Travel Tips

10 Tips On Backpacking Around the World

Locations in this article:  Bangkok, Thailand New York City, NY Sydney, Australia

The Lost Girls: Amanda Pressner, Jennifer Baggett, Holly CorbettPlanning for a long-term trip is no easy task, but fortunately we can glean valuable lessons from those who have been there before. Amanda Pressner, co-author of The Lost Girls: Three Friends. Four Continents. One Unconventional Detour Around the World, reveals the top 10 things she wished she knew before setting out on a year-long adventure around the globe.

When my best friends, Jennifer Baggett, Holly Corbett, and I all decided to quit our jobs in New York City to take a yearlong, 60,000-mile backpacking adventure around the globe, we gave ourselves plenty of time to plan—18 months to be exact.

Surely in that amount time, we could do enough Internet research, read enough guidebooks, and solicit enough advice from our fellow travelers to get thoroughly prepared for our round-the-world trip. Right?

Get more tips in our Women’s Travel section.

Of course, as it turned out, no amount of advance planning could prepare us for the down and dirty, “real life” on the road. The vast majority of the things we learned—how to get from point A to point B safely, tricks to avoid pissing off your travel partners and how not to negotiate with a Vietnamese cab driver—didn’t come from Web sites, Lonely Planet books or even travelers who’d come before us.

Hiking signThese 10 lessons were only learned after strapping on our backpacks, lacing up our hiking boots and actually hitting the trail.

1.  Don’t try to plan too far in advance

In an effort to be ultra-organized, the three of us tried to research all 14 of the countries that we visited (and several that we never got to) ahead of time. We bought guidebooks for each one and wrote our “must visit” lists for each destination. Not only was it completely overwhelming to strategize an itinerary that included so many places, but it was sapping the spontaneity and the joy of discovery. Not to mention, how the heck were we going to carry two dozen guidebooks in our backpacks and still have room for clothes?

We eventually booked our tickets to the first few destinations, and decided that we’d only research “ahead” one country at a time.

Looking for adventure? Try our Sports & Adventure Travel section.

Backpack for Backpacking2.  Lighten your load

When I first attempted to stuff my backpack with all of the items I thought I would need for a year away, it wouldn’t even come close to zipping—and I’d need a forklift to get the thing on my back. The reason? I was presumptuous enough to think I’d never be able to find random essentials—hair mousse, extra hiking socks, tampons—on the road.

The truth is, almost any item a traveler could need or want is sold overseas, and in places you might never expect: Snickers bars and Gatorade are hawked on the Inca Trail; the drugstores and cosmetics counters in Bangkok put our silly stateside versions to shame. Yes, it’s sad the world has become so commercialized, but it also means that you’ll never be without your favorite brand of deodorant.

Find a good pack and learn more about backpacking with: Backpack Reviews & the Best Backpacks for All Types of Travelers.

3.   It’s OK to vent

Three women on the beachWhen three women travel together 24 hours, seven days a week, you can almost guarantee that two people are going to disagree—leaving the third person to act as a counselor and mediator. We decided that as long as those gripe sessions never turned catty, it was perfectly fine (even healthy!) to express if when we felt annoyed, or upset or put out. In fact, airing out our feelings helped us to let go and move on to more constructive conversation.

4.  Know when to fold (especially in shady situations)

In Vietnam, we got into a nasty screaming match with a cab driver who had rigged his meter to charge several times what the normal fare should be. Since we’d already encountered other drivers who’d been less than honest with their meters, we refused to pay the additional fee. The trouble is we decided to pick this battle at 4 a.m. in the pitch-dark streets of Hanoi, with luggage and valuables in the trunk. The situation quickly escalated, the driver got outraged and it suddenly dawned on us that we were potentially putting ourselves in a dangerous situation over what amounted to a few U.S dollars. We paid the man, retrieved our stuff, and ran like hell back to our guesthouse.

Learn how to take An Around the World Voyage–Without a Plane.

Solo hiker - separating from the group5.   Split up every once in a while

It’s often a good idea for women to stick together when traveling in unfamiliar places (see the above comment), but when it’s safe to do so, don’t be afraid to go outside of your comfort zone and fly solo for a few days. Jen, Holly and I all traveled alone during specific points during our journey and we ended up meeting far more interesting locals and fellow travelers than when we’d been roaming in a pack. If you’re by yourself for the long haul, try starting your adventure at a hostel in a large city or other popular backpacker destination, where you’re sure to meet like-minded travelers.

Heading off by yourself? Don’t miss our Solo Travel section.

6.  Keep in touch (but not too much)

Internet cafes go globalWith handheld devices that let you Twitter from anywhere in the world, the proliferation of Internet cafes on every single street corner, and Skype-ing taking the hassle out of long distance calling, it’s almost too easy to stay connected. In fact, it actually takes a real effort to go off the grid for a few weeks, even when you’re a dozen times zones and thousands of miles away from home!

Learning to say “no” to timely email responses, status updates, blog entries, and computers in general was, without a doubt, the hardest lesson I learned, but I eventually did in the last few months of the trip. And, incidentally, they turned out to be some of my most rewarding ones I spent abroad.

7.  Don’t underestimate the power of a photograph

Few things light up a child’s face than seeing their own image beaming back at them. If you shoot a few snaps of children as you travel, take an extra few moments to show them the result. You’ll be rewarded with smiles and laughter.

Don’t miss Amanda’s series on Sydney, Australia:

8.  Never, ever leave the country without travel insurance

Fashionable womenOK, so we learned this lesson after we’d come home from our RTW trip and went on a two-week Lost Girls getaway trip to Panama, but it’s important enough to include here. Although we had a policy for our year around the world, none of us thought we needed travel insurance for such a short period of time. That was, until our taxi got into a head-on collision with a truck just outside of a small village with no cell phone service, Internet or most importantly, hospitals. We walked away from that very scary episode with whiplash, bruises and a broken computer … and the knowledge that something far worse could have happened. Had things been worse, travel insurance would have covered the cost of airlifting us to Panama City to get treated, and most of our medical bills. Without it …

Learn more in our Travel Insurance section.

9.  It’s almost too easy to go back to work

One of my greatest worries (besides some horrible Brokedown Palace mix-up that would land one of us in a foreign prison) was that we’d return to the U.S. and realize that we could never go back to the careers that we left. Oh man. If I’d only realized while still traveling just how quickly and easily I’d get pulled back in to the working world again after I returned, I might have stayed on the road for another year!

Read more from Amanda Pressner: Spring Break for Grown-Ups in Cancun & Riviera Maya.

10.  You will never regret leaving

There are plenty of things that have led to buyer’s remorse—a gorgeous pair boots that ended up being too painful to wear, a pricey gift for a ex—but I’ve never spent a second wishing I could get back the cash I devoted to my adventure. The plane tickets: $4,000. The backpack: $320. Going around the world with my best friends and living to tell the tale? Priceless.

By Amanda Pressner for Amanda Pressner is the co-author of The Lost Girls: Three Friends. Four Continents. One Unconventional Detour Around the World, on sale in bookstores near you. Proceeds from Amazon sales will go toward the Village Volunteer’s Butterfly Project, a program which raises scholarship to send young Kenyan women through college and nursing programs.

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