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Backpacking for beginners – 10 tips to prepare for your first trip

Buying a one-way ticket with nothing more than a backpack (and maybe a travel partner or two) for company is an experience like no other.

Adam and Ann on Hong Island
Adam and Ann on Hong Island

There’s a reason that people catch the travel bug, something that I never thought I’d contract, and it’s not because of the stress that comes with planning that first trip. You’ll be relieved to know that all of that planning fear gets better with time and the anxiety of getting through security all but disappears over time. 

If you’re a backpacking beginner, what you lack in experience can be made up in research and blog posts (like ours) can be a live saver when planning your first trip. I’m no travel hero, but I’ve definitely picked up a couple of tips (10 to be exact) here and there for preparing for your very first backpacking adventure.

1. Pick a country, continent or hemisphere

The first step to preparing for a backpacking trip is simpler than you might first think, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy.

You need to pick somewhere that you’d like to travel, whether than be a country, continent or hemisphere. Maybe you fancy somewhere totally but, but beginner-friendly like Thailand or Australia, maybe you want somewhere closer to home, maybe Italy or Spain. This first decision dictates where you’ll be heading for the duration for the trip so you can pack for the climate.

There’s no sense in packing for summer and winter in the same trip and your backpack will thank you for avoiding it (more on this later)!

2. Plan a route but take your time

Once you’ve got somewhere in mind that you’d like to visit, say South East Asia for argument’s sake, it’s time to come up with some sort of loose route.

The biggest mistake that new backpackers make, in my humble opinion, is that they burn through countries at a rate of knots, only getting the first impressions and missing out on the experience of spending good chunks of time in their favourite areas. 

When planning a route, you shouldn’t apply short deadlines or tight travel itineraries, but instead, plan a date-less list of countries and cities and figure the rest out later. 

3. Allow for spontaneity 

That brings us nicely on to point number 3 –  allow for spontaneity in your schedule. 

Backpacking for beginners is supposed to be enjoyable, but there’s nothing fun about leaving a location before you’ve had the full experience, so why should you? Spontaneity is the best part about travel and your schedule should make it the number one priority.

Our first backpacking trip started with a strict schedule and by the end of the fourth month, we were deciding on countries the day before flying. It’s the spontaneity that makes everything special. 

Adam in Shinjuku

4. Pack your bags light

Okay, I’ll admit that I thought I’d be better at this than I actually was and even with a 70L backpack and 13L daypack I was struggling to pack everything down.

In retrospect, a 70L backpack was way too large for 5 months of travel, but when you’ve never lived out of a backpack, it’s hard to know. When packing, space is at a premium and half of the things that you think are essentials more than likely aren’t. If I’d have known this on my first trip, I’d have gone for a 40L pack, not a 70L.

Don’t be like me, learn from my mistakes and please, please pack light. 

5. Don’t skimp on the insurance

If there’s one thing that travelling in a pandemic has taught us it’s that travel insurance is worth its weight in gold. 

It can be easy to skimp on the insurance and go with the cheapest option as a half-baked precaution, but my advice is the exact opposite. Do your research, look for the best deal, but don’t settle for subpar cover. 

Otherwise, you might be looking at a flight home from the other side of the globe at 4x the original cost with no help from your insurer – not a great way to end a holiday. 

This might just be the most important tip in our entire backpacking for beginners list!

6. Book your flights at low cost

Speaking of booking flights, that’s a hurdle that you’ll almost definitely have to leap over when backpacking and thankfully, it’s now easier than ever to book at low cost. 

I always check Skyscanner to get the best deals on flights by leaving the dates open to see which days in the month it’s the cheapest to travel. This can save you a serious chunk of change and as your schedule is spontaneous (see point 3.) you have this privilege. 

It’s also a good idea to avoid booking any more than your first 3 flights before heading out, this way you’ll have some structure, but the rest can be spontaneously planned off the cuff.

Travel signpost

7. Get your banking in order

Let’s talk banking and, more specifically, how many payment options you carry around with you at any one time.

Too many backpackers fly out of their country with just their standard debit card from a single bank account that isn’t tailored to travellers. This is a big no-no and means you’ve only got the one option for paying for food, accommodation and travel when if foreign countries. 

Personally, I have four different cards, a personal debit card, a business debit card, a credit card and a preloaded debit card (Revolut), all loaded with a little bit of cash that I can use to get me from A to B when it’s needed.

The Revolut card is the one I use the most when I’m away and means that the card charges abroad remain at a minimum – there’s no charge for purchasing or withdrawing at an ATM up to a certain amount. 

To cut a long and very borning financial story short, get yourself a preloaded debit card and a credit card for emergencies – the backpacker with the most ways to pay wins.

8. Not every day can be a travel day

It can be easy to be caught up in the mindset that you should be living the dream when you’re backpacking, but not every day can be straight out of a Lost LeBlanc Instagram post.

If you’re constantly moving, visiting and experiencing at 100%, it’s not going be long before you’ve completely burned yourself out. Take your time with your travels, maybe schedule off days once or twice and make a point of chilling out at the beach or reading a good book in a coffee shop.

This is especially true when you’re jet-lagged, take it easy the first couple of days, the cities, beaches and villages aren’t going anywhere and if you’ve only slept for 23 minutes on an overnight bus, neither should you. 

Backpacking for beginners isn’t easy and it’s not about 24-hour movement, take a day or two if you’re exhausted before continuing your itinerary.  

Ann with laptop on the beach

9. Take plenty of pictures

It sounds super cliche, but if you don’t already make a point of taking pictures, you should definitely consider it. 

After returning from our first backpacking trip, I quickly discovered that most tales that I wanted to tell lived solely in my memory and it made me wish that I took more picture. The dodgy bloke with a 14ft python around his neck in Vietnam, the giant lizards crawling the parks of Kuala Lumpur and just about every mindbending thing we seen in Bangkok only lives in memory. 

It’s not about getting the best pics for Instagram, but taking pictures of the stuff that you find interesting when you’re away – chances are that you’re going to want to share them when you’re back home. 

10. Look for the weird and wonderful

Nobody ever earned a great story by playing it safe and opting for the sensible and if you’re going to be backpacking the world, there’s no sense to living ultra-cautiously. 

Stay in those strange capsule hotels, rent your dream car, hike through the jungle, take a tuk-tuk out to lunch, try out the weird street food, get tattooed by a stranger in their kitchen. Okay, maybe not that last one, but the rest all make for great stories and even better experiences. 

Keep an eye out for the weird and wonderful and lean into it – it’s the only way to get the absolute most out of your trip!

Backpacking for beginners

There you have it, our top Backpacking for beginners tips to help your first trip go as smoothly as possible.

If you’ve got your own backpacking tip or trick that you think we’ve missed, let us know in the comments below and we’ll add it to the pile!

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