Ultimate Guide to Your First Solo Backpacking Trip
So what’s all this hype about going solo backpacking somewhere cold and sleeping on stiff bunk beds? Solo backpacking or traveling, whatever you prefer to call it, is leaving home and your dog for an epic adventure on your own, going out of your comfort zone and living on a backpack, spending frugally, in unfamiliar territory.
Being on your own in an unfamiliar territory teaches you a lot about being independent. Learning how to take care of yourself abroad when you are the only foreigner in a small cramped bus, where your knees get scraping wounds from the seat in front of you, headed for Panglao in Bohol, Philippines builds self-confidence and courage. Not to mention that you get to experience colorful festivals, incredibly hospitable locals, amazing destinations, interesting culture and lifestyles on the other side of the planet.
Why go on a solo backpacking trip?
Because it is good for you. Because you get to spend some time alone to discover more about yourself. Get to know yourself better. You commune with nature using its own silent language. The best part, aside from the awesome experience, is freedom. Freedom to change your itinerary, to eat wherever and whenever, to go anywhere, to be flexible in your travel plans, to rest when you are tired, to get a good relaxing massage at the end of the day instead of partying with friends, freedom to just sit in peace in a little side street cafe and do some people watching.
The truth is…
You will experience homesickness at times. You will miss your bed and your dog. Sure you can think about home for a while and think about how everyone back home is doing. But why wallow in being homesick when you can sit back and watch the red-orange sunset with a cold beer in the beaches somewhere in southern Thailand? Your shoulders and back will cry in pain because of that heavy backpack you’ve been carrying from international airports to domestic airports to bus depots to hostels. That’s why you should keep in mind to pack and travel light. Indulge yourself to a yoga by the beach and feel the back pains swimming away. And then there’s jet lag, long overnight bus rides, crappy free coffee on ferry boats, no heated water, bedbugs and a lot more. I don’t mean to scare you. I’m just sharing what I have experienced so far. But the rewards will change you as person in a better way and you’re going to love you more!
Waking up in the morning and deciding on your own, “what do I want to do today?” Whatever it is that you have decided, just do it! If your current hostel turns out to be boring, just check out and leave. The rainy weather bumming you out? Then go to a local cooking school and learn how to make the sumptuous Pad Thai. You are on your own so go ahead, just do it!
Indulge yourself to a local massage that costs way less than what you normally have at home. Experience thai massage in Thailand. Get a tattoo the traditional way from a local tattoo artist in the Philippines. Discover how coffee is a way of life in Sweden.
You discover yourself, and realize that you have itinerary planning and budgeting skills. Maybe you never realized that you have these skill before and just found out now that you’re travelling solo. Have you been bargaining for a cheaper deal with a local tour operator and got the deal? Then you have bargaining and haggling skills in you too!
Even after all that I have mentioned, the reward or the payoff of the destination itself is breathtaking. Literally taking your breath away. You shout to the top of your lungs, that you’ve arrived! J’ai arrivé! Jag är här! Really, I do that!
I experienced the Northern Lights in Abisko Sweden
How to prepare yourself
For your first solo backpacking trip, you need to prepare yourself. Yes, you. You are the most important part of this journey in your life. You need to prepare yourself as a whole, physically, mentally, financially, and spiritually.
- Prepare yourself mentally. Being solo with only your thoughts for 24 hours may drive you crazy at times. Practice meditation and the art of being at peace with yourself.
- Be physically fit. Remember there’s no one to carry the backpack that weighs about 10-15 kilos for you. There will be a lot of walking, hiking, lifting your backpack from the ground to shelves or bus seats.
- Prepare to get out of your comfort zone. Be prepared to sleep in cots and bunk beds. Be prepared that sometimes there’s no heated water. Be prepared of dead spots and no connectivity.
- Accept that something will go wrong. Not all that you have planned will work out perfectly and that is totally OK. Don’t despair if the bus schedules in Cebu, Philippines is not as on time as on the website. Or if you missed your train stop in Abisko Ostra and you have to walk back to the last train stop for 2 hours in the dark. Happened to me but it didn’t ruin my spirits at all. Just seeing another angle of Mount Noulja blanketed in snow against the gray skies backdrop is a payoff.
- Let your family and trusted friends know of your travel plans. Let them know how you are doing it, when you are going, where you are going, how you are supporting yourself out there alone. There’s nothing like having the support of your family and friends to rally behind you and welcome you back after months of being a nomad. During your travel, check in with them once in a while to let them know that you are safe and having a grand time.
- Prepare to open your mind. You will be travelling to a lot of new destinations, each with different cultures and different beliefs. Open your eyes and mind to a whole new world of travel and discover how small you are in this big planet. You will learn a lot if you’re more open-minded.
- Prepare to do some cost-cutting in your daily lifestyle so you can save up more for your dream trip. That would mean less dining out and partying with friends, cutting back on Starbucks coffee, less shopping, fewer desserts, and midnight snacking. You’re hitting 2 birds with one stone here, saving up and cutting back on calories too!
Planning your first solo trip
- Plan your travel dates and check the weather. Planning to hike Patagonia in Chile or planning to ride the hot air balloon in Bagan, Myanmar? Check when is the best time for your activity. There is no worst news ever than finding out that the hot air ballooning season is only between October and April in Myanmar and yet you arrived in May. Checking the weather also plays a big factor in planning what to pack for your trip.
- Plan your budget. Set a target amount and work within this amount. If you don’t have this much amount on hand yet, then make it your goal to save up for this trip. Be realistic on how much you can afford. Pay for flights and transfers and accommodation in advance so you won’t be carrying that much cash with you all the time.
- Shop and choose carefully your travel insurance company. Travel insurance is important for all kinds of travelers. When something goes wrong, like delayed flights or lost baggages, or an accident while hiking, you have peace of mind. I highly recommend World Nomads Travel Insurance because of its comprehensive packages and its simplified tool.
Choosing your destination
Be specific with your plans for activities. If Iceland has always been in your bucket list, be specific what part of Iceland is it that you want to experience? Do you want to go in summer to experience the midnight sun? Do you want to go during the wintertime to chase the aurora borealis?
Plot your destination. Create a map on google or buy a map from the local store and plot the destinations where you want to go. A plotted destination map gives you a clearer picture of your whole trip. It gives you a whole new perspective on planning flights, accommodations, activities, and tours. Makes the planning more exciting too!
- Do your research well on getting from point a to point b. Like in my Eastern Mindanao backpacking map above, I plotted the towns where I will be staying overnight. I’ve done my research on bus lines and schedules, how much are the estimated fares, bike rentals, and the like. I’ve also researched on the places where there are tours that I can join. Though I have not made any bookings and confirmations yet, at this stage I already know what my options are.
- Download travel apps with offline maps. There are hundreds of travel maps available in the Apple AppStore and Google Market Place for download across devices and Tables. Select the one that gives you the option to save your map offline so that no internet connectivity in remote areas is not a problem.
- Lighter is better. Way better. Believe me when I say that a pair of hiking shoes, running shoes, and flip-flops is all that you need. Choose clothing materials that is made of light fabrics. The best tip is not to bring any pair of denim jeans. Ever.
- Don’t pack too many gadgets or camera gear. For long-term travel or if you need to work while traveling, you might need to bring your laptop with you. For short-term travel or if you are going on a trip that involves a lot of hiking activities, it may not be a good idea to bring your laptop. The same thing to the camera, if your travel destination will be involving a lot of island hopping tours and many overnight bus trips then bringing a bulky DSLR and a number of lenses with you might not be a good idea due to its weight and for your safety too.
- Research the destination and the tour activity if you need to bring a sleeping bag or tent with you. Some tour operators offer tents for rent so feel free to ask if this is offered.
- Choose your backpack wisely. Do a lot of research on which backpack is the best fit for your physique or body frame. Usually, you will need to bring 2 kinds of backpacks. One backpack is the main backpack for all your stuff and the other one is a day backpack for when you go on day tours and have to leave the big backpack at your hostel. I usually bring two.
Osprey Packs Women’s Kyte 46 Backpack
This backpack is the best decision I’ve ever made in choosing which one to buy. There are hundreds to choose from and with almost the same features. But the Kyte 46 comfortably matches my height and my body frame. It has adjustable straps that can adjust to your height, and the breathable mesh at the back so your back can breathe. I loved that it already has its own rain cover so I don’t have to buy one.
Osprey Packs Women’s Tempest 20 Backpack I love this backpack because it adaptable to any kind of day trip. Be it adrenaline-packed like cycling or hiking or a simple walking tour around the city center. It has a separate compartment if you plan to bring a bladder during your hike. It has a LidLock feature for your helmet when you’re done cycling the city. The hip belt sits exactly at my waist! Perfect for coins and small bills.
Common mistakes for first timers
- Planning too much. The information from all the research for your travel destination can be overwhelming at times. But it doesn’t mean that you have to plan everything up to the last detail of what’s for dinner on July 6.
- Not being flexible with your plans. What if it turns out that there is a colorful street parade on the day you leave for your next destination? Do you stay another day? I definitely would!
- Buying too much stuff; Once you’ve signed an agreement with yourself that you will go backpacking, don’t immediately go shopping for backpacking gear and mindlessly shop like a kid lost inside a candy store. Remember that you have a budget that you need to stay within. Cover most of the planning stages first like the travel dates, destination, and activities that you want to do before you go crazy shopping for gear. That way, you can come up with a list of what you need to buy, saving you some money and less mindless shopping.
- Don’t camp out solo on your first backpacking trip in an unfamiliar destination. If its your first time backpacking in the Himalayas, for your safety and security, check with tourist information desk or a local tour guide before camping on your own.
- Being a cheapskate and staying in cheap hostels totally destroy your hostel experience. Weigh your options if saving up means more to you than sticking it out with a boring hostel with bunk beds without linens and lockers. Yes, lockers are important!
We all need to travel once in our life. We all need to be alone sometimes. So why not combine the two and travel on your own for a memorable adventure of a lifetime and open your eyes and mind to new cultures and new friends? Most of the time that I travel solo, I wasn’t really alone. I met new friends, mainly locals and some hostel owners that I befriended, each with interesting funny anecdotes about the last person who stayed in the room where I’m staying.
Solo backpacking and making it on your own is not scary as the internet and the media projects it to be. Trust your instincts and always be alert. Bring your common sense with you everywhere you go and you’ll be fine.