How to Plan an International Backpacking Trip

Adventure Travel, Travel, Uncategorized

Begin at the Beginning

I am trying to tell the story of my solo backpacking trip. In 2014, I took 6 months and travelled solo across South East Asia and over to Nepal. It was my first time traveling alone, and it had a profound effect on who I am and how I see the world.

If you are planning a backpacking trip, I hope this can serve as a sort of guide or suggestion for beginners.

My desire for this blog is that it not only tell my story, but also act as a resource for anyone who is planning or even daydreaming of setting off to travel the world alone. Be that for 1 week, 1 month or 1 year. With that in mind, I will try to finish each post with a list of resources and/or recommendations.

But a journey has to begin somewhere, and this one began in Korea.

Leaving Korea was surreal. Life abroad as an expat has one constant: people leave, you stay behind. You make friends, they leave, new friends arrive. But it is never your turn to leave, until one day… it is. You close your apartment door, turn in the key, and take the bus to your friends apartment for the last time. As I rode away from Bangbae on bus 406 I distinctly remember thinking to myself, “I may never ride on this bus again.”

Considering I rode that bus everyday, that was kind of a big deal.

My last meal in Korea

Of course, primarily I was excited. I was flying to BORNEO the next day. BORNEO! Where the hell is that? Is it even a country? Incidentally, it is not, it is an island split between 3 countries.

Was I sad…? not really. Or if sadness was there, I wouldn’t feel it for a few weeks. There was too much ahead. I was nervous, and somewhat anxious. I had never traveled alone!

I had spent the last 2 months attempting to “plan” my trip to Borneo, but every time I sat down to plan I got overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task and simply read other people’s accounts of Borneo on trip advisor, or the pages in my Lonely Planet.


In fact, the morning that I left for my trip I had absolutely nothing booked, and only knew the name of a hostel in Kota Kinabalu, my first destination, where I hoped to spend a night. I would later learn that when traveling “on a shoestring” this is the preferable way to do things, because you can often get the best deals if you just show up at the door without a reservation. But at 23 years old, leaving Korea and heading into a black abyss of uncertainty, I was plagued by insecurity.

But mostly, as I went to sleep on my last night in Korea at my friend Gregor’s apartment, I was excited. That morning, I woke up at 4am to catch my 6am flight to Kuala Lumpur. Even the name sounded exotic. Kuala Lumpur.


Getting on that plane was so overwhelmingly thrilling I got chills. I had a heightened awareness of the fact that I was heading into something I had no expectations of, no understanding of, and no preparation for. I was terrified and it was exhilarating.

You don’t leave for your first trip as an experienced traveler. You leave confused and nervous and green, and that is exactly how it should be.

Let yourself be afraid. Jump in.

Somewhere over China, en route to Kuala Lumpur

Now for the all important topic of What To Bring!

Packing up your whole life into one backpack is a daunting task. The good news is, you don’t need to get it exactly right, you just need to get it MOSTLY right (pro-tip: socks and underwear are a must) and then you can fill in the gaps on the road. In fact, filling in the gaps can be its own adventure as you try to find out where on earth do they even SELL toothpaste in this country!?

Take Away: You can always buy whatever you need in a foreign country.

Here is a list of the things I had packed on the day I left from Korea. Problem is, I didn’t write it down and can’t remember.

One of my biggest mistakes: I only had one pair of shoes and no flip flops. In S.E. Asia, this is a big mistake. I was heading to a tropical island WITHOUT flip flops. Such a winter child.

Here is the list of what was in my bag when I arrived home at the end of 6 months. Please keep in mind the fact that I bought many things along the way.

A General List for a Backpacking Trip

  • 2 Backpacks
    • 1 65L (60 is sufficient)
    • 1 Small “day pack”
      • I meet people who travel without these, but I find it useful if you want to go on a day trip, or 2 day overnight trek and don’t want to have to worry about bringing all your stuff.
  • Clothes
    • way too many pairs of socks and underwear
    • dry fit shirt
    • underarmour shirt
    • trekking pants
    • 2 cotton t-shirts (one was used exclusively for sleeping)
    • 3 tank tops
      • unnecessary, should probably only have had 1, but they were 30 cents each in Thailand.
    • 2 pairs of flowy funky pants picked up in Thailand
    • 1 pair of yoga leggings
    • 1 Fleece
    • 1 Rain coat
    • 1 pair of shorts
    • 2 scarves picked up in Laos
    • 1 sarong from Cambodia (used as a towel)
    • 1 dress (picked up in Thailand)
    • 1 bikini (and actually, I lost this in Indonesia so it wasn’t technically in my bag when I got home)
    • gloves and hat
  • Footwear
    • hiking shoes
    • flip flops
  • Toiletries
    • toothbrush/paste/floss
    • shampoo[which I also used as bodywash]
    • coconut oil
    • nail clippers
    • razor
  • Miscellaneous
    • first aid kit
    • headlamp
    • converters
    • phone/charger + camera/charger
    • journal and pens
    • tennis balls (picked up in Indonesia for self-massage)
    • yoga mat
    • jump rope
    • hiking poles
    • sleeping bag
    • pain killers + sleeping pills
    • passport/wallet/photocopies of passport/extra passport photos

I think that is it. My bag was very heavy by the end, but that was necessitated by the wide variety of things I wanted to do and places I wanted to go during my trip. I had to have clothes and equipment for a yoga teacher training in Thailand, swimming/snorkeling in Indonesia/Malaysia, and trekking in… well in every country that I visited, but most importantly trekking in the cold high elevations in Nepal.

If you really wanted to pack light, of course it is possible. Could I have eliminated some stuff? Yes.

The most important step is to figure out what you think you want to do during your trip and pack for that. If you only want to party and sit on the beach, you really don’t need to bring much at all. If you want to go to Thailand and also the Himalayas, then your bag will be much more full.

Do yourself a favor and don’t buy into the budget attitude of idealizing having an ultralight bag. If you want to carry around a fully packed, 70L backpack, do it.

I will say this: you do not need to have a sleeping bag. Seriously. Unless you want to be the kind of person who goes camping, but do your research, there are not that many opportunities for independent camping in S.E. Asia. And when you do want to go outdoors, you can usually rent the gear in a nearby city. It all depends on the focus of your backpacking trip.

Adios amigas!


For Finding Flights:

For Basic Research:

  • Lonely Planet I used other brands, but Lonely is the most widely used and useful. Just remember it is a jumping off point/crutch, once I get somewhere I almost never used it).
  • some of the people who write on here are not to be trusted, but you can get some really good ideas, referrals, testimony of other people’s experiences.
  • decent place to find a mainstream hostel.
  • If you are at all interested in volunteering during your trip, this is a great place to start.

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