Tips for Planning the Perfect Backpacking Trip
Plan a (rough) itinerary
Any good backpacking trip starts with a rough idea of where you want to go. The keyword for us here is 'rough'. Even the most bashful backpackers are bound to cross paths with others who are on a similar journey. You may meet in a hostel, a bar, a laundromat, or a ruin. From our experience, a new backpacking pal can very quickly influence the direction of your next destination. Stop us if you have heard something along these lines before: "are you traveling alone, too? Let's go to ____ together! I know a great place to stay there." Sure, the offer is almost never that direct, but linking up with a new friend is part of what makes backpacking special.
So, what does a rough backpacking itinerary look like? Start with the region you will be traveling to. Not all backpacking trips are created equal and a backpacking trip to Europe is not the same as one to Peru, or Southeast Asia. Pick your general locations carefully based on the things you would like to see, and the rough timeline you want to see them in (more on that below).
If you are starting with the idea that you just want to get out there and travel with nothing but a backpack, you have a lot of great places to choose from. A European backpacking trip offers a number of countries within close proximity. Who hasn't dreamed of seeing Paris, London, and Amsterdam on foot and on a budget? Then there's Southeast Asia, with several countries to choose from that are easy enough to travel between. Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand are excellent choices for the variety of experiences to be had.
We are not here to choose your destination for you, but make sure to research the things you want to do and see. Then, map them with a tool like Google Maps (you can set a custom collection of destinations in a list) and sketch out a rough path to seeing them all. When you have done that, decide on how long your journey will take.
You know where you want to go and what you want to see. Now comes the tricky part: deciding how long to stay at each spot. This is where the 'rough' itinerary comes into play. Keep in mind that all of this depends on your interests, but you might decide that Marseille is worthy of two days, but Monaco can be seen within a single day. Or a half-day.
Keep some time constraints on your backpacking journey, but leave room for spontaneity and maneuvering. You might meet a pal who will take you off track for a few days, and that's great! Planning ahead will make it easier for you to reroute to your next stop from the new destination or an extended stay where you found your friend. You will also find that transportation and lodging hiccups might throw the best laid plans into disarray. A trail delay, missed connection, or a lost hostel reservation could force you to recalibrate. Luckily, you will have taken our advice and planned a rough timeline for how long you will be in each location. No vacancy in Phnom Penh? An overnight bus to Ho Chi Minh City it is!
Pack the right stuff
We put together a general backpacking checklist at the end of this blog post, but we still encourage you to think about what packing the right stuff means. The time of year, the location, and the length of your journey will determine the exact contents of your backpack. We all pack differently. Some of us are inclined to prepare for everything (yup, I might need this bowtie) or underpack completely (I'll just wash the same two pairs of socks).
If you are backpacking in cooler spring or autumn months, you will need to consider layering with sweatshirts and a raincoat. If you are adventuring in the summer or winter, the clothing and accessories you bring will require you to prepare for more severe conditions. Maybe don't pack a pair of shorts for a backpacking trip to Russia in November. Or black jeans to explore the Mayan ruins in the Yucatan Peninsula. Ultimately, use your best judgement and lean towards underpacking. Better to buy what you need when you get there than to bring your best items only to have to abandon them or not use them at all.
A perfect backpacking trip is a safe trip
We need to have the safety talk before we get into the basic backpacking checklist. Above all else, please remember that your safety should be your number one priority when traveling the world with nothing but sneakers and a backpack. Everyone has a different degree of comfort when it comes to new adventures and new people. If you get an inkling that something isn't right for you, then you are better off sticking to your plans instead of entering a potentially dangerous situation.
For this reason, be sure to keep a buddy or family member back home in the know of your detailed location and who you are with. We expect that you will be updating Instagram with far greater frequency than you did before you left (how else will your friends know how juicy that one mangosteen in Bangkok was?), but keep your loved ones up to date on where you are, your next location, and who your travel companions are. Establish a check-in schedule and what should happen if you missed your call or email.
While your backpacking trip will be the adventure of a lifetime, protect yourself and give your loved ones back home some peace of mind.
Backpacking Checklist: What to bring with you
You are probably tired of hearing "it depends", but ... it depends. We have put together a list of the absolute must-have items for your backpacking journey. However, things like the location, the length, and other factors will require you to make adjustments to this list. Just make sure you have the perfect backpack first. We recommend one that is 45-50L in size.
Don't overpack. Nobody wants (or needs) to lug around extra pairs of shoes and jeans that will be worn once and shoved into the bottom of your pack a few days into a two month trip. Plan to do laundry at your hostel or around the neighborhood instead. Here are the basics you should bring:
- 7 pairs of underwear
- 7 pairs of socks
- 5 t-shirts
- 2 sweaters or hoodies (layering!)
- 1 swimsuit
- 1 plastic raincoat
- 1 pair of jeans
- 1 pair of long pants
- 1 pair of shorts
- 1 pair of comfortable sneakers
- 1 pair of flip-flops
Don't overpack these either. Stick to the necessities. The only two things we will say to bring that might take up a bit of extra room are a haircare product that you are not guaranteed to find at your destination (curly haired people know this) and any prescription ointments or other medications.
- A toothbrush
- Travel-size shampoo/conditioner
- Travel-size bar of soap
- Travel-size shaving cream and razor (or go natural)
- Hair ties or clips (if you have long hair)
- Tampons or pads (if you have a uterus)
- Mini first aid kit
- Pain reliever and antihistamine
This is a broad category, but an important one. When we say technology, we mean everything to help you plan, navigate, and connect on your backpacking trip.
- Smartphone (your personal mail service, navigator, camera, and travel agent)
- GPS (if you are going phoneless, or want a backup)
- Portable power bank (10,000 mAh minimum)
- Local sim card or travel plan
- Universal adaptor