The Do’s and Dont’s of Backpacking

There is an unwritten guide that most backpackers live by, but few can definitively describe. It is a guide that offers the world traveler peace of mind, as well as the opportunity for the adventure of a lifetime. Today, I bring that unwritten guide to you.

My intent with this article is not to impose a bunch of rules; rather I hope to offer a guideline that will help you be more successful in your journey.

The adventure is yours and yours alone. At the end, you only have one true responsibility. Show respect for your environment, and the world will forever be at your fingertips.

Many backpackers begin their journey with a set budget in mind. They have read books, and/or talked with friends about how to live on $20/day. They feel confident that they can stick to this regiment. The harsh reality is that expenses will often get out of control and ruin your budget. I do know of a few people who have made it work, but on the whole, it is not a sustainable lifestyle, and you will forfeit many special experiences by budgeting so tightly.

Do… Budget, but leave a large amount of leeway for the times when you go over-budget.
Don’t… Panic if you go over budget, find a way to compensate for the extra dollars, or get ready to look for work sooner than you had originally planned. This allows you to regain control of your finances as you continually re-evaluate how much money you have left and how long it will last.

When searching for a place to stay for the night, be sure to weigh your options carefully. Do not simply commit to one hostel because it is cheap or convenient. Follow this rule and you will enhance your ability to avoid those awful, smelly, bed bug infested hidden surprises.

Do… Visit a few hostels and compare prices for equivalent living standards e.g., 4 share with en-suite, 4 share with dinner included, 8 share with kitchenette etc. Weigh the pros and cons of each, and ask to see the room prior to booking.
Don’t… Spend a lot of money in the hopes that a higher price means better accommodation, and don’t book the cheapest just to save money. If you are unsure about the hostel, don’t be afraid to book for just 1 night. You can always decide what you want to do in the morning. This is the best way to ensure that you are happy with the accommodation before committing to a week of smelly, moldy, bedbug infested conditions.

Food and clothing are essentials for basic human survival, and your standard is likely much different back home than it will be once you begin to travel. I would suggest that you limit clothes shopping to only the bare essentials, and the odd discounted item you pass by in the window. Save your money for the important stuff, like tours, and car rentals to see remote parts of the country. When you return home from you journey are you going to be excited to tell your friend about all the clothes you bought? Not likely. How about the crazy adventures you went on? Quite likely. With a limited budget, it will be one or the other, so choose wisely.

Do: Go on trips and crazy adventures.
Don’t: Spend more than 2% of your total budget on clothing. Controlled spending will help you go a lot further with what you have in the bank.

Food is not something that you can bring with you to most foreign countries nor would you want to waste valuable backpack space with it. It must be purchased as you travel, and this expense can vary quite significantly. The best thing to do is make use of the hostel’s cooking facilities, which virtually every one has. Buy food that is inexpensive and easy to prepare. This will save you a lot of time and money for the more important things you have to do that day.

Do: Find the local discount food store and join with some friends to buy and bulk and reduce your costs.
Don’t: Eat out on a regular basis, or purchase expensive foods such as steak and lamb.

Tarra’s first experience buying food
Tarra had just arrived in Cairns, Northern Australia at 2am on a Sunday morning. She had been in Melbourne for the last 2 weeks, and this was her second stop on her round Australia tour. Having arrived so early she was far too exhausted to do anything but sleep. She woke up Sunday afternoon and was extremely hungry from having slept through breakfast and lunch.

In Melbourne she ate out most of the time and found it was draining her bank account very quickly, so she made a pact with herself to begin buying food to save money. She strolled down to the local grocery store and purchased a couple bags worth of food. It would last over a week by her calculations and she saved a lot of money by purchasing only discounted items. Tarra returned to the hostel and put the food into the communal fridge, then headed off for her free hostel dinner.

The next morning she was so anxious to make her first meal as a backpacker that she woke up unusually early. She headed off to the kitchen only to find that her bags were no longer where she left them. Tarra searched the fridges, but the food was gone. She was furious, and despite numerous complaints to reception, Tarra conceded to her bad luck and stormed off to buy more groceries. This time when she put her groceries in the fridge with a note stating, ‘Do Not Touch!’

The harsh reality is, sometimes things get stolen. Unfortunately there are backpackers out there who have little respect or courtesy for others. If your groceries do get stolen, you just have to shrug it off and continue on with your day. One trick for keeping your groceries safe is to split them up into 4-5 small bags and store the bags in various fridges. This way if one bag is stolen, hopefully the others will still be there.

When you travel in a foreign country, you immediately become the prime target of tour operators. Backpackers are their target market and easily accessible since you all hang out together in confined hostel areas. Tours are a great way to meet new people, tour remote areas of the country, engage in leisurely sightseeing, and experience extreme adventure. But buyers beware, not all tours are created equal, some will offer much greater value for your buck. Sometimes it is even cheaper and easier to do the tour on your own. If it is just a driving tour, you can often get a few friends together and rent a car for much cheaper. If the tour is a white water raft down grade 4 rapids in some remote region of France, then this may not be as simple to organize by yourself.

Tour operators will also often try to get you to commit with high pressure sales. Remember, most of them are on commission, and do not get paid unless you sign up. Keep your wits about you, and always take time to think about the value of the tour before committing. The operateors may even tell you that this is a ‘one time deal!’ and if you don’t sign up now you will not be able to go. Believe me, there is no such, and even if the tour does fill, there is always another to take its place.

Do… Research. This is an important step prior to any tour. Ask around, your fellow backpackers will help you out. There is always someone to talk to who has no vested interest in whether you go or not. Read the fine print, there are often hidden costs that are not clearly outlined in the brochure. This will save you a lot of money and frustration by the end of your trip.
Don’t… be intimidated by the tour operator or sales agent. Their job and income relies on you purchasing their tour, so remember that in this situation, you hold the power. There are an endless number of add-ons that tour operators will try to offer you, think it through and be sure to only purchase those that have some intrinsic value.
Don’t… make snap decisions because of sales pressure, and don’t be afraid to ask around or look online for what others have said about the tour. Most importantly, don’t be afraid to say NO, even if you have to repeat yourself a number of times.

Many tours purposely offer very little to eat so that you spend money in their café’s or in an affiliated café. You should make yourself clearly aware of what is offered so that you don’t go hungry or end up spending a fortune at their overpriced café. If you are worried that the meal will not suffice, bring a bagged lunch. This again will save you a lot of time and frustration.

Do… be acutely aware of what is and is not included in your tour. Ask the operators, and more importantly ask others who have been on the tour about their experience. If you are unsure, bring something to snack on just in case. This will stop you from buying overpriced items due to starvation, and will put more money in your pocket for a future tour.
Don’t… be afraid to pull out a bagged lunch while on tour. You are a backpacker on a very limited budget, and at the end of the day, it is the extra dollars saved that really count. Again, don’t be intimidated by high pressure sales and add-ons, you paid for the tour and have a right to enjoy it in any way that you see fit (within reason of course).

Snorkel your way out of $20
I was on a ferry from Townsville to the Magnetic Island on the North Eastern Coast of Australia. This would be my home base for completing the level 1 PADI dive course. The ferry was filled with backpackers who had just got off a tour bus and we were all headed to the same hostel that was owned by the tour operator. This particular chain of hostels is synonymous with high-pressure add-ons, from the small equipment rentals, to all out adventure tours. I was aware of this and ready for the first sales-pitch of the journey.

“Hey there Tom Cruise,” the robust Ozzy exclaimed as he approached. He must have seen Mission Impossible and was referring to the type of sunglasses I wore and the fact that I was wearing a black T-shirt with the sleeves pulled up to my elbows. A compliment or an insult, I was not sure. “Just put your name down here, and pass me a $20 for your snorkel gear on the island.” Snorkel gear? What was he going on about? I was going to scuba dive, not snorkel. He got annoyed at my line of questioning and informed me that if I did not sign up for my snorkel gear now, there would be none left and I would be sitting alone on the beach in the evening while everyone else was in the water. I wasn’t really convinced by his argument and politely decline. He was not so polite and persisted to pressure me into renting the gear. At this point I clearly stated, “No thank you, I am not interested!” He mumbled something under his breathe about me being ignorant and made his way to the next backpacker for his next high-pressure sales pitch.

There were three things that I observed and took away from this experience. First, there where about 25 names already signed up on the board by the time he got to me, and only half the tour bus had been approached at this point. Second, when I arrived at the hostel I noticed a sign about renting snorkel gear, when I inquired, the receptionist said there was plenty of supply and I just needed to come and ask for a rental if I wanted to use them. Third, in my weeklong stay, I never saw one backpacker enter the water with snorkel gear. There was simply too many other adventures on the island to be experienced. There was, however, a very robust Ozzy enjoying a number of drinks at the bar. He seemed to have plenty of cash on hand.

Social Interaction
This is one of the greatest and most rewarding aspects of travel, but can also become dizzying and uncontrolled when different cultures come together in the frantic environment of a hostel or bar. At first, you may find it intimidating to meet people, but in time you will see that everyone is travelling for similar reasons as you, and have much more in common than you had originally anticipated. Be open to saying hello as you pass, and don’t be afraid to play a good old game of 20 questions to break the ice. Not everyone is into it, but you will soon get a sense of who is good for a laugh and who should be left alone. So go ahead and approach someone for a chat. Wars have never started over how you say hello, they are usually started over how you say goodbye.

Do… practice introducing yourself to strangers, and see what is best for striking up a quick chat.
Don’t… be afraid. People are much more friendly and outgoing in the backpacker world than you might think.

There are a number of conversation topics that I regard as off-limits. This is the only section of the book that I would recommend you follow to a tee. Don’t talk about Religion, Politics, Cultural Stereotypes and/or Sporting Team Dominance. On the surface they may seem harmless, and often times they are. But… it only takes one person to become personally offended for the conversation to go horribly wrong. I know that you can imagine numerous offensive comments for each of these topics which would personally offend you. Such as:

• “Your home team is crap! And anyone who cheers for them is a bit retarded”
• “Why does your Prime Minister always bend over to be done up the ass by the rest of the world?’
• “Why does everyone from your country drink so much?”
• “If I practiced your faith, I would be just as narrow-minded as you are.”

I have personally heard all of these, and even if joking, it can escalate quite quickly. Even if you would not make comments like these, someone may interpret as though you had. Save the inquisition for a time when you are with someone whom you trust, and there is no chance of alcohol being involved. If you bring up any of these topics over beers with a bunch of strangers, you are asking for trouble. Backpacking offers so many other conversation points, so please save any thoughts, or even superiority comments on these topics for back home.

Do… practice talking with people about the simple things, like where they are from, where they are going and why they decided to travel. These are great openers and you will find a lot in common with people at this level.
Don’t… engage in conversation regarding any of the following:

• Religion
• Politics
• Cultural Stereotypes
• Sporting Team Dominance

Even when you are not engaged in social conversation, there are a number of courtesies that you can extend to your fellow traveler. This section is specifically important to me. The backpacking circuit is only as strong as those who live inside it. Nothing makes me more upset then when other backpackers show a complete disrespect for our amazing community. We need to look out for one another, and take care of each other. This will hold our community strong and safe. And remember, what goes around comes around.

Do… clean up after yourself in the bedroom, kitchen, lounge room, bathroom and any other place that you may be sharing with others.
Don’t… leave your mess for others to clean up. You must take responsibility for yourself, and show a respectable level of maturity.

Do… watch out for your fellow backpackers belongings, and question anyone who looks suspicious.
Don’t… steal. It is as simple as that, if you need something, ask, others will help you out if they can. Often other travelers will even offer you more than you need.

Do… be quiet as you enter your share room in the middle of the night.
Don’t… walk in as if you own the place and wake everyone up. And at all costs try not to have sex in your share room. Believe me, it happens way more than you would think and it makes the environment smelly and uncomfortable.

Do… Limit your time in the shower, on computers, with the TV remote and any other activity that is shared, so that everyone has a turn at it.
Don’t… Hoard. This is a bad habit that we have learned from our materialistic society. Learn to share with the world, and the world will share with you.

Lastly, always remember to follow your intuition. The last thing you want to do is get yourself into a heap of trouble, unnecessarily.

Do: Analyze those in your surroundings, and listen to your intuition. If it tells you that something is wrong, or you feel uncomfortable in any way. Do something to correct the situation. Walk, run, scream, duck into a café, call the police, do whatever it takes to bring yourself back to a comfortable level.
Don’t: Ignore your intuition. This is important, as most attack victims will claim to have known something bad was going to happen, moments before it actually happened. And don’t be afraid to make someone else feel bad. For example, if the elevator doors open and there is a man standing inside who makes you feel uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to smile politely and say, “I’ll catch the next one.” This may make the man feel bad about himself, but more important than that is your comfort, and returning your body to s state of positive feelings. Don’t sacrifice your safety and security for sameness ego.

General well being
Now that you have spent time looking after those around you, be sure to take time to look after yourself. It is important that you find time to reflect on the journey, and reminisce about how it has helped shape your experience. This is by far the most important part of the journey and should not be ignored.

Do… bring a journal to write in. Document your experiences and share how they have made you feel and how they have shaped your life.
Don’t… neglect taking time for quiet self reflection. It is the most important aspect of your journey.

Safe Travels my Friends!

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