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The Best First Time Backpacking Advice

Before we set off to travel the world, we had no idea what to expect. And when say no idea, I mean absolutely zero, nada, zilch. Our previous travel experience consisted of package holiday deals and weekend road trips. So I don’t mind admitting that even though we were ridiculously excited, we were also pretty apprehensive about our first time backpacking.

But we fell hard for the travel lifestyle and during that first backpacking trip made a decision that we wanted to continue to travel full time. So living out of a backpack with no fixed abode in a foreign land is now our norm and we’d love to share with you our best advice for your first time backpacking because, well, we ought to know a thing or two!

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jJames and Sarah with friends at Bolivian salt flats with text overlay Essential tips for first time travellers


First Time Backpacking Concerns

Language Barriers

Perhaps one of the first things that comes to mind when you think about travelling abroad is that you don’t speak the language. It’s something that in day to day you have probably taken very much for granted, I know we did. Got off at the wrong bus stop and feel a little lost? No worries, ask the first person you see. Can’t figure out how to work the ticket machine at the train station? Just grab one of the attendants.

But then all of a sudden you’re in Brasil and half way through your overnight 20 hour bus journey you and your fellow travellers are ordered off the bus and left standing at the side of the road for 45 minutes, in the middle of the night. An explanation is given but you don’t know a word of Portuguese. It’s confusing and a little scary. It turns out that the air conditioning was leaking so you are just waiting for another bus. True story and funny afterwards.

Sarah on bus carrying backpacks

There’s two points I want to make here. The first is that we travelled throughout South America and Asia for 12 months on our first backpacking trip without speaking more than a few words of any other language and we got along just fine, as thousands of backpackers do every day. But the second is, don’t naively think people will even understand a word of English in some places. So have an app downloaded ready for any unexpected night time Brazilian bus stops.

Getting Sick On The Road

This is going to happen. At some point during your first time backpacking you are going to be frantically searching for the nearest toilet whilst trying to decipher which end is going to explode first. Apologies for being vulgar, but it’s the truth and after a few drinks every backpacker you meet will recount their version of their own horrifying unwanted bodily fluid incident. It’s kind a rite of passage and not something you should fret about.

In order to prepare you for getting sick during your first backpacking trip and hopefully somewhat minimise the subsequent embarrassment you will feel, I’ll tell you about my worst sickness experience whilst traveling. I’d awoken early on an overnight train journey in China to an uneasy feeling in my stomach and as soon as we disembarked I began puking in the gutter. People were staring, it was awful.

To my relief we made it to the hostel. However that wasn’t the extent of it because before I could make it to the bathroom, I projectile vomited all over the hostel reception. It was disgusting and went everywhere, including on James. But 24 hours later I was right as rain. To my knowledge I hadn’t eaten anything off and if there’s no soap we always have antibacterial gel. So the moral of the story, you can’t avoid it, so just try and minimise risks always carry plenty of tissues with you.

James and the motorcycle

Backpacking Safety Tips

Depending on which countries you have earmarked for your first backpacking trip safety concerns will likely vary. However, what I will say is that we’ve travelled to some ‘notoriously dangerous’ countries, including Colombia and Mexico, and never felt at risk or had anything stolen. In fact I’ve felt more at risk of harm in neighbourhoods in London that I know. The closest we came to anything risky was in a bus station in Colombia where we were targeted with the mustard scam.

If you’ve not heard of this, it’s basically where someone sprays you with a substance, in my case it was some liquid foundation, then makes out they’re trying to help you clean it off whilst they and/or an accomplish are in fact pickpocketing you. It didn’t work in this instance because James spotted them spraying me. But you should always be aware of who’s around you, especially when carrying all your belongings.

James and Sarah at UK arrivals

My other first time backpacking advice is just to use common sense when you’re out and about. If you’re exploring a new area, especially at night, leave your valuables locked away in your hostel until you’ve scouted it out. As travel bloggers we travel with a fair amount of expensive stuff but for me it’s just about not being flashy or giving people the opportunity to steal anything. I love my Mac and obviously I can’t work without it but if I ever felt in real danger I’d hand it over in a shot.

Missing Home

For me this always comes in waves, usually around the time that something important or unexpected is happening at home that you can’t be there for. During our first year of travelling, we weren’t around for the birth our nephew and missed two of our close friends’ weddings. I’m writing this post in Mexico while my nan is currently in hospital in the UK and by the time this has been published, she will have likely passed away. These kind of things are always going to be tough and I don’t think there’s anything that can make them easier.

However thanks to internet and technology there are ways that you can still find to be there for your people at home and vice versa. I did a reading at one our friend’s weddings via Skype, and through What’s App probably speak to my sister and nephew more than I used when we were at home. Just because you’re both physically thousands of miles away doesn’t mean you emotionally have to be. I used to always feel the burden because ‘we left’ but it doesn’t work like that, relationships change and take work to maintain but this has to come from both sides too.

Then after the people, there’s the food and home comforts! I’m not ashamed to admit that even in countries with world famed cuisine such as Vietnam and Mexico, there have been times that I have to seek out a Macdonalds. When you travel for long enough your body starts craving things. For me it’s English tea, marmite on toast and sunday roasts with Yorkshire puddings and loads of gravy. And having a bath on hand, man I miss that. But they are such small prices to pay in exchange for travelling the world.

James and Sarah at Teotihuacan

Always Together/Always Alone

Depending on whether you are planning on travelling alone or with someone on your first backpacking trip, you may be concerned about the two extremes of these circumstances. Either being on your own and being lonely or spending so much time with someone you want to kill them. Before we set of travelling we had never spent so much time together and we were worried for sure.

But the truth is you can spend as much or as little time together as works best for your relationship. We’re actually very rarely apart, however if one of us wants to do one thing and the other something else then that’s what we do. And if you’re someone who needs regular alone time, plan this in, don’t let it build up into a frustration. Plan in group activities like hikes or day trips where you will meet people and try to talk to them independently rather than just sticking to each other.

Sarah on her raincoat with friends

Also one of the reasons we like staying in hostels is because there are a great way of meeting other backpackers. Although I can’t attest to having extensively solo travelled, the majority of travellers we meet are doing just that. In every country we’ve been, the backpacking community is such a friendly bunch you’ve have to be some kind of seriously weird sociopath to not make any friends while travelling.

First Backpacking Trip Advice

Travel Slower

What I mean by this is that unless you are staying in a country for several months or years you are never got to get to visit everywhere so don’t try to. Not only is this exhausting but constantly moving will be a big travel expensive. Pick the best bits with the time you have and enjoy them.

Sarah enjoying the view

We learnt this the hard way in our 5 months in South America and ended up frustrated and worn out at some points, having tried to pack too much in. Of course when in a new place you want to be out exploring as much as possible but my advice is to plan in a little downtime now and again, even if it’s just getting a private room every couple of week so you can have a lie in.

Don’t Plan Too Much

On our first backpacking trip we made the mistake of planning too far in advance and having very little flexibility. These days we don’t plan more than a couple of weeks in advance so if we love a place and want to spend a few more days there, we can. Or if we meet some new friends who are heading off in a different direction that we fancy too we can take diversions easily.

Sarah after crossing the river

I think coming from the UK we fell into the trap of thinking travel has to be booked well in advance otherwise it is super expensive. Certainly in Latin America and Asia we found bus, train and accommodation costs are no different whether you book them today for tomorrow or today for next month.

Say Yes To Adventures

I don’t mean blindly to every question asked – use your common sense! But when it comes to the majority of new experiences this should be your default answer while you are travelling. If we hadn’t have said yes to the server choosing dishes for us in a restaurant in China we would have never tried goose intestine or pig blood.

James and Sarah diving

If we hadn’t said yes to someone we had just met inviting us to stay with her, we likely wouldn’t have had such an awesome experience in Brasil. If we hadn’t said yes to the driver asking us if we wanted to ride on top of the jeep across the Bolivian salt flats we would have missed out on one of the best experiences of our travels so far. Anyway, you catch my drift, say yes!

Pack Lighter

As a first time backpacker there is going to be soooo much stuff that you take with you that you don’t need. We were exactly the same and after a few weeks realised we were lugging stuff around that we were never going to use. The portable washing line was the worst!

Sarah at the city view

Of course your packing list is obviously a very personal choice but what I will say is that you probably don’t need the volume you think you do. So if you have 10 t-shirts, take 5. If you have 3 bars of soap packed, just take 1 and buy more when you need it. I think I thought there weren’t going to be shops in the rest of the world or something when I packed my first backpack.

People Are Good

Stepping out of the bubble that you know, can be scary. You don’t know what to expect, how would people in other countries behave towards you? What if something bad happens? After all the media does an excellent job on a daily basis of reminding how ‘dangerous’ the world is. Our families were all but convinced travelling in Colombia and Mexico that we were going to end up caught up in some violent drug cartel.

But for the vast part the world and general people just aren’t like that – especially in the places you will be going as a tourist. The people we have met on our travels have shaped them in the best way possible. Embrace differences and accept kindness offered to you because in my experience I can say almost without exception that it will be genuine.

Sarah enjoying the beach

If you’re planning your first trip, let us how you are getting on and where you are heading to. Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions or concerns we can help you with too. Happy travels!

Jose H Ruiz

Sunday 26th of June 2022

I am planing to visit Cuba from Dominican Republic I like to know what is it that I will need ? please advise

Sarah McAlister

Wednesday 7th of September 2022

Hey Jose, we haven't visited Cuba so I can't offer anything specific unfortunately. Hope you have a great time!


Thursday 13th of May 2021

Hey Sarah,

Great post! Specially liked your advice about not planning too much and having some flexibility for some spontaneous things. Also your advice about saying yes to adventures but with common sense resonates with me.

Sarah McAlister

Saturday 26th of March 2022

Hey Bavin, glad you enjoyed it!

Dominic Simpson

Thursday 25th of October 2018

Hey . .

Just wanted to say that this article has really been useful to me . . I’m getting on a plane ( first time flier haha ) n heading to Vietnam for a month . . Meetin a friend for an adventure . .

I’m absurdly nervy n if I’m being honest, wondering what the hell im actually doing hahaha . . Nice to read a simple reassuring piece, and know that most people will have felt as I did just before reading

Wish me luck haha


Ps . . I’m also Aspergers . . This is, or rather was, huge in my head haha

Sarah McAlister

Tuesday 11th of December 2018

Hi Dominic! Oh my gosh I hope you're having an amazing adventure. We love helping first time travellers get out there. Your nerves are all completely normal but I bet you won't look back. The first flight of many to come...


Monday 22nd of January 2018

Hi guys, great post. Travel slow is my travel moto. If you are visit a country and race through it, what is the point ... I like to take at least one month to see a country :)

Sarah McAlister

Tuesday 23rd of January 2018

That sounds like a good amount of time for sure. We really like to have our favourites spots in places that we get to go back to at least a couple of times before moving on :-)


Wednesday 20th of September 2017

Great post Sarah, I totally agree, especially about craving English tea and Marmite on toast :) Also, travelling slower and packing less is definitely key. So sorry to hear about your Nan, the same thing happened to Andrew while we were in Asia and it really is awful.

Sarah McAlister

Monday 25th of September 2017

And Yorkshire puddings and gravy...hmmmm!! Thanks Amy. Yeah I want sure whether to go back but glad I did. Feeling so far away when things like that happen make it worse I think.