You’ve finally convinced your best friend to ditch their responsibilities and go on an exciting backpacking adventure with you this summer. Now that you’ve booked your plane tickets, looked up breathtaking fairy-tale castles you can visit, and spilled the exciting news on social media, it’s time to start looking up all the nitty-gritty details so you can make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. From what essentials to pack to the unwritten etiquette of staying in a hostel, here are 19 crucial things you need to know before setting off on your backpacking adventure.
1. Go backpacking with friends you’re comfortable with. There are so many things we love about traveling — breathtaking destinations, delicious grub, spontaneous adventures — but traveling the world isn’t always as seamless as it looks on Instagram. Whether it’s a stressful encounter at an airport or a crucial navigational error, there’s going to be times when the stresses of traveling get the best of you. That’s why if you decide to go backpacking with a companion (traveling solo is always an option), it’s best to find someone who can handle you at your crankiest. While we’re all for making new memories with acquaintances, it’s best to ensure the person that you’re going to be traveling with for an extended period knows you extremely well. If they don’t, perhaps consider going on a short road trip first to test out your travel dynamics before you commit to weeks or months abroad together.
2. Consider splurging on a slight upcharge at your hostel for a private room — especially if you’re an introvert. Backpacking is as much about meeting awesome people as it is about seeing incredible places, but sometimes you just need a moment to recharge from being around people ALL THE TIME. At many hostel locations, you can usually book a private room for you and your travel companions for a small upcharge (it’s usually somewhere between $20 and $40). Though we definitely recommend bunking with fellow travelers for at least part of your backpacking experience, this is definitely a cheap option if you’re in need of some quiet alone time.
3. Bring a combination lock. Most reputable hostels have some sort of storage locker where travelers can leave their backpacks if they’re staying for more than the night. While the lockers are usually included in the price of the room, most require you to bring your own combination lock. Just make sure to keep the actual combination somewhere you won’t forget (perhaps text it to your mom just to be safe). Trust us: After lugging around all of your possessions on your back, you’ll be thankful you to give your body a rest for the day.
4. Don’t be afraid to chat with the locals. We totally understand that trying to converse with someone in a language you barely speak is daunting, but chatting with locals is a great way to find hidden gems, learn the vibe of the city, and make lifelong friends. One of my favorite memories during my time backpacking Europe was mustering up all the French I learned in high school and chatting with a retired police officer in a Parisian park. Just try your best and be friendly!
5. Pack things specifically for entertainment. Just because you’re traveling to see some of the greatest sights in the world doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be down time. Odds are you’re going to be spending a lot of time on train rides, internet-free airplanes, and in long lines for tourist attractions. Be prepared for this by packing things that you know will entertain you, including an old-school deck of cards, various playlists, and fun apps to play on your phone. Also, be sure to check out the book exchange in your hostels — there are often tons of hidden gems you can find with cool inscriptions from other travelers.
6. Invest in a travel journal. Backpacking is often a once-in-a-lifetime adventure that you’re going to want to remember forever. Taking photos and videos is definitely a must, but we also recommend journaling during your time abroad. I journaled every day during my time backpacking Europe and, to this day, I still love looking back and reading what we did each day, the delicious food we ate, and the fun inside jokes that only my travel companion would understand (green hot dogs, Caitlin, if you’re reading this).
7. Weigh your data plan options. There’s no question that the advancements in data roaming have changed the way backpackers travel. While you can totally make use of your usual cell phone provider’s data roaming deals, also consider getting a local SIM card for the place you’re traveling to. You can either wait to get a SIM card once you arrive or preorder one from places like GoSim. Just remember to do your research before you leave to find the best deal with the coverage you’re looking for.
8. Pack light, and leave your valuables at home. It can be super-tempting to bring your most fabulous clothes with you on this unique vacation (we’re always thinking of the ‘gram), but you should avoid packing heavy items that you only plan on wearing once. Try to stick to basics that you could style multiple ways, and don’t forget to pack essentials like a light windbreaker, good quality socks, and a quick-drying travel towel — The Savvy Backpacker has an awesome guide to what to take with you. You should also consider leaving your valuables at home. A good rule of thumb for backpacking is to only pack things you wouldn’t be too upset about ruining or losing.
9. Make a budget before you go. Even if you’re staying in the cheapest hostels and scrimping on food, backpacking is still mega-expensive. To avoid having to call your family or friends for a short-term loan, we highly suggest making a budget before you start your trip. A few quick tips: Be generous when budgeting for food expenses, and always account for tips, accidents, and incidentals.
10. If possible, splurge on at least one fancy hotel room during your stay. We promise; it’s not cheating! After months of staying in dingy hostels with shared bathrooms, uncomfortable beds, and roommates who keep you up all night, you’ll be so glad that you pre-booked a fancy hotel halfway through your trip. Spend some time enjoying all the amenities of your hotel (pool time and extra-long showers are encouraged) to recharge your batteries so you can thoroughly enjoy the rest of your backpacking adventure.
11. Download a translator app and practice a few key words before you leave. If you’re going to a country where you don’t speak the native language, downloading a translator app is a must. We’re particularly fond of Google Translate (free on iOS and Android) and iTranslate Voice (also free on iOS and Android). But just because you have a handy translator in your pocket doesn’t mean you should skip practicing before you leave: Do your best to memorize a few key words that you might need to know while you’re abroad. Also be aware of whether your translation app requires a data connection to work — you might want to back it up with a phrasebook, just in case.
12. Grocery store meals will be your best friend. We know that one of the major perks of backpacking is getting to experience amazing cuisine from around the world, but traveling on a shoestring budget may mean that you have to sacrifice your dream of eating at a different Michelin-starred restaurant every night. Especially if your hostel has a kitchen, getting grub at a local grocery store is a great way to stay on budget during your travels. Do your best to try local brands, and attempt to make authentic cuisine from your grocery store finds — from cheese fondue in Switzerland to sushi in Japan, the sky’s the limit!
13. Plan out your first few days before you leave. One of the many benefits of backpacking is being able to spontaneously travel to a new destination just because someone staying at your hostel told you it’s remarkable. That being said, we highly suggest planning at least the first few days of your trip in advance, including booking your accommodations and transportation. Once you get the hang of the whole backpacking thing and feel more confident, you can totally start winging it if that’s your travel style.
14. Learn hostel etiquette. With up to a dozen people sharing a living and sleeping space, there are few etiquette rules you should be mindful of before you spend your first night in a hostel. If you’re planning on arriving to the room late, make sure to leave the lights off, and be as quiet as possible. In addition, make sure to keep your belongings confined to your space, be respectful of your temporary roommates, and make an effort to chat with your fellow travelers — especially if they’re traveling solo.
15. Keep free mementos like museum tickets or transit stubs. If you’re trying to stay on budget but want physical souvenirs of the cool places you’ve visited, hold on to your ticket stubs. Not only do they make for great bookmarks, but they’re also an awesome way to remember your trip.
16. Bring good camera equipment (the lighter weight, the better). Even though most smartphones are now able to take high-definition photos, make sure you pack camera equipment to take photos you’ll be proud of in 10 years. If weight and space are an obstacle and DSLRs are out of the question, consider investing in an attachable lens for your phone or a pocket camera that takes high-quality photos. These memories are going to last a lifetime — make sure the photos do too.
17. Download offline maps before you travel. Despite having amazing data roaming and more free WiFi than ever before, it’s always smart to have an offline map with you. While it’s totally a good idea to carry a physical map, you can also download digital offline maps to help you look a little less touristy and save on data usage.
18. Keep an eye out for pickpockets and scammers. No matter where you travel, safety should always be a concern. Backpackers are especially prone to pickpocketing in Europe and Southeast Asia, so always be sure to carry your money and identification in a money belt or similarly safe space. We also advise backpackers to read up on popular scams in the places they’re planning on visiting (here are a few popular scams in Europe and Asia) so you’re prepared before you travel.
19. Know that not everything is going to work out according to plan. We hate to break it to you, but even if you have the most detailed plan in the world, there are going to be times when your itinerary just doesn’t work out. Whether the place you want to visit is closed, the weather becomes extremely uncooperative, or you have to change your accommodations at the last minute, know that you’re probably going to have to edit your schedule at least once during your trip. Take a deep breath, talk it out with your travel companion (or call your bestie back home if you’re traveling alone), and take solace in the fact that every backpacker before you has experienced the exact same thing.
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(Photos via Getty)