Embarking on this trip I found myself reminiscing about my first major backpack adventure. I remember the anticipation that built over the months, the dreams I had of the places I would go and the feeling I got sewing a Canadian flag on my first pack. I’m not a professional traveler but I’ve spent a fair amount of time on the road living out of a backpack, so I want to offer these few tips for anyone who may be thinking about a backpacking trip in the near future, and if you're not, you most certainly should be.
1. Don’t be afraid of street food
A lot of beginner backpackers I run into tell me I’m crazy for eating street food. “Man you’re going to get so sick! I’d never eat food on the street”. I don’t want to jinx myself so I’m knocking my wooden head against a wooden table as I write this, but I have never ever been sick from street food in over 22 countries, and I eat a lot of street food. In fact it is often the best food of the trip . That having been said this is not a carte blanch to become a hobo picking up chicken bones off Khao San Road. If the food looks fresh and its cooked in front of your eyes its probably OK. If there is a table full of refrigerated shellfish and they are serving up raw oysters, you might want to skip that spot, use your head. What you really need to worry about is the tap water.
2. Be afraid of the tap water
I’m going to tell you a little story about me and my friend Connor. We were drunk in a bar in Halifax, Canada a few weeks before our trip to South America and a friend of mine from Puerto Rico said to us “I have a shot of tap water in every country I go to, that way I build up my immunity to water all over the world”. Now this may sound like a stupid idea to you, but to us, at that point of drunk-ness, sounded like the best idea in the world. A few weeks later we are in Peru, in a small town called Huacachina which is about as close to a picture perfect dessert oasis as you can get, it even had a small lagoon in the center of the town. Needless to say there isn’t much to do at night in a town with a population of 100 people so we went to a bar and got very drunk. Have you ever heard of State Dependent Memory? Well in my drunken state the shot of water idea comes back to me and we ask the bartender for two shots of Huacachina’s finest, toasting to our trip. The next morning we get on a bus to Lima then hop a plane to Bogota Colombia, feeling a little worse for wear but chalking it up to a hangover. By the time we get Bogota we are both so sick we barely made it to the hostel and didn’t get out of bed for 2 days straight.
The moral of the story is don’t drink the water. Don’t ever drink the water. Buy bottled water, even for brushing your teeth.
3. Buy a smaller pack than you think you need
When I bought my first pack I was giddy with the ideas off all the shit I was going to put in it to bring with me on my travels. For sure I'm going to need 4 pairs of jeans, 27 t-shirts and a whole bottle of shampoo. Definitely going to bring my tent cause I'll use that for sure (not once in 4 months, lugging it around south America) and I can’t leave home without my dive mask and fins, in case I do a dive in Galapagos. I bought a 75L pack and filled it to the tits with all the “necessities of life”. Then about 4 weeks into my trip my back was constantly sore, me feet hurt, if I had to walk with my bag for more than 30 minutes my arms felt like they were tearing away from my shoulders. So I ditched a bunch of stuff, gave some clothes away and lightened my load by about 20 lbs.
The bag I just bought for my new adventure is 20L smaller despite planning to be on the road for twice or three times as long, and I fit everything just fine. I just had to prioritize what I really needed and was going to use. Which brings me to my next tip.
4. Pack less shit
Lay out everything you want to bring for your trip on the floor of your bedroom. Pile all the shorts together, all the pants together, all the shirts together and the sweaters together. Put all your toiletries in a pile in between your pile of shoes and your pile of underwear. Now go around and cut each of those piles in half.
Seriously, do it.
If you can’t survive with two pairs of pants, two pairs of shorts, twelve to fourteen t-shirts and a underwear/sock combo for each day of the week then pack a rolling suitcase and book a hotel with a bellhop because you probably won’t last carrying it all on your back. For shoes bring one pair for walking/hiking and a pair of sandals if you are going to be in warm countries. Oh and trust me, you can get shampoo in almost every country, so pack mini bottles and just fill them up from people in hostels with full size bottles, they’ll love you for helping them ditch the weight in their packs.
5. Always keep a roll of toilet paper handy
Just trust me on this. Have a roll in your big backpack and have a roll in your day pack. Make sure your travel partner does the same. I’m not going to tell any anecdotal stories here, all I can say is you hope you never need to use it, but if you ever find yourself in an uncomfortable situation and you have one at the ready, you’ll thank me.