Woman wearing a backpack sits on the edge of a seawall looking out at the water and mountains in the distance
Seasoned backpacker and Travel-Wise writer Kelly Dunning shares her tips for first-time backpackers.
Photo Credit: iStockPhoto / MStudioImages

Everything a First-Time Backpacker Needs to Know

Strap on Your Pack, It’s Time to Hit the Road

When I decided to go solo backpacking many years ago, I had a belly full of nervous butterflies and absolutely no idea what I was doing.

Six years and 45 countries later, I’ve learned a lot. Some of it I learned the hard way, other things I learned from other travelers more experienced than me. Traveling was the most empowering thing I have ever done and, although there have been difficult moments along the way, I’ve never regretted buying that ticket and getting on the plane.

So, if you are about to embark on your first travel adventure, here is a little bit of wisdom I can pass along to you in this backpacking guide.

The Best Thing You Can Bring with You is Knowledge

Your parents are probably beside themselves with worry and you might be a little apprehensive too. How can you stay safe while you are traveling the world?

Money belts and luggage locks can help, but the very best thing you can do to prevent scams, theft and other bad things from happening to you is to be armed with knowledge.

Start researching now. Google “common scams in [your destination]” and read about the clever ways thieves and pickpockets try to distract and bamboozle visitors. When you are aware of a scam beforehand, you won’t fall for it when someone tries to pull a fast one on you.

Read about which neighborhoods are more dangerous than others, read about the political climate, read about what not to do to offend or anger the locals. The more research you do before you travel, the better you will be able to navigate your destination safely.

Properly pack your backpack — not only to prevent injury but also to make your life easier. Tying items to your bag, for example, can be a hazard when boarding trains or buses.

I’ve seen many other travelers get scammed, ripped off or robbed and it’s often because they were clueless about a scam or local danger they could have been aware of with a little bit of research.

Don’t Take Advice From Those Who Haven’t Traveled

Before you go on your trip, everyone will be giving you travel advice. However, you can take that advice with a grain of salt if they have never traveled before.

Would you take advice on which wines to buy if that advice was offered by someone who has never drunk wine?

Instead, seek out people you know who have travel experience, or connect with travel bloggers and people online who have spent time backpacking and can provide you with valuable packing tips for beginners. The advice they have to give you will be useful and based in real experience, rather than myth.

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Hostels Aren’t What You Think

Speaking of myths, there is a huge misconception that hostels are grungy, scary, dangerous places. After staying in dozens of hostels all over the world I can tell you they really are not. Yes, some hostels are dirty, noisy and badly run, but many of them are clean, comfortable, friendly and convenient.

A hostel is simply a type of accommodation, so the quality and style of hostels varies as much as hotels. As a backpacker, a hostel offers you many advantages.

For one, you can rent a bed in a multi-person dorm, which is much cheaper than staying in your own hotel room. You’ll also enjoy access to a shared kitchen, which will allow you to cook meals for yourself and save money (eating in a restaurant every night is expensive!).

Another plus is that hostels create a social environment where you can meet other backpackers and make friends. Lastly, many hostels will host events, activities, theme nights and excursions that are also a great way to experience the local culture and get to know other travelers.

If you are staying in your first hostel, this guide will teach you the basics on how hostels work and how you can be a good guest.

Slow Down

Another big mistake I have seen first-time travelers make is to try to cram too much into their travels. If you are trying to cover 10 cities in two weeks, you’re not going to have a good time.

You’re going to be spending most of your trip on a bus or a train and when you reach each destination you’ll barely have enough time to catch your breath and look around before you are zooming off to the next one.

Take a look at your travel itinerary. I’m guessing you could reduce it by at least a third.

Whittle it down to a shorter list of the places you want to see the most and spend more time in each one. It’s always better to see four places at a relaxed place and have time to enjoy them, than to rush around to six places while feeling stressed and exhausted.

Leave Room for Spontaneous Adventures

Last but not least, my final tip is to leave room in your travels for those spontaneous side trips that just happen. You’ll meet someone cool and they will recommend that you go explore some odd attraction or something off the beaten path you have never heard of. You’ll decide to forgo the bus and try your hand (or thumb) at hitchhiking.

If your plans are flexible, you’ll be able to go off on those tangents, which can sometimes end up being the most exciting and memorable part of your trip.

Infographic provided by Discover.

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