Beginners Guide To Backpacking
Over the Autumn, our shops, customer services, and social media are inundated with questions and requests for advice about backpacking and round the world travel.
What pack should I get for a round-the-world trip?
What clothes should I take?
How do I keep my valuables safe?
So what better way to share our years of travel expertise and backpacking experience than to make a beginner's guide to backpacking?
How to Plan Your Backpacking Trip
Before you set off on your adventure there are a few bits and pieces you'll want to spend some time sorting out. Far from the romantic ideal of just packing your bags and hopping on the first flight you can, successful travel is reliant on careful planning and preparation.
Money and Budget
Working out and sticking to a budget is a difficult task that no one really wants to do but it's going to help you make the most of the money you have. Some people try to work out how much they are going to spend (to the penny!) each day, however, this is difficult to maintain for a long trip. As you explore destinations, you are going to discover unexpected attractions to visit, dishes to sample and other activities, and a super tight budget can easily go awry if the exchange rates change.
It's more practical to research the cost of living in each country you are travelling to and set yourself a weekly budget rather than daily. This allows you to be flexible - spending more one day on an excursion then maybe go to the beach the next, to balance the books.
"There are ways to prevent RFID theft including protective wallets or card protectors"
One way to keep track of your finances and avoid bank fees is to use an international card such as a Monzo card. This is essentially a pre-paid Mastercard that doesn't charge you anything to withdraw cash or make a transaction in any country. A mobile app allows you to keep an eye on your spending with real-time balance updates and you can instantly block the card if it's stolen or lost.
Most debit and credit cards now come with Radio-Frequency IDentification (RFID) chips that allow you to pay via contactless. Great if you are in a rush, but this technology makes them an attractive proposition to thieves, who can charge a payment to your card or steal your details without even touching the card. All they need to do is pass an RFID reader over your wallet or purse and it's too late.
Image source: Heidi Strean
You might be surprised to know that:
A British passport allows you to visit 173 countries without an arranged visa - joint best in the world (passportindex.org). Despite this, there are a lot of popular destinations where you will still need one. For a list of countries that require a visa, take a look at the government's foreign travel advice page. This is also a great resource for local laws and customs, currency information and the international travel status of your destination.
"A British passport allows you to visit 173 countries without a visa"
Whether you're checking into a hostel, on the way to the airport or renting a moped you will no doubt have to carry your passport when out and about. The Foreign & Commonwealth Office has made a video outlining some of the ways thieves may try to steal your passport. I wouldn't let this put you off travelling, however, it is worth noting the ways criminals can target unsavvy tourists.
If you're planning on travelling out of Europe you are potentially going to be exposing yourself to a lot more diseases - especially if you're travelling to a developing country. The NHS has put together an easy to use ‘fitfortravel' website that lets you look up the jabs needed, wherever your destination.
This is one aspect of backpacking you do not want to skimp on. Unfortunately, accidents do happen and people get ill, so if you find yourself in hospital the last thing you want to be worrying about is if you are covered for a certain treatment.
There are plenty of round-the-world or multi-country annual policies that offer good value for money which you can find on comparison sites. If you are planning on doing any sports such as diving, skiing, or mountain biking, it is worth checking if your policy covers them.
Solo or Group Travel When Backpacking?
Whether you prefer spending each day any way you like, or sharing your experiences with close friends, both have their pros and cons. However, if it is your first time backpacking we recommend travelling with at least one friend for safety and company. Either way, it's important to maintain regular contact with family or friends at home, so if something were to happen they would be able to help.
What Backpacking Gear do I Need?
Image source: Lukas Robertson
You may already have some or most of the gear you're going to need for your trip, but deciding what to take and what to leave is a whole problem of its own.
Deciding what size of pack to take can sometimes be a head-scratcher. A multitude of factors come into play here, such as where you are travelling and for how long, as well as personal preference. Some people prefer a large 70L trekking pack that can carry something for every eventuality, whereas others prefer to go for a minimalist 'essentials only' 40L.
There are pros and cons to carrying a big or small pack but I suggest that you opt for a smaller one, around the 40 or 50 litre mark. This forces you to be strict with what you pack and means you won't struggle with oversized luggage when you're on the move. To supplement this you can carry a small 16 - 20L daypack on your front and use it for day trips or hand luggage on flights.
Once you have decided which size to get you need to look at what features you want, such as a built-in rain cover for trekking, walking pole loops, a laptop sleeve for blogging or shoulder strap storage for convenient aeroplane travel. For more information about backpacks, their features and how to get the correct size and fit, take a look at our backpack buying guide.
Clothes for Backpacking
Breathable technical t-shirts are going to keep you cool in warm climates and stay fresh for longer; meaning you can pack less of them. Here are 5 of our favourite t-shirts that hardly need washing.
- Waterproof shell
Depending on the time of year, a lightweight shell is great in the rainy season and packs down.
- Warm jumper or fleece
Evenings on a beach or in the desert can be cold. Something like a Thermoball hoodiewith its synthetic down warms you up quickly and doesn't weigh a lot.
- Travel pants
A pair of lightweight walking pants with some stretch is going to be comfortable on long journeys. Most of them come with articulated joints which aid movement and the thin fabric dries quickly after a downpour or wash. On extended trips, dark colours will show fewer stains or marks but will absorb more heat from the sun than a beige pair, so choose depending on your destination.
Merino underwear is great at regulating your temperature - it traps air in between fibres keeping you warm, and when it's hot, the fibres wick away sweat keeping you comfortable and cool.
Merino wool socks wick away sweat from your feet, keeping them cool and preventing rubbing. Their odour-controlling properties mean they also smell less terrible than regular cotton/synthetic socks.
- Swim shorts or bikini
Essential for taking a dip in the sea, a river or the hostel hot tub!
Traditionally, most backpackers would don a pair of sturdy walking boots for all of their travels. But unless you are going to be doing some serious trekking, these will probably be uncomfortable and in an urban environment, their stiff sole will be overkill.
Most of the time you would be better off using an approach shoe or a mixed-terrain walking shoe. These combine plenty of support, a grippy tread and a breathable and lightweight midsole / upper, making them the ideal choice in all but the most challenging environments.
Two pairs of shoes should be enough for most adventures, including sandals or flip-flops as one pair. We recommend sandals over flip-flops; something like a pair of Teva sandals will keep your feet cool and comfortable in warm climates whilst still provide support and protection.
Image source: LIFEVENTURE
- Travel towel:
Small and lightweight, they dry up to 8x quicker than a cotton towel and are anti-fungal.
- All-purpose soap:
You can use it on your hair, body and even wash clothes with it.
Staying safe in the sun is a must, especially in certain parts of the world where the Ozone layer is thinner (New Zealand). These areas of high UV exposure require a strong SPF 50 suncream for protection.
- International plug adaptor:
Charge your phone and other electronics wherever you are in the world.
- Smart Phone:
With a smartphone, you can pretty much do everything you need, book a hostel or flight, document your journey, or even translate a local menu. But beware becoming totally reliant on one if a power source is hard to come by.
- Over-ear noise-cancelling headphones and earplugs:
A pair of good quality headphones is a must on long haul journeys, while ear plugs are especially good for drowning out the snoring of fellow backpackers in a shared dorm.
Image source: Oscar Nilsson
- Tablet with expandable SD card:
Removing the need for a laptop, you can load up all the books you want to read, watch a film on a long bus journey, clip on a keyboard and write a travel blog, edit a video, and download high-res photos from your camera. And if you do run out of space you can simply buy another SD card.
A reliable waterproof watch is going to help you stay on time and make those connecting journeys.
- Bluetooth mini speaker:
Create that party vibe and share your tunes with friends.
- Playing cards:
A classic but a good one, whether you need to kill some time in an airport or want to make friends in the hostel common room.
- SLR camera:
Better quality shots and a bigger range of features are going to let you take some amazing photos for great memories of your adventure.The SLR camera body and subsequent lenses are going to take up more room but if you like your photography this is a must.
Take it diving, mountain biking or even put it on a selfie stick – it's a great way to document your experiences, ready for a fun edit to share with friends and family.
About the Author:
Pete Fletcher - Outdoor Expert
Pete grew up hiking most of the trails in the Lake District before being introduced to skiing. A decade later and you're most likely to find him snowboarding, skateboarding or making a mean coffee.