No matter how seasoned of a backpacker you may now be, at one point or another you were a newby. You had to face the learning curve and figure out the hard way the do’s and do nots. You can always pick them out. The rookies. Huddled over with their overstuffed backpacks, hobbling as they try to balance their assortment of rolling bags and carry ons. Walking around with their room keys dangling from lanyards around their necks. You know the type. And if you don’t it’s probably you. But that’s alright! I’m here to help. Because I’ve been there. I was that girl. With a gigantic purple suitcase that could probably fit two of me. Along with two duffle bags and a small backpack. AND my pocketbook. I’d like to think I was super prepared. But really, it was the opposite. It wasn’t until I was preparing for a trip to Surf Camp. I didn’t want to bring all of my stuff, so a good friend of mine let me stow my bags in the basement of the bar she managed in Surry Hills. A borough of Sydney, Australia. True to the name, I had to walk up a few hills to get to the bar. It was in that moment that it truly clicked. I have way too much baggage. Literally. This suitcase was the metaphoric pinnacle of all that I needed to let go. You need so little in life to get by. And when you’re living out of a backpack, that reality dawns on you quickly. So that brings us to the first point:
- Pack Light
This seems like a given. But it really is such a battle between what you think you need, and what you can actually afford to carry. For instance: I thought I needed all of my supplement vitamins, my entire essential oil collection, BAGS of jewelry, a few outfits for every occasion, so many shoes, trinkets from home, little decorations for wherever I post up, a scalp massager, a Tibetan mediation bowl; hopefully you’re catching my drift here. Things that seem like a great idea to bring along. But then once you get to your destination, or better yet, once you’re actually living on the road; you’ll look at all of this stuff and wonder, “what the hell was I thinking?!” In all honesty, you’re probably going to just wear the same things over and over. SO pack cute, but pack comfy. Once you’ve been traveling for a bit you’ll realize that comfort comes first. Don’t bring that dress you never wore because now you have an excuse to. You still won’t wear it. So pack cute, comfy, interchangeable clothes. Pack layers. Just bring what you know you absolutely NEED for the first two weeks. You’ll pick up the rest when you get there; and fully understand what you actually need to get by. This is an actual picture of when I’d just finished my backpacking expedition and landed back in Sydney. Don’t be like me.
- Ear Plugs
I feel like this should actually be my first point, but it didn’t play perfectly into my intro so alas here are at number 2. These are like gold. Unless you’re one of those blessed people who can sleep anywhere, through anything. I am not one of those people. Luckily I have long, thick hair that I can wrap over my face too keep out any sort of light, but when it comes to sound it’s useless. Even if you don’t plan on sleeping in a shared space, you can’t account for noises outside, or through the incredibly thin walls of whichever hostel (I’m assuming you’re staying in a hostel, you are backpacking after all). Let’s say you decide to take the frugal approach, and book a 12 person share bedroom, mixed gender. I’m not a gambling woman, but if I was I would say that at least 3 of those 12 are snorers. Sure, they may be incredible, inspiring individuals during their waking hours. But none of that matters once the light goes out and they’re shaking the room with their chorus of hideous snores. It will make even the most passive of people instantly homicidal. I got so angry one night that I told my roommate (while she was snoring) that no one would love her because of her terrible snoring. In the morning I told her I had horrible night terrors that cause me to talk in my sleep (just in case.) So save yourself the agony and stock up. Don’t get the cheap kind either. Get the squishy kind that mold into every orifice of your ears, blocking out any unwanted sound.
- The Code
Now, say what you like about backpackers. They’re outcasts of society, gypsys. This to an extent may be true. And in any large sub-culture of people you’re going to find shitty people who steal, cheat, and will try to screw you to the greatest extent of their power. But this fraction of individuals is very small. When I first started backpacking, my stuff was constantly under lock and key. I’d stuff all of my belongings in the cubbys and nothing was every left out. I’d move into new hostels as I passed through new towns and cities, and I quickly noticed that hardly anyone else was as cautious as I. Many of the “long-termers” had their laptops and phones lef out, chargers in the socket. And they weren’t even in the room! I began to catch on to the “code” so to speak. That as backpackers, we are all in the same boat. We’re living this way, on the cheap, so that we can spend our time experiencing beautiful sights and beautiful moments. Stealing food is by-far the lowest of offenses, as this is one of the only thing we as humans NEED to get by. I only had this happen to me once. For the first time in 8 months, I was in a hostel that actually had an oven! A working oven at that! So I made baked macaroni and cheese for myself and my boyfriend. We came back later that night to find that someone else had decided to finish it. I was beyond livid! I threw a fit, and my boyfriend bought us pizza. Another time, while I was living in Sydney while looking for an apartment; someone stole the USB cube for my iPhone. I was completely thrown by this because it was an American plug, and I was sharing my room with a German, a Swedish guy, two French, and an Aussie. None of them needed an American plug. So naturally I flipped out, but yelling at no one in particular about the grimey nature of stealing from another backpacker. When I came home that night a new (Australian) one was sitting on my bed. So no harm done I guess. I came to find that chargers were among the most common of stolen goods in the backpacker circuit. I also had some wash cloths stolen by a maid, and a junkie broke into my hostel in Melbourne and burgled my entire floor (stealing my MacBook, that fucker. He is now in jail.) So the point I am trying to make here, and I do have a point despite my nostalgic rambling; is watch your stuff, but don’t be in a constant state of paranoia that your roommates are going to rob you. More likely than not, no one is going to touch your things. But don’t get too comfortable and leave out your valuables. Because you don’t know who might just waltz into your room and snatch up your things. And remember the golden rule of Karma- because if you decide to be a shitty backpacker and rob your peers, it WILL come back to you.
- Be Open
We all know this type of traveler. Who holes up in their bed, only to leave for a day trip that they’ve booked. They walk around plugged into their headphones, so no one can even try and talk to them. And sometimes, that’s been me. You need alone time, and that’s fine. But don’t spend your entire trip more focused on the sights than you are of the people around you. Especially the locals! How else are you going to get to know, really know the area if you don’t interact with the people who actually live there? Opening yourself up to other people will help you to create new experiences and friendships that you’ve never anticipated. When you sit down in the community kitchen, don’t sit by yourself. Plop down to a group and engage. You could end up having a conversation that changes your entire perception on life, or the direction that you’re going in. Or maybe you just have a laugh, maybe you decide to take a day trip together. But you’ve opened yourself up to a new experience that you wouldn’t have had if you continued alienating yourself. I know, people can be scary. They can be mean. But in this particular environment, most people are open and very keen to making friends. It gets easier the more you do it. Start out by chatting with your roommates and go from there! If you don’t’ vibe, that’s fine but keep going. Good vibes attract tribes. You don’t want to rob yourself of the hostel family experience, it is truly magical.
- Screw the Itinerary
You have a list of things that you NEED to accomplish when you travel to a new destination. Or at least an idea. Personally, I think it’s better just to have an idea rather than a detailed plan. This kind of ties in with the last point. You don’t only need to be open to new people, but new experiences as well. Now is the time to be spontaneous! And most importantly, adaptable. Sometimes things just don’t work out. There may be a major holiday that you weren’t aware of, and now all the hostels in your next destination are booked up. So you can either stay put, or go somewhere else. I mean your plans are shot anyway, so you might as well make the best of it! Talk to your fellow travelers. Perhaps they have some awesome plans and an extra car seat! Travel changes you as a person, so you need to be willing to let go of the plans you set forth for yourself before you took the journey. Because you’re not the same person that you were when you wrote that itinerary. So put it down, and embrace your new path. For instance: when I initially set out to Australia, I was planning on WWOOFing my way through the country. Instead I went to surf camp, then set off for 3 months backpacking up the East Coast, worked for a few months, took a few impromptu road trips, and then went to the West Coast for some extreme camping and road tripping. It all just kind of fell into place. I stepped foot onto one farm for a total of 6 hours. So my plans totally changed. Going with the flow gave me the most soul-awakening experience I never could have imagined.
- Get off the Beaten Path
Ah hah! These points are tying in so nicely. You’re open to new people, you’re not clinging to your itinerary. It sounds like you’re ready for a road trip! Now, public transportation is nice and a great way to emerge yourself in the community. But it also limits you from finding those hidden gems that aren’t on the tourist track. Yes, you want to see all of those iconic things that your destination is known for. But it’s the lesser known places that are truly special. Imagine having an untouched, “lonely” beach all to yourself. Feel like you’re on your own private island. Or go check out those preserved dinosaur footprints, way out in the desert. You can’t see these things if you’re relying on a tourist bus. There’s something so freeing about having your own transportation. Knowing that every moment is yours to do exactly as you wish. During my first road trip in Australia, I was with some pretty high maintenance girls. And in their defense, they weren’t too keen on camping. They just wanted to relax on the beach. So our road trip was extremely rushed and we didn’t get to see much between destinations which is a shame. We started in Melbourne, and made our way up to Sydney. This whole portion of Australia is pretty untouched, very underdeveloped. Not great for someone who is just visiting. But incredible for someone who’s already navigated the tourist circuit, in search for something authentic. After we ended up in Sydney, I’d run into another backpacker that I’d met while I was traveling up the East Coast. I didn’t know him well, but we’d sort of stayed in touch after Fraser Island. Anyway, we both had plans to travel to Melbourne. So right there on the beach we planned to take the trip together! He had a van and I had ambition. This was my first true experience of traveling off of the beaten path because we took our time exploring the less inhabited places, just enjoying life off of the grid.
I’m going to take this in a direction that you probably didn’t expect. Hygiene. There are just different rules when you’re living out of a backpack. I’ll never understand the girls who manage to look done up, when they’re living out of a car, or even staying in hostels. But then again I never realized how luxurious a hostel truly was until I lived out of a van for a few weeks. It depends on how much you want to rough it. But if you’re doing like we did, taking the cheapest route and camping for free (I recommend downloading WikiCamp. It’s a $9 download but so worth it for all of the resources you now have). You won’t have many opportunities to shower. Water is precious, so you won’t waste your drinking water to bathe or wash your face. Your clothes are going to stink, and be in a constant state or wrinkled. And as a girl, this is even more difficult. For myself especially, I had a huge duffle bag for my toiletries alone. But, lack of access to water definitely slimmed down which of these products I could actually use. So as a woman, these are the necessities for staying fresh on the road:
- dry shampoo
- 24 hr deodorant (duh)
- Microcellular water
- Wrinkle release spray
Give or take a few items, this is all that you really NEED. I have extremely thick, curly, unruly hair. At the beginning of my travels, I would tote around my straightening and curling iron. I kept my hair styled as often as I could. From then until now, I do not style my hair. I embrace the curls. I found which products work best to keep my hair tame without gunking it up (Argon oil is a Godsend). And as for makeup, I was the tannest I had ever been in my life. I embraced the clean(ish) face. After getting over the initial trauma of seeing myself in my natural state, I became much more comfortable in my own skin. And best of all, I stopped worrying about dolling myself up, and cluttering my backpack with toiletries.
Ohh yes the good stuff. Welp, lets start off with the importance of protection. You are surrounded by hoards of horny foreigners, and it’s easy to get swept up in the lust of it all. But please, PLEASE use a raincoat. I know they suck. But if you’re drunk enough for a one night stand then you won’t really care anyway. You don’t want to catch an STD abroad, and you sure don’t want no baby. So wrap it up, kids 😉 Alright now that talk is out of the way, let’s talk about privacy. There is none. The only privacy you will find is if you find a vacant beach, spot in the woods, or in the event that you’re in a hostel; the showers. The showers are the most ideal place, even if this makes others uncomfortable. I mean it’s clean(ish), you can easily clean it up after you’re done, and you have an enclosed space. Let’s say that you’re not so shy and you’d rather be in the comfort of your hostel bed. That’s fine. Just be courteous to your roommates, and bring a “creeper sheet.” This is a basic flat sheet. You can lift one from a vacant bunk or bring your own. These are only effective if you’ve managed the snag the bottom bunk. You can close off your space like a little fort. A fort for fucking! Oh, and by all means please be quiet. If there’s anyone else in the room, you can bet they are: texting, posting, or blogging about you. So try to give them as little material and reason for ridicule as possible. And lastly, but MOST IMPORTANTLY!!!!! Don’t sleep with your roommates. Don’t do it. It will make things so, so awkward for you. Don’t shit where you sleep, and don’t fuck your roommates. Just don’t.
As I’ve mentioned before, most backpackers are pretty skint (broke). The majority of us will take a break from our travels to work and replenish our funds, but when we set back out onto the road, we need to keep track of those precious dollars. Now is the time to be resourceful. Do you have a skill? Hair cutting, massaging, crafting. Think about what you could offer in return for something you might need. Consider your demographic. You’re traveling among a group of free living, most likely indulgent individuals. One of the most valuable items that I have found on the road: cigarettes. Tobacco or rolling paper. If you don’t smoke, even better. Keep a pack of tobacco and papers, and use them to fuel your trade on the road. You will be wanting for nothing if you have enough cigarettes, believe you me my friends.
- Free is For Me
This is something that will come as second nature once you’re a seasoned backpacker. Taking advantage of the free facilities. Wifi. Find out where there is free wifi. (Or do what I did, buy a cheap prepaid phone with a data package and use that as a hot-spot!) More likely than not, there will be a free pile in the kitchen, and perhaps one for clothes and unwanted items that fellow backpackers have shed. Before you shop, always check these spots out first. They might have what you need! Also, most hostels or surrounding bars/restaurants have free coupons and backpacker specials. Always take advantage of these! It sucks to go out to dinner, spending your precious money, to return to the hostel to find they had a free BBQ. Not only have you missed out on free food, but it’s a great way to socialize as well. Some places also offer free shuttles and transportation, perhaps even day trips. Do your research to see that can make your money stretch without sacrificing your experience!
- Make Friends with the Staff
Most of them are backpackers just like you. And even better, is that they know the area you’re just now visiting. They know where to go, what to see, and who to talk to (if you catch my drift). Just because they’re sitting behind a desk doesn’t mean that they have (much) authority over you, and being friendly can go a long way. For instance, I made friends with the bartender at a remote beach I’d been staying at while waiting to go on a tour. He introduced me to the staff, and for the rest of my trip I got free wifi and I didn’t pay for accommodation after the first night. Now, I’m not saying that you should just try to befriend people to use them. But I’m just saying, be cool and make friends with the right people, and you’ll get the best hook ups.