Backpackers are a funny lot. Despite the abundance of advice available now on how to take a gap year or travel around the world independently there are still the same groups of people making the same mistakes over and over. Here are the ten most common mistakes almost all first time backpackers make, and how you can avoid making them yourself.
Ignoring Travel Health Advice.
I get it, you’re caught up in the excitement of your upcoming trip. You’ve planned it all out and all you want to do is get out there and enjoy the trip of a lifetime. The absolute last thing you want to think about is getting ill or having to deal with antimalarial tablets every day. That’s understandable, it really is. The big problem here is that travel health is an extremely important issue and if it is dealt with and prepared for as early as possible, is something you can then forget about to an extent and enjoy your travels. But most travellers don’t do this, they leave everything until the last minute and then panic that they don’t have the right vaccinations, no malaria protection and have no time to sort it all out before they leave which puts them at a higher risk.
Problem solved? Just get it all sorted early.
It really is that simple. It is recommended that you visit your GP, specialist nurse or travel clinic at least six to ten weeks before you plan to travel. I strongly recommend that you go a little sooner than that, especially if you are planning on travelling for more than a month and/or you need a series of vaccinations which may need to be timed weeks apart. If you will need anti malaria prophylaxis where you plan on going, then it is important to discuss with your GP or specialist nurse which medication is right for you, test for any allergies and in some cases begin taking the medication before you set off. This takes time too. Just get it all sorted early and then you can travel with peace of mind. Need to know more? Check out these sections and articles.
What Vaccinations Do You Need?
Not Getting Insurance.
I still cannot believe that travellers do this, but the amount of first time backpackers – and let’s face it even experienced backpackers – who head off on the road with no insurance is just shocking. I get it, no one likes paying their hard earned money for what is essentially a piece of paper. I don’t either. But it is essential! It’s all fine and dandy until the shit hits the fan and you end up stuck with a medical bill the size of an average mortgage back home and your mum and dad have to sell their house to get you an aspirin!
Problem solved? Get insurance!
That’s it. No fancy tips or hacks here, just get the damn insurance! It’s important! Think of it as an essential cost alongside your flight costs.
What You Should Consider Before You Start Planning Your Trip.
Why Travel Insurance Is Essential On Your Gap Year.
Packing Too Much.
This is cardinal sin number one. The advantages and disadvantages of packing light versus overpacking are as old as travel itself, and no one expects you to travel around the world for six months with nothing more than a change of underpants and your passport, but use a little bit of judgment. Like many first time backpackers rocking up to the hostel on Khao San Road, you’ve probably bought a pack that is far too big for you and have filled it with pretty much everything you own along with the entire contents of an outdoors survival shop, just in case. Well done, now you have to lug that thing round with you for six to twelve months like some aging, wheezing turtle on a mission to give themselves a permanent hunchbacked spine. Your pack will become an absolute burden if you need to walk anywhere with it, especially if you are in a tropical region where you will need to remain on very good terms with any shower you can find. You’ll struggle to keep your pack by you on any long distance transport, and those steep stairs you have to climb to get to your accommodation? Good luck!
Problem Solved? Pack (a little) lighter.
Now you don’t need to go to the other extreme either, there are some backpackers who travel with carry on only or less, like a packing ninja treating their gap year as an extreme sport. You don’t have to do that. Just get a pack that is the right size for you, and fill it with basic essentials and a few back up pairs of clothes. About half way full is reasonably comfortable. You can always replace things like toiletries, and you are certain to want to buy some T Shirts or scarves or whatever as you go along (cheap markets are a backpackers friend!) That way you will be able to fill the rest of the space up with cool souvenirs you pick up along the way too! Want to know more about what – and what not – to pack?
My personal Backpacking packing list essentials.
What To Pack For Your Gap Year.
Trying To Do Too Much.
Ah you can always spot a first timer. The ones with a guide book in hand and an ultra packed, ultra tight itinerary. These are the backpackers who are planning to ‘do’ three countries in just two weeks, or try to fit in the entire South East Asian region plus China and Australia in just a month or two. It just isn’t going to happen. Sure, you can technically get a RTW ticket that will take in a hub airport in a dozen countries for a month or so, and you can technically spend a day or two in each capital city before bouncing off to your next destination but what is the point? You will spend the majority of your time in transit or waiting around in airports (and god forbid there is a delay that throws your entire plans out), and in your efforts to try and see everything you will miss out on seeing 99% of every country you visit!
Problem solved? Slow down!
Just slow down, relax, that is all it takes! Try and take at the very least one month minimum for any one country you visit, more if you can and certainly more for larger countries such as China, India or Mexico for example. Of course time constraints and costs will weigh in on this decision too, but in general the longer you spend in one country the more you will see of it and the better your experience will be. You will never see everything of course, but that is what other trips are for! And don’t forget you will want the occasional rest day too. You are only human after all, sometimes you just need a break from your break! The longer your trip is, the more of these you will want!
The Art Of Backpacking, Travel Slowly.
Not Being Flexible.
You have spent months planning your trip, week after week poring over every single aspect of your itinerary and fitting as much into it as you possibly can. You have every single minute of every single day accounted for, and you will stick to it if it kills you! Right? Aside from trying to fit too much into an itinerary this is one of the biggest cardinal sins all first time backpackers make. By sticking religiously to an ultra tight itinerary you will miss out on all the spontaneity that makes independent travel so amazing! Why would you do that?
Problem solved? Plan to be spontaneous.
Having plans for your gap year is great, of course there are certain things you will want to do and certain places you will want to visit, but plan a lot of free time around them too. Experienced travellers make as minimal a plan as possible that gives them plenty of flexibility to spend longer in a place they find they have fallen in love with, take a detour to spend a weekend on an island with that gorgeous backpacker they met on the overnight bus or explore a place they didn’t even know existed until those backpackers at their last hostel told them about it. Backpacking around the world is a truly great adventure, live it to the fullest and take every spontaneous opportunity that comes your way, don’t close yourself off to it with a rigid itinerary.
Forget The Gap Year Itinerary, Go With The Flow.
Avoid Backpacker Burnout And Indulge Your Inner Flashpacker.
Following The Crowd.
Most first time backpackers follow the backpacker crowds religiously, like herded sheep or lemmings on a suicide run. Back in the day when Lonely Planet was still considered the bible that basically meant anywhere that was mentioned in the book. If it was in lonely planet, everyone turned up there (and suddenly found that services had declined and prices had quadrupled at the very least thanks to the curse of LP). Nowadays the information sources may have shifted but the backpacker hotspots are still there, and like bees at a picnic you will find every first time, eager eyed, backpack hunched backpacker turning up there too.
Now don’t get me wrong, hanging out with other backpackers in your dorm is awesome, you really will meet some amazing people that way, and the places that most backpackers head to will be popular for a reason, that is why many are famous tourist/traveller must sees after all. Frankly no backpacking trip will be complete without these experiences, but the big mistake most first time travellers make is following this crowd religiously and doing and seeing nothing else. By doing this, most first time backpackers miss out on many of the experiences that experienced travellers crave.
Problem solved? Head (just slightly) off the beaten track.
There is no reason at all why you shouldn’t follow the backpacker crowds a little, stay in dorms filled with other travellers, visit the famous attractions, spend a night or two relaxing at a backpacker bar and making new friends, that’s all awesome and those famous attractions are after all famous for a reason. But just occasionally move away from that too. Stay in local guesthouses away from the backpacker hubs, make an effort to meet and chat with locals, take in a more cultural experience. Drag yourself out of your comfort zone. That is part of the reason you are travelling after all.
Why It’s Good To Get Lost On Your Gap Year.
Not Budgeting Properly.
At some point many first time backpackers will run out of money, or at the very least burn through their funds quicker than they thought they would. It happens to so many I have lost count of the ones I have met. It will happen to you too. Backpackers who haven’t budgeted properly, accounted for all the ‘extra’ expenses on the road (little things like food, drink or actually doing stuff from time to time), or have just been hit with one too many common scams that have depleted their funds quicker than they thought, all end up running low on funds sooner than they expected.
Problem solved? Erm, budget properly.
It sounds too simple doesn’t it? It is! This should go without saying really but proper budgeting is the be all and end all of how successful your trip is, but many first time backpackers forget that this doesn’t just mean having a big lump sum that should last you for the duration. What about all those extra expenses you didn’t expect? The taxi mafia alone will fleece you out of more than you think in many places, those extra deserts or snacks you just can’t resist, that extra souvenir, extra visa fees for unplanned side trips, baggage fees for when you are coming home, these all add up. Even buying basic bottled water every day soon adds up. Budgeting well means that you have a good daily budget that is slightly above what it should cost you for all your accommodation, food, drink and potential transport costs, you have separate funds to cover any activities or courses you may want to do on the road, and this includes unexpected side trips too, and emergency funds that will cover any unexpected costs such as emergency flights home or out of a destination in case of an emergency. After all that you should also have a second back up of credit cards that you can use for an emergency to get back home too. It seems basic, but so many people don’t plan ahead.
How To Completely Blow Your Budget When Backpacking. (Or Ways To Avoid Blowing It).
How YOU Can Afford To Travel Round The World Indefinitely.
Not Having A Financial Back Up.
Sometimes it isn’t just about budgeting well either, even the best laid plans go belly up sometimes and occasionally things do go wrong too that may leave you stuck in a foreign country with no cash. Wallets and purses get lost or stolen, the ATM may chew your card up or your bank will block your card because they have an overzealous fraud team who assumes that no one ever travels outside of a two mile radius of their home. One of the biggest rookie mistakes is not being prepared for these eventualities.
Problem solved? Have back up plans for your back up plans.
Look, things just go wrong sometimes, it happens. The worst thing you can do is panic. The best thing you can do is know exactly how to get it sorted before it happens so you can deal with it if things do go wrong. Prepare beforehand by letting your banks know you will be travelling (do this in writing and in person), have an emergency stash of money just in case so you aren’t running short. Have all the international phone numbers of your bank written down in a notebook (just the phone numbers, no important information obviously!) so you can get in touch with them if needed. Know how to get in touch with local police and know where your embassy is for extreme situations. Preparation is everything.
Thinking You Are Bear Grylls.
All season sleeping bag for a six month jaunt around South East Asia? Check! Five man tent even though you’ll be getting your head down in hostels and guesthouses? Check! Survival knife that will probably get taken from you at airport security? Check! I don’t know what it is but something about an upcoming gap year gives all first time backpackers a bad case of survivalist fever, an acute illness that sends them on a completely unnecessary rampage down the aisles of every outdoor enthusiast shop they can find. The sales pitch of the shop assistant coupled with your own unfettered excitement about your upcoming trip will have you convinced that you will need every oversized first aid kit, emergency ration packs and entire packs of chlorine tablets. Just calm down. You don’t. You aren’t heading out alone into the Guatemalan jungle for six months, you are heading on a tour of countries with cosmopolitan cities, an extensive traveller infrastructure and free wifi for crying out loud!
Problem solved? Just relax.
There are a small number of specific things that are a great idea to buy before you leave, a sturdy backpack for one. But you really don’t need all that much else. It is really important to remember that unless you are really going right off the beaten track and beyond, and I’m literally talking the middle of the desert or jungle with no back up here, you won’t be that far away from nice, clean amenities for you to get your head down, wash your kit, replenish your stock of toiletries or medicine if you need it or surprise surprise, even get a good meal or two! Hostels, guesthouses, laundry services, restaurants, pharmacies, all of these and more are available in abundance in the absolute majority of places you will visit, and you will not have to look very far to find something you need. And all that money you saved on all that gear can be put to use extending your trip or splurging on a nice upgrade or activity!
What To Pack For Your Gap Year.
Independent travel is easy, but it isn’t always perfect. Things do go wrong from time to time. You will find that the overnight bus you have booked isn’t in fact an ‘air con deluxe sleeper’, you will even find it is delayed by several hours while the driver has dinner in his family home he has just parked outside of! That hostel you really liked the look of will be full, things will break down, you may even get a little sick. That’s just the nature of things, but you can always spot a first time backpacker by how stressed out and angry they are getting when things go wrong.
Problem solved? Remember that these hiccups are your unique travel stories.
I have had plenty of things go wrong on the road. I’ve been in vehicle breakdowns in the middle of nowhere, had delays too numerous to count. I’ve caught dengue fever in India, been caught in a sandstorm in the Sahara, nearly drowned – twice – in Thailand, been lost in the jungles of Belize and nearly caused a riot in Delhi, amongst many other things too numerous to count. But you know what? These have become some of my favourite travel stories! It isn’t an adventure if everything goes smoothly so just take each experience as it comes and enjoy the fact that you are out there living life! After all, you could still be back home sat on a checkout counter or in a crappy office, right?
No Great Story Ever Starts With I stayed At Home.
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.
What I Wish People Had Told Me Before I Planned My First Backpacking Trip.
Top 10 Gap Year Myths Debunked.
Regarding clothes: if like me you’re six foot plus with extra-wide size 11+ feet, then make sure you pack good walking shoes and stout sandals.
For clothes, there are tailors in every town who can make you made-to-measure shirts and trousers, and you get to choose the material, style and pattern.
Also, do not expect to have wi-fi wherever you go. Pack a hardback notebook and keep a hand-written diary, so that your ‘letters home’ and/or blog posts aren’t so much ephemera lost in Twitterland but are considered and worth re-reading when you get nostalgic.
Totally agree, I always carry a notebook and pen! I’m an old fashioned writer, I love writing with a pen! But I also travelled at a time before wifi was even invented and internet cafe’s (remember them) were everywhere! So I still carry one with me everywhere now.
Hahahahaha that Bear Grills one made me laugh – I love backpacker gadgets! But then, I tend to get into situations where I kind of need to use them. It’s true though, everyone (myself included) takes practically their whole apartment plus a couple of kilos of safety knives and travel stoves when the first go away, and then if they ever decide to travel again they often go violently in the other direction. My second trip ever I had made the swap from 70L and a guitar to 30L and a ukulele…
Oh no, you’re a guitar carrier!!!! You’re one of them! Haha!
You are right though people do tend to go to the extremes! What happened to having a bit of balance? ;D Thanks for the comment I’m glad you liked the article.
Hahaha well I wish I could carry a piano to be honest! But that would be…heavy. No worries 🙂 I did indeed
Very good article! After being in the hospital after a Hanoi motorcycle accident and my bankpass lost and needing money for hospital care), this is recognizable. Bad stuff usually comes in 2 or 3 fold.
With good preps it all sorted out, like you mentioned in your article
(spread your money with bankpass+creditcard+cash, get travel insurance and write down bank+insurance numbers and websites)
One small money saving tip: check if your current health-insurance also works abroad, this may safe some money for your (extra) travel insurance. People tend too get overlapping with their current health insurance and travel insurance.
Save and happy travels,
Great tip Rick, thanks for the comment. 🙂
Haha, yes! I think I started to make all of these when I first started planning! I’m glad I found your site before I left!
I’m happy you did too. 🙂 Thanks for the comment.
I think I’ve done all these things at some point or another! No 9 – thinking you’re Bear Grylls. I signed up to hike Mount Rinjani in Lombok. WHAT WAS I THINKING. Still, it was an unforgettable experience…
I think we’ve all done these things at some point! But that’s an awesome adventure and you don’t need to be Bear Grylls to do it! Carrying half the stock of the local camping shop up there with you is not necessary though! Haha! Thanks for the comment.
Ahhhh I’ve been guiilty of all of these at some point – especially overpacking! haha
Insurance is an absolute must though!!! Good post 🙂 Simone.
Thanks Simone, you aren’t the only one! ;D
Ironically, when I started traveling, I had some things right from the get-go, according to this list. Like #s 1, 2, 7, and 8. I was totally prepared and disciplined in the areas of health, insurance, budgeting, and so on. I still always get travel insurance, (and after getting more life experience, I just can’t emphasize how important it is!!!) but overall I’ve developed a more laissez-faire approach to life as the years have passed.
However, #s 3 and 6 were my major flaws. I therefore got nicknamed “The Turtle” with my enormous, green, borrowed 90s backpack that I filled to the brim (I mean, who DOESN’T need 10 pairs of pants and 15 shirts, not to mention like five 300 page books while on the road?!). I was also scared to travel alone throughout South America, so I sacrificed visiting some places I really wanted to visit just so I could stay comfortable with traveling with others I’d met on the road. Sometimes it just takes experience to gain the necessary confidence to follow your own route…
Haha I totally remember those days of carrying a load of huge paperbacks with you! I totally agree though, experience is everything! ;D
LOL! I can’t tell you how many times I literally laughed out loud while reading this post! Great tips, thanks for sharing 🙂
Thank you very much, really glad you liked it. 🙂
Yup! Sounds about right. LOL. We suffered similar “things we did wrong” when we took our gap year two years back.. Ahh memories. 🙂
Haha you aren’t alone! At least we can look back and laugh! ;D
Ohhhhooo…that’s great! very common mistakes noticed and collected by you, usually we do these mistakes but don’t give any attention for first timers.
We’ve all made at least one of them! ;D Haha!
You’re spot on! As a seasoned backpacker i expected to snub your site but ended up nodding my head at every point. One month per country – the golden rule that noone seems to account for! But hey I’m also a nurse with itchy feet so great minds eh?!
There’s plenty of content and thoughts for seasoned backpackers too Clare, and you’re always welcome here! ;D With the state of the NHS at the moment I can’t believe there aren’t more of us with itchy feet! ;D Thanks for commenting.
Hahahaha! Yes! I think I have made every single one of these!
Most of us have! ;D
Of light stuff , under wears 2ps. shirt one and socks.
Now that IS light packing!
Health advice! Never making that mistake again…hospitalization in a foreign country is no joke
Ouch! What happened? Hope you’re okay now?
So true! I definitely recognise one or two of these!
You and me both Tanya! ;D
Trying to do too much! I can totally relate to that. The first few months of my gap year (started last August) were spent like that. Now I’ve learned to slow things down a lot and it is a lot less exhausting!
It really is Andrew. 🙂