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Common Mistakes of First Time Backpackers

Common mistakes of first time backpackers

We’ve all been newbies at something, even traveling. There are some common mistakes to avoid before strapping on your very first backpack and jetting off.

I’ve made them myself and have seen them repeated throughout my travels in Australia, Europe and especially Southeast Asia. Once you’ve decided to travel with a backpack, which is ultimately up to you, learn how it fits before you go.

Bringing Too Big of a Backpack

First time backpackers, particularly those who are traveling for an extended period of time like six months to a year, think they need a large backpack because they will need a lot of stuff. I’m seeing more and more of those 65 liter and bigger bags that come with an attachable daypack, loaded to the rim.

This is too much stuff.

Not only will you be miserable carting it around, but you’ll find that you don’t need as much as you think you do. You’ll find places to do laundry all over the world, and you can buy toiletries at grocery stores and pharmacies. Be realistic about the fact that you have to wear this backpack nearly every day, bringing it to the top of buildings without elevators or while running after trains.

Using a Backpack Incorrectly
Using a Backpack Incorrectly

Wearing the Backpack Incorrectly

Another pet peeve of mine is seeing backpacks worn incorrectly, thus putting the wearer in pain. Hip belts are meant to be worn higher on the hips, not slung around your butt. Learn to use all the straps and what they go to, which will adjust the load to a more efficient position on your back. If it’s pulling you backwards, that means you haven’t adjusted the top shoulder straps or pulled the ones on the sides tight. Wear your backpack close to your body.

If you’ve never worn a backpack before, stopping into an outdoors gear store and getting help from a specialist is a good idea.

Packing Too Much

If you have to stuff items past the drawstring, fill every pocket, and tie items to the outside before even leaving home, you’ve packed too much! Certainly, if you have trouble lifting your backpack into overhead bins, you should also ditch some items. Remember, we believe in taking only what we can lift and carry! It helps us to be independent women while on the road.

Leaving extra room allows you to get your bag closed when you ultimately bring home souvenirs or stuff all your dirty clothes inside.

Underestimating Distances & Times

A mistake I frequently made as a newbie is underestimating distances or how much walking I would actually be doing with my bags in tow. You’ll end up walking from your hostel to the train station, or even just along the train platform, so if you’ve packed too much or haven’t adjusted your backpack correctly, the distance will feel doubled. If directions say the walk is only ten minutes, allot yourself more time, since you won’t be walking at your standard speed.

The wrong and right way to wear a backpack
The wrong and right way to wear a backpack.

Not Keeping an Eye on Your Backpack

We’ve all been there at some point, leaving our backpack in the hallway of a bathroom while we’re in the stall. Or, handing it off to someone when boarding a bus or train. (Carrying a smaller, lighter load can keep this from happening.) But the longer you keep eyes on your bag, the better. While traveling by train through Thailand, I heard many stories of people who had their bags rummaged through as they were kept on racks in the aisles in the sleeper cars. Keep the essential, and expensive, things on your person at all times, like jewelry, electronics and your passport.

Being Too Näive or Too Jaded

This one is for all travelers, not just first time backpackers. Falling on either end of the spectrum will make you a target. If you’re constantly afraid of being robbed or cheated, you may miss out on the lovely locals or your destination. But if you’re oblivious to the potential scams out there, you will be swindled out of money or worse.

Have you been guilty of any of these mistakes of first time backpackers?

Written by Caroline

Caroline Eubanks is a native of Atlanta, Georgia, but has also called Charleston, South Carolina and Sydney, Australia home. After college graduation and a series of useless part-time jobs, she went to Australia for a working holiday. In that time, she worked as a bartender, bungee jumped, scuba dived, pet kangaroos, held koalas and drank hundreds of cups of tea. You can find Caroline at Caroline in the City.

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Reader Interactions


  1. Caroline says

    I’m gonna be a first-time backpacker this summer and I was nervous to read your list, afraid I’d already messed something up, but I am doing a-okay!

  2. Coral says

    spent a lot of money on good quality backpacks but to be honest hardly ever used them as back backs, for us a backpack on wheels would have been better. we now have these from Ikea and managed a week away with them, reckon we could do long term travelling with these now.

  3. Glamourous Traveller says

    Great tips. To add to them; if possible, choose a bag with zippers that can be locked together rather than a buckle/ snap closure. Your mind will be more at ease knowing your bag is locked even when you’re walking down the street rather than worry someone might be stuffing things into/ taking things out easily from the opening. Best to use a combination lock with a number easily memorized for easy access.

    There are also mesh bags that can be bought to cover backpacks if you have to leave them alone somewhere or need to check them in. Again, these things can be locked around to avoid people tampering with them.

  4. Diana says

    Taking our first backpack-only trip this Fall and I’m still quite freaked out about trying to pack what I need for two weeks in Italy into my 35L backpack. After reading this site and so many other ladies reviews of packs and packing light, I knew it was what we wanted to do for this trip. Now if only I could figure out how to fit everything I *think* I need… It’s been a learning adventure for sure, thanks to HPL for helping me get the concept of carry-on only packing. I know I’m going to be thanking you silently everytime we are walking long distances carrying our stuff across the city, and smiling knowing we could have been toting luggage and swearing instead!

  5. shelly says

    The pack I use to travel with in the summer is completely different from the gear I use in the winter. I NEED a larger pack in the winter just because my cold weather necessities take up more space than just a pair of shorts and sunblock in the warmer months. Plus, I don’t mind carrying more when it’s colder as opposed to when everything is sticking to me when it’s hot. Picking up colder weather clothing is more expensive in Europe than at home so I err on the side of caution during the fall and winter! This website RULES by the way!!!

  6. Emily says

    I wish I had been more aware of ultralight backpacks, like those from Gossamer Gear or Mountain Laurel Designs or Hyperlite Mountain Gear. Whether I’m on a thruhike or traveling around a city, I’ve found that the lighter my pack is, the happier I am to carry it, and when your gear doesn’t weigh much, you don’t need all that internal frame plastic and metal and foam. This makes your pack lighter, smaller, and more versatile, and this equals more fun and more adventuring!

    • Brooke says

      Emily- we couldn’t agree more! We often forget about the weight of the luggage itself. I’m also much happier the less I carry. SO MUCH happier 😀

  7. Anamar says

    This is my first time traveling to another country and your blog is being really helpful! I love it 🙂 Thanks for everything!

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