My Backpacking Journey: Mistakes, Learnings, and Tips for New Travelers
Dreaming About Backpacking: A Wannabe Beginner Backpacker
My first solo international travel was a two-week trip around France and the UK in 2012.
I don’t know why, but I had this urge to be a backpacker on that short journey. India was not high on the backpacking lifestyle then, and not so much even now. So I assume I had been influenced by the foreign backpackers roaming around Connaught Place and the Janpath market in New Delhi. Refusing the advances of the beggars and the hagglers, the travelers strode on. In that ten-minute walk from the Rajiv Gandhi metro station to my office on Janpath, I was transported from the billowing metro crowd to the cosmopolitan Janpath life to my corporate day enclosed within 500 square meters. The free travelers swaying along with their red and blue backpacks mesmerized me.
On a customary Rishikesh trip with parents, I had taken furtive glances at sinewy English and European backpackers who fill the city. Leaning against the iron fence of the Lakshman Jhula, they would be admiring and clicking pictures of daring monkeys. While my parents and I rushed to the other side of the Jhula even though we had nowhere to go, I wondered what did the travelers find so amazing about the monkeys. Weren’t they just the raucous creatures who had been stealing dashahri mangoes from our refrigerator since I was little?
The travel independence of those foreigners would have a lasting effect on me.
Later I found backpackers in Goa, Paris, Amsterdam, Malaysia, South America, and wherever else I went. Soon enough, I wanted to run away from most of them, mainly because they counted every penny before buying a meal or a soda. That wouldn’t be the only reason for absconding though(more on that later).
But in 2012, I didn’t know any better. I wondered how could I become a backpacker. I ignored Google and told myself that I had to carry a backpack to be a backpacker. duh.
I didn’t want a backpack because I would be quick while carrying one even on unpaved streets and mud roads. Or that I would be able to run behind a bus or a train without getting slowed down by dragging a trolley bag. Or that a light backpack doesn’t have to be checked in and can be carried in the cabin allowing a quicker exit from claustrophobic airports.
I didn’t realize that the backpack and I would become one, for and against the world, no matter what came our way.
No, no, no.
The backpack was my key to the backpacking world of rebellion and freedom.
Buying My First Backpack in Lajpat Nagar Market, Delhi: Novice Traveler Idiosyncrasies
I took a hara-peela auto-rickshaw to Delhi’s Lajpat Nagar Market (LN Market). A magic rucksack was on my agenda.
Now let me take you to the Lajpat Nagar market to set the mood of the time right.
The rickshaw wallah paddles the rickshaw and you are pulled into the crowded and sultry Vir Savarkar Road from where the LN market begins. He moves along, frequently turning to look at the freakishly thin gap between the wheels and other rickshaws and vehicles and shoppers (and a dog and a cow and a tractor). You grab the wooden sides of the rickshaw and think about getting down. It would be faster, and probably safer, if you walked that last part of the road to get to the bazaar.
Cheap glossy lipsticks, liquid mascaras, kitschy hair clips, smooth wooden spatulas, colorful paper and plastic chandeliers, and vibrant cotton bras and underwear are spread thoughtfully on the pavement stalls. Kiosks full of brittle plastic brushes with colorful teeth fringe both sides of the entrance of the Lajpat Market.
Freshly made aloo tikki sizzle on iron skillets on chaat kiosks. People line up on these stands and the chat wallah serves crispy tikis loaded with spicy coriander and tangy tamarind chutney. You haven’t lived if you haven’t tried the Indian tamarind sauce: an elixir made out of tamarind, jaggery, and spices.
Stalls of gol gappa flaunt their cool earthen pots glistening with condensed humidity. A bundle of people can be seen stuffing round wheat shells filled with the spicy water from the pot in their mouths the entire time.
Kulfi guy incessantly withdraws kulfi sticks from his icebox, dips the steel mold into water, pulls out the wooden stick to flaunt the creamy kulfi, and hands it over to desperate customers. These people won’t wait as they just spent two hours in the bazaar maze looking for the right red color dupatta to match their new Kurti(top) for Raksha Bandhan.
Sweet corn is sold in lemony and spicy flavors. Roasted sweet potatoes’ smoky-sweet fragrance wafts through the air beckoning customers from far off haggles. Then there stands the momo guy. His red chutney could be the deadliest but is not a match against Delhi’s loud punjabis and calculated baniyas.
Inside the market, there are more stalls selling chole bhature, Chinese chaat, Manchurian balls, chilly potatoes, slurpies loaded with ice cream, and hot pakoras. The entire battalion of what we Indians call street chaat-pakodi is there to welcome you at the LN bazaar.
I spotted shops selling bags on the Savarkar road so I stepped down from the rickshaw. Boy, I was glad that I didn’t have to go inside the labyrinth of streets padded with shops and shoppers as honey bees buzz over a beehive.
As I got down, a medley of flavors danced in my mouth. But I didn’t stop to eat anything as I was focused on my goal of purchasing a backpack.
My friend and I strode to the shops. But I didn’t know how to buy a good rucksack.
[In light of the inconclusive discussions over the internet, I would use the words backpack and rucksack intermittently to mean the same thing — a bag over your back.]
I had no idea that a rucksack should sit well on the hips and shouldn’t burden the back and shoulders. Or that its straps should be padded to comfort the carrier’s body and bones. I wasn’t aware that I should choose a bag with adjustable height. I also didn’t know I needed a small backpack so I could pack it tight and compact, thus balance it well on my back.
It is obvious that Google and I weren’t best friends then. And anyone could tell that I was a new traveler.
The shopkeepers waggled their arms to show big and small bags of various colors and sizes. Amongst the many bags, I chose one huge rusty-red and grey American Tourister for 3,500 rupees.
Tonnes of pockets. Goes on the back. This must have everything a backpack needs. I thought.
The bag’s auburn color made it look like a really old piece. When I touched the bag, it felt neither smooth nor rough. It probably had been in the shop for decades. But given the lack of options in the market, I bought Rusty.
I could have gone to other markets or looked online but back then we didn’t shop on the internet much. Flipkart had been around for a few years but Amazon hadn’t launched in India. I still (proudly) carried a simple red Micromax phone that only allowed me audio phone calls so I couldn’t even search on the go.
And as my backpack was my magic lamp to the backpacking world, I didn’t think about its usability. By then I had only traveled a bit within India (Rishikesh, Mumbai, Pune, Rajasthan, Garhwal Himalayas, Dehradun, Delhi, Lonavala, etc), Malaysia, and Singapore. That I was going to Europe was already a big deal.
Stumbling to Paris Under a Fourteen Kilo Backpack: Backpacking for the first time
I stuffed my new backpack with gifts for relatives I would visit in London. At the bottom lay the elephant keychains, a brass Natraj, fragrant soaps, incenses, and sandalwood candles I bought from the Indian Handicraft center on Janpath. On top of that, I stuffed a yellow-green glass-studded Rajasthani bed sheet and cotton dresses. Above the gifts, I put in my clothes, shoes, and jackets.
After a six-hour direct Emirates flight, I landed in Paris. I somehow managed to take a train up to a college friend’s house where I was to stay for five days. I was collapsing under my heavy Rusty, but how I could show any distress for I was now a backpacker. What else does one need?
Once in Paris, I danced around the Seine river. From the farmer’s market on the banks of Seine, my friend and I bought cheese and wine. Then drank the whole bottle in the garden of the Eiffel towers staring at the golden pillar that failed to impress me. For days we glimpsed through Mona Lisa and other Louvre and Contemporary Museums’ paintings. Sipping espressos and red wine in street-side cafes filled most of our days and nights.
I also bought wine from Paris to take to my relatives. Buying wine in Paris was as simple as walking into a departmental store, asking the attendant about good red wine, and voila. I laughed in silence thinking about how Parisians must faint when they see the grills barring the liquor shops in Uttar Pradesh. I purchased two two-liter packs of wine. I didn’t realize I was buying cartons of wine, not bottles. With the wine, I got five-six wooden spatulas of different shapes and sizes to bring back home.
I stuffed the ladles in the bottom part of the bag that now housed my towel, shoes, and toiletries. I arranged the cardboard boxes above the gifts, umbrella, and my clothes. My bag was stretched to its maximum capacity now, and I just managed to pull the string to close it from the top. Now Rusty looked like an overstuffed sack with a bulging belly but a square face and a square neck.
My friend carried my 16 kilo bag to the bus stand and deposited me and Rusty into a bus to the Charles de Gaulle airport. Once at the airport, I pushed the bag onto a luggage trolley and jumped with joy upon checking it in.
At Heathrow airport, my relative picked me up and threw Rusty over a trolley. Only the middle part of the bag rested on it, and its square face and bottom belly jutted out from both sides. I still do not know why he didn’t fix it and why I didn’t ask him even though I was worried about breaking the gifts or jamming one of the wine cartons into the pillar.
Sometimes a new place and the journey into the unknown puts you so out of your comfort zone you don’t know what to worry about and what to let be.
My relative almost sprinted with the trolley, hurrying to get home, and hit it many times against the car parking speed breakers. Rusty fell over, and we dragged its fat ass onto the trolley again, still letting it protrude from both sides.
Bags must endure a lot because of us bad-packers.
All the while, I hoped never to receive the comment that women overpack. Once at home, we opened the carton, filled our glasses under its bountiful tap, and agreed that one Got to love the French.
Time in London passed by quickly. While returning to India, the backpack was even heavier. I had given away the gifts but had purchased winter jackets and quirky t-shirts from the London Camden Town market.
One may think I had learned my lessons, but the next story will make it obvious that I hadn’t understood anything about packing from that tiring first time backpack rendezvous.
Another trip to Europe and London With a 100-liter Wheeled Suitcase: Still a Novice Traveler
Three years later, I was on my way to Europe and the UK again. This time I was traveling in Europe for fifteen days and working in my London office for two weeks.
As I had to carry formal clothes, I decided to pack a suitcase instead of a backpack. Rusty glared at me from the cupboard from behind my winter clothes.
I bought a new 100-litre lemon-yellow wheeled suitcase. The suitcase came up to my waist and was as wide as two of me put together side by side. The bag could even fit a dead body.
I packed one side of Lemony with formal clothes and stuffed casuals on the other side.
I checked-in the bag at Bengaluru airport and flew to Frankfurt. From there, I was a train journey away from Kelsterbach, a small village, and my abode for two nights.
I shoved my suitcase around the Frankfurt railway station. I don’t know how, but I had hundreds of Euros and cent coins already. Fumbling with my noisy stash, I somehow bought a sim card to coordinate with the friend flying from the US to travel with me.
After going in circles around the station and dropping the coins at least a few times, I took the train bound to Kelsterbach. After a short ride, I got down at Kelsterbach station. I trudged up the suitcase from the basement station up on to the main road and dragged it on the streets in the direction of my Airbnb.
In the absence of a network or an offline map, I got lost. After a bit of it must be right here and right there with the locals, I arrived at my apple tree-studded Airbnb. There is an Indian girl with a big yellow suitcase in the town today, everyone must have said.
My friend joined me from the US in a day. We roamed around the small town, drank beer, and ate pizzas. We went to Frankfurt and gorged on schnitzels. It rained a bit, we laughed and clicked photos.
Next morning, we missed the alarm and overslept. Some noise woke me up. It was fifteen minutes to the departure of our train to Munich. I shook my friend awake. I had my periods. Because, of course. We changed quickly, stuffed our things in our bags, and rushed to the station.
Throughout our short scuttle from the house to the railway station, I mentally prepared myself to carry Lemony down the long staircase at the station to get to the platform. We arrived at the station panting. I heaved the big yellow bag down the stairs to catch the train just in time.
Now we were out and about in sunny Munich. We roamed around the Munich streets trying to find our Airbnb whose host hadn’t given us the correct address. She later charged extra for a wet foot-mat that she had left dripping. For two-three hours, I walked my tall bag up and down the cobbled streets asking for an invisible building.
Some more schnitzels, beer festivals, and museums later, we found ourselves on a short train ride to Venice. Italy was different from Germany, and trains were eternally late. We would search for lifts to go from one floor of the station to another but didn’t find a functional or empty elevator always. I would lift my bag, bring it one step down, a few more steps down, keep, rest, and repeat.
[We did find some functional lifts on Italian railway stations later.]
I had to hoist the bag up four stairs in an old house in Florence that didn’t have an elevator. The old-style staircase was good for the antique spirit of the house but torturous for my aching arms and hunched shoulders.
All my friends (some more had joined in Italy) could identify me from afar without having to peer through the European and English crowd.
I see the bag. I see the bag. There she is. They would say.
London was a stay-put affair.
My crisp formal clothes saved me. Women in the London office tiptoed in Carl’s pencil heels, wore netted stockings under black pencil skirts, and shined in white Allen Solly blouses. And while my colleagues measured the thickness of sandwiches and the natural sugar in their evening fruits; I made plans to gobble both the falafel-pita and the fish fry and chips for lunch.
Lessons (Learned the Hard Way) On the Road: Backpacking Tips
Running around with lemony (at least half a human tall and two-human wide) on the cobbled streets of France and Italy, I realized the giant bag wasn’t the best decision. I should have packed a backpack for casuals and a small trolley bag for formal dresses.
Lessons learned as a beginner backpacker— Travel light. Divide your luggage into two bags if you have to carry a lot. Bring light travel towels. Pack compact and tight. Eat as much as you can.
And remember to search for lifts before dragging your bags up steep European stairs.
The Backpacking Road Ahead: Tips for Backpacking
A year later in 2016, I took my old Rusty out of the cupboard to bring it to South America. I was traveling to Chile to teach English as part of a volunteer program. As I was going for at least six months, I packed Rusty, a small wheeled suitcase, a small backpack, and carried a black leather purse.
I stayed on a cold island in the south of Chile, and most of my bags stay put. I only carried Rusty on short weekend trips within the country.
The four-month volunteer program was over soon. It was time to set sail for my longer backpacking trip through South America. With the help of my travel friend Alison, who also happens to be a backpacking genius, I realized Rusty wasn’t the best backpack after all.
Rusty didn’t fit well on my back. It was too big. No matter how much I pushed, it couldn’t be packed tightly. It wasn’t sturdy enough, and so on.
Alison told me that it was time to let Rusty go. Listening to her advice, I went to a mall in Santiago and bought a 55-liter blue NorthFace backpack. This new one sat perfectly on my hips. Its straps were padded, and I could move a strap up and down to shift the bag’s weight vertically.
This time I only packed a few t-shirts, a couple of pants, skirts, hiking shoes and slippers, a pink rain jacket, a thick Colombia winter jacket, laptop and its charger, first-aid kit, undergarments, power bank, a book, a diary, toiletries, and trinkets from around the world. The big stuff got into the blue NorthFace. And the smaller things and essentials got inside the small backpack I carried on my front.
I left the rest of my stuff at my friends’ in Chile.
Through my 2-3 months long travel through Chile, Peru, and Bolivia, my bag only weighed eight-nine kilos mostly. Now I could walk easily as my shoulders didn’t get burdened under the heavy backpack. I would strap the hip belts and tie the tiny belt on my chest to keep the bag close to my body. I could run to catch buses, and no-one ever said I was overpacked.
What is Backpacking? Or Rather, What is Backpacking to Me? — Backpacking Basics
I slowed down in South America for weeks in one place and spent as much money as I liked. If a treehouse in Bolivia’s Samaipata village kept me hooked for a week, Titicaca islands just didn’t let me go.
As my pace of travel depended on my mood and the destination, I realized neither was I a backpacker nor I wanted to become one. I just wanted a backpack.
You heard me right. This is the time to say, And all this drama for nothing?
I concur to half and negate half of the things that Wikipedia says defines backpacking.
I never try to find the most inexpensive ways to travel. I don’t stay in cheap dorms; I prefer single rooms over them any time. Ditching hostels for homestays is my thing, irrespective of the tariff. I do prefer a public bus, train, or taxi over a plane or a cruise.
I travel long-term and mostly solo. I do look at travel as a means to learn on the road. My idea about traveling or backpacking is that I get to see the nooks and corners of a destination naturally rather than picking the places travelers see or are expected to admire.
And as I said above, I do run away from other backpackers. While risking generalizing a big community of people, I would say a lot of backpackers hang out in groups. They count every penny they spend. Hostel dorms are their preferred hang-out joints. They choose pizza and hostel bars over regional meals and an obscure local club. They move together in groups, like sheep. Most of the Western backpackers I have met condemn local culture and how dirty locals are and how can they eat rice for breakfast and omg, I can never do that.
These backpackers live in their bubble that flops around them pulling them together wherever they want to go.
On the contrary, I have also met travelers who slow down and engage with the local community while finding ways to give back. They stay with families, take out time to talk, and eat what they are given without complaining or judging. Amongst the things to do, they find their path.
And I make friends with those kinds of travelers. But as I want to learn about local culture and customs, I hang out with locals more than foreigners. I slow down at places rather than check-boxing its sightseeing locations.
Mostly when I see a group of backpackers, I run in the opposite direction. I am a traveler but not a backpacker. At least not in the traditional broke backpacker sense.
Earlier I saved enough to travel without calculating money and now I write to earn and travel.
And the definition of backpacking changes with geography.
As per Cambridge Dictionary, UK definition: “backpacking is the activity of travelling while carrying your clothes and other things that you need in a backpack, usually not spending very much money and staying in places that are not expensive.”
But Cambridge Dictionary US backpacking definition is different. It defines backpacking as “the activity of walking from place to place in the countryside, carrying the things you need in a backpack and camping at night.”
How to Backpack?
If you ask me what backpacking means to me, I would smile and say, you can be a backpacker with a trolley bag or a backpack or a shoulder bag or with a jute sack or with a big suitcase.
Backpacking is about the spirit of adventure and exploring a place and has nothing to do with what you carry or don’t. It is not about how cheap or smart you do it. It is about how you immerse yourself in the place. It is about how you interact with people.
Are you booking resorts or are ready to put up in a homestay where you might have to talk to the family and teach their child a bit of mathematics? Do you like local fish rice or head to the Mcdonalds every day? Would you hike the mountain with the host to water his pea field or would you head to the museum with your list of five places that have to be checked off before you can breathe again?
Do you read about a place before going there? No, not just travel guides. Does a rainy day upsets you or do you grab a cup of tea and sit by the window to watch people pass by? Would you smirk if you see someone licking his coconut-curry-dipped fingers or would you sit down to ask him why does he eat like that and can you try?
Backpacking is about embracing the place, absorbing its living style, and letting go of things that you don’t like. It is about getting out of your comfort zone to get to know a place and its people. It is about taking the unknown path to discover rather than walking a Lonely Planet trail. It is about eating what you get.
Backpacking is all about letting go of control and making the most of where you find yourself.
Backpacking isn’t a week-long vacation with friends. No one said it would be a breeze to get stuck in a remote village. But it is an adventure. You always learn a thing or two about yourself at the end. Maybe you will be able to live by yourself finally.
Would you just follow or would you discover for yourself?
I have a blue backpack, I am a ballsy backpacker, but I am not waiting for a free ride all the time.
Suggested Read: My Dharamshala Travel Guide: Or a slow down guide to the Peaceful Himachal abode
My Trustworthy Backpack
I have been using a North Face backpack for four years now, and I have no complaints. You will see me carrying this backpack (not exactly this but a similar series from North Face that has been replaced with the latest models) around the world (pictures on this blog can prove).
Here is the bag I carry: The North Face Terra Backpacking Backpack.
This bag has got padded belts. There is one lever that can be shifted up and down to adjust the weight until you have most of it on your hips. It has got strong zippers. There are compartments both at the top and the bottom to keep easily accessible stuff.
I trust and recommend North Face for I’ve been using their products for a while and have found them to be sturdy. My backpack has suffered the icy winds near Cusco, has been thrown on the roof of the jeeps on a rough ride from Manali to Spiti valley, and has been stuffed into the dingy state buses of Parvati Valley. But not even once did my rucksack retaliate. Not one zip has broken. It isn’t torn from anywhere.
Click here to read the reviews of the bag I trust and to purchase it.
If you buy this rucksack, let me know how it turns out for you.
Tips to Choose a Backpack: Backpacking for Beginners
- Make sure you buy a bag as per the capacity you require. If you have to carry a lot of stuff, go for a large bag. But for regular backpacking requirements, a 50-60 liter bag would do. Mine is 55 liter.
- Buy a backpack with padded hip belts and padded shoulder straps
- Do check the quality of the buckles and the zippers. They should be strong.
- Choose a bag with a height adjuster so that the bag’s weight can be adjusted to fall on the hips.
Tips to Use a Rucksack: Backpack Basics
- A well-packed bag would be easy to carry. To keep the bag compact and well-shaped, it should be packed tightly.
- Once packed, tie and tighten all the buckles. This way the things inside would be even further packed into each other.
- Remember to buckle the hip belt and the tiny belt over the chest. These two will keep the bag’s weight close to your body.
- In a good backpack, the load should be mainly diverted to the padded hip belts and shouldn’t lie on the shoulder belts. This way you would use your legs to carry the weight and not your shoulders or back. Adjust the height properly so that the bag’s weight is balanced on your hips and your shoulders aren’t strained.
- Tie the hip belt around the front of your hip bones, not around your waist.
- If your shoulders pain or the back muscles seem jammed, take off the bag and adjust the height again. The adjustment is worth it if you have to carry the bag for a long time.
- Protect the buckles from being stepped over when the bag is on the floor. (I haven’t been able to do this so far.) If any buckle breaks, find a shoe or bag repair shop and yelp for help.
- Use Ziplock bags and packing cubes to pack stuff. Thus you will have the relevant stuff categorized together, and it will be easy to access. The tight packing cubes also ensure compact packing thus making the bag easy to carry.
- Carry your important documents, laptop, power banks, and camera in another small backpack that you can carry in the front.
- Do buy a cover. Put it on the bag when you give it to the bus conductor or check-in at the airport. Thus your bag will stay clean even when it is thrown around in dirty airport trolleys or bus compartments.
Traveling for Beginners: Tips for Backpacking First Time
Find all my travel resources and packing list here. If you are going on an international trip for the first time, have a look at my visa page for Indians. Here is some more travel inspiration for you.
Hope this helps. See you out there.
What are some of your tips for backpacking? Are you a new traveler? Let me know in the comments.