What is backpacking?
Backpacking often refers to a longer term, budget travel experience where the traveler preferences adventure over comfort…and there’s definitely no room for an expansive selection of outfits.
Many backpackers travel across countries staying in low-cost accommodation such as hostels and most have very few set plans. The answer is as simple as packing a backpack and going.
Among backpackers, you’ll find that many are solo travelers – a trend that is taking off worldwide. Many more travelers, especially women, are now traveling on their own and thoroughly enjoying their experience.
In fact, after surveying 2,300 Americans, MMGY Global reported that around one fourth were planning on traveling solo in 2018.
Furthermore, The World Youth Student and Educational (WYSE) Travel Confederation, after surveying 34,000 people form 137 countries, noted in their findings that young millennial travelers are more interested in exploring remote destinations, staying in hostels rather than hotels, and they’re choosing long-term backpacking, with the average trip lasting for around two months.
That’s exactly what I did.
Here’s a full guide to solo backpacking that will help you get started and see the world in an adventurous, budget-friendly way!
Backpacking Solo How-To Guide Summary
The first time I ever backpacked solo was on a two month trip around six African countries. Foolish? Maybe. Terrifying? A little. As a twenty-three-year-old who’d never even lived outside of my privileged life in San Diego, heading to a foreign continent with few plans and no cell service was a bit of a jump.
This was by far the best experience of my life. And I jumped… right off the 350ft tall Victoria Falls Gorge within hours of landing in Africa.
So how does one backpack solo?
I’ve organized this guide into two parts: How to plan for your trip? and What the f**k to do when you get there and realize I’m all alone?
So…How do you plan for a trip?
There’s some key research you need to do before any trip.
Fun Fact: In Malawi, as soon as they saw my American passport they told me that the only way to pay my $75 visa fee was with American dollars. This is something I knew in advance from reading stories online and if I hadn’t had American dollars I would have been left at the border crossing at midnight (the time my bus had arrived) unable to enter the country.
If traveling with a lot of cash doesn’t sound like the best idea, get creative. I bought these fake tampon tubes on Amazon to hide over $500 worth of cash and no one suspected a thing.
If you are visiting the EU as an American, however, you generally don’t need a visa, just a valid American passport, so country hop as you wish!
If you are traveling outside of Europe, many countries have different vaccination requirements. Even if you aren’t set in exactly which countries you hope to visit, make a list of every country that could even potentially be a destination, then call your healthcare provider and ask about all the required and recommended vaccinations.
I can’t stress enough on how important it is to do your research on this one. For example, depending on your health care plan, a yellow fever vaccination which is required to enter most East African countries, can cost you $250.
However, at the Nairobi airport in Kenya, you can receive a vaccination for $35, but you have to gamble a bit because it’s recommended that you receive the vaccine around two weeks before you travel.
Aside from the logistics, something I’d highly recommend? Don’t solely focus on the large cities and don’t make too many set plans or any at all.
Any backpacker knows that if you’ve booked five days in one place, you may get there and realize you’d rather spend them somewhere else. Rome? I planned five days there when I really only needed two.
It was Orvieto and Tivoli, both towns just about an hour outside of the city, that were two of my favorite places on my entire trip. In Africa, it was the same.
I arrived at a town that from my research I thought I would love to visit, and I ended up paying my taxi driver to keep driving. Many backpackers you meet along the way will have the insider’s scoop on where to go and what to do, and having some flexibility is rewarding.
Yeah, that’s Orvieto.
Another piece of valuable information I found was that many African countries will not let you in if you don’t have at least one completely empty page in your passport for the visa stamps. Additionally, they will sometimes take up two whole pages (ahem Rwanda), so really ensure that not only your passport is valid, but you have more than enough free pages.
PSA: Don’t ever carry your passport like this. Instead, purchase this hidden money and passport belt for $8 on Amazon Prime that goes under your clothes!
Even in Paris my cell service wasn’t great (yes, I have Tmobile and I’ve gotten better service out in the middle of a jungle in Dominica than I did right outside of the Eiffel tower for whatever odd reason), so don’t necessarily plan on being able to access the internet at every moment.
First, create a budget on approximately how much you can afford to pay for accommodation. Then, divide that by the number of nights you’re planning on traveling, and start your research from that price point.
I used the app Hostelworld to find the location and prices of popular hostels in major cities and quickly copied and pasted that information into a hard copy itinerary so when I got to a city, I at least had an address of somewhere I could stay.
Additionally, I used the app Maps.me which has detailed maps of the world that you can download and use to get step by step directions to your destination without any wifi or cell service. I placed pins on the map with potential hostels which made it very easy when I arrived in those cities.
Furthermore, (my NSA agent really impressed me with this one), even in countries where I received absolutely no service, the maps.me app found my location and I had very few problems navigating through even the smaller, rural villages.
Looking for something cheaper? Couchsurfing.com connects you to hosts from all over the world with verified reviews so you can experience life with the locals and stay for free! Workaway.info is also a great connection for cheap housing with an opportunity to volunteer.
The membership is $40 a year, but well worth it as it gave me the opportunity to volunteer in a school in Zambia for the first week of my trip, which was the perfect way to adjust to Africa while also donating my time to a community!
As far as getting around, many European cities have cross-country trains. The Eurail extends across 28 European countries and you can buy a pass online! As far as Africa goes, you can’t book any bus ticket too far in advance.
Although, I didn’t have too many problems with booking the tickets I wanted. The buses themselves? Well, aside from some overly loud music one bus driver played in Malawi for the entire 8-hour ride. With speakers that were definitely blown out and a bus vibrating to the rap choruses and the fact that some drivers went the entire trip without a single bathroom break, it worked out well.
Throughout Asia, Africa, and South America, there are motorcycle taxis to get around cities. Not as safe, but quite cheap and fun!
There was A LOT of information about Africa that I couldn’t find by just browsing Google. I joined Backpacking Africa, a Facebook group with almost 9,000 members who are willing to answer any question you may have, and they played an integral role in directing me to some of the most serene destinations.
As a visitor in a new country, researching some general cultural differences and potential language barriers is definitely helpful preparation.
Take, for example, the tipping percentage. As a server, I have lost money due to foreigners not understanding that you need to tip, and my requirement to tip out a fixed percentage of my overall sales whether I even get a tip at all.
Wherever you go, respect the workers and local people by understanding some of their customs!
If you don’t have a few greetings ready by the time your plane lands, that’s okay. I didn’t, and my first learned word in Africa was muzungu. Thinking it must be a common greeting, I began using the word avidly. As it turns out, muzungu quite literally translates to “white person.”
If you are planning on flying, I seriously recommend the app Skyscanner. I downloaded around seven different cheap flight apps and Skyscanner consistently had the lowest prices.
Additionally, it is often cheaper to book several one-way flights than one round-trip. As I’m headed back to Kenya next month, I found that it is about $100 cheaper for me to fly first to Amsterdam, then head to Nairobi by way of a separate flight a couple days later.
This definitely requires some playing around with flights, but now I’m saving money AND headed to Amsterdam for a couple of days!
First off, don’t over pack. You are going to be carrying everything on your back for at least a couple of weeks and you’ll seriously regret taking too much. When buying a backpack, make sure that you can first try it on so you get the correct fit for your body.
I went to REI and tried on quite a few backpacks filled with weight and was able to find the best fit. The backpack, however, would have cost me $400. YIKES. Luckily, I did a quick Amazon search and found the same backpack brand and last year’s model in an unpopular color for half the price.
It can be totally terrifying landing in a foreign country completely on your own. Just put one foot in front of the other, take in your surroundings, and don’t be afraid to ask for help.
As a young female, the main concern I’ve been asked about my experience backpacking solo is on my personal feeling of safety. As I’ve also explained in my How to Travel Africa as a Solo Female Backpacker guide, the only time I felt inclined to pull out the one knife I carried with me for seven weeks was while hitchhiking in Malawi.
The driver stopped to let me off because we had passed the LARGEST avocado I’d ever seen EVER (literally the size of a toddler’s head) and I, of course, had to use my knife to cut into it right away. Fun fact: those “Afri-cados” go for about 15 cents and if that’s not reason enough for any Californian to visit Malawi I don’t know what to tell you.
Of course, being a young woman by yourself anywhere comes with a fair amount of danger and it definitely wasn’t all sunshine and avocados.
First off, I didn’t go out at any point past sunset unless I was with a good group of people. This definitely didn’t rid me of sexual harassment, but harassment is obviously not exclusive to Africa and I felt very safe overall. Even as the solo camper on an open campground I felt comfortable, aside from a variety of very large bugs and an almost run-in with some wild hippos.
If you are looking to backpack outside of Europe, you definitely may encounter some wild animals. In Zimbabwe, I crossed the border on foot with a wild baboon close behind me and in Zambia I had a Zebra chase me for the food I had in my pocket. As a general rule, don’t get too close to wild animals.
Also if you’re in Kenya, don’t ignore the “No Trespassing” signs along private roads because they are there for a reason and it is physically impossible for you to outrun a hippo.
My other main safety tip? Lie. The truth is no matter your background, in many parts of the world you ’ll immediately be judged by your accent as rich or at least a vulnerable foreigner so expect to get heckled. Especially for a woman, this can get scary at times because the American standard of personal space is not typically followed in many countries, especially Africa. At any one bus station, you may have a dozen men surrounding you trying to pull your arm towards their bus.
If you don’t receive any cell service where you are traveling, don’t fret. It was incredibly easy (and quite cheap in Africa) to buy a SIM card and load it with data.
There’s a good chance your phone isn’t jailbroken, meaning you can’t insert a SIM card from another carrier (like mine, again thanks for that Tmobile).
I bought a smartphone for $70 off of a guy in Zambia so I could periodically send messages to my mother to inform her I, in fact, was still alive, but you can be smarter. For $36, you can buy a sim card hotspot on Amazon that doubles as a portable charger which is especially important if you go to Malawi and only get power a few random hours throughout the day.
Now, go make friends!
The best part of my trip by far was the people I met and traveled with. While backpacking by yourself gives you the flexibility to do as you wish, it can also be lonely and quite expensive.
However, even during the rainy season in rural Africa, I managed to find people to travel with. This provided me with many opportunities to split costs and experience much more than I would have been able to afford on my own.
|Winterial Single Person Tent||Many hostels offer cheap nightly rates and a safe place to pitch your tent while also being able to access showers and lockers. This tent survived quite a few African downpours and kept me completely dry! If you’re claustrophobic, however, probably not the best choice.||$85|
|Eagle Creek Compression Sac||These bags essentially allow you to store your clothes in a zip-tight bag that easily takes all of the air away so you save a lot of room and keep things organized.||$17|
|Microfiber Travel Towel||This is the only towel to travel with. It dries even in the most humid weather and is very compact. An absolutely essential purchase.||$15|
Not for booze. Instead, the best way to hide cash as a woman. No one suspects a thing.
|Gregory 70 Liter Deva Backpack||An older model, but a durable pack I’ll be able to use for dozens of trips to come!||$220|
Happy Backpacking Solo!