Essential Considerations for International Backpacking
Editor’s note: This story was written prior to the outbreak of COVID-19 and therefore does not touch upon pandemic specific considerations. You are strongly encouraged to do your own research regarding limitations for travel outside the United States.
In the same way as the things you carry vary according to the terrain you hike, international backpacking requires some adjustments. I have been backpacking the length of the Andes since 2015 and these are five adaptations that have improved the experience greatly. Fortunately, as compared to things like language and culture, changes in gear are light and painless. They are mostly carried “just in case,” but the difference they make in access, safety, and enjoyment more than makes it worth it.
1) Different Payment Options
Any good backpacking trip means getting out past the bounds of convenience. In international travel this means remote resupplies. If your route passes through small foreign towns, do not expect credit cards nor change for big bills. Make sure to get change and small bills in the local currency when you are in larger cities. This breaks with the typical in-country thru-hiker policy to avoid hiking with change.
A second thing to carry is credit cards from two different companies. Throughout South America we found the most frequently accepted card is Visa but on several occasions the Visa system was down in some of the cities we passed through, making that card useless, in which case our American Express card came out to save the day. This double card policy is also useful in case of theft.
2) Fake Wallet
Being robbed is always inconvenient. Being robbed while abroad can be a game-ender. Also, if you happen to hike through a poor area of the world where desperation is higher, you will be profiled as a “tourist” and the possibility of being targeted is high. For example, one time I was talking to some schoolchildren in Peru and one of the girls asked me to give her money. I replied that I did not have any. She said, “Yes you do, I can see coins in your pocket.” The rest of that stretch I was very aware that the community knew I had money and was walking trails they knew far better than I.
As such, we carry “fake wallets.” In some of the more dangerous areas of the world I also recommend carrying a burner phone. People will never believe that as a tourist you have no phone but if you have a less valuable phone, it makes you less of a target.
Default to knowing that any time you take money out of your wallet, someone is counting how much is there. In our fake wallets we keep small bills, one credit card, and a form of ID that is not cataclysmic if stolen.
We keep our passports, a backup credit card, and the bulk of our cash hidden in a secure location on our person or in our ruck.
3) Identification Card
As mentioned above, when backpacking internationally, it is wise to carry a few kinds of ID in various locations of your kit (one immediately accessible, one tucked away). Also, leave photocopies or digital files with a trusted person who knows where you are. Before traveling abroad, also know the vaccination requirements and carry your vaccination records, which may be requested by border agents. I have had good luck carrying both a passport and a passport ID card for casual use at grocery stores and hotel check ins.
4) Medical Knowledge
Medicines that can only be obtained at great cost and by prescription in the US are often readily and cheaply available over the counter in other parts of the world. This ranges from Flagyl to rabies vaccines. What you cannot readily obtain is the knowledge of when and how to employ these options. Before we set out to hike we got Wilderness First Responder certified, and enlisted the help of a friend who is a medical professional to advise us when illness arises.
Again, expensive and complicated from the US. But after a few years of hiking abroad we learned that it is cheap and easy to get our phones unlocked at a kiosk in a large international city, then we buy chips for our phones in each new country that provide a set amount of gigs and easy connectivity from the field. They are easy to recharge for periods ranging from one day to one week for less than a dollar a day. This makes accessing Google Maps easy, which is a valuable resource when arriving to and navigating a foreign city, comparing lodging options, etc.
I also recommend getting WhatsApp on your phone, as this is one of the most prevalent and cheapest forms of contact internationally, is usually unlimited on phone plans, and is the first form of messaging to go through when signal strength is weak.
International backpacking is a wonderful way to see the world and experience it from a different angle than most tourists. Accepting that you will still be regarded as a tourist and therefore relatively wealthy means making some changes to how you do things. But if you plan ahead, stay aware, and take precautions, it can be a much safer and more comfortable experience than you might think.
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