Travel tips for women backpacking it alone
Last Updated July 25, 2007
By Vawn Himmelsbach, CBC News
Bicycles line a street in Shanghai, China. (Vawn Himmelsbach)
Vawn Himmelsbach is a freelance writer based in Toronto. She spent three years travelling abroad.
Whether it's hiking in the Himalayas or learning Spanish in Guatemala, many women postpone their dreams of travel until "some day" because they don't have anyone to travel with. And in today's climate of terrorism, there's a fear of travelling alone — although it's often unjustified.
You don't have to be Lara Croft to embark on an overseas adventure, nor are there any age limits.
The hardest part is making the decision to go; after that, it's a matter of getting organized.
Here are 10 tips on preparing to travel abroad on your own, whether it's for two weeks or two years.
1) Buying the right backpack
This is by far the most important investment you're going to make for your trip, so it's worth spending the extra cash on a high-quality backpack. When your pack is hurled on top of a chicken bus in Central America, you'll be grateful for that twin stitching and the coil zippers.
Some packs are designed specifically for women, with a frame that can be adjusted to sit ergonomically on your back. Look for padded shoulder straps and a sturdy hip-belt, and aim for a medium-sized pack (if it's too big, you'll pack it full of stuff you don't need).
Then, buy a small day pack for essential items, such as your camera, a guidebook and snacks. Or buy a pack with a removable day pack or fanny pack.
2) What to pack — and what to leave at home
The biggest mistake women make is hauling half their wardrobe around the world. It will eventually become a burden and you'll end up leaving clothes behind, so it's not worth bringing them in the first place.
Everest Base Camp in Nepal. (Vawn Himmelsbach)
It may be hard to believe, but in most places you can easily make due with one pair of quick-dry pants, one skirt or sarong, a few T-shirts, a long-sleeved shirt, a lightweight sweater and a jacket. That said, if you're trekking in, say, Nepal, make sure you have the appropriate cold-weather gear.
Choose lightweight, quick-drying materials that can be hand-washed and will dry overnight. Also bring a portable first-aid kit, preferably in a waterproof container. A plastic sink plug comes in handy for hand-washing your clothes (you can purchase this at most travel stores). And a lightweight silk sleeping bag liner is worth the investment so you can sleep soundly even if the sheets in your hotel, hostel or guesthouse aren't up to your standards of cleanliness.
3) How to pack
Not only do you want to conserve space, you want to protect your belongings from rain, dust, mildew, insects and even rats (known to chew through backpacks to get at toothpaste and other tasty treats).
A cheap and easy way to do this is to pack everything in large resealable plastic bags — shirts in one, toiletries in another. Some fellow backpackers may find this amusing, but they won't be laughing when your packs are strapped to the top of a bus for eight hours in the pouring rain.
Also consider buying an inexpensive backpack tarp, which comes in handy for rain and dust, and also keeps straps from getting ripped off on airport carousels.
4) How to carry your cash
Wearing a moneybelt can be a nuisance, but it's still the best way to carry your money and passport. Wear it around your waist, underneath your clothes, so it's out of sight (I've actually seen some people wear money belts over their clothes, which defeats the purpose).
Carry a small amount of local currency in your handbag or day pack for easy accessibility. Use a moneybelt to carry your passport, traveller's cheques, credit cards, local currency and an emergency stash of U.S. cash, a currency that is negotiable almost anywhere.
You can buy plastic passport protectors, but a resealable plastic bag works just as well (the snack-size ones are a perfect fit for money and traveller's cheques). I learned this trick after spending a day climbing Mayan ruins in Mexico under a hot sun — and later discovered the stamps in my passport had smudged and my credit card was warped from the sweat coming through my money belt.
5) How to secure your gear
There are products designed to protect your backpack from tampering and theft, such as the pacsafe (a mesh stainless steel locking device that covers your bag).
It does take some effort to get this contraption around your pack, but in three years of using it I only once had a problem, while staying in a dollar-a-night thatched-hut guest house in northern Laos. A young boy managed to get into my room while I was out for breakfast and he squeezed his hand through the mesh to grasp a few U.S. dollars I had in my emergency stash — but the process took so long I caught him in the act.
You can also use adjustable cable locks to tether your pack to something fixed (like a pole) so someone can't walk away with it. The peace of mind this gives you when sleeping on overnight trains and buses in invaluable.
6) Get your shots
Before you head out into the world, find a travel doctor who can provide you with up-to-date health information about the countries you're visiting, as well as any necessary vaccinations.
There is much debate around taking malaria pills, so do your research and decide for yourself. Visiting a travel doctor is generally not covered by provincial health plans, and you will have to pay for some vaccinations out of your own pocket. Some, like rabies, require a series of shots over a period of time, so get that done as far ahead of time as possible.
7) Get your visas
In some cases, you may not require a visa, or you can get one at the airport when you arrive in the country.
If you're travelling for an extended period of time and passing through a major hub, you can get visas for neighbouring countries while you're there — it typically takes only a few days (carry a few extra passport-sized photos for such occasions). In Bangkok, for example, I obtained visas for Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar, and also booked cheap flights to Nepal and Indonesia. This gave me more flexibility to alter or change my plans than if I had booked everything in advance from Canada.
Check out the Consular Affairs Bureau website for information on visa requirements, as well as travel reports and warnings.
8) Keeping in touch
Not so many years ago, telegrams were the best way to communicate with loved ones back home. Today you can find internet cafes almost everywhere — I even found one while trekking to Everest Base Camp. Keep in mind, however, that some governments will monitor your e-mail, so you may want to avoid mentioning any politically sensitive subjects.
Skype is a great way to make free long-distance calls over the internet. Leave your contact information with someone back home, as well as a photocopy of your passport and travel insurance, a list of your traveller's cheque numbers, and any other important information.
If you plan on travelling anywhere dodgy (where there's a travel warning or during hurricane season, for example), it's worthwhile to register with the foreign affairs department's Consular Affairs office. This is a voluntary process, and you can register online, by mail or in person.
9) What to do with your belongings while you’re away
If you're planning to travel for an extended period of time, you'll have to decide what to do with the material possessions you're leaving behind.
Some people choose to sell everything and use the money to travel, but there's no need to go to that extreme. If you own a house, consider subletting. If you rent, you can either sublet or move out and put your belongings into storage. This process may seem overwhelming, but all of your stuff will be there when you get back — although you may be surprised by how little you missed it.
10) Cultural sensitivity
As a woman travelling alone abroad, safety is a concern, though there's no need to be paranoid. This is a time to trust your intuition — if something doesn't feel right, don't do it, and you don't owe anyone an explanation.
Avoid getting into confrontations or offending locals by learning about the culture before you go. In some countries, you may be required to keep certain body parts covered. And, as a woman, you may not be allowed to enter buildings that are the domain of men. In a small village in northern India, I wasn't able to hire a taxi (or do much else) without a male companion — the taxi drivers just laughed and wouldn't take my money. If you do your research before you go, you'll be far less frustrated when you come across these situations.
If you're still intimidated by the thought of getting on a plane and arriving alone in a foreign county, test the waters with an adventure travel company that gives you some independence from the group. Some companies even organize solo journeys on your behalf, booking transportation and hotels. This can build your confidence for the next time around — because after trying it once, you may become addicted.
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