Ten things I wish I’d known before I started backpacking

There I was, at Narita Airport in Tokyo. I’d just gotten off my first solo international flight and was awaiting my backpack already christened ‘the Beast’ on the baggage carousel. I spied the 21-kilo behemoth and almost wiped myself out trying to swing it onto my back.

I know, I know, rookie mistake. Pack light. Amateur.

In only a few short weeks, I noticed that I’d made a lot of such mistakes. I carried around a sewing kit for five months, for God’s sake.

Looking back, here are my favourites. Enjoy, and please take the advice. And put down that sewing kit.

10. Kathmandu should not supply your entire wardrobe.

I went a little bit nuts at the fabled backpacking store before I set off. I bought fleeces, rainwater jackets, thermals and jumpers, not to mention by Kathmandu-branded backpack, daypack, umbrella, drink bottles and quick-dry towels. I looked like a walking Kathmandu catalogue. I thought that my loot would be comfortable and practical; no, I just stood out as a very prepared Aussie backpacker.

9. Leave the sleeping bag at home.

Unless you’re trekking through the Amazon, there is actually very little need for a sleeping bag on a trip involving hostels. I found this out very quickly; sheets were almost always included in the hostel’s price and for some where they weren’t (hello, Boathostel in Stockholm) they wouldn’t let you use a sleeping bag for ‘hygiene reasons’. Despite my sleeping bag being quite small (purchased at, you guessed it) it was a bugger to carry around. I experimented with it for a while; clipped to the top, clipped to the side, inside the bag… but all just added to the bulk. Clipping it to the side had the added bonus of donking everyone on the head when you board a train and find out that your reserved seat is eight carriages away.

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Unless you’re sleeping here, ditch the sleeping bag. Photo credit: Airplane Journal on Flickr.

8. You won’t get away with wearing a fleece at a nightclub.

I severely underestimated just how much nocturnal socialising goes on whilst backpacking. Even though you can get away with slightly rougher clothes going out as a backpacker, you need at least one outfit (and crucially, one pair of shoes) which you can dress up a little. I’m looking at girls here – cruelly, the world thinks it’s OK for guys to get away with a pair of boardies for an entire summer.

7. Always aim for an aisle seat on a plane.

My favourite seats on the plane are window seats. I love looking at the sprawl of the city I’m leaving as well as the one in which I’m arriving and having that new excited feeling about visiting a new place. However, if a flight is more than three hours, bugger the view. I will be more excited about the concept of free alcohol and will definitely need to utilise the bathrooms at least once. Every time I’m busting my neighbour would be fast asleep.

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Quite fond of gin and tonics on the plane? Stick to the aisle. Photo credit: sargant on Flickr.

6. Book accommodation.

Hostelworld and Hostelbookers were only just starting out when I started travelling (yep, way back yonder in 2007). Instead, I’d been surrounded by friends and guidebooks who advocated finding accommodation once in the desired city. Not only did this waste me precious time, but deals were the same if not more expensive than on the Internet. Add to this my questionable sense of direction and you get one very lost Aussie on the streets of Porto, vowing to always book accommodation in future.

5.  Don’t count on getting things done on the train.

Once I got into writing by blog, I’d dedicate time on trains to brainstorm and write posts. Depite my best intentions, I don’t think that ever happened. Instead, I would fill six hour plus train rides with feverent people-watching (especially on those old-school six-person compartments) and simply gazing out of the window, mind completely blank.

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I loved the concept of train compartments. They are actually quite ridiculous. Photo credit: Sapphireblue on Flickr.

4. Pay attention in language classes.

Oh, how I wish I was good at languages and actually had the stamina to continue with them after verb conjugations were introduced. In places like Italy and China (after learning the characters in Japanese) I would forever stare at printed words, knowing that at one stage I was aware of their meaning but that such knowledge had since escaped me.

3. Learn to love breakfast.

I’m not a breakfast person. I can easily skip it, despite knowing that not eating a meal in the morning apparently shaves five years off your life expectancy. Breakfast is however the most important meal for backpackers. It’s often free, provided by hostels, and buffet-style so you can fill up on as much as you want (and, despite the signs, we all do chuck the fruit in our backpacks for later). If you have a massive breakfast, often you’d only need to pay for one meal for the rest of the day.

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Don’t grab just one thing – grab everything. Photo credit: asirap on Flickr.

2. Always carry a pen.

When travelling by yourself, you have to remember everything. There’s nobody else constantly there who can say years later, “oh, remember that time when…?” No, it’s all up to you. Write it down, even in dot point form. Solo travellers talk to themselves (at least I do) and sometimes we can ‘say’ very witty things. At the very least, it gives you something to do when you’ve ordered that coffee and cake alone at the cafe and don’t want to look like a loser staring off into the distance.

1. Don’t write a diary. Write a blog.

I did both. Or, I should say, I did write a blog, and I carried a diary that was used solely for keeping track of my budget. When I first started this blog, I was fifty per cent sure that I wouldn’t write a second entry. Unlike a diary, a blog has two functions; it’s essentially your diary, but also comes with the added function of being a dozen or so emails to individual people at once. Today, my blog is my favourite souvenir of my travels, despite knowing nothing about the caper beforehand.

7 Responses to Ten things I wish I’d known before I started backpacking

  1. Amy May 6, 2012 at 10:55 AM #

    I thought your piece of the Berlin Wall was your favourite souvenir?!

    • Caitlyn May 6, 2012 at 11:02 AM #

      Good point. Second-best, then.

  2. Magpie Groupie May 6, 2012 at 1:38 PM #

    We bought you the beast so be nice when you talk about it! Still believe that you will one day need that sewing kit (that I think I made you pack)

    • Caitlyn May 6, 2012 at 2:19 PM #

      Does it sound like I dislike the Beast? Never have I said such things.

  3. Twistie Toes May 7, 2012 at 12:51 AM #

    Completely agree about breakfasts. Can take them or leave them at home, but they are essential whilst travelling….especially that fruit bowl!

    One other thing I might add…..always pack a beanie. The worst thing when travelling is cold ears!

  4. Lauren Crabbe (@LaurenCrabbe) May 8, 2012 at 5:25 AM #

    I nearly committed point no. 10 recently. Oops. http://t.co/29a5rtE3 @olym_wanderings #travel #ttot

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