Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Travel - Backpacking Tips

at Torres del Paine, Patagonia (Jan2012)
 (I wrote this a long time back, posting it here)

Curiosity or interest…there’s that inner drive luring us to go places and see things, to go beyond our fence and see what’s out there. Pictures, books and stories inspire us, travel completes us. We have that urge to be out there, on site, to see things with our own eyes; to touch it, feel it, experience and live all of it. And so we travel, we tour, we walk the beaten path…

The appeal of traveling is there in all of us. We read articles on some unknown place and then daydream of this far away land. We watch adventure movies, like Indiana Jones and weird places that Indi had visited, and smile at the idea of us being there… or imagine trips that include crossing a monkey-bridge in Sarawak, dodging snakes in Rajasthan, street-dancing in Rio de Janiero, or chasing the gray wolves in the Alaskan outback. Yes, we all have the inner yearning- the desire that drives us to explore, to venture out…

The challenge of traveling, however, requires us to spend our hard-earned fortune. The rich and famous can easily book a hotel in Monte Carlo, and spend millions in a week or so. But for most of us, the middle and budget-income travelers, it’s already hurting us to spend some dough for an airline ticket to Singapore. On the good side, budget and promo fares are wide-spread nowadays, and the infra-structure that supports cheap tour is taking its rightful place. Promo airfares, multi-day train tickets, cheap buses, backpacking inns, student international discount cards, among other things, are very popular takes for the pocket-strained tourists.


Backpacking is the answer to battle the high cost of traveling. Or at least make travelling a little bit more affordable. Backpackers go for the budget-types; street eats over air-conditioned restos, dorm inns versus star-rated hotels, economy bus and boat trips versus first-class. Tours involving third party agencies are generally more expensive, so setting your own tour, buying your own ticket and riding your public bus saves you the much needed cash. The most expensive part of the backpacking trip is the plane fare, but the rest can be easily controlled.

Backpacking is also, a lot of times, more exciting as sometimes you don’t know what new things you will discover, or what new culture you’ll experience. It’s an adventure in itself knowing sometimes that you’re guessing your way around. Pre-arranged tours would normally limit your exposure and experience. Backpacking gives you flexibility unlike the rigidity of a group tour, it allows you to pick what you’ll see or do, to spend only on things you think worth spending for, to mingle with quality time, or to walk the off-the-beaten track.

The other goot point is the chance for more ‘intimate’ traveling. Some backpackers would normally spend more time in a place, giving him/her the freedom to really enjoy it, or to be more intimate with ones surrounding and taste the real culture compared to just being ushered by the mega-phone freak tourist guides. Extreme versions of wanderers have the luxury to spend a bum-time when they travel. No rush, no deadlines. Some just travel until they run out of cash, then work for a measly-income job for them to buy a fare home, or to continue with the next trip.

Backpacking Essentials


You can’t go visiting places without your good ‘ol reliable backpack. Size of course would depend on where you plan to go and what you plan to do. A lazy 2-week tour around South Island New Zealand for example, may only need a mid-sized pack with capacity of 20-25liters. (Backpack capacity is normally measured in volume. Just imagine fitting in three (4) pieces of gallon-size water containers, that’s close to a 20Li pack.).

Good features include; adjustable padded shoulder straps, locking hip-belt - useful for big packs, lots of zip-able pockets, side-pockets are ideal to hold the cold-&-moist water or energy drink bottles, optional sternum (chest) strap useful for quick movements (eg. running away from muggers), extendable camel pouch to hold extra stuff bag or cheap supermarket plastic goodies – or a place to stow your smelly shoes.

Shoes and Sandals

A pair of rubber shoes or trainers is your best bet when moving around cities and parks. The cushioning design of most sports shoes prevents foot ache for long-day walks and strolls. Plus you can always do a good side trip with it, say, jogging along the coastal road, hiking a well-developed national park, or even playing tennis with a new found stranger-friend. Trail and hiking shoes are also popular. Trail shoes are sort of a hybrid version as it has the feature of hiking shoes but has the comfort (almost) of your regular trainers.

Hiking shoes and boots are normally brought along if your itinerary includes some serious trail stomping. I normally bring a pair of trail shoes and light boots.

A pair of sandals may be useful if you’re aiming for some tropical get-away.


City slicking will just probably require you to bring a couple of worn-out filthy earth-colored cotton shirts, and maybe one polyester-based T (for hiking or running). Some folks just normally wash their Ts every other 3 days (with one alternate), then as soon as they get fed up wearing the same set of shirt, they’ll buy a cheap 2$ souvenir shirt from the tourist-loaded market-by-night streets. Packing light is a mantra of backpacking!

Of course it would be inevitable to bring those fleece jaks if you’re in a winter tour. A couple of pairs, plus a waterproof jacket are normally enough to get comfort.

Jeans and corduroy can survive the stress and test of a backpacking tour. One of my old favorite pair is still intact, and it had survived a month trip in Africa - without a single wash! That same pair I used in Pakistan for 3 weeks. Light-colored slacks normally retain dirt more than jeans, so maong or dark-colored corduroy are the top choices. Later in my trips, I’d switched to brown-colored cargo pants (think Dockers, but the cheap versions). I realized traveling with extra side pockets helped a lot (think passport, maps, hotel lists and even printed local phrases, even a pen). Quick-dry non-cotton trekking pants with detachable ‘legs’ are also good bet, plus you can use them in hikes. For tropical countries, bring along a poncho.

Books & Maps

Guidebooks had become a traveler’s sidearm. Maps and hotel list, as well as a list of useful local phrases, are the most useful set of info that you need to put your hands on. In longer trip, you may photocopy or tear out relevant guidebook pages (and paste them back later), or simply print free info from the internet. Guidebooks would normally cost you an extra 50$, plus it’s an added weight and volume in your small pack – competing for space with other potential books-for-the-bored. Just bring 1 or 2 books, you may have a chance to swap them later on, some backpacking inns have a ‘library’ accepting book exchange.

Survival Gizmos

Swiss knife, head torch, medicine packs, lighter, water bottle. Traveling sometimes involves enduring a 15-hour bus-then-train-then-boat trip, and if you forgot to pack those munchies in your packs, at least buy canned goods in the local bus-stop stores – that’s when a can opener comes in handy. That goes the same if you got fed up with the local food (or got stuck in a room, trying to avoid a stalker), you may simply buy some bread and some de lata delights – and presto, dinner by the bed!

Torch (flashlight) is a very useful item, not only for night hiking and camping, but also for emergencies. It’s normal to have brownouts in not-so-progressive out-of-the-map towns. In fact, some far-off villages, near your target scenic waterfalls or view areas, do not have electricity. Better ready than blind.

Carrying water at all times is a good traveling habit. Sip a bit every so often, even when just sitting in the train. A liter-bottle should normally suffice. Add a bottle if you’re planning a long hike.

You should know your health status very well to be able to decide what goes in your med-pack. Bring along tabs of paracetamol, water purifiers, and anti-diarrhea. Other items may include: anti-histamine, multi-vitamins, anti-malaria, etc.

Papers, Money, Cards

Passport, 1 or 2 International Credit or ATM cards may come in handy (in big cities at least), and cash. International med-cards are of great help if the worst is to come. Of course, it would be paranoid-but-wise to get short-term travel insurance. And probably some medical papers if you have special health case. Important phone numbers kept in your wallet.

Other Gear

Out-of-the-country backpacking is not all about being brave and gung-ho! You can’t just pack your gear now, and leave tomorrow. (Well, you can but…) Traveling requires a great deal of planning. You have to determine the right amount of gear and supplies you need to pack along with you. Winter country visits would mean extra thick clothes, mittens, balaclava, boots, and even sleeping bags. Beach tours padded in your trip could mean extra items such as sun-blocks (which is better bought on-site), sunhats, eyewear, and some good in-fashion boardshorts.

It sometimes involves a plan on when to buy new items or supply, or when to jettison some (e.g. sending back home your winter gear as you move on to a tropical or sub-tropical climate).


Planning and Prep

The internet has tons of data to offer regarding places to visit, city maps, transportation schedules, etc. It’s better to have some tentative plans and use that as guide, rather than not have any plans at all. What’s good about a backpacking trip is that, you are very flexible in your itinerary (unlike the poor platoon of elderly tourists we normally see being shooed in the tourist bus). But being flexible doesn’t necessarily mean plan-less and careless. It pays to have some sort of plan, and just change them as needed. Just surf and browse thru those websites and you’ll end up having a pile of info-sheets beside your office work-papers. Just don’t mix them and be careless sending a map of Kathmandu to your old lady boss, she might think that’s a honeymoon invite.

If you’re traveling to some hard-currency countries with lots of internet café in every towns and cities, you may opt to just plan for the first 2 or 3 days, then surf the web every time you hop in a new place. That’s a good idea especially if you plan to send emails and Jpegs to friends every now and then. And sometimes you’d meet co-travelers and you may simply ask for onward trip info, or better yet, find a ‘co-traveling friend’ to ease up planning, and of course, to put an end to your boring, lonely trips.

Long trips would require you to properly plan for what gizmos you should stuff in your bags. Check the weather and season and bring your battle gear appropriately. But always try to pack light, test if you can comfortably move around fast with all your stuff, if you’re struggling, throw away other items, don’t be too paranoid. A 15-kg pack is a heavy pack (unless you are into mountaineering tour).

You may also need to plan on when to acquire new things (souvenirs, additional gear), and when to dispose them. I met this Swiss guy in Queenstown NZ, and he was telling me how warm El Nido was. He just came from Thai after El Nido, and just recently hopped in the freezing NZ. I asked how he’s managing his pack size, he simply said he just bought this (-while modeling it) thick Down jacket here (and other hefty souvenirs), and was planning to send them home before his warm-weather South American trip. Good if you have extra hundreds of dollar donation to FedEx.

If you’re cheap, you may just need to carry everything with you. I recall bringing my laptop on top of Mt Daedun in Korea because I was not able to leave behind or send home my extra stuff. That was my extra weight and punishment for my piss-poor planning. ;)

Tolerance and travel lifestyles

Living that dream-trip will test your utmost tolerance to a lot of things. Personal hygiene, food, room comforts. Examples, say how about no bathing for 1 week? ;) We Filipinos are used to taking a bath daily, even twice daily. Well if you’re in the winter trails of Annapurna in Nepal, or bus-hopping your way around some parts of Europe during the winter or early spring seasons, I think you’d consider bathing every other day (or even every other 3 days) as an acceptable change of pattern, even when hot shower is available. Food? Don’t think that if you can eat balut (- a steamed 12-day old duck egg), you can be tolerant in other stuff. The Fear Factor types could be the normal chow-bits for the locals. Accommodation? Ever tried a mini-&-mickey room in the remote village near Mt Bromo? Just knowing that they are about and watching, or hear them gnawing on your bed, might already freak you out.

Hikers and campers have distinct advantages over other tourists. If you have been camping in dirt and mud, drinking river water, sleeping without tent, eating experimentally-cooked camp food, taking a dump in invisible toilets, and other camping stunts, you probably have acquired a good level of tolerance to survive rat-&-roach-infested 4th-world hotels, sticky and stinking economy-class train seats, fully packed refugee-class ship decks, and other normal amenities of cheap-traveling life. It may help to try the back-country with a few outdoor friends before you venture out.

“Only the paranoid survives”

Backpacking is sometimes dangerous as you have very limited protection. It would be a big lost not to try visiting beyond the boundaries of the safe world, but you have to be careful. Hundreds of stories are in your daily news as proof of crime and misfortunes for the unwary traveler.

Good personal security is all about proper planning, right mindset, and lots of luck. Martial arts? Hmm, you may only need that for a quick 10-second burst of adrenalin to fight your way out of a bad encounter. But what you really need is a good sensing capability, to know when to evade, run or hide -- especially if you are traveling alone. There are few travel trade bits that may help you lessen the risk…

Some counter-measure tips;

- Split up money to 3 or 4 different places (2 in separate pocket, 1 or 2 in the bag).

- Keep a photocopy of passport/visa and cards in the pack or pad-locked hotel room.

- Keep a low profile. Backpackers are mostly dirty-&-poor looking anyway. Blend in with the crowd so as not stick up like a sore thumb. Your bunny-ear headband may look cute if you’re in Osaka, but may not be cool in Kabul;

- Sometimes it helps to bring personal padlock for your room or pack. Just don’t lose the key, sling it in your string necklace.

- Wear dark sunglasses so you can un-provokingly ‘read’ strangers eyes and movements; Also useful for ogling at local women’s fashion.

- Bring some common sense and avoid dangerous places (drinking places with a few tourists, or dark alleys and parks);

- And be always cautious and doubtful of strangers and locals. Crimes and scams haunt the unsuspecting tourist.

- Get a map, orient yourself, and know the entry and exit points of each place you plan to visit. Oh, and get a compass as well, it helps. (Tip: most maps are north-oriented, i.e., when you hold it across your face, the top part is the north. Pinpoint your location in the map, and try to remember general directions. Maps normally have a ‘compass dial’ icon, helpful if it’s not north-oriented).


Local Travel

Philippines has a lot to offer when it comes to tour and travel. Be it a cultural tour like the Ati-atihan festival; religious tour like Sinakulo, historical-architectural such as the splendor of Vigan, or even simple visit to a white beach in Palawan. A good travel exercise is a short trip around Batad (Banawe) or Sagada area. Other more elaborate trips may include several points and stops. Let’s see some sample tours.

A 5-day Northwest Luzon itinerary could include:

Day1: Bus trip to Alaminos, overnight stay in one of the Hundred Islands

Day2: Bus trip to La Union, try Surf Boarding, stay overnight.

Day3: Bus trip to Vigan, tour around the city, stay overnight.

Day4: Bus trip to Baguio, tour around the city, stay overnight.

Day5: Bus trip back to Manila.

A 12-day West-to-East Visayan- Southeastern Luzon tour may look like this:

Day1: Ro-ro Ride to Boracay

Day2: Boracay.

Day3: Bus trip to Iloilo, stay overnight.

Day4: Ferry to Bacolod, stay overnight.

Day5: Bus to Cebu, stay 2 nights.

Day7: Ferry to Bohol, stay overnight.

Day8: Ferry to Biliran, then Sorsogon.

Day9: Bus to Legaspi, whale-watching in Donsol, visit Albay.

Day11: Bus to Naga, then Daet, try Surf Boarding.

Day12: Back to real life – back to Manila.

The challenge in Philippines of course, is the reliability of boat and bus schedules, so you may need to pad extra days in your itinerary. Especially if you are traveling during monsoon as bad weather can easily discourage boatmen from venturing out the open sea.

Traveling within Philippines is the cheapest start of backpacking, but if you plan to ride boats and Ro-ro’s, be sure to have plenty of time to spare.

Neighbors Abroad

The next cheaper option is to travel to neighboring countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, or Hong Kong. Easier to move around ASEAN countries as you don’t have to hassle yourself to get a visa. Going abroad will most likely require you to spend lots of pesos for a plane ride. But with the promos available nowadays, flying to HK or Singapore, or Bangkok is as cheap as spending a weekend in Davao or Boracay. Just hook up with your favorite travel agent so you always get updates on the good news, or invest time in the internet rather than watching corny soap opera TV shows.

Route planning could be time-extensive, but this is actually the fun part. A sample cheap trip may include a local plane ride to Zamboanga, followed by a boat trip to Kota Kinabalu (Malaysia), then on to Brunei, back to mainland Malaysia, then up north to Thailand. Or go northwards then west. A friend of mine traveled for 6 months from Hong Kong, to mainland China, to Central Asia, then Tibet, Nepal then south to India. Now that’s traveling, if you can spend your Lolo’s treasure for the trip, and can quit your job, sure why not.

Far and Beyond

Other extreme options are the year-long inter-continental travels, Or, a few months of Sabbatical tour around European countries, across Mediterranean territories (Northern Africa and Southern Europe and the Middle East), South American frog-hopping tour from Peru to Argentina, or even a Polynesian-type of sea-escapade around the Pacific Islands of Micronesia, Solomon, Fiji and Tahiti.

The better option for the working class is to travel for 3-4 weeks (up to maximum allowable vacation leaves), and given the short period, it would be wise to just visit 1 or 2 adjacent countries. One month is actually just right to scratch the surface of a big country, visiting more than one territory would mean sprint-touring the favorite sites. It’s really your choice whether you want to skim thru lots of places, or visit a few special ones with quality time. Traveling alone will give you this much flexibility.

Only time and money can limit our creativity in setting up the travel itinerary. The world is ours to see and explore, but it’s how we set aside our time and resources that will make this really happen.


Elgart said...

Sir Romi? I am very curious about your height. Can I ask how tall are you?

Is height really a significant factor in alpine mountaineering, I am just 5'5 and I am a mountaineer from Mindanao, I would like to pursue alpine mountaineering in the near future.

Garduch said...

height is mostly irrelevant. i'm only 5'7+". i've seen a lot of 5's (Asian and non-Asian). well unless one is 7' or 3' then that's probably a bigger challenge ;)

Elgart said...

Thanks for the response Sir Romi. Your blog is a wonderful resource. Your tips and recommendations are one of a kind.

Keep writing! Keep inspiring!