Backpacking & beyond

Advice on how to budget and plan for a successful backpacking trip

Rowena Selby, the QUIC’s education abroad advisor, counsels students throughout the year in travel planning.
Rowena Selby, the QUIC’s education abroad advisor, counsels students throughout the year in travel planning.

Backpacking, the art of living off only what one can carry, is a common experience for many university students, especially those hoping to occupy themselves with something other than a summer job.

Emre Amasyali, ArtSci ’11, said he backpacked through Europe the summer following his high school graduation.

“I started in Istanbul, went to Greece, crossed with a boat to Italy, from Italy then to south of France, then we ended up in Spain, then we took a cheap charter flight from Spain to Greece and actually hitchhiked all the way back [to Istanbul],” he said.

Amasyali said he set off with a budget of 700 to 800€ that included his food, which was to cover grocery-bought items such as tuna, bread and canned goods—lodging and extra spending money. His additional expenses included an Inter-rail pass that cost 469€.

When he hitched a ride back from Greece to Turkey, Amasyali said he rode with Turkish truck drivers because his train ticket had expired.

“We took a boat from Brindisi in Italy to Igoumenitsa in Greece and we were stuck there because our train tickets had expired,” he said. “We set up our tent by the dock and decided to wait for the trucks to unload from the boats in the morning, hoping to see a Turkish truck.

“We woke up at five in the morning and started waving a Turkish flag,” he said. “Eventually two trucks stopped and agreed to take us to Tsaloniki in Greece. … They ended up driving us all the way to Istanbul, about a 25 hour drive.”

Amasyali and his companions couldn’t find a hotel in Nice, so they ended up sleeping on the beach.

“It was pleasant until a rat ran over our sleeping bags,” he said.

To avoid unfortunate encounters, Amasyali said organizing a successful trip not only requires extensive planning but starting out with a rough idea of what you’d like to experience when you go travelling.

“The important thing is laying out what you want to experience beforehand with your group mates,” he said. “What do you want to do here? Do you want to have a random experience? Do you want to experience the country? Go into random places and shops? Meet people? Or do you want to go the museums and stay in nice places and don’t get your hands messy?”

Denise Johnson, a travel consultant with the Travel Broker & Cruise Centre, a Kingston-based travel agency, said determining the type of experience desired is crucial in planning a rewarding trip.

“Students should start planning about a year in advance,” she said. “By that I mean find the destinations they want, find out what they want to see in those destinations.”

Students travelling during the summer, the high tourist season in Europe, should arrange travel and accommodations early, Johnson said.

“If they are planning on doing it anytime through June to the beginning of school in September, they want to at least plan six to eight months prior,” she said.

Even though it’s already spring, Johnson said it’s not too late for students to organize a summer backpacking trip now. They will need to devote substantial time and effort to organizing the trip, though.

A helpful resource at Queen’s, is the Queen’s University International Centre (QUIC).

Rowena Selby, the QUIC’s education abroad advisor, counsels students throughout the year in travel planning. She said most Queen’s students are heading to Europe.

“We have a lot of students leaving Queen’s on all sorts of different trips,” she said. “Study, work, volunteer opportunities. … Every year, the largest amounts of students are still going to Europe, whether that’s on exchange, or to the castle or summer backpacking.”

Selby said throughout the year, the QUIC gives pre-departure orientation sessions to all undergraduate students going travelling.

“We give information on travel logistics, health and safety, concerns abroad, and then we talk to students about the emergency support programs here at Queen’s,” she said.

Selby said backpacking through Europe is an expensive endeavor. She added that students should be aware that expenses can add up—even when pursuing an economical backpacking trip.

“I’ve met many students who have tried, through Europe, to keep it to a $50 a day budget,” she said. “That’s pushing it, but it’s possible. Then transportation is generally on top of that. You’ve got your youth hostel, which is going to be minimum $30, and you’ve got to eat, and buy subway tickets and pick up little things in between. $50-a-day is not much, really.”

Students should also balance their expectations with their budget before embarking on a European backpacking trip, Selby said.

“This is perhaps maybe the only time in your life you are going to be in Spain or Italy or Australia and you want to go bungee jumping and skydiving and white water rafting because you may never ever get the chance in your life again,” she said. “I’ve done it myself, I know that need. These are very special experiences we are talking about. The thing is they are very expensive.”

Selby said it’s important for students to be realistic and strict about their budget. Having the necessary visas and vaccinations are also imperative for a smooth backpacking experience.

“Whether you’re a Canadian or from another country, how to get into the different countries needs to be looked at quite a while in advance,” she said. “You need to look into whether you need vaccinations at all,” she said. “Some places, particularly in southern Europe, students may need vaccinations to go to certain areas.”

Despite the extensive planning and budgeting required, Selby urges travelers to take time to relax while travelling.

“To me, real travel, real backpacking travel, is about taking your time in a city and walking through the beautiful streets.

“Sure you can go to 14 different cities in 14 different days, but you will have hardly seen anything.”

Pack smart, pack light

Here are some essential items you should take with you
when backpacking:

Photocopies of your passport, itinerary and other
important documents

Every backpacker should make two copies of his/her passport and itinerary before leaving. One copy should be left at home and the other should be kept in his/her backpack—but not the passport itself—while traveling. Travelers who have a photocopy of their passport will obtain a replacement more easily in the event that it is lost or stolen.


Depending on how long you travel for, having the right clothing is part of the challenge of packing light. Due to the
ever-changing weather conditions, it’s better to layer clothing than pack bulky warm items. It’s also important to avoid white clothing—it won’t stay that way for long. In terms of clothing, a good starting place would be a pair of pants with plenty of pockets, a long sleeve shirt or sweater, two t-shirts (one to travel in, one to sleep in), a bathing suit, in case you plan on going swimming, roughly five pairs of underwear and socks and finally, proper footwear since you’ll be doing a lot of walking. To maximize space and avoid wrinkling, be sure to roll your clothing into tight tubes.

First aid kit

In the case of blisters, minor cuts and scratches, it’s far more convenient to reach into one’s backpack than hobble around in search of a drugstore. Some anti-septic and band-aids won’t take up too much room in your backpack.

Because you’ll likely be spending a lot of time outdoors, it may be a good idea to pack some Advil or Tylenol to fight off headaches or muscle pain. If you have prescription medication, make sure you stock up on it before you leave on your trip.

Sewing kit

Threads and buttons tend to come loose with excessive walking and clothes washing. Backpackers should keep a mini-sewing kit with a basic sewing needle, thread, safety pins, buttons and a couple clothes patches.Duct tape is also a good thing to have, in case something other than your clothes starts falling apart.

Eating utensils

You could be doing a lot of your own cooking, so it’s important to pack a spoon, fork and knife. It’s also beneficial to pack a Swiss army knife.

Water bottle

Because you’ll be on the go a lot, it’s a good idea to pack a re-useable water bottle to avoid making any
unnecessary purchases.


Because you may find it hard to bathe frequently while backpacking, baby wipes can be used to remain hygienic and wipe up any unfortunate spills. A toothbrush and a combination shampoo-body wash are pack essentials, along with sunscreen and a sarong—which can serve as a dressing gown, sheet or
beach towel.


Fast-drying towels are now available at most wilderness sports and travel stores. These towels are a must-have for anyone who is continuously on the move.

Sleeping bag and mini flashlight

Traveling in and out of different time zones will inevitably lead to some sleepless nights. Be sure to pack a comfortable sleeping bag that can be rolled up tightly. Travelers should also keep a penlight or headlamp handy so they can catch up on some reading while their hostel-mates snooze.

Entertainment and technology

Because a lot of your trip will involve sitting on planes, trains, buses or boats, it’s a good idea to bring a book and a small deck of cards with you to pass the time. Although not necessary, you can bring a personal music player to soothe yourself to sleep, a digital camera to document your travels and a watch to act as an alarm clock and a way of sticking to
your itinerary. A small calculator could also be helpful in ensuring you keep to your budget.

The Lonely Planet guidebooks

Often referred to as the “backpacker’s bibles,” these guidebooks are filled with information on inexpensive places to eat, visit and stay. Lonely Planet is invaluable to any student traveler wanting to experience Europe. Look for their “on a shoestring,” guides for budget-friendly tips.

—Madison Bettle, Rebecca Cheung and Angela Hickman

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