in: Leisure, Living

• Last updated: June 2, 2021

International Backpacking 101

Vintage man wearing backpack while sitting in the brushes.

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!

Man posing with Punjab Senator cargo ship.

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