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Items not to Forget when traveling or Backpacking in a Foreign Country

Updated on December 24, 2012

What are you forgetting before you go backpacking overseas?

Recently, I spent 2 months backpacking in South America. If you have never traveled like this you will discover that the preparation for such a trip is the most difficult part. There are suggested travel lists available for what you should pack. I brought all of those things. But when traveling in foreign countries (particularly third world countries) you find yourself facing circumstances that you just are not prepared for.

I have been to South America twice. The first time I brought iodine tablets, a first aid kit and military grade mosquito repellant. The second time I traveled, I brought items that were not on any of my lists, but were much more useful.

Head Torch

Something you may not consider is that electricity does not abound in some countries the way it does in the U.S. Two days after arriving in Bolivia I found myself traveling on an overnight bus... and I had to pee. Fortunately, the bus was equipped with an airplane-style laboratory. But to my dismay, there were no lights on the bus or in the toilet. As the bus bumped around I was peeing in pitch darkness just hoping I wouldn't have to spend the rest of the trip drenched in my own urine.

A flashlight would have come in handy. But having a flashlight strapped to my head would have been more handy. (Have you ever tried the "hover pee" on a bumpy bus with only one free hand?) I also spent many nights in hostels that only kept the lights on during meals. After lights out I impatiently waited for sleep to come while my roommate read a book using her head torch. Early in the morning fellow travelers used the straps to hang the lights in the showers. Then they used them as flashlights go through their toiletry bags or find the clothes they wanted to wear. I fumbled in the dark through the entire process.

I bought a headlamp as soon as I got home to use on my next trip. But the greatest thing about these little gadgets is that they are also very useful at home. Since I've returned from Peru I have used it to dig through boxes in the garage, hose down dirty stuff in the backyard when it was dark and even once during a power outage. The hands-free nature of this thing makes it worth every penny.

When it comes down to purchasing a headlamp or peeing on yourself in a foreign country, I think the light wins.


Potosí, Bolivia
Potosí, Bolivia

Dioxin can help Altitude Sickness so you don't miss Machu Picchu!

Me in Machu Picchu, NOT SICK
Me in Machu Picchu, NOT SICK

Altitude Sickness

I kind of remember someone warning me about "a little altitude sickness" before I departed to Bolivia. People had said that when I moved to Denver as well and I never got sick there. The difference is, Denver is about 5,200 feet above sea level while Bolivia is about 12,000 feet. Everyone I met had gotten sick or became sick while I was traveling with them.

They tell you that the cure for altitude sickness is to "take it easy". The problem is that if you are roughing it in a third world country, that is not always possible. Bolivia is just not Denver. Meanwhile, the effects of altitude sickness are understated. It basically boils down to diarrhea cramps combined with "need-to-vomit cramps" and a full body ache. Don't think for a second that the diarrhea/ vomit cramps can be fixed by evacuation. Nope, you won't be able to "go" to make yourself feel better.

The good news is that altitude sickness generally only lasts for one day. The bad news is that I got it on one of the 3 days I was 4 wheeling through the Uyuni Salt Flats. A bumpy 4WD all day ride is not the way to "take it easy" during a bout of illness. You can read more about altitude sickness but that is all for my clinical explanation.

Before I went on my second trip I talked to my mother who is a medical professional. She was able to procure a prescription for Diamox for me. Now, no one offered me Diamox even while I was being prescribed malaria pills and getting inoculated for yellow fever. You will probably have to ask your doctor for it. On my trip to Peru several people became ill and one person in my group was unable to go to Machu Picchu because of altitude sickness. You do not want to go to Peru and miss Machu Picchu. Forget Malaria pills and iodine tablets, get your hands on some Diamox!

For more of all the amazing stuff I have to say about this, check out Diamox is for Altitude Sickness on my blog.

Pay to Pee!

Of the Toilet, Pay to Mr. Sapo!
Of the Toilet, Pay to Mr. Sapo!

Budget for Weird and Unplanned Travel Expenses

If you are backpacking you may want to do some research and adjust your budget for photos and toilet stops. This is something I really did not anticipate. In Bolivia is I was charged to use the toilets. Generally, the toilets did not flush or have a seat and were sometimes just a hole in the ground. Nevermind that, you pay to pee. In Bolivia it was between 1-3 Bolivianos to use the restroom which adds up to about 30 cents USD. However, I pee kind of a lot and they usually need exact change.

Something else to note is that toilet paper may or may not be provided. The second time I went I made a "toilet kit" to carry in my backpack. In it I kept small change, travel tissues, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer. The second trip was much more comfortable.

Picture budget? Yes! Occasionally you may want to take a picture with a local, or have them take a picture for you. A lot of times they will offer. But sometimes they expect to be paid for this. Ask them before the picture is taken how much they are going to charge for this service.

It is impossible to plan your budget for every unforeseen expense. It may help to speak to some people who have been to the countries you are visiting to get a good idea about the hidden expenses you may run into. These are things that former travelers will know about but forget to mention.

Sunglasses, Hat, Sunscreen

The Sun will get you faster than the mosquitoes.
The Sun will get you faster than the mosquitoes.

Protect yourself from the Sun while Traveling

Something I did not even consider is that I was going to be south of the equator. Buenos Aires was a scorching 100 degrees in the middle of January.

This may sound dumb, but bring sunglass. I actually did bring sunglasses because I am from Las Vegas and they are a necessity here anyway. Unfortunately, I lost them on the first day because I am such a travel rockstar. I was unable to find sunglasses until the last 3 days of the trip. You will be happy to know they were fake Gucci sunglasses and I bought them off the street for ten dollars. And I felt lucky!

For the month previous I had used a hat. I suggest you bring one of those as well. And sunscreen, why not? Don't skimp out on small things and assume you can purchase them when you get there. In the case of sunglass and hats, they were difficult to find. In the case of sunscreen, it is very expensive in South America.

A great jacket is worth the money when you travel!

What should I wear Backpacking?

In light of what I just wrote above this will sound contradictory. However, when you are moving across a continent the weather does tend to vary a lot. Also, if you are backpacking you are going to want to travel light. In order to prepare for all weather conditions spend money on a really cool jacket. My jacket had a zip-out fleece with a waterproof exterior. It could be used as a fleece, a cold weather jacket or a raincoat. They all packed up nicely together. Fantastic!

As far as other items, expect them to get lost. Don't bring anything you can't afford to lose. I bought 5 plain (cheap) t-shirts and 3 tank tops. I packed them in individual Ziploc bags with a pair of socks and underwear. I only brought 2 pairs of jeans. By smashing the air out of the plastic bags I saved room in my bag and took the headache out of digging for things. This is also how I simplified my packing process to such an extent that "diva-girl" with a 50LB bag went to "backpack girl" with a 20LB bag. (Really helps when you know you will be lugging all your stuff around yourself.)

As far as miscellaneous things go: I brought a belt which I wore every day. Nothing fancy but it came in handy. I bought a belt case for my camera and always had it with me when I needed it.

Most of us rely on our cell phones to tell time. I highly recommend leaving the cell phone behind and experiencing the freedom of not having one with you. Instead, I brought a dual time watch so I knew what time it was at home in addition to where I was. My husband was none too happy with my 3am phone call from Lima!

That being said, if you want to stay connected I would bring something small and light such as an iPad or other (wifi enabled) tablet. My iPad was much easier to lug around than the bulky laptops everyone else was lugging around. If you don't have the means to purchase a tablet device remember that most hostels will have a computer that you can use and there are plenty of internet cafes available where you can borrow a computer for cheap.

Children will Appreciate Small Gifts

Potosí, Bolivia
Potosí, Bolivia

Carry gifts from your home Country while you Travel or Backpack

My original trip was going to be to Cuba. I read somewhere that it is customary there to give a small gift to everyone you meet. Since I am from Las Vegas I went down and bought keychains and pencils and other trinkets. When the trip to Cuba fell through I brought them with me to Bolivia anyway. I was actually able to use these items to barter in the markets!

Mostly, I gave the items away for free to local children that I met. The most popular items with the children were pencils and erasers. This is fantastic because you can literally carry a ton of these around in your bag/ purse so you have them on hand all the time. They especially appreciated metallic colored pencils and erasers that were in fun shapes. It feels good to be able to give away such small items and see how appreciative the children are to receive them.

I still wish that I had brought a small map so that I could show the kids where in the world the U.S. was located. Many of them didn't know and were very curious about where I came from. This is why I also carried postcards around like photos to show them.

Be careful, though! if you are going to hand out free stuff you want to make sure there is enough to go around. If you can't give something to each child then save the items for later.

Converters! Buy Good Ones!

Don't even ask why, just purchase these purple converters on the right. These were the best purchase I made before my departure. The silly little purple converters were much lighter and less bulky than everyone else's and they never malfunctioned. People who spent a ton on bulky converters were asking to borrow these from me.

Take note also that you will need to use special hair dryers/ flat irons, etc that are capable of converting the voltage. (I'm talking to you, divas! Ever seen a hair dryer explode?) Do you really want to bring your Chi flat iron with you anyway? No, no you don't. Search for "dual voltage 120v-240v" items. Also check to be sure that your computer, camera and other electronics can handle that kind of voltage as well. (Usually they can.)

I picked this "Eco Gold Ceramic Flat Iron" because it was the best I could find. Now, this thing is not high quality, but it did get the job done and the price was right. I would never use this for travel within the U.S. or at home. However, it reasonably tamed my hair and did not explode on me... like the blow dryer did. Besides, I was wearing a hat most of the time anyway.

If you do happen to find an excellent hair dryer or better flat iron available for purchase that is 120v-220v capable for sale in the U.S. I welcome you to post a link and a review in the comments section.

There is no "Personal Bubble"

Me, being mobbed by children in Lake Titicaca
Me, being mobbed by children in Lake Titicaca

Backpacking and Personal Space

How can I say this gently? People in some countries have not adopted the American "personal bubble" idea regarding space. What I mean is, people will get close to you. They are perfectly comfortable doing so and it may make you uncomfortable. Unfortunately, you will need to get over that because it is a cultural thing. Your main concern should really be protecting yourself from pick-poceters.

I don't have to tell you to get a travel wallet. I'm sure you have already thought of that. But backpackers. Well, we have backpacks. You will find yourself standing in lines while crossing borders, in bus stations, in airport security, etc. And someone is going to be all up on you from behind. This made me uncomfortable because it was so easy to get into my backpack.

Your travel guide will tell you to wear the backpack in the front. You know, so the random strangers can be all up on your back. This is way more uncomfortable and made me think that perhaps being robbed was a better alternative. I have a solution for that tough, backpack locks! They are small and dumb, but they secure your belongings while you are in a crowded situation. Plus, look at them! They come in colors and are all cute and stuff. Awesome, fashionable and you don't have to carry your backpack in front of you like a weirdo!

Considering you should carry all of your important items in your backpack, the locks are worth the small investment. Make sure and keep a toothbrush and other hygeine items in your bag because you may want to brush your teeth or freshen up on that layover or after an overnight bus ride.

One more bit of advice: Don't assume that because you locked your bag it is safe. The TSA will search your bag at the airport and confiscate anything they choose. I spent $300 replacing my makeup bag when I returned to the U.S. from Buenos Aires. Another tip: if you are riding a bus, don't get on the bus until you see your bag get on the bus.

Safe and Comfortable Backpacking

Hopefully I have covered some stuff that you have not thought about and it will make your backpacking trip safer and more comfortable. Venturing into a new country (or several) is a little daunting at first. However, once you get the hang of it you will be aching to do it again and again. Happy travels, dear readers!

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    • KathyH profile image

      KathyH 5 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

      VERY interesting Hub, with some terrific advice! :) Voted up, useful, awesome and interesting! I wouldn't say I've ever been to a foreign country, because Hawaii doesn't COUNT as one! :) :) But you do give some great advice here if I ever decide to give it a whirl!

    • jacqui2011 profile image

      jacqui2011 5 years ago from Leicester, United Kingdom

      Great article and some great tips here. The headlamp is a great idea, and has so many uses. Voted up - useful/interesting.

    • danielmcbane profile image

      Daniel McBane 4 years ago from Berlin

      One thing about the pens--people have been doing that so much that kids in some countries( Nepal, India for example) have started begging for pens instead of money because they know they're more likely to be successful. Then they turn around and sell the pens; or more accurately, the organized crime ring forcing them to collect pens from tourists turn around and sell the pens. And they sell them to........those very same tourists.

    • Kasio Martin profile image
      Author

      Kasio Martin 4 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

      Interesting... I'd like to hear more about that, Daniel. How do you sell a pen or pencil to a tourist? I would not buy a Las Vegas sparkle pencil or pen in another country when I have plenty of access to things like that at home for much less.

    • dommcg profile image

      dommcg 4 years ago

      Hi Kasio, some excellent tips, whenever i travel i take candles and matches as i've been in so many situations when there have been power cuts in the middle of nowhere and you are stranded in pitch darkness. A headlamp is also a necessity. voted up, many thanks

    • aboutaustralia profile image

      aboutaustralia 4 years ago from Newcastle, New South Wales

      Safe and comfortable is definitely the way to go. Thanks for a great hub. I thought some of your readers might like to know that you don't have to 'pay to pee' in Australia ;) LOL. There's also an article here if anyone's interested about getting a working holiday visa for Australia http://www.workingholidayaustraliainfo.com/working...

    • travelholidays profile image

      travelholidays 4 years ago from India

      Hi "Kasio Martin " . Very informative hub, The head lamp image is interesting :) What about energy drinks and ATM cards and related?

    • scraw profile image

      sean crawford 4 years ago from los angeles

      Hello, I use to live in Denver and never had altitude sickness only dry throat. Bolivia on the other hand is higher up like you say and will cause problems. I want to go backpacking in this country and will need certain travel gear, the main thing for me is a good internal backpack with camping gear for long hikes. You have experience in this department

    • profile image

      greeneyedblondie 3 years ago

      I've been up to 11,000 feet before without being sick, should I still bring those medicines you were talking about?

    • Kasio Martin profile image
      Author

      Kasio Martin 3 years ago from Las Vegas, Nevada

      Hi Green Eye,

      Getting medication is a personal choice. However, if you do get sick it will be "doubled over" pain for a couple of days. It is up to you to decide if a couple of days of vacation time is worth the risk :) Thanks for reading!

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