There’s nothing more adventurous than stuffing your life into a backpack and stepping out into the big wide world.
Solo backpacking has been a rite of passage for young people since the hippie trail weaved its way from Western Europe to Southeast Asia back in the sixties. Since then solo backpackers have explored every corner of the globe, following the gringo trail in South America, travelling from Cape Town to Cairo in Africa, and leaving footprints in all of the most out-of-the-way parts of the world.
In this article we’ll be taking a look at how to plan for such an adventure, using one such out-of-the-way place, New Zealand, as a guide.
Planning your Solo Backpacking Trip
Planning prevents p*ss-poor performance might be a business creed, but it is equally true for solo backpacking.
Backpacking planning is slightly different than that of other modes of travel. You want the flexibility to be a plastic bag in the breeze, following new friends to an exciting destination, or staying at a place you love. Planning for solo backpacking is therefore less about hard dates and destinations than it is about being ready for anything.
A Backpacker Budget
Backpacking has always been an exercise in getting maximum adventure from minimum spend. So, what’s your budget? A good way to work that out is to:
- Pre-purchase the main parts of your trip (return flights, organised tours, etc.)
- Put aside money for emergencies; this should be enough to get you home on the next flight if need be.
- Calculate your daily budget by dividing the rest of your funds by the amount of days you plan to travel (remembering some larger expenses will arise from time to time).
Use an online budget calculator tool for help with this.
A Basic Route
While booking a one way ticket is tempting, you’ll often need to prove that you’ve got a ticket back home in order to enter a country. It’s wise to book a return flight—no matter where it might be from—and form a basic route in between, to give yourself a basic plan and a sense of purpose.
An Important Document Folder
You need to ensure that all your important documents—tickets, bookings, insurance, visas, copies of your passport—are easily accessible. Print out hard copies, save them on a USB, store them on your email, or do all three.
A Packing List for a Solo Trip
How does packing for a solo adventure differ from packing for a normal trip? You’ll need to entertain yourself, protect yourself and (perhaps) shelter yourself, so consider packing things like:
- Books or an e-reader
- A diary or sketch book
- Single player games
- A swiss army knife
- Self-protection such as pepper spray (if it helps to make you more comfortable)
- Camping gear
Solo Travel Inspiration
A Reliable Source of Information
Check your government’s travel advice before you book your trip and again before you get on the plane. Continue to check it as you move from country to country. The world can be a volatile place, so you need to ensure you’re prepared for whatever it throws at you, giving yourself the option to avoid unpleasant situations if needed. Below are links to official travel advisory websites:
Is it safe to go backpacking alone in New Zealand (or anywhere else)?
Is it safe? This will inevitably be the very first question you’ll be asked when you announce your solo adventure.
To confidently answer that question, your first port of call will be your government’s travel advice website. Many developing countries will be marked yellow or with a message that says ‘exercise caution’. If there’s no specific reason outlined for this classification, it can generally be interpreted as ‘you’ll be fine if you don’t act stupidly’. In these instances, it’s wise to get advice from locals on where to go, what to avoid and how to act.
Developed countries like New Zealand, meanwhile, will be marked green or “safe”. Trouble will usually only find you if you actively look for it. That said, it’s obviously still wise to exercise a healthy degree of caution, by:
- Keeping valuables hidden/locked away
- Asking locals for advice and avoiding bad areas
- Reading the reviews of hostels, tour operators and transport companies
- Not getting too inebriated
- Travelling with others where possible
It’s long been presumed that solo backpacking is more dangerous for women than it is for men. This is a myth. As long as due diligence is conducted and risky situations are avoided, a woman will be every bit as safe as a man.
Why is New Zealand the best place for solo travellers?
There is a reason why we keep coming back to New Zealand in this article. It is an absolutely stunning country to explore, and its combination of safety, friendliness and strong tourist infrastructure makes it a breeze to travel for those going it alone. Getting from A to B is easy on Intercity buses, although you may need to hire a car if you want to go off the beaten track.
Natural beauty is New Zealand’s major drawcard, but solo travellers need to be mindful that hiking the wilderness is risky alone; the terrain is often tricky and the weather can turn in an instant. If you can’t find someone to join you on a hike, make sure you tell people where you’re going and when you expect to be back, and always carry a charged phone on you (although keep in mind that some parts of the wilderness won’t have reception.)
What specifically draws solo backpackers to New Zealand? Let’s take a look at what three of New Zealand’s hottest hot spots offer.
Solo Travel in Queenstown
The adventure-sports capital of the country — and arguably the world — Queenstown is a small city of 15,000, nestled amongst stunning mountains and on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. As New Zealand’s most famous destination, solo travellers will be surrounded by fellow backpackers looking to enjoy the delights of the city, including these attractions.
Best things to do in Queenstown as a Solo Backpacker:
- The Remarkables: The name doesn’t lie. The Remarkables are exactly that—amongst the most spectacular ski fields in the world, replete with white powder during winter.
- Lake Wakatipu: Originally carved by glaciers, this Lake is ideal for hikes, picnics and watersports.
- Adventure sports: Sky-diving, bungee jumping, paragliding, a 300m swing; if you like the taste of adrenaline, Queenstown is the place to be.
Solo Travel in Christchurch
The South Island’s largest city, Christchurch is a flat, open, green city that has managed to overcome its fair share of hardships. Christchurch was long known for its heritage buildings, but after a succession of earthquakes in the early 2010s it pivoted, rebranding itself as ‘the world’s newest city’. Today you can expect funky architecture, street art, and a vibey, fun culture—perfect for a solo traveller. Be sure to check these out.
Best things to do in Christchurch as a Solo Backpacker:
- Christchurch Botanic Gardens: Full of local and exotic plants, this is the very best place to read that book, work on those drawings or write in that journal.
- International Antarctic Centre: Visit Antarctica without having to visit Antarctica at this fascinating, and very hands-on, educational centre.
- Willowbank Wildlife Reserve: Meet native New Zealand animals and learn a little about Maori culture at Christchurch’s most popular nature park.
Solo Travel in Wellington
The Kiwi capital is the ideal place for solo visitors to get to know the real New Zealand. A city of 400,000, a young population is drawn in by a number of prestigious universities, and food and wine are taken very seriously—if you’re looking for the finest local fare, this is where to go.
Best things to do in Wellington as a Solo Backpacker:
- Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa: The national museum gives solo travellers a crash course in New Zealand’s incredible history and culture.
- ZEALANDIA Ecosanctuary: See New Zealand as it used to be at ZEALANDIA, a sanctuary loaded with native birds, plants and trees.
- The Weta Cave: While The Lord of the Rings might’ve put it on the map, New Zealand boasts a long and proud film history, as seen at The Weta Cave special effects studio.
How do I make friends backpacking alone?
Solo travel offers the ultimate freedom, but from time to time it can get lonely. So how do you meet people while backpacking?
- You’re not alone: Firstly it’s important to note that solo backpacking is wildly popular. That means that every bus you take, hostel you stay at and attraction you visit will have solo travellers just like you!
- Make yourself available: Choose a dorm bed over a private. Relax in hostel common areas rather than on your bed. Take a group walking tour rather than exploring alone.
- Settle down for a while: It can be hard to make connections when you’re staying in a city for a night or two. If you like where you are, why not hang around for a week, and use the time to get to know people?
- Be the instigator: Ask people if you can sit with them. Hand out snacks in the hostel common room. Send out requests on travel networks like Couchsurfing.
- Say YES: There are always a million reasons not to do it. But all you need is one reason to say yes; to the dinner invite, to the night out, or to the day trip.
Tips for your first solo backpacking trip
What else should a solo backpacker know? To round this article out, let’s take a look at a few handy hints for those going it alone.
- Choose your backpack wisely: Make sure the size is right, and load it with weight before you buy to ensure that it’s comfortable when full.
- Get comprehensive insurance: Spending a couple of hundred dollars extra now could save you tens of thousands later.
- Update friends and family: Keep your loved ones up to date on your movements and future plans.
- Ask locals, not Google: The best experiences are those that are truly unique—i.e. the ones that don’t show up on page one of Google. Ask locals for their recommendations instead.
- Stay in smaller dorms: Big hostel dorms might be cheap, but they’re also impersonal. You’re far more likely to chat to bunk mates in a four or six bed dorm!
- Use ride-hailing apps: Hailing a ride on the street is risky. Always book transport ahead, and ideally use an app like Uber that tracks the entire trip.
Check out this vlog from Allison Anderson with some great tips for solo travellers.
The world is ready for you to explore it. Whether your destination is New Zealand or elsewhere, there’s nothing quite like blazing your own path.
Solo backpacking can be an exciting, challenging and liberating experience. And by following the advice above, you’ll be doing all that you can to ensure yours is exactly that.