Your first time backpacking can be a daunting experience. Luckily, the Broke Backpacker‘s Ziggy Samuels is here to give you some of his own hard-earned advice, as well as the inspiration you need to convince you to buy that backpack and book your ticket.
Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Those five words (or three, depending on how you count your hyphens) are the words that every veteran traveller knowingly chuckles at when reminiscing on their first budget backpacking trip.
That’s not to say every traveller has the same experience. That first trip can present itself in many different formats.
Maybe, you start by partying your way across the beaches of the Thai Isles. Maybe, you start by delving way too deep into the spirituality of it, looking for signs in the birds and the clouds. Maybe, you just end up hitchhiking, busking, dumpster diving, and sleeping under bridges to float by.
In the biz, we call that ‘goin’ full dirtbag’.
But bright-eyed and bushy-tailed? That’s where it all begins. And amongst all veterans of the vagabond-life, one thing always remains true…
You never forget your first.
What’s it like going budget backpacking for the first time?
It’s a dream – a pure headrush of emotions.
It’s daunting and scary. It’s thrilling and enlightening. There’ll be tears and there’ll be laughs.
I started in New Zealand several years ago, which is your first pro tip: you don’t have to start somewhere hectic. A jaunt around Western Europe or a tour of the Great Down Under is like starting a game on easy mode – everybody needs a tutorial level. Give yourself a chance to level up.
I started late too: I was 24. I’d already partied, loved, and lost. I wanted change.
I went full dirtbag, and I went full hippy. I stopped wearing shoes, made doing altruistic acts a daily ritual, and went where the signs from the universe and my heart told me. If I needed to change directions or put some bloody shoes on, the Gods would surely tell me, right?
Travel does change, as does your relationship with it. Backpacking around New Zealand and Japan is going to give you a very different perspective on the world and the human condition than, say, journeying around India or Israel. It’s good to welcome that change in.
Sometimes, the things you learn hurt, but that’s good. It means you’re getting older.
It means you’re levelling up.
Levelling up your backpacking game
To keep it simple, let’s say you level up in two areas:
1. The practical aspect.
2. The emotional aspect.
Practically, you learn new skills, particularly from budget travel. Scraping by spending the bare minimum to survive, keenly watching your budget, and finding ingenious ways to solve the inevitable obstacles you encounter on the road without simply buying your way around them isn’t just part of the process. It’s the process.
You’ll get better at camping and survival skills (pro tip #2: if you mediate how much you rely on your phone for mapping, your navigation abilities are going to skyrocket!). You’ll pick up a lot of gigs on the road – volunteering and paid – and finding yourself diving headfirst into work you never even imagined yourself doing. Your communication improves too.
If you’re the kinda person who struggles to spark up a conversation with a stranger or ask someone for help, that anxiety will get knocked outta you pretty quickly. And even in the trickier parts of the world, you’ll find that there is always someone willing to lend a hand.
Emotionally, you begin to thrive on the game of travel. The day-to-day basis of constant change inspires you, the chaos excites you, and you begin to dance with misfortune.
All of this exhausts you too: traveller burnout is a real thing. Over time, you learn how to listen to yourself more closely. You start to recognise the signs and know when you just need to slow down.
You’ll face down homesickness, and in the darker parts of the world, you’ll begin to realise that it’s not all sunshine, lollipops, and free pizza. But somehow, the darker tones in the composition just make the whole frame more beautiful.
And that bright-eyed and bushy-tailed first-time backpacker? They’ll change.
The bright eyes will lose the innocent and immature light of youth only to be replaced by wisdom and understanding. The bushy tail will refine and slick back into something more equipped to balance you on the roads ahead.
And when you meet those long-term travellers who seem exasperated to answer questions like “Where are you from?” and “How long have you been travelling?”, you’ll understand why.
Because you’ve become one.
A first-timer’s backpacking guide: Steps to an awesome adventure
Mileage varies: every country presents its own cultural nuances and its own experience of travel. But to prep for a first-time backpacking extravaganza of the budgeteering variety, there are some universal steps you can take to make that first trip one to remember.
And one that will lead to many more.
Step 1: Book a damn ticket!
You just gotta book, yo! There’s something very clever that my ex’s mum once said to her (my ex being a heavy smoker of roughly a decade). She said: There’ll never be a good time to quit cigarettes. You just have to do it.
I love that because it’s true of so much in life – especially travel. There will never be a good time to go travelling. There will always be issues with the friends and family back home. There will always be work and other commitments to hold you back.
If you wanna travel, you just gotta do it. Life is short – we do run out of time.
Before you even start buying gear, book a flight. Then, you have a date and a deadline. Getting the gear, your passport (I didn’t even have my passport sorted before booking that very first flight to New Zealand), and all your ducks in a row… that comes second. You’ll be a lot more motivated once the doors of the Temple of Doom start sliding shut on you.
For destination inspiration, keep it somewhere accessible and newbie-friendly:
Western Europe: And when the western side gets boring, travel to Eastern Europe: the cool side of Europe.
Australia and New Zealand: Loads of backpackers start in Oz, and as a born-and-bred Aussie, I can tell you – mate, it’s crackin’ down here! Pro tip #3: Australia has an obscenely high minimum wage and fruit-picking jobs are a dime a dozen (because none of the locals wanna do it); a working holiday in Oz to save some big bucks for an Asia-brand adventure is a classic first step into the backpack-o-sphere!
Southeast Asia: If you want to cut your teeth on the deeply-ordered chaos of Asia, Southeast Asia – Thailand, Cambodia, and The Philippines in particular – balances an accessible tourist trail with relatively low travel costs.
Oh, and book a one-way ticket; you never know just how far you’ll take that first trip. You know all those asinine influencer bios that read: When I was X-years-old, I broke up with my boyfriend, quit my job, and booked a one-way ticket to Y!
Yeah, that’s not special: that’s exactly how it should be.
Step 2: Get yo’ gear sorted
Well, your passport first! Then your gear.
Spending some delicious dollaridoos on solid adventure gear may seem like the antithesis to backpacking on a budget, but the right gear is going to save you a lot of money in the long run.
Here are my top recommendations for backpacking gear (from years of sleeping in funny places) that any first-time backpacker should be equipped with:
A Backpack – Duh. Get an Osprey pack; anything less is just shortchanging yourself.
A Tent – An el cheapo tent is fine: as long as it keeps the rain off you. Accommodation costs are one of the biggest chompers of travel budgets you’ll face, meanwhile, camping is free! And better.
A Bang-on Sleeping Bag – I say don’t go overboard because instead, you’re going to get the mother of all sleeping bags. With a wicked sleeping bag, you don’t even need a tent half the time. I’ve slept rough and tent-less in parks, train yards, under bridges (a nearly always dry spot), and even once in a graveyard! That’s another story…
Your Remaining Sleep System – I like to have a sleeping pad and a sleeping bag liner for extra warmth and to keep the bag clean. Inflatable pillows are overkill: just stuff a hoodie full of clothes for a pillow.
A Backpacking Stove – They’re super tiny and super portable! Being able to cook up or brew a coffee anywhere on the road is another budget-saver and just a good act of self-reliance.
A Headlamp – EVERY TRAVELLER WORTH THEIR SALT SHOULD CARRY A HEAD TORCH. This one’s non-negotiable.
A Filtered Water Bottle – It’s only really relevant in countries where it’s advised not to drink the tap water, but you’ll save sooo much cash not buying bottles of water. And backpackers really shouldn’t be buying plastic bottles of water anyway: we’re better than that.
Step 3: Do your research!
Not too much research though. Nobody likes spoilers.
But doing some research on travel costs, where to go, and cultural nuances of your chosen destination is definitely a recommendation. Read up online: over on The Broke Backpacker we have a massive catalogue of budget-based content on nearly everywhere you’d want to go.
Don’t get stuck over-planning and definitely don’t get into the trap of planning an itinerary (*shudders internally*). Those things definitely are the antithesis of a budget backpacking trip.
When you travel, it’s good to have a direction and no plans. Everything that happens between you and your loose destination? That’s where the travel happens.
And once you’re actually in the country of your choosing, stop reading online. There are plenty of people around you can ask for hot tips.
Step 4: Be a chiller
Part of losing that innocence of the early days of backpacking is learning that, for all intents and purposes, tourism is a double-edged sword – one that needs to be wielded with great care. It’s a necessary proponent of capitalism and a country’s economy, but it’s also an industry that can (and in some cases does) damage our planet.
So be a traveller and separate yourself from the run-of-the-mill tourists. Make time for conversations with locals, and not just the ones serving you chai. Learn the greetings, pleases, thank yous, and friendly slang in the local lingo. Eat at the local hole-in-the-walls rather than the fancy tourist joints, and stay at the family-run guesthouses rather than somewhere sterile and overpriced.
It can be really, really, really easy to lose yourself on a backpacking trip. Cheap booze, and babes and hunks with cheap values: but that’s not what travel is about.
Go have your party phase and get it out of your system – we’ve all done it, and we’ve all made our mistakes. (Plus, even Gandhi needed a boogie in the mud from time to time.)
But when it’s time to do something more… When you feel that uncomfortable feeling in your gut… When there’s that lingering sense that you’re not being all you could be and not experiencing travel to its fullest… Then maybe go do some volunteering in a community or something. I guarantee you that it will be a helluva lot more rewarding than just another hangover.
Have you booked that ticket yet?
Because that’s the only way you’re going to go backpacking!
Don’t let any of this talk of lost innocence and conscious tourism deter you: all of those are just the signs that you’re on the right path.
Besides, those bright-eyed and bushy-tailed early days are some of the sweetest you’ll remember. I still find myself often drifting back in my mind’s eyes to the early vagrant days in New Zealand, busking, WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms), hitching, and scrounging through trash cans for a feed. It was maddeningly excellent.
I said it once, and I’ll say it again: welcome change in. Give it your spare room and some tea and biccies too. Change is good.
There will be days that you’re homesick. There will be weeks where you feel off your game. There will be turning points in your travels where you can’t go back to the person that you were before.
And that’s the whole damn point! To quote a rather excellent boss of mine: Growth begins at the edge of your comfort zone.
Travel is the ULTIMATE act of self-development, and your very first budget backpacking adventure is where that whole arc begins.
Because there will be harmony. There will be sunsets so devastatingly beautiful that they make you cry. There will be friendships and romances so authentic that you treasure the lessons they taught you for the rest of your life. And there will be journeys so life-changing that you’ll struggle to remember the person you were before.
So book that damn ticket, amigos, and start your real life today. Soak it up – life is so short, and there is only now.
Peace out – I’ll see you in the hostel! Na, screw that. I’ll see ya on an epic mountain. 😉
Like the idea of embarking on a long-term backpacking adventure? The Broke Backpacker founder’s Will Hatton is a pro when it comes to long-term travel – check out his tips.
Somewhere along the road in a life of budget backpacking – hitchhiking, dumpster diving, busking, and sleeping in forests – Ziggy Samuels ended up with the pen as his greatest tool. With great power comes great responsibility: he became a professional dirtbag.