|Old Town – Quebec City, QC|
Urban Sociology, Urbanism, and Migration in China and North America
In just under 72 hours, I’m off to Toronto to begin my overland journey across Eastern Canada. While gearing up for the trip, I got to thinking about some of the strategies I’ve acquired over the years from past travels. Just like learning to cook, playing baseball, or saving Princess Zelda, backpacking is a skill. And it isn’t the kind you can learn overnight or in a single trip; it requires practice and experience. Below, I’ve complied some advice and suggestions, gathered from my own experience, which can hopefully make your trip both more memorable, and efficient.
It’s called “backpacking” because you use a backpack, not an over-sized mountain climbing rig with sleeping bags and tent poles sticking out from either side.* The bag I travel with is a regular sized backpack, similar to the one I used in college to tote around textbooks and beer. (I also like to pack a smaller “day bag” so I don’t need to carry my main pack everywhere I go). With careful packing, you will find a small backpack to be sufficient for your journey, and any excess weight a hassle. I like to think of my backpack as my chopper. The golden rule is: smaller and lighter is always better. Thoroughly clean your bag and remove any item unrelated to your trip. Pack no more than 3-4 days worth of undergarments (underwear, socks, t-shirts), 1-2 days worth of overgarments, (the stuff you can wear multiple times between washes i.e. sweatshirts, pants, etc). Choose your best walking shoes, and don’t bring an extra pair. Buy travel sizes for all your toiletries. If you like to read, bring MP3 audiobooks instead of book books. Pay careful attention to every item you pack. Decide if it is absolutely necessary for your trip. If the answer is “maybe,” then maybe you should just pick it up on the road as needed. Yeah, you get the idea. There is always room to downsize.
Generally speaking, traveling in packs is not a good idea for backpackers. More people means more decisions and compromises to make, more logistical roadblocks, and more chances somebody’s alarm won’t go off at 8 in the morning. Also, the more friends you have on your trip, the less you’ll interact with the locals at your travel destinations. For these two reasons, I do the majority of my backpacking solo, with an absolute maximum group size of two. This means I go where I want, leave and arrive when I want, eat what I want, and if somebody sleeps till noon, there’s only myself to blame.
This is not to say a backpacking trip should be a solitary endeavor. I like to coordinate my sightseeing on trips with visits to friends/family/acquaintances in the respective destinations who I don’t see very often.** Meet up for coffee, sightseeing, or a night on the town, and enjoy the company of out-of-town friends. But you don’t have to take them along with you the entire trip. If you do want a travel companion, use discretion in who you choose. You and your best friend might get along perfectly in a non-mobile setting, but could be a train wreck when it comes to backpacking. Ask yourself these kinds of questions about your potential travelmate: Do you have similar travel objectives? (what you plan to see, do, eat, etc.) How do your daily travel budgets compare? Do you have similar tolerances for walking long distances, adverse weather conditions, and otherwise uncomfortable situations? Is your friend (or you) the kind of person who slams on the snooze button 7 or 8 times before finally waking up at 11:30 every morning? If the answers to these questions are similar, it might be a match. If any are significantly different, consider it a red flag.
There are two cardinal sins of backpacking: 1) planning everything before you leave; and 2) planning nothing before you leave. It is never an exact science predicting how many days are necessary to stay at a particular destination. Backpackers who preemptively plan their entire journey often find themselves with either insufficient time to explore a particular destination, or stuck pounding beers and playing uno at the youth hostel, killing time until the next movement. Additionally, one of the best ways to obtain travel info and suggestions is from other backpackers on the road. Box yourself in, and you’ll be unable to improvise and utilize this resource. Likewise, backpackers who decide to “just figure it out as they go” often end up missing out on worthwhile sites and experiences, and wasting time which could otherwise be devoted to more travel. The solution? Plan a rough outline of your trip. Pick your destinations and route in advance. Estimate the amount of time necessary for each stop. It always helps to set a starting and stopping point/date. Try to stick to your outline, but knowing that an extra day or three can always be added or truncated when warranted. On longer journeys, I like to add intermediary stopping points, be it a friend’s birthday party, a concert, or a sporting event. These provide additional direction and some element of urgency, while still allowing the necessary flexibility in between.
While there is such a thing as over-planning, one can never over-research a trip. Before you leave, map out all the destinations (i.e. cities) you plan to visit. Create a master document listing each destination on your itinerary. Under each destination list each sub-destinations (neighborhoods, tourist attractions, restaurants, etc.) you plan to see during your stay. Be sure to include addresses, phone numbers, and any other relevant information you would need on the road. Under each destination, also list people you plan to visit, along with their contact information. This document should be a work in progress, so start on it from the minute you book your trip. Search Wikitravel, blogs, message boards, Facebook, and any other websites you can find to mine travel information for your trip. Travel guides such as Lonely Planet and Rough Guide are another excellent resource, and can be found at most public libraries. Take a notebook or a computer to the library, and do a thorough search through all the guide books pertaining to your trip. Do not buy the books! They’re both expensive and too heavy for your backpack (see point 1). Plus, when you can’t bring the books on your trip, it forces you to do your research before your trip as opposed to during it.
Logistics, Logistics, Logistics
While flying to and from your starting and stopping points is often both necessary and time efficient, the best way to backpack is over land. Ground travel is not only cheaper than flying, but it allows a backpacker to experience the points in between the primary destinations, which are often equally as worthwhile. (see Paul Theroux’s advice 2 minutes into this video) Whether you plan to travel by bus, train, boat, or motorcycle taxi, these days most travel information is available online. Organize your destinations and sub-destinations in advance (see logistics section) and figure out which form(s) of transportation you will use. Small transportation mishaps can easily add up to days of lost travel over the course of a trip. Orient yourself with local transit systems before you arrive. Which guest house is most convenient for using public transportation? How much do taxis cost? Is the express bus a time saver? Does the subway still run at 3 in the morning? Save yourself the headaches, and answer these questions before you hit the road.
The main premise behind backpacking is that it enables travelers to experience multiple destinations, on a single trip, and at a significantly lower cost than visiting each place individually. Unless you’re independently wealthy, the higher your expenditures per day, the less backpacking you’ll be able to do. And there is no better way to blow a backpacking budget than on expensive lodging. Best case scenario is to stay with a friend, family member, or somebody you met on a previous backpacking trip. This is not only cheaper, but usually provides for a better trip, since you’ll have the advantage of already knowing a local. Then when they come visit your city, be sure to return the favor. If you don’t have anybody to stay with, youth hostels are another low-cost option. They can be found just about anywhere on the planet where there are backpackers. Even in some of the most expensive cities in the world, you can often get a bed a youth hostel for between $20 and $30 USD per night. In developing countries, youth hostels can run as low as $5 per night. In addition to being cost-effective, most youth hostels also provide basic backpacker necessities such as washing machines and wi-fi. They can also help to arrange low-cost day trips with other guests. Another lodging option (and travel resource taboot) is couchsurfing.org.
If you don’t have one already, buy a map first thing when you arrive at a destination. In many major cities, the free public transportation maps are often the best maps for purposes of backpacking. Maps in travel books are generally pretty limited since they often focus only on tourist attractions, and neglect large portions of the city.
When riding public transportation, consider buying daily or weekly passes instead of paying for each ride individually. This saves not only money, but the hassle of constantly loading up fare cards throughout your stay.
Bring a pocket-sized notebook wherever you go. Use it to record addresses, phone numbers, the name of your favorite dish at a restaurant, or any other tidbit picked up along the way.
Save most of your purchases, especially gifts, until the very last stop. If there is something you absolutely have to buy early in your trip, ship it home.
Bring a compass. It sounds old fashioned, but being cognizant of cardinal directions is an immeasurable advantage when navigating a new city.
Laptops, while convenient to have, are extremely heavy. If possible, use a smart phone for your electronic needs. If you absolutely must have a computer, netbooks are ideal for light packing.
Don’t pack a towel. Most hostels have their own towels you can use, and nothing is worse than a damp towel culturing mold in your backpack. If you absolutely require your own towel, pack a small wash cloth instead, ideally one that doesn’t hold much moisture.
Keep track of the new friends you meet on the road. Backpackers bounce around the world a lot, and you never know when you’ll be in a position to hook up again.
If you’re visiting a country where you don’t speak the language, pick up a small phrasebook. In addition to phonetics, make sure each word/phrase is written in the target language (i.e. Chinese characters) so you can point to what you need in order to minimize pronunciation mistakes. An extensive section on food is a must! Then you won’t be stuck eating only at restaurants with English menus.
Most importantly…don’t be an asshole. Like it or not, wherever you travel in the world, you are an ambassador of your home country. The impression you leave on locals will often reflect their entire view of where you came from. Try to leave a positive footprint for those who will follow your steps.
Well, there you have it. Every backpacker has his own tricks of the trade, and no matter how long you’re on the road, there’s always more to learn. So, happy travels and please feel free to add your own tips in the comment section.
*Every day I see travelers like this fumbling around downtown Chicago, and often wonder what they are bringing along that couldn’t be picked up on the road. The mega-pack (it typically has flags of previous countries visited, sewed on back) is a dead giveaway of amateur backpacker status.
**This is another perk of solo backpacking. You meet more new people. The more trips you take, the more your network of international friends and acquaintances expands, and the more contacts you’ll have across the globe.