Advice to the Young Backpacker

An interesting thing happened to me yesterday that got me really thinking, and pondering times and trips gone by. A wonderful young woman, a very good friend of my daughter’s, is finishing up university and heading off travelling to Europe, backpacking with a friend. Talk about an exciting adventure! Oh, to re-live our year long backpack trip way back in 1989! She wrote this to me:

Hi Sheri, in about 21 days, I’ll be heading off to Europe for two and a half months. Emily told me that you’ve been quite a few times. I also love reading your blog, so I was wondering if you had any tips, tricks, and suggestions about backpacking in Europe. 🙂
And in about ten minutes flat, I’d fired off 23 pieces of advice to her! The way the tips rapidly came to mind and literally flew out of my finger tips sort of stopped me in my tracks and got me thinking that maybe I do know a thing or two about travelling, and that maybe those pointers might be worth sharing to a wider audience.

 So here it is, pretty much as I wrote it to her in that flash of inspiration (ok, ok… so it grew to 34!)….

1. Take what you’ve packed, and cut it in half!

The year we backpacked, we ended up mailing back a box of things we didn’t need about a month onto our trip that simply weighed too much, took up too much space, and were so uncomfortably heavy to lug around, or store in train station lockers. We travel with a lot less now (despite what you read in tips 8 & 17 below). Just because you have a 55-70L pack doesn’t mean you need to fill it!

2. Your passport is the most important thing you take with you.

IMG_2688Other than your wits, sense of humour, a friendly demeanour & a good dose of common sense, that is! Make sure it is always with you and always secure.

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Neck pouch (black) vs. waist pouch (tan).

Don’t use a neck pouch. I know they’re more comfortable. Just don’t. They’re too easy to cut and rip off… plus, if you’re wearing a t-shirt, the cord is visible and advertises that you have valuables on you and that you are a tourist. A money belt worn on your waist and under your clothes is best. And definitely DON’T put it in a day pack, even if it’s tucked away and out of site!

Also, it probably goes without saying, but don’t rummage through your waist money belt out in the open. Find a discreet place to do it, like behind a store’s shelving unit, or keep a SMALL amount of cash in a pocket for those quick market transactions or bus fares.

3. Take a photocopy of all your I.D., both sides, and leave one copy at home and give one copy to your travelling companion.

Do the same with your travelling partner’s. And put it in your money belts, folded & put in a ziplock bag to guard against sweat smudging. No grumbling about the added bulk allowed. This will ensure that if you are pick pocketed, or if things are stolen, you still have a copy of everything on hand so they’re much quicker to replace at an embassy or a bank.

A photo on your phone won’t do it, as a phone is most likely going to be targeted for theft, too. Uploading to the cloud might not work either, as you might not have a device to quickly access the info, if it disappears too or if it runs out of battery. Good ‘ol fashioned ink & paper is best.

Write on this sheet of paper any contact phone numbers, so you can cancel cards quickly and efficiently. Most banks have out-of-country toll-free long distance numbers for you to call to make this simple.

4. If possible, take an unlocked phone.

(Or better yet, don’t take one at all… see point #24.) That way you can buy a local sim card when you are there, and reduce your roaming cost and have a communication device with you.

5. Only take mascara for makeup (and maybe a waterproofing top coat).

Really. You are beautiful and need nothing else. It just weighs down your pack and smudges in the rain and when you sweat.

6. Have a small daypack with you that can hold a lunch, water bottle and sweater/raincoat…

(…and a cutting board and knife, if you’re not going through a museum security check point. For real. See tip #8). Leave most things behind on your day trips. Even if you are checking out of a hotel or hostel, they will usually store big packs at the desk or in a special room until you move on to catch a train or a plane later in the day.

7. Sharing rooms with other travellers is a definite way to cut down costs BUT be careful.

No matter how much you might trust the person or people you’ve just met, sleep with your passport on you.

8. Use grocery stores frequently & restaurants rarely.

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Our travel kitchen kit.

Buying food in grocery stores versus eating out at restaurants and fast food places will have you feeling better (you eat healthier with far less sugar, salt & fat, so you feel better, and you sleep better and have more energy to explore and carry your pack). This will save you a TON of money.

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Our reusable shopping bags.

When we travel, even when we don’t have access to a fridge, we carry a cutting board, ziplock bags and a sheathed paring knife in our backpacks, along with a knife sharpener (I like my knives sharp, what can I say), a small bottle of dish soap, a cork screw and a wine stopper (I like my little indulgences). Making a cheese & pickle sandwich, cutting cheese for a baguette, popping open a bottle of cheaply bought vin de table, cutting & sharing an apple or veggies on the go, or packing up a lunch for a long hike is easy this way. 

We also carry with us reusable shopping bags that fold down to next to nothing. They clip easily onto a daypack or camera case. They make grocery shopping on the go…. and then packing a “personal item” on the plane that holds souvenirs on the way home… far easier.

9. Be sure to cross reference the places you want to stay on TripAdvisor.

Read the recent reviews to make sure what you are seeing is what you will get. A little time spent doing research is worth its weight in gold. Trust me. Places change hands. Or go out of business. Staff change. Talk to other travellers for their recent recommendations… it’s a great conversation opener… “Where’ve you come from? What did you like? Where did you stay?” etc.

10. Be careful on trains, boats and ferries.

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The best place to weather a rough sea crossing is in the open air on deck!

If you fall asleep, even if you’re in your own cabin, make sure your partner is awake. I woke up on a ferry, on the crossing from Sweden to Finland once, with someone feeling around my waist for my money belt. I’d found a dark corner to sleep in, by myself. Not a good idea.

11. Carry a small amount of cash with you, rather than a large amount, just in case you get things stolen.

It happens. This makes it not an “end of the world” moment of anxiety. There are higher banking fees to eat doing this, but it’s safer… so you need to weigh the added cost (about $5/transaction here in Canada) against the risk of money getting stolen.

It’s also a good idea to put your debit card and a credit card inside a RFID-read-proof case, just in case of identity theft. They carry them in travel stores and can be as simple as a foil-lined paper slip cover envelope. You really don’t need (or want the bulk of) anything fancy.

And watch your online banking regularly to make sure that no unauthorized or duplicate transactions go through. If they do, contact your bank, using their toll-free overseas number, right away.

12. Use one place as a base and go on day trips out from there.

Over the years, we’ve generally found that spending 5-7 days is about the right amount of time to stay in a place, find its neat features, get to know its shops and people, before we are restless and ready to move on. It is far more comfortable, not having to worry about moving on every day or two… and you waste a lot of time packing, unpacking, getting to and settling into a new place.

So pick a place, stay 5 days, and venture out from there… even if it means taking a train an hour away and then coming back in the evening. When you’re on the road, there’s something comforting about putting your head down on the same pillow each night.

13. If you get a chance to rent a moped, do it.

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(Even then I had a market shopping bag in hand!… see tip 14.)

There’s no more fun way to explore the roads of Greek islands and coastal settings, with their deliciously twisty roads, than on a moped.

Try it. But don’t be stupid like we were when we were young, going helmet-less, K?

14. (This one’s for me.) Go to markets.

They’re a really unique view and insight into a culture. Not to mention a source of good, cheap food.

I’ll never forget seeing a hay wagon, heaping with an 8 foot tall pile of hot peppers in a local market in Urgup, Turkey. What a sight! Or those pigs’ heads sitting on a tarp on the ground beside a towering pile of ginger roots at an impromptu hill tribe market in Chiang Dao, Thailand.

15. Hire a guide.

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Learning to roast coffee in Peru, under the watchful eye of our guide.

I’m not sure what your budget and finances are like, but hiring a guide to do something fun and to better your knowledge is well, well, worth the investment…. be it a walking tour of the streets of Rome where a guide tells you bits of history and makes the place come alive through his or her stories, or a guide who keeps you safe and teaches you the technique of rappelling to go canyoning in a river gorge somewhere. Being told something by a local is so much better than listening to a recording or reading about it in a guide book. You’ll learn things you’ll never know you missed!

Always, always ask questions.

Then, if worse comes to worse, and you feel it stretches your budget too much to do it, stay in an inexpensive small town somewhere, off the beaten track, to save up money to be spent on a guide somewhere else. You’ll see a slice of life off the beaten track that you wouldn’t otherwise experience, staying in that small town…. and sometimes you need to do this and build up stop-time places, simply to rest up and relax (see tip #29).And if a kind family member or friend wants to give you a going away present… ask for a guided tour of some place you plan to go. Just be sure to cross reference and check up on the experience of other travellers with the organization or guide before you commit, on a place like TripAdvisor.

16. Use train station lockers.

Don’t be afraid to stash your big pack in a train station locker and lighten things up for a day of exploration of a big city. We’ve done this many times. There’s nothing that fun about lugging around a huge pack.

17. Pack a laundry kit.

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Our travel laundry kit.

Take a bar of hard laundry soap (you can find it in the supermarket… ours is a Sunlight one, I think… we’ve had it for years and used it on countless trips), a large universal sink plug and a nail scrubbing brush with you. We do sink laundry wherever we go. Your clothes look better, socks don’t get lost in a laundromat (that happens a lot), and you save yourself money and, believe it or not, time. It takes 5 minutes at night to wash, wring out & hang the day’s clothes.

Go to MEC and buy a 6′ length of cord (they sell it at about 50 cents for 3′ in the climbing area). Take a 2″ x 4″ square of cardboard and cover each side with clothes pegs so they stay organized & lie flat, and pack your laundry kit into a medium ziplock bag. Put the soap in its own bag inside as it gets messy over time, and you sometimes have to pack it up, wet. You save a ton of time and money this way and can do laundry anywhere. Doing this, you can travel with less underwear, socks, t-shirts & bulky pants.

18. Invest in technical wool clothing.

Icebreaker wool t-shirts NEVER smell with B.O. no matter how many days you wear them or how much you sweat. I’d invest in one (and the price is steeeeep, so it IS an investment)…. and never put it in the dryer. They’re expensive, but so worth it. Again, it cuts down on how much you need to pack. You can get them online or at Campers Village, Totem, or Track ‘N Trail.

19. Plain, boring clothes make for the best photos.

IMG_2689This may seem really silly and counter intuitive… for the best photos, make sure your clothes are not too wildly patterned. Solid bright tops and neutral bottoms work and look best over time as styles and tastes change.

(There’s this awesome pic of me and Bill on top of Mount Sinai in Egypt…. we’d just come back from a few weeks of learning to scuba dive on the Red Sea, but Bill is wearing this “Red Sea Divers Do It Deeper” on…. it just CAN’T go on our family wall, if you know what I mean! heh heh).

20. Pack for mixing & matching.

Pack clothes that all go together so you can mix and match for variety, instead of packing a lot of clothes with one set for this outfit, and another set for that outfit. Being on the road is so very different from going to high school… no one really pays attention to what you’re wearing (well, maybe in Paris, they do!), and no one will even notice if you wear the same thing two days in a row. Trust me on this. Pack this way, then go back to tip #1.

21. Make sure you have room in your pack to bring home souvenirs.

Or see tip #8. Failing that, don’t be afraid to mail them back home so you don’t have to lug them around. Bill still tells anyone who will listen about the lead crystal candlestick holders that HE (in reality, half were in my pack… just sayin’) had to lug all over Europe, back in the day. And I still regret not buying a small carpet in Cappadocia, Turkey and mailing it back home.

22. Take an extra battery pack.

You know the kind I mean… the type with a USB port so you can recharge anything from a phone to a camera with it. This comes in handy if you happen to be in a place without power, or if you spend too long in a train station with delays, and there’s no available plug to use to charge your devices. And of course, it goes without saying to take a universal wall plug if you have devices that need charging, suitable for the continent you’ll be visiting.

23. The Small Note Book Treasure Chest.

IMG_2687
Two of the small notebooks I’ve travelled with.

If you plan to share your photos or stories in any way that’s more meaningful than Instagram, take a very small notebook with you. There are these tiny ones you can get at Chapters/Indigo that are hard cover and have an elastic to keep them shut as they get bigger with humidity & use. And take a fine lined sharpie pen (they never smudge and can write on paper even when it’s super damp from rainforest humidity).

I’ve always travelled with a notebook like this and made notes and written impressions, sometimes I’ve even jotted down overheard conversations! It’s a way to create, a way to take things in, a way to force me to slow down and really think about the experience, so it doesn’t all go by in a blur. Sometimes I write in a cafe, sometimes on a train or plane, sometimes at night as I wind down at the end of the day. It is these notes that I use, later, to write my blog.

I also pack a glue stick and a small pair of scissors and glue in ticket stubs, leaves, pics from brochures, etc. Believe me, years later, it is SO much fun to go through these!

24. KEEP YOUR HEAD OUT OF YOUR PHONE!

Nothing drives me more crazy when travelling these days, than seeing people with their heads buried in their phones, texting with people back home. They miss so much. And they are not really IN the experience. Put that phone away and be in and of the moment. Other than an emergency from home, everything else can wait. You only have two and a half months…. it will fly by. Don’t waste it, spending lots of time with your attention, head and heart, at home.

25. Being lonely is part of travelling.

If you really want to grow, you need to foster your independence. Don’t cling to the comforts & people of home. Be brave. Meet people. Talk to strangers. Save your trip stories for sharing once you’re back home. Maybe agree on a check in time once a week with mom/a close friend, etc. And then stick to that. There’s no better way to be and keep being homesick, than having regular (even daily) conversations with home. It sounds harsh, but it’s so true.

26. Being beautiful takes more work.

You may not like this piece of advice… like it or not, you are an absolutely beautiful young woman.

This will be an advantage (smile brightly, and people will bend over backwards to help you out and do things for you), so work it. It will open doors and give you quick access to some fun experiences.

It will also be a disadvantage (you will get whistled at, cat-called, and most likely, get pinched or touched)… this comes with the territory, especially, as a young woman travelling, and especially when travelling in male dominated societies (like Italy, Greece, Turkey & Egypt…. I’m saying this from my own experiences… I was once young & beautiful). You do not want to get taken advantage of and you do not want to get yourself in a bad situation and come to harm. Most of the comments and gestures are meant in good fun, but it can bring on uncomfortable attention.

So…. practice confident body language and street smarts… head up, lots of eye contact, pockets zipped or buttoned up, no revealing shirts, purposeful stride (even when you don’t know where you are going), and ask elderly people/shopkeepers for directions. Don’t walk down unlit streets at night (take a cab or have someone walk you if it can’t be avoided). Don’t venture into alleyways, unaccompanied. Use your street smarts.

If the attention gets really annoying, go into a market and buy a cheap ring that looks like a wedding band and wear it on the ring finger of your left hand.

27. Travel with diaper wipes.

Even though, technically speaking, introducing yourself to germs that you haven’t encountered before strengthens your immune system, no one really wants to get sick on a holiday. And we’re more likely to get sick, encountering a foreign germ. So we travel with Wet Ones Antibacterial Wipes and the second we get on a plane we wipe down the seatbelt buckle, the tray table (front, back & latch), the tv screen (if it’s a touch screen), the arm rests, and the window wall (if we’re in a window seat).

I’ll never forget the time our daughter was in her, let’s call it, “more difficult early teenage years,” and she refused to do it, or to let me do it. She was the one who started the holiday, a day later, with a cold. Everyone else was good. I do this to hotel door knobs and light switches too, as they pretty much never get wiped down.

28. Curb your outer, liberated, emancipated feminist.

(This one might bother you and sort of goes hand in hand with tip #26). Travelling opens up a wide, and wonderful world and there is no place that it is more evident, than as travelling as a woman in a foreign culture (honestly, guys, I’m sorry you don’t get to experience the nuances of this).

Rather than fight it, embrace it. Wear a head covering where it is appropriate to do so, cover up bare shoulders and legs in religious  places, don’t take photographs inside churches and temples, leave your tight running tights at home, etc. Park your judgement. Quell any sense of outrage. In this way, you’ll open yourself up to more facets of the experience.

This cultural sensitivity will go a along way to helping you to learn, and to understand differing world views.

29. Take a nice, but comfortable, pair of shoes with you.

The one thing that advertises “tourist,” and especially “American tourist,” more than anything is a pair of running shoes on your feet (my apologies to our wonderful American friends). Wearing nice shoes in Paris, people were far nicer to me than they were the day I got tired of it all, after days of walking and walking and walking its fantastic streets… and wore runners with orthotics. The people on the street and in shops, when I wore nice shoes, made eye contact, and they even smiled occasionally (it was Paris, after all, and dour expressions come with the territory). You blend in more with the locals and look like you belong and live there wearing nice shoes… until you open your mouth!

30. It’s okay to be a Temple Weary Snorkel Enthusiast.

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Taking a break on the Red Sea from seeing so many Egyptian tombs, monuments & museums.

Believe it or not, when you travel for a while, you really do need to build in little holidays from your holiday.

If you don’t, that sense of novelty, and the sense of inquisitiveness and wonder that comes with it, will fade into monotony. You are travelling to learn and to experience things. You are travelling to grow and develop. You are travelling to come to terms with who you are and who you want to be. You can’t do this if you are overtired, bored, stressed or restless. Build in breaks that feel like breaks to you (a day on the beach, a day spent reading at a cafe, a day spent snorkelling), and you will stay alive and truly experience things in your travels.

31. Be spontaneous

Some of our best adventures have come from seizing the moment and running with it, in a true, carpe diem kind of way. Rather than go to Italy, we decided to follow Australian friends we’d made in Austria and head up to find them at their relatives’ place in Denmark, a place that we had already been. It was well worth the trip, gave us an opportunity to stay with locals, deepen our friendships, and see a wonderful country that we long to return to… and we’ve since found ways to get to Italy.

Or there was the time when we did a long, 17km day hike down the Samaria Gorge on the island of Crete, and rather than head left, taking the ferry back to our original destination, we took a different ferry right and spent a few days hopping along with only our daypacks, trusting that our larger packs would be ok at our old hotel (this was pre-cell phone, pre-internet, and the places we were going to were very small villages with no phone lines). Without toiletry bags or changes of clothes, this marked a time in his life when Bill grew his first beard.

One of the things that makes travelling spontaneously easy is a Eurail Pass, though looking it up online it sure seems expensive now! But it gives you the flexibility to travel wherever and whenever you want. And riding the rails eliminates the cost of a night’s accommodation, if you plan it wisely.

Don’t stick to a set itinerary… or be tempted to check things off a list (in a 17 countries in 15 days approach). Be comfortable, seizing the moment and staying in a place that has a hold on you. And conversely, move along if it just doesn’t do it for you.

32. Change things up.

Travel by planes, trains, automobiles, busses, ferries, shared taxis (in Asia try song-tows and tuk tuks), cable cars,  dug out canoes, and by foot. In Europe, try lift-assisted hiking, taking ski lifts up to the mountain tops in summer to get into the alpine views quickly with a fraction of the effort. Nowhere can you try so many different modes of transportation than when you’re backpack travelling. You have time to take on the logistics of travelling in obscure ways, so go with it. Widen your experience this way, and your world view will open up in surprising ways.

33. Send Postcards Home

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A postcard to my grandparents (I took out the address for putting it up here on the net).

When travelling that year, we wrote letters and postcards home… something that not many people do anymore. People love to get “real” mail! Not only are the stamps and postmarks super cool, but seeing these old letters and reading the memories contained in them, makes for an awesome keepsake later on. It’s a snapshot in time of who I was as well… so it’s fascinating all these decades later. My grandmother and my great, great aunt are long gone from this world, but I still have the letters and postcards I sent to them.

34. Challenge yourself.

I know, I know… this is not a relaxing vacation. Travelling is a challenge in and of itself. But don’t forget to try new things… a new food, a tacky touristy thing (like a ghost tour… promise me you’ll do a ghost tour somewhere!), an adrenalin junky experience, a tour with a history buff… something outside your comfort zone. This is your trip. It’s in your hands to make it unforgettable and awesome!

15 Comments on “Advice to the Young Backpacker

  1. Loved your advice about backpacking! Not sure about carrying a travel sized kitchen kit around (- isn’t it heavy? 😯 ) but agree that buying from grocery stores helps to save money!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great advice. I backpacked across Europe by myself in 1984. I especially appreciate tip #25 – being lonely is part of the experience. That 1984 trip was the single most important event that made me confident. Yes there were some tough times – but when I made it through that long night alone in a train station in the middle of nowhere – I realized there wasn’t anything in life that I couldn’t get through. That’s not a postcard moment but was perhaps the single most important take away from that trip. I hope your friend has a great trip – she off to a great start with your advice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wonderful! Thanks for sharing. I was tempted to put in an “I hope you have one bad experience” in a “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” sentiment… but thought that might be a bit over the top. But I do believe that those tough times are the times that show YOU what you’re made of… and in the confidence game of life, you’re the only one you need to convince, at the end of the day.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wonderful advices Sheri. Just reading this post got me a travel itch. I always love the kinds of travel that put me a little out of my comfort zones. But some places where things could get too hard or otherwise it wouldn’t happen, hiring tour guides can be very valuable. Trying local foods is the best part of the experience for me. Oh and it’s always a good idea to have your own toilet papers handy. Haha

    Liked by 1 person

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