So you want to travel the world with nothing but a backpack? Ummmmmm, that’s awesome! Congratulations on being such a travel-loving badass. If it’s your first time backpacking you’ve probably found this blog post by doing an obligatory google search on what you absolutely must know before you go. Good idea, that’s a very sensible, grown-up thing to do before you pack your entire life into a bag and set off alone, into the big bad world.
There is no doubt this trip is going to change your life. You’ll see things you never thought you would, meet amazing people, learn more about yourself than you ever imaged possible and, honestly, experience things you’ll never, ever forget. But, before you set off, there are a few things you need to know. So, to help you prepare appropriately, here are my top tips on what you absolutely MUST know as a first-time backpacker.
1. Don’t over-pack
Seeing as you’re about to live La Vida Turtle, you’re going to feel the weight of every item you pack. Literally. I am telling you right now, no matter how light you pack, you’re still going to over-pack. I once backed for a 2 week trip to New Zealand with just 7kg carry-on and still managed to pack clothes I didn’t wear. Idiot. Seriously though, be BRUTAL with your packing. I’d suggest you pack, leave it sit for a week then go back through it so you can have that, “what the heck was I thinking packing this?” moment before you leave. I’ve got some good tips for packing-light here. Read ’em.
2. You’re going to need earplugs
Some very drunk and very gross things happen on hostel dorm bunk-beds and I can tell you right now, you don’t want to hear it. It may sound entertaining now, but when you’re sleep-deprived, hungover or exhausted, those Discovery Channel mating calls are going to send you into a rage. Also, snoring. Lots of loud snoring. Get earplugs.
3. Your perception of ‘cheap’ is about to change
When you first start out, you’ll think that $15 per night for a bed by the beach in a cool hostel is cheap. By the end of your trip, you’ll think it’s an absolute rip-off, especially if you find yourself backpacking through South East Asia. When you’re on the road like that, your idea of money and it’s value totally changes and you start to realise that $20 spent on a burger and chips is pretty much the equivalent of a meal at a Michelin-Star restaurant.
4. Those high-tech gadgets aren’t essential
Do not go running out and spending all your money on gadgets, they aren’t necessary. By the time you reach the end of your trip, you’ll probably just be carrying around a sack with 5 t-shirts in it. When you’re backpacking, life becomes much simpler than you ever realised. Spending money on fancy gadgets isn’t necessary, just stick to packing the essentials. Socks, undies etc.
5. Travel over-ground where possible
Planes are great for those big journeys, but if you get the opportunity to travel over-ground, you should take it. Train journeys, in particular, are amazing and those hours spent looking out the window at a landscape you’ve never seen before, will stick with you. Trust me.
6. Learn to go with the flow
Pre-planning every minute of your adventure isn’t going to work out for you. Learn to let go of your fears and surrender to the flow of travel. You’ll find yourself saying yes to joining some new-found friends on a two-week adventure along the Italian coast-line or being shacked up in the mountains of Thailand for a month. Let your journey take you where you’re supposed to go. Surrender.
7. The internet doesn’t know everything
As much as we like to believe it does, the internet doesn’t really know everything. Some of the BEST food you’ll ever eat will be because you stumbled across this tiny little place down an alley in the middle of nowhere. Try to go off the beaten path and discover things organically, those are always the best spots.
8. You’ll need to know how to ditch a bad travel companion
There is going to come a time when you get stuck with a clinger. You’re going to meet someone and they’re going to think you’re their new best friend and want to go everywhere with you. My friend, you’re going to need to learn how to ditch them, gently. It will happen, it will definitely be awkward but it’ll also end up being a great travel story. Learn to spot them.
9. Take your time
I do not recommend trying to see 20 countries on a 2-month trip. If you’re serious about having a great backpacking adventure, be sure to take your time. Spend a good amount of time in each place. By leaving your itinerary open you can bail early if you hate the place or spend longer if you fall in love (with the place or one of the locals). Take it slow. Savour it. Enjoy it. Relish the freedom.
10. Invest in a travel sheet. Seriously.
If you buy ONE thing for your trip, make it a travel sheet. I’m not joking. Hostel beds are really, really gross at the best of times. One of these to shimmy into at night is going to make you feel like a regular, cleanly human being. They’re also great for planes, trains and sleepovers on the airport floor. This one from Cocoon is a good reference point.
11. Don’t freak out when you get lost and everything goes to crap
You’re going to have a moment (or two) where everything goes to crap. You’ll miss a flight, lose something valuable, be mugged or get totally, horribly and completely lost. Embrace it. Know that it’s going to happen and accept it. When the moment comes, shrug it off and keep moving forward. You’re going to be okay and these moments are the ones that define you as a badass backpacker. You can do it.
12. ‘Too good to be true’ is a real thing
Ahhhh yeah, it really is. If someone offers you an unbelievable deal, be wary. Scams are rife and you should definitely be wary of them while you’re travelling. Keep your wits about you, be alert but not alarmed and always, ALWAYS follow your instincts. If you’ve got the heebie-jeebies, cut and run. Your gut instinct is always right.
13. If your flight is delayed you may be eligible for compensation
Backpacking is not always the smooth-sailing experience we’d like. Unfortunately, travel delays do happen. If you’ve been on a delayed flight, you may be able to claim up to $700 flight delay compensation. There are a few conditions that need to be met but it’s definitely worth looking into. Check Airhelp if you’re due any delayed flight compensation.
14. Insurance is absolutely essential
Don’t even think about doing this without travel insurance. Chances are you’re going to need it at some point, especially as a backpacker. You’ll be staying in hostels, sleeping on airport floors and living out of a bag. It’s absolutely essential that you get backpacker insurance.
15. You’re going to meet a ‘bigger, better, best’ traveller
In every hostel, there’s always that one person who has done, seen or enjoyed something better than you have. Been to a really beautiful, secluded beach in Cambodia? They’ve been somewhere better. Hiked for four days to watch a Monk weep as the sun rose over a jungle? That’s boring compared to what they’ve done. Prepare for it and, when it happens, remember this blog post and have a laugh to yourself, because I told ya so 🙂
Useful travel resources for your next adventure
As always, our guides are completely free. If you found this post (or anything we do) useful, we’d be grateful if you considered using the affiliate links below. We’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you. Rest assured, these are the services we love and use ourselves. Thanks for your support! XO Phoebe and Matt.
Agoda – for booking hotels
Booking.com – for booking hotels
Airbnb – for booking apartments
Skyscanner – for booking flights
RentalCars.com – for car rentals
Motorhome Republic – for booking RVs
TourRadar – for booking tours
Uber – for ground transport
SCTI – for travel insurance