Choosing your backpack
Backpacks come in all shapes, sizes and prices but the main factor some fail to consider is comfort, which greatly depends on a pack fitting correctly. First you need a backpack to suit your back length not your overall height, most have adjustable shoulder harness’ to accommodate many lengths. Nearly all the weight from a backpack should sit on your hips, while the shoulders and back are more for stability, to assist this packs have compression and adjustment straps these keep the upper half tight to your body. Female specific backpacks are contoured to cater for smaller frames without sacrificing space.
Outdoor / camping stores are well equipped to help pick and try out the right backpack, most can add bean bags to simulate how a typical load might feel. Every backpack is unique so try out as many as you can the right one will seem like your best friend after 6 months.
Watch out for backpacks without a rain cover or proper water proofing a sudden downpour could soak a pack through, rain covers also double as basic protection for backpacks when travelling on planes and buses.
Tag your backpack and bags to make them stand out, use something bright so they will be identifiable at baggage reclaim.
Essentials to take with you
First-time and seasoned backpackers alike either pack way too much leaving little room for souvenirs or pack light and still run out of space. Consider what you need for each country you’re visiting and if on a loose plan, ones you might visit. Below we’ve listed essentials which every traveller should at least consider before setting off the journey of a lifetime.
Towel – Light microfibre towels dry fast and are pretty cheap.
Voltage converters / plug adaptor – Everyone has got something to charge, take at least one in case they are not readily available in the countries you’re visiting. Universal adaptors are particularly useful and save you having to take more than one plug.
Mosquito net – It is hard to find mosquito nets in shops or markets in countries where they have malaria risks, who knows why, buy one before you go to be sure.
Emergency cards and cash – If you are ever short on cash with no ATM around or are victim to a pickpocket it won’t be the end of the world.
Zip lock / Food / Plastic bags – Perfect for waterproofing any item in your backpack come rain or sea, shopping bags are good for storing dirty clothes until laundry day.
Mosquito / bug repellent: Strong repellent is represented by its DEET content, 50% is recommended in malaria risk countries but often they only sell low percentage products so its better to take some with you. If you are travelling for an extended period try and buy more high percentage repellent when you can.
Sun cream / lotion: Western quality sun block is hard to find in less developed countries, some foreign brands also contain skin whitener.
Multi-tool / Swiss army knife – Useful in everyday life let alone when travelling, remember to store it in your check-in luggage when flying.
Alternative I.D. – Some accommodation may require you to leave I.D. at reception for deposit or security, instead of giving up your passport take your driving licence.
Pens – When the time comes to fill out immigration forms or visa applications and the inevitable pen shortage happens this will save frustration.
Flash light/head torch – Essential for camping, island stays, trekking, late night dorm toilet visits and numerous other situations.
Comfortable shoes – A decent pair of closed toe trainers for when flip flops or sandals just won’t do.
First aid kit including sickness and diarrhoea medication – Traveller specific ones are best and usually contain sealed syringes in case you need an injection but local healthcare supplies and standards are lacking.
Document copies – Take photocopies of your passport, insurance details and other important information. E-mail yourself copies as a more digital backup.
Clothes – Take older clothes you don’t mind ruining and pack light, chances are they sell clothes where you are going usually cheaper than back home they also make great souvenirs.
A few packing tips
- Don’t bother with loads of toiletries – They just take space and weigh you down, brands and suitable alternatives can be found in most cases.
- Remove all excess air out of any toiletries before packing them to minimise size and the risk of exploding on the plane.
- Roll clothes when packing, less creases and saves space.
Items on the list below can be found in most countries, so while not necessarily essentials before leaving, they are still worth thinking about…
Scarf / Pashminas / Sarong / Keffiyeh – Sun shade, impromptu towel, cover from mosquitos literally millions of uses. Take your favourite if you like but anywhere you travel will sell one of these versatile accessories.
USB charger battery or solar – Never be without your gadgets, the higher the mAh means more stored battery power or go solar they are pretty efficient.
Tiger Balm and Zam-Buk – wonder ointments, between them they can solve almost any ailment.
Pocket size Duct tape – Holes in mosquito nets, tears in tents, backpacks even clothes if duct tape doesn’t fix it you’re not using enough.
Baby powder –It helps stop your backpack or shoes rubbing, can be used as dry shampoo to keep hair clean, absorbs sweat and deodorises.
Hand sanitizer – Many countries are lacking reasonable standard hand washing facilities and if you shake hands or touch an animal sanitation is important.
Lock – Useful basic security for dorm lockers and backpacks, vigilance will still be required.
Small Rain poncho / coat – No one likes getting wet, small light ponchos are usually cheaper in the west but are found wherever it rains.
Wet wipes – Too many uses to list, just trust us take or buy these BEFORE you need them!
Smartphones have loads of utilities with prices getting lower and lower every day, most don’t have to think twice before packing theirs. Access to the internet can be vital to view maps, book accommodation and keep in touch with friends. Many travel apps work offline, these along with researching destinations and establishments will enhance your experience while saving you money too. A lot of the benefits and apps available to smartphone users get overlook when travelling click here for our top travel apps.
Unless you have a USB charger battery life will be your phones worst enemy while backpacking, most popular smartphones will barely last a day with normal usage. Play games on a long flight, bus journey or use your phone to take loads of pictures? Half the usual battery life, here are a few tips to help extend smartphone battery life.
Most tablets on the market are just big smartphones, its larger battery and screen size is better than phones for entertainment and Skype not much else. Stick with a handy smartphone, if you require more power for work stretch and get a laptop. Thankfully the functional/practical line between tablets and laptops is becoming more blurred, tablets are finally gaining functionality that said laptops themselves are only getting lighter.
Unless it is needed for working on the road most shouldn’t bother with a laptop, they are just another thing to worry about (and carry). Obviously they have many uses, if you do decide to pack a computer consider how you will keep it safe and dry while travelling together with how much charge the battery actually holds.
All extra costs when using your phone including roaming charges in Europe have been greatly reduced and are set to be abolished by December 2015. If travelling outside of Europe the best option is to buy a local sim card on arrival, they are easy to obtain in most countries and will save a huge amount of money.
This is where you can turn your phone into a mobile hotspot providing Wi-Fi for any other device which is useful when travelling in groups or with a laptop, this uses data so only use it when you have a native sim card and be aware the costs still add up.
Both prepaid and PAYG dongles are usually slightly cheaper than tethering which uses precious phone battery life, there are loads of data packages available so browse for the one best suited to your visit length and usage.
Spreading from major cities to tiny seemingly deserted islands Wi-Fi is becoming available almost everywhere. Bars, airports and hostels usually have Wi-Fi available, and in much of the world there’s always a McDonald’s or Starbucks nearby if you want bad burgers and coffee with your Facebook.
Health, Immunisations & Insurance
Immunisation jabs / Vaccines
Once travel plans have been finalised make an appointment with your doctor, practice nurse or a private travel clinic for a check-up and advice about immunisations. Do this a minimum of 8 weeks before leaving as most vaccines require time to start working.
If you’re a British citizen, inoculations for diseases deemed a risked to public health are available free on the NHS these are listed below:
Diphtheria, Polio & Tetanus (Combined)
Not all recommended inoculations are free, factor this extra cost in before travelling as the Rabies vaccination alone can cost up to £300.
Hepatitis B (When not combined with Hepatitis A)
Health & Medication
Malaria is a disease prevalent in tropical and sub-tropical regions, once bitten by an infected mosquito it can be fatal within a few days or lay dormant for months. There is no vaccination and death can still occur even when malaria is treated so prevention is the best defence.
Insect repellent containing DEET are a mosquitoes worst enemy, the more percentage DEET in a product the stronger it is, be aware many in developing counties it’s hard to find repellents high in DEET so try to stock up before you go.
Mosquitoes are most active at night so always use a mosquito net when possible, inspect and tape up any tears in nets provided by your accommodation.
Antimalarial tablets should always be sourced from a reputable pharmacy, there are various drug types available all with different prices and possible side effects attached. No antimalarial provides complete protection so seek medical attention if subject to a hard hitting fever.
First Aid Kit
Anyone backpacking should take at least a basic travel first aid kit suitable for minor injuries, supplement this with antiseptic spray/wipes and indigestion, heartburn and diarrhoea medicines. If venturing off the beaten track or to undeveloped countries a more advanced first aid kit containing sterile hypodermic needles, scalpels and syringes is highly recommended.
Inform your travel partner of your blood type and vice versa especially when visiting developing countries.
Unsafe water can cause of many illnesses in travellers most commonly diarrhoea, unless positive a water supply is completely pure drink only bottled water and avoid ice. Processed and hot drinks like beer, coffee and sodas are usually safe.
When buying bottled water make sure the seal is intact, it’s not rare for vendors to refill bottles with unsafe tap water.
Rehydrating when suffering from sickness and diarrhoea is vitally important, mix a teaspoon of sugar and a pinch of salt to 250ml drink slowly to help replace fluids.
If you get a bad stomach don’t be ashamed to eat at chain restaurants like Dominoes, KFC or Burger King a bit of familiar food can do your gut a world of good.
Book a thorough check-up a few months before leaving as western standard dentists can be hard to find if not impossible. If you have veneers, bridge work or loads of fillings it’s worth packing a temporary dental repair kit for a quick fix on the go.
Safe Sex & STD's
The only all-round protection when having intercourse, both responsible men and women should carry…and use condoms when engaged in sexual activities while travelling. Extras are never a bad thing and watch out for inferior local brands.
STIs / STDs
Sexually transmitted infections and diseases can ruin anyone’s holiday and leaving one untreated can cause more complications, treatment should be sought as soon as possible.
Travel Insurance & EHIC Card
If you are a UK, Switzerland or European Economic Area (EEA) citizen you’re eligible for the EHIC card which entitles holders to free state healthcare in member countries.
Purchase comprehensive travel insurance but check the small print first to see exactly what is covered and to what value. Consider the excesses and cover for any pre-existing medical conditions or ‘hazardous’ activities you might take part in. Insurance saves worrying and possible financial burden if sh*t hits the fan so if you can’t afford travel insurance, you can’t afford to travel.
Look into annual cover if travelling for an extended time.
Take photos of valuables as a record for police and the insurance company should anything be stolen, damaged or lost.
Passports, Visas & Money
- Make sure your passport does not expire for at least 6 months from the last country you are visiting as most require this as a minimum for entry.
- Leave a photocopy of your passport and visas at home and pack another in a safe place separate from the originals or e-mail yourself a copy.
- If you lose or have your passport stolen contact the nearest British embassy, high commission or consulate to obtain an emergency travel document, this is essentially a temporary passport valid for use in up to 5 countries. It cost £95 and can be processed the same day as application.
- Check entry visa requirements and immigration information for any and all countries you will be travelling to. Note what application options are available to you as some visas require up to a month to process when applying at embassies, whereas others visas can be obtained on arrival at airports, water and land borders.
- Getting a visa on arrival or VOA is usually the cheapest option where offered, scam websites offer expensive visa services which they say ‘saves you hassle and time’ in reality most visa applications are straight forward making it hard to mess up.
- Find out whether photos are needed for your visa and if so what size is required. Don’t threat if you forget photos, border officers can usually take your photo digitally but will of course charge you for the trouble.
Remember once you leave your home country you also leave behind its emergency, support and medical facilities. Governments help out citizens the best they can but restrictions always apply.
For up to date maps of no go areas check out the UK Foreign Office website.
Bank Cards & Cash
Bank Cards Abroad
- Ensure your debit and credit cards are valid in the countries you are travelling to, some countries don’t accept visa cards at all.
- Keep your bank updated on what countries you are visiting so they don’t block genuine transactions including withdrawals.
- Register for online banking to save a world of hassle, transfers, balance checking and reporting lost cards can take seconds oppose to hours calling an international phone number.
- Almost all banks charge varying fees for using debit and credit cards abroad, a percentage of each transaction is slapped on top every time a card is used for purchases or withdrawals in foreign currencies. Luckily there are specialist cards which offer more reasonable fees saving customers an absolute fortune so shop around for the best rates. For example, spending £1000 abroad on a standard HSBC debit card will incur a mix of fees costing approximately £35-40, this is extortionate compared to a Halifax Clarity credit card.
- Foreign ATMs and retailers may add their own charge. You will be informed at the time of transaction so keep an eye out for this information.
UK Specific Travel Friendly Bank Cards
Halifax Clarity card, the number one credit card for international spending and withdrawals. Purchases are 0%, the only charge is 1.02% on withdrawals. Hands down the safest and most popular choice for any trip abroad
Very important! Set up a direct debit to pay the whole balance off each month otherwise you will be charged interest defeating the purpose of saving money.
Travelex’s Multi-currency Cash Passport, quick and easy if your credit limits lacking, purchases are 0% but withdrawals are a lacklustre 2.49%, also if a transaction is made in a currency different to the one you’ve bought a 5.75% fee is charged.
Norwich & Peterborough Gold Classic Current Account, the only debit card offering 0% on international purchases and withdrawals, it costs £5 a month unless you keep the balance at £5,000 or deposit £500 each month. Well worth checking out when travelling long term or working abroad.
Exchange rates are generally best at ATMs once you have arrived at a destination that said any foreign currency needed to pay for visas and transport should be exchanged well before it’s needed.
Never rely on ATMs being where you want them to be or even working for that matter, some international airports only have ATMs after visa and immigration leaving you to beg officials for help.
Unlike the rest of the world ATMs in SE Asia give your card back after dispensing the money requested, many cards have been lost due to this subtle difference.