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Posted by Jessica on Dec 8, 2009
Practice Makes Perfect

If you're a first-time traveler or new to long-term traveling, you're undoubtedly facing hundreds of questions ranging from tourist visas and one-way tickets, to malaria tablets and rabies vaccinations, to researching hostels and choosing guidebooks. There are so many unknowns when it comes to traveling, particularly before you step on the plane, and at times planning for a round-the-world trip can feel overwhelming. But aside from researching as much as you can, listening to your instincts, and just diving right in, you can also practice for traveling.

Prior to our round-the-world trip, neither Tim nor I had much international travel experience. (And by that I mean virtually none.) And we certainly didn't have any experience living out of backpacks or lugging them around. We realized we were about to step off a cliff into the unknown and so we wanted to be prepared as best we could.

Of course, it's difficult to create conditions at home similar to what it's like when you're traveling long-term abroad. But we were able to do two things that helped prepare us quite a bit. (I've also included a third example below that happened after our RTW trip.) And while these examples won't make traveling a piece of cake, they might help your first few weeks on the road feel a little less bumpy.

Get used to wearing your backpack

The first thing we did (don't laugh) is practice walking around Philadelphia with our backpacks on. We wanted to see how difficult navigating bustling sidewalks filled with business workers, the homeless, large families, and dog walkers would be with all our possessions on our backs. Sure we couldn't recreate that heady feeling you get after being on a bus for 20 hours, but we thought it'd at least give us a taste for one of the more practical sides of backpacking.

Prior to our walks, we filled each of our bags with approximately 15-20 pounds (about 7-10 kilos) worth of stuff from our apartment. Then we'd sling them over our backs, adjust the straps way too many times than was necessary, and start trudging down Antique Row toward Center City.

The first few times we practiced, I'll admit, I struggled somewhat. My bag didn't feel right, everything felt too heavy, and I felt more than a bit ridiculous. But after a few more times, I really started to get the hang of it. I became comfortable swinging my bag in front of me in order to get something from a pocket. I started getting better about turning this way or that way to let other people walk by. And soon enough I forgot my pack was even on my back.

Nearly a year later when we finally strapped our bags on for the beginning of our round-the-world trip, my pack felt familiar to me. No longer did I get the calluses where the straps rubbed my skin. No longer did I struggle with the zippers or wonder where I should store everything. And no longer did my pack feel awkward, heavy, or even embarrassing. Because we had practiced walking through the busy streets of Philadelphia with our bags on, my pack had become just another extension of my body. And given we were about to step on a plane with one way tickets to Buenos Aires, it was nice to have one less unknown to face.

Take a practice trip

About six months before we left on our round-the-world trip, Tim and I had the opportunity to travel to California for a wedding. The wedding was taking place in the heart of San Francisco and (especially given we were saving like mad for our travels) the hotels in the city were way out of our price range. Once we added airfare, lodging, and food, it was looking more and more like we couldn't go to the wedding.

But a month or so before the wedding, we had an idea: we could stay at a hostel instead of a hotel. We knew we'd be staying at hostels during our round-the-world trip and neither of us had a clue what that would be like. So what better opportunity to try out hostel life for the first time than before a swanky San Francisco wedding? While we were at it, we decided to take only our backpacks too. (Well, the backpacks and Tim's suit.)

Needless to say, our time at the hostel was a success. We scored ourselves a private room with a shared bathroom for a fraction of the cost of a hotel room. We learned how hectic, friendly, and sometimes intimidating hostel life can be. We were amused by the quirky staff. And we finally understood what all the talk online was about shared computers, lockers in rooms, and communal kitchens.

(Is this the part where I mention how we also amused ourselves at the wedding? While sitting at our table for dinner, everyone compared notes about where they were staying and what exorbitant prices they were paying. I've rarely had a bigger grin on my face than when I quipped "The Green Tortoise Hostel for $60" to the surprise of the swanky folks at our table.)

Prior to our trip to California we also realized there was no way our budget could afford to stay for a week in San Francisco (hostel or not). So instead we decided to rent a cheap car after the wedding and head out on a road trip. Similar to our upcoming round-the-world trip, we didn't make room reservations in advance or route an itinerary. Instead we asked the guy at the rental car counter which way to go (north, he assured us emphatically) and we headed in that direction without a map or directions. Along the way, we delighted in avoiding the highways, stopping for little bites to eat at roadside diners, and searching for lodging.

It was during this practice trip that we realized two important things for our travel style: 1) we always need to find food before we get hungry (otherwise finding acceptable food when you're already starving becomes a mission) and 2) it's always best to find lodging before nightfall (although we had the rental car – something we wouldn't have on our trip – searching for lodging feels a bit more desperate in the dark). Discovering these things in the comfort of our own country (and our own language) made our learning curve a bit less steep in our first days of traveling internationally.

Give your packing list a test drive

We went camping at the end of this past summer. Not at any campground or remote location, mind you. We went camping in our yard.

Earlier in the summer we had purchased our very first tent together as well as some camping gear. Remembering all too well from our round-the-world trip that shiny travel gadgets often go unused, we bought fairly basic items for our first time camping. A cooler, sleeping bag, air mattress, tarp, and some durable plates were among our purchases. We figured a good approach would be to buy the necessities and then see what we were missing. (Rather than spending more cash on some things we may never use or need.)

We made a packing list prior to camping in our yard – just as we would if we were going camping in Vermont – and we proceeded to gather everything for our big adventure. Yes, we even packed the cooler (having purchased ice from the market earlier that morning) with all the supplies we'd need for cooking outside. (Our neighbors, no doubt, probably though we were insane.)

Lugging everything to the side yard, we set up the tent fairly quickly (it was awesome), proceeded to unpack our gear, popped open a few beers (always a necessity when camping), and started up the grill. (We won't have our grill when we go camping, but we weren't about to create a fire pit in our yard. Our camping simulation could only go so far.)

While Tim was preparing some amazing turkey and apple BBQ burgers (seriously, they are divine), I was scribbling additional items on our packing list. Although it seemed like we had thought of everything, we had actually forgotten quite a few important pieces of kit for camping. You know, things like pots and tongs. Luckily we weren't camping some place remote and our kitchen was just a few feet away so we could grab the required items. But already we were seeing that our practice run at camping was paying off. And after a successful and thoroughly enjoyable night sleeping under the stars in our yard, I'm pretty confident our packing list will be complete for when we do go camping someplace else next summer.

If you want to give your backpacking list a test run, remember you don't have to go anywhere to do so (though a practice trip would be nice too). Simply do what we did: pack everything you think you'll need on your trip around-the-world, and then live in your apartment using just those things for the next few days. And when you find yourself really wanting to clip your nails but you didn't pack accordingly, write nail clippers on your packing list so that you'll have them when it really counts.

One thing to keep in mind: when you're backpacking, all your possessions are on your back. And that means your packing list, though it can still be extensive (as long as you don't mind the extra weight) does not need to be exhaustive. Remember there are stores in other countries too. But giving your packing list a test drive beforehand might mean you don't have to visit quite as many of them during your first week abroad.

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Emerald Flame
December 8, 2009 at 3:09pm
Hmm… this gives me a lot to think about as Emily is dreaming of visting Italy one of these days. I'm not sure if she wants to backpack or not but the mere idea of backpacking is making me nervous. Your article however, makes me less nervous and whenever Emily and I get the money to tour Italy (and some other Euorpean Countries) we'll be sure to put your practice tips to good use.

I don't think Kate will let us camp in the yard but maybe we can camp on base if we get permission first. I just have to make sure not to wader too close to the NSA headquarters…

December 14, 2009 at 5:38pm
Backpacking isn't nearly as scary as it might seem. (And I say that as someone who remembers being intimidated by the idea of backpacking before we headed out on our trip!) That said, there are loads of approaches to traveling and backpacking is just one of them. I'm sure you and Emily will find an approach that works best for both of you. :)

Watch out for any swamp monsters if you do camp in the yard! ;)

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