5 Top Tips for the Nervous First Time Backpacker
You may question why I’m writing an article about backpacking or the possibility of travel when we’re in December 2020 and the likelihood of backpacking is seeming unlikely. Well, because 1) I find that one thing that has helped me mentally survive this global pandemic is by having a future bucket list of places to visit and 2) when travel does resume to some sort of normal, the travel and hospitality industries are going to need us more than ever.
Before I begin, I’d like to introduce myself properly. I’m Emily, I’m 27 and I backpacked across the world solo after a diagnosis of depression and a panic disorder (before the pandemic ended my travels earlier than expected). I don’t claim to know it all or be the savvy, super cool traveller you see highlighted on social platforms nowadays, but I do know how it feels to pursue a dream whilst being pretty anxious - and having to figure out situations I’d usually rely on someone else to do by myself. If you’ve ever wanted to travel, and you’ve been worried that you just can’t do it by yourself - or in general - then I’m here to tell you you’ve got this and help you figure out that maybe it IS possible. If I can do it, someone who would panic at seeing my own shadow, then maybe you can too. Whether you had a trip booked and cancelled this year due to covid, or you’re considering backpacking for 2021/22 and you feel nervous at the thought, have a look at some of my tips to keep those nerves at bay!
1. Believe you are capable of anything
Before I flew off to start my trip, I was convinced I was unable to do it. In fact, without the support of anyone apart from myself - I sometimes find it hard to trust my judgement - I doubted I could do anything. How do I trust anyone? How do I make it from the airport to the hostel without getting abducted in the process? What if I get food poisoning and end up in hospital due to severe dehydration on day 2 before I’ve even explored the local town?
Needless to say, ‘WHAT IF’ should be removed from the Emily dictionary. Both pre-trip and during my travels, I tried to journal when I was feeling anxious which I found therapeutic, and helped me rationalise a lot. Whilst I was travelling, I got accustomed to being by myself, deciding where I wanted to visit, how I was going to get there, speaking with other travellers about tips and tricks, and choosing my hostels - and I did absolutely fine. Sure there were instances where I was anxious at times - for example when I had chosen a night bus that had a particular type of clientele I wasn’t comfortable with - but I got through it, I kept myself to myself, and I had a great time throughout the entire process. You are capable and you can do this.
2. A little planning goes a long way
I always admired the people who just jetted off to a random country, ended up in a hostel, and had no idea what the future held. I mean, I admired them in terms of their pure spontaneity but I always wondered how they travel continuously, to countries they had no research on what to see and do. If you want to visit a country, surely it’s because you’ve heard about the culture? The sites? Surely there’s one thing you want to see there? I’m not sure, either way, each to their own - because I too have ended up in countries I hadn’t a clue about, but I always felt a little lost when I did it like that. The freedom of being somewhere without any knowledge of it is great but on the other hand, I liked to be a little aware of my surroundings, get up and go and do my own thing.
When you chat with fellow backpackers about places you’re about to visit, usually people join you or offer their own opinions or even extra places to go - which is always great! I found a mix of both worked well for me - having a rough guide of places I’ve always wanted to visit and leaving the rest to fate. For example, after reading a lot of itineraries about the best places to visit in each country - both on and off the beaten track - great cafes and friendly hostels to stay in, I gave myself a rough month to travel around each one. Sometimes it wasn’t enough and sometimes it was too much so I moved on. In Colombia for example, I spent nearly two months exploring and ended up nearly missing my pre-booked hike to Machu Picchu in Peru (whoops!). Either way, I felt confident with a very rough guide. For those of you who can relate to having Anxiety, having something set in stone, no matter how small and how basically structured, can make a whole lot of difference to your mindset.
3. What do you take with you?
I’ve learnt a lot about this when I was 19-years-old who volunteered in Ghana. It was the first time I’d been away from home for a long period-of-time and I was convinced there would be a tampon drought and I would be doomed. I tried to pack - and I kid you not - 17 boxes of tampons into a backpack and had no room for anything else. Newsflash - don’t do that. 8 years, 18 months backpacking, and no tampon droughts later, I created both from previous research - and my own experiences - my packing list - and quite frankly, it’s pretty good. I’ve been home to visit my family a few times, but use this list to repack everything I need and with ample time to buy everything from cheaper shops like pound stores, whilst taking advantage of deals online.
The list is also compiled of items I didn’t think I needed until I was backpacking and really needed them - things like Cystitis medication (bladder infections aren’t fun in the depths of an Ecuadorian jungle), a little hiking backpack that you can take within your actual backpack (and separate to your hand luggage backpack), carabiner clips that you can hold your flip flops, water bottle, wet clothes you haven’t had time to dry off on… the list goes on. Also do remember things like your main backpack should be fitted properly at an outdoors store so you’re carrying the weight correctly on your back, shoulders, and waist - and you can also see if this backpack suits your frame. You can find my ultimate packing checklist here. You don’t need to worry if anything has been missed off the list because I’m too anxious for that to happen and have done all the worrying for you! You’re welcome.
4. Be safe not stupid
When I first told my parents I’d decided to backpack South America by myself, I was met with blank stares and responses of ‘erm….couldn’t you have picked somewhere safer? How about France? What about the North of England?’
Alas mother, although I would like to visit France and the North of England properly, I wanted to challenge myself further afield. With the emergence of documentaries and Netflix shows like the all too familiar Narcos series which tell the history of previous drug warfare and violence, it’s not surprising people can be nervous when you tell them about future plans to visit continents like South America - and especially by yourself. Although yes, many parts of South America can be unsafe, you must remember that this is the same for any country you visit, and being mindful should be something you do everywhere. I wanted to hike some of the famous trails and mountains in Latin America, and therefore I didn’t want to be put off by horror stories that unfortunately do exist. Equally, I needed to keep safe as a female travelling by myself. Along my route, I did hear scary stories, but I (unfortunately) learnt from the mistakes of others and I was okay. Anxious? Sure. But I was okay.
For example, whilst many kept their hand luggage above their head or even between their feet on a bus or coach journey, I always kept my hand luggage on my lap the entire time (even when they were 11 hours long), because there were stories of children being sent underneath seats to cut open bags and steal items. This isn’t meant to scare you, but it happened and I didn’t want to risk it. Other things I learnt for myself were not going out at night alone and asking hostel staff in advance about areas to visit and avoid. I researched a few scams online (you don’t have to do this, but hey I was nervous and like to be prepared!) and kept my phone (and a bit of cash) when I was out in Quito, Ecuador as people had told me about having their bags/phones/money nicked in broad daylight. I didn’t stay locked inside of course, I took risks as others do, but I did what was beneficial for me and tried not to do anything too stupid. Ultimately, people decide what works for them when they’re away but I think it’s easy to forget where you are sometimes when you’re abroad having fun. Just be aware.
5. Why are you going?
We’re social creatures, aren’t we? Human interaction is great, and sometimes, especially when you’re travelling alone, incredibly needed. When you’re staying in hostels, you’re not likely to be alone because there are so many people around, from all walks of life, varying ages and from different countries. It’s easy to meet people and more often than not when you’ve been in a hostel a while, it can sometimes feel a little overwhelming. So please do remember it’s very important to give yourself some ‘me’ time, even if that's chilling in your dorm bed, watching Netflix. I used to worry this would make me look anti-social, but it’s impossible to be switched on the entire time, always on the move with travellers constantly coming and going - personal downtime is necessary to recharge.
The flip side of this is when you have arrived at a new hostel and you’re excited to meet people it’s not always plain sailing. Whilst the majority of people you meet are friendly, fun, and inclusive, it’s, of course, expected that not everyone is like this. In some instances, it’s because they’ve made their own group of friends, and therefore don’t feel a need to include anyone else and in others, maybe you just don’t gel with who you do meet. Please remember it’s not you, it’s just life. When you meet with a bunch of strangers all around the world, you think you should be best friends in a matter of seconds - which sometimes you are! But sometimes you’re not, because you can’t like everyone and not everyone can like you - do remember, even in close environments like that of a hostel, where you feel like you must befriend the universe, it’s not always possible and you shouldn’t take other people’s behaviours too personally.
I think in instances like these, especially if you battle from a form of mental illness, you can internalise negative situations as a reflection of you. The all too familiar, maybe it’s just me, maybe I’m weird, maybe I’m going to be all alone in this hostel by myself. More than likely, those are your insecurities playing out and being triggered and it’s nothing to do with you at all. I think out of the 18 months I spent on the road, I experienced feeling left out twice. Each time I blamed myself, and isolated myself - once I even cried! Then I moved onto a new hostel, a new destination, and met some incredible friends that I’m still friends with to this day. I realised that I was thinking too much about the people I was meeting and that wasn’t the real reason I was travelling. I was backpacking to all these incredible destinations to explore a country and tick off a bunch of sites I’d wanted to visit for years. I wanted to do it by myself, to experience being by myself and I hadn’t decided to travel simply to make new friends. If I did make friends? Then that was simply a magnificent bonus. I realised as soon as I swapped to this mindset - focusing on the reason I was travelling and less about the people I encountered - I grew in confidence, and unsurprisingly, I’m not the only one this thought process has helped.
One time, a friend once confided in me, when she was backpacking, that the girl she was travelling with had returned home and she felt lonely, scared, and friend-less. That she needed to make friends immediately to feel less alone otherwise it would be a terrible experience. She was in Australia, a country millions long to visit and I questioned the reason she had decided to go in the first place. Was it simply to meet people? Or was it to travel to Australia and if she met great people then that was an incredible bonus too. The more she realised she hadn’t travelled halfway around the world just to meet people she set off to explore by herself, she did meet people, and they shared experiences together. I think if you’ve decided to go away -courageously - for the first time alone, and you’ve decided you’re simply travelling to meet people, you will always end up disappointed. Figure out what you want to see, what you want to do, what you want to challenge yourself with, and if you meet some inspirational people en route then that’s the bonus! Otherwise, enjoy your company and enjoy the ride solo!
For more tips, visit my blog or shoot me a message, I’m always happy to help!