The beginners guide to backpacking

Gabrielle Koster

Confession: my trip to South East Asia was my first time proper backpacking. I always wondered what the difference between a holiday with a suitcase and one with a backpack was. To me, backpacking is about not planning anything, just taking some bare neccessities with you and having to do laundry every now and then. So these are my tips for beginner backpackers like me.

The Backpack
Make sure you don’t take a super big backpack with you. Picture yourself, walking from a train station to your hostel or having to move places because you didn’t know how many nights you wanted to stay. I personally think that having a light weight backpack is a Good idea, with a capital G. Mine (from Osprey) was 46 liters, size S/M and I’m 1.70m tall. If you’re smaller, you should probably choose a smaller backpack and when you’re bigger, it’s not bad to go for a size bigger. Osprey offers backpacks from 50 to 200 liters in sizes S to L. Make sure the backpacks leans on your hips, not on your shoulders, by adjusting the straps.

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Backpacking on Koh Phangan island, Thailand

Packing your backpack
By choosing a backpack with a lot of side zippers, you make getting stuff quickly very easy. My friend Farah had been backpacking before and she told me the following: buy different kinds of sacks in different colors (or use the bags that sometimes come with shoes). I used a black little bag for my underwear, a green one for my clothes, a white bag for toiletries etc. That way, it’s super easy to find your stuff and nothing ‘gets lost’ in your backpack. I think it’s genius.


Which apps should you download?

  • Maps.Me is probably the most used app by backpackers all over the world. It’s an offline map in which you can search for restaurants, hostels etc. You can even mark them on your app or add personal things (like all your favorite vegan restaurants).
  • or Airbnb. When booking a room somewhere, I didn’t book far in advance, sometimes even on the same day. I found Airbnb more expensive in Asia then the regular hotels, so I used a lot.
  • 12goAsia or another public transport app for the region you’re going. 12goAsia shows all the possible public transport ways to get somewhere and you can book tickets online as well (which is quite rare for Southeast Asia, to book tickets online).
  • Any app to book flights. Someone recommended me to use Traveloka, so I downloaded it but ended up never using it.
  • Tripadvisor. I’ve looked up SO MANY things on Tripadvisor. If you need to know how to get from one place to a nother, if you want to know what the food looks like at a certain restaurant or if you want to know how other backpackers experienced a certain village: it’s all here.
  • Uber. If you’re not keen on riding a scooter, Uber will get you everywhere.


What you SHOULD pack
Keep in mind that, wherever you go, there’s basically always a place to do laundry. So pack the clothes that can handle a tough washing machine love and not more than 10 pairs of underwear. If you’re okay with supermarket sunscreen, shampoo and anti mosquito stuff, then don’t bring it either. I’m very aware of all the bad chemicals in those things, so I brought my own sunscreen and shampoo (by John Masters Organics, they have a shampoo & conditioner in one that lasts quite long), natural deodorant, toothpaste (by Urtekram) and anti mosquito spray by Holland & Barrett. If you’re lucky, you can find all natural mosquito repellent in a Thai supermarket, for example. So, besides that, here’s what to bring:

  • Not more than 10 pairs of underwear
  • A couple (four, maybe) bikini’s/bathing suits
  • A sweater
  • Some clothes. Keep in mind you’ll probably buy some things while travelling too.
  • Long pants, or decide to buy them while travelling like I did
  • Sunscreen, tooth paste, day cream, deodorant, shampoo and mosquito repellent, or buy it there
  • A first aid kit
  • A pair of sunglasses
  • Ear buds for listening music and ear plugs against noise, especially if you sleep in a dorm
  • Your phone charger
  • Your passport and bank pass
  • And, I was super happy I brought this, a thin sleeping bag liner. If you don’t trust the sheets or if there’s just no blanket, you always have your own clean sleeping bag.

What you shouldn’t pack

  • Too much clothes or underwear: just look for laundry places every now and then
  • Things you can rent like snorkeling gear
  • I brought a hat and regretted it, when I didn’t wear it, I had to clip it to my backpack
  • Anything that you can buy while backpacking (and is cheaper there) like poncho’s, harem pants, oil to clean your face with, soap etc.
  • A pretty dress (or for a guy, a pretty shirt). I did and I wore it once. Wasn’t worth it.

Our Jungle House, before our night at Khao Sok lake

My middle name usually is ‘planning’, but when you’re backpacking you don’t need to plan much. The only thing to take care of a couple of days or a week before are plane tickets, because they can get expensive when you book last minute. But other than that, you can just go with the flow. I booked a lot of hostels on the same day and only booked one night. When I liked it, I asked the reception if I could stay another night. When you do that and stay for a couple more nights, they can sometimes even give you a discount. Trains and buses can be full when you book last minute, so keep that in mind. Do check the National holiday calendar, as a city can be very busy (and therefore, all the hotels/hostels can be fully booked) if there’s a National holiday going on (which was the case when I was travelling, three times!).

I’m curious! What’s your best backpacking tip? Please share it below this post!