Advice for first time long term travellers

Pieces of advice proven useful during my first time backpacking.

Take several very large ziplock bags. Use them to pack your clothes in: eg, one for undies and socks, one for tshirts, etc. Seal each about 90% of the way then sit on them to squish out the excess air before closing them completely. It’s a cheap way to save lots of room in your pack and it means when you need to grab something it will slip out easily rather than dragging half your clothes out all over the place along with it.

Get one of those cables with a lock in case you need to secure your pack to something (a bunk bed, a train luggage rack, etc).

Even if you don’t use the cable the extra padlock will come in handy for lockers at hostels that don’t supply free locks.

Take a fine permanent marker with you so you can mark your name and check out date on food you want to keep in communal hostel fridges (usually a requirement).

Bring a one-size-fits-all sink plug. Sometimes it’s nice to have a bath (often showers are in baths anyway) or you might need it to shave or do light handwashing. There won’t always be a plug in the sink.

While a lot of hostels have laundry facilities and you can find laundromats almost everywhere, having that plug, a portable clothes line and a small bottle of handwashing laundry liquid do occasionally prove useful. (Note however that some hostels specifically don’t allow handwashing in sinks or drying wet clothes in rooms.)

If you have the energy for it, shower before you get dressed for bed. It keeps your pjs cleaner and it’s always nicer to sleep in something clean.

If your towel hasn’t dried completely by the time you need to move on keep it in a ziplock bag until you get to your new location and take it out to air as soon as you arrive.

The only time ear plugs have come in handy for me was on an overnight train when the wheels made terribly loud screeching noises in the middle of the night. I’ve never had any problem with noisy dorms or streets, but I’m a fairly heavy sleeper.

I used to pack a rain poncho but was always too embarrassed to use it. Just buy a cheap fold up umbrella if the weather start to turn rainy – and keep it in easy reach.

If you have a fringe take a small pair of sharp hair scissors and trim it yourself. As long as you don’t have a really precise style  you should be able to get the hang of doing it yourself relatively easily. Enough to get by at any rate. You’re backpacking, not entering a fashion show!

Make sure you bring essentials such as prescription medication, but you can buy and replace just about everything else you need (toothpaste, soap, clothes, etc) along the way. It’s half the fun of travelling and they’ll be the most useful souvenirs you’ll pick up! (I still use a cheapie beach towel I got from a stand by the beach in Barcelona 2 years later.)

In the same vein, don’t take one dressy outfit “just in case”. If you end up needing one you can buy it.

Having said all that, sometimes it’s nice to take a little piece of home with you. It’s a cliché, but next time I go backpacking I’m taking a small jar of Vegemite.

Take as few books as possible. Cut down on guidebooks by making good use of free or paid smartphone apps, saving websites for offline use with apps like Read It Later, take scans or PDF guidebooks you can also access on your phone, tear out or photocopy the only pages you’ll need, swap guidebooks along the way with travellers going in the other direction so you only need to carry one at a time…

In general, and anyone that’s ever been backpacking will tell you this: just pack as light as you possibly can! Buy the smallest pack you can get away with and aim to start off with it no more than half full.

Cache iPhone maps to avoid the need for cellular data and therefore avoid huge phone bills:

  • Go to Settings > General > Network, then make sure “Data Roaming” is set to OFF
  • Open the Maps app while you’re connected to your accommodation’s wifi
  • Find the city you’re currently based in. Move the map around, zoom in and out a few levels.
  • This info will now be temporarily stored on your iPhone for the next couple of days (or until you search another area in detail, thus overwriting the cache)
  • Now when you open Maps you’ll be able to view the bits you’ve cached without any kind of internet connection – and the GPS locator will still work (it doesn’t need cellular data)
  • You can also create bookmarks for particular locations on a wifi connection and access them offline along with your cached maps

Sometimes, your accommodation’s wifi just won’t work on your iPhone/Mac laptop/PC laptop no matter how much troubleshooting you do. Try not to rely on having it at your next destination until you’re sure.

If you’ve become heavily reliant on Google Maps but you end up needing to use a paper map, it’s not as bad as you might think! They can you mark you out as a bit of a tourist though: I like to refold mine so only the immediately relevant area is visible at about A5 size. (Messy folds and holes will start to form but it’s quicker to refer to.)

You can often get free paper maps from your accommodation (marked up with recommendations if you’re lucky!).

Take cycling or walking tours on arrival in a new city to get your bearings and see the highlights so you can decide what to go back and see in more detail later on. You’ll often pick up lots of great food tips too. The best kind of walking tours are the “free” ones (for example) – the guides work harder to make sure they’re interesting and you have a good time because they’re working for tips.

You’ll meet a lot of people you’ll want to stay in touch with. If you don’t want to go the whole hog and print up basic little business cards with your contact details on that you can hand out, always have some scrap paper and a pen handy.

Use whatever you can of the local language, even when they use English with you. I think it’s nice.

At the very least, try to learn how to say “thank you” – even if you have to ask the locals how to pronounce it!

Don’t assume a rail pass will be value for money, it depends on your travelling style. Even if you have a pass you often have to pay for surcharges or seat reservations on top.

If you need to buy train tickets and there’s a difficult language barrier, write down what you need with the help of a phrase book.

Take snacks on long train/bus journeys so you don’t have to rely on potentially expensive (or non-existent) restaurant cars.

Take local water transport instead of cruises, eg: Thames Clipper in London, waterbuses in Venice, local ferries in Istanbul. You’ll get the same views for a much cheaper price and I’ve personally never found touristy river cruises that informative (you usually can’t hear the bored guide over the loud speaker system).

Turn around after you’ve walked past a major monument – sometimes that will be the better angle for a snapshot.

Likewise, look up from time to time. You might see something interesting you would otherwise have missed by keeping your eyes at street level.

Coins are very useful! For public transport, laundry, vending machines, tipping, etc. Try to have small notes and big coins.

A money belt is not a bum bag. If you feel the need to use one, only put things that you don’t need to regularly access in it or you’ll just be advertising yourself to thieves. If you do need to access it in public, go into a restroom and do it privately.

Buy some Skype credit so you can make cheap calls to friends and family back home (if they don’t already use Skype enabling you to call them for free) and if you need to make any enquiries or bookings by the phone.

More packing and language tips.

My favourite travel links:

Wikitravel
The Man in Seat Sixty-One
Matador Network
Round the World Travel FAQ

Packing for long term travel

I didn’t really consider myself a backpacker before we set out on a 5 month trip around Europe, but in the end I chose a backpack over a suitcase for three reasons:

  1. Rolling suitcases are great for floors that are nice and smooth, such as airports. They aren’t so great over the rough surfaces and cobblestone streets you’ll spend most of your time transporting your luggage across.
  2. It’s easier to walk up a flight of stairs with your luggage on your back than it is to lug up a suitcase.
  3. Backpacks are easier to store on luggage racks on trains and buses.

A fourth reason which didn’t become apparent until we were on the road is some hostel rooms have nice big lockers for storing luggage, but even the biggest ones are unlikely to fit suitcases.

At the airport

My travel bags

KATHMANDU INTERLOPER X-PAC V3 (65L)

I bought mine for something like AU$350, about 50% off at one of Kathmandu’s famous (bi-yearly?) sales. It doesn’t look like they sell this particular model any more but they’ve likely replaced it with a newer version. The 65L was the smallest option and it was plenty of space for me. Alex got the 70 or 75L because the 65L didn’t fit his back and I think it was too big; too easy to let it get too heavy – you want to travel as lightly as you can.

The great thing about Kathmandu is it was the only shop I found that had a professional fitting service where someone adjusts all the straps to make sure weight distribution is optimal to protect your back. You can even go home, pack your bag and bring it back in and they’ll readjust everything if necessary. This service is free. You could come back in 3 years time and they’d still do it for you – you can even lend your bag to a friend and they’ll readjust it to fit them.

Whatever you choose, make sure it opens from the long side as well as the top. The long side opening the main one you want (normally a big flap you can unzip and pull back) because it allows access to all parts of your bag in one go. If you only have a top opening (common to hiking packs) you’ll have to pull everything out to get to something you’ve stored at the bottom.

My large pack had three compartments: one in the lid/hood, the main one, and one at the base which I could have unzipped to combine with the main compartment. It was handy to have the base compartment separate though because I used it to keep my shoes and dirty clothes separate from my clean clothes.

SMALL KATHMANDU DAY PACK

This came with the larger pack but I wore it on my front in true backpacker style. (I tried it snapped onto the main pack once and it was way too unbalanced.) I used it to carry any stuff I wanted to access easily (eg book on the bus, chargers/adapters) but left it at the hostel with the main pack whenever we went out. (In the picture above this bag is inside my larger one – I left the one on front with a friend in the UK. Our plan was to settle in the UK after travelling around Europe and I knew this third, inbetween-sized bag would be useful for shorter trips such as weekends away.)

SMALL BLACK ACROSS-THE-BODY BAG

Also from Kathmandu. Lots of pockets, zips and flaps to hide away essentials. I took this bag with me wherever I went and never let it out of my sight (except perhaps when I was showering and Alex looked after it for me). I much prefer across-the-body bags because they keep your arms free and they’re harder for someone to snatch than a shoulder bag. I usually wore mine at the front so I could keep a hand across it, which is daggy but significantly less daggy than walking around with a single small backpack on your front or, worst of all, wearing a bumbag. :P

ZOU-BAG/BAG-BAG (FOLDABLE SHOPPING BAG)

This came in very handy for buying groceries or carrying water/snacks during the day. It’s one of those ubiquitous shopping bags that folds up into a little pouch, however this particular brand is incredibly strong (it can hold up to 30kg weight), it’s machine washable, and it can be worn over the shoulder or carried as a shopping bag (the strap is clever enough that if you want to use it as the latter it won’t hang low to the ground). I bought mine from a stall at Spitalfield Market.

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