top of page

The Ultimate First-Time Backpackers’ Guide

Backpacking for the first time is equal parts exciting and terrifying. After dreaming of traveling for years, it’s finally time to print your boarding pass and wave goodbye to your loved ones. When I left for my first-ever backpacking trip, I was nervous about all the unknown. However, after over a year of backpacking adventures, I feel more confident than ever before traveling. Today, I’m sharing all you need to know as a first-time backpacker. Let’s dive in!

How To Plan As a First-Time Backpacker

Before you can start your trip, you need to prepare for it. There is a lot that goes into planning. From getting your parents on board with your adventure to deciding where to go, let’s take a look at what you need to know before you hit the road.

Deciding Where To Go

When the world is your oyster, it can be hard to decide where to go. However, there are a few things you can consider to help choose where to travel first. If you’re nervous about your first time traveling, consider traveling to a country that speaks your native language or has similar lifestyles. My first backpacking trip was around Ireland. While it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in the US, there were still enough similarities that I didn’t feel too outside of my comfort zone.

Also, it is important to consider your interests. Do you want to be in a city or by the beach? Are you looking for endless sun and relaxation or to learn about unique history or food? If you’re at the point of deciding to backpack for the first time, you will likely already have a list of your top spots. You won’t be able to do everything at once but prioritize visiting your dream destinations when planning your adventure.

Make A Budget

Many people save for years before they start traveling. While some people work as digital nomads to make money to fund their travels, many first-time backpackers will save up and have a lump sum amount of money to use for their travels. Once you have a tentative plan on where you want to travel, take some time to research approximately how much accommodation, food, and experiences cost at the moment. Additionally, consider any bills, like traveler insurance or student loan payments you will need to make while traveling. 

This calculation will help you determine a realistic daily spending amount that you can aim to stick to as you travel. Consider that daily spend number with the amount of time you want to spend in each location to determine how much you will need to save to budget for your backpacking trip. Keep in mind, you will likely spend more than you expect and surprises will always pop up as you travel, so buffer in a little wiggle room into your budget.

✈️ Pro Tip: Make crunching the numbers for your adventure easy with these tips on How To Budget For A Backpacking Trip.

Backpacking in Iceland

Planning A Route Outline

It is a right of passage for first-time travelers to collect countries like Pokemon. However, planning a realistic route that will give you the time to make the most of each destination is important. Consider your list of all you want to see and do in each destination and what your budget is and decide approximately how many days you will need in each spot to do everything you want. You don’t need to create a rigid schedule, but having a general idea of how long you will spend in each spot so you can plan future accommodation and transportation is a good idea.

Finding Accommodation 

Accommodation can make or break a backpacking trip. I put together a guide on How To Find The Perfect Hostel that I highly recommend you use before you make your first reservation. While some backpackers like to show up to a destination with no accommodation and walk around until they find the best deal, I highly advise you to not do this. (Even for experienced backpackers, I am generally against this method!) 

If you’re planning an extended trip, you don’t need to book your accommodation ahead of time for the entire trip. After all, you want some flexibility for plans to change. But book at least a few days ahead of your arrival so you know exactly when and where you will be arriving. Before you leave for your big trip, search through Hostel World or other booking platforms and compile a list of a few options that you can refer back to when you’re ready to book.

If you’re on a strict budget, consider trying Worldpackers or WWOOFing. These programs will offer free room and meals in exchange for some form of labor. These are great options for more long-term travels that can help you get a real local experience.

Giving Your Parents Peace Of Mind

The older I get, the more I realize how nervous my mother must have been the first time I told her I was solo traveling abroad. Whether you’re someone who needs your parent's approval and support or not, giving them peace of mind before you go can make preparing to backpack for the first time easier. Parents will always worry, but there are a few things you can do to help them accept your travel plans. 

After deciding where you will go and what your tentative plan is, write this information down for your parents. Let them know of any possible substitutions or additions you may make to the schedule. Share your excitement and your fears with them so they can celebrate this new adventure with you, and also help support you when you need it. Discuss how you will communicate with them throughout your trip to keep them well-informed on your experience. Let them voice their concerns and take them to heart. Your safety will likely be their number one concern, so use the following section on staying safe while traveling to prepare, and also inform them how you plan to stay safe while on the go.

Jessi's Journey in Venice Italy

How To Stay Safe While Backpacking

When you start to tell people you will be traveling for the first time, you are likely to hear a lot of words of advice and cautionary tales. If your experience is like mine, you’ll often be given warnings by people who have never even traveled to some of the spots you’ll be hitting up. While you may, unfortunately, come across a few bad eggs while traveling, you will also meet some of the most interesting and kind people. Overall, by using the following preparation tips, you can ensure your safety while backpacking.

Have An Arrival Plan

Every time you switch locations, you should have an arrival plan in place. This includes already booking your accommodation and knowing how to get to said spot before you arrive at the destination. Additionally, arrive when it is daylight. Even when arriving in a perfectly safe location, the unknown mixed with the lack of light can make any new spot look spooky and put your safety at risk.

Unfortunately, the nighttime also can make it easier for unsavory characters to target new arrivals and take advantage of your lack of knowledge of the area. Plan how you will get a local SIM card as soon as you arrive so you can ensure you can navigate quickly and safely to your accommodation and get help should you need it when learning your new area. While it might not always be possible, if you have the choice to arrive during the daylight hours, definitely do it.

Choose A Safe Neighborhood 

In all cities, some areas are safer than others. Take some time to acquaint yourself with the different neighborhoods in the destination you are traveling to. Book accommodation in a safe neighborhood, and avoid exploring unsavory spots. And listen to the locals! If they tell you not to explore an area, avoid it!

Don’t Tell Strangers Travel Plans

It takes time to plan a trip. After all your hard work, you are sure to want to share your plans with others. However, be careful who and how much you tell. If you’re solo traveling, never let a stranger know you are by yourself and do not tell them where you are staying and what you plan to do. This can be applied to other travelers as well.

It can be exciting to share with your new hostel friends where you will be traveling, but be wary about oversharing your exact plans. While most hostel hoppers will be out and about while you are exploring the city, you don’t want to be telling potential thieves your stuff will be free to be rummaged through. Just be cautious of how much you are sharing.

Jessi's Journey in Athens

Share Your Itinerary And Location With Someone Back Home

We are more connected than ever before, so sharing your location with someone who cares about you and will regularly check on you is not hard to do. Before you leave, decide who you will share your plans with and keep them updated as you explore. If your itinerary changes, make sure you pass on any updates.

Schedule Check-In Time With Someone Back Home

Apart from sharing your itinerary, it is always a good idea to have a coordinated check-in time with at least one friend or family member back home. This can be done in the form of a weekly video call or quick daily text at the end of each day when you return to your hostel. The more people who know about your plans, the better!

Post A Few Days Later On Social Media

One of the best parts of social media is that it allows loved ones back home to see what you have been up to. However, be careful when posting on your socials not to post where you are when you are actually there. Furthermore, only post photos of your accommodation, both interior and exterior, once you are no longer staying in the spot. You never know when a local may see your story and recognize the spot. It is always better just to be safe than sorry and that applies to social media posting as well. 

Pack Safety Devices

There are a few things you can pack before you go to give yourself peace of mind while traveling. From bag locks and door jams to pepper spray and alert whistles, strategically packing supplies to keep you safe is crucial for your safety.

✈️ Pro Tip: These are some of the Best Solo Travel Safety Gear I always bring on my backpacking trips.

Separate Forms Of Payment

It is always a good idea to have a few forms of payment available. Traveling with local currency, a debit card, and a credit card can ensure you never get stuck in a sticky situation. However, don’t keep all of these forms of payment in one spot. Separate your cash and hide some somewhere in your backpack just in case. Keep your debit card and credit card in different locations in case someone steals your wallet or bag. It may seem like a simple task, but it can majorly save you.

Jessi's Journey hiking in the Azores

Look Up Local Scams

From bag grabs to pickpocketing, it is always smart to look up local scams in the areas you are exploring before you go. Recently, while traveling in Athens, I was warned by the staff at my hostel that the current scam is for someone to approach you and warn you that there are passport thieves in the area. This then causes the victim to check where they put their passport is on them so the scammer can grab it after. Sure enough, on my way through a crowded area, I watch a man approach two obvious backpackers and warn them about their passports. It is always better to be over-prepared and aware of potential danger than not know what is common in the area. 

Be Wise About Booze

Listen I have a master’s degree in Wine Tourism, I love an alcoholic beverage. However, it is never wise to drink so much that you put your safety at risk. If you’re solo traveling, even if you are going out with new friends you met at your hostel or while exploring, don’t get it twisted, you don’t have enough history with these people for your safety to be their priority. If you’re new to drinking and don’t yet know your limits, your travels are not the place to test them. A few hours of drunken fun is never worth your safety. And losing out on travel time due to a hangover makes the post-drinking pain ten times worse.

Have An Emergency Fund

When budgeting for your trip, buffer in a set amount of money only to be used for emergencies. This could be for booking unplanned transportation, keeping yourself afloat if your stuff gets stolen, or if you need to hightail it out of a sketchy hostel at two a.m. Just knowing you have quick access to money will ensure you aren’t sticking it out through unsafe scenarios because of a lack of funds. 

Trust Your Gut

It may seem obvious, but if your inner voice is telling you something doesn’t seem right, you should always trust your intuition. Even if you are just being paranoid, if your gut is telling you something is wrong, trust yourself. This whole safety section is to help you give yourself the tools to stay safe while exploring, but your awareness and judgment are the ultimate tools you can rely on while backpacking.

Jessi's Journey in Machu Picchu

On The Road - What To Know While You’re Traveling

Once your planning is complete, it is time to actually start backpacking. However, there are some key things to know while you go.

Research Your Must-Sees Versus Maybe Sees

While it can be fun to show up to a place and see what the universe throws your way, I always lean more towards the preparation side. You don’t need to plan a minute-by-minute schedule, I actually highly don’t recommend this. Still, you should at least know what you can do in a new destination, and also what you want to do. 

While a lot of tourist sites are popular for a reason, if they are of no interest to you, going and seeing them is a waste of time. I always like to compile a list of at least five things I want to see or do while in a new spot so I know what to prioritize. That way, once I complete them, if I have more time to fill I can use my secondary list of interesting things or use the free time to rest up (because traveling can be tiring!) 

Additionally, make sure you are learning the history or specific information about the spots you are planning to see. If you aren’t going to pay for a guide, although I always enjoy exploring a new site with someone who can provide insider scoop, have information in your arsenal before you explore so you can fully appreciate where you are.

Spend Money If It Will Enhance Your Experience

When I first started backpacking, I would try to do everything myself and only do free or low-cost activities. However, as an older traveler now, with a bigger travel budget, I look back on past experiences and feel like I missed out on some truly amazing opportunities. While you should always be wise with your travel budget, don’t allow a scarcity mindset to stop you from doing activities you would genuinely love and make for amazing travel memories. This also can apply to your accommodation. While it can pay off to save money by bunking in a twelve-bedroom hostel, now and again, it is okay to allow yourself to pay for a private room or Airbnb for a good night’s sleep.

Take Advantage Of Free Walking Tours

Almost every city or town has some form of free walking tour. These are great ways to grow acquainted with your new surroundings and meet fellow travelers. While the tours are free, it is often suggested for you tip tip your tour guide as a thanks after.

Take Advantage Of Discounts

Many museums and tourist sites offer a student discount or an under a specific age discount. Make sure to look up these discounts ahead of time. You may be surprised how much money you can save!

Track Your Spending

The only way to successfully stick to your budget is by tracking how much you are spending. It is okay if you go over your daily spending limit one day so long as you stay under budget another day to compensate for it. Tracking your spending well can make this easier to balance out. I also like to track the categories of things I am buying. For example, on my first few backpacking trips I spent way too much money on booze while going out. From tracking this, I was able to see where I needed to cut back on future trips so I didn’t go over budget.

Record Your Memories

I’m so grateful I maintained Jessi’s Journey and my YouTube channel when I first started backpacking. I also kept a journal for each big adventure that I still re-read years later to reminisce on my past backpacking trips. You’ll be grateful years down the line that you have a record of where you went and how you felt while doing it. 

Jessi's Journey in Prague

Be A Responsible And Ethical Traveler

I have learned so much about myself by learning about other cultures. However, in my learning, I have always tried to be conscious of the impact I have as a tourist on different communities. Being a responsible and ethical traveler is important not just for your well-being, but so that future travelers can enjoy the same sites you did in the future. 

Learn The Local Language 

You don’t need to be fluent by any means, but having a few basic words and phrases can make a huge difference when traveling. I always try to learn at the very least, greetings, how to say thank you, how to order basic food and drink, how to ask for help, and how to apologize for not speaking the local language. Of course, having Google Translate downloaded on your phone can also help in a pinch, but knowing these few phrases shows respect and interest in the local culture. 

Be Respectful Of Different Customs

Many people travel as a way to escape life back home. But often while on the go, we discover different aspects of life we prefer more from our home country than the place we are traveling in. Still, you must respect local customs, social norms, and traditions while traveling. Take some time to learn about local customs, important holidays occurring during your travel window, and social expectations of where you are traveling before and during your visit.

Leave Each Place Better Than You Left It

Apart from the obvious of not littering or trashing a destination, it is also important to use your time traveling to have a positive impact on the local community. While it may be easy to slip into a Starbucks for a cup of coffee that reminds you of life back home, supporting a small local business could make a bigger impact. Instead of staying in an Airbnb that contributes to many city's housing crises, try to book your stay in a local bed and breakfast or a guest house. Always be kind to locals, you’re a guest on their land.

You’re In For a Big Adventure

It’s okay if you’re feeling nervous about your first backpacking trip, but with some planning and preparation, you can set yourself up for success. You are bound to learn a lot about yourself, your values, and your interests while backpacking. Taking the leap is scary, but will be so worth it in the end. Safe travels!

Where do you want to go on your first backpacking trip? Let me know in the comments!


bottom of page