International Backpacking 101

by Brett & Kate McKay on August 31, 2009 · 33 comments

in Manly Skills, Outdoors, Travel, Travel & Leisure


Editor’s Note: On Tuesdays, we occasionally feature an excellent article that was originally posted in the Art of Manliness Community by a community member. Today we’ve selected a post from Joseph P. Lenze.

I have circumnavigated the earth on a shoestring budget without the use of an airplane by traveling through 43 countries via land and sea. By traveling on a freighter ship across the north Pacific, camel-trekking through the Sahara, and riding a horse at full gallop across the wide open Mongolian countryside, I not only learned about the 43 countries I traveled through, but I picked up a few great international backpacking tips. In this post I share 7 of the most useful.

1. Take advantage of ATMs

Automatic Teller Machines (ATMs) are available in almost every country, at least in the larger or capital cities. Many people are unaware that their bank card will generally work in these, and they can withdraw money in the local currency. The advantages are huge – you don’t have to carry around massive amounts of cash, mess around with travelers checks, or go through the process of changing money. The ATM fees that your bank charges are comparable to the money you’ll lose with local money changers.

2. Wash your clothes in the shower

Oftentimes you’ll find yourself without access to a proper washing machine. You can solve this by wearing your dirty clothes into a shower and washing your clothes on your body with soap. Just like a regular shower, pay attention to your armpits and areas that get particularly dirty. It works.

3. Stash an emergency $100 or 100 Euro bill

Many backpackers use a daypack for their daily excursions, while keeping their main pack at a hostel, ger, guesthouse, hotel, or in storage. Keep an emergency $100 or 100 Euro bill stashed in the main pack in case you lose your money in your day pack. In a small Polish border town I lost my ATM card. Fortunately, I had enough with my “stash” money to buy a ticket to Warsaw (civilization). Once in Warsaw I was able to get phone and internet access and start solving problems. Make sure to choose a well-known, well accepted currency.

4. Know visa requirements for each country

This seems like a no-brainer, but in northern China I saw a lot of suckers paying good money for a Mongolian visa when you didn’t need one to travel there as a U.S. citizen. On the other hand, in 2005, I tried to sneak through Ukraine without a transit visa and customs deported me back to the middle-of-nowhere Russia which ended up costing me a couple of days.

5. Preemptively avoid a mugging

If you’ve done your AoM homework, then you’ve been on a good weight training program and you know how to look people in the eye and speak with confidence. This will help preempt any potential muggers.  When you’re in a situation that just doesn’t feel right – maybe with a shady acting cab driver in Mexico City or a tuk-tuk driver in Bangkok who seems to be taking you the wrong way – you want to subtly give the impression that you’re not an easy target. Many times, I simply mentioned that I’m “visiting xxxx to continue my (MMA, muay thai, boxing, knife fighting, bear wrestling) training.” Make it believable and be confident – if you’re a foreigner running around a shady section of Bangkok at night, your story doesn’t sound too far-fetched.

6. Use a sleep-sheet

A sleep-sheet is an unlined sleeping bag without a zipper, generally made of canvas, cotton, or silk. Now you can stay in some dingy hostel, guesthouse, or other gnarly accommodation and your body only touches the inside of your sleep-sheet. It takes off the stress of wondering “Where has this blanket been?” and “Who or what slept here last night?” Thanks to my sleep-sheet, I slept like a baby when my Cambodian guesthouse wall said “Beware of Bedbugs.”

7. Baby powder is your friend

I learned this trick from a female soldier friend who spent long nights in a foxhole during training. If you can’t wash your hair, throw some baby powder in it and it will leave you feeling fresh. After a long-day hiking, walking, or stuck in a train, sprinkle some into your boots or shoes. Staying dry is a paramount concern when backpacking. Additionally, it’s a simple way to “freshen up” up after a long day of adventures.

I hope these tips serve you well. The picture below is in the port of Osaka, Japan after a winter crossing of the North Pacific on a freighter…for credibility’s sake. Cheers!


{ 32 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Ced August 31, 2009 at 11:28 pm

would like to hear more about the trips on the freighters and how to go about this.

2 Jesse James August 31, 2009 at 11:33 pm

I agree with Ced. I’d love to see Joseph do a follow-up about how to travel without taking an airplane, especially how to hitch a ride on a freighter.

Thanks for this piece.

3 peter September 1, 2009 at 2:09 am

I think that the post brings to light a quintessential habit that has been lost on people in todays modern society: the pick-up-and-go. I would like to see more aricles either by this poster or by someone else that has experience traveling to places off the beaten track, through unconventional means, I.E. by freighter, horseback etc. I think it’s important to know how to get through life, unencumbered by worries of whether or not one has enough funds to cover the sometimes inflated price associated with international travel. I hope that someday, the Art Of Manliness can regularly post articles that inform travelers of the best ways to mobilize and see the world on a budget.

4 Roelof September 1, 2009 at 6:33 am

Respect! I seriously consider doing this someday, this post is very inspiring.
I would love to hear more details/stories about your trek as well.
Thanks a lot!

Greetings from Nanjing, China

5 Shaun September 1, 2009 at 7:44 am

Brilliant article! I love hearing about people’s traveling experiences, and it’s great to see some new tips that haven’t been re-hashed a thousand times!

6 CoffeeZombie September 1, 2009 at 10:17 am

Washing hair would be the least of my worries when backpacking; especially considering the closest I usually get to actually “washing” my hair most days is getting it a little wet so I can comb it down. I wash (with shampoo & conditioner) about once a week. However, my hair stays pretty clean and not too greasy (in fact, I think it’s less greasy now than it was when I used to wash every day; my body just needed some time to get used to the fact it didn’t have to produce extra oil to replace what was lost when washing).

Of course, I suspect if you went on a backpacking trip, you’d quickly realize that being able to bathe every day is a bit of a luxury.

The other uses of baby powder, though, are very important. I learned this when I spent a week in the Dominican Republic. My legs rubbed each other raw with all the walking plus humidity. Boy, I wished I had baby powder then!

7 JR Seaman September 1, 2009 at 10:21 am

I have lived many summers in Europe (mostly France) and have found some great information of backpacking in europe.

1) Only bring what you need. I traveled Italy, Senegal African, and France for over five weeks with one small backpack. (It was the one I used for my classes, not backpacking) Yet, it was just the right size.

2) Be a local. Learn the language. Eat where the locals eat and save some money. Rick Steves has great books on the best local places to eat, shop, sleep, and get groceries in Europe. I lived with a family in France as an exchange student, there I learned the language and the culture. I now hate being a tourist. But Steves does a great job at finding the most authentic places that only locals go. His books are a must. Plus they are full of great history about the places you visit.

8 thehuhman September 1, 2009 at 10:34 am

Joseph. Thanks for the excellent post. I don’t get to travel much, so I live vicariously through the adventures of others. I’d love to see more like this!

9 Peter Mak September 1, 2009 at 10:44 am

Awesome post. I’m impressed that you do a lot of travelling without using airplanes. You’ve inspired me. I’ve been planning a RTW trip for years, and now I’m considering revising the trip so that I go everywhere via land and maybe only use air travel for certain voyages. Keep up the good work. I’d love to read more articles by this author.

10 Joseph Lenze September 1, 2009 at 11:10 am

Thanks for the great comments everyone. Another tip I forgot to put in the article was to stuff some dryer sheets in your backpack to keep your clothes smelling fresh after being stuffed tightly in a backpack. There seems to be some interest in freighter travel, I’ll try to post a blog about freighter travel within the next week.

11 FerFAL September 1, 2009 at 11:11 am

“If you’ve done your AoM homework, then you’ve been on a good weight training program and you know how to look people in the eye and speak with confidence. This will help preempt any potential muggers.”
Wait a second Rambo :-)
It MAY stop SOME, less determined attacker.
You better be able of putting you money where your mouth is (actually know how to fight), hopefully have some kind of weapon. (pocket knives, or big cardboard cutters can be bought anywhere)
And better yet, avoid confrontations as much as you can.
A taxi driver in a favela in Rio wont care if you’re the latest UFC heavyweight champion, you’ll get mugged and likely killed if you play hardball.


12 John September 1, 2009 at 12:13 pm

I always keep an emergency bill in my sock. Pickpockets never look there.

13 Robert September 1, 2009 at 12:50 pm

I found these links; maybe of some use to someone:

I wonder if the Joseph paid for his trip on the ship.


14 Grant September 1, 2009 at 1:19 pm

I would love to hear some necessary gear ideas. For me, an elastic clothes line by Rick Steve’s was a life savor after doing #2. Also, a universal drain stopper.

15 Nik September 1, 2009 at 3:18 pm

Awesome article. Joseph, I would be interested in what languages you know, and what you recommend for getting by communicating in so many different places.

16 Jack September 1, 2009 at 7:57 pm

Great article! I did something similar when I was 18, although I cheated and used planes for the big jumps. These are good tips (washing clothes in the shower does work). I would say though, instead of carrying a $100 bill, break it into smaller denominations, like five $20s. That way you have the option of exchanging a smaller amount if you want too.

17 Ashleigh September 1, 2009 at 8:03 pm

I don’t know how it works as a substitute for shampoo, but gold bond works well for the chafing and freshening up business. Plus it doesn’t smell like a diaper.

18 Darrell September 1, 2009 at 10:17 pm

Great article! What do you do with your wet clothes after you shower with them on? How do you dry them?

19 Jack September 2, 2009 at 12:55 am

Darrel, that’s where Grant’s tip about the clothesline comes in! Or any piece of cord will do. Then just hope for warm weather, or if worse comes to worse, wear it wet and it will dry out soon.. Grant’s drain stopper is also a life saver, get the flat rubber kind that covers anything.

20 Jake T September 2, 2009 at 9:13 pm

Nice list, but sleepsheets don’t do jack to protect you against bedbugs. If anything, they make it easier for the bedbugs to hitch a ride with you from hotel to hotel.

If you’re sleeping in a bed with bedbugs, you *are* going to get bit. Your biggest concern should be making sure you don’t carry the bedbugs home (i.e., by turning down any room that has signs of bedbugs, by keeping your luggage well away from the bed at all times, and, for gods sake, by not carrying a sleepsheet unless you are religious about handling it as HAZMAT — those bedbug eggs are invisible to the naked eye).

21 Shane Markley September 3, 2009 at 9:51 am

Awesome article! Definitely looking forward to reading follow up posts!

22 DP September 3, 2009 at 12:07 pm

Great post, it reminds me of my solo-travelling days. I really need to get my rucksack out of the closet and get going again.

ATM’s and Credit Cards definitely help save money in the long run. A lot of companies give you the lowest exchange rate for the billing period. Plus, it’s scary how many HSBC locations there are in the world. Be sure you keep a copy of each card’s international number in case you lose them, you can always cancel the card. The numbers are usually free, you can call them collect.

Wearing toned down clothing is important as well. As comfortable as a loud hawaiian shirt and shorts are, they can scream “Mug Me!” It’s surprising how few locals wear shorts in the sweltering hot summers of Cairo or Delhi. Of course you can’t totally look like a local, but doing little things to keep attention away from yourself can keep you out of trouble.

Taking out a map to find your way is unavoidable, but always walk with confidence to keep from looking like an easy target.

As far as gear goes, leave the Nalgene bottle at home. Filling it up in a local sink is never a good idea when in a third world country, and you’re gonna be buying bottled water everywhere you go anyway.

Anti-diarrhea medicine is a must and some Sudafed or something like that. You can buy most things you need where you go, but medication is something you shouldn’t mess around with.

ZIPLOCK Bags, the more the merrier. They’re good for keeping important papers dry, toiletries somewhat sanitary, or for just keeping things organized.

They can be uncomfortable but a money belt is a good idea for holding your passport and most of your credit cards and money. Only carry enough money in your pocket for roughly what you’ll spend for the day. If anything, they’re good for just peace of mind. You wear it under your shirt or pants and it makes it really hard for someone to take it without you knowing. Of course hotels and hostels have safes you can keep that stuff in, but I tend to be a bit paranoid about stuff like that. It must be the new yorker in me. Your passport is your lifeline. They can take all of your clothes, money, camera, shoes, etc. But if you have a booking and a passport you can make it home. Plus, being naked might make it easier getting through airport security. (jk)

Lastly, the best travel advice I can give, a Smile is universal and it goes a long way. People tend to be more helpful and more tolerant of you if you are genuinely nice to them. You don’t have to fluently know the local language, but little things like Hello and Thank You show you you are trying and that you respect their culture. But don’t forget, be respectful, but don’t be a pushover.

Have fun. If you’ve always wanted to travel, just do it. You’ll be better for it. Be smart, be safe, be a man.

23 Joseph Lenze September 3, 2009 at 1:47 pm

Brilliant followup DP!

24 JC September 3, 2009 at 1:55 pm

Overall, an excellent post! I’d like to add my two euro cents, however, concerning the carrying of a 100 dollar bill or 100 euro note. By and large, around the world, the US dollar is becoming significantly less preferable, whereas the euro will open many more doors much more quickly. Call it the beginning of the end of US dominance, or whatever you like (this is not a political post), but the reality is that carrying emergency euros will serve you far better than carrying dollars will.

25 Jonny | September 3, 2009 at 2:12 pm

Thanks for the post. I am off to Backpacking in Thaliand and the middle east in 8 days time so this post was excellent. Thankyou.

26 Ben September 5, 2009 at 2:38 pm

Also, at leat for the 100€ bill, have some smaller currency with you, as some places (esp. ticket machines) don’t accept 100s.

27 Joel September 21, 2009 at 11:45 am

This post is awesome, thanks for contributing.

I too am seriously interested in Freighter Travel and would love to see an AoM post on the subject.

Thanks in advance!

28 Mike September 25, 2009 at 8:02 am

Okay, any thoughts for doing this (or a scaled-down version) with the family in tow? How old would you recommend the kids be before taking off on a shoestring-budget vacation / tour like this? I’ve heard of families touring around the world / continent, and have wondered how they pull something like this off…

Excellent article – 5*!!

29 Matt September 25, 2009 at 10:37 am

If you want to travel with the family go to they also post a lot of videos on Youtube.

30 Mark September 25, 2009 at 4:52 pm

How low cost did this trip actually end up being? I read the recent follow up article on freighter travel and the freighter seems like it is an expensive alternative to an airplane if you are just using it as a means to an end. Any more tips on low cost shoestring travel would be awesome.

Thanks for the post.

31 by the sea September 26, 2009 at 9:43 pm

I’d be interested in reading more about your adventures and seeing more pictures…thanks for the posts!

32 Adamo February 6, 2013 at 6:24 am

Great post, thx. I have found this website accidentally and I can’t stop reading! Next time you are in Poland let me know ;)

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post:

Site Meter