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Backpacking 101: Tips and tricks for the rookie adventurer

By Mike Paglia

You’re about to take your first big backpacking trip. You’ve decided where to go, saved up your money, and booked your ticket. There’s more to backpacking than just hopping on a plane and heading off to new horizons, though. With that in mind, here are some battle-tested tips for before, during, and after your trip that can help you to 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?”

What to pack may vary depending on where you’re going, but, regardless of destination, there are four basic items that every backpacker should bring. First, pack a good pair of sandals or flip-flops. Why? Two words: hostel showers. Second, 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 his or her bags. And, most important, don’t forget a roll of toilet paper (for obvious reasons) and a roll of duct tape—the backpacker’s all-purpose quick fix tool. Just don’t grab the wrong roll in the middle of the night.

Also, 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, your muddy hiking boots aren’t going to get you into a posh London nightclub. Bring versatile clothes that you can mix and match to create outfits that are suitable for a variety of occasions. As a general rule, if you catch yourself saying, “Well, I just might want my…,” chances are it’s best left at home.

When packing your clothes, consider rolling them instead of folding them. Seasoned backpackers can vouch for the space-saving and wrinkle-preventing benefits of this trick. Pack other items knowing that you’ll be able to lighten your load as you go. Remember, toiletries can be replaced when you get home, so you can throw them out along the way.

One cautionary note: Bags traveling in cargo holds get lost on occasion, sometimes for a day, sometimes for good. Don’t pack anything that you absolutely cannot live without in bags you check at the airport or train station. Bring your passport, tickets, medications, and other essential items with you in a carry-on bag.

Cutting costs

One key to cutting costs is taking advantage of the many discounts available to backpackers. To gain access to many of these deals, you’ll need to invest in a student or youth travel discount card or a hostel membership card. The most useful card to have is an International Student Identity Card (ISIC), which offers discounts on transportation, hostels, attractions, and other travel services worldwide. Other good cards include the Youth Hostel Association (YHA) member card and the VIP Backpackers card, both of which are available to travelers of any age. Even if a place doesn’t openly advertise a discount, ask anyway. A dollar saved here or 25 percent off there adds up over time.

Besides hunting for discounts, make an effort to meet new people wherever you go. Most backpackers are extroverts by nature and are always looking to make new friends. It’s a great way to pick up insider tips and learn what’s hot and what isn’t. 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 place, chances are you’ll be toting a list of things to see and do. It’s important to take time to just chill out and do nothing, though. Not only is rest essential to staying healthy on a long trip, taking an afternoon to relax at a local café or park is a good way to soak up the atmosphere. Never underestimate the value of a few good hours of people watching.


Safety is a major concern for travelers, but most problems can be avoided simply by 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); and don’t carry large amounts of cash. You can read specific safety precautions for your destination at the U.S. Department of State website.

Coming home

In the chaos of preparing for a journey and the actual trip itself, people often give little thought to what it will be like when they return home. Nevertheless, coming home is 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. If you find people don’t share the same excitement you do, remember the purpose of the trip was for personal growth and fulfillment, not to impress others.

Many travelers also find that shortly after returning home, they instantly want to get back out on the road. Veteran backpackers refer to this sort of longing as “itchy feet.” 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.

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