5 Things I’ve Learned Preparing for My First Backpacking Trip

backpacking trip prepare solo travel

I’m about to embark on my first backpacking trip solo. My prior travel experiences have built up to these next two months I’ll be spending in Costa Rica and Panama.

 I’ll be on my own, speaking my second language, and going from destination to destination all while trying to keep it together. In general, it shouldn’t be that hard with all the planning I’ve done, but plans don’t also equate to reality. 

I don’t know about you, but excitement and anxiety drive a lot of my planning. I’ve done them best I could to plan from working away, travel routes, to making sure my loans continue to get paid. I might only be leaving for two months, but there’s a lot to consider. 

In planning my first budget backpacking trip for the past six months, here are five components of travel planning I’ve learned from.

Gathering the necessities 

Considering I’ve bought all the stuff I need for my trip, I probably wasted about $100 on purchases.

The wasted purchases include a maxi-skirt that was way too long, a dress that was frankly fugly,  two more dresses that shrunk too short in the dryer, a tin of all natural bug repellent, and electrolyte powder that makes my water bottle reek.

I wish I still had that $100 instead of items I ended up mostly giving away. I kept the two short dresses and electrolyte powder, but they’re not coming along for the ride.

I’ve also bought some cheap items, such as a cross body bag that I can’t return any longer. I love and will still use it, but wish I would have shelled out the extra $20 on a theft resistant bag. 

As you gather the neccesities, gather your neccesities carefully or else you might lose money planning your backpacking trip as I did.

Despite my purchase fails, I can vouch Amazon is your friend here.

Instead of having to go from store to store to find specific items, I went to Amazon. I was blessed with a month long free trial where I took advantage of deals to save me time, money, and stress.

You can order extra items to see what works, what doesn’t, and then return what you don’t want. I even got my new international phone, the Huawei P20 lite on Amazon. The camera is amazing and it was just over $200.

February 2019 update: My Huawei P20 lite is still working great — I highly recommend it as a budget phone.

Lesson learned:  When it comes to gathering your supplies, buy only what you’re certain you’ll bring along and invest a bit more when it comes to higher quality products.

Don’t buy things driven by the thought, ¨Maybe this will work.¨ Know it will work — unless you’re on Amazon, in which it’s easy to make returns. 

Don’t rely on Workaway, but expect great opportunities 

I’m all about backpacking on a budget and halping out in the locations I stay. Since I only have two months in Costa Rica and Panama, I’m not staying in one location for long and this makes working away a little more difficult.

Lots of workaway hostels and business look for people who are willing to stay at least two weeks and it’s been tricky finding workaways in specific locations I want to visit.

I had hoped to workaway in Costa Rica but my luck was not what I seeked. With changing plans though, I managed to save about $100 overall on hostels, thank goodness.

Panama I had more luck — I was actually offered an opportunity at an established hostel in the mountains near Boquete, called Lost and Found. There, I’ll be living in the lush jungle for two weeks and teaching English to the staff. I couldn’t imagine the opportunity getting any better. 

[Post-travel Update: I ended up volunteering in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica for three weeks because I loved it so much! ]

Of my two months in Central America I have one workaway planned, and frankly, I don’t mind. My one workaway lasts two weeks — that’s ¼ of my trip!

You can’t beat a free bed in exchange for a few hours of your time!

In the future I want to backpack long term and I think Workaway, unlike this time, will be more useful as I plan to stay in locations for at least a month. 

Lesson learned: We all want to save money, but don’t assume you will simply save money backpacking by attempting to workaway. Budget and save enough to cover your accommodation, then proceed to find opportunities and save from there.

Planning Where to Stay

Booking.com has been incredibly useful in planning my journey. I can switch up dates, cancel bookings, and get lots of great info on the hostels I’m looking to stay at. 

I used hotels.com for some bookings when my credit card offered 10% back on purchases, but the bookings were non-refundable. Today, I’ve since decided to skip staying at one of the hostels I paid in full for, defeating the purpose of the 10% back offered. Oh well.

Lesson learned: Book refundable/cancel-able accommodation. If anything changes you can always adjust or cancel without fear of losing money. I only lost $24, but that’s still $24. 

Packing Effectively

I leave for my trip on September 10th. The first time I packed everything into my 40 liter back pack was in July.  With just a 40 liter backback it was necessary to do multiple test runs.

When it came to picking out and buying clothes, I made sure everything was not only lightweight, compressible material, but due to the rainy season, easy to dry.

I also discovered it’s more suitable to pack a poncho and tiny umbrella over a rain jacket. Despite many other blogs recommending a rain jacket, I found last year living in Panamá during rainy season that I RARELY used my rain jacket.

If you only want to bring a carry-on (your first step in saving money!), it’s ideal to get creative with toiletries. I’ve opted for solid soaps, laundry bars, bar conditioner, and powdered toothpaste to make space for my liquids. In addition, take advantage of those tiny travel jars so I can pack tiny amounts of lotions and creams that usually come it two/three ounce jars.

It’s all about saving space and replacing liquids with solids where you can in order to make it through security (and prevent future leaks in your bag).

[Post-travel Update: After a few weeks of traveling, I left behind clothes and toiletries that I wasn’t using, helping me save space. I also bought a small bottle of conditioner once abroad because the dry-conditioner bar did not work well. ]

I also had to consider shoes. At first I was hoping to fit three pairs but not I’m down to two — flip flops for casual life and stylish crocs sneakers that will be great in case I hit rain and need quick dry shoes.

I also chose to bring my tablet over my laptop to save space.

Overall, my pack is quite full, but not overstuffed or difficult to pack. It took some practice and creativity, but it’s worth taking the time to pack effectively.

Lesson learned: Practice packing ahead of time if you have limited space and make sacrifices. At first it might feel wrong to not pack a rain jacket or an extra pair of shoes, but the space you give yourself will be worth it and you’ll probably forget about those items once you’re traveling.

Handling Life 

Having traveled a few times before, its routine to notifying my banks of leaving, buy insurance, and register with STEP. But now that I’m on full fledged adult status, I have to wonder what will happen in anything goes wrong in the States that I can’t fix. 

A month ago I got an email about renewing my REPAYE loan payment program. While I should have realized that was to come (it requires annual renewal), I freaked out a little.

Usually applying for any low income service requires proof. With my move and leaving my job I was super nervous about re-applying. What if I had to start paying $170 a month I didn’t budget for? 

I reapplied and was approved two days later. Thank goodness. 

While I’m certain I have no more surprises coming, I imagine what will happen if something similar happens while I’m abroad and am unreachable by my phone or don’t have access to necessary documents. 

There’s also a legitimate fear in getting disconnected from banking accounts or bill accounts while abroad. 

In an attempt to cover myself, I’ve decided to purchase the US mobile phone service so I can keep my number active in the US. The service is cheap, charging by minutes, texts, or data, so even when I’m not in the US, I have an active line back home that I can keep with family in the case my US phone number must be reached. At minimum, it’s about $5 to keep active with texts. Awesome. 

Lesson learned: If you’re traveling long term, do what you can to keep an US phone number reachable by text or call and leave the phone with a trusted friend or family member. In case anything goes wrong I’ll be grateful to have an active line in the US.

Finding Home Away From Home

In finding home abroad, it can be nerve wracking in preparing everything you need to make sure you’ll be set abroad and back in your home country.

Do you have any other tips or stories of lessons you learned in preparing for an epic journey? Let me know below and spread the knowledge!

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