Backpacking Made Easier. Maybe*.
Why Go Backpacking?
So you want to see the world, but you're on a budget. Or maybe you want to get amongst some true cultural experiences, and not see the sanitised version out of the hotel or tour bus window. Or maybe you just like a challenge.
In any of those scenarios, you'd better like a challenge. Backpacking can be hard.
It can also be the most rewarding experience of your life.
Backpacking: to travel somewhere with only the clothes on your body and the possessions on your back, and maybe enough money to get your way back home; to learn, to live, to make mistakes, to grow.
Before Heading Off: What to Take, and What to Leave Behind
The Absolute Basics (What Backpacking Is Not)
Backpacking is not about materialism. It's about comfort and practicality. Let's repeat this point: comfort and practicality. You do not need your Xbox, or your GHD. You do not need things you'd be sad to lose, or things which break easily. If it can't be dropped, drowned, sat on, covered in beer, or kicked, it should not be in your backpack.
Backpacking is not about cultural arrogance. This is something you leave behind. I cannot state this enough. You will enjoy yourself more if you don't try to impose your worldview on other cultures, but just be quiet and open your eyes. Remember what your mother taught you: treat others as you'd like to be treated, and remember your manners. But you already knew all that.
Buying Your Gear and Packing Light
An integral part of the backpacking experience is THE BACKPACK. Yes, like your old schoolbag but bigger, with a bit of luck. This will carry your life from the moment you walk through security at the airport until you come home. Or not come home, if you've fallen in love with a place you've visited, and refused to return.
There are three main considerations when choosing a backpack, if you're looking into buying one for your adventure. Quality. Comfort. Practicality. While you can borrow a lot of gear for backpacking, this is probably the one item that you really want to own.
The quality of your backpack is crucial. It's going to get a beating. It will be thrown onto a bus, then into a crazy taxi, then lugged across a field, then dropped on the ground. It needs zips that won't break, and that are hard for pickpockets to open. Try to make sure every opening can be locked. It needs to have straps that won't snap. It needs to be made of tough material. This is all pretty obvious, but if you're going to buy one really decent piece of gear for your trip, make it the backpack.
The comfort of your backpack is also important. You will be walking. Lots. Read reviews online, talk to other people with backpacks, and talk to shopkeepers (and don't let them talk you into buying something wrong). Your pack should be comfortable, properly fitted (the seller can help with this) and properly distribute weight. Look for good padding, a decent frame, and an airflow management system if possible.
The practicality of your backpack is the last main thing to consider. Will it hold everything? Will it allow you to access the gear you need efficiently, and without messing up everything else? Is it waterproof, or have a rain cover? Is it secure?
Let's not forget the rest of your kit, though. There's a lot of specialist gear out there, and most of it's overpriced. Some of it is absolutely crucial, though. Again, I stress talking to other people who have been where you're planning to go, because they'll know what you need, where to buy it (often it's cheaper at your destination!), and how much you should be paying. The emphasis is on light. You're carrying this all with you! In terms of OTHER GEAR, then, you'll need some or most of the following (I'm working on the idea you're staying in a hostel, but this list will require far more if you're camping):A torch (flashlight), preferably self-charging. Batteries are heavy, expensive, bad for the environment, and hard to find when you're off the beaten track.
A book of some sort. Guidebooks are helpful, maps are even better, and in some ways, a token paperback work of fiction is the best of all. You can swap and bribe with your book along the way. A journal is a must, if you're organised enough to stay on top of it.
Whether or not you need a sleeping bag, definitely take a silk sleeping bag liner. This is light, dries quickly, and will save you from all sorts of nasty skin diseases. If you're going to a silk-producing country, you can probably pick one up cheaply or have one made; otherwise, bite the price bullet, because it's worth it! A YHA style one is best, as this incorporates a pillow slip.
Consider a knife for fruit and other food. Also consider what implications this may have, especially at border crossings.
You're good at waking up after a night of no sleep and making that train? I didn't think so. Some sort of alarm is crucial.
...and speaking of a good night's sleep, invest in some quality ear plugs and eye mask. I've never used one, but some of my friends also swear by a travel pillow.
Your washing deserves some decent consideration. Think about taking some sort of travel washing line (although a bit of ingenuity can always solve this problem), and some sort of biodegradable washing powder. Liquid can cause problems on planes. Also consider taking a universal plug.
While we're on this topic, really think about your clothing. It needs to be strong (especially to handle the washing processes in some countries), fast drying (think specialist travel and sports materials), and able to be layered. Jeans are your enemy when you're travelling. In fact, any cotton, or natural materials (silk is an exception, as is wool in some instances). Please take the cultures you'll be visiting into account when you choose your wardrobe (eg, a scarf for covering your head, or long pants for visiting religious sites).
Some ziploc bags will save you a lot of stress in a lot of different ways. Also think about a bit of cord, some safety pins, and some elastic bands. These are all pretty handy. As is a pen.
A raincoat that can be squashed down will be great for fitting in your daypack.
And yes, this means you'll need a daypack unless you're super keen to take your big bag everywhere.
A money-belt isn't exactly glamorous, but is a lot easier than losing your passport in the jungle. To be effective, this has to be worn under your clothes. Consider getting a slash-proof one. Then again, a lot of people think these are entirely obsolete - personal choice.
In terms of electronics other than an alarm, a camera is an absolute must, and will need to be at least reasonable quality, and have a big SD card in it. An iPod might be useful to keep audiophiles entertained, but is definitely optional. Take your chargers and power adaptors.
Two words: microfibre towel
Cutlery can be surprisingly handy.
Good quality boots, jandals (or sandals, flipflops, thongs, or whatever else they're called!), and socks will make you a very happy person.
In terms of hydration, consider how you're going to store and purify water. Iodine tablets are an option, as are filters, and UV purifiers. Buying water is also often possible, but is more environmentally damaging. Always check the seal on bottled water.
You'll need to consider the security of your gear. Take padlocks to close your bag, and a way to clip it onto bus seats etc. If you're going through the USA, make sure your locks are compliant with the airport security check system. Also consider a piece of tough plastic in the bottom of your bag, so that if a thief slits the bottom of it, your things are less likely to fall out. This said, security is very much a context-dependent thing, so don't worry too much!
A mosquito net can save you a lot of hassle. And illness. See also: mosquito repellent.
Tissues in small packets are great for a number of things - including countries light on toilet supplies. Remember not to put it down squat toilets, though, as they can't handle paper. That's what the bucket in the corner is for, ok?
Never underrate the awesomeness of hand sanitizer when travelling.
You'll hopefully meet some great locals and some great travellers on your trip, so consider taking some gifts from home. Those sew-on flag patches tend to be pretty common.
Being serious about sun protection is also important. I lost most of a week in Vietnam due to sunburn, and it really wasn't pretty.
I'm not going to pretend I'm even marginally qualified to say anything about medical considerations for your trip, other than that they're not really considerations, but necessities. Countries have different medical issues, and it is crucial to understand these before you head off. So, I suggest visiting a specialist travel doctor before you go. They can give you vaccines (and an international certificate of vaccination), tips, prescription medicines you'll need, and set you up with some sweet medical kit contents. Consider taking your own needles and tubes if you're heading into countries with poor medical facilities. Make sure you've got some good health insurance, and ask the doctor to recommend hospitals at intervals on your travel route, if you want to be safe. If you get sick overseas, ringing your insurance company or embassy is also a good way to find out where to get decent medical help. Also, it's only a medical consideration if you think laterally, but: have you checked the current political situation in the countries you're visiting? Just sayin'.
Planning Your Trip
Are you going on your own, or in a group? Are you someone who panics if they don't have their day broken down into bite-sized timeframes, or do you prefer going with the flow?
Planning holidays is an art, not a science, and I really can't tell you how to do it. However, it's good to have a start point, and end point, and the visas for your travel sorted before you go. Visas, especially, can take months to sort out, so start applying earlier rather than later, unless you know they're available online or at borders.
Talking to other travellers before you go is great for tips, and also talking to people while you're away. The trick is always to leave more time than you think for every activity (I tended to think in half-day blocks) and to plan a "catch-up" day every so often in case you've fallen quite badly behind your schedule. You'll discover loads of cool extra things to do when you're actually there, so leave plenty of spare time.
How to Backpack
Now you've actually got off the plane, what do you do? Step outside. Take a deep breath. Look around. The adventure begins!
Since backpacking is an exercise of working on a fairly tight budget, usually, remember that public transport is your friend. In fact, watch the locals - they'll know where the best deals and greatest efficiencies are, and will generally share this knowledge with you if you ask nicely. Never underestimate how far you can get with a smile, even in the face of language and cultural barriers.
Checking out accommodation before you pay for it is also key. Does it come with hot water (and do you even need it?)? Is the linen clean or even supplied? Does it have a fan/air conditioning/a mosquito net? What about the toilet - is it Western or squat? What do other travellers say about the place? Is the price inflated for tourists, and is it on par with what you'd expect? Small price increases add up over time.
Bartering is also a cultural practice in many of your potential destinations. It's loads of fun, so long as you remain patient and don't let yourself get pushed around. A rule of thumb I have is "divide by three and work to half" - a few locals I befriended on my travels told me that for tourists, prices get increased by 300-400%, and I should be able to barter down to around 150-200%.
Don't just hang out with other backpackers. You won't find local culture in a hostel.
Stay positive. Some days will be tough. You might be sick in a country where nobody understands you, but things will improve! If you need to ring home, try to find an internet cafe with Skype (or an equivalent) - this is loads cheaper than using the phone.
Sex, drugs, and alcohol? Remember countries have different laws, and stay safe, ok?
Some Final Words
I don't really have much more to add, since backpacking is subjective and so dependent on where you're heading, but two last things: no matter how well you plan, you can't plan for everything, and you'll have to learn how to deal with it. Also, no matter how much culture shock you might experience, the biggest culture shock could be waiting for you when you return to your home, and realise how much your life priorities have changed.
Live the dream!
* I'm not exactly a guru. But I do love backpacking, and I have managed to survive overseas with just carry-on luggage, so maybe that counts for something. Feel free to /msg me with further tips and additions!