Over the last 14 months, I have backpacked through Eastern Europe, South America and Asia. I read tons of travel blogs and consulted former travelers for suggestions on what and how to pack. Based on personal experience, here are my Top 10 Travel Tips to read before Backpacking
Buy a Compact Backpack
I use an Osprey 46L Women’s Kyte Backpack and absolutely dig it. An employee at REI recommended it to me based on my physical size and stature. I had it fitted in-store. At 46 liters, it’s smaller than most long-term backpacking packs, but the compact size has key advantages: it’s carry-on-sized and it prevents you from over-packing which will allow you to actually lift and carry your pack more easily. You wouldn’t believe how many female travelers I met who could barely carry their own backpacks due to weight. You don’t want to be that person who is holding everyone because you are going at a sloth’s pace.
Leave Your Books at Home
Leave your Lonely Planet and all of your other paperbacks and hardbacks at home. Bring a kindle instead. Books are heavy and will weigh you down. If you need to bring a book, bring a paperback you are okay with tossing or swapping out at a hostel. Most hostels have a collection of travel guides and books available for guest use. You can get maps, tour information and restaurant recommendations from reception. Copy-paste any other city information from blogs and websites onto your smartphone notepad and download free city guides from the App store.
Buy Toiletries as You Go
Ditch all of your bigger, economy-sized bottles of shampoo, conditioner, body wash, lotions and toners. Instead, buy as you go. This will help you save space and avoid carrying unnecessary weight. Most every place you visit will have a drugstore or market that sell sachets, single-use and travel-sized liquids and creams. Many hostels also have complimentary shampoo and bodywash available for guests.
That said, women love products and need select toiletries to feel complete. Here are some light and compact options I have used and can recommend:
Solid Bar Shampoo by Lush – This solid shampoo is light and lathers well. I have personally used the lavender, but there are many varieties available based on hair-type and scent preference. Lush also sells metal cases for bar keeping and storage. Because this shampoo is solid, there is no chance of it leaking in your backpack – another plus.
Dr Bronners Castille Soap – This is a no-nonsense, highly concentrated liquid soap. It’s great when used as a bodywash, shaving cream alternative and even as a detergent to wash your clothes. I haven’t used it on my hair, but I bet it would serve fine as a shampoo. I did buy a couple bottles before leaving on my trip and consider this a travel essential.
Face Washing Powder Pods – I am a huge fan of Korean and Japanese beauty products. I found these in a drugstore in Japan but you can find them online. They are tiny, single-use pods filled with a powder that lathers into a foamy face wash when put in contact with water. They are especially convenient for plane rides, airport layovers, multi-day treks or when you need something quick and easy without having to unpack your entire bag. And because they are airtight, individually-packaged powders- no leaks!
Powder Dry Shampoo – this is a must-have travel item for me. I am a huge fan of Oscar Blandi Pronto Dry Shampoo but have used Bumble and Bumble’s Pret Powder and stand by it as well. It’s a powder, not a spray, so it’s compact, leak-free and easy for air travel. I used this regularly when backpacking, especially during multi-day, shower-free adventures like the Inca Trail Trek in Peru and boating down the Amazon in Rurrenabaque, Boliva.
Invest in Quality Shoes & Break Them in Before You Go
Finding comfortable shoes is difficult. It’s pretty hard to find a winning pair at home and it’s exponentially more challenging to find on the road. If you’re in Asia and wear a Women’s 7.5/8 (EU 38/39) or bigger – tough luck. Bigger sizes simply don’t exist.
I am a hiking enthusiast and frequently go on multi-day treks when traveling. I read so many blogs claiming hiking boots as an absolute must for treks like the Inca Trail and Colca Canyon in Peru, Kalaw to Inle Lake in Myanmar, Zhangjiajie in China, etc. And yes, if you have a pair of hiking boots that you love and are comfortable, bring them. But don’t buy a brand new pair of boots for a multi-day trek without breaking them in first. If this is the case, just bring your broken-in sneakers/running shoes instead. It beats blisters and pain. The first time you wear new shoes should not be on your long-term, backing-around-the-world trip. I walked and hiked exclusively in sneakers for the last 14 months and everything was fine.
You can throw away and buy clothes cheaply and easily while on the road. Shoes are not as easy, so be wise about this. Obviously you move and walk a lot when you travel.
Only Bring the Medications You Absolutely Need
Only bring the medications you absolutely need. If you take prescription medications, certainly bring those, but there is no need bring a whole pharmacy with you. I met dozens of travelers who had large first aid kits, luckily most of which were never used. Here’s the thing: you will find pharmacies pretty much everywhere you go. The Western concepts of “over-the-counter” and “prescription” medication access largely don’t apply to the rest of the world, especially in developing nations in Latin America, East Asia, Eastern Europe, etc. Personally, I carried a modest amount of Advil/ibuprofin, Benadryl, Pepto-Bismall pills, Advil Cold & Sinus and Allegra (seasonal allergy meds) with me. I also had a few extra bandaids and cortisone/anti-itch cream for bug bites. I brought a few other things, but they were unnecessary and I ditched them along the way to make more space.
It’s a good idea to write down the generic or medical name of medications you do not regularly need but may have used in the past. For example, if you have suffered from a Urinary Tract Infection and previously took antibiotics like Cipro or Macrobid, write down their medical names – Ciprofloxacin and Nitrofurantoin. This makes it easy for any pharmacist abroad to find the exact or equivalent medication you may need.
Also, if you have a family doctor or friend in the medical profession back at home, have their contact info handy when you’re abroad. I suffered an allergic reaction in Myanmar which left me covered in terrible welts and hives. I contacted my doctor friend back in the States, sent him pictures and detailed descriptions of symptoms. I was told I needed steroids, specifically a Medrol Dose Pack. The Medrol Dose Pack is a brand medication in the United States that is not available for purchase in Mandalay, Myanmar. I looked up it’s technical, medical name (methylprednisolone 4mg) and successfully purchased it at a pharmacy without a prescription.
Lastly, if you are in an absolute medical emergency and need to go to a local doctor or hospital, you have hopefully purchased traveler’s medical insurance to cover you abroad. Many travelers, including myself, use World Nomads for traveler’s insurance. No matter what, it’s important.
Set up Cloud Backup Storage
Do this before you leave on your trip. Cloud Storage is key to keeping your treasured photos and any other important information safe. You wouldn’t believe how many travelers I met who lost their iPhone, dropped their camera or were a victim of theft. I had a camera stolen from me in Nicaragua back in 2010 and recently had an iPhone 6 taken from me in Myanmar.
Photographs are the most valuable travel mementos. Before you go, set up cloud storage. iCloud, Dropbox, Amazon Drive, Google Drive, Box- I have used all of these at one point or another and they all do the job. Upload your photos and any other important information to the cloud regularly when traveling.
Invest in Foldable, Compact and Light-Weight Gear
My favorite, most-used travel items are of the light, foldable/collapsable variety. This included my Uniqlo Down Jacket, VenturePal Day BackPack, Eagle Creek Packing Cubes and REI Lite Travel Towel. Although I didn’t bring a pair of foldable ballet flats, I think I will buy a cheap pair for next time. Sometimes it’s nice to trade your Tevas for gold flats for a fancy night out on the town.
Think Twice Before Buying Expensive Anti-Theft Protection Gear
Many travel bloggers swear by portable safes and anti-theft bags and purses. I personally own and have traveled with a Pacsafe 55L Backpack and Bag Protector and a Pacsafe City Safe Anti-Theft Bag. I purchased both products after reading a dozen blog posts from longterm backpackers claiming these were absolutely essential. Sure, it’s nice to have extra protection measures, but they are also expensive and take up precious space.
I used the anti-theft bag throughout my trip and would maybe recommend it to others, but the Pacsafe Backpack and Bag Protector was completely unnecessary. Take into consideration what valuables you have and where you will be staying. All the hostels I stayed at had personal lockers, if not large enough for my entire backpack, sufficient in size to store my passport, laptops, phone, camera and wallet. If you’re worried, most sites like HostelWorld, HostelBookers, Booking.com, etc, list whether a property has lockers available for personal storage. I personally feel like this eliminates the need to buy pricey anti-theft gear, but the decision is ultimately yours. Follow your gut and access how you travel.
For me, padlocks are the only real must-have. I recommend having several with you – ideally one larger Masterlock and two smaller travel locks for your luggage. I also occasionally used a money-belt and would recommend that.
Bring a Few Hooks
Nobody really talks about this on other blogs. Half-way through my trip, I picked up a few kitchen hooks at a dollar-store in Japan and now am a big believer that every longterm backpacker should travel with hooks. They are convenient for hanging anything in a hostel dorm-room, an AirBnB room, a shared bathroom… You can hang your wet towel, clothes, bags – anything! Just buy something cheap like this or this or this.
In shared hostel bathrooms, I used one of my handy hooks to hang a mesh bag carrying my shampoo, conditioner, bodywash and razor on the shower’s door handle, towel rack or shower head. I bought my mesh bag at a dollar-store but something like this or this would work well too. I could easily carry all of my bath products to the shower, hang the mesh bag in the shower, and then hang the mesh bag full of product to dry in the room on the bed post. It’s easy to carry, your belongings stay clean and don’t touch the floor. Hooks are the ultimate travel hack.
Prepare Your Phone, Especially for Offline Use
Before you depart and while you have sound wifi access, download apps with offline maps, guides, language help and music. Take pictures of your passport and travel insurance and bring a few hard copies, but also have the original files saved on your smartphone. Take screenshots of hotel and hostel confirmations and any other address and store them on your mobile device. This will save you when you don’t have wifi access.
I always have offline music playlists saved onto my Spotify mobile app. I download offline maps on maps.me before I arrive to my next travel destination. Before I left for Latin America, I downloaded the offline language translator SpanishDict. Before I went to China, I downloaded the VPN Express app onto my phone so I could access Google, Gmail, Facebook and Instagram once I had signal. I have offline podcasts and Audible books saved for long plane, bus and train rides.
There are times your internet connection will be too weak to download apps all together. It’s better to download any app ahead of time while your connection is secure and stable. Travelers frequently use apps like Line and Whats App to communicate when traveling. The Skype app is convenient, and definitely activate the “Find My iPhone” App before you go.