Whether you’re a seasoned traveler or a first-time adventurer, there’s always new lessons to be learned while on the road. Personal experience will always be the best teacher, but to help speed things up for you, I’ve laid out my best backpacking travel tips that will help you minimize the hardships and make the most of your travels.
General Backpacking Travel Tips
Pack less stuff
The cardinal rule of travel. Obvious as it may be, sometimes its truth doesn’t land until you’ve stepped off the plane into a new country with half of your wardrobe strapped to your back.
You may be wondering how this is even a tip (maybe it’s more of a reminder), but let me assure you:
You will pack things on your trip that you will never use. Not even once.
Fear compels us to bring more than we need. Don’t let fear win. Force yourself to bring less by buying a smaller backpack.
If you buy a bigger pack, it’s almost a guarantee that you will fill it up. Why?
Because we tend to fill up the space we have with stuff.
So begin by buying a backpack in the 40-50 liter range. If you’re serious about packing light, get a 30-40L backpack.
Travel with a lightheart
Similar to packing light, try to leave the emotional baggage at home. I recognize that traveling can offer a much needed escape from problems and “reality”, but don’t expect it to alleviate you from whatever you’re fleeing back home.
At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. […] My giant goes with me wherever I go.
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Whatever your personal “giant” may be, it’s best to confront it beforehand, whatever that means to you.
(To be clear, I’m not saying that you can’t travel when things are hard. Travel rewards us with fresh perspectives and insights, which can be extremely helpful when wrestling with a problem—but traveling itself is not the answer to your problems.)
Say hello and smile
A genuine smile and greeting is your best tool. Even if you don’t speak a word of the local language, smiling is a universal language, and you’d be hard-pressed to find someone that won’t return the gesture.
Learn simple phrases
In addition to smiling and eye-contact, learning a few key phrases in the local language will help break down barriers. At the very least, learn hello, thank you, and excuse me/sorry.
Other helpful words and phrases include how much?, toilet, and food words such as chicken, pork, egg, no meat, vegetarian, not spicy (although I love spicy!).
I love those moments when the reality of your situation hits you, and you find yourself somewhere that you never expected to be—a place or situation so off of your radar that you have to blink a few times to make sure it’s real.
It’s possible that these types of situations may come from your own doing, but it’s more likely that they’re going to develop through the people you meet during your travels. So when a local invites you out with them, or a group of fellow travelers extend an invitation to somewhere new…say yes*.
Whatever the outcome, you’ll at least get a story out of it.
(*Only if it feels right. If someone or something feels off and makes you uncomfortable in any way, politely decline and remove yourself from the situation.)
Plan, but don’t overdo it
Be flexible when traveling.
Don’t be so overbooked or rigid in your itinerary that you leave no room for spontaneity.
Do your research beforehand and write down a few core activities you want to do, and let the rest take care of itself.
When things go wrong (they will), breathe.
If you feel yourself getting annoyed or angry or frustrated, before you do anything, take a deep breath. Then let it go. Stay calm and assess things clearly.
Be patient, be respectful, be open
Be patient. This is especially pertinent when visiting popular tourist destinations. Everyone is there for the same reasons as you, but don’t expect them all to be considerate of you. If you get angry, read the previous tip again.
Be aware and respectful of the culture you’re in. Pay attention to your dress when visiting temples or government offices.
Be open. Some local customs and traditions may shock you. Hold your judgment. You’re there to learn, not judge.
Wake up early
You’re on a grand adventure—make the most of your time.
Wake up with the sun.
Pack your daypack the night before so you’re ready to go in the morning.
If you get out early enough, you’ll have the attractions to yourself. Your photos will be better because of the soft morning light. And you’ll be there when the city wakes up—a charming and wonderful thing that should not be missed.
Go out and get lost in the streets. Leave with no destination in mind and see where your legs take you. (Hint: this is how you stumble upon great little secrets and get off the beaten track.)
Before you go all #wanderlust, make sure you at least have the address and phone number of your hotel or hostel so you can find your way back. I usually drop a pin on my hostel in maps.me.
Speak to locals
Ask them what their favorite foods are and where to find them, or good spots to catch the sunset. Locals take pride in their hometowns and love sharing their knowledge about it. The staff at your accommodation, taxi drivers, or anyone that speaks some English are good places to start.
Watch and observe
Spend a half hour sitting somewhere, watching, listening, observing. Give your attention to the daily rituals of life. Slow down time.
Resist the temptation to pull out your phone for any reason. Your phone ensures only surface-skimming of everything; it fractures your attention. You don’t want this. You want to dive beneath the surface.
Notice the small details that are too often overlooked. It’s fascinating to see the little nuances and subtleties of people’s movements and interactions with each other happening all around you.
Find a nice patio or window seat at a cafe near a local market, get a coffee or a snack, and sit back and take it all in.
Read up on the country’s history
I’m not saying to go read a history book on Vietnam, but I’m also not saying to not go do that. My point is that learning some history will improve your experience in the country immensely. When you’re sitting at the airport waiting to board your flight, close out of Instagram and pull up Wikipedia.
Or even better, do a “Pre-cultural Immersion“.
In the months leading up to your trip, learn as much about the country as you can. Read books about it and by its authors, watch movies and documentaries depicting life there, watch language tutorials on Youtube. It’s fun, and it’ll really psych you up for your trip.
Eat where the locals eat
This doesn’t mean you can’t eat in tourist areas. Just know you’ll be paying more for probably mediocre food.
Walk away from tourist hotspots and find areas with more locals.
Eat the street food. Go to restaurants and street stalls that are bustling with locals for authentic, delicious food at a fraction of the price you’d pay in the tourist hub.
Also, don’t be intimidated to walk into a place as the only foreigner. Can’t read a word of the menu? No pictures of food anywhere? No problem. Look at what others are eating and order that. Point to something that looks good and dive in.
Learn to haggle
Don’t always accept the first price, especially if the item has no price on it to begin with. Vendors see foreigners and throw out a high price just to see if you’ll take it (this is especially true at markets that are clearly aimed at tourists). By not even attempting to negotiate, you’re just being a sucker.
Most vendors will come down in price almost immediately, and depending on your haggling skills, you may be able to get them to agree to around half of their original price. But don’t insult them with a real low-ball as your initial offer. They’ll dismiss you and won’t want to sell to you at all. Have a maximum figure in mind that you’re willing to pay, start your offer well below that and work your way towards it.
Don’t be afraid to haggle—it’s a common practice in many cultures. It can actually be fun too, and the worst they can say is no.
Extra tip: If the seller is on the fence, pull out your offer in cash for them to see. People are more likely to agree when the money is right there in front of them.
Laugh at yourself
A useful skill for navigating life as a whole. But extremely powerful in its application while traveling. Mistakes and blunders are a guaranteed part of travel. As long as no one is seriously injured, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to laugh when you inevitably embarrass yourself.
Keep your expectations in check; it’s not all fun
Social media is incredibly deceptive. You’re shown only the end point of the journey, “the photoshoot”. All the effort and discomfort that probably went into getting there is omitted.
And this stress and exertion during the journey is what makes the destination so rewarding. Without a challenge requiring sustained effort, the greatest joys sit just out of reach.
So don’t expect (or even want) traveling to be one big happy adventure where you’re laughing and frolicking through the city streets at every moment.
Some parts of travel can suck, but frankly I wouldn’t have it any other way. Instead of getting upset over obstacles, I do my best to overcome them and hopefully learn something in the process.
Stay longer in fewer places
All of my favorite travel memories came from spending more than a few days in a place. If I only stay for a couple days, I leave feeling like I didn’t get much out of it.
Taking more time lets you tune in to the locals’ way of life and meet more people. Don’t jump from place to place trying to cram four countries into four weeks of travel. Spend that full month in one or two countries, and take your time exploring the cities and landscapes.
Use your travel time to learn
Listen to podcasts.
Read a book.
All of mankind’s greatest thoughts, lessons, and stories are contained within books, sitting and waiting to be digested. A good book is and always will be more rewarding than anything on your phone.
A four hour bus ride can be turned into an enjoyable experience because of the four uninterrupted hours spent listening to podcasts, reading, or listening to music.
But don’t discount talking to those around you either. I love learning where people come from and bits of their life story.
Take lots of photos
But don’t spend all of your time behind your phone or camera. Take a handful of solid photos of wherever you are, and whoever you’re with, and be done. Then enjoy your surroundings.
Write it down
Photos are great for documenting your trip, but reading your past thoughts about an experience can usually transport you back to that day better than a photo can. If you don’t have the time or just don’t feel like writing, scribble out a few quick sentences or bullet points. You’ll be happy later that you did.
Keep souvenirs to a minimum
Souvenirs are great, but I don’t usually buy them. I can’t help but immediately think about carrying it around with me for the rest of my travels, and that thought alone is usually enough for me to walk away from the purchase (unless I’m buying for someone else).
If you’re set on buying something, and the timing works out, buy it towards the end of your trip so you don’t have to carry it around for weeks.
Put your phone in low-power mode in the morning
Ever put your phone in your pocket and 30 minutes later see that the battery has dropped like 7%?
That doesn’t happen in low-power mode.
Every morning I turn on low-power mode, and this little trick lets me easily take photos and videos all day, browse the web, use navigation, and still have battery left in the evenings.
To enable low-power mode on an iPhone, go to:
Settings > Battery > Low Power Mode
Use maps.me to navigate
I love maps.me. It’s the most useful app for me when traveling.
Before arriving somewhere new, I just download a map of the country or region. Then, when I arrive and have no data on my phone, I don’t need to worry about connecting to wifi to navigate.
It’s especially helpful when leaving the airport. I use it to search for the address of my hostel, which helps immensely when showing a taxi driver that may not speak English well where to go, or when trying to navigate there myself by walking or taking public transportation.
Also, maps.me has a lot of trails in it, which is great for hiking. It helped me immensely when trekking through the jungles of Khao Sok National Park in Thailand, saving me many times from getting lost at unmarked forks in the trails.
Make copies of your passport
I like to carry two paper copies of my passport photo page stored in a ziploc bag, which I stash in my backpack in case of emergencies. I always leave a copy with a family member or friend back home too.
Also, consider snapping photos of your passport, your current visa (if applicable), any important documents like medical paperwork, and credit and debit cards. Then email those photos to yourself or back them up to a cloud. Doesn’t hurt to have that extra level of security.
Avoid packaged tours
If you’re traveling on a tight budget, this is will help keep expenses down. In certain situations, a tour may be necessary and your only choice, but if the option to explore on your own is there, do it.
There is almost always a way to do something independently, whether it’s a trek to a waterfall or a visit to a temple. Rent a motorbike if you’re comfortable doing so; it grants you the freedom to go where you want when you want.
Buy travel insurance
Always worth the money. Sure, your chances of serious injury while traveling are small, but using this logic to convince yourself that you’ll be fine and nothing will happen is just dumb. Suck it up, buy it, and enjoy the peace of mind.
I always choose World Nomads for my excursions.
(Take pictures of your luggage and electronics too just before your trip. If anything gets lost or stolen, use these photos when filing your claim.)
- Start getting your travel vaccinations well in advance of your trip.
- Consider bringing probiotics—they help balance your gut bacteria when diarrhea strikes. Speak to a pharmacist about which kind to get.
- Don’t overexert yourself. We often try to cram so much into a single trip that we forego sleep and adequate rest periods. Always make time for relaxation and recovery.
- Wear sunscreen, especially during midday. Don’t underestimate its immediate and long-term benefits.
Toilet paper & wet wipes
Toilet paper is not a guarantee in some places, particularly Southeast Asia. The norm is a bum gun (think handheld bidet), and unless you’re skilled at using one (the first time you try will be a disaster), you probably should carry a pack of wet wipes or a roll of toilet paper flattened and stuffed into a plastic bag*.
*If you plan to stay in tourist areas, then this doesn’t apply to you. If you like to get off the beaten track, then consider toilet paper or wipes. I like wet wipes because they’re more compact.
Function over fashion
When you’re backpacking or traveling for extended periods, you quickly stop caring about how good something looks and instead place more value in how well it performs. The importance of comfortable walking shoes like trail runners cannot be overstated.
If you’re going to bring dress clothes, bring one outfit. You don’t need more than that.
Crucial for getting a proper night’s sleep in a hostel. With lots of people in a single room, it’s hard to sleep solidly through the night without being woken up once. Bring a couple of pairs in case you lose one or two.
Carry a pen and passport-style photos
Having a pen: this can save you a lot of time when flying and the flight attendants pass out arrival cards or visa-on-arrival paperwork. Fill them out on the plane so you can get right in line at immigration.
Passport style photos: not a necessity, but useful to have when traveling between countries, especially if you know you’ll be purchasing a visa on arrival. Having a few stored in an outer compartment of your bag can save you time and money.
Make a travel first aid kit
Injuries happen (a lot for me). In my travel first aid kit (a ziploc bag), I always carry:
- A tiny bottle of isopropyl alcohol
- Bandages and gauze
- Waterproof medical tape
- Antibacterial ointment
- Hydrocortisone cream for insect bites and skin irritations
- Anti-inflammatory pills
Inform your bank of your travel plans
Call your bank before you leave and alert them of the countries you’ll be visiting along with the approximate dates. You don’t want to arrive and be blocked from using your credit or debit card because your bank flagged your first transaction.
Get a debit and credit card with no international fees
I hate giving up money to banks for ATM and currency conversion fees.
It may mean opening a new bank account, but if you travel a lot, it’s worth taking the time to do this. If you’re in the U.S., I recommend a Capital One 360 checking account, or an account from Charles Schwab Bank.
Capital One charges zero fees on all foreign transactions; the only fee is that charged by out-of-network ATMs.
Charles Schwab reimburses your account once a month with all the ATM fees charged on both ends—at home and abroad. Pretty amazing. The only actual fee-free international debit card I’m aware of.
Spread your cash and cards out
In other words, don’t keep it all in one place.
I always split my cash up into 2-3 separate spots. I keep a small amount of local currency in my wallet, some in my hidden travel wallet, and maybe even some in my backpack.
Same goes for my cards: a credit and debit card in my wallet, and then a second set of cards in my travel wallet or backpack.
This may seem tedious, but taking a couple extra minutes to do this could save you from hours of stress and frustration later.
Get a travel towel
If you’re a budget traveler, a travel towel will be extremely useful. Some hostels and guesthouses may provide you with a towel, but many will not.
Not only do travel towels do the obvious task of drying you off, they work great as a picnic blanket in a park, a privacy curtain if you’re on the bottom bunk in a hostel, and even an emergency pillow.
I use a 100% linen towel from Outlier, and I absolutely love it. It never carries an odor, I rarely have to wash it, it dries quickly, rolls up small, and when used at the beach, a few good shakes and there’s not a speck of sand left on it (this last one still impresses me every time).
Cheaper options exist of course, like microfiber towels, but polyester is infamous for its remarkable ability to stink like no other.
Wear merino wool clothing
Merino wool is fantastic. It’s a natural fiber derived from sheep, and thanks to natural selection, its properties are amazing. Here’s why:
- It’s naturally odor-resistant
- It can be worn for days without washing
- It’s quick-drying
- It regulates body temperature by breathing well in the heat and providing insulation in the cold (even when it’s wet)
Investing in a few merino wool shirts and socks will drastically cut down on how much clothing you need for long-term travel.
Carry a packable day pack
I prefer to travel with all of my stuff fitting into one bag.
To do this, I use a packable daypack—the Marmot Kompressor Plus 20L day pack. It folds up into its top pocket and packs down to the size of a water bottle. For a lightweight, compressible daypack, it’s well-structured and not too flimsy.
I’ve taken mine all over with me—from summiting volcanoes in Indonesia to hunting street art in Malaysia—and I love it. It’s well built and able to withstand heavy use.
Final tip: Prioritize travel
Traveling is not as expensive as you think. It can be surprisingly cheap, especially once you acquire your travel gear. It’s not necessarily about having a lot of money and free time (although these things help of course), it’s about choosing what you want to spend your time and money on.
If you really want to travel more, all you need is a bit of money and the courage to book that first flight.
You’re privileged and lucky. Not only have you been born into one of the best times to be alive in the history of this planet, if you’re reading this, you’re probably one of the fortunate few able to travel and explore the this fascinating world we live in. Don’t take it for granted.
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