Backpacking For Beginners: How and Why To Start
If you’re traveling on a time crunch but want to see as much as you can, backpacking is an excellent way to stay on the move while bringing along what you need. It may sound easy, but with the wrong moves, backpacking can become expensive, tiresome, and an all-around pain. My first time backpacking was after my study abroad trip in Europe last summer, and these are some of the crucial tips I wish I would have known.
My Backpacking Trip
Duration: 1 month
Countries: Italy, Switzerland, France, Spain, Ireland, Wales, England
Cities: Rome, Florence, Cinque Terre, Interlaken, Kandersteg, Paris, Barcelona, Belfast, Cardiff, London
Average Stay: 3 days per city
Choosing your Backpack: This is by far one of the most important parts of your journey. You want to make sure your backpack is lightweight, efficient, and durable. These may not be the cheapest items, but buying a great backpack will save you from a lot of pain and suffering, especially if you’re spending a long amount of time carrying it. I made sure mine was easy to carry, had compartments and space for all my needs, and was durable for any condition. The backpack I used was an Osprey Aether, but you can find a variety of suitable backpacks at any outdoors store.
What to Bring: Lay out everything you want to bring on your trip, then downsize by half. Packing light is essential to keep your back from breaking and make traveling easy. Whether you’re flying, taking the train, or opting for a bus, many storage compartments will be rather small and may charge if your backpack is too large or heavy. Bring a couple outfit options that are easy to re-wear, a jacket in case, and two pairs of shoes max. You will also want to make sure you bring a water bottle (if you can clip it to the backpack even better), a camera if you choose, and any other small items that won’t take too much space. Make sure you take small travel-size hygiene products and keep any additional items such as jewelry, hair items, and makeup to a minimum. Many hotels and hostels will have laundry options or there will be cheap laundromats nearby, so pack as light as possible and buy anything there if necessary.
Safety Tips: Pickpocketing is rampant in many foreign countries, and experts prey on tourists in common areas you’ll likely be visiting. Make sure your backpack is always fully zipped or locked, and bring a padlock with you to secure items in lockers in hostels. If you’re carrying a purse/bag, make sure to wear it across your chest and hold it in front of you. Never take your eyes off of your money or belongings, and always be conscious of your surroundings. It’s easy to buy a money/passport holder that wears around your neck and hides under your clothes, and only keep the money you absolutely need to on you. Make sure to bring multiple copies of your passport and ID to keep at your hostels/hotels, and never keep your phone in your back pocket. Always better to be safe than sorry, so study-up on the country you’re visiting and keep yourself out of dangerous situations.
Travel: Tickets raise in price as time goes on, so make sure you plan as far ahead in advance as possible. Close-by weekend trips are often relatively cheap to grab a bus or train ticket last minute, but any big flights should be booked in advance to guarantee a spot and save money. Even if you’re not sure exactly where you want to go and stay, it is best to plan a general outline in advance. We kept things spontaneous by picking our next city and duration as we went, but we knew how long we wanted to stay in each country to evenly spread our time and plan any big travels. An easy way to map out your trip is to pick a start place/date and an end place/date, then look at countries/cities in between and divide the time you have. Always account for travel days as well, the cheaper options may mean longer travel times. For example, if you want to spend a day in London but it takes a 12-hour bus to get there and another 10-hour bus to the next city, you’ll need two days for travel for your one day of sightseeing.
Where to Stay: Backpacking on a budget has been made incredibly easy over the years with the rise of Airbnbs and hostels. To save money, opt out of the traditional hotel stay and spend a night in one of these cheap and friendly spots found all across the world. If you don’t mind staying with strangers, hostels are a great way to stay close to the action of the city and not break the bank. If you prefer some privacy, Airbnb’s often allow you to rent out someone’s home or apartment for an affordable price. These are also a great opportunity to try out unique lodging experiences like “party hostels”, which organize exclusive pub crawls and other group events guaranteed for a fun time. No matter where you choose to stay, make sure it booked before you leave as last minute options are not always available.
Who to Travel with: Whether you’re going solo or traveling in numbers, make sure you mesh well with your companions before you leave. Backpacking is an excellent way to really get to know your travel partners and meet new people along the way, but it also can bring unforeseen challenges that really bring out your true colors. Whether your plans keep changing, money becomes tight, or you’re just simply exhausted, you will be spending a lot of time together so make sure you can get along. Another great way to choose who to travel with is making sure your goals and hopes for the trip are aligned- if you want to see all the sights and explore while your friend wants to sleep all day and party all night, neither of you will get your ideal experiences by traveling together.
Final Tips: No matter where you go, your travels will never go as planned. Many cities we visited experienced “workers strikes” where no transportation runs for that day, so while we hoped to visit all 5 parts of Cinque Terre we were stuck to one the entire time. Also, make sure to check hours of museums and attractions you hope to visit, so you can avoid visiting Paris on a Tuesday when the Louvre is closed like we did. In the end, have fun, do your research before you go, and don’t let road bumps ruin the trip of a lifetime.