Backpacking 101

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Wandering from country to country with nothing but a backpack is a form of travel that appeals to many people, particularly students. Backpacking typically involves a longer duration away, hostel accommodation, and of course, the backpack – towards which I have mixed feelings since my recent inter-rail trip around Europe. Students tend to be drawn to this nomadic adventure for three reasons: authenticity, independence and cheapness. Whilst staying away from those four star all-inclusive holiday packages, you get the opportunity to mix with locals and drink in the culture whenever and however you want and, if done right, without any sobs over your bank balance.

Since backpacking is all about experiences and personal development, I’ve constructed a list of things I’ve learnt whilst getting a knack for backpacking that might help if you’re planning a similar journey.

 

Pack Light

It’s the archetypal piece of travel advice for a reason as the amount you lug across the continent is likely to affect your enjoyment of the experience and could be the difference between catching your train or not. For someone who is notoriously high maintenance, I did relatively well with my packing – my bag weighing in at 9 kilos. But even then, I looked on my backpack with a mixture of fondness and pure loathing because although it represented freedom, it didn’t half kill my back in the process. Your shoulders will thank you for the little things like taking travel-sized toiletries and lightweight clothing.

 

Ask for Help

There are a lot of friendly people out there. I was often surprised by the willingness of locals to help me navigate the cities and labyrinthine metro lines just because they saw that I looked a little lost (alright, very lost). There’s no need to struggle hopelessly with your map when a kind stranger can point out the way with ease. Likewise, many people love their cities and are more than happy to offer suggestions of ways to spend your time that might be off the beaten path, where the swarms of tourists don’t tread. Hostel staff and fellow backpackers are also a great source of knowledge for brilliant under-the-radar places. That’s how I found myself with a group of friends clambering over a fence surrounding an abandoned amusement park in Berlin. I had to leave to catch a train before things got messy, but let’s just say the ‘Get Chased By A Guard’s Alsatian Experience’ is unlikely to be listed in many guide books; it’s quite a story nonetheless.

 

‘It’s Not the Destination, but the Journey that Matters’

You’re going to be spending a hell of a lot of time on trains. If you approach going from A to B with the right attitude, then it can be an enjoyable experience, and not a chore. If you’re travelling with friends, make the most of the chill out time to reflect on your experiences or strike up conversations with fellow passengers. Take books to read. Write in your journal. Travelling is so hectic and energy consuming, that the dreaded 12 hour train journey can be a welcome break.

 

Swat Up On Countries Before You Go

Prior research is a must if you want to be safe and fully enjoy the different cultures. Europe particularly is such a hodgepodge of different styles and traditions. You don’t need dissertation-worthy notes; just things like listing the local dishes and learning some basic language. At the same time, leave some room for spontaneity. Don’t give yourself a rigid plan because often the things you look back on most fondly are those that were totally unexpected. I got given an unanticipated tour of Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris (Oscar Wilde’s final resting place) by a wonderfully eccentric Frenchman, Gerard, who’d worked in the cemetery for decades. He had that poetic way of phrasing things that only comes to people speaking a language that’s not your native tongue. When telling how he’d like his ashes to be sprinkled in the cemetery, he commented that when the wind blew them across the graves he’d be a ‘guide eternal’. Beautiful moments like that can’t be pencilled into an itinerary.

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