Inspirations,  Travel Tips

3 Things I Wish I Knew Before My First Solo Backpacking Trip

When I set out for my first solo backpacking trip in 2013, I could have never imagined just how much it would change the course of my life. 

I never imagined that I would become a dive professional and end up staying in SE Asia.  I would have never believed that I could actually get paid to do what I love doing!   

But after 6 years of traveling, the amazing experiences were countered by some important lessons.   Afterall, traveling is just a part of life filled with mistakes and lessons learned. 

I share with you the top 3 things I learned from my 6 years of traveling so that these don’t have to make your list 😉

Mo at fruit market

#1:  Get a good camera and take a lot of photos

I am from a generation that took photos with films and waited a week to get them developed before we can see the final product (does that give away my age?!).

In my day, we used to carry disposable cameras on vacations and it was not until I was in college that the digital cameras were introduced.  

I still remember seeing my brother’s Sony’s compact digital camera for the first time, which was 3 megapixels in its initial edition!

So unlike many millennials and subsequent generations who were born with digital gadgets in their hands, all these advanced technologies (cameras, editing software, social media, etc) were new and foreign concepts to me. 

So when it came time to embark on my solo backpacking journey, I had no experience with digital cameras.

But at the time, taking quality photos was not a priority for me because the idea of blogging was not even in my purview.  I just wanted to take simple, easy photos to share with my family and friends.    It was more of a necessity than a desire.

Plus I had always been the type of person who despised selfies.   To me, it occurred narcissistic and unnatural.  I couldn’t get the hype of selfie sticks, and posing for my own photos. 

Thus when I began my travels, I departed with my iPhone 4 (remember those back in 2013?), and Olympus Tough 3G which was waterproof.   The Olympus Tough was a point-and-shoot camera with simple automatic settings.  And it would allow me to go diving (up to 12m) with it.  I was all set!

Since I was traveling solo, I took mostly scenic photos of towns, villages, landscapes and underwater life.  And occasionally, I would capture the friendly faces of friends I met along the way.  At the time, it was everything I needed.  

Some photos I took during my first solo backpacking trip:
solo backpacking: palawan
El Nido, Philippines
Solo backpacking trip: Laos
Nong Khiaw, Laos
solo backpacking: Sumatra Indonesia
Sumatra, Indonesia
solo backpacking trip: sipadan Malaysia
Sipadan, Malaysia

Fast forward 6 years.  

I’m going through my google drive of all my travel photos to share on this site.   Sadly, 70% are crap.   Most of my pictures suffer from lack of context (depth, frame, and angle), shaky hands, exposure problems or photobombing by tourists.  

Plus the photos I took with my iPhone 4 were 5 megapixels, which was groundbreaking at the time but not good enough quality to use on websites and blog posts now. 

So after traveling for 6 years and having been to some stunning destinations, I don’t have enough quality photos to show for it.   

So my lesson and tip are this:

Get a decent camera, and if possible, learn how to use it before your trip.   Learn a bit about photography and don’t get shy about being in your own photos. 

And document your trip with your photos, whether with an Instagram account or a blog to showcase your amazing adventures.  

I regret that I didn’t take enough quality photos during my solo backpacking journey, and occasionally capture myself in some of the incredible destinations I visited.   

Don’t make the same mistake I did.  Grab a quality camera and snap away!

Mo with backpack and daypack
One of the rare selfies I took with my iPhone 4

#2:  Pack LESS than what you think you will need

When you start planning your first solo backpacking trip, you are excited, unsure of what you will need, and inevitably pack your entire closet and bathroom. 

My solo backpacking trip to SE Asia was planned for 6 months, and I packed a 45L backpack and a 20L daypack to full capacity when I started traveling (in my photo above).   However, I soon realized a few things:

  • Most hostels provide basic body soap and shampoo.  You really don’t need to carry your own.

    Plus whatever toiletry or pharmacy items you need are available abroad, and most of the time they are even cheaper (especially in SE Asia)

  • It was so humid and hot in SE Asia that I didn’t bother wearing any make-up.  I ditched my makeup kit a few weeks into my trip.  Due to the tropical weather, my hair was up in a ponytail or a bun 95% of the time, so hair products were not needed either.

  • Laundry is available in almost all the hostels, and I could easily wash my underwear in a sink. I didn’t need half the wardrobe I prepared for.

  • Since my iPad mini could download a Kindle app, I didn’t need to carry both an iPad and a kindle. I sent my kindle back home to my family.

Unless you are a social media influencer and content creator, you don’t carry a suitcase full of dresses, accessories and make-up bags.  

If you read other travel bloggers’ tips on how to pack, they always tell you to pack less.  Never more. 

After learning my lesson, I created a packing guide to help women pack better than I did!  Check out the Packing Essentials checklist for a list of basic items you will need for your solo backpacking trip. 

#3:  Don’t give too much weight to other people’s reviews. 

What was planned as a 6-month solo backpacking trip in SE Asia  turned into 10 months in a  blink of an eye.   I never felt ready to go home.

I kept wanting to travel more, see more and do more.  

However, one place I intentionally avoided visiting was Vietnam.  

solo backpacking trip: floating market in Vietnam
Floating market on Mekong River in Vietnam

If you have been following my blogs, one of the things you may know about me by now is that I am OCD when it comes to researching.  

I am obsessed with reading news, reviews and posts about a destination, activity or restaurant before I go, just so that I can be prepared for whatever is to come.

When I was traveling through SE Asia, I had met countless people who had visited Vietnam and LOVED it.   But I also met just as many people who told me to stay away.

When it comes to Vietnam, the online world was filled with reports of god-awful experiences, including posts shared by “reputable” travel bloggers such as Nomadic Matt and Alex in Wanderland whose blogs I read regularly.

As a woman traveling solo for the first time, I felt apprehensive about going to Vietnam and exposing myself to potential trauma.   I was having such an amazing time that I didn’t want to ruin my solo trip experience.   So during my entire journey, I stayed away from Vietnam.

Then in 2017, after having spent a few years in SE Asia and feeling somewhat more confident in my “survival skills” abroad, I decided to give Vietnam a chance.   After all, Vietnamese food is one of my all-time favorite foods, and I’ve been dying to try the real thing.

On a 3-day motorcycle tour from Saigon to Dalat

I booked a trip to South Vietnam for a 2-week journey from Saigon (Ho Chi Minh) to Dalat. 

Wanna know what happened?  

I had the time of my life!

My trip went without a hitch, and I did not experience anything remotely similar to what other travelers had reported.  And the food, of course, was to die for.   

After my 2-week trip quickly came to an end, I vowed to return to Vietnam and continue exploring the north on my next journey.

This is what I learned:

Distinguish between news (that are factual) and reviews (that are opinions)

Of course, when traveling solo, you need to remain informed of certain news such as weather, political unrest or natural disasters.

But there are a ton of reviews out there that are nothing more than expressions of a person’s experiences.   These are not factual, but rather an opinion or judgment based on someone’s interpretation of events.  While these events may happen to some, it may or may not happen to YOU.

I am SO glad that I finally gathered my courage to visit Vietnam.  My personal experience was far from the negative reviews I had heard and read about.

If I can leave you with a lesson, it is to design your own journey and story.   Don’t let other people’s bad experiences keep you from exploring and creating your OWN.

In the end, even the crappiest moments turn out to be great stories you tell years later, when you walk down the memory lane and narrate your life’s great adventures.

What are some of the lessons you learned from your travels? Share in the comments below!
3 Things I Wish I Knew Before My Solo Trip #solotravel #solofemaletravel #solotrip #traveltips #backpacking #backpackingtip

10 Comments

  • Jessica Festa

    Yes to #1! When I first started traveling I didn’t bring a camera or phone — not even to study abroad! I always tell stories and I’m like “Let me see if I have a phot….oh wait.” I think it’s good to bring the camera/phone but also to make sure to have that balance where you’re really there, so it can be a good thing sometimes.

    • Mo

      Yes exactly! I have so many amazing stories with very little physical evidence 🙁 These days, there are so many great, functional and compact gadgets that you really don’t have a reason not to take photos – while striking that balance of course 😉

  • Kristin

    You are so right about the photos! My friend and I were just backpacking in Colombia and discussing how it seems like some people travel just for photos, and maybe we should be in the moment more. But we quickly decided that we love looking back at the photos, and you really can’t ever have too many! I hate lugging around a DSLR when traveling, so I’m glad that smartphone cameras are getting better each year.

    • Mo

      Yes! I felt exactly the same, that taking photos would take away the experience of “being in the moment” and appreciating what was in front of me. So I think striking a balance is important, but after so many years of traveling, I definitely wish I had taken MANY more! Looking back at the photo also allows us to relive those special moments and feel alive all over again 😉

  • Sarah - Borders & Bucket Lists

    I have yet to solo travel (it seems so intimidating!), but these sound like fantastic tips! I definitely relate to the photo issue though! I go back through the photos from my first trip abroad and just cringe at both the quality and my camera skills lol.

    • Mo

      It’s natural to feel uncomfortable to solo travel at first – don’t worry – but I hope you get a chance to do it, it’s SO awesome 😀 Let me know if I can support you to take that leap 😉 Mo

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