before you set off.

Some require you submit a certain length of time before you arrive (India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Australia), others are easier to get on arrival (Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam), and other countries allow visa-free entry for a set amount of time (Thailand, Malaysia, Taiwan, Indonesia, Korea, Turkey, New Zealand, Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala). All of this, of course, depends on your country of citizenship.

Most countries will require at least 6 months validity from your entry date, so make sure your passport is good for years to come.

Whenever you’re applying for a visa-on-arrival, some countries will require you submit a passport-sized photo of yourself. Instead of running around each destination, trying to find a place that does passport sized photos, print a bunch before you travel and carry them with you in a water-proof pouch.

One final note here, take note of countries that require proof of onward travel. Several times, I was asked to show proof of it.

If your trip is flexible, and you haven’t booked your next stop, either buy a placeholder flight from onwardtravel.com for a few bucks, or book a refundable flight with Expedia (usually available to cancel within 24 hours of purchase), and then cancel as soon as you’ve been granted entrance.

Consult with your doctor on whether vaccines are recommended 

Ultimately, whether you decide to get jabs is a personal decision.

I was vaccinated as a child, and believe in getting them proactively when they’re recommended as part of travel.

Because I planned on visiting well known destinations, my doctor and I decided I didn’t need preventative treatment for rabies, malaria, or Japanese encephalitis.

This is where having a general sense of the countries and cities you want to visit will be helpful in allowing you to make informed choices. Plus, depending on where you’re heading, some places will require certain vaccines to enter (e.g. proof of a Yellow Fever vaccination in African countries).

Decide on a daily budget before you hit the road 

As basic as this may seem, since I’d planned to work while travelling, I didn’t need to worry about living on a shoestring budget.

I had a monthly budget range, and for the most part stuck to it.

About half way into my trip, I started using TrailWallet, an app that I’d recommend to anyone traveling on a budget- for short trips or longer ones.

Using the app helped me put a daily (but comfortable) budget in place, and actually made it easier for me to splurge on experiences (for instance, a glacier helicopter flight!) and a few nights at luxury hotels, knowing I’d planned for the expense and understood how it fit into my monthly plan.

Get travel insurance

It’s on my list of things to ‘pack’ because I believe it’s non-negotiable.

I’ll make this simple: If you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel.

When I started travelling, I was insured with World Nomads. About half way through my trip, I switched to SafetyWing.

Initial medical deductions may be a bit higher, but the coverage is much better (in my opinion), and a fraction of the cost of World Nomads. Research whoever you decide to go with for insurance- read blog and news reviews, try to find people of varying opinions.

You’ll want to know how fast they handle claims, whether their customer service is reachable, and what exactly their policies cover.

There are loads of blogs that compare long-term travel policies in depth, making it easy for you to do a comprehensive review.

I was fortunate to not have any major incidents while travelling, but having coverage for smaller mishaps- a dental infection, a severe asthma flare-up (which required multiple medications and chest x-rays), a couple of sinus infections, and quick treatment for an allergic reaction meant I never had to worry about seeking out the care I needed.

Always carry cash, specifically USD

Wherever you are in SE Asia, you’ll find locals- especially local police- love bribes. 

Having a tough time at a land crossing, or get pulled over for some random reason while driving a scooter?

Paying a small fee (sometimes as low as $10-20 USD) may get you off the hook, and let you keep rolling.

I usually carry $5-15 USD with me at all times, in small bills, and have another $50-150 in my wallet that I keep locked in my luggage. The small bills part is key- if I was pulled over while driving, for example, just to check documentation, being able to offer two $5 bills would sometimes help smooth things over.

Also worth noting, some visa on arrival fees also require USD (Cambodia, Laos), so having a stash handy before you set off helps you avoid ATM transaction fees whenever you need USD, urgently.

Lock your luggage at all times

I bring one for each bag, as well as a spare in case I lose a lock.

It never hurts to lock your luggage, even if you have a private room and think your bag will be ‘safe’- lock it.

When you’re backpacking and your whole life is in a single bag, and it’s not easy to fly home and fix or replace things (as you would after a normal holiday), it makes sense to be extra cautious.

Download apps to help you travel

I’ll be forever grateful I’ve had the marvel of technology at my fingertips to use while travelling.

I’ll admit I do enjoy a random wander, and exploring a place without an agenda, but there’s no denying how easy technology has made travel.

Apps in particular have changed the travel game for me.

Whether it’s saving offline directions, translating words in another language, or checking currency conversions, apps have given me confidence to explore places I’ve never been on my own, knowing I have a world of information at my fingertips.

Some of my go-to travel apps, like Google Translate, Skype, WhatsApp, Foursquare, Google, Google Maps and XE Currency make an appearance on nearly every trip, but traversing SE Asia, I found myself downloading a few more apps to help guide my explorations.

From ride-share apps that vary per country (e.g. Go-Jek in Vietnam and Indonesia vs. Grab in Thailand and Malaysia), taking a few minutes to Google country-specific apps goes a long way once you’re in the country in terms of making your visit more enjoyable.

Unlock your phone

Trust me, it will be worth it.

SIMs with good data plans are pretty cheap country to country in SE Asia, and easy to top up.

You’ll spend exponentially more on an international data plan or using a wireless hotspot, like TEP.

I’m all for going off the grid, but being able to quickly Google a question or translation, or look up the nearest pharmacy when you’re in dire need makes a local SIM worth it every time.

Also, while WiFi infrastructure is improving, in some countries and areas, it’s glitchy, which makes having a back-up method of looking things up or being able to get in touch with people ideal.

Share your travel plans with friends/family

Years ago, I used to register every trip with the US State Department.

Now, I don’t bother going through that process unless I’m going somewhere there’s been recent conflict, or I plan on staying in a country for several months by proxy of living there.

However, I do make sure multiple people know where I am, where I’m staying and where I’m planning to head next.

And, whenever, I reach a new destination, I WhatsApp those people to let them know I’ve arrived and checked in.

This way, a group of people know where I am and when they last heard from me. In addition to this being a smart, simple safety measure, it also helps in the event there’s news near/in the country I’m visiting. A few times, I’ve had friends alert me to weather disasters, or country-specific news faster than I’ve seen it while in the country.

Have you ever backpacked or traveled for an extended period of time? What advice would you give to those planning a trip?

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