“The World Awaits by Paul Otteson. A great book about extended backpack travel.
I have been traveling in the winter since 2006. There are many ways to do things but here are some of the useful things I have learned to make traveling safer and less hassle free, especially in dodgy countries (Central and South America). I found India unbelievably safe from thieves and some of this information may not be necessary there. Where the level of poverty is high, many people make their living from robbing visitors. With light hair and skin, we stick out and make an easy target. Common sense and good judgment must guide every decision you make. It gets tiring always checking your pockets and being vigilant. One needs to develop a routine that you never vary. Always put your money, wallet and passport, and that days tickets in the same separate pockets.
Almost always the thing stolen is small daypacks. Managing a large backpack, a daypack and often another bag or two produces management problems as one needs to be set down to deal with the other. Turning your back for one second is all it takes. One of the advantages of not traveling alone is that there is someone else to keep alert – but both must always be vigilant. That is why I do not use my daypack often. Instead I have a shoulder bag (the thin nylon bag by MEC suits my purposes wonderfully). It easily holds my small umbrella, a travel guide, Kindle, sunscreen, lip sunscreen, pen, notebook, small bottle of water, and sunglasses. It never leaves my shoulder – never. My great Serratus Genie daypack folds into its small top pocket and thus takes up little room in my big bag to be used when I need a larger daypack for hiking or traveling on cold buses (then include my down jacket, pillow case, toothbrush, head light, water, snacks, Kindle, guidebook, and often my sleeping bag). Many of the buses are long overnight affairs, many are frigid, and one needs to ensure as good a nights sleep as possible. Many buses, for more money, have seats that are wide and almost fully reclining.
When traveling between locations, your small wallet with credit card and debit card, and passport must be on your person at all times. Never keep them in your daypack because again that is what is most commonly stolen. One needs shorts or long pants with a few zippered pockets, the best zippered pockets to keep these are on the front. Many women’s shorts have few zippered pockets posing a problem. If I go out at night (always the time when robberies are most common), I leave the wallet and passport in a safe location or in my big bag in my hotel or hostel. Carry only as much cash as you think you will need and spread it around several pockets keeping a few small bills and change in one to appease any thief. An inside pocket is handy for big bills. Put money under the insole of your shoes. Money belts are the main security option for most travelers. I find them uncomfortable, hard to access in public and only occasionally use one. If you leave your valuables in a hotel safe, make sure you get a receipt listing the exact amount of money left. Make photocopies of your passport and all useful cards in case of theft.
Nighttime is always the dodgiest time. It seems that the capital cities of most third world countries are all dangerous but there are thieves everywhere. Bus depots require special vigilance. Do not set your pack down unless you have complete control of it. Again turning your back for one second is all it takes. Leaving a pack under your chair at a restaurant or even in front of your feet become targets. Wrap a shoulder strap around your leg. On a bus, never use the overhead bins and do not stuff your pack or bag far under your seat. Thieves can slash the bag and steal its contents. You become a potential victim anytime you fall asleep on the bus. The most common items desired are cameras, i-pods, smart phones and computers as these have value on the black market. Even a passport can be of some value on the illegal market, and obviously a credit card can be used without your signature. Chip cards are not used in the US, South America (except Brazil), but are used in some businesses in India. If for some reason you want to cancel your credit card in a hurry, for example identity theft, simply go to an ATM and enter incorrect PIN numbers three times and voila. You still need to phone and can get replacement cards by courier.
Debit cards are your main source of cash everywhere and work in almost all ATMs (although some ATMs are Visa or Mastercard specific or only for the use of nationals which is common in Brazil). In India, I found only State Bank of India ATMs worked and did not charge a service fee. Only use a four digit PIN with no letters as no machines take longer numbers. It only takes 3 attempts to enter a number that doesn´t work to invalidate your card. Many cards have a plan allowing unlimited withdrawals per month for a set fee. The average $5 service charge your bank charges for each out of country withdrawal add up fast especially as many machines allow only small withdrawals, often not more than $250. Most ATMs also have a charge of $4-8 so try to remove your maximum on each withdrawal. Using credit cards for cash advances incurs a service charge and immediate interest charges. Travelers checks have lost most of their usefulness as they usually must be redeemed in banks (in Latin America, lineups at banks can take hours) and fees are charged for using them.
It is often recommended to carry a small amount of $US cash ($100) to get one through any emergency. Before leaving the country, notify your credit and debit card banks that you will be traveling out of country listing your potential itinerary. Arrange for complete automatic payment from your bank account of any credit card balance. The total balance is paid out on the last billing date so interest charges are zero and you get the use of their money for the month. Many international banks will issue a duplicate debit and or credit card with a different pin to take with you and store in a safe place in your backpack. I have not found this available in Canada but would love to have this as I have had my debit card invalidated twice. Some people carry old invalid cards to appease thieves. I arrange for a small one day withdrawal limit, usually not over $500 to prevent your account from being drained. Check your bank account regularly in case of identity theft. I once used an outside ATM in Brazil and had $1800 withdrawn in 4 days before I noticed it and had my card cancelled (my withdrawal limit per day saved me here).
I believe backpacks are the best travel luggage. If trekking, it is valuable to have a comfortable pack with a good suspension system to carry all your stuff. Special travel packs that have zipped covers to hide waist belts and shoulder straps often don’t have good suspension systems for heavy loads and when trekking, and are in themselves relatively heavy and quite expensive. Rolling suitcases are cumbersome and lose their advantage outside of airports, but it is amazing how often they are used. The Deuter Futura Vario 50+10 pack I use is large enough to carry everything I need. I am able to put my hiking shoes, sleeping bag and all my clothes inside so nothing is dangling from the outside. Its small size prevents one from buying all but the smallest souvenirs. It has lots of pockets – large top pocket with underneath valuables pocket, 2 side bellows pockets, sleeping bag compartment, small waist belt pocket, inside water bladder sleeve, and a waterproof outside map pocket. Other great features are a built in rain cover, hiking pole loops, complete mesh back, relatively light weight, and a very comfortable suspension system. A travel cover is worthwhile to keep it clean in all the grubby luggage holds of buses – a black garbage bag with holes cut out for the waist belt and shoulder straps is the cheapest and most compact. A custom light nylon cover would be ideal and some use old grain sacks. As already stated, a light shoulder bag and collapsible daypack are necessary additions to cover all situations.
Things to bring.
Necessary things to have: umbrella, light rain/wind jacket, down puff jacket, gloves, touque, fleece top, and sleeping bag. I believe the Western Mountaineering Mitilite is the best travelling sleeping bag available. With 800 fill down, it compresses to a very small size and is warm to +4 degrees C, enough to deal with most temperature ranges (gain 4 degrees in a tent). As it is semi-rectangular with a full zipper it serves as a great comforter. I use my bag this way almost every night with a silk sleep sheet. When using as a sleeping bag on treks, I wear clean socks, long johns and a long-sleeved top (a light liner would work well too) so I virtually never have to wash it which is the best way to keep the loft perfect.
I leave home with only a minimum of tops as I usually buy a number of t-shirts on my trips. One pair of zipped leg long pants and a pair of shorts, four pairs of boxer shorts and a few pairs of hiking socks round out my clothing. I use four small silicone nylon bags to divide up all my clothes. Besides one pair of hiking shoes, my only other footwear are good quality flip-flops (Chacos are the best and my goal in life is to wear flip-flops 12 months of the year). Other things possibly worthwhile is a good multitool (Leatherman), and a Steripen UV water purifier which kills everything.
I rarely shower daily even at home. This is possible as I use of a potent antiperspirant called Drysol. It needs to be used only once per week and completely prevents BO. Otherwise showering most days and carrying unpleasant underarm products is necessary. As it is virtually impossible to find outside of Canada (requires a prescription in the US), I bring 2 with me, usually lots for 8 months of travel. I use small leak proof plastic bottles for shampoo, conditioner and sunscreen and carry a soapbox. A microfibre towel is a necessity. Store razor blades in a separate plastic bag outside of your toilet bag as the dampness will rust them rapidly. A small can of gel shave cream will last several months.
One of the smartest things I have ever done is to produce what I call a wallet card. In two 10×9 cm text boxes, I have recorded absolutely everything important in my life each with web addresses, phone numbers, street addresses, account numbers and passwords. Print in all black ink (the colored ink in web addresses bleeds when wet), cut out and glue the two together, fold in half and stick in a heavy paper cover (like used in greeting cards). In my wallet card, one box has my credit card number (in a simple code, plus phone numbers and a securicode), BC Care Card, 3 air miles accounts, phone numbers, addresses and email addresses of all the people I might need to contact when traveling, internet games accounts, Sirius, VIN and license plate of car, BC Drivers License, BCAA, On Star, Bigfoot camper data and serial numbers, home address with all the door codes, apartment management company, hostel web sites and travel insurance for present trip. The other text box has bank accounts, investment management accounts, accountant, lawyer, doctor, dentist, old office addresses, professional bodies, Scype, cable company accounts, Facebook, BC Ferries, BC Hydro, Amazon, MEC, REI, PADI, KMC with passwords, ACC, Expedia and other discount airline web addresses. This along with my two credit/debit cards is all I ever need on the road. It is amazing how often I use it.
One way to solve PIN issues is to have two 8 digit passwords – the first 4 are numbers that you find easy to remember, the next two are letters (not your initials and one capitalized), and the last two are symbols. Label them somehow (I use o for old and n for new). You then have an unlimited number of passwords (eg. o2n4 – the first 2 numbers of the first one and the first 4 of the new one). Each password is listed for every entry on the wallet card in this code form so I never have a problem remembering them. I don`t understand how other people can keep track of them all any other way. This system allows for a small wallet that is easy to store on your person. On each trip I put all my documents and my wallet card on a flash drive and then have access to most anything I need. An international drivers license can be useful as you never know when you might need to rent a car.
Travel in Cities.
My motto – “only where you have walked have you been” – guides much of my behavior. Try to walk whenever you can. It is amazing how walkable even the largest cities are. You see so much more – neighborhoods, people and how they live, how people commute, the shops and stores. Different cultures function in a much different way than we do in North America. I spent a week in Paris in 2011 and walked to absolutely everywhere I wanted to go. In New York, I walked from the tip of Manhatten to past Central Park. All have wonderful subways and I always marvel at how easy they are to navigate. I resort to them when there are long distances to travel or the weather is bad. Buses schedules and routes seem to be much more difficult to figure out. I feel so good about myself when I have been able to get around any big city using their bus system. Quito and Rio de Janeiro were easy to figure out, Guatelmala City and Bogota impossible. Taking the bus from the airport to the center of town is hugely cheaper and allows one another glimpse into the culture you are about to enter.
There are many ways to get robbed. Never walk around at night with large SLR cameras, fancy watches and diamond rings (in Quito, Ecuador, with an acquaintance who wanted me to use her camera, we walked 50 m above a busy tourist street at night. Two young men were suddenly behind us, one grabbed the body of the camera and the other the strap and it was gone in one second). Carry the minimum amount of cash. When accosted by a thief, hand over all your small bills and don`t offer resistance. One of the commonest scams is to have something thrown on you – mustard, ketchup, odorous oily liquids, or flour. Immediately more than one person comes to your assistance offering to help you clean up. You then get pickpocketed and relieved of most of your possessions. These people are very insistent and won’t go away. You must keep them away at all costs – even to the point of getting violent with them. Be careful when you go to a bathroom to clean up.
Taxicab scams are common. The driver takes you to an unknown location and you are held for ransom. Generally your cards are used to empty your bank accounts – that is why they are not carried with you at night. Don’t hail cabs from the street at night in big cities. Have somebody phone for a cab and use only officially designated cabs. Never share a taxi with people you don’t know.
Pickpockets are everywhere (I had my i-phone pickpocketed in Barcelona and my wallet in Beijing). They are very good. Even zippered pockets may not deter them (that is why you need zippered pockets in the front) – always carry the minimum, try to have a thin wallet if needed in a front zip pocket or just take one card with you, use money belts, etc etc. People posing as police may approach you and in concert with a local who does their bidding, proceed to pickpocket you or get a bribe. Only deal with police in official uniforms. A traveler was sitting in a hotel lobby with his big pack a few feet away, was suddenly surrounded by a few people obscuring his vision, and lost everything he had. A young Swiss woman started to travel with another young woman sharing hotel rooms. After a few weeks, she got up in the morning to find all of her possessions gone. The thief’s name and personal info were all fictitious. The different scams are endless. Again daypacks are an issue.
Kindle and Books.
The Amazon Kindle has become an indispensable traveling companion. All have wi-fi and mine can download with 3G, allowing access to the Amazon store anywhere there is cell phone service. Amazon has thought of everything one could want in an electronic book. It can hold up to 3500 books and the battery is very long-lasting. Books are generally less thane the price of paper books. I also get 2 magazine subscriptions so am up to date everywhere. Be careful with your Kindle as they are fragile. I had to replace mine four times in India because of a series of misadventures. Undue pressure on the front screen will easily break it so use the custom leather cover to protect it. They are easy to replace anywhere in the world with a simple phone call and a change of your one-click mailing address. All my replacements in India only took about 5-6 days to arrive.
When traveling for several months, one also needs someone at home to look after the few things impossible from foreign countries. I stop most of my magazines so only need my mail picked up once per month. Living in an apartment building obviates the need to have your property checked regularly to satisfy home insurance policies. Shut the water and hot water heater off. I have 2 income tax filing dates to meet. Some receipts need to be mailed and checks issued for payment (alternately these can more easily be paid online). One club I belong to requires a check for membership dues and a check and application form for a hiking camp. My property taxes and home ownership grants require a signature (this can be done by scanning documents and fax from anywhere). Having someone you can trust with signed checks is indispensable for most of us. I leave some presigned checks with my accountant and a friend.