Backpacking Survival Tips Part I: From Blending in Like a Chameleon, to the Fine Art of Vomiting in a Garbage Bin

These are just a few helpful survival hints I’ve picked up after five years of backpacking and living abroad.

Things to never leave home without: water bottle, pen and notepad, compass, pocket knife, hat, water purification tablets, torch and spare batteries. Trust me, you never know how weird things will get.

If it sounds vaguely like it could potentially be a scam … but you’re not quite sure, but it could be … but urgh you just don’t want to be rude — congratulations! It’s totally a scam.

Any pocket except a buttoned breast pocket will be pickpocketed. Sometimes I fantasize about putting rat traps in my leg pockets, but instead I just fill them with used tissues.

Don’t go on the guided tour if you can avoid it. It will cost at least double the price of doing it alone, and you will be trapped with the tour group from hell. There will be that couple that’s scared to eat anything, and THAT guy who keeps picking his nose. Go your own way, you can totally do it.

Dress down, dress comfortably, dress with utility in mind. Leave your high heels at home, but save your North Face Gore-Tex membrane jacket for the mountains.

Dress your bag down too. Cover any nice labels, and try to make sure your backpack full of important stuff looks ordinary and dull.

Put your camera in a protective camera bag. Then put that camera bag inside a shit bag.

For the first year or so, your stomach will hate you for all this ridiculous food you’re eating. But one day, it will learn to reduce its protest from bouts of gut-wrenching pain to little more than the occasional foul-smelling fart. The human body is a beautiful thing.

The hike will be longer than you think.

Always ask at least three different people for directions. If you get ten minutes down the road and have that nagging feeling that you just might be going the wrong way, then damn it just ask someone else. Rinse and repeat.

Chinese people often feel awkward if they don’t know how to help you. So, sometimes they just make up advice. For example: pointing you in the totally wrong direction. Therefore, in China, ask four people for directions at a time, instead of the usual three.

You can probably get there using public transport, so only use a taxi when you’re really short on time, or hopelessly lost.

I can’t recommend the MSR Whisperlite Universal more. I just can’t.

While using public transport, keep your bags on your lap, and watch the guy sitting next to you. If you put your bag under your seat or in the overhead compartment, don’t expect it to be there when you get up, even if you stare at it for half the trip. If you have to store something in the luggage compartment under the bus (or boat, or train, or hovercraft, or whatever), lock all the zips, and keep an eye on it as best as possible. When I’m on a bus, I try to get a window seat above the door to the luggage compartment. At each stop I look out the window just to make sure my bag isn’t getting off without me. It’s better if you can avoid putting stuff down there in the first place, but sometimes you just have no choice.

Don’t worry about that last point in Japan. In fact, don’t worry about anything in Japan. A friend of mine left his wallet on a train in Japan, and it was waiting for him at a nearby police station the next morning. Not a single yen was missing. Japan Japan Japan.

You have no idea how badly you can get sunburnt until you get to an altitude. And man, are you gonna get burned.

If you’re staying somewhere a while and want to blend in to the crowd, buy the local football team’s jersey. Wear it around town, you’ll fit in. I don’t, because I hate football. But I should. Yes, I totally should.

It can be hard to find cheap eats in Doha. My advice would be to get up early and look for a line of labourers (also known as Pakistani slaves who are treated like garbage by their Qatari overlords) leading to a cheap food stall. This is the best you’ll get.

Keep some toilet paper handy for emergencies.

Unless you see someone literally make it before your eyes, that handicraft was made in a sweat shop. And in response to the inevitable query, yes I have seen stuff made in front of me. It does happen.

Don’t trust fellow backpackers/ foreigners. An Israeli backpacker once stole my Lonely Planet out of my ger in Mongolia, and my partner and I wasted an entire afternoon in Ecuador helping an elderly South African woman who needed money for the bus. Turned out she had been asking people for bus money for months. Making assumptions about someone’s character based on their nationality / their English proficiency / the fact they’re wearing a fat backpack is unintelligent and somewhat discriminatory…wait, it’s totally discrimination.

In fact, don’t trust anyone you don’t have some kind of well established and relatively meaningful relationship with, but don’t be a total dick either. It’s a bit of a balancing act, but somehow you need to find a balance between being as trusting as a kitten and assuming everyone is an axe murderer. After years of fuck ups, I’ve reached a balance I like to call “functional suspicion”. It’s a state of mind where I’m suspicious of people I don’t know, but keep paranoia at bay just enough to appear to be a rational, functional human being. All the while, keeping an eye out for the easiest exit.

Random people who approach you in the street (especially in tourist towns) are usually con artists. 90% of the time. Sure, talk and be nice, but don’t follow people, and don’t hand over cash for any reason. Sorry.

Those fresh wipe things (ie, napkins impregnated with alcohol and horrid-smelling chemicals) are almost always overkill. Unless you explore some sewers, soap and water should suffice for washing your hands. And yes, that comes from personal experience exploring sewers.

Cats tails make good eating. Look for them near water sources. They’re easily identifiable by their big brown seedheads, and the fact that they’re tall and wavy. If you’re camping and didn’t bring quite enough dried noodles, these guys will tide you over. Yum.

If you’re a man, you have no idea how comfortable a kaftan (or any of its regional varieties) is until you’ve strolled through the souq in the afternoon with a cup of mint tea. Feel the breeze?

Never give money to anyone (unless both parties are involved in some kind of well established business transaction). If you have a bleeding heart, find some way to help people that doesn’t involve emptying your wallet. For example, show them the way to the bus stop (but don’t spend all afternoon doing it, obviously).

Do try to help people when you can, and have nothing to lose except a few minutes of your time. Just help a little. Be nice. Just offering someone a swig of water on a long trip can be a decent thing to do.

A wise man in Tibet once told me to never pass a toilet. He was so, so right. Even if you think you don’t need to go — you stay in that damn cubicle until something comes out.

It’s always better to throw up sooner rather than later. Especially when seafood is involved. Neck out, hair back, chuck down wind. Keep it clean by trying to aim in the nearest garbage bin. Then, get some lemonade. Mmmmm lemonade!

Always establish the price of anything before buying, riding or eating it.

There is no such thing as magic. Just distractions while someone takes your wallet. In fact, any weird shit that ever happens anywhere is probably just a distraction. Something strange going down in front of you? Look over your shoulder.

Carry a fake wallet with a few bills and expired bank cards, a real wallet for the day’s expenses, keep some small change in your breast pocket and put the rest of your gypsy gold in a concealed money bag thing under your shirt. Leaving some of your emergency cash in a locked bag in your hotel is also a pretty good idea.

Every English word on a menu makes it less likely the meal will be good. Unless, you’re in a country where English is an official language.

Keep a record of the email addresses of all the nice people you meet while travelling. One day, you may end up in their country. If you do, you should catch up, grab a coffee, ask to crash on their couch. Likewise, reciprocate. Be willing to show people around your hometown. With just a little effort, you can have friends everywhere.

In the Sahara, sand gets everywhere. I mean, everywhere. Bring some nice fat shades, and ask someone to show you how to properly wear a turban.

The trick to getting drunk on a plane is to drink more water than usual. For one beer, get at least two little plastic cups of water. Better yet, ask the flight attendant if they can just fill up your water bottle. Also, if you pee a lot when your drunk, then politely inform the person next to you and offer to swap seats. If you explain the situation while you’re still sober, they’ll probably be compliant.

Using your new-found turban tying skills while drunk on a plane always makes for a fun story.

When you land, in most countries customs agents can search everything, including your laptop. If you’re still wearing your turban, they will search everything. Because, racism.

There are entire cities that are exclusively for tourists. Antigua in Guatemala, Lijiang in China, Cuzco in Peru and others. In these places, everything is about milking you for as much money as you’re worth. There are no non-monetary relationships in these places. Everything is a rip off, the people are insincere, and the number of white folk per square kilometre complaining about the lack of ketchup is enough to bring a tear to your eye. You’ll get some good photos of handicrafts and renovated architecture, but nothing more. Best to move on quickly.

When you get off the bus in a new town, if a whole bunch of people come up to the bus and start offering you hotels, cheap tours, a delicious discount lunch, etc, then there is a good chance you’re in one of those tourist towns. Don’t panic, just push past the scrum and be on your way. You don’t need to listen to the touts. If there is a large enough local tourism industry to sustain touts, then there are hostels — lots of hostels. Lots of restaurants and tour guides too. You don’t need a tout, because this is a tourist town and it is full of tourist stuff. DO NOT BUY ANYTHING FROM TOUTS. Touts will only ever rip you off. By buying anything from them, you are encouraging more people to crowd around the bus. If we’re on a bus together, and I see you get off and follow a tout to a hotel, I will hate you. I will hate you so much. I won’t hate the tout, but god will I hate you.

If you arrive in a hostel with a tout in tow, you will be charged a higher rate than everyone else. This is because the tout will claim to the hostel owner that they got you in, and thus deserves a finder’s fee. If you cooperated with the tout, then pay the extra fee, because you arsehole you deserve it. But, if you never asked the tout for help, you told them to go away, and you arrived at the hostel due to your own ingenuity, then you have what I call a “sticky tout”. If you have a sticky tout, sit down for a long cup of coffee before checking in.

When leaving your hotel room, make your bed, tidy up and hide your bag under the bed. Make it look like no one is even staying there.

If you put down your bag or purse in a bar, it will disappear. Keep it attached to yourself.

You don’t chew coca leaves like a koala having lunch, you moron.

Don’t wear the shirt you got at the local tourist trap, because you’ll look dumb. Eg, walking around Mexico City with Aztec pyramids on your shirt is just a bad, bad move.

Fixed blade knives usually last longer than folding blades. But, I’ve had a lot of success with my Buck brand knife. It has a hinge that just won’t die, no matter how much dirt gets in it.

Carry some small toys from your home country for children. I like to hand out little kangaroo and koala keyrings. Why? Because I’m not always a horrible person, that’s why.

Lastly, I’ll finish on an obvious but important note. Before travelling anywhere try to just learn a bit of the language.

Oh, and have fun. Chill out, and remember: the best things are always unplanned.

Disclaimer: By following these tips, you won’t blend in anywhere like some kind of shape-shifting lizard person; you’ll just not look like a prick. Happy travelling.

For more tips on everything from how to immerse yourself in a country respectfully, and the trick to a stressless landing, read Part II.

If you’re already ready to hit the road, check out my packing guide.

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