So there’s really no good/bad way to plan a backpacking trip and it really depends on where you’re going. But here are some questions you should ask yourself (along with my 2 cents) in order to plan a trip that you will truly enjoy. I’ve followed these general guidelines for my backpacking trips (Europe, Southeast Asia, India and Africa) and found they worked for me. However, some may think this is too much/too little planning so you can chose to follow it or not.
- Where do I want to go? Once you’ve figured that out, get a travel book. This is KEY for backpacking since none of us are experts on a country we’ve never visited before. Most travel books have sample itineraries and highlights for each country. Skim through it, google some itineraries online and start mapping a rough path based on what you find interesting. For example, do you want to do more historical sightseeing? Or go to party hot spots? Or maybe both? You don’t need to plan every single place you’re going to visit but a rough path (like what countries are you visiting? Are you going north to south or east to west?) will help with further planning, especially length of trip and budget (question #3 and #5 respectively).
My 2 cents: I personally use the Lonely Planet books like a bible while on the road but there are other great books out there like Rough Guides, Frommer’s etc. Also, check out the Travel Independent.info sitefor tons of info aimed at backpackers and region specific websites like travelfish.org (for SE Asia).
- Why do I want to travel? This may seem like a no brainer or existentialist question but if you know why you want to go, it’ll give you the drive to plan your trip in advance between 10 hour workdays and having a social life. It’ll also give you a goal for your trip and get your butt out of bed at an early-ish time every day while on the road. Sometimes backpacking can get exhausting but if you always keep in mind your goal, it’ll be easier to get through the weeks, months and maybe even years of traveling from city to city. It can be as simple as “I want to see the Eiffel Tower” to “I need to find myself and figure out my path in life”.
- How long do I have to travel? This may be the restrictive factor on how many places you can visit and how fast paced you want to move from city to city. If you have an indefinite period of time to travel, budget may come into play (see point #5) or something that people sometimes forget is how long can you last living out of a backpack and without sleeping in your own comfy bed at home? You’d be surprised how long you can stand wearing the same clothes and having all your toiletries in a plastic bag once you get into the routine of backpacking.
My 2 cents: Build up your “travel immunity” – pick a comfortable period of time for your first backpacking trip, then double that on your next trip and then double that on the subsequent trips etc. If you can come up with a number of days based on the list of cities you want to hit, factor in sightseeing and travel time, you should still DOUBLE that time to give yourself buffer for the unexpected (like loving a city and staying longer than planned, getting tips from fellow travelers along the way on must-see places or unreliable transportation). It’s always better to have more time to see unplanned sights than to rush through your itinerary and miss sights. TIP: If you come from North America or Europe, do not expect transportation to take the same amount of time in less developed countries than at home. Hardly any buses go over 70km/h (even on highways) and “express trains” means it’ll stop maybe 15 times instead of 20.
- What is my travel style? More on the grimey side or luxurious side? This will be a big factor when deciding your budget (see point #5) and vice versa. Are you trying to see how far you can push yourself on the hygiene scale or does the thought of squat toilets make you shudder? You’d be surprised on how much you can live without on the road so don’t rule out squat toilets just yet (they’re apparently cleaner and easier to use than Western style toilets). Ask yourself, do you really need 1000 thread-count Egyptian cotton sheets, A/C buses with tinted windows that block the sights/smells/sounds of the landscape rushing by or hot water showers in 45C weather? But don’t go too far off the deep end, everyone needs to keep a certain level of hygiene to avoid getting sick or smelling like B.O. (for your sake and for the sake of the 40 other people packed in with you on the 10 hour bus ride).
- What is my budget? Keep in mind that different countries require different budgets. For example, you can easily live off $30/day in India or SE Asia but if you keep that budget for Western Europe, you’ll be eating sliced bread from the convenience store for every meal (true story) and run a higher risk of getting bed bugs from the 14 bed dorm you’re staying in. Most travel books have a typical budget/day for each country and a range of accommodation/restaurant choices from low, mid to high end. If you’re looking for more of a backpacking budget, the Lonely Planet “on a shoestring” guides are great for low budget suggestions.
My 2 cents: Take your budget/day at home to start with (especially if it’s your first backpacking trip) and start logging how much money you’re spending/day once you start traveling. After a week of logging, review your expenses and readjust your budget based on that (if you’ve underspent your initial estimate but hated the moldy bathroom then increase your budget or if you found that you didn’t watch the TV that was in your room, maybe you can live with a less expensive place to stay in the next city).
- How adventurous am I? This may be a vague question but it’ll help decide whether you want to backpack on the beaten path or venture out on your own. It also depends on the region since Southeast Asia and Europe has a fairly well-traveled backpacker path with an established tourism industry whereas Africa may not be as easy to travel through. However adventurous you decide to be, always do it in a safe way – remember, no one cares how hardcore of a backpacker you are when you’re being robbed at gunpoint in a shady alley at night.
In the end, as long as you backpack smartly and keep an open mind, you’ll have an awesome and unforgettable trip! If you have any other suggestions on how to plan for backpacking trips, feel free to add your 2 cents in the comments section.