What I Wish People Had Told Me Before I Planned My First Backpacking Trip.

I have been travelling the world for over 20 years and have gained a lot of travel experience in that time. Thaat doesn’t mean I didn’t make my fair share of travel mistakes when I set out on my first gap year though, and after half a lifetime of travelling the world on my own terms this is the personal advice I would give to anyone thinking of setting off on their own round the world adventure, because it is the exact advice I wish I had when I started my own very first gap year.

I give a lot of practical tips and advice on these pages on how to backpack and travel the world independently, how to plan your trip and deal with the hows and whys of taking a gap year. But in all the emails people write and questions that I get asked, people always have the same common worries and the same common questions. I see so many first time travellers follow the same patterns and make the same rookie mistakes.

There is so much more to planning a backpacking trip than simply walking you through the logistics of how to plan an itinerary or book a flight. It doesn’t matter whether you are planning a year long RTW gap year or a short snap year to Thailand or Peru, you have to do more than be able to organise your tickets and insurance, you need to develop the right mindset too.

So on top of all the practical logistical advice, here is some of the advice I give to all first time backpackers and those dreaming of independent travel for the first time, and the same tips I wish someone had told me before I started my own backpacking adventures.

Plan To Be Flexible.

This is quite simple really, if there is one inevitability on the road it is that plans will change. You will reach a particular island, town or city, fall in love with it and find you don’t want to leave. Or on the other side of that coin you will find you hate a particular town or city and decide to leave a lot sooner than you planned. You will be sidetracked by an experience that you just can’t pass up, a few steaamy days with that hot backpacker you just met or you will meet other backpackers who will tell you of an amazing place you never even considered and you will want to check it out for yourself.

Plans will change. It will happen.

The longer you travel for, the more likely your set in stone plans will just evaporate. There will even be times when you are simply tired and need to recharge your batteries, and you can’t do that on the spur of the moment if your tight, set in stone itinerary says you have to be half way across the country in a few hours. Remember, you will want to see and do so many things when you are on your travels, and there is nothing wrong with that, but there is nothing wrong with just taking a day to relax by a pool, read a book in a hammock or simply relax either.

So don’t make one of the simplest mistakes so many others do and plan every aspect of your trip down to the last detail. Sure, having a rough plan, a vague route in mind is a good idea, a necessity even, but leave a lot of room for some flexibility and spontaneity in there too.  The more rigid your plans, the more stressed your trip will be and the more you may miss out on.

Don’t Try To Fit Too Much In.

Michael Huxley upgrade to a flashpacker

This is one of the most fundamental mistakes most first time backpackers make, trying to cram too many countries into a tight schedule or too many sites and attractions into a tight itinerary. I can understand the urge to want to see as much as possible in the relatively little time you have, but it is a mistake. Two days here, three days there, one day somewhere else, it doesn’t work in the long run. You will get burnt out very quickly and you will end up missing more than you see.

It just isn’t possible to see an entire country in a few days or a week and move on to the next one, not if you actually want to see any of the country anyway, and likewise it just isn’t possible to do everything there is to do on a very short trip. It is much better to see one or two countries really well than it is to see a small glimpse of half a dozen.

The best thing you can do is first of all allocate enough travel time for the countries and places you want to visit, that means at absolute bare minimum a month in each country, and minimise the amount of destinations on your list so have more time to explore the ones that are left.

Just slow down, try and spend more time in one place, get beyond the superficial and really discover some of the country you are visiting.

You Will Meet So Many Amazing People.

How to meet people and make friends when travelling solo

One thing many first time solo travellers worry about is whether they will be able to meet other travellers or if they will spend the entire trip feeling lonely. You don’t have to worry, seriously.

You will meet so many other amazing backpackers on your trip, both solo and otherwise, and you will make a lot of great friends. You’ll meet people in hostel dorms, common rooms, transport hubs, maybe even the odd bar or two. It is even very common for backpackers to team up for a few days travel together, either for a little company or to share costs on a trek or accomodation. If you are travelling solo, you will never be short of company if you want it.

You Don’t Have To Book Everything In Advance.

If there has been one big change in the backpacking world over the last twenty years it has been the shift from getting (often outdated) advice from guidebooks and then doing your own thing to the over reliance on just organising things on your smartphone and using aggregate sites to pre book everything before you arrive. In many ways it has made things a lot easier, but in others backpackers are missing out on a lot if this is all they do.

There are times when pre booking is a good idea, if you are arriving in a new country for the first time you may want a few days just to relax and acclimatise for example, you may be arriving in the middle of the night, in which case pre booking is a good idea from a safety point of view. You may be planning to travel during a particular festival or holiday, the Mardi Gras in New Orleans or the full moon parties of Koh Panghan for example, where accommodation can fill up quickly. In these instances pre booking is common sense and not difficult to do.

However the vast majority of the time it is much easier and often much cheaper to just turn up and look for a place once you arrive. You also often find much, much better places that way simply by checking a few rooms out, I know I have anyway. I have lost track of the amount of times I have had a few places in mind from research on various online sites or guidebooks, only to find much better ones next door or down the road that weren’t on any of the agregate sites. Often some of the best and cheapest places to stay don’t have much – if any – online presence, and of those hostels, guesthouses or hotels that are online you may find the reality of the room you booked very different from what was advertised.

The same is true for everything else too, you don’t need to pre book every single activity or every single transport option in advance. You remember that first point about flexibility? It isn’t independent travel if you are following a rigid, inflexible plan! It is easy to get train or bus tickets as and when you need them, it is easy to walk up and get a course, a trek, an activity or anything else you want to do when and if you want to do it! The same is true for accomodation too. Go and explore, don’t plan a package holiday!

The Guidebook Isn’t The Bible!

I’m not so sure this piece of advice is as relevant as it used to be as nowhere near as many travellers rely on traditional guidebooks as they used to. I suppose now you can substitute travel blogs and review or aggregate sites for guidebooks, but the principle is generally the same.

The bible is a common euphemism for a guidebook, usually a specific popular brand of guidebook (not mentioning any names), and when I first started travelling over 20 years ago every backpacker rocked up to a brand new country with one of these books in their hands.

The moniker of ‘the bible’ describes the phenomena of a string of independent travellers worshipping at the altar of it’s pages and all turning up at the same guesthouses, eating at the same places, traipsing the same walking tours and doing the same activities, all because that is what is explicitly written down in their guidebook.

Now don’t get me wrong, guidebooks are very useful things, and they are a general necessity on the road whether you still use the old print versions or rely on the advice of travel bloggers. You still need that basic level of researched understanding of the places you are visiting after all; where to go, what to do, the address of the train station or nearest embassy and so much more.

Guidebooks still do have a use.

However they are not the be all and end all that many first time backpackers think they are.

There are so many areas where traditional guidebooks are now next to useless and completely unable to keep up with social media, modern comparison or review websites or the personal touches from travel blogs and personal websites. Accommodation listings and prices being just two of them. They are often so out of date by the time they are in print that they bear little resemblance to what the reality is. Does anyone remember the famous curse of LP (where the second a hostel or guesthouse is mentioned in that famous guidebook prices double and standards drop).

Even review and aggregate sites, although much more able to give accurate and up to date info on pricing and addresses for example, will never give a complete picture of what a destination is like and will often be based on skewed and biased opinion even more so than guidebooks used to be.

Yes they are all useful for getting a general idea of accommodation options and giving you an idea of where you want to stay, but don’t take the guidebooks, or review sites or aggregate sites or blogs for that matter, as gospel. Use them all as a base for inspiration, advice and tips, but then go and explore on your own terms, find your own way, make your own adventures!

You Don’t Need So Much Stuff!

Like most people I packed way too much stuff on my first backpacking trip. Extra clothes, extra books (there were no kindles or fancy eReader smartphones back then!) extra medication, extra pretty much everything in fact just in case I needed them.

I didn’t.

The longer you travel the less you learn to travel with, it is just a simple fact. You find that you can buy or replenish almost anything you need as you travel, especially toiletries and basic medications, and a weekly trip to a local laundry is enough to keep people from avoiding you like a foul smelling plague.

Remember, there is a common trend amongst experienced backpackers that end up with almost all of us travelling carry on only most of the time for a reason.

Pack light, you’ll thank me for it!

Calm Down And Relax.

Thai Island Beach Koh Tao, Thailand

Backpacking doesn’t have to be stressful, it doesn’t have to be full of worry and panic. In fact it shouldn’t be! Your gap year or snap year will be one of the best experiences of your life, so just take a moment, breath, and bloody enjoy the experience! That goes for the planning stages too. Yes you may have things to sort out, visas to organise, plane tickets to buy, but so what? They are easily done, and once they are you can start thinking of all the amazing things you want to see and do instead of stressing over every single detail!

There is one universal truth in independent travel, once you are on the road you will wonder what you ever worried about in the first place!

Backpacking Is Not Hard, It Is Not Difficult, And It Is Not Dangerous.

Thousands of people travel the world every single day, and they have been doing so for tens of thousands of years before the first aeroplane or package tour was invented! Peoples tolerance for risk is becoming practically nonexistent now and the travel industry has become so pervasive even in the independent travel world that people think they can’t just get up and go, that they can’t just explore the world on their own terms without some sort of planned itinerary holding their hands.

They can. You can!

Independent travel is easier than people think. You can use certain tools and pre booking sites to your advantage from time to time but you don’t have to be a slave to them. Organised treks can be useful and they can be a responsible way to see and do certain things, but you don’t have to use them for everything. You can see the world on your own terms.

So get out there and do it!

Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

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Michael Huxley is a published author, professional adventurer and founder of the travel website, Bemused Backpacker. He has spent the last twenty years travelling to over 100 countries on almost every continent, slowly building Bemused Backpacker into a successful business after leaving a former career in emergency nursing and travel medicine, and continues to travel the world on numerous adventures every year.

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47 comments on “What I Wish People Had Told Me Before I Planned My First Backpacking Trip.
  1. My Cup Of Travel says:

    Now I think I’m a great backpacker =) Checked off all your things. I do really agree with you btw. What I also found while meeting other backpackers is that their expectations are too paradise-like. They travel with way too heavy backpacks and later find out it’s actually very tiresome and not freedom-like they thought it would be. I always try to travel without too many expectations, I don’t like to check out a place before I’m actually there… the locals are my guide books and I see a place for the first time at the actual place and not at google. Well at least I try to =) Great article, like always!

  2. globalmouse says:

    Great set of tips and I definitely agree. I think the main things are the state of your mind – try to be as relaxed as possible, believe it will all be alright in the end and it most likely will be. And also to plan to be flexible. There is nothing worse than finding something or somewhere amazing and to have such a tight schedule that you can’t enjoy it. Travelling shouldn’t be so prescriptive, it’s about finding out where the experience takes you. But follow all of your tips for a successful trip…they make me want to pack my rucksack and hit the road!!

  3. Sally says:

    My first backpacking trip around Argentina, somehow I already knew a lot of these.. I guess I was a natural. Except I also went to the extreme and just didn’t have a guidebook at all… which worked out alright at the time, but every time I see a blog post about something cool that I missed, I get mad at myself haha!

    But hey, that just gives me a couple more reasons to go back. 🙂

    • Haha that is outstanding! A true adventurous spirit! I love that! You are absolutely right so much of this is just basic common sense, but so, so many people get caught up in the worry, the panic and the planning of travelling that somehow common sense passes them by and they just need reminding of all this. Guidebooks are useful in that respect, by letting you know some of the cool stuff there is to see, but remember you will have seen a lot that others won’t have too! ;D And as you say you can always go back! Thank you for stopping by and commenting.

      • Sally says:

        This is very true! Wouldn’t trade that month for the world… 🙂 But I’ll still be buying a guidebook for my next trip… haha.

  4. Traveller Sam says:

    I love the last part of your post “it’s not dangerous”

    So many of my non travelling friends, even my family say “it’s dangerous there!” Or “I’ve heard so many bad things about that place” blah blah blah.

    Funny how the media affects peoples views on certain places.

    I lived in Jakarta, Indonesia for 2 years – not long after the ozzy embassy bombing.

    And you know what? I never saw, heard or was involved in any kind of trouble the whole time I was there…

    In fact, throughout my travels I have felt more threatened and intimidated on the streets on my home town (Scunthorpe) than I did on the streets of downtown Bangkok!

    The truth is, anything could happen to anyone anyplace anytime. It’s as much as a risk walking down the local shops as it is travelling anywhere in the world.

    You’ve given me an excellent idea for a new post!

    • I completely agree. I’ve had those exact same things said to me for so many places. Thanks for the comment and I’m glad the article inspired you! 😉 You should check out my articles on travel safety too.

      • Traveller Sam says:

        Already read it bro! You’ve hit the nail right on the head…I’m not a new traveller but certainly some of the things you’ve talked about are gonna sink in. Some very useful info!

  5. eemusings says:

    There’s not really anything I wish I’d known, but I don’t think anything can truly prepare you for how gruelling long term travel with a partner can be when things start to go wrong! If I’d known we were going to have shouting matches and crying fits on the scorching streets of Naples and Athens… That said, there was never a single moment in which I wanted to go home – it was all part of the great experience.

    • Travelling with a partner is a whole other bag of worms I’m afraid! Many backpackers would say that long term travel will either cement a relationship or tear it apart. Thanks for commenting.

  6. Tania Langitan says:

    A good article to those who like traveling on solo backpacker. Very useful!

  7. Jessi says:

    I’m terrible at all of these, but especially the first two! I want to know exactly what I’m doing when and I have trouble changing plans at the last minute. I’m trying desperately to break the habit, but my need for control tends to win out. The problem is that one precipitates the other. I want to schedule everything instead of being flexible, and by scheduling everything I end up cramming way too much into the time I have!

    This summer I’m going on a half-month trip where I know the start point and the end point. I’m trying with all my might not to plan what will happen between landing and departing. Talk about a test of will!

    Great tips. Hopefully I’ll learn to follow them at some point. 🙂

    • Thanks Jessi, I appreciate the comment! Don’t worry so much about it, I’m sure you will have a fantastic trip! Why not compromise if you are worried, where instead of not planning anything at all you could always know your start point, think of one or maybe two things you REALLY want to do there, and you know your end point. That way you have planned a little, but you are also leaving yourself open to relax and go with the flow too? Have a fantastic trip! You’ll have to come back and let me know how it worked out for you!

      • Jessi says:

        Yeah, that’s a good idea. I’m headed to Rome and I know I want to do a day trip from there to Pompeii…beyond that I’m trying to leave it up in the air. Luckily I’m traveling with someone who has been to Italy before, so it should work out! I’ll try to stop back over and let you know how it’s going too! Cheers!

  8. Abbi says:

    Hey, thanks for this. It’s about 8 weeks until I am potentially heading off on my first 5 month backpacking trip! This information is so helpful.

    The first time I travelled to Australia, I took 23kg, by the 4th time, I took just 9kg! Travelling lighter just makes sense.

    I’ve been worrying about travelling on my own as a solo female traveler, so have been finding your site helpful.

    Safe travels.


    • Thank you Abbi, it’s always heartening to hear when my site helps someone out a little, I’m really glad you are finding it useful! And don’t worry, I’m sure you’ve read my posts on travelling solo as a woman, you will be absolutely fine and all those worries will just disappear! Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting.

  9. Renuka says:

    Great tips! I have never really backpacked in my life, but would like to experience it.

  10. Mark says:

    I have to agree with your tips. I have been adjusting my travel gear/pack each time I return home before I head out. For example, I know I can make do with 3 boxer briefs instead of 4, 2 pairs of socks instead of 4, 1 charger instead of 3, etc….

    It takes time. Last time I went to Mexico, I went for 12 days on a business trip scouting locations and had to stick to a schedule, not so much in terms of times but 2 nights here, 3 nights there, etc… but beyond that the days were free to explore. While it certainly was not enough time, it did help me eliminate what I did not need to return to next time. And with more familiarity now, I know I would be able to maximize the value of each place I return to making it more relaxing.

    As for traveling solo, I don’t get why people are scared. I was born deaf and having to live with the dangers of the hearing world every day so it is always a thrill for me to travel outside my comfort zone. I will check out your posts on travel safety, see if there’s anything new to add to common sense.


    • You are absolutely right Mark, it does take a little time and experience to get comfortable with travelling light, I’ve found that despite any advice most people will find their own way in their own time. 🙂

      I totally agree on the fear of travelling solo too, a lot is down to self confidence and fear of the unknown, but hopefully a bit of advice and reassurance will go a long way. There is definitely a lot more to safety than common sense, knowledge and experience, alertness and knowing how to react for example, but for the absolute majority of people the absolute majority of time, reasonable common sense precautions will be enough.

      Thanks so much for the comment Mark, I really appreciate it. 🙂

  11. Amanda says:

    Yes, you definitely do not need to pack as much as you think! Learned this the hard way :-/

  12. kariannedisalvo says:

    Great advice! I think the flexibility part is so important. We changed our plans so regularly when we were away. It was liberating to have such freedom, to decide where we wanted to go the same morning as we left. We regularly talked to other travellers to get suggestions as to where to go. Although our general plans remained the same, we ended up visiting places we’d never considered.

    I also wish we’d packed less! My 55+10l backpack seems ridiculous now that I know how much I actually needed! Id also recommend a front loading backpack if possible. My front loader, combined with my packing cubes, kept everything so organised and easy to find!

    • Thank you, I’m glad you liked it! The flexibility is absolutely key, there are so many awesome places I never would have seen if it weren’t for last minute decisions! Definitely agree with travelling light too, and I do like front loader backpacks, there have been some amazing front loader backpacks that have come out in recent years! I am just too attached to my old top loader bergen to ever let it go completely though, we’ve been together for about 15 years! Haha!

  13. travellingkiwi76 says:

    Hmm some sound advice. Sometimes I think learning how to travel better by ourselves makes us better travellers, or at least it did for me. Some great advice for people who aren’t travel stubborn like myself 🙂 great blog

  14. Claudia says:

    You don’t have to book everything! It is interesting. In my experience, bookings can be both a blessing as well as a sentence. I wish I had booked a place when I arrived in Panama City and EVERYTHING was packed and I ended up in the crappiest place in town – the only one that had a bed. I wish I hadn’t booked a place when I arrived in Cartagena and realized I had just booked the crappiest hostel in town.

    • Exactly, there are of course some situations where it is better to book ahead (arriving late at night, during festivals/holidays etc) but in general it is much better to keep your options open. 🙂

  15. The Lite Backpacker says:

    Great post!! I would also add – that it is ok to feel homesick. Every traveller has days where they just miss home. But trust that it will pass very quickly, so don’t feel bad about feeling it when it happens.

  16. Connie says:

    Great post! I have the opposite problem haha. I didn’t pack enough stuff, just threw things in a backpacking thinking I don’t need anything, that’s what backpacking is about! Missed a lot of essential stuff.

    It’s been a couple years since then…still haven’t learned, sigh. xD

    • Thank you Connie, oh no what did you miss? You really only need the essentials and a few changes of clothes?

      • Connie says:

        Well for starters I left my flip flops in a plastic bag at home….don’t want to shower in hostels barefoot!! #nofootfungus Good thing they were all little things you can buy abroad for cheap haha.

        But I started doing multi-day hiking trips last year, which I think is a great way to get packing-disciplined. If you forget something or pack too much, you’re screwed in the woods!

      • That’s the thing though, most things you can replace easily when travelling, flip flops among them! ;D And that’s definitely true about trekking.

  17. John says:

    Not using the guidebook so much!! Yes! I got a Lonely Planet because I thought everyoe did but to be honest it is next to useless and so commercialised they may as well hand them out in Thomas Cook. I don’t think it has come out of my pack morr than a couple of times on my entire trip, I’ve been using blogs like yours so much more.

  18. Danielle says:

    Great article! We are planning a trip around the world next year for six months. Hoping not to bite off too many countries, but shooting for around 16 or so. I hope I can follow your advice about packing light. I’m only taking a carryon backpack so I don’t have a choice.

    • 16 countries in 6 months? Hell yes that is a lot! I would personally halve that at the very least! I’m sure you’ll manage just fine with the packing though, honestly it is a lot easier than you think when you get out there and find you don’t need half as much as you thought you did and if you do need something you can always pick it up as you go. Enjoy your trip planning!

  19. Christine says:

    Just read a number of your articles, good advice!. I’ve just retired at 61 and am newly widowed so I want to go and explore the world, frightened of going solo but will have to do it. Did you meet many mature backpackers or was it mostly young people?

    • Hi Christine, I am so sorry to hear that, it must be a rough time for you. But exploring the world is an awesome thing to do and is often a good way to start healing. First off, don’t be frightened of going solo, it is honestly an amazing way to travel. And secondly no it isn’t just young people any more. I’d say over the last 5 or ten years the demographics have shifted a lot, there are still a lot of young student age travellers, but there are also a TON of travellers in their 30s or 40s (those teenage travellers from 15 – 20 years ago growing up and still travelling like me or taking a career break) a lot of family travellers and definitely a lot of mature travellers too! So you definitely won’t be the only one. Go out there and have a great time, and feel free to contact me if you need any advice or tips.

  20. Emily says:

    Definitely taking all of this on board for my upcoming trip! Thankyou xoxox

  21. Amanda says:

    Salient advice!

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Hi, I'm Michael! I'm a former nurse turned published author and world travelling professional adventurer! I have spent over twenty years travelling over 100 countries and I want to inspire you to do the same! Want to know more about me? Just click here!

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