The Best Backpacking Tips and Destinations

Liz Skewes
03/27/2014
The Best Backpacking Tips and Destinations

Image Credit: Bike List

Where would your dream trip take you? If you envision sleeping under the stars and climbing mountains rather than lounging at an expensive resort, you may be a special type of traveler: an adventure backpacker.

Backpackers carry most of their daily necessities on their backs, including heavy, bulky tents, water jugs, and camp stoves. They make long treks through towns, cities, and backcountry, staying as low-cost and self-sufficient as possible.

If this excites you, then hold on tight to that enthusiasm! You'll need it during the extensive planning and preparation phase.

First, you've got to choose your destinations. Then, you'll need to learn how to pack a 20-to-30-pound backpack, take care of yourself in the wild, and so, so much more.

But don't give up. We're here to help! In this article, you'll find some of the best places to backpack across 4 continents and 12 countries. You'll also get some inside knowledge about what to pack, how to plan, and how to stay safe on the trail.

Jump Ahead:

The Best Worldwide Backpack Destinations

Backpack Destinations in North America

While the U.S. and Canada make up 79% of North America, the continent contains 23 countries! North American hiking routes offer a complete variety of temperate regions and terrains, with backpacking destinations for beginners, novices, and experts.

Take a look at these North American backpacking trails in the U.S., Canada, and the Caribbean. They'll take you through four of this diverse continent's five physical regions.

The Bruce Trail, Canada

The Canadian Shield is an ancient geological zone encompassing 3 million square miles. It supports Canadian provinces all the way up to the Arctic, as well as parts of Greenland and the northern United States. If you're longing for cold weather, green mountains, and glacial-blue lakes, this is the North American region for you.

The Bruce Trail is one of the Shield's longest and most scenic hikes. It will take you from the Niagara Escarpment to the Georgian Bay.

Along its 559 miles, you'll have opportunities to visit vineyards, old-growth forests, quaint towns, and cliff-edged lakes. Some legs of the trail can take over a week, and some only a few hours.

PRO TIP: Backpacking beginners can tackle many legs of the trail, but you'll want to take wet-weather gear, a solid pair of boots, and plenty of willpower to this mountain paradise.

The Pacific Crest Trail, USA

The Cordilleran mountain chain that embodies this region reaches from Alaska to Mexico. In many legs, backpackers will need good boots and a love of rocky, high-elevation terrain.

The Pacific Crest Trail is one of the longest hiking paths in the Mountainous West. Reaching from the U.S. border with Canada down to Mexico, the PCT offers hikers a broad range of terrains, climates, and difficulty levels to choose from. You'll find monuments and state/national forests to explore, as well as a variety of townships and vineyards.

Costa Rica, Central America

Costa Rica offers travelers jungle-lined beaches, volcanic mountains, and abundant tropical wildlife like sloths, toucans, and monkeys. Some hiking trails in this country are so dense and challenging that visitors can only trek them with a registered guide.

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Backpackers in Costa Rica can visit an incredible variety of hiking trails and small towns. This lush country is home to a great number of volcanoes, so the elevation of its trails varies from sea level to 3,810-meter-high mountains.

PRO TIP: Whichever trail you choose, pack for wet weather, especially during the low season between May and mid-November.

For a moderately flat hike, visit the Arenal Volcano Trails, where you'll find old lava flows and some of the best wildlife viewing in the country.

For a more challenging trek, stop by the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, which sits at an elevation of 4,500 feet. Or consider the high-difficulty Cerro Chato trail, where ancient lava flows have rendered the land jagged and uniquely beautiful.

Backpack Destinations in South America

South America is a small continent home to some of the most beautiful backpacking destinations in the world. From the Galapagos Islands to the Inca Trail in Peru, South America is a natural paradise beloved by hikers of all skill levels.

El Chaltén, Argentina

El Chaltén is a tiny Patagonian mountain town that seems like it was made for backpackers. It's a gateway to trails that surround the Cerro Torre and Mount Fitz Roy peaks. You'll find plenty of low-cost hostels here, as well as a few bars and a rich cultural center.

With its high, craggy mountains and glacial-blue lakes, El Chaltén is a nature-lover's dream. You'll find trails that you can spend hours, or even days exploring. Hiking guides are available for beginners. However, if you've never tackled a long mountain hike before, get some practice before hitting this side of Patagonia.

PRO TIP: Be sure to pack your long johns and a warm coat! The average annual temperature here is just 45.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

Rio De Janeiro, Brazil

For backpackers in South America, there are few better destinations than Rio. Though it's known as a vibrant city of samba music, local flare, and low-cost hostels, Rio is also at the center of miles of jungle, mountains, and incredible beaches.

Beginners and advanced hikers alike will find plenty of trails in the Tijuca Park forest surrounding the city, ranging from hour-long hikes to all-day treks. All of Rio's local trails offer stunning views of nearby cities, the sea, and mountains.

A great place for beginners to start is the Morro da Urca trail. There's a cable car that lifts tourists to the peak of Sugarloaf Mountain, also known as Pão de Açucar. Backpackers can find this lesser-known trail below the car, winding up the mountain to Morro da Urca. The view here is stunning, offering a glimpse of Rio's famous Christ statue, the bay, and the mountains over Rio.

The Cocora Valley, Columbia

One of Columbia's most popular hiking destinations is its moderately challenging Cocora Valley trail. From the picturesque, coffee-producing town of Salento, backpackers will trek through woodlands, farms, and clouded forests before arriving in Cocora Valley.

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Cocora Valley is home to some of the tallest palm trees in the world and offers vistas of distant green mountains and wide-open valley fields. The hike is generally suitable for beginners in good shape.

Backpack Destinations in Asia

Comprised of 50 countries, Asia is the largest continent in the world. It has 11 major climate zones and a staggering array of terrains to experience.

Backpacking in Asia can be risky in certain countries, like Turkey and Yemen, due to the political climate in these areas. Travelers looking for the best backpacking in Asia should first check the U.S. Department of State's travel advisories and avoid countries with advisory ratings of level three ("reconsider travel") or level four ("do not travel").

Yangshuo, China

Though China's major cities are heavily industrialized, this country boasts some of the most breathtaking back-country destinations in the world. Yangshuo is a mountain town positioned between the Li and Yulong Rivers, surrounded by jutting rock formations, forested mountains, and misty valleys.

Hikes in this area tend to be either mostly flat or nearly vertical, though backpackers should plan to find themselves on both. Many of the trails in this area are well-maintained with hiking aids, like stone steps, to help travelers traverse the steeper portions.

Moon Hill is a popular trail that leads to a peak with a crescent moon cut naturally into its stone. The view from the top of Moon Hill is spectacular, as is that of Green Lotus Peak. Both trails deliver a long-range view of the area's otherworldly karst rock formations.

Once you've finished your hike, the towns below provide ample amenities for backpackers on a budget.

Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

Cat Ba is an archipelago off the north coast of Vietnam. It's an ideal stop for backpackers who enjoy rock climbing, water sports, and rare flora and fauna. You'll find many low-cost hostels here as well as an abundance of restaurants in the town center.

Most of this island is still untouched, boasting rare flowers and the endangered Cat Ba langur. Hikers can enjoy challenging and jagged trails in Cat Ba that lead to waterfalls, mangrove forests, and craggy peaks, as well as tourist favorites like the Song Sôt cave.

Seven Sisters Trek, Himachal Pradesh, India

Seven Sisters Trek is one of the least-challenging hikes in India, and yet remains one of the most inspiring. Here, you'll backpack between snow-capped mountains in the Himalayas filled with orchards and flower gardens, as well as many old temples.

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Consider hiring a guide so you don't miss the many ancient structures hidden throughout the landscape.

PRO TIP: India is one of the most climatically diverse nations on Earth. You'll want to plan your trip around the weather patterns of your specific destination.

Seven Sisters Trek in the Himachal Pradesh region of the Himalayas gets heavy rain and wind during Indias monsoon season (June through September), and heavy snow at other times of the year due to its elevation. The best times to visit are March to May or October to November.

Backpack Destinations in Europe

With 51 independent states, there's a reason why Europe has long been a travel destination for young people who feel the urge to "see the world." The European continent houses an incredibly diverse collection of geopolitical, economic, and climatic regions brimming with backpacking gems.

Wachau World Heritage Trail, Austria

Austria is one of the many picturesque and historic countries you'll find in Europe. It boasts mountain vistas, lakeside towns, and thriving vineyards. It's also home to a baroque-style national library where every book published in the country must deposit one copy for posterity.

Though Austria hosts over 2,000 long-distance hiking trails, the Wachau World Heritage Trail is one of its most charming hikes. Trailing through stone terraces, green hills, and wine growers' villages, the Wachau takes travelers by the pastoral townships of Weißenkirchen and Spitz.

PRO TIP: Austria is well-connected by train, so if you're eyeing more than one backpacking destination here, plan to get a boarding pass.

The Kerry Way, Ireland

The Kerry Way can take seven to ten days to navigate, but the trek is unmatched in the scenery. With views of Ireland's emerald hills and the roiling Atlantic coastline, Kerry Way backpackers receive one of Ireland's most quintessential vantages of the isle.

Ireland has its modern cities, but the country still bears marks of its ancient past. Many of its agrarian communities seem to have more sheep than people! As a beginner backpacker, you'll want to hire a guide so you don't miss Kerry Way's many historic landmarks.

PRO TIP: The best time to visit Ireland is June through September, though even these summer months are prone to alternate between warm days and wet ones. Take along wet-weather protection and stop into local villages to get out of the rain and sample warming Irish cuisine.

The Mullerthal Trail, Luxembourg

Wedged between Belgium, Germany, and France is one of the most idyllic and wealthy nations in Europe: Luxembourg. This country is small—only 998 square miles—but it is lush, mountainous, and full of historic structures—including medieval castles! Travelers refer to this country as a fairytale landscape offering delicious food and wine.

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Hiking trails in Luxembourg are carefully maintained with adequate signage and steps to aid hikers on the steeper mountainsides. The Mullerthal Trail is about 70 miles long and leads to the lovely old Beaufort Castle.

However, this country contains so many trails that you needn't stick with only one. No matter where you roam in Luxembourg, you'll see astounding rock formations, ancient mills, and quaint bridges in the woods.

PRO TIP: The best time to visit this nation is in summer.

Backpacking Tips

How Much Should Your Backpack Weigh?

It can be tempting to overpack for a backpacking trip. But according to REI's Co-Op Journal, the most you should carry is around 20% of your body weight. That means if you weigh 150 pounds, pack a maximum of 30 pounds.

There are other factors to consider as well, such as your physical fitness and endurance and the length of your trek. Think about how long you will hike each day and how much food and water you'll need (these items can be heaviest).

Before your trip, practice walking long distances with your pack loaded as you'd have it on the trail.

Backpacking Checklist: What to Bring

  • Maps and a compass: GPS isn't always reliable in the backcountry, so know how to read physical maps and take a compass so you can orient yourself. Pre-load any GPS directions that are viewable offline on your phone.
  • Protection from local predators: Research what self-defense supplies are suggested for your destination. For example, some areas warn hikers to pack bear mace.
  • A backpack with adequate compartments: Keep your gear organized and easy to find with a quality pack.
  • Camping gear: Be careful not to overpack, but don't skimp on the essentials, like a fire-starting kit, a warm sleeping bag, and shelter.

Explore this printable backpacking checklist from REI.

  • Travel health insurance: Consider purchasing adventure travel health insurance to provide coverage for unexpected injuries, illnesses, and other unforeseen situations you might face abroad.

PRO TIP: Review the Description of Coverage for any travel health insurance plan you're considering. Pay special attention to the benefit conditions and exclusions. Make sure the activities you plan to participate in are not excluded from coverage.

  • A sharp knife: Don't underestimate the importance of a good cutting tool. Check local laws about concealed weapons to be sure your knife is fully legal in the states/provinces you'll be trekking through.
  • Extra batteries and chargers: GPS won't always work in secluded destinations, but in an emergency—if service is available—having a basic phone can save lives. Avoid bringing expensive electronics, however.
  • The right clothing: Plan for the weather and terrains you're likely to encounter. Choose a few basic pieces that you can combine to suit different weather patterns. Long johns may be advisable for cold nights, even in areas where days are typically hot.
  • Food: Pack dry goods that won't add too much weight to your bag, such as jerky, dried fruit, oatmeal, and kale chips. If you can stand the added weight, take along a camp stove to give yourself breaks from dried foods.
  • A medical kit: Make sure it includes items to aid injuries and illnesses that backpackers are likely to experience in your destination. Med kits for backpackers are best.
  • Safety gear: Take along any safety gear that's suggested for your planned activities. Also consider taking along a headlamp with an emergency flash setting.

PRO TIP: Review the "Sports and Activities" section of your travel health insurance plan carefully. It may require you to use/wear the appropriate safety equipment (such as protective headwear) in order to be eligible for coverage.

How to Pack a Backpack for Travel

Compartmentalize

Keeping your backpack well-organized ensures that you can find what you need without digging. This also keeps your pack properly weighted and comfortable. Packing cubes keep your items organized and tightly stowed so they don't jostle as you walk.

Visualize

Determine what you want to bring on your trip and then lay it out in divided piles. This way, you can visually keep track of what you're taking. This helps backpackers avoid forgetting essential items and makes it easier to select what can be left behind to save weight.

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Place Heavy Items Carefully

The heaviest items in your pack can crush other gear if packed too high. They can also work against your natural balance if packed too far from your back, forcing you to work harder on the trail.

Some backpackers keep heavy items at the very bottom of their bag. Others swear by positioning them close to the mid-back so they fall within the spine's natural curve.

Try It First

Before your trip, pack your bag as you would on the trail. Wear it for a few hours as you walk to get a feel for what's most comfortable and determine your tolerance for its weight.

PRO TIP: First-time backpackers should prepare by taking a fully-packed hike equal in length to the longest day of their trip.

Pack softer, flatter items where they will lay against your back as you walk. An irregularly shaped pack with hard lumps can get uncomfortable quickly. Also, place your most frequently used items closer to the top within easy reach.

Backpacker Safety Tips

Plan for Contingencies

Plan out each day of your trip in advance. Determine what terrain you'll be dealing with, how long each day's trek will be, and how frequently you'll pass water sources. This way, you're less likely to overtax yourself, become lost, or get dehydrated.

Learn about local wildlife in your destination by checking online resources for hikers on specific trails or in the general region of your trip. Some areas require backpackers to carry bear mace or protection from disease-carrying mosquitoes. In some places, it may be wise to carry treatments for snakebites.

Consider Purchasing Adventure Travel Health Insurance

Adventure travel health insurance can provide you with coverage for unexpected injuries, illnesses, and travel mishaps as you backpack outside of your home country. Your regular health insurance may not provide coverage abroad, or your international coverage may be limited.

Read the Description of Coverage for any travel health insurance policy you're considering carefully. Pay attention to the benefit limits, conditions, and exclusions.

For example, a plan may cover mountaineering but exclude coverage for high-risk mountainside activities like spelunking or hang gliding. Many policies exclude coverage for climbs into altitudes that exceed a certain height.

The policy's Description of Coverage may also require that you wear safety gear for a specific activity.

View the Description of Coverage for Atlas Travel insurance here.

Share Your Plans

Share your route with friends and family, preferably using a GPX file. Arrange to check in with someone frequently along your route to let them know where you are. Set up a time when they should expect you to check in each day with directions to call authorities if you can't be reached.

Leave someone you trust with a detailed description of you, your destinations, and any medical needs you may have in an emergency. Be sure to take your ID with you as well.

Be Vigilant

Be aware of your surroundings at all times. Keep personal protection close to hand, such as pepper spray. Divide your cash and stow it in different places, and try to avoid bringing along expensive items, like your smartphone.

Backpacking alone is often inadvisable, so if you're planning your first backpacking trip, go with a friend or two.

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