Backpacking Checklist: Dos and Don'ts When on the Road

These tips from an experienced backpacker will help you stay safe, prevent theft, and get the most from your journey. Find out what to plan for and what you should try to avoid.


A backpacker in a snowly landscape smiles at the camera. Photo © Will Hatton

I have been backpacking around the world for most of my life. I first left home at 19 and found myself hitchhiking, couchsurfing, working odd jobs and camping out under the stars in India, of all places. I spent two years bouncing around India figuring out what I wanted out of life and eventually decided: I wanted to travel forever.

To me, the opportunities for personal growth on the road were just astonishing. I was a shy kid with limited life experience and to find myself growing in confidence and skill as I traveled the world was intoxicating, leading me to start my own travel blog, The Broke Backpacker, to share my knowledge, passion, and experiences.

After 14 years of traveling the world and living on the road, I’ve experienced the full spectrum of what it means to be a backpacker and have learned some things along the way. So, strap in for my top tips, tricks, and hacks for backpacking the world smarter and more safely.

Backpacking tips: what to do

Make certified copies of your passport details, insurance policy, visas and credit card numbers

And DO have an insurance policy, no matter how confident and carefree you may feel. I might have lost my leg without one, and on my travels, I’ve had to claim on my insurance three times – each time I was incredibly grateful to have invested in insurance.

Check accommodation reviews

In the digital age we live in, there’s no excuse for ending up at a trashed hostel. Do your diligence to make sure reviews are decent and recent.

Use local transport

Not only will this keep your daily budget low, but it may also lead to a cheeky conversation or connection that you never would have had otherwise. Some of the most random and fun conversations I’ve had have been on trains while traveling in Pakistan, Thailand, or India.

A Western traveler surrounded by friendly locals on a train in Pakistan.
Friendly Pakistanis on a local train. Image credit: Will Hatton

Go with the flow

Planning is the arch-nemesis of a broke backpacker. Outside of festivals, it’s easy to book transport and accommodation as you go. Unless you’re on a tight schedule, embrace the idea that you’ll have no idea where you’ll sleep next week, or perhaps even tomorrow and this is OK… it’s all part of the journey. On the other hand, some planning is essential so if you’re, for example, rocking up in Thailand during the Songkran festival. Don’t get caught out: do make advance arrangements, do book a place to stay.

Have a solid sleeping system

No backpacking tip will save you more money and bring more comfort than this one. Indeed, while spending many years traveling on a budget of just $10 a day, it was my ability to sleep without spending any money that made this possible. I hit the road with a solid setup: a comfy sleeping pad, backpacking tent, and sleeping bag, a killer combo that will make even the hardest pieces of concrete comfortable to rest your head on. Hey, growth begins at the edge of your comfort zone!

POV shot of a backpacker looking out of his tent at the Himalayan mountains.
With the right sleeping setup, you can sleep comfortably anywhere. Image credit: Will Hatton

Keep in touch

Let the people that love you know where you are every once in a while. You don’t want to come back from an insane trek deep in the mountains to discover there’s a search party out looking for you.

Stay off your phone – be present

There’s nothing that has impacted the backpacking lifestyle more than PHONES. These days, many of us are glued to our smartphones and miss out on the sights, sounds, and smells around us. I see plenty of folks seeing the gorgeous temple, landscape, or fortress in front of them through their phone rather than through their eyes. Try to be aware of this and to take time to truly experience where you are.

Be creative

When you’re traveling, you’ll have quite a lot of downtime waiting around for buses, flights, etc. Don’t spend this time mindlessly surfing on your phone. Instead, use it to educate yourself – listen to podcasts or audiobooks, or read. Or, even better; be creative – start a travel blog, make cool videos, and document your journey in a journal. There’s no time like the spare time you have when traveling to kickstart a cool project.

Always be kind

To everybody you meet, including yourself.

What not to do as a backpacker

Don’t leave valuables unsecured

Always check with your hostel to make sure it has lockers in its dorms. Things can and do go missing in backpacker hostels, but this is often due to rookie mistakes. Grab yourself a quality padlock before hitting the road and secure all your things before going to sleep or leaving the dorm. Keeping your stuff safe also extends to cash – I always travel with a very cool, cheap and inconspicuous money belt. Check out this post for ideas on how to hide your money when traveling.

A digital nomad works on a laptop with high mountains in the background.
Don't risk losing valuables like your laptop. Image credit: Will Hatton

Don’t hand over your passport as a deposit for accommodation

Taking out your passport at check-in for a quick 1-minute entry. No problem. But handing it over to staff for the duration of your stay? Nope. Not only is this illegal in some countries, but it can even be dangerous. This is where you’ll be happy you made a stack of copies of your passport pages before you hit the road. It’s also handy to have an expired driver’s license or a passport ID card (apply to get one, it’s simple enough) to hand over when a deposit is required for something, but avoid giving your passport.

Don’t be afraid to get off the beaten path

Pakistan. Venezuela. Iran. Sri Lanka. Myanmar. Less-visited places that might not be on a list of typical countries to visit turned out to be absolute highlights of my 14 years spent on the road. It’s in places such as these that I was able to connect with locals beyond the surface. Despite the warnings, backpackers are warmly welcomed in these sorts of destinations because there aren’t tens of thousands of us. You don’t even have to travel to the world’s least-visited countries to blaze your own trail – offbeat travel is as much of a mindset as it is a place and it’s incredibly rewarding.

Don’t move too fast

Seriously – slow it down. I was once a wide-eyed backpacker hitting the road for the first time, so I know it can be tempting to check off as many countries and sites as possible. But listen to me when I say the magic is in the mundane. The longer you stay put, the more people you’ll meet and the more life-changing experiences you’ll have. I spent two years in India and can confidently say I haven’t scratched its surface. While you certainly don’t need to take it that far to call yourself a backpacker, don’t be afraid to really sink your teeth into a place, especially if you have unlimited time.

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