If you follow us on Instagram, you’ll have seen plenty of pics of Anna’s younger son Chris on his gap year travels. Now safely home, he’s very kindly put together some tips for life as a backpacker for us. We hope it will be helpful to anyone planning a gap year or summer travels.
I can confidently say that taking a gap year was one of the best decisions I have made in my life and that is largely due to the time that I spent travelling. It is so nice to reminisce that it is almost a cliche for gap year students to continuously bring up their travelling experiences at any opportunity, and so I am delighted to be writing this blog to share some of mine, along with the daily backpacking life tips I have for future travellers as well.
I started my travels in Costa Rica, where I had initially only planned to stay for four weeks but I enjoyed myself so much I ended up staying in Central America for over two months, including two weeks in Guatemala. Changes of plans like this seem to be a common phenomenon among travellers, as it is often you will go to magnificent places and meet amazing people you just can’t walk away from. I could talk for hours about all the activities we did in Central America, including highlights like climbing Volcano Acatenango, volunteering in local Costa Rican villages and zip lining through the forests of MonteVerde.
But the most valuable piece of information I can give you is that those first four weeks I did was with a volunteering company called ‘The Leap’, who provide the perfect environment for new travellers to deal with the challenges of learning how to live out of a backpack whilst having the time of their lives. After Central America I headed to Thailand and Indonesia for my final month of travelling. Looking back, I am happy that I decided to choose two parts of the world so far away and with so many cultural differences because they definitely brought different hardships to learn from, along with unforgettable once in a lifetime experiences.
Practical Tips for Daily Life as a Backpacker
Organising your stuff
- A general tip for packing is that the best clothes to bring are ones on the cheaper side. Clothes that if you were to lose them it wouldn’t be a disaster but nice enough for all the photos you want to take. Having one smart outfit can also be useful to have if you are travelling with a large group for a long time as there are probably going to be many birthday celebrations and you don’t want to be wearing your rugby shirt and shorts to a fancy dinner while everyone else is dressed up.
- Travel towels are great, but only use them when you are on a beach or have no other option. I made the mistake early on as simply treating mine as a spare towel which could be used in rotation, and it didn’t last anywhere near as long as other travellers who used theirs sparingly. Normal towels pick up a lot more sand which can be a hassle because you have to make sure it is all gone (without washing it) before putting it back in your backpack unless you want everything you own to be sandy.
- My final tip would be to be cautious of cosmetics like shower gels or shampoos leaking in your toiletries bag. This happened to me twice and so my advice would be to have two or more separate toiletries bags, one for bottles and the other for anything which can ruin (e.g toothbrushes or hairbrushes). This way you don’t have to worry about the contents of your bag on travel days where you will often see it being thrown around and tied to the top of buses.
- Learn the exchange rates of local currencies before you arrive. Often taxis and general modes of public transport are very cheap, but if you are not clear about how much you should be paying to travel from the airport/bus or train station there is a chance you could pay an extortionate fare.
- Try to work out a daily budget and stick to it from the beginning. Unfortunately I spent too much money early on and so had to fly back a couple weeks earlier from Bali than I had initially had hoped. Remember that travel days are big expenses and so try to factor that in and don’t spend money needlessly on lazy days just because you have money to spend.
Keeping in touch
- It’s now easy to buy an eSIM (with no physical SIM card involved and no physical swapping over required by you). You buy it online and it comes up on your phone to add as a data plan. We bought them without any problem and most of our phones were fine with an eSIM purchase. Just Google ‘eSIM’ plus the country you’re in and loads of options should come up. They’re much easier than buying a physical SIM, as these are complicated to set up and too expensive to use other than in emergencies. If you’re travelling somewhere and can’t find/use an eSIM, though, club together to make sure that one of your group has a local SIM so that you can make calls.
- There’s free WiFi almost everywhere, as it attracts travellers. You’ll certainly find it in hostels and it’s pretty much available on the go too, apart from on long journeys. WhatsApp is good to keep in touch with your family whenever you’ve got WiFi, especially the audio and video calls.
- But I would say that being out of contact at times was really refreshing. Don’t worry about the times you don’t have WiFi – enjoy them!
- If you buy a backpack with more than one large compartment (which I recommend), use one of the compartments to store your dirty clothes. Washing clothes can be expensive and so it is not uncommon to only do so once or twice a week. With the dirty clothes spending all day every day in your backpack, there is no amount of plastic bags that will stop them from making your other clothes smell too. Having them separated by the bag itself is the best way to stop you from always smelling like you could do with taking a shower.
- Do not stress about doing hand wash laundry. It is a good option if you have lots of time to hand or there are no cheap places nearby but I never really found this to be the case. You can get kilograms of laundry done relatively cheaply and it will actually smell good, as if it were done at home. Just pack enough clothes so that you don’t have to go to these places too often and prepare yourself to be wearing the same few clothes for 2-3 days in a row.
Security and safety
- Don’t be afraid to sleep with your backpack in your bed. Sometimes hostel rooms are very small and have lots of people in them. If there is limited floor space or you are worried there is a lack of security, sleeping with your backpack can actually make your life easier and give you peace of mind.
- Security in hostels is generally very good but if you are particularly worried Hostelworld always provides a security rating and you can normally find out if there are lockers or safes for valuables. Don’t forget to take a smallish padlock for lockers.
- A fanny pack or small bag to carry around in the day was essential for me as I always knew I had my phone and wallet on me to use and be kept safe. I would not recommend taking your passport everywhere you go, however. On travel days it is useful to have to hand but in general having a picture on your phone is all that you need.
- Bring a spare phone, if you can afford it – an old one is fine. Many of my friends I met whilst travelling unfortunately lost or broke their phone. In this modern day and age, a phone is an essential and often a spare phone to depend on if needed can be a life saviour.
- You might find that you get lots of hassle from people trying to sell you things. In Thailand at the beach, we heard the word “massage” every two seconds. Just completely ignore them and walk straight past. Overall, though, I never felt unsafe or vulnerable.
- It’s expensive to buy medicines almost everywhere, so take plenty with you. It’s much easier and cheaper if you treat minor illnesses/problems yourself.
- If you do need medical help, find the local hospital. It’s a good idea to ask your parents to call your local GP before you go, so you know what to expect, as you might be recommended every test under the sun so that they can run up your bill. Thailand seems particularly bad for this – be careful what you agree to.
- Make sure you have rest days (from either travelling or partying) to give your body a chance to rest and help you stay healthy.
Life on the road
- Talk to other travellers in hostels for recommendations on where to eat or what to do in the day. There were many times we only planned to spend a couple of days somewhere and we would meet people who had already spent weeks there. They are likely to have much better knowledge than Google or Tripadvisor about what is good, bad, expensive, a must visit etc… (largely due to all the changes brought about by Covid).
- Don’t always go for comfort. I think it is easy to crave comfort in the form of ‘poshtels’ or days on the beach, and, while I indulged in my fair share of these, looking back some of my most favourable memories come from dealing with the challenges of climbing a 4,000m volcano or a 3 day trek in a very humid Thai jungle. These are the experiences that really stick with you and help you develop and grow as a person.
- When you arrive at the hostel, they’ll show you your room and facilities. The people who run them are always around to help.
- When looking for places to eat, the general rule which I found to work best was that the best restaurants for travellers are ones that from the outside don’t look amazing nor rubbish. Often if a place looks amazing the food will be too expensive and if it looks like it will give you food poisoning it probably will. Finding a nice balance between the two is your best bet pretty much anywhere you go.
This might seem like a lot of information and as if there are lots of problems to manage, but you really don’t have anything to worry about. You pick it all up so quickly as you go along. I would advise though that you try to travel with someone else or in a group, especially at the beginning of your trip, as everything is easier to manage with a friend.
And don’t forget – your mum’s only ever a phone call away!
Thank you so much, Chris, for these super helpful tips for life as a backpacker. We hope you find his advice useful and that you have the time of your life on your travels! If you’ve enjoyed reading this, you might also like our blog on Why parents should recommend a gap year (or travelling in general), once again written by a student.
Louise & Anna x
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