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Backpacking Essentials: The No B.S. Guide to Plan the Perfect Trip

Written by Jenny McWhirter on 18 / 02 / 2016

Gap Year Advice

You’re fed up of working nine-to-five in an office, or you’re in need of a well-deserved rest after months of being stuck in exam halls... am I right?

So you’ve decided enough is enough. It's gap year time. You’re going to pack your rucksack and wander off into the sunset.

But then you start to think: 'Actually, I don’t have a clue where to start...' Sound familiar?

Then don't worry, friend - you're in the right place. When it comes to the backpacking essentials, I’ve been there, done it and got the t-shirt (and in some cases, the extremely baggy traveller's pants and flip-flop tan lines to match).

Which is why I spent a couple of days picking the brains of our expert team here at Leap Towers, collating what we believe to be the essential nuggets of wisdom for backpacking. Enjoy!

Some Preparation Is Necessary

Just like volunteering or working overseas, backpacking can be a great opportunity to grow your confidence, experience new things, learn about different cultures, meet new people and gain a new perspective on life.

You’ll find that within days you're in the completely chilled state of mind that comes with the nomad lifestyle. It's the experience of being totally free - of doing what you want, when you want to - that achieves this... something we often forget in our career-driven society.

But push that dreamy vision to one side for a moment. You'd be a fool to think you can just buy a plane ticket and see what happens. Some thought and organisation is required first, and (perhaps counterintuitively) taking care of things like visas, vaccinations and budgeting before you go will actually enable you to have more freedom, not less.

Decide on the Vitals: Where, When and How Long

Before you do anything, you'll need to answer the three key questions: where are you going, when are you going, and how long are you going for?


Where Are You Going?

Remember all those times you said: 'I’d love to go there one day'? Well, now’s your chance. You probably have a good idea of the countries you want to visit, so make a list of all the places you want to go whilst you're there along with any other exotic locations you find after a bit of research.

Whilst looking at a map, prioritise them into places you must visit, would like to visit, and could live without visiting.

When Are You Going?

Start with your approximate departure and return dates. Next, look up important dates for your locations - is there a national holiday, festival or event that you want to avoid? Consider Christmas and New Year too - if you want to hit a certain location for these, you'll need to work backwards to adjust your departure date.

Weather is also a deciding factor for many people. See when the wet and dry seasons are, and what average temperatures are each month. Nobody wants to sit under an umbrella on a gorgeous Venezuelan beach sheltering from the rain instead of the sun. Not. Cool.

Speaking of Venezuelan beaches, have you considered stepping off the traditional backpacker trail and heading to South America’s most beautiful and undiscovered corner? Our gap year program 10 Weeks in Venezuela: Caribbean Beach + Rainforest + La Gran Sabana involves exactly that!

Tell Me More!

How Long Are You Going For?

Next, place a value on how long you think each of your locations will take to see properly without rushing it.

Of course you want to see as much as possible, but don't jam a million things into a short amount of time - it's a rookie mistake. You’ll just end up missing a lot and get burnt out.

I would recommend a minimum of three days for big cities. You can easily spend a week in cities like Paris or Sydney without getting bored.

Also, don’t forget to factor in travel days when figuring out your timeline. There are some pretty long bus journeys out there and they can easily stack up to add a couple of extra days to your trip.

Put all this into a simple itinerary, and Bob's your uncle - you’ve got the spine of your trip in place. You're free as a bird to go wherever you like, so don’t hold back.

Mission Critical Stuff: Insurance, Visas and Vaccinations

So you’ve got your route and timeline. Next up, you need to tick off the boring stuff that will keep you out of a foreign hospital or prison. Because nobody wants to end up in either of those, do they?

What to Do About Insurance

Undoubtedly the least exciting part of planning a trip is researching and buying your gap year insurance. It’s an added (and if you’re new to all this, unexpected) expense on top of the money you’ll already be spending.

On a scale of one to 'total overpriced pain in the backside', it’s probably only second to the jabbing needle of travel vaccinations.

That said, ignore it at your peril and remember these five golden rules:

  • 1. Medical cover is essential
  • 2. Always get cancelation cover
  • 3. Be certain that your valuables are covered
  • 4. Ensure your insurance is extendable
  • 5. You get what you pay for

7 Things to Remember About Visas and Passports

Every country has their own rules and regulations but to kickstart your research. These are a few essential things to note, and there's plenty more great advice besides about visas in this video...


• For most countries passports must have a minimum of six months validity beyond the entry date, but this will different for each country. Find out and renew your passport if needed.

• In South Africa, immigration requires visitors to have at least three blank pages clear in their passports. You could be denied entry if you have fewer than this. Ensure your passport meets the requirements for your destinations. A ‘blank’ visa page must be clean, clear and not show ink or stains from any other pages in the passport.

• Some countries like you to have a destination address on their arrival form, so book your first night's accommodation in advance (broadly a good idea in any case).

• In Tanzania, you need a yellow fever certificate. If you don’t have one, they will bang one in your arm then and there. AVOID at all costs and carry proof of vaccination if needed.

• Most countries require ownership of a valid return ticket for proof of onward travel. Many airlines offer the option to alter your return date after purchase, so check this before you buy if you want the option to extend your stay.

• Make sure you know and don't exceed the maximum length of stay on your visa. Most tourist visas are up to three months.

• Costs can vary and stack up quickly so you need to add visa fees to your fundraising total.

Which Gap Year Vaccinations You Should Get

This can be a guide only - the definitive advice must come from your doctor. So book an appointment with your GP or try a specialist travel clinic like MASTA or The Wandsworth Medical Centre (the travel nurse is an ex-leapers Mum and very well-travelled herself).

I also thoroughly recommend Dr. Ted Lankester and his staff at Interhealth. As experts in overseas travel, they can offer excellent advice both before and after your trip. If you return home feeling unwell in anyway, we suggest that in addition to consulting your GP, you consult Interhealth or the NHS Hospital for Tropical Diseases, who have a walk-in clinic.

Worth mentioning on its own is the risk of malaria, which is prevalent in Africa and Asia. It's no joke either: malaria has been responsible for 50% of all human deaths since the Stone Age (source).

Frightening, I know, but with a few basic precautions malaria prevention is easily manageable. Whilst your GP or travel clinic can advise on a course of antimalarial tablets, also remember that the best insurance against contracting malaria is to prevent oneself from being bitten. So:

  • 1. Use mosquito repellents liberally, and use a repellent that contains DEET.
  • 2. Use bed nets where supplied or available.
  • 3. Wear long-sleeved shirts and trousers in the evenings.
  • 4. Zip up your tent at night.
  • 5. Mosquito coils are also effective.

Whether you go to your GP or a health clinic, get an appointment at least six weeks prior to departure to ensure adequate time for vaccinations to take effect.

How to Budget for Your Around the World Trip

That's right, I want to talk budgets. Getting in right is going to be crucial if your trip is going to run smoothly.

Can you imagine anything worse than getting halfway through your journey and having to come home because you’ve run out of money? I've seen it first-hand on several occasions, and it's not pretty. Believe me: you'll end up sitting at home feeling depressed, regretting the fact you never actually worked this stuff out.


So work out how much money you have to spend on this trip of a lifetime. You don't have to be rolling in it - in fact, you can take figuring out how to travel when you've got no money quite far, if you commit yourself to it.

Boot up an Excel spreadsheet or a tool like independenttraveler.com's budget calculator, add up your expected spend on flights, insurance, visas and vaccinations and daily budget on things like in-country travel, accommodation, food and activities.

Remember: some money will be spent before you go, but the majority will be spent once you are away. If you're falling short once you've done that, maybe getting a summer job to raise some extra funds is worth considering.

Don't Overplan! Leave Room for Adventure

There are many different types of backpacker. There are those that experience heart palpitations if they haven’t planned every last detail before they go (no shame there, but do remember to breathe), and those that make it up as they go along. Some opt to join a tour group, whilst others go it alone.

Whatever kind of traveller you are though, remember that as far as backpacking goes, it’s best to remain as flexible as you can. The best way to do that is to commit to as little as possible in advance.

If it makes you feel comfortable, know where you plan to be staying each night. But unless it's either a total tourist hotspot or New Year's Eve, don't feel the need to pay for every hostel or hotel in advance. Instead, book when you’re on the move - maybe two or three days before you arrive somewhere. The same goes for any activities or sightseeing; allow yourself the option to go with the flow.

Got a burning question you can't find the answer to? Filled with panic about organising your gap year? Or maybe you just fancy a friendly chat and some advice about your options? Then get a hold of our awesome team at Leap Towers for a friendly chat. We LOVE talking about travelling.

Free Advice? Yes Please!

You may find the thought of it to be genuinely terrifying. But the thought of missing out on something spontaneous and incredible with a group of people you meet along the way, all because you’ve made plans beforehand, is even worse.

So whilst it’s good to research things before you go, don’t be scared to turn up, meet new people and see what happens. Do all that and you'll soon perfect the art of 'winging it'.

Taking the Plunge: Getting Ready to Book

Once you have all of this sorted, you can move on to booking things. This is where you prove to people that you're actually going through with this, and it’s not some idea you dreamt up one miserable Monday morning. A few final words of advice:

First, take a variety of payment methods with you. Never carry too much cash, but have enough to cover your arrival costs. Look into interest rates for transactions and cash withdrawals when abroad. Consider taking two cards, in case one gets lost or stolen, or get a prepaid travel card that's easy to top-up once you’re away.

Second, tell your bank when and where you're going - you don't want fraud prevention freezing your account when 'unusual transactions' start popping up from South East Asia. Also consider granting access permissions to a family member or close friend when you're away. Then if anything goes wrong, the bank has your authority to talk to them if you can’t easily be reached.

Third, decide on how you're going to pack. There's a ton of advice I could give you here, so consult this handy guide: How to Pack the Perfect Gap Year Backpack.

Over to You

So what have you learnt here? Hopefully it’s that the key to backpacking is flexibility.

You’re going to be off visiting some of the most beautiful places in the world, places you’ve always dreamt of seeing, and you want to make sure you do it properly.

So throw out that day-by-day schedule, pick up your rucksack, lonely planet guide and around the world ticket, and see what awaits you. I promise, you won’t be disappointed.

Still unsure of your next step or want to do more research? If you haven't already, download our 100% free, comprehensive gap year advice guide: The Gap Adventure Blueprint, which contains several chapters that will help you get your head around all the options and offer advice on how to raise funds, plus much more.

Check out our gap year programs

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All experiences include a mix of projects and adventures, travelling with a team and, of course, are risk assessed.

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