Tips for First Time Backpackers

Tips for First Time Backpackers

Have you seen backpackers lugging an enormous amount of baggage or come across stories when a traveler got stranded? Don’t be that backpacker. If you are planning to embark on your first backpacking journey, there are a few things to be mindful of, including an undeclared backpacker’s code of conduct. World traveler and guest columnist Jonas Mikka Luster shares expert advise and tips for first time backpackers.

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What Type of Backpack to Buy?

A good backpack sits well on your back, 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. Please don’t just go buy one. Instead, find a store that will help you adjust it and find a good one – get the best backpack you can find. 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 and few notes.

  1. Be about 40 liters and make sure they are sized to actually go on a plane as carry-on.
  2. Have an easily accessible outside pocket that can be locked
  3. Try 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, knife, and a flashlight.
  4. Have wide and comfortable hip straps. Also have a pocket here, for other things you might need.
  5. 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.
  6. An arrow pointing at something I wanted to point out but totally forgot what it was. This arrow is optional 🙂

What Type of Daypack to Buy?

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. Either way, you must get yourself 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).

What to Pack for Your Backpacking Journey?

Trim everywhere. Saw off the handle on your toothbrush! 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. 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.

  • Pack the least amount of clothing you can get together. Buy Merino wool socks. They don’t stink quickly. Wash your things in hostel rooms and public laundries.
  • Get a poncho 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.
  • Don’t bring your 5D Mk. III and six lenses. Instead, 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.
  • Buy 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.
  • Pack 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.
  • 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.

Public Transport and The Idea of a Drop

  • 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. A drop is a place with an address people can send you things to. Friends, public services, that stuff. If you, for example, travel through Europe, get a drop in Munich, one in Paris, and one in London or so. 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.

Why Stay in Touch with Home Friends While Backpacking?

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.

What’s a Backpacker’s Code of Conduct?

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.

Ready to Backpack?

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. There’ll be 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.


Backpacking? Think North East India

Pick up a copy of Backpacking North East India: A Curious Journey. It covers over two dozen places and attempts to answer the question – what is it like to travel in the region? Give it a read and make your own choices. Buy now!

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Are you a backpacker? Would you have additional suggestions? We would love to hear from you (please scroll below to leave a comment).

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Credits: This piece is edited from its original version, written in response to a question, on Quora?

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45 thoughts on “Tips for First Time Backpackers

  1. Some REALLY handy tips here. I imagine when you are going backpacking for the first time it could be quite scary, but this would really help make sure you’re on the right track. I didn’t now that you could have drop spots so that’s super handy!

    Jackie – Organised Mum Life

    1. You are right Jackie! Backpacking is fun, but as you pointed out, it could get overwhelming when trying it out for the first time! Thanks for stopping by!

  2. Thanks for sharing this post, it’s got a lot of helpful information. I had never thought of having a ‘drop’ address, could definitely with having to lug less around with you!

    1. Is that not a great ideas! Helps to carry less in your backpack! Thank you for your kind words. Happy backpacking! 🙂

  3. It’s truly great to be a backpackers.. and this post have every thing one’s need to become a first time backpackers.. cool!

    1. Thank you Kylie 🙂 We are glad you enjoyed reading these tips! You might also like to check out our post on How To Deal With Surprises While Backpacking. Happy backpacking.

  4. Great tips! i love backpacking and as an experienced backpacker (well at least with some experience) I find your tips great and useful.

    1. Thanks Lyosha. Such kind words coming for an experienced backpacker really mean a lot. Appreciate your confirmation! 🙂

  5. I’m a travel blogger but I’ve never actually done the backpacking thing. I moved overseas to Spain and have been here for two years. Living here gives me a home base and allows to me make trips here or there. However I have definitely still considered backpacking. These tips are quite excellent.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts Nina. Happy to meet you here 🙂 We hope you you get to use these insights soon. Happy travels.

  6. Bringing things to trade is a great idea. I have never thought about it but it really makes sense and it is a good way to build friendship. Will keep this in mind always.

    1. Appreciate your insights Clarice and so happy you found value in the tips for first time backpackers! Something new to try the next time you backpack 🙂

  7. A good backpack definitely sits well on the bag. I hate carrying a bulky backpack. It is so uncomfortable.

    1. Yes. the bulky backpacks can be quite a pain! To make it even lighter, you could explore an ultralight travel tip in our post – Merino in a Backpack: A Compelling Travel Hack! You get amazing insights on how to travel light!

  8. This is a really helpful post for anyone who is thinking of backpacking. You gave some really great advice indeed.

  9. The merino socks tip is cool. I sweat a lot so I will try this out next time. Thank you for narrowing down all the important points in a single post.

    1. If you liked the idea of merino socks, you could also check how merino could help you with many other things while backpacking in our post – Merino in a Backpack: A Compelling Travel Hack! Appreciate your kind words Farya.

  10. This is a great tips, for sure. I just started to look at backpacking as a good activity and Your tips whether for choose the backpack or transport are very useful

    1. So excited that you would be considering to backpack soon! These tips are experiential and we are happy you found them useful. Do also look up the post on How To Deal With Surprises While Backpacking to be prepared for backpacking surprises since it will be a new space for you. Happy backpacking 🙂

  11. I need to invest in a good one! Thanks for pointing out some of the necessary features. I definitely want it to be comfortable! 🙂

  12. Will share this to my husband. He is the backpacker of the family, which he no longer does now because of us. haha Oh, but he still carries two backpacks whenever we travel. Anyway, I like the code of conduct 😀

  13. Completely agree with your tips. I too have a 40lts backpack to avoid checking them in. Also, save a lot of time and money!

  14. This is a great list as backpacking for the first time can be quite daunting I imagine, some really good pointers you’ve got there and I never really thought about bringing items to trade but that’s a great idea love it. Great post I am going to share this with my friend who is about to go backpacking.

  15. I confess that I’m not a backpacker, but I found this post very interesting. I’ve never heard of a ‘drop’ before, but it makes sense. I also never knew there is a daypack! I think having many pockets will be very useful when on the move.

  16. I used to backpack with my kids when they were scouts but I’ve never backpacked a trip. I do use a day pack and I’ll look at your recommendation. Good tip about the contact back home – as a mom I suggest checking in at least weekly!

  17. Like all the tips, they are very practical. I also got nostalgic thinking about my first ever backpacking and it was fun. I agree with your advice that dressing like a local makes things far easy and specially when you are all by yourself.

  18. Great recommendations! I think the admitting you are a guest to the country is the most important one. You have to acknowledge that and be respectful. That is the most important part of backpacking!

  19. I am always ready to backpack, and more so now than ever! You have laid out some really good tips there. I feel that a backpack that fits your back comfortably is important to help you sustain. Cheers!!

  20. These are some really useful tips for backpacking. Often people don’t know how to start. Good tips on staying in touch and the code of conduct.

  21. Although I’m a traveller, I’ve never done any proper back packing. I always take a carry on whenever and wherever I go though, so these tips will still come in handy x

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