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Backpacking 101

April 11, 2011

Traveling across foreign countries isn’t easy to do; it takes time to perfect and that usually only comes after a lot of experience.  Many of the problems that I faced during my first backpacking adventure (getting lost, seeing only tourist attractions) are a right of passage for all travelers.

When Ben Treanor, publisher of the travel blog “Euros at My Dollar”, set out on an eight month trip touring South East Asia and Europe he was a novice traveler, but soon learned some basic skills. He said the first one was to remember which way the traffic went; he almost got hit by a car when he looked left instead of right while in London during his first week abroad.

Packing also tends to be one of the biggest problems when traveling. Leaving the comfort of home for any length of time is intimidating, so most novice travelers try to bring everything they can with them. When people gain a little more skill traveling they usually lay out everything they need and then put half back. It is not until you have traveled a great deal that you learn how little you can really survive on.

“We learned that there are very few things you can’t scavenge, like tiny hotel shampoo bottles, for instance, or toilet paper from bathroom stalls and that many things can have multiple uses; shampoo is not just for cleaning hair – it can also serve as hand soap, body wash, and laundry detergent,” Treanor learned.

I learned that most hostels allow you to rent bath towels, so that is one less thing you have to lug around in your backpack.

Another huge challenge for travelers is getting the nerve to talk to locals.

“Being too timid is probably the biggest early problem we learned to overcome. Like many travelers, we felt self-conscious early on about trying to speak the local language, or hesitated to ask for directions because of language barriers. Thankfully, we learned to throw that to the wind,” Treanor said.

I have enough trouble asking for directions when I speak the same language as someone, so I thought I would never have the nerve to ask for directions to someone who couldn’t understand a word coming out of my mouth. But when it comes down to spending the night wandering around a strange city or overcoming your fear and finding your destination the choice is easy.

One of the biggest problems I had while traveling was feeling like I needed to see everything. In Spain I ran around the city trying to see all the famous landmarks that I saw nothing of the real country.

Treanor suggests not going to see things just to say you have. He thinks being flexible in what you do and where you go will enhance your trip.

“I learned that being a successful traveler means finding the right balance between planning and spontaneity,” Treanor said. “Keeping your schedule loose allows you to take fun and unexpected detours that often turn out to be highlights of the entire trip.”

As the co-founder of Lonely Planet, a leader in travel guide books, Tony Wheeler says on the Lonely Planet website, “’When you come to a fork in the road, take it’, goes that famous piece of travel advice, but it’s always nice to know what the choices are. Try to make the time to try both routes.”

Not being glued to one particular path can make all the difference.

Most importantly travelers must learn to trust strangers. Whether it’s getting directions or advice, locals can help connect a traveler to the heart of a country.

“Strangers were constantly helping us throughout our trip, whether it was something as simple as giving us directions or recommending a good local place to eat, or something as generous as letting us crash on their couch for a week so we wouldn’t have to spend money on hostels,” Treanor reflected, “I learned that the vast majority of people in the world are genuinely good.”

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