Category Archives: Planning

Where next? 50 Places I still want to visit

The problem with taking a year-long round the world trip is that while you think it will satiate your desire for travel in fact it does the opposite – the more I travelled, the more I loved to travel, and the more places that I’d never even considered that suddenly began to appeal. So now that I’m back in gainful employment, and armed with both a salary and a holiday allowance (and even better – six weeks a year, the best I’ve ever had) it’s time to start thinking about where to go next…

Here’s my first stab, arranged into some rather arbitrary categories just to give it some structure. Anyone who knows me and fancies a holiday next year – let me know if any of these appeal!

UPDATE: March 2015: So, 6 years on and I’ve managed to tick off four of the 50 (Morocco, Mozambique, Montenegro, and the Kruger National Park) – and should tick off another 3-5 later this year (Buenos Aires, Torres Del Paine, Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and possibly Stockholm and / or Prague)

Countries

1. Nicaragua UPDATE: Visited November 2010

Leon, Nicaragua

Everyone I met in Central America raved about this as one of their highlights – fantastic colonial cities, volcanoes, great beaches, friendly people. This is likely to be my first trip – this November for a couple of weeks.

2. Nepal

My time in the Andes was probably the highlight of my year. Now I want to see the Himalayas.

3. Pakistan

Probably a bit of a longer term objective this one, given the current state of the country, but I really want to go and visit the country of my father’s birth, I’ve heard some incredible things.

4, 5 & 6 Morocco, Mozambique & Mali – UPDATE: Visited Morocco in 2012 & Mozambique in 2014

Africa is the one inhabited continent I haven’t been to – and I’m very keen to rectify that. These three, one from the north, one from the west, one from the south all appeal for different reasons.

7. Montenegro UPDATE: visited summer 2014

Great beaches, lovely mountains, and one of the biggest canyons in the world.

8. Ecuador

One of the nicest people I met on my trip was an Ecuadorian girl, and she got *very* cross that I’d managed to spend four months in Andean countries and not made it there.

9. Syria

Fantastic ruins and the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. People I know who’ve been rave about it.

10. Tajikistan

Possibly another long term objective this one – partly because I need to learn to drive before I can tackle the Pamir Highway.

Islands

1. Socotra, Yemen

Dragon\’s Blood Tree

I’ve been fascinated by this place since I saw pictures of the Dragon’s Blood Tree that grows on the island. The more I read about it the more obsessed with visiting I become.

2. Cuba

I have a feeling the place will change a lot in the next decade. I’m keen to see it sooner rather than later.

3. Crete

My favourite travel book of all time made me fall in love with Crete from afar. Read it, you will too.

4. Hawaii

Partly because of the volcanoes, but more because of fellow travellers Rob & Vicky raving about their time there to me one night in Guatemala.

5. Madagascar

Home to some of the most bizarre landscapes I have ever seen, plus unique wildlife

6. Mindanao, The Philippines

I’m dying to go back to the Philippines and this is one that really appeals (although well away from the dangerous bit).

7. Vanuatu

Again to a travel book, this is the Pacific country I’d like to see most.

8. Cape Verde

Portuguese heritage, fantastic music, great beaches, nice hiking.

9. Sicily

Italy & I haven’t really agreed with each other so far. Time to give it another go, and the food, ruins, cities and volcano hear all sound great.

10. Sulawesi

Best diving in the world, or so I keep hearing.

Hikes

1. GR20 – Along the mountain spine of Corsica, allegedly the toughest in Europe. I quite fancy this in the summer of 2011.
2. GR10/11 – Two paths running the length of the Pyrenees, one on the French and one on the spanish.
3. Sierra Norte, Oaxaca, Mexico – pioneering eco-tourism project run by a co-operative of indigenous villages
4. Tiger Leaping Gorge, China – not least because of the name.
5. Milford Track, New Zealand
6. Mt. Kinabalu, Borneo
7. Mt. Kilimanjiro, Tanzania
8. Everest Base Camp
9. Torres del Paine, Chile
10. Southwest USA – So many amazing hikes I’m not sure I’d know where to start – includes some of the most amazing national parks of the country, including Arches, Monument Valley and Bryce Canyon

Other outdoorsy stuff…

1. Kruger national park, south africa – seeing Orang Utans in Indonesia ignited a desire to see more wildlife that I never knew I had – UPDATE: visited December 2014
2. Iguazu Falls, Argentina / Brazil
3. Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina – loads of my mates have been here and it looks incredible
4. Outback Australia – I’ve seen all the big cities. Now I’d love to spend more time exploring the vast empty bits of the country, so many amazing things to see, and even the emptiness itself is intriguing.
5. The Galapagos Islands – obviously
6. Kinigi National Park, Rwanda – home of the Mountain Gorilla
7. The Amazon jungle – gutted I missed this while in Bolivia
8. Sahara Desert
9. Antarctica
10. Angel Falls, Venezuela

Cities

1. Buenos Aires
2. Montreal
3. New Orleans
4. Beijing
5. Bilbao
6. Beirut
7. Prague
8. Naples (Pizza, mmmm)
9. Stockholm
10. Morelia, Mexico

That list could easily be twice as long…but that’s plenty to be getting on with for now. And like I said, if you know me and fancy any of these let me know!

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Final packing list

The tickets were booked a while ago. My final vaccination was on Wednesday. Travel insurance and all final bills and admin sorted on Thursday morning. Final shopping done on Thursday afternoon. The last remaining thing to do was finalise the packing, and I’m very glad to say it’s all done.

Here, subject to any final changes, is what I’m taking:
Clothes
1 x Jeans
1 x Hiking trousers
1 x Shorts
1 x Boardshorts
1 x Fleece
1 x Waterproof jacket
1 x Merino Midlayer
2 x Merino baselayers (one shortsleeve, one longsleeve)
7 x T-shirts
3 x Vests
1 x Long-sleeve shirt
4 x Smartwool hiking socks
2 x Smartwool normal socks
1 x pair Hiking Boots
1 x pair Converse
1 x pair Flip-Flops
7 x pairs underwear (thanks for reminding me mr BiB!)

Technology
Mini-Laptop
Camera (plus underwater housing for diving)
iPod Touch plus headphones
iPod speakers
Head torch
Mobile Phone

Other travel stuff
Money belt
Wallet
Travel pillow
Travel towel
1 Guide book (Mexico)
Pack of cards
Passport photos (for visas)
Wash bag including toiletries and various drugs
Swiss army knife
Biro
1 x combination padlock, 2 x padlocks with key
Sunglasses
Notebook
USB memory stick
Passport
Vaccination certificate

Bags and stuff
60 litre main pack
12+4 litre daypack
3 packing cubes of various sizes

It all fits inside the 60 litre bag, albeit rather snuggly:

A few points:
– I should actually have a little space to spare, as the bag currently contains everything, whereas at any one time I’ll be wearing at least the shorts, the flip-flops and a t-shirt. Most of the time the daypack and camera will be separate too
– With the electrical stuff carried in the daypack and wearing the boots, it comes in under the crucial 15kg mark which should save me excess baggage fees with Air Asia and some other low-cost airlines
– I think I may be a little heavy on the cold weather stuff, which is mostly there for trekking in the Andes, where it will get cold at altitude. I may take some of this out and consider hiring while there
– I may possibly have too many t-shirts and socks (although I’ve cut back considerably on these). I may lose some, although they aren’t taking up too much space
– The packing cubes are a godsend. When I first read about them I thought they were just one more ruse to part a flashpacker from his money. After my first pack resulted in a bag with things like cables, the head torch, the cards and the USB key rattling around loose. With the packing cubes, all that sort of thing is neatly tucked away for when needed. With the bag opening all the way round, it now makes packing and repacking incredibly quick.
– I think I have everything I need. Can anyone spot anything obvious I’ve forgotten? Or anything you think I should take out?

It’s such a relief to get it all out of the way so I can enjoy myself now for my final weekend before flying on Monday. The nerves appear to have final given way to full-on excitement.

First stab at packing

So. I am now officially living out of a suitcase. Today, all my stuff went into storage. Well, I say all my stuff, but it’s actually a much reduced volume of stuff, as I decided to use the trip as an opportunity to clear out loads of the crap I’ve collected over the years. I reckon I’ve actually managed to get rid of over half of everything I owned. Some has been binned, some has gone via Freecycle, and some to charity shops. All that remains is a small bag of clothes to last me my final two weeks, and of course the bag for my trip.

Yesterday I made my first stab at packing, and remarkably I got everything in first go, and all under 15kg (quite important after I got stung by Air Asia on my last trip to Thailand, for having a 16kg bag). I still think I have too much stuff though, so despite it fitting and being a good weight, I’m planning to do a couple of repacks and see what I can try and take out – I really want to get it as light as possible, which at the moment is probably being stopped by my T-shirt addiction (I have far too many).

So – to help me with my attempts to get the weight down: anyone reading this who’s been on an extended trip – any tips? What are the things you took (based on pre-trip research or whatever) that you never used or could have done without? What did you leave behind that you could have really done with? Any other packing tips?

Choosing the right travel vaccinations

Trying to work out exactly which travel vaccinations are needed for a trip like mine is not the easiest thing in the world. The same goes for advice on avoiding Malaria.

Different ‘expert’ websites give differing advice for different locations. My GP herself admitted she wasn’t expert enough to give me the kind of advice I was looking for, and I don’t entirely trust the commercial travel clinics (figuring they’ll be over-cautious with advice in the interest of getting more money out of you). Opinions from travellers themselves is even more confused, with the hyper-paranoid types who get vaccinated against every disease under the sun ‘just in case’ at vast costs at one end of the spectrum and the hardcore backpacker types who claim never to get vaccinated against anything and avoid malaria pills too, all the while ranting about clueless money-grabbing doctors, at the other.

The more I read, the more confused I got – obviously I want to protect myself against anything that could happen, but at the same time, I’m also aware that you can’t protect against everything, and I don’t want to spend a fortune on something that is highly unlikely to happen. In the end, on one of my google quests I found that the London Hospital of Tropical Medicine (one of the things I love about London is that it actually has a hospital of tropical medicine) also run a travel clinic. I figured if anyone was going to give accurate and up-to-date advice, it’d be them.

So I popped down yesterday morning and am very glad I did, as the service was great, and the staff very knowledgable – I was mostly dealth with by a specialist nurse, but she also asked advice from a consultant on a couple of specific points.

So what have I ended with? I was already up-to-date with Hepatitis A & B and Typhoid from previous foreign trips, as well as Polio, Tetanus & Diphtheria, so I knew I wouldn’t need those ones. Yellow Fever was one I knew I’d have to get, as you need proof of vaccination to get into certain south american countries.

The ones I was most uncertain about were Japanese Encephalitis, Rabies, and Malaria prevention, and in each case I ended up with a different result to what I was expecting.

Most websites I read highly recommended getting vaccinated against Japanese Encephalitis, so that was one I was prepared to get, despite the high cost (3 shots at £40-£50 each). However, the consultant pointed out that the risk was less than one in a million per month, and that as it is transmitted via daytime mosquitoes, I’d be better off avoiding being bitten (which is essential anyway to avoid Dengue Fever, which can’t be vaccinated against) by using regular applications of DEET. So I went with the advice and have skipped that one.

On the other hand, I’d decided against getting the Rabies shot, and was talked round by the nurse – pointing out that the vaccine provides protection for life, by describing how sever rabies can be, and ultimately that it was most important for travelers going to remote locations where they may be far from a hospital if emergency treatment is needed. Given that bits of Indonesia that I’m hoping to visit are likely to be very remote indeed, I figured it was worth the cost.

The final surprising advice was on malaria prevention. This was one I’d been particularly concerned about, due to the fact that different drug regimes are recommended for different parts of the world, and that in most cases treatment is only recommended for a limited period, rather than the nearly twelve months I’ll be in potential risk zones. While most countries I’m visiting (all apart from Australia & New Zealand) have some level of risk, it does vary even within countries. Luckily, the consultant’s specialism was in malaria, and the advice was that I should focus on bite prevention for most of my trip, with malaria tablets only being advised for Laos & Cambodia, plus if I decided to go into the amazon while in Bolivia.

I’m really glad I got the expert advice, as I’d been hearing everything from being advised to take Malarone every day (at £3 per day that would be quite an expensive option!) through to taking nothing anyway and relying on the DEET. Instead, the advice was properly tailored to my itinerary, and is one that I feel happy with.

I also managed to finally get an expert recommendation on what concentration of DEET to go for (minimum 30%, no need to ever go above 50%); on avoiding and dealing with altitude sickness; and antibiotics for dealing with most cases of travelers’ diarrhea.

So with just over four weeks to go, I’ve ticked off three of the big four must-dos – booked my ticket, bought my backpack and now sorted the vaccinations. Now there’s just finalising the insurance still to do, and I’m ready to go.

Slightly less rubbish with languages

I think it’s fair to say that British people have a pretty poor reputation when it comes to speaking other people’s languages. It’s easy to blame the relatively poor language education in schools, but really it’s just an excuse: it’s easier to be lazy when everyone else speaks English.

Over the years I’ve made various efforts to learn other languages, to varying degrees of success. One of the most frustrating aspects of learning is the reaction I’ve often come across from natives when you’re trying to practice your skills, which turns out to be much harder than I ever imagined. There are four typical responses:

Ignore
This one’s most common with Germans. It’s clearly inefficient to speak slowly in German, when they can switch over to English and speak like a native (or in many cases, like my German lecturer at uni, better than a native, as she wasted no time in pointing out whenever we made grammatical errors in our own language). So that’s exactly what happens, normally with no acknowledgment you’ve even addressed them in German in the first place.

Mock
Only in France have I, on several occasions, been laughed at for my pathetic English attempts to get my tongue around their beautiful language. This is hardly a confidence booster, funnily enough.

Patronise
een Pilsje, alsjeblieft is hardly the most complicated sentence to learn. Or say for that matter. But try it in Holland and there’s a good chance someone will immediately say “Oh wow! You speak fantastic Dutch!” is both (a) a lie and (b) patronising. After this, they just switch to ignore mode and conduct the rest of the conversation in English.

Refuse to engage altogether
Best exemplified by the reaction to the woman behind the counter in Cordoba station, who just crossed her arms, and sat back in her chair once she realised my Spanish wasn’t up to a normal conversation. I suppose as she spoke no English either, the conversation was hardly likely to be all that fruitful, but just giving up was hardly going to get us anywhere.

I know ultimately that this is as much (if not more) my fault than theirs – if my language skills really were good enough, it would be easier to engage. Plus for busy shopkeepers or barstaff or waiters, it’s far quicker to speak English rather than waste time trying to understand someone mangle their conjugations. But whatever the reason, it makes the process a darn sight harder. Which is yet another reason why I loved Antwerp: I’d barely spoken a word of Dutch in years, but from the moment I uttered my first faltering sentence and was replied to in Dutch, without any mocking, patronising comments or even any remark, it boosted my confidence straight away. The pattern was the same for the rest of the weekend, and it was great. I know my limitations, and I was hardly able to have conversations about weighty issues, but actually getting the chance to practice meant I found my language skills coming back to me even after years with no practice.

Which in turn has boosted my confidence with my Spanish. With my course of lessons nearly done, I was getting slightly worried at the lack of progress I’ve been making, especially with my leaving date rapidly approaching. But this week I felt I had a real breakthrough. I had a double lesson (three hours) after work, which was exhausting, but well worth it. I’m starting getting the hang of all my verb conjugations now and am getting better at having an idea of which past tense to use when. Prepositions are still a bit of a nightmare, but I now feel like I can have the most basic conversations, and reckon I know enough to find my way round cities, public transports and restaurants to survive OK.

In the great scheme of things, I’m still barely a beginner, but it’s a start, and I feel like now I’ve got some of the basics right I’ll hopefully be able to make good use of a few weeks learning Spanish in Xela (Quetzaltenango) in Guatemala come May – this great post from Christine @ Almostfearless really keeps me inspired. I know there’s a lot of hard work to come, but I really want to use my time away to get my Spanish up to a point where I’ll no longer have to face being mocked, ignored, or patronised for being so rubbish.

Sod carnival: I prefer pancakes

My friends Rob & Briony are currently on their honeymoon in Brazil, where they’ll get the chance to experience carnival in Rio. You might think I’d be jealous – in fact, I’m not at all, as today is PANCAKE DAY.

Rio Carnival: no pancakes here

Rio Carnival: no pancakes here

Now I understand how people may be more easily impressed by carnival spectacles such as the samba bands in Rio, the drunken debuachery in Cologne or the drag queens and dykes on bikes at Sydney Mardi Gras.

Sydney Mardi Gras: also distinct lack of pancake

Sydney Mardi Gras: also distinct lack of pancake

By comparison, the practice of partying before lent begins by eating pancakes may seem a little bit tame. But really. You can get drunk, throw on a frock and cake yourself in makeup any day of the year. Whereas it is a true FACT that pancakes only taste this nice for one day of the year, and that is today, pancake day. Most of the year I can take them or leave them. But today, I plan to stuff myself. I’ve already managed to get off to a good start, as I happened to pass a cafe in Wandsworth this morning serving them (I wasn’t going to let the the little fact that I was on the way to the dentist stop me). I may try and find more for lunch. And then will be making them at home this evening. Sugar. Lemon. Currants. Pancakey goodness. Mmmm. And lots of it.

Who needs sequins?

Who needs sequins?

Actually, I’m not normally quite this obsessed with pancake day. But as the start of my trip gets ever closer I’ve suddenly found myself getting obsessed with various comfort foods from various periods of my youth. Saturday evening saw me eat my first Viennetta in years. Last night was tinned rice pudding. I’m already plotting various must-eats over my remaining nights, and thinking long and hard about which of my mum’s favourite meals I’ll be begging for on my last trip home. It’s silly really, I’m only going for a year, and it’s been far longer than that since I ate half of these things. Clearly my sub-conscious has started missing home before I’ve even gone.

Anyway, whatever the psychological reason behind it: I just can’t get enough of pancake day. Actually, writing about it now gets me thinking – is this just a British thing, or did we manage to export the tradition elsewhere?

The final countdown

It’s now five weeks exactly til I go, and most of it is now mapped out…

Sunday 1st March: Start packing up the flat ready to move. Feel quite chuffed with myself for being so organised.

Monday 2nd March: Aim to have everything packed and moved into storage. Get distracted reading books as I pack them. Realise at midnight I have work tomorrow and still have loads to do. End up packing til 2am and realise I don’t have enough boxes.

Tuesday 3rd March: Final Spanish lesson. Panic that I am still too rubbish to survive on my own for 6th months. Book some more lessons for final week.

Saturday 7th March: Go skiing. (I know I have a year’s travelling coming up, but (1) The snow’s the best it’s been in years, (2) there are huuuuge last minute discounts thanks to the credit crunch, (3) I’m going to just miss the southern hemisphere season next year and (4) it’s a nice way to say goodbye to friends I won’t see for a year)

Saturday 8th March: Return from skiing and have a farewell night out at Duckie, my favourite nightspot. Wonder if I’ll see anything as strange in my year away as the cabaret there. Highly unlikely, to be honest.

Sunday 15th March: Pack my backpack. Realise I’m planning to take too much stuff. Make tough decisions. Get annoyed with myself for not getting a bigger pack. Reluctantly leave out half the stuff I wanted to take. Wear pack around the house for an hour. Get annoyed with myself and not getting a smaller pack. Take some more stuff out. Put the rest of my clothes in storage, other than enough to keep me going til I leave.

Thursday 19th March: Work leaving do.

Friday 20th March: Struggle into work by lunchtime. Do very little. Finish work. Attempt not to cry at leaving speech. Fail.

Saturday 21st March: Go and stay with my sister and her family. Get woken up at 6am by nephews who either don’t understand concept of hangover, or just pretend not to.

Monday 23rd March: Go and stay with my mum and dad. Last chance for proper home cooked food. Reassure mother that Colombia is much safer than she thinks.

Wednesday 25th March: Return to London for a final few days of goodbyes (and last minute shopping for anything I’ve forgotten). Realise I have no space in bag for last minute purchases. Get annoyed with myself for wasting more money.

Thursday 26th March: Panic about getting bored. Or lonely. Or mugged. Or killed.

Saturday 28th March: Leaving party. Last chance for drunken shame in the 2 Brewers.

Sunday 29th March: Recovering from leaving party. In the pub, no doubt. Possible more tears.

Monday 30th March, 1.10pm: BA flight 243 from Heathrow Terminal 5 to Mexico City

Monday 30th March, 6:10pm: Arrive in Mexico City, ready for a year of adventure. Bring it on!

Travelling with friends

When I made the decision to take a year off, my decision to travel solo was not just because none of my friends wanted to do the same thing, but because I actively wanted to.

Far from being a lonely experience, travelling solo is actually more sociable, as rather than spending your time with your companion, you’re constantly forced to talk to other travellers for company, making new friends every place you stop. There’s also more incentive to talk to locals (and locals are more likely to approach you if you’re on your own), meaning you get a chance to get to know a country a little better. One of my favourite moments in my last solo trip was spending a couple of hours chatting to a novice monk in Luang Prabang, helping him practice his English, telling him about life in the UK and him sharing his experience of Lao life.

Me, mingling with the locals in Tokyo

Me, mingling with the locals in Tokyo

I also love travelling alone for purely selfish reasons – I can go where I want, when I want, not having to compromise by doing things someone else to do (or possibly more to the point, them having to compromise to do the things I want to). In fact I don’t think I could travel a whole year with one person, even most of my closest friends would probably drive me mad after not too long (and vice versa).

Despite all that, over the last few weeks I’ve been very pleased to find out my trip won’t entirely be a solo one – I’ve now had confirmation that at various points along the way I’ll get the chance to catch up with friends from back home.

First up, I’ll get to spend my first couple of days in Mexico City with Chris, who coincidentally will be there celebrating his birthday before heading home to London. A month or so later, he’ll be joining me on his return to Mexico, probably for a bit of relaxation time somewhere on the Oaxacan coast. Soon after, I should get to catch up with Matt somewhere in Central America, part way through his (slightly quicker) trip from London to Australia.

After that, I get a couple of months of solo travel again before being joined by Adrian for a few weeks culminating in the trek to Machu Picchu. I’m very pleased that I’ll get to share such a cool experience with a friend.

Once I’ve left the Americas, I’ll hopefully get to meet my Lao travel buddy Chris in his new home of Auckland, before heading on to join up with Matt for a second time, as he’ll be back home in Melbourne.

So all in all, I’m quite pleased I’ve got a nice balance between mostly solo travel and travel with mates. Luckily I’ve been away with all of them before, so I know we won’t drive each other too mad.

Choosing the right backpack for Round the World travel (updated March 2015)

UPDATE (and short answer): The Travel Trekker II ND60 is the perfect backpack for long-term round the world travelling.

Travelling solo for a year means there will be very few constants in my life. The most important of which will be my backpack. Choose the right one and it will make my journey easier…choose the wrong one and I’ll be cursing it for being like a ball and chain that I can’t escape from.

I thought finding my perfect travelling companion would be easy, I figured it was largely a matter of deciding what size I wanted and then just choosing one. How wrong I was. What I thought would be a quick decision has taken ages…so I thought I’d share what I’ve learnt along the way, just in case you’re thinking of doing something similar.

I learnt one key thing during my trip to Laos (the dry run for my big trip) – the most important thing for me was to get a pack that opens from the front than from the top. My toploading rucksack drove me mad – while there was supposedly some access from the front, it was pretty useless, and it felt like I spent about half the trip packing & re-packing to get to stuff at the bottom of the bag. My friend Chris, who I was travelling with, had one that opened all the way round like a suitcase when laid flat, giving access to the whole bag. This was my first experience of pack-envy. These type of packs are typically called ‘travel packs’, and give vastly superior access to classic toploading backpacks (that are designed for hiking, not extended travel)

Rule one: get one that loads from the front

The second thing I learnt was to check the bag is properly lockable. While it was possible to loop a padlock through the two main zips, there was still a gap between them that could easily be opened up for people to root around in, which is not ideal when your bag is going to be accessible by other people on buses, in hostels, and when being checked in for flights. Not being lockable may be OK for people on hiking trips, but it’s not acceptable for a long trip like mine.

Rule two: make sure it’s lockable

With my Lao experience in mind, I started looking for packs, and quickly discovered that the vast majority of rucksacks on sale are really designed for hikers rather than travellers – and in fact what I was looking for (particularly with my obsession with getting a front loader) was not a “rucksack” but a “travel pack”

Rule three: look for the words “travel pack”

Searching online quickly taught me one thing about travel packs: they nearly all come with a detachable daypack. “How useful!” I thought, and quickly narrowed my search down further to these. It wasn’t until I went into a shop to try one on (my early favourites, the Osprey Waypoint 60 and the North Face Backtrack), that I realised that perhaps this wasn’t the best idea – the Waypoint’s daypack is badly designed and miniscule; the North Face one really poorly attached to the main pack. Further reading online suggested that having the detachable pack attached moves the centre of gravity backwards, making your more unstable on your feet, with the solution being to wear it on your front for better balance. I figured if the daypacks were poorly designed and not ideal for wearing attached anyway, I may as well buy a proper daypack separately. Oh, and most importantly they all look really ugly. And who wants to be stuck with an ugly backpack for a year and face the mockery of your fellow travellers?

Rule four: avoid the ones with a detachable daypack

The trickiest decision is what size to go for. On previous backpacking trips to Laos & Guatemala I reckon most travellers look like they have 80L or more packs; meanwhile hardened travellers in places like the Thorn Tree and the BootsnAll forums seem to compete to see who can travel with the smallest pack, with 40L or less being advocated. I travelled Guatemala with 40 and Laos with 60, and I found the Lao experience better, despite the extra weight, as I felt like there was nothing I was missing. I’ll do a dummy packing run with my existing (but evil top-loading) pack just to check I can get everything I plan to take into a pack that size, before I make my final purchase

Rule five: Too small and you’ll have to leave stuff out. Too big and you’ll do your back in. 60-65 litres (that’s 3,500-4,000 cubic inches for my American visitors) feels about right, although a more sensible packer than me could get away with 50 quite easily

This last two requirements really narrowed my choice down further – essentially to just two:The Lowe Alpine Travel Trekker ND60 & the Osprey Porter 65. (nb – see the update at the bottom of the post for the newer version of the Lowe Alpine bag)

Making a decision

One final factor came into play in terms of deciding which to go for: I want to be able to try the pack on to see how comfortable it is – after all, it will be on my back weighing me down for the next 12 months. I’ve been unable to find a stockist for the Porter in London (and anyway, it’s the uglier of the two), so my current favourite is the Lowe Alpine.

It ticks all the above boxes, but as well it has the following features that are helping convince me:
– Adjustable back means it can be fitted to suit my size, making it more comfortable
– Its own raincover which tucks away
– The main straps zip away into a compartment at the back, making it look more like a suitcase and meaning there is less dangling to get caught up in baggage reclaim systems
– Well padded hip-belt
– Various internal pockets for better organisation
– It also has better padded straps and back support than most travel packs, making this closer to a hiking backpack, and therefore hopefully more comfortable to wear for longer periods.

Now the eagle-eyed among you may spot that this is technically a women’s pack (the male equivalent is the Travel Trekker 70L – but that is bigger than I want and is a less comfortable fit for me, especially as I’m a bit of a hobbit) but I’ve been assured that there is very little design-wise that makes them different other than slightly narrower straps.

I’m planning to buy in the next week or so – unless any more experienced travellers can point me to anything obvious I’ve missed?

Hopefully that’ll be useful for anyone planning a similar purchase – of course this is a purely personal view that you may disagree with, here are some links to other articles that I found helpful, even if I didn’t come to the same conclusions:

The ever helpful Nomadic Matt gives his guide to choosing the right pack, including links to various brands
Brave New Traveller has an interesting article on one man’s obsessive hunt for the perfect backpack
Australian site bakpakka goes into quite a lot of detail on types of pack including useful stiff on the right materials and zips
Gapyear.com has some useful stuff on the kind of features to look out for.
Cotswold Outdoor have some useful tips on how to pack

UPDATE I have now bought my backpack. After an hour or so trying the two bags on, having them properly fitted by the everso helpful staff at Ellis Brigham in Covent Garden, and filled with weight to simulate what it would be like with a full load, it turned out that the Lowe Alpine back was also the most comfortable, so I’ve gone with that.

UPDATE 2
The bag I went for (the Travel Trekker ND60) has now been replaced with the Travel Trekker II ND60. Haven’t tried them out but if there’s as good as their predecessor (which has been the perfect choice for me – 6 years on it’s proved to be the perfect travel pack – comfortable, well-made, and super-easy to load and unload) then it should still be great choices. It also comes in ‘men’s’ 70L versions but I reckon that’s too big for most RTW backpackers’ needs.

Meanwhile for those looking for a slightly smaller, carry-on size back, at 40L, should try the TT Carry-on 40.

I’ve booked my ticket

It’s been 360 days in the planning so far, and I’ve finally booked my ticket. Here’s the plan:

Monday 30th March London – Mexico City
11 weeks in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras: Aztec & Mayan temples, colonial cities, lounging on Pacific beaches, climbing volcanoes, catching up with mates in Guadalajara, learning Spanish & diving in the Caribbean.

Friday 19th June Tegucigalpa, Honduras – Miami
If I have to go through the hell of clearing US customs to get from Honduras to Colombia, I figured I might as well make the most of it by spending a weekend partying in Miami.

Monday 22nd June Miami – Bogota, Colombia
5 weeks in Colombia – a country I’ve been reading about on lots of travel blogs lately, and is rapidly becoming the country I’m most excited about.

Sunday 2nd August Bogota – Lima, Peru
Incan ruins, hiking in the Andes, salt flats and the Amazon jungle.

Friday 9th October Santiago de Chile – Easter Island
Getting to see the Moai up close on one of the most isolated islands in the world.

Tuesday 13th October Easter Island – Santiago de Chile
1 night’s rest in Santiago for my last night in Latin America

Wednesday 14th October Santiago de Chile – Auckland
Yes, yes, I know a week is not long enough for New Zealand. But a year’s not all that long, I’ll just have to go back another time to see it properly. Will stick to North Island.

Thursday 22nd October Auckland – Melbourne
Two weeks relaxation in Melbourne, waiting for my 60-day Indonesian visa to be processed, and hopefully a little partying in the run up the Melbourne Cup.

Tuesday 3rd November Melbourne – Perth
A quick trip to see a mate in Perth

Saturday 7th November Perth – Ayers Rock
Uluru will certainly be the most unusual (and coolest) place I’ve ever spent my birthday.

Tuesday 10th November Ayers Rock – Sydney
I’ve spent plenty of time in Sydney before, but I still fancy a last few nights before heading off to Asia.

Friday 13th November Sydney – Jakarta
The first half of my trip is relatively planned out – but once I arrive in Jakarta, the last half I’ll just go where the mood takes me, starting with island-hopping across Indonesia. After that who knows? East Timor, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam…

Monday 29th March Bangkok – London
I don’t want to think about this one yet!

The ticket I have is pretty flexible, so any of those dates and flights can be changed for a small fee as I go round (except the Santiago – Auckland one, as seats on that get booked up months and months ahead, I got one of the last available for this particular flight), but it’s a start. Now to get on with the rest of the planning, I have 101 days to go and there’s a lot still to do.