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Tips for Backpackers: Planning and Packing

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Tips for Backpackers
Part 1: Planning and Packing | Part 2: Travelling Around | Part 3: Avoiding Pitfalls

These Entries are aimed at those who want to travel for long periods in foreign parts, carrying all their worldly goods in a bag: gap year students, budget travellers, or simply more adventurous-minded tourists. It isn't aimed at survivalists or outdoor specialists. Part 1 covers preparing and packing for your trip. Part 2 deals with getting around in an unfamiliar foreign country. And Part 3 covers the dos and donts for backpacking around the developing world.

First-time 'travellers' may find the prospect of leaving home daunting. Here are a few tips that can help things to run more smoothly, or help you to avoid 'worst case scenarios'. Most of this information can apply to all kinds of traveller. However, it's written with adventurous backpackers in mind, especially those who are planning to travel alone or in a small group for several months in developing countries (eg in Africa, South-east Asia, India, Latin America, and so on) rather than developed nations such as Australia, Europe, the US or Canada.

Before You Leave: Planning and Packing

  1. When planning where to go, resist the temptation to try to cram everywhere you've ever wanted to go into one three-month journey. Try to restrict yourself to one area; (eg South America) rather than frantically jetting all over the globe. You'll probably enjoy it more.

    You're likely to plan your itinerary around your interests: ruins, hiking, diving, deserts, jungles, temples, scenery, cities, beaches, whatever. But you may find the greatest enjoyment comes from treating these as mere diversions, something to do while you get on with the important business of enjoying being in a foreign culture. Certain countries such as India require a great deal of endurance and aren't recommended as a first destination. Test your 'slumming it capacity' somewhere where slumming it is optional before committing yourself to broken buses and poverty for three months.

    The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office offers advice on every country in the world other than the UK. This is equally helpful for non-British citizens. It's worth looking your intended destination(s) up.

    Visit your doctor about two months before leaving to discuss vaccinations. Telephone embassies to discuss visa issues. It may take a week for your bank to get hold of large quantities of travellers' cheques, while embassies may require you to appear in person and/or leave your passport with them for several days while they issue visas.

    Language should also be a consideration: will English get you around? In general, in places with many scattered languages (eg South-east Asia), English is the de facto language of travel. But in areas where one language dominates and this language isn't English (eg Latin America), you're less likely to be spoken to in English. Unfortunately, this judgment is very difficult to make until you've arrived. Tourist hotspots almost invariably have a high percentage of English-speakers. Buying a tape of useful phrases in the local language and learning them before you leave is recommended.

  2. You also need to consider how you're going to carry your money. These days, a bank card is the only sensible option in most of the world. Be sure it won't expire while you're away! It's very rare to be able to change traveller's cheques and not be able to find an ATM at the same time - so taking large amounts of cash with you isn't worth the bother (although some is essential). Particularly within Europe, the arrival of the euro has made traveller's cheques hard to change, and the commission on them is high.

    There are still a few parts of the world where ATMs are rare, and therefore cash — meaning US dollars — is king. Talking to other travellers before you go is very helpful.

  3. Travel light. This is the tip you'll hear from everyone, and here are a couple of ways to achieve it.

    Before you leave, pack everything you'll be taking and try walking around carrying it for an hour1. By the end of the hour, you should know whether you've got too much. When doing this, if you live somewhere cold (eg Britain) and you're travelling to somewhere hot (eg Thailand), don't forget that the coat you wear to the airport will then go straight to the bottom of your bag and not come out again. You may be surprised how much space it takes up, and how much it weighs. For the same reason, buy your souvenirs at the end of your trip, not the start.

    Another tip is to fill your pack with everything you think you'll need — just the bare essentials — then lay it all out on your bed and leave half of it behind. You'll soon fill your pack up again with souvenirs, clothes etc.

    Make sure everything fits into your bag. It's astounding how much more effort it takes to walk carrying even 0.5kg in your hands compared with having this weight on your back. If you can pack so that your hand luggage is easily separable, that's so much the better.

    If you're carrying a sleeping bag, having it on top of the backpack rather than underneath, where it can bounce against your legs, is easier and less irritating. Similarly, having heavier things at the top of your rucksack near your back and lighter stuff at the bottom further from you (subject to crushing potential) puts less strain on your back. It can be handy to have separate interior bags for different items: dirty laundry, clean laundry, comestibles etc.

  4. Be prepared to get sick: not usually sick enough to spoil your trip but you can even get an upset stomach when you stick to bottled water. The good news is that, once you get over it, you should be virtually immune for the duration. In the meantime, no matter how carefully you avoid bacteria, a sudden change of water quality, diet or even climate can throw your digestive system out. Note that this isn't the same as catching food poisoning, or worse, from dirty food or tap-water. There are several books available on how to stay healthy while abroad.

    Aside from an upset stomach, and assuming you've had the relevant jabs and malaria tablets, the worst medical danger you're likely to face is dehydration. Walking in the sun all day can really drain your body of fluids, but the real danger is that very few people recognise the symptoms of dehydration: watch out for headaches, vomiting and a lack of thirst. A good swig of water should be your first reaction to any of them.

  5. Spend liberally on good equipment before you leave. A good maxim to follow is: 'Skimp and save on everything while travelling, but spend lavishly before leaving.' Money spent on getting a good bag, decent insurance (hopefully wasted money!) and other bits of kit can be a real investment.

    A good bag that can take the weight on a waist-strap is more-or-less essential. Pack and don the bag as normal, loosening all the straps first. Then breathe in and pull the waist-strap as tight as possible. When you breathe out, you should find that the weight is supported on your waist, not your shoulders. This means you don't have to lift the weight of the bag each time you breathe in. Finally, pull down on the shoulder straps until they're a comfortable tightness, to restrict the bag's movement as you walk. As a test, you should be able to lift both straps at once away from your shoulders using one finger on each hand.

    When choosing a bag, go for an internal frame backpack. This means there are metal straps sewn into the lining of the bag (rather than the huge external frames you sometimes see on older bags). Note that the part of the bag which will be under the most stress is the seam holding the top of each strut inside the lining; this is what you should inspect most closely when buying. It's possible to reinforce a bag by sewing wire mesh into it as an extra lining. This makes the bag stronger and prevents a disaster if it gets torn.

1 You'll be very lucky (or rich) if you never end up walking with all your stuff.

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