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How To Backpack

So, you’re about to take your first big backpacking trip. You decided where to go, saved up your money, and booked your ticket. It’s now only a few days before you leave and you realize that there’s a lot you haven’t considered. There’s more to backpacking (though not much) than just hopping on a plane. With that in mind, here are some battle-tested tips for before, during, and after your trip to help you get the most out of your adventure.

Because space is at a premium, it’s best to ask yourself “What do I absolutely need to bring?” Keep in mind the activities you’ll be doing. For example, if you’re hiking in Nepal, your best Friday night outfit will be a waste of space. Likewise, muddy hiking boots never got anyone into a posh London nightclub. Bring clothes that are versatile will allow for a combination of outfits. As a general rule, if you catch yourself saying “well, I just might want my…” chances are it’s best left at home. Also, you will most like have the opportunity to do laundry, allowing you to wear the same clothes over again.

Consider rolling your clothes instead of folding them. Any seasoned backpacker will be able to vouch for the space saving and wrinkle preventing benefits of this trick.

Pack knowing that you will be able to lighten your load as you go. Remember, toiletries can be replaced when you get home so you can throw them out before you get on the plane. If you really want to stay ahead of the game, pack clothes that you can toss out over the course of your trip. For example, get a few more miles out of that old pair of shorts and then throw them in the trash instead of the laundry.

On a more cautious note, be aware that bags to get lost on occasion. Though the chances of your own luggage getting lost are low, if you travel enough it will happen eventually. In the vast majority of cases, lost luggage finds its owner within a week, but sometimes they are lost for good. To that end, don’t pack anything that you absolutely cannot live without.

There are four basic items that no backpacker should be without, regardless of the destination. First, bring a good pair of sandals or flip-flops. Why? Two words: hostel showers. A small flashlight is a must in hostel dorm rooms. Nothing aggravates a fellow backpacker more than when someone turns on the lights in the middle of the night to search through their bags. And most important, don’t forget a roll of toilet paper (for obvious reasons) and a roll of duct tape. Just don’t grab the wrong roll in the middle of the night.

In Country
The first thought on the minds of most new backpackers is money, or more appropriately, the lack thereof. The key to getting the most out of every dollar is simple: DISCOUNTS. Invest in one of the various discount cards and bring it with you everywhere you go. Examples include ISIC, YHA, VIP, and Nomads and are accepted at thousands of tourist locations. Even if a place doesn’t openly advertise a discount, ask anyway. The front desk is another great place to find deals. Most hostels offer loads of vouchers for a free pint, cheap car rental, and local attractions. A dollar off here or 25% off there doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up over time.

It sounds obvious, but make an effort to meet new people wherever you go. Backpackers are extroverts by nature and are always looking to make new friends. It’s a great way to pick up insider tips, get ideas, learn what’s hot, and what places to avoid. Backpackers comprise a community with massive amounts of information being exchanged, and a conversation is all that is needed to tap into it. All practicalities aside, isn’t meeting new and different people part of the reason why you’re traveling in the first place?

When you arrive in a new city chances are you’ll be toting a laundry list of the places you want to see. That’s the point, after all. However, it is equally important to take the time to do nothing, as it is to see all the sights. Not only is rest essential to staying healthy on a long trip, taking an afternoon to relax at a local café or park is an excellent way to soak up some of the details of the place you’re in. Never underestimate the value of a few good hours of people watching.

Safety is a major concern for travelers, particularly women. Staying safe though, is really just a matter of using common sense. Follow the same advice in a foreign city as you would in your own hometown: know what areas to avoid, stay in groups (especially at night), don’t carry large amounts of cash, etc. There’s a subtle belief that one’s home is safer than the outside world, but in reality, just because a city is on a different continent, doesn’t automatically mean it’s dangerous. If you know how to stay safe in your nearest big city, then you’ll be fine.

After Returning Home
In the chaos of preparing for a journey and the actual trip itself, people often give little thought about what it will be like when they return home. Nevertheless, it’s an equally important part of the whole experience. Your attempts to share your enthusiasm and memories may well be met with indifference, even jealousy, from others. Try not to take it personally. Keep in mind that you’ve just done something that not everyone has the opportunity to do, maybe because of commitments to a job or family. Though maybe a little hurtful to you, it’s best to shrug it off. If you find that people don’t share the same excitement that you do, remember that purpose of the trip was for your own enjoyment, not to impress others.

A lot of travelers also find that shortly after returning home, they instantly want to get back out on the road. This sort of “withdrawal” is referred to as itchy feet and is very common. To make the transition back to the real world a bit smoother, consider writing about your experiences, whether in your own private journal, or maybe even for a local paper. You might also want to search out other like-minded travelers with whom you can share your experiences. Who knows, you might just meet your next travel buddy!

Mike Paglia can be reached at