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The essential backpacking guide!!

Posted by on February 10, 2014

Just before we locked our front door for the last time. So naive about backpacking…..

When we, 2 people aged 44, decided to set of backpacking around the world we basically had no idea really what to take, how to plan and what we would need. Loads of mates who had been travelling, mainly when they were younger gave us advice, and fabulous it was, but sadly much of it out of date. Even in just a few short years travelling had changed so much. Plus they couldn’t help us out with working out how it would be for people who were that bit older. We read blogs but again we didn’t always get the info we needed.

So here now is my essential guide – for anyone planning to go traveling and backpacking – whatever ever age. If things have changed already since we set off, please please do post below and let us know.

Before you go and planning…..

Round the world air ticket:
Definitely having our round the world ticket before we went saved us money. But one of the biggest mistakes we made was not taking a bit more advice before booking. When you book you need to make sure that the option you go for allows you to make changes for free – some do but will charge anywhere between £50 and £100 per person for changes. A couple of those soon add up.

On ours we could change travel dates 3 times (and this we did) but not routes. This caused us some major problems as when we booked we knew what countries we wanted and so we just picked our arrival and destination cities at random really. For example, had we taken advice we would never have gone to Delhi first before Goa. Talk about being thrown in at the deep end. Had we taken advice we would have flown into Mumbai and taken a flight straight away to Goa. Then after our month in Goa we would have acclimatised to India a bit, headed to Mumbai, travelled up through India, finishing in Delhi which is arguably the most in-your-face and overwhelming of the Indian places we visited. Our Indian experience would have been quite different. We also had issues in Australia. Our ticket was to fly into Melbourne, out of Sydney. But we couldn’t make that work with our people we were staying with. We ended up having to take loads of internal flights at a big cost. Just being able to change routes would have really helped. Mind you, we learned some lessons about booking internal flights in Oz, so see below.

Back up scans of your documents:
I put scans of all our docs and photos / scans and copies of other useful documents we would need in my Dropbox and then used the Dropbox app on the iPad so its safer. In there I had passport, driving licenses, insurance documents, any visa stuff etc. You have to have a wifi connection to download but as we went on I learned that if I thought we would need something on the go (such as info when getting through customs etc) I would open when on wifi and either put them into iBooks (if PDFs) or open in Dropbox and then take screen shots. I also left my laptop with a mate who could access my Dropbox. She was wonderful as she then saved some docs from my laptop into Dropbox when we needed them.

It will not be a surprise that the iPad is on the essentials list below.

Make sure you have good medical insurance. You need to make sure that it covers you for backpacking not just a holiday, and check out things like dental cover as some don’t cover you for that.

Essential list of things to take

OK – so here’s the list of things to take with you. Not what you might imagine. We didn’t go very far off the beaten track though so bear that in mind. So in no particular order, you need to get:

General stuff you have to take with…..

Your backpack:
A really good backpack or case is a must. Your backpack is your entire world when you are travelling. Don’t skimp on this cost. Make sure you try it on before buying and you get one that fits you. I struggled because mine was a bit too big. Get one where you can hide your straps or it will be thrown around by them by baggage handlers and may not last as long. Make sure it comes with a waterproof cover.

Ours had a flap which opened about 2/3rds of the length of the bag not just at the top and this made life quite a bit easier when trying to find things in the dark or in small spaces in hostels. After a while I found it really helped to put things I needed regular access to in bags I could easily get to. So I kept my swimming gear in a bag, my knickers & bras in another bag, a bag for my socks.

Make sure you get a backpack with a detachable day bag. We laughed at first at people who would carry theirs in 2 bits with the day pack on their front. But trust me, its much easier to carry when they weight is a bit more spread about.

I actually did decide, though, about half way round our trip that I wished I had just had a really good suitcase with 4 directional wheels. There weren’t actually that many times when we had to walk down paths or terrain that couldn’t have coped with them. Mind you, often hostel rooms would up be many flights of stairs and of course that was easier with a backpack. When we go next time I am going to really have to think about this one….

Universal sink and bath plug:
Loads of sinks don’t have plugs. Don’t take one at your peril!

Battery reading Lamps:
Some hostels will have individual lamps or lights but many wont. You may have to get into your room in the dark. We bought book lamps which could be used with books, kindles and used just on their own and also could be attached to bed frames etc. In fact we like them so much we still use them.

Padlocks & a chain or bike lock:
Take at least 2 padlocks – pref with number locks not keys. Maybe small and large. We often needed padlocks for hostel lockers. Also when we traveled on trains you will probably need to padlock and chain your luggage. We also had to padlock and chain ours in some hostels where there weren’t lockers. And even where there were often we would lock away our valuables but had to leave our rucksacks just under our beds. So padlocks were good for that. We stopped locking our rucksacks when going on planes due to the fact that we were told if your luggage gets lost it is harder for it to be found. Another option is to get plastic tags and use those.

Ear plugs:
Totally essential. Take loads. You will get used to them as you have to wear them every night and on every train or coach so stock up well.

Pillows of sorts:
You’ll end up doing loads of coach and train travelling. We had some camping self inflating pillows which rolled up but we didn’t really use much but I had a blow up neck pillow which was invaluable and I used when travelling on coaches. You can also get amazingly soft foam filled ones. I would also take a pillow case. In my experience pillow cases  in hostels weren’t always changed for each person.

Sleeping liners:
We took a silk one each which we bought really cheap on Ebay. They  were essential as you couldn’t always be sure that sheets were cleaned. Often the bottom sheet in hostels would be changed but the bed covering would be a blanket which probably never got washed. I also bought a cotton anti bedbug/mossie sleeping bag too. This was amazing for me as although it was hotter to sleep in I was so nervous about bedbugs that it gave me a sense of security – even if sometimes I didn’t dare even put my hands outside of the bag at night! Pat didn’t bother and didn’t seem to get bitten. But then he is lucky and doesn’t generally get bitten too much. And when he does he doesn’t react much, unlike me who reacts really badly. I think I paid about £25 from mine online from a specialist backpacking website before we went.

Light travel kettle, mug, spook, plastic plate, knife, forks, bowl:
You never know when you will need these things and they were essential for us. We obviously had to make sure we didn’t carry the knife in our hand luggage at any time. I bought the travel kettle in Thailand but it was hard to find so maybe best to buy in advance, though having an international socket on it was great. I also took lots of my drink of choice – decaf coffee which was impossible or hard to get in Asia.

Water stuff:
Water was no problem at all. You could get cheap bottled water everywhere (except Australia where it was prohibitively expensive!!) We took water cleaning tablets and stuff and never used any of it!

Zip seal plastic bags:
Sounds strange but essential. You always need to wrap things up in bags and zip seal ones are great to keep any wet in, carry food, anything that might leak. (You often end up having to put wet things in your backpack). Take small and medium sized ones and you cant take too many!

Travel towels:
We both had travel towels. They aren’t the nicest to use but you definitely need to take one that is big enough for using after a shower. They are really light to carry and dry really quickly. In most places we got towels at the hostels; mostly you had to pay extra for the towels but sometimes they charged so much money we didn’t get them. But hostel towels were ace especially on the days you leave so you didn’t have to carry a wet towel. Often you have to pay a deposit for your towel and also your key.

I also took a hair turban with me. Totally brilliant as it was so small and quick drying. The only mistake I made was buying a really cheap one which often meant water dripped on me. But that made it quicker to dry!

Small scissors & medicines:
You are always needing scissors. Also take tweezers and some basic first aid stuff and some broad-spectrum antibiotics. We took malaria pills – Doxyclycine. We found them fine, they didn’t make us at all sick. And in fact as they are also an antibiotic and I think they helped to deal with my reaction to any mossie bites I had. We also took some temporary dental filling stuff. We never used it but it was comforting to know it was there if a filling fell out or we cracked a tooth.

Don’t worry too much about what clothes you take. You can get and throw away as you travel! Just make sure you take at least 1 good fleece thought and some socks! I also took gloves and a hat and these were invaluable in cold places.  You’ll just end up wearing the same clothes over and over again anyway. Mostly we were in warm places but when we got to Australia and New Zealand it was cold so we just bought some warm clothes, coats and boots there (mainly for just a few dollars from 2nd hand or as they call them Opp Shops) and then we either just threw them away or we donated back to an Opp Shop before we left.

We didn’t even really have travel wash with us. One bloke we met wore his underwear in the shower and washed them that way but often I think in dorms it would be hard to find places to dry lots of clothes. We just used local laundry facilities as they were so cheap and mostly done in just one day.

Duct tape & string:
Take some. You never know when you’ll need it and we found it hard to get. At one point I ended up trying to use dental floss instead of string. Funnily enough, it didn’t work!

Equipment you have to take…..

Kindle or other e-reader:
Top 3 item! Don’t even think about taking books which are just too heavy to carry. You can download them as you travel. If you use a tablet or kindle fire they will also act as a light but remember if you read at night that lit devices need more charging and effect your melatonin which effects your sleep. So if you have trouble sleeping you might want a reader which doesn’t have a light.

You need to think about charging your device especially at night. You may not always be able to get your device charged when and where you need it and the kindle charge lasts for about a month.

Notebook Laptop / iPad / Tablet:
Totally essential. Some hostels and other places will have a few computers to use but often its hard to get on or they don’t work. We managed everything on line – our money (see below) and all transport and accommodation bookings. Facebook and Skype were also our saviour sand there is no doubt that our trip would have been totally different without them. (We even used Skype for when we had to call landlines back home. I loaded up £10 which I never used up. Invaluable especially as I had to call about a credit card which was stopped for no reason and also PayPal who decided to de-authorise my account when I used it from Turkey, let alone calling parents who don’t have mobiles connected to wifi.

We took a tablet rather than a laptop as it is so much lighter and easier to carry.

Headphones / iPod:
Headphones and some music essential. Also this was how we listened to radio when we had a wifi connection. You may also need them for Skype on communal computers, on coaches etc.

Make sure you have the right chargers though you can buy them in most places. Charging stuff can be a real issue. Some hostels will give you your own plugs, other places will not and you have to plug in in communal places or on the opposite side of the dorm to where your bed is and so you have to make decisions about whether you are happy to leave your stuff charging or you need to charge it near you. Often there will be far more demand for charging than plug sockets. An extension lead can really help.

Extension lead & Sockets with right plugs:
From what I could work out, most of the world has the same plug (a small flat 2 prong thing). Ex British places tend to have 3 pin but often 2 pins will also work. In Thailand I bought a small extension lead with 3 sockets. It was totally invaluable. One of our best buys. Buy one as soon as you get to your first destination.

Things we we didn’t take or couldn’t buy abroad but really needed…..

Most things we could get – even in places like Vietnam. For example I had a sensitive tooth. I set out to find some sensitive toothpaste and the first small shop we went to sold Sensodyne! But there were a few things we couldn’t get:

  • Any ‘Simple‘ products or products for sensitive skin.
  • You cannot get tampons in India so take enough with you.
  • Hair dye for European hair was hard in Asia. I took some with me but wished I had taken more. I did think about getting some delivered by post but couldn’t justify the expense. When we got to Oz / USA we did find hair dye which I could use but nothing as bright as I would have liked! It was also a challenge to dye my hair in hostels. So I think dyeing hair is probably a step too far when travelling…
  • Talking of hair, I didn’t take a dryer or straighteners, but to be honest when we go travelling again I will take some travel straighteners. I found it very hard feeling unglam and like I looked a mess. Some travel straighteners would have been really small and light to carry and would have meant that on the days I wanted to look nice I could have made my hair look ok. Mostly it was just tied up with a bunchie I basically kept on my wrist for the whole trip so it was always at hand when not in my hair, but at times it would have been nice. I didn’t see travel straighteners anywhere to buy in Asia.
  • Razor heads which have the shave gel on the head are the best thing when traveling and living in hostels as if shaving is your thing in hot climates you’ll probably need to shave legs and arm-pits every day so its so easy in communal showers etc. But I couldn’t find them at all in Asia. So take what you need with.

Managing different aspects of traveling:

Managing mosquitos…..

I needed a mossie net throughout Asia (even if you take anti malarials they don’t always work, you still need to do all you can not to be bitten).  But I found that most places didn’t have them – I was continually angered about the fact that people are so used to living with mossies that they don’t think they are a problem. So we took 2 nets – a single one which I could put up when I had a bottom bunk (I always emailed ahead and asked for a bottom bunk if I could) and a double one for when me and Pat had a big bed. I would buy your net before you set off as we didn’t actually see that many abroad.

But most places didn’t have a way to hang up the net. So using string and tape I would find inegnuis ways to tie up – to picture frames, fans on walls, to curtain rails or even on doors. Often our net would be very wonky and would have to be taken up and down so we could get around our room. Then towards the end I found some 3M repositional hooks which promised no marking and so I bought as many as I could. They were ace and meant I could put up a net anywhere. We also had to buy some string. That was harder than you might imagine. When we go traveling again I will take string with us and take loads of these hooks.

We also bought electric mossie plugs. They were hard to find though so I would buy one as soon as you see them. The electric ones are more easily carried than the liquid based ones and don’t smell (they emit a high pitch sound). I also used anti mossie apps on my phone. I don’t know if they worked as outside we also burned mossie coils but what I do know is I didn’t get bitten when outside with the mossie app on.

Generally, I would take just a little tube of repellant bought here for when you first get somewhere and then rely on the local stuff which tends to be far cheaper and better. In India for example they have stuff called Odomos – about 70p for a tube or bottle and it really does the trick. And it doesn’t have deet in it!

Managing photos…..

We took over 4000 photos and I used Flickr as the way to store our pics as we only took the iPhone (with no additional camera which was just something else we had to charge). You can save as public or private (I saved all my family photos as private, the rest public so we could share on this blog and with people back home). Mind you, sorting them out when we got back was a bit of a mare….

You also need to take a few passport photos with you as you may need them for visas and the like. We took about 4 or 6 each. Mind you, some visas had to have them in specific sizes which was a total pain and so we had to get them re-done as we traveled.

Managing money…..

You do need to think about how you will manage your money. With pretty much all banks charging each time you take money from a machine or make a payment it can become very expensive when you’re aboard for a long time. After much consideration we got some spare credit cards which meant we could always get home at a moments notice but didn’t use. We also put our money in an account online where I could transfer to my current account with just a few days notice. Just remember to take your dongle or card reader that you use with online banking to set up new payees, make payments etc.

Then day to day we managed using PayPal, a credit card for online booking and a Travelex Global Cash Passport card which we had to sort before we set off but we found to be the cheapest way to get cash (in Asia everything was by cash).

Managing accommodation…..

We found that most places now book online and the just turning up and finding space at any time of day or night or in popular places that met my requirements (wifi, reasonably clean, place to put up a mossie net etc) was mostly impossible. On the 2 times we didn’t book in advance we were in trouble. So we mainly used, and In the USA and Canada we used Airbnb which was amazing. We tried to sort couchsurfing but found that if you want to do this in popular cities and want a fairly central place to stay you have to be really organised and email a fair way in advance.

When booking accommodation, the reviews were often contrary but still website reviews are far better than the guidebooks. (We heard from people who said that the inspections done by the main guides are really cursory and some guides we were told are even written from a distance.) Often people gave us suggestions and as we made new Facebook friends who were also traveling I would ask and we would get suggestions. In Asia, remember that not all private rooms have windows so if having some natural light in the mornings is important to you, check this out when booking.

But the one thing I always steered clear of was anywhere where people had said Bed Bugs. If you get bedbugs its really hard to get rid of them so I would watch that.

Book 2 nights:
We tended to stay places for at least a week, often longer. So our routine was to book 2 nights in a new place on-line in advance. This meant our first day was then spent either arranging to stay longer if we liked the place we had booked or often spent traipsing up and down and round and round finding somewhere else to live. Having 2 nights meant we could do that without our stuff on our backs. The few times we did that with bags it was terrible.

Booking confirmations: 
I learned the hard way not to delete emails with booking conformations until after we had left somewhere and the full bill paid up as occasionally there was an issue at checkout.

Using hostel bathrooms:
In most hostels the bathrooms aren’t in the bedrooms. So you need to have flip-flops to wear to walk around. (In much of the world, bathroom and toilet floors are wet most of the time. Many showers were also wet rooms). You also need a really easy way to take your toiletries into both the bathroom and the shower – in something that you can hang up and it doesn’t matter if it gets wet. I actually just used a plastic bag.

Getting around…..

Booking travel in advance:
Deciding whether or not to book flights or train tickets in advance was often a bit of a challenge. Its always the case that when you get somewhere you can find loads of ways to travel about and there are millions of people trying to sell you bus or coach tours or the like. But sometimes you do have to book in advance – maybe for visa purposes to show onward travel, or just for availability. In both Thailand and Vietnam we were not able to do the train trips we wanted because we did not book in advance and so the trains were all booked up. In Turkey we ended unable to get a place on a coach and only just got the last beds in the only hostel in the place we were stranded. In some countries though you cannot book online and you have to be in the country to get tickets. Some places it is easier than others; for example in India it is appallingly hard to book a train ticket so money spent on a travel agent to do it for you is money well spent.

Booking flights: 
I used Skyscanner to book most of our flights as they were as cheap on there as even own websites (sometimes cheaper) and I got used to using it. I also downloaded all the apps to do check-in straight from my phone.

But we got caught out a fair bit when booking cheap flights which we took a lot of. When booking, think about how you get to the airport and times. Time spent in airports is very expensive generally wherever you are. Getting to them – especially in countries like Australia and NZ is horrendously expensive and generally hotels or hostels near an airport are too expensive. So if a cheap flight meant we had to find an additional nights accommodation or travel to and from more than once it actually often ended up more expensive than buying the more expensive flights with better flight times. So just think about that. We did sleep in a few airports but this was no doubt easier with 2 of us. (We just sat on our stuff to keep it safe). I used to check in advance if you can as many airports don’t let you. There’s a website which is quite good.

Taxis and pick up from airports:
Some places will do cheap, or free airport pick up. I went with these if we could. Sometimes we paid more than the local going rate but it just took all the pressure off to get a pick up direct to the hostel. As one friend told us the first point you arrive is when you are at your most vulnerable. If you can afford it, that’s when you should get your travel to your first accommodation booked before hand.

We did everything online and on the iPad or phone, the only time we printed anything was in India where you have to have a printed ticket to get into an airport. Other than that all our visa stuff, tickets were online. Just remember to make sure you have enough battery on your iPad or phone for check-in or to show it to customs after a long flight or long journey to the airport.

So this was my routine for when going to a new place. Once I’d booked the accommodation when we were sure to have a wifi connection (not always free at airports) I would do all the research on travel to the hostel. I would then take screen shots of everything on my phone so that we could get it all without wifi and on the go (press the main button and your on/off button at the same time). Everything would include timetables and maps for trains and buses if we were using them, details of where to get buses/trains etc and loads of maps, the hostel webpage if they have them and their instructions including if sent on email. I’d go into the maps apps and take a whole variety of pictures of map of transport routes, where the hostel was etc. I’d take loads of different sizes – some which were just main roads and then loads (especially near the hostel or the walk from a station / bus stop to the hostel) where you could see all the little side roads and their names. We came a cropper quite a few times trying to find somewhere when we were just 5 or so minutes away and couldn’t find our way round local side streets. Often hostel directions were crap. Then I would just delete them when we moved on. But they were often really useful whilst we were there.

So there you have it. Our essentials guide. Hope its useful. And please if you have other thoughts, or things have changed, or just not relevant for the part of the world you went to please let us know…..

Happy travelling.

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