Knobguide: How to be a backpacker

Someone asked me earlier today about some tips for getting around Europe as a backpacker. Since I’ve been over here nearly a year, both as a backpacker and as a kid working in a hostel, I feel like I may have some extra insight as to what you need and what you don’t.

Note, this is intended for first timers who plan to basically go hostel hopping over warm weather.

So, here’s the quick and nasty of it:

What to bring

If you do it right, you can get by with an average sized travel pack. I bought a big 90 litre Macpac and while it’s great, it’s also so big it meant I took too much. Using a 60 or 70 litre pack should be plenty if you only take along the things you’ll actually use regularly, such as:

  • 5 t-shirts
  • 1 jumper or light jacket
  • 4-5 pairs of underwear
  • 1 pair of shorts
  • 1 pair of jeans or long pants
  • 1 decent pair of sneakers (or boots if you’re going to do some hiking)
  • 1 pair of thongs or sandals
  • 3 pairs of socks
  • 1 towel
  • toothbrush; toothpaste; 2 in 1 shampoo & conditioner; roll-on deodourant and shower gel
  • pocket mirror (try to find a thin plastic one)
  • pocket knife (it only has to come in useful once to be worth it)

Optional:

  • hair brush
  • speedos/board shorts/bikini
  • heavy/warm jacket (if you’re travelling in colder weather)
  • razors or an electric razor (they’re a bit heavier and take up more space, but are faster and you can use them whenever you please)

This is backpacking, not holidaying. You should be expecting (and prepared) to live like more of a grot than you normally would at home. That means recycling t-shirts and underwear for a few days at a time and not showering every day. It also means you shouldn’t expect to take great care of your hair. Only prissy girls take hairdryers with them (or really weird guys).

Don’t bother with a sleeping bag or sleeping sheet or any of that crap unless you’re actually intending to sleep in a tent occasionally. Most hostels can provide you with sheets if you want them, either for free or for a small fee. Personally I’ve never bothered using them. Sleeping on dirty mattresses is part of the fun. It’s good for your immune system, too.

Passport pouches and carriers are generally a waste of money. Just keep your passport and wallet in your pockets and be mindful of them. If you have pants with zippers on the pockets, even better. I used to carry around my valuables in a pair of cargo pants that had 6 zipped pockets and had no problems. If you’re a good clothes shopper, you should be able to find clothing that’s not only practical, but stylish. Just because you’re a dirty, smelly backpacker doesn’t mean you can’t at least look nice.

It’s a good idea to use a day pack, either separate or adjoined to your travel pack. They let you carry around whatever you may want during your sightseeing and day-to-day stuff, such as your camera, MP3 player, maps and whatever else. They’re also a good place to keep your pocket knife and other gadgets, especially if you don’t have many pockets in your pants or jacket.

Resources

You’re thinking Lonely Planet, or something like it, right? Wrong. Fuck them. They’re typically out of date or full of bad information. Most of the opinions in them on accommodation paint hostels in certain lights based off one experience and don’t always have the best ones listed. Sure, they’re good books if you want to read a bit on the history of where you’re visiting, what local phrases to use and what’s worth seeing. That’s great, except if you’re doing more than one or two countries you’ll either need a book for each place or a big fat regional edition which only has tidbits of information on where you are.

If you really want to learn about where you’re going or where you are, it’s easier to just read tourist information pamphlets, brochures and signs. You can even ask staff in the hostels you stay in because they’ll know what most people want to see when they visit, plus they probably know the cool local places to explore and check out that you won’t find in guidebooks.

Another option is to read about it on the web. Wikitravel and Wikipedia should have most of the general information that you could ever imagine, while tourism websites for cities and countries are only a Google search away and can provide you with any other specific details you were wondering about.

Beds and planes

For flying around, all you really need to use is SkyScanner. They take away almost all the hassle of finding cheap flights around Europe. Use them.

If you want to book hostels online, which is recommended if you don’t want to run around looking for a bed when you arrive (although it can be really fun and you might find a brand new, cool place that isn’t even listed on the Internet yet, during the summer months places are almost always full), there are two real options.

Hostelworld has a bastard of an interface, is horrible to administer from the backend for hostel staff and they also charge you a booking fee, but it’s also the largest hostel website and lists virtually everyone. Another interesting thing about Hostelworld is that most of the other, smaller hostel booking websites are actually run through the Hostelworld network, so any bookings made by them actually function as bookings made through Hostelworld.

Hostelbookers is a nicer, slicker website, is much nicer to run from an administrative point of view and doesn’t charge a booking fee; however, it isn’t as widely used.

Other hostel booking sites are either (as previously mentioned) run through Hostelworld, aren’t as popular and thus have less hostels listed and even less reviews.

That should be enough for now. If I think of more I’ll make a second edition, or something.

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