Tips for First-time Backpackers

Guest Columnist Jonas Mikka Luster writes

Packing

  • Get the best backpack you can find. A good backpack sits well on your back (please don’t just go buy one, find a store that will help you adjust it and find a good one), has at least one outside mesh pocket, ideally two, one external small compartment that can be locked, and around 40 liters of volume. Do not (believe me) buy one of those backpacks with a curved frame. They might sound more comfortable, but curvature screws with your storage. There are tens of thousands of backpacks, and less than a tenth of them will be the same between countries. So, instead of pictures, here’s a sketch illustration:

✓ Have an easily accessible outside pocket that can be locked

✓ Have comfortable straps that can be adjusted well (you won’t be wearing the same things every day, layers mandate change of strap length. Also have small pockets there, for camera, cigarettes, knife, and a flashlight.

✓ Have wide and comfortable hip straps. Also have a pocket here, for other things you might need.

✓ Have side mesh for bottles, your map, and other things you need to get to quickly but not as quickly as the things in your strap pockets. Have a front mesh to stuff wet things into so they can dry while you walk.

✓ Be about 40 liters and make sure they are sized to actually go on a plane as carry-on.

✓ Have an arrow pointing at something I wanted to point out but totally forgot what it was. This arrow is optional 🙂

  • Get a Travel Sheet (like Cocoon®) and you’ll be much freer in deciding where to sleep. Sheets are very light, can serve as a blanket to sit somewhere, and make hostel sleeping SO much less disgusting.
  • 1 lbs on your feet is 7.5 lbs on your back. That means you’ll want to get the lightest shoes that still work for you. Trail runners are nice, I had a pair of sandals and a pair of decent walking shoes that also doubled as formal shoes.
  • Lighten your load wherever you can. Superlight Travel Sheet, saw off the handle on your toothbrush, etc. etc.
  • Make three envelopes: one with all your original documents, driver’s license, etc. One with copies. And a third one with more copies. Always guard the originals like your life. Always.
  • Get a daypack. I use the Ultra-Sil® Day Pack, which is small enough to be attached to a keychain but can, unfolded, hold 20 liters and up to 150kg of load (above 5kg it gets rather uncomfortable for long walks, though). Whenever you stay somewhere for more than a night, move all your day stuff into the daypack and get the backpack somewhere safe. Or, if you need a better pack, just move things you don’t need for the day into your daypack, and store that.
  • Go on LighterPack and make your packing list. Experiment. In all cases you should stay below 15% of your body weight for backpacking. That gives you a few extra for a liter of water and maybe something you purchase along the way.
  • Trim everywhere. Don’t bring your 5D Mk. III and six lenses, bring something like the Sony RX100 III and call it a day. Seriously, that little bit of image quality and convenience is not worth the hassle.

 

Traveling

  • Take as much non-plane public transit as you can. Every time you take a cab or a rental car you’ll pay yourself silly, every time you take a plane you’ll lose gear (knives, eating utensils, liquids) you have to repurchase.
  • Get a drop somewhere. If you, for example, travel through Europe get a drop in Munich, one in Paris, and one in London or so. A drop is a place with an address people can send you things to. Friends, public services, that stuff. If you need something, let someone know to send it. If you don’t need something or if you bought something for home, send it home, don’t lug it around with you.
  • Bring things you can trade. Local things from your home town, for example. Small (key chains, fridge magnets, etc.) and whimsy does best. Very often did those make me friends, get me fed, or were used as trade for the same local item to send home.
  • Have a friend at home whom you inform at short intervals that you’re still around. Have them get nervous if they don’t hear anything from you for three weeks. That could mean the difference between rotting in a jail in Laos and moving on.

 

Clothing

  • Pack the least amount of clothing you can get together. Wash your things in hostel rooms and public laundries. I only had, for example, two pairs of pants. Sometimes, when I had laundry day in a laundromat, I’d put on my rain poncho, throw both of them in the wash, and wait, naked except for the poncho, for things to clean and dry.
  • Get Merino wool socks. They don’t stink quickly.
  • Get a poncho (see above) and pack one trashbag so you can seal off your backpack. Worst case cut a few holes in the trashbag and use it as poncho if your poncho is gone or damaged.

Customs

  • Here is where it gets complicated. Not because it’s hard to follow but because there seems to be a “lowest/strictest common denominator” idealism in some people. I’ll skip over that. You’re a guest wherever you go. Be an ambassador for your country, but be it in the context of your host country. Dress as the locals do. If that means veil or long clothes, wear them, no matter how hot it is. If that means you don’t light a light on specific days, don’t do it. If it means jeans and t-shirt, do it. You’re traveling to meet new people and cultures, start by becoming one of them on the outside and letting them into your inside.
  • Once all that is done, you’ll go out and fail. A lot. You’ll freeze, you’ll sweat, you’ll hate your life, love it. You’ll meet nice people and assholes, you’ll find help when and from whom you least expect it, get hurt as well. You’ll win and lose. And every time something goes totally FUBAR you’ll learn. Soon you’ll have your pack legs and you’ll just be free. Just don’t expect it to happen right away. As I always say, you’ll always be a little wet, a little tired, and a little in pain. And you’ll always know, and not doubt for a second, that this is the most amazing thing you could possibly do.
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