By Chelsea Duke, author of High Heels and a Head Torch: The Essential Guide for Girls Who Backpack.
If you’re thinking of booking a ticket and getting out there and seeing the world, you might be a little nervous about traveling as a lone woman. Don’t be!
There’s loads of other women doing exactly the same thing and as long as you’re careful and aware, you can have an amazing time, see and do some really exciting things and meet some fantastic people along the way.
Yes, you will have to make some sacrifices – there’s not often room in a backpack for hair straighteners, your shoe collection and a make up bag the size of a small suitcase, but it is possible to look glam and feel great even with minimalist and mostly practical packing.
To help you make the most of your travel experiences, here are my top tips for girls who backpack:
Pack practically – choose clothes that all co-ordinate with each other as it’s not always easy to do laundry regularly on the road. Make sure everything goes with everything else. But, don’t pack too practically; you won’t be at your sociable best if you’re in bars wearing the same khaki zip off trousers and ugly Velcro sandals you’ve been wearing for days.
Take some jeans, a decent top and a little bit of make up so that you can make yourself feel a bit more feminine when you want to. If you’ve got the room, a pair of sparkly flip flops or some strappy sandals will instantly dress you up – and believe me, after three weeks in walking boots putting heels on will make you feel like you can conquer the world. If you’re short on space, roll your clothes rather than folding them – you can fit more in that way.
DO NOT leave home without a head torch or a pair of rubber flip flops. The head torch will look ridiculous at first but if you’re trying to pitch a tent at night or cook dinner on an unlit campsite or read a book in a tent, you’ll be unbelievably grateful for it. As for rubber flip flops, they have so many uses – fling them at snorers, wear them in the shower if the floor is a bit gunky or easily remove them at the tent door to avoid dragging twigs and bits of grass in.
Hostel Tips: Sharing Dorms
Staying in hostels is great. It’s really easy to meet people and hostels know what backpackers need, so they’ll often have book exchanges, laundry rooms, Internet, pay phones and can often help you book onward travel, trips or provide advice about the local area. The only real problem is that you have to share your room with a bunch of people you’ve never met before. Normally, that’s fine. Occasionally however, you’ll come across some really irritating people.
There’s the snorer, who’s blissfully sleeping whilst everyone else is being kept awake, grinding their teeth and cursing. There’s the drunk who comes in a 4am and switches the lights on. Then there’s the ‘amorous couple’ – about whom the least said the better. Ear plugs and an eye mask will reduce the annoyance factor of these creatures – but what you’ll most struggle to deal with is the plastic bag rustler. If you don’t want everyone in your dorm to hate you, don’t pack anything in plastic bags.
Take a good supply of padlocks as lockers will often be provided so you can secure your stuff, and where possible, grab the bottom bunk to minimise the 4am searchlight effect (and give you easy access to your stuff which you can leave on the floor beside you).
ed. – For more info on where to stay, here’s our guide to the top women hostels around the world…. from girls-only dorms and hairdryers to safety-conscious locations, these are the best places for women travelers to find a cheap bed for the night.
Eating and Drinking Tips
If there’s anything you’re likely to miss from home (like ketchup, Marmite, decent tea or proper chocolate) take it with you! A taste of home can make the world seem like a better place if you’re feeling a little low. To keep the cost down, cook for yourself in hostel kitchens. The latter can be a bit of an exercise in tactics and timing but if you want clean and plentiful cookware at your disposal, find out what time the hostel cleans the kitchen and plan to cook your main meal straight after that.
When eating out, where possible choose set price tourist menus for excellent value. A phrase book will be useful for both food shopping and reading menus – but don’t assume that just because a menu is in English it will make any sense. A bit of creative guesswork might be required.
Women Travel: Using the Loo!
Unfortunately, squat toilets and bush peeing are a reality of backpacking. If they really stink, a dab of Tiger Balm (or Vicks) under the nose will help. Never attempt to use a squat toilet when wearing fishermans pants. Always have your back to the wall, as you would when sitting on a normal toilet. This is especially important in China, where there may not always be doors. Terrible toilet stories are a backpacker rite of passage so it’s important to collect a couple.
Remember that when backpacking, it’s perfectly normal to discuss your bowel movements with people you only met for the first time ten minutes earlier – and always carry toilet paper, as you’ll never know when you might need it. When bush peeing, do take the time to admire the view – unless you’re in an Africa game reserve in which case get it over with quickly in case a lion’s hanging about nearby.
Solo Travel: Keeping Safe and Well
- Try not to look like a tourist; don’t wear lots of jewellery or carry around camera shaped bags emblazoned with brand names.
- Stash cash in your bra or your sock so you’ve always got an emergency supply.
- Pack lots of condoms: just in case. British safety standard are probably better than most of the rest of the world’s.
- In Asia or the Middle East, dress modestly – long sleeves with long skirts or trousers. In India, the more like a tent you look, the better.
- Cover blonde hair with a sarong or bandana if you’re getting too much unwanted male attention.
- Get all your jabs before leaving home and pack a well stocked first aid kit.
- Ensure you have adequate supplies of any prescription medicine.
- Take lots of sun cream and a hat, and don‘t be afraid to use them.
- Invest in good travel insurance with cover not only for your belongings, but also medical cover in the millions. If you need treatment in an emergency, you really don’t want to be having to ask your parents to remortgage their house to pay for it.
Souvenir shopping is one of the joys of travel. Haggle whenever you can and treat it as a game, don’t worry about the fact that you’re arguing over 16p. Post souvenirs home regularly to free up more space in your backpack.
If you can’t make yourself understood in shops, restaurants and other public places, use the international language of MAP (mime and point). Enjoy a variety of local leisure activities – watch Bollywood movies in elaborately decorated cinemas, sign karaoke in China, indulge in low cost pampering, get drunk for free in Cusco and party in Irish bars the world over.
Don’t be surprised if heading off round the world gives you some funny ideas. You may become strangely attracted to the idea of jumping out of a plane attached only to a square of nylon or throwing yourself off a bridge with nothing but a bit of elastic strapped to your ankle. Backpacking may well make you think you’re invincible.
About the author: For a few laughs and more practical hints and tips (including further uses for the rubber flip flop), advice on sleeping with strangers, tactics for cooking in hostel kitchens, selecting the perfect bush pee location, surviving a day in Delhi, climbing Sydney Harbour Bridge and useful pointers as to when English isn’t English, pick up a copy of Chelsea’s High Heels and a Head Torch: The Essential Guide for Girls who Backpack – out now!