Want To Go Solo in Backpacking? Here is how...

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The Solo Backpacker. Backpacking takes many forms; depending upon the financial status of the backpacker. Money may determine the degree of comfort and convenience of the travel, but the destination itself is often more to do with a self-determination to succeed. As a general rule, crossing water is expensive. Keeping your feet on the ground will walk money more slowly out of your pocket. By contrast, air travel or sea crossings will rapidly blow it away, or flush it out; so hastening your return home.

There cannot be a definitive guide to backpacking, as its nature is as varied as the individuals who undertake it. I simply present here some pointers gained personally from years of solo backpacking on four continents, including through some quite remote regions.

Humans are social beings and solo backpacking does not contradict this viewpoint; rather it can act as an aid towards greater interaction with the people and their cultures you encounter throughout your journey. There is also the possibility, if desired, of temporarily teaming up with a like-minded traveller along the way. However, I feel confident that many of the families and individuals who admitted me into their humble homes as a guest, would have been reluctant to do so, had I not been alone. Backpackers inevitably place some degree of inconvenience upon their hosts and I feel that, for example, had I not been willing to help farmers with the working of their land or assisting fishing families to catch fish, then my welcome may not have been extended for as long as it was. There is truly a wealth of experiences to awaiting you in this world of ours, if only you are willing to take up the challenge to seek them out.

The mindset
We interpret events, and understand them, in terms of what we have already experienced in life. So, it is important to evaluate your travel goals realistically. The greater the disparity between the region you will be traveling in and your own familiar home environment, the more you may be out of your comfort zone. It's important to acknowledge this, and to be prepared,willing and able, to adapt your behaviour according to the demands of the local environment. Don't carry your home background with you - become, as best you can, a local in your new surroundings. The more you are able to adapt, the more interesting and unique your experiences are likely to be.

Lacking confidence to solo backpack? Most overseas tours, booked from home, have equivalents that can be booked locally; you can still choose your comfort level of accommodation and transport as you feel fit. You will then have an increased likelihood of travelling with tourists of the home nation, rather than with overseas visitors like yourself.

The backpack
Regarding its contents: 'decide in haste and repent at leisure'. Only take what you KNOW you will need. Clothes add unwelcome bulk to your pack; take only items that can be easily washed and dried overnight and are multi-matchable. Pack for climate not for fashion. If it needs ironing, leave it out. Multiple thin layers may substitute for heavier clothing when travel includes both tropical and temperate climates. Local clothing may often be purchased cheaply and donated to a worthy cause when no longer required. A strong collapsible umbrella can offer temporary protection in quite severe weather. Spend time searching out the smallest available versions of the toiletries you require - also insect repellant and sting relief if appropriate. Travel guides can be bulky and heavy, so dismantle them and take only the pages relevant to the regions you intend to visit.

There are many advantages to traveling light, but I was taken aside and interrogated by immigration officials on one occasion simply for having a round-the-world air ticket with five stopovers and only 5kg of check-in luggage.

For both economic and practical reasons, I personally favour setting off with cash in euros, and/or US dollars - plus an estimated first few hours requirement for each local currency enroute. A bank card, with its associated high charges and poor exchange rate, can act as a reserve. If there is a sudden emergency requirement for money due to card and cash theft then a pre-arranged agreement with a friend or relative to send cash through Western Union, or a similar money transfer company, is much faster than any bank can organize; it usually reaches the same day.

Personal safety
The main risk to personal safety is from impoverished rogues living in the relatively high income environments of cities and popular holiday resorts. There is less risk in rural, isolated communities, even though poverty may be clearly in evidence. Generally, financial reward is the main objective of rogues and cash is their preferred prize; they prefer not to have to find a buyer for something. There is greater risk to personal harm if cash is not available; this is, unfortunately, more so for females. So give cash up willingly, consider it as buying good health. In areas of known risk it is best to carry cash in more than one location - when held up by armed gunmen I was able to satisfy a frustrated and angry gang member after I had already been robbed by another member of the same gang. A useful item of my travel kit is what appears to be an ordinary trouser belt, but has a zip compartment running along the entire inside of the belt. It allows sufficient space for a photocopy of my passport, computer passwords, phone numbers and some local currency.

In the event that you are in danger of having to fight off a troublesome rogue in a remote location, consider the usefulness of calling out enthusiastically for a non-existent companion by name - this worked for me on a remote beach when I was fairly sure my potential assailant had a knife.

Being street-wise
It's advisable for the solo backpacker to blend into their surroundings. Rogues are generally male, and females are their easiest and often first choice of prey. So don't make unnecessary public fashion statements; dress and behave as an observer not as an attraction. Some cultures are very conservative in both dress code and conduct in public places; the more you can conform to a local culture the safer you will be. But you may not be able to escape the attention of rogues who routinely observe ATM's and money changers i order to decide who to follow. They may have estimated how much money was obtained and will have observed where the money was placed. A useful trick I have often adopted after changing money is to walk away for a while and then suddenly turn around and walk back - as if you had forgotten something. If you were being followed, you may well notice an equally sudden change in the behaviour of somebody who is now walking towards you instead of following you. Shops, offices and buildings that have multiple exits come in useful when you need to lose someone without raising their suspicion. It can be an acceptable investment for a rogue to follow you all morning waiting for that moment when they feel they can get at that money they now KNOW you are carrying.

It's unwise to develop a false sense of security when seated or walking in crowded places; a bag snatcher becomes invisible much sooner when there are many people to escape amongst. Always place your foot through any bag strap that is on the floor and be wary of anyone who sits or stands unnecessarily close to you. When walking where motorbikes and their passengers are plentiful, be aware that they make a common bag snatcher combination. Bag straps are easily and quickly cut with a sharp blade, but not if a thin flexible piece of copper wire is threaded through them.

Rogues are frequently more successful in groups; when one member can serve to distract you whilst another snatches your belongings. Professional rogues earn their living whilst practising their skills and perfecting them - I have been successfully pick-pocketed even whilst face-to-face with a guy. Pick-pockets frequently use some form of obvious physical contact to act as a distraction to you whilst they pick your pocket or bag. On one occasion I was followed from inside the bank and they knew which pocket the money was in. I was overconfident because I was with a companion, but other members of the rogue group temporarily separated me from my companion by bumping into him and spending time apologizing to distract him from my own pick-pocketing plight.

Finally, as a general rule, the weaker the economy of your host country/region/neighbourhood, the more observant you need to be. The photo shows that the 'backpack' can take on a local identity also if you so choose.

The world awaits you; in seeking it out, you may find yourself.

Author: Maurice Thurman

Copyright © 2013 Sandhya Maarga Holistic Living Resources

Holistic Living Annex (JANUARY 2013)

5 Responses for “ Want To Go Solo in Backpacking? Here is how...”

  1. Kristine says:

    This was a really helpful article. Thank you. Is it safe for women to go backpacking alone though? It all sounds very fun but I'm worried about the safety aspect to it.

  2. Maurice Thurman says:

    Kristine: Sadly, female backpackers need to take extra care and ALWAYS allow themselves to be suspicious first and trusting second. You do have control of the areas you visit and your means of travel; it can be with local tour groups or with one or more fellow travelers you have met locally. Truly solo travel is a skill that is learnt from experience and from others you meet along the way. Attempt only what you are comfortable with and progress from there.

  3. Larry K. Larson says:

    'decide in haste and repent at leisure'. Problem is I think I need everything.

  4. Keeran says:

    That's why travelling is so interesting Larry. It tests our wits! I love it. Especially going solo. That's when we realise that we don't need everything. All we need is just ourselves and faith that we'd get back alive. LOL

  5. Potter says:

    I have always wanted to go backpacking solo! These tips are invaluable. Thank you Thurman!


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