They travel along like snails in their shells, these intrepid, freedom-loving backpackers, with their possessions balanced carefully on their backs. Backpack travel is deeply connected with feelings of romance, freedom and adventure, with minimal belongings but plenty of spontaneity. And these are feelings we can definitely connect with. If you’re new to the world of backpacking, you absolutely don’t have to start with a trip across Mongolia: we recommend you start with well-developed, modern destinations, ideally ones which are frequented by lots of other backpack tourists and are geared for this type of travel. We’ve put together some tips for you, including things to avoid and which areas are particularly well-suited for your very first backpack trip!
Choice of destination
Don’t make things hard for yourself to start with. Ideally, choose a country where you speak the native language, or at least one where English is broadly spoken and understood.
Locations that are frequented by backpack nomads are well-suited for this kind of travel. There you’re likely to find plenty of cheap accommodations, brimming with friendly fellow backpackers who are usually more than happy to exchange ideas about possible routes and activities, or even plan something together. These types of accommodations also routinely organize a wide variety of tours and excursions. And in addition: the more hostels around, the better the chances for a spontaneous change of plans and a longer stay.
Which brings up a good point: Just how spontaneous should you be when it comes to backpacking? That largely depends on your need for security and your tolerance for flexibility. We recommend that, for first-time backpackers, that you make at least a loose plan (maybe with a few lodging reservations), while still leaving enough breathing room for changes in your plans. For the most part, spontaneous early or late departures aren’t a big deal at all, giving you the freedom to enjoy your travels on your own time.
Of course it goes without saying, don’t pick winter in Siberia or Qatar in the heat of summer for your very first backpacking trip. Ideally, try to plan your trip for a time of year with a mild, warm climate – and, according to your destination, the right half of the year. Because let’s be honest: trudging through searing heat or monsoon rains with a backpack on your back isn’t anyone’s idea of a great time.
The countries of Southern Asia (some more, some less) have proven to be particularly backpacker-friendly, especially Thailand. Here you’ll find countless fellow travelers, the infrastructure is good, the locals are friendly and hospitable and the country itself is exotic and multifaceted. You can plan your trip around the so-called Banana Pancake Trail, which will give you a basic outline for your travels and help you seek out some of the best South Asian hotspots. You can be sure that one thing in particular will be easy for you as you travel this route, making new friends along this optimally-configured trip. The name “Banana Pancake Trail” is actually just a metaphor, and stems from the popular Western comfort food (in the sense that travelers eat this familiar food for breakfast in the cafes). You can find suggestions for hotspots along the trail here.
The countries of Central America are also increasing in popularity as backpacking hotspots. The weather is usually pleasant, the natural surroundings are breathtaking and, with a little knowledge of Spanish, you can get around just fine even in less-connected areas. For your first trip, however, sticking to the tourist highlights in Mexico, Guatemala, Belize or Costa Rica should be more than enough. Whether it’s scuba diving in Belize (here you’ll find the world-famous Blue Hole diving spot), visiting ruins in Guatemala (such as the famous Tikal Ruins), a hike through the rainforest or a climb up an active volcano – one thing’s for sure, you won’t be bored in Central America.
Europe also provides an excellent first dip into the world of backpacking. Depending on how much time you have to spend, you can either plan an enormous journey, using your Interrail-Ticket to ride clear across Europe, or you can limit yourself to a particular area, like Southeastern Europe, Scandinavia or the Baltic region. For example, you can backpack your way along the beautiful beaches of Croatia, taking a detour inland here and there (for example, to the incredible Plitvice National Park), ending your trip in charming Montenegro, with its cozy towns and imposing, rolling landscape. If you’re headed this way, we recommend traveling in spring or fall; in particular, in Croatia, the main travel season can be quite packed.
Of course, before you set out you’ll need to spend time thinking about your selection of gear, as this can either make your travels much easier or much, much harder.
As a general rule of thumb: take as little as you can, but as much as you need. In terms of weight, try not to go over about 12 kg, as you’ll be carrying your backpack around the world on your shoulders.
This is more than achievable, in particular, if you concentrate on packing the smallest possible versions of items you need: instead of your giant Spongebob beach towel, pack a handy microfiber towel; save space with an inflatable pillow instead of a real one; and leave your huge 500ml family-sized shampoo at home, just take a travel sized container with you on the road. If you get into a pinch, you can always buy one at your destination! Packing sacks or packing cubes have proved to be more than worth it in controlling the chaos in your backpack, helping you find your items quickly and easily. It will make your journey much more pleasant if you don’t have to take apart your entire kit every time you need something from your pack.
Do you have trips for a first backpacking trip? We look forward to your comments!