Iceland, the Land of Fire & Ice

My family has an ongoing joke that it isn't a Tate-summer if I haven't found myself somewhere in the world where I can throw a snowball in the middle of August.

I've always been more inclined for colder regions - humidity makes me lethargic and grumpy but cold gives me adrenaline - so one year, I was surprised when it dawned on me that I hadn't yet been to a place that's famous for its glaciers, its snow fields, its timeless sensation of long, dark winters and bright summers illuminated by a hovering midnight sun.

I decided to go to Iceland.

I never had any doubt that I wouldn't fall in love with Iceland. The year that I traveled there - 2012 - was right before the internet's craze and obsession over this small island nation really came to fruition. Now it seems that just about every photographer, filmmaker, Instagram-famous travel-blogger and their mom have all been to Iceland, so if you've spent any time perusing any travel social media, the hype for this remote country is undeniable. I'm usually wary of traveling to countries, cities, or regions that are super-duper amped up for being tourist destinations (such as Santorini or Paris, both of which I've had my qualms) because I've found that they're usually saturated with foreigners and tourists, tourbuses and cruise ships. While there's nothing inherently wrong about going to tourist-popular destinations (because hey, they're usually popular for a reason, and I know I am a foreigner too), it gets exhausting when each vista, trail, cafe, and hostel is overcrowded with people elbow-bumping each other to get to the view that seemed so perfectly remote and untouched in all of those Instagram posts.

Iceland, however, is different. The glorious exception to the rule.

With only 300,000 residents in its 40,000 square miles, Iceland is the least inhabited country in Europe, with 80% of the country uninhabitable due to its fjords, glaciers, mountain ranges, lava fields, geysers, and volcanoes (x). En yet, I was still shocked at how alone I felt, and how easy it was to become completely lost with only a few turns off the main road. Most famously, there is the Ring Road, which is the highway that circles the entirety of the island's coast, but most visitors stick to the little Golden Circle; a popular 300km tourist route in the south that makes for a convenient loop from Reykjavik in order to see some of Iceland's southern highlights. Tour buses leave daily from Reykjavik for this route, however if you have more than a few days in Iceland, I recommend renting a car in order to take your time when visiting the sights of the Golden Circle (you'll also have the luxury of being able to see locations during off-hours when they're not flogged with crowds).

But whether you have a week, two weeks, or a month or more in Iceland, I put together some of my favorite highlights.

If you're going to do Iceland, you have to do it right.

Highlights & Must Do's

  1. Spend a full day (or two, depending on your time) exploring Reykjavik, Iceland's charming and compact capital city. Almost everything is in walking distance here, so spend an afternoon strolling the winding streets that snake down to the harbor where you can catch a whale-watching ferry or have lunch at any of the tiny cafes where chic islanders sip their espressos next to burly men who just docked on their fishing vessels. Have a hot chocolate at the colorful Cafe Babalú and watch the dusky evening settle from one of Reykjavik's highest points at the Hallgrímskirkja church. And of course, you have to spend half a day at the Blue Lagoon hot springs; natural thermal hot springs warmed by Iceland's enormous underground volcanic activity (45 minutes outside of Reykjavik).

2.   Rent a car from Reykjavik and spend a day at Snæfellsjökull National Park on the Snæfellnes peninsula. Make your way from the city (approx. 3 hours) to Hellnar, an ancient fishing village perched on rocky cliffs and the southern entrance to the park. As you drive through, you'll pass trails and vistas and careening glaciers, and can end with a steaming bowl of traditional stew in one of the moss-covered cafes in picturesque Hellissandur (the village at the park's northern entrance). Side note, if you want to spend more time up here or just don't want to drive the 3 hours back to Reykjavik all in one day, there are small places for accommodation in Hellissandur.

3.   Iceland is famous for its waterfalls, and for good reason; with over 10,000 falls in the small country, some of the most powerful and spectacular spots are just a day's drive away from Reykjavik. Be sure to see Gullfoss, Seljalandsfoss, and Skógafoss, and if you're inclined to turn these three waterfall visits into a couple days of exploration near Reykjavik, consider stopping to see the famous Geysers explode in a valley pinpricked with neon thermal pools, and visit Thingvellir National Park for a quick hike or a picnic; or for the more adventurous, you can go diving or snorkeling in a trench where the North American and European continents divide.

Seljalandsfoss

Seljalandsfoss

4.   Spend at least three days in Vatnajökull National Park in Eastern Iceland, which holds sprawling meadows and mountains making for epic climbing, as well as the Vatnajökull Glacier, the second largest glacier in Europe. Stay in the campsite in the meadow valley at the foot of the national park and lay in your tent listening to the glacier as it comes to life, creaking and groaning as the volcano it's nestled on top of makes the ice crack and shift, sending eery echoes down into the valley. The hikes around Vatnajökull range from lovely meadow walks among the wildflowers to intense backpacking trips, as well as offering a host of ice climbing tours, from easy glacier walks to an attempt to summit the highest peak in Iceland.

Note: nearby to the national park is the iconic glacial lagoon, Jökulsárlón, where icebergs that have broken off from the glacier float in a frigid lagoon, nestled in an amphitheater of peaks, glaciers, and volcanic black sand beaches.

Picnic on a hike in Vatnajökull National Park

Picnic on a hike in Vatnajökull National Park

Jökulsárlón

Jökulsárlón

On the way to our ice climbing spot on the Vatnajökull glacier

On the way to our ice climbing spot on the Vatnajökull glacier

5.   Often missed on most tourists' itineraries is Landmannalaugar. This mountain region hidden deep in the center of Iceland is perhaps one of the most brilliantly unique natural landscapes that I've seen in all of Europe. Multi-colored mountains painted in rich ribbons of pink, purple, burgundy, turquoise sands, sloping against a backdrop of neon green volcanic hills. There's a campsite in the Landmannalaugar valley that's the perfect jumping-off point for day-hikes or extended treks through the backcountry.

To hit all of those sights I just listed, you could do it in minimum 10 days or extend it all the way into an epic month or more. Take your time and pause in the villages perched on the cliffs, talk to locals about their history and their story, visit a viking museum or two, sink your feet into the hidden black sand beaches, have a frisbee game at midnight (thanks, midnight sun!), follow trails of wild horses and streams of bubbling thermal waters, be captivated by the farmhouses covered in vines, the herds of sheep grazing beneath magnificent waterfalls, the steam from a volcano rising from just over the next horizon.

I promise you.

It's worth the hype.

Budgeting for a Trip & How to Save

Allow me to shout something from the rooftops for a moment:

Traveling does not have to be expensive.
Traveling does not have to be expensive.
Traveling does not have to be expensive.

All the glamorous photos of luxury safaris in Zimbabwe or hotel rooms overlooking the Siene are trying to sell you the idea that in order to travel, you need to have a pretty hefty wallet. We all know this, and more often than not, it's the #1 reason why people come to the conclusion that they "can't travel," or at least won't be able to for years (and a solid savings account) to come. While, yes, some places in the world will be more expensive to travel than others - there's just no way around that - I promise you that there are ways to bend and break the rules so that you can affordably travel and still be able to have all the amazing experiences you want.

How to Come Up With a Budget

Activities

After you have purchased your guidebook (or have spent a fair amount of time researching your destination on the internet), you should come up with a solid list of things you want to do, and then take your time gathering a vague idea of how much each activity is going to cost. If you want to go backpacking in the Andes of Peru, with some flitting through the pages of your guidebook or quick googling, you should be able to see how expensive permits are to backpack there. If you want to go bungee-jumping and abseiling and rock climbing in New Zealand, find a couple tour operators or guides to gather general quotes on how much those activities cost.

This does not mean that you have to know everything you want to do before you get to your destination. For long-term trips or people who like to wing it, it just isn't realistic. But it's a good idea to have a vague idea of how much "fun stuff" generally costs so you don't find yourself over-saving or without enough. If you find on a budget tour operator's website that most activities in Laos are between $40 and $100, bring an extra $300 for activities that may spring up while you're over there on a 2-3 week trip.

Trekking in South America is a highlight for most backpackers, but most national parks require a certain entrance/park fee that should be considered in a budget

Trekking in South America is a highlight for most backpackers, but most national parks require a certain entrance/park fee that should be considered in a budget

Transportation

If you're traveling in Africa or Asia or some parts of South America, public transport generally won't cost you more than $50 on long-haul bus or train rides, but if you're planning on taking trains consistently through Europe or buses through New Zealand, those will most likely be a high expense. Use websites such as www.EurRail.com to get estimates on how much it costs to take trains to and from your destinations, and do Google searches regarding buses to get an idea of how much you should save for the typical distances you plan to go. And if you are renting a car, get a quote online, and ask your rental company what they recommend you budget for gas (depending on the length of your trip).

Insider Tip: Several countries in Europe, such as Switzerland, offer discounted train passes for students, or people under certain ages, or people traveling on their trains consistently. Check out your guidebook to see if any information is available on discounts.

Long bus rides, especially public ones, can be arduous but offer spectacular views

Long bus rides, especially public ones, can be arduous but offer spectacular views

Accommodations

Some hostels and/or campsites are $2 are night.
Others are $40, at their cheapest.
Sometimes CouchSurfing may be the best and most budget-friendly option. Often times, the prices of hostels and campsites depend exclusively on where in the world they are, and what time of year you're planning on being there (such as, getting a dorm bed in a hostel in Rio is usually about $12 a night, but during Carnival, prices for the same bed can skyrocket up to $100 or higher; be aware of what's going on when planning your budget and if you should expect dramatic changes in prices). To estimate how much you should save for accommodation, use any number of hostel/campsite searching websites to get an idea of how much hostels typically cost where and when you're going. That way, you can generate an average number, and use that number for however-many-nights you're going to be traveling. That will give you a generous allotted budget for accommodation expenses.

For your estimations:
www.HostelWorld.com
www.HostelBookers.com
www.Hostels.com

Budget accommodation outside Tzaneen, South Africa

Budget accommodation outside Tzaneen, South Africa

Food

You can eat out at restaurants for all three meals a day and have it cost you a total of $9 if you're traveling in India. You can struggle to find a breakfast sandwich for under $15 if you're traveling in Switzerland. Unfortunately, food expenses are very similar to accommodation expenses in that they depend almost entirely on where in the world you are. That's why I say, ditch the breakfast sandwich. Eating on the road, no matter where you are, can be affordable as long as you know how to eat budget-friendly. While you may easily get away with a $10-a-day food budget in India, you're going to have to get more creative in most other places in the worth; especially pricier nations in Europe (I'm looking at you, Scandinavia and Switzerland), or the US and Australia.

Do not fret.

Most hostels offer kitchenettes that usually contain a stove, fridge, and maybe even an oven at the bare minimum. An extremely affordable way to eat cheaply on the road is by buying your own food and cooking your own meals. You can stretch a $3 bag of pasta and $4 bag of marinara sauce over the course of 3 dinners, and you can transform a $2 loaf of bread and a $5 jar of peanut butter and jelly into a week's worth of lunches. A box of granola bars, a $1 container of instant coffee, and a bag of bananas are a week's breakfast and snacks. Visit your destination's supermarkets or farmers markets, pick up whatever is delicious and cheap, and prepare your own meals. In most towns, no matter where in the world, you will be able to find some kind of general foods store that will sell anything from fruit to vegetables to bulk bags of rice, pasta, beans, and bread. While it may be cumbersome to carry a big bag of rice in your backpack as you move from location to location, buy smaller quantities of these staples, or leave behind whatever you can't carry with you (some other hungry backpacker will be eternally grateful to find leftover bags of fruit or beans in the hostel kitchen's cupboard). No matter what, buying and preparing your own meals will cut down on food costs significantly, and will leave you with the ability to proudly say that you're living off of a total of $10-$20 a day in Paris. This way, too, you'll have more money budgeted for the occasional special meal, where you can really enjoy the local cuisine and indulge yourself in a nice meal or night out trying the local bar scene without feeling like you're bleeding out of your wallet.

Dinner in Romania: canned beans, lentils, pasta, and marinara sauce = $2.50 per serving

Dinner in Romania: canned beans, lentils, pasta, and marinara sauce = $2.50 per serving

Breakfast in Croatia: bread, banana, peanut butter = $.70 cents per serving

Breakfast in Croatia: bread, banana, peanut butter = $.70 cents per serving

Extras (visas, gear)

Many countries will require foreign travelers to buy visas in order to enter, and while some visas cost $30, others can go up to $100 or more. Be sure you add in visa expenses into your budget, or even the purchase of a passport if you haven't applied for one yet).

Additionally, consider everything you may have to buy for the trip:

Do you need a backpack?
Boots and/or shoes?
Do you have all the clothes and toiletries necessary?
What about camping supplies if you're going camping?

Consider these as well so the price of preparation doesn't catch you off guard.

Once you have all of these numbers, add them up, and there is your budget. Congrats! Throw in your plane tickets, and maybe an extra hundreds dollars or so for additional expenses (it's better to be over-prepared than under, I am a firm believer in this), and pat yourself on the back.

Not so scary, right? 

But How Do I Save?

The number one thing I recommend for people when trying to save for a trip is just to cut the junk out. The "junk" being everything not absolutely necessary.

  • Perhaps this means forgoing your daily $2 cup of coffee. (That $2 is a night in a hostel in Kathmandu).

  • Or not going out to eat once (or several) times a week. (That $20 meal is a bus ride from Uganda to Nairobi).

  • If you really want to see stark changes, sell your tv and just use Netflix - or even get rid of Netflix. That costs money, too. (or do what I do and just use a family member's plan... sorry not sorry)

  • Get rid of all the clothing you don't wear, unnecessary household trinkets, unopened gifts in the back of your closet, and sell them all at a garage sale or on eBay.

  • Ride your bike or take public transportation instead of wasting gas in your car on local errands.

  • Forego the expensive foodstuffs you may like to splurge on at the grocery store, such as fancy new products or $7 kale chips. Stick to cheap produce and staple items. You'll be surprised at how much you save by only buying and eating what's absolutely necessary.

  • On top of selling the clothes you don't wear, avoid buying anything new and unnecessary. Saving for traveling is about considering how that money could be used elsewhere. (I mean, I know that sweater is only $30, but $30 is almost four days in Tanzania; think on a global, end-goal scale).

  • Open a savings account specifically for travel savings so you don't tamper/drain it.

  • Prepare at home your own weekly lunches so you're not tempted to buy sandwiches while at work or school. Same goes for coffee: invest in a thermos and brew your own stuff.

  • When you do go out to the bars or a restaurant, really save drinks for special occasions. And when you do, stick to just one or two of whatever is cheap. When you feel yourself wanting to go for that third $12 cocktail, say no and instead deposit that $12 into your travel fund. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.

  • Lastly, get a part-time job. Even working a few hours here and there as a waiter or dog-walker or babysitter adds up. Of course this just is not feasible for many people as they may already be working full-time or too much, but if you find yourself lazing around on weekends or having wide-open days during the week, get busy. You'll be surprised at how quickly your travel goals approach.

With all these in mind, I'm not saying it's not important to be comfortable and enjoy the interim between trips. If all you do is sit in your house eating peanut butter sandwiches because you're afraid of spending money and it's impacting you negatively, then that's simply not worth it. But by eliminating trivialities and focusing on the end goal (that $100 pair of jeans is the equivalent of a week of backpacking up volcanos in Guatemala), then you should find yourself feeling excited and empowered by the money that's pouring back into your pockets; money that will leave you with incredible experiences soon enough.

Now. I'll see you on those volcanoes.

To Climb the Highest Mountain in Africa

Mount Kilimanjaro.

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The highest mountain on the African continent, and one of the world's Seven Summits.

With its peak residing at a soaring altitude of 19,341 feet, Kilimanjaro has beckoned thousands of trekkers to attempt to reach its summit, surrounded by a amphitheaters of glacier, monstrous rock, and oceans of clouds thousands of feet below where the summit looms. 

Routes

The climb up Kilimanjaro can take anywhere between five to nine days, depending on the route you choose to take. Deciding on the right route can either make or break your climb, depending on how much time you allow yourself to acclimatize to the altitude (the #1 reason why people turn around on the mountain isn't because it's a difficult hike, but because they ascended too quickly and became sick from the altitude).

Each route varies, depending on rate of ascent, scenery, crowds, and, of course, price. The run down for each route follows:

Marangu
Duration: 5 days
Crowds: Extremely high (most popular route)
Scenery: Considered least scenic route
Accommodation: Sleeping huts
Recommended for: No one, honestly. The quick ascent, crowds, and packed sleeping huts make this an unsuccessful and unenjoyable route, despite it being the cheapest choice.

Machame
Duration: 6-7 days
Crowds: High
Scenery: Extremely scenic with varying landscape
Accommodation: Camping
Recommended for: Budget travelers who are confident in their ability to have long days at rapidly increasing high altitude

Lemosho
Duration: 8-9 days
Crowds: Low until route joins with Machame
Scenery: Considered overall most beautiful
Accommodation: Camping
Recommended for: Anyone who wants to spend ample time enjoying the views, generally low crowds, and is hellbent on reaching the summit (highest success rate)

Shira
Duration: 7-8 days
Crowds: Low
Scenery: Varied and beautiful
Accommodation: Camping
Recommended for: People who want to do Lemosho but don't have the time. It's essentially the same route as Lemosho except you begin the trek at 11,000 ft, which causes the rate of success (and risk of altitude sickness) to increase significantly.

Rongai
Duration: 6-7
Crowds: Low
Scenery: Vastly different from other routes (it's the only path that begins in the north)
Accommodation: Camping
Recommended for: People climbing in the rainy season, or people who want a similar climb to Marangu (long uphill slog) but want to avoid the crowds and prefer remoteness.

Finding the Right Company
(and paying the right price)

Like most mountains of this magnitude, to climb Kilimanjaro you'll need to go with a licensed guide, porter, and pay a park entrance fee. However, because Kilimanjaro is not a technical mountain and a staggering 50,000 people attempt the mountain each year, there is a large amount of bootleg "companies" aimed towards budget travelers that offer attractively cheap prices. But the thing with Kilimanjaro -- as with any guide or company anywhere in the world -- is this simple truth:

You get what you pay for.

When you are spending over a week climbing one of the tallest peaks in the world, you will want to fork over extra money to ensure that you have a safe climb. When you find a company that has an attractive, low price, get in touch with them and ask them some very important questions, such as:

  • How many times has the guide(s) summitted the mountain?

  • Does he have a license (and can you see it)?

  • What kind of food should you expect? How will your meals be prepared? How do they keep the food fresh? Are they willing to accommodate to any dietary restrictions?

  • Will drinking water be provided, or will you be required to carry your own water purification system (such as iodine or a SteriPEN)?

  • What camping gear will they provide? What's the quality of the tent? What about the sleeping mattresses (if you're not carrying your own)? A good company will have strong, functional equipment.

  • How is their safety record? Do they know how to care for a client who may become sick with altitude? Do they know what to look for? (Altitude sickness is more common than you may think; read about it more here).

If they seem to skirt certain questions, are unsure of specifics, or are more interested in signing you up instead of answering all your inquiries in detail, odds are they're more interested in grabbing clients rather than ensuring a safe and successful climb.

Picking a Budget Company

You can either hunt for budget companies online (but again, be extremely vigilant about frauds and ask the questions I listed above), or you can wait until you arrive in Tanzania to do the hunting, depending on how comfortable and lenient with time you are.

Fly into Tanzania's Arusha Kilimanjaro airport (JRO) and spend a few days visiting tour operators in Arusha to talk to guides in person and compare prices. You can also take the cheap two-hour bus from Arusha to Moshi (the town at the base of Kilimanjaro) to speak to operators there. Either way, it will only take you a few days to pick a company out, as Tanzania's tourism industry thrives on climbers, so advertisements and operators will practically be flinging themselves at you.

In the end, expect to pay between $1,000 and $2,000 for a safe budget climb. 

While it's possible to go under $1,000 if you do the Marangu or Machame route, tips will most likely bring your Kilimanjaro experience to over a grand. 

And although, like I said, it is important to pay for what you want to get, there are some ways to keep the cost down, such as carrying your own sleeping bag and sleeping pad as opposed to renting them, bringing your own durable (and broken in!) hiking boots, and opting for a company that safely cuts costs by not carrying extra luxuries: such as a dining tent, private toilet, or chairs.

A budget climb up Machame route meant no communal dining tent; instead, the four of us on the climb piled into one sleeping tent to eat our dinners and breakfasts

A budget climb up Machame route meant no communal dining tent; instead, the four of us on the climb piled into one sleeping tent to eat our dinners and breakfasts

What Can I do to Help Raise My Odds of Reaching the Summit?

Unlike the other Seven Summits, Kilimanjaro is not a technical mountain; meaning that there aren't any ropes, any rock or ice climbing, or any need for past mountaineering experience. Simply, Kilimanjaro is a multi-day trek. 

So why the low success rate of only 45% ? Even as low as 27% on the 5-day routes, such as Marangu, which happens to be the most popular?

There is no need for a climber to have any skills to climb Kilimanjaro, so tourists of any age, health, and fitness flood through the Kilimanjaro gates every year with hardly any training or concept of the danger they're putting themselves into. While Kili isn't technically challenging, it still holds an estimated 3-7 deaths per year due to altitude sickness and unfit tourists underestimating the strength that it takes to climb thousands of feet for hours on end.

The best way to ensure a safe, successful, and enjoyable summit is to train. In the months leading up to your climb, focus on working out 3-4 days a week. When I was training for my climb, my favorite strengthening workouts consisted of several hours on the stair master during the busy work week, and then taking a day on the weekend to go for a hike where I'd carry a backpack with weights in it (anywhere between 10 to 20 pounds). The key to enjoying an uphill slog trek, such as Kilimanjaro, is to be fit enough to not feel shaky and out of breath within a few hours, or even minutes. A successful climb coincides greatly with how much you enjoy it, because if you feel physically unwell, then you're going to become physically unwell, leaving you more susceptible to the effects of high altitude backpacking. Preparing for Kilimanjaro doesn't have to be back-breaking, but you want to depart knowing that your physical capabilities won't limit your chances to summit; after all, you paid a lot of money to get to East Africa and to attempt this magnificent peak. Every day training is putting more odds for a summit in your favor.

Climbing Kilimanjaro is a right of passage for any backpacker, trekker, or person with a love of getting up close and personal with one of the most iconic peaks in the world. While the crowds can be deterring, the mountain makes up for it in its sheer magnitude and beauty, whether you make it to the summit or not.

Walk on.

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To read more about the super-specifics of climbing Kilimanjaro, and to learn more about each of the routes, visit the website Ultimate Kilimanjaro.

Guide to Packing

When packing, there are three main considerations: 

    1. What luggage am I bringing? 
    2. What are my absolute must-haves (for any trip)? 
    3. What do I need to bring that's unique to this trip? 

Let's start with #1. 

What Luggage am I Bringing? 

Finding the right luggage for traveling is crucial. You want something that's roomy enough for trips where you may be carrying extra bulk, but you also don't want something that will be too heavy and cumbersome for occasions where you're carrying it for significant portions of time. Most travelers find that they need two kinds of luggage: a large backpack for carrying your clothing and gear, and one small daypack for essentials that you want on you at all times. When picking out your luggage backpack, I recommend shooting for anything between 60 to 80 liters in size. While it's easy to compress a backpack if you don't use up all 80 liters, it's much harder to stretch it and force everything to fit into a small pack that simply doesn't have enough space.

When you're picking out your backpack, shop around, and try things on. Don't buy something blindly online without having tested it out first. Head to your local outdoors store (such as REI or Eastern Mountain Sports) and work with a specialist who will find the backpack that's most formfitting, comfortable, and viable for you. 

As for the daypack, you want enough room so that it can fit anything you would need on a flight, in transit, or in any situation where you're out an about. A good test for a proper daypack is that is has compartments for pens, wallet, papers and documents (such as your passport), and room for a book or two, a rain jacket, sunglasses, a small toiletries/first aid kit, and a pocket for a water bottle or two. If you think you'll be carrying a laptop with you on your travels, look for a daypack with an internal laptop pocket. If you're carrying a DSLR camera, look for camera backpacks that can safely hold your camera gear, while still having ample room for necessary documents, transit necessities, and day items. Typically, daypacks run between 20 and 40 liters, and can also be tested and purchased at your outdoors retail store. 

On a road trip through Eastern Europe, I decided to bring a duffle instead of a backpack because it would be easier for living out of a car

On a road trip through Eastern Europe, I decided to bring a duffle instead of a backpack because it would be easier for living out of a car

What Are My Absolute Must-Have's? 

No matter where you go or what you're doing, 99% of the time, you will have to pack the same constant necessities. These include: 

    •    Toiletries (including: toothbrush, eye mask/ear plugs for sleeping, hair ties if necessary, just one small bottle each of toothpaste, shampoo, and soap -- remember, you can purchase these things abroad if you run out) 
    •    A converter if you're traveling abroad and power outlets are different from your own. It's worth investing in a universal converter so you don't have ten different ones for ten different countries. These can usually be purchased online. 
    •    Medications & copies of prescriptions. Along with medications, be sure to bring a broad spectrum antibiotic (which can be given to you from your travel doctor), as well as staples such as Ibuprofen, Tylenol, and Dramamine (if you get motionsick) 
    •    Guidebook and a small phrasebook.  
    •    Headlamp with spare batteries. 
    •    Nalgene water bottle.
    •    Sunglasses and glasses (with your prescription, in case you lose your glasses) 
    •    Pack towel 
    •    Rain jacket 
    •    Rain cover for your backpack 
    •    Rubber sandals for communal hostel showers
    •    Sleeping bag and sleeping bag liner. The liner can be washed, which will make you feel cleaner throughout your trip, and it can also be used in places where it's too hot to sleep in your sleeping bag, or you don't want to sleep in the provided sheets. 
    •    Laundry bag 
    •    Basic First Aid Kit 

Optional (but recommended): 

    •    Headphones (and a spare pair, in case yours are broken or lost) 
    •    eReader and Book 
    •    Notebook & pens 
    •    Plastic bags for items that may be wet or muddy
    •    Deck of cards 
    •    Sunhat 
    •    Bandana 

Insider Tip: Using your shampoo or body wash is a great substitute for washing clothes, so ditch bringing laundry detergent. Pack along a clothes line and pins for drying, too. 


What Do I Need to Bring That's Unique to This Trip? 

When deciding what clothing, shoes, and gear you should bring on your trip, consider your trip's location, climate, activities, and culture. The best way to get an idea for what kinds of clothes to bring is by looking through a Lonely Planet guidebook on the region you're traveling to. In every Lonely Planet, there is always a section devoted to telling you about what clothing is culturally acceptable or unacceptable, as well as also giving you a month-by-month look at what climate is generally like in certain regions at certain times of year. For example: you may be traveling to the Sahara Desert in August, but you'll also want to bring a warm sweater and hat because it can drop to freezing temperatures in the desert at night. In another case, you may be traveling to northern Norway in January, which requires a serious amount of extreme cold-weather appropriate clothing. If you're going trekking in Nepal, you'll want a mix of both cold-weather clothing and even warm weather clothing, such as hiking shorts and a short-sleeved shirt, as it can get surprisingly hot and humid in the Himalayan trekking regions. 

Once you've picked up your guidebook or have turned to Google and you have an idea of what kinds of weather you'll be facing, you'll want to find clothing that's as versatile (and, again, culturally appropriate) as possible. Especially for long-term trips where you may be traveling to multiple countries and will have to pack for a variety of climates, you're going to really want to snoop around your outdoors retail store to find clothing that's as lightweight, durable, and compactible as possible. 

Here are some tips for packing light and versatile: 

    •    Bulky fleece jackets should be replaced with synthetic down coats that were designed to compress to save the most space as possible. 
    •    Clunky sweatshirts should be replaced with lightweight (but just as warm) alternatives, such as SmartWool and/or Patagonia pullovers and zip-ups that are well-fitting and designed to easily be packed away. 
    •    Jeans are not only cumbersome and inefficient with their size, but are difficult to wash and dry efficiently when on the road. Swap them out for comfortable lightweight pants that are easy to travel in, hike in, and explore in. 
    •    Dresses and skirts are excellent for formal occassions, for hot locations, or for when you just feel like dressing up. Just be sure that you're well aware of the cultural expectations regarding dresses and skirts. Do they need to at least cover your knees? Do they need to cover your ankles? Can they be spagetti-strap style, or will you need to cover your shoulders, or your chest, or both? The same rules apply when deciding on bringing shorts and tank-tops. Cultural awareness needs to be acknowledged when packing.
    •    Only bring a handful of underwear and socks. Remember, you can (and should!) do laundry on the go, whether you pay for it to be done, or whether you do it in a hostel sink. You shouldn't bring a month's worth of these things, as they can take up a significant amount of room, and are easy to clean and quickly dry. So just pack a bare minimum (I usually bring a week's worth). 
    •    Find the right shoes. Usually a pair of supportive hiking boots are efficient for most traveling, hiking, and walking you'll be doing, and rubber sandals are good for swimming and showering. Some people opt for bringing along a third pair of every-day shoes, such as Toms or Converse, that are subtler than hiking boots and are nice for casual days where you aren't carrying a heavy backpack. 
    •    Don't go shirt crazy. It's easy to find yourself wanting to pack a shirt for every occasion, but you'll find just how little you actually need. Instead of bringing your whole wardrobe, pick out three or four shirts and stick to that. Something for cooler weather, something for warmer weather, and anything that can be layered.  
   •    Finally: use compression sacks! Everyone has their own method of organizing their backpacks, but using compression sacks to organize clothing allows more space in the backpack for extra gear, such as bulky hiking boots or a sleeping bag or tent equipment. 

Insider Tip: When women are traveling to more conservative regions, it's always a good idea to bring along a shaul or scarf if you ever find yourself in a situation where you need to be considerably covered up (such as visiting a mosque). 

The Vegan Backpacker Masterpost

Probably the most common question I get next to "how do you afford to travel?" is:

"How do you stay vegan when you travel?"

The answer is, simply. 

The ironic thing is that if I weren't looking to pinch pennies for every trip I take, it may actually be a bit harder to be vegan abroad; after all, it's hard enough already going out to eat in the U.S., let alone Eritrea or Uruguay. Saving money as a backpacker usually involves cooking and preparing my own food instead of eating out at restaurant after restaurant. This allows me to save money while also being very much in control of what I'm eating.

What About Missing out on Cultural Experiences?

I've heard from close friends that they find it amusing that now I almost exclusively eat my own cooked/prepared food when I'm traveling, because before I went vegan I was the person who always eagerly stepped up to try the local delicacies: scorpion and snake on a stick, fried spiders, live grubs, sheep brain, straight goat blood (still warm from the jugular), deep fried guinea pig, llama tartar, putrified shark and puffin... to be honest, the list could go on for awhile. I also thoroughly enjoyed the more westernized cuisines, such as buttery croissants and oozing eclairs in Paris, or seafood platters the size of a small car along the Mediterranean, or cheese fondues with a full-fat cappuccino in the Swiss Alps. Initially when I went vegan back in 2013, I was concerned that suddenly I'd feel deprived without trying all these different kinds of food around the globe, but all it took was a solid perspective shift for me. The devastating environmental impact of eating animal products, not to mention the inexcusable cruelty, does not magically disappear while on vacation. While I do think that one of the best ways to experience a culture is through their cuisines, I hold myself to the mindset that ethics don't bend for a momentary meal; and plus, you'd be surprised how many cuisines around the world are mostly plant-based, or can be made plant-based.

That being said, some of my favorite vegan meals have been abroad: couscous in a heavy vegetable stew, called tagine, in Morocco; falafel gyros stuffed with tahini sauce and paprika fries in Turkey and Greece; heaps of grilled vegetables drizzled with olive oil, garlic, toasted bread, and sea salt in practically every seaside country along the Mediterranean and Adriatic coasts; plates piled high with gallo pinto (rice and beans stewed together with fresh herbs and spices), sweet plantains, and fresh salads in Costa Rica; avocado smoothies and yuca fries dipped in mouth-wateringly flavorful sauces in West Africa; dark chocolate roasted with hazelnuts in Switzerland; vegan wienerschnitzel in Austria and dairy-free gelato in Rome; all the curries and matars and naans and samosas and chutneys in India and Nepal; fresh, steaming vegetable dumplings in bustling Shanghai markets. 

It's a whole other part of the world -- and part of traveling -- to get to know.

What About Offending People Who Offer You Food?

An extremely valid concern for vegan or vegetarian travelers is what to do in the situation when a local offers you some sort of food that isn't vegan. This is where a gray area arrises.

Let's use an example of when I ended up at a family's home in rural northern Nepal, in a village somewhere along the border to Tibet. I had recently transitioned to vegan, and wasn't sure what to do when I heard some rummaging in the kitchen, and the mother of the house suddenly appeared in front of me with a big, heaping bowl of something. Something with hunks of bone, cheese, and what I'm sure was roped intestine floating in a thick brown stew. Not to mention a cup of Tibetan butter tea filled to the brim. (Butter tea is made from three ingredients: tea leaves, salt, and butter from a yak).

Now, my extent of the Tibetan language is hello and goodbye, so any attempt I made to communicate that animal products would upset my stomach wasn't exactly translating. In a perfect world, I'd know how to communicate that meat and dairy makes me sick (because at that point I really was concerned that my body would react poorly to having a sudden huge intake of what I'd ridded from my diet three months prior), but that didn't seem to be in the cards. 

And she was kneeling there, smiling and eager, and so I accepted it, and I drank it all, slurped it all, make plenty of delicious! moaning sounds and belly-rubs, and was grateful.

And that's it.

There will be plenty of occasions while traveling where I can politely decline a meal because I can't eat what's being offered to me and there is no offense taken (usually when there's ample communication and they understand that you truly may get sick), but there are also occasions (particularly during home-stays) where someone has truly and earnestly cooked something for me, and to decline it would be disrespectful beyond anything you or I could imagine. Sometimes you'll be in a position where you have to accept food that's offered, and I encourage you to be gracious, courteous, and to never forget the privilege it is for someone to provide nourishment for you; even if it's not the nourishment you're used to getting.

(Also, yes, for those of you wondering: I did get sick from the butter tea and intestine stew. But now it's a story to tell, and no one was offended in the process).

Favorite Vegan Traveler Meals and Tips
  • When it comes to breakfast, most hostels will offer some kind of complimentary fare that will consist mostly of non-vegan foods, but there are always a few gems. Scope out the breads, peanut butter, jams and marmalades, fruit, vegetables, and margarine. You may even get lucky and find Heinz baked beans (vegan) or oatmeal (ask if it was made with milk or water) at hostels that offer a more full English breakfast. However, even at the most bare-bones breakfasts, you are guaranteed to find bread and jam at the very least. (And honestly, you're better off eating that than instant-eggs and canned sausages, anyway). 
  • If your hostel does not offer breakfast, some favorite backpacker breakfasts of mine are: banana and peanut butter on bread/toast, fruit salads, instant oatmeal bought at a grocery store with a handful of nuts or dried fruits, apples and pears, cereal with almond or soy milk, or leftovers from what I made the night before (note: cold pasta, stir fries, and pizza tastes awesome the next morning straight out of the fridge)
  • Before leaving on your trip, consider stocking up on a dozen or so hearty and nutritious granola bars that can fill in for a meal or snack when no vegan options are available, such as Cliff bars, Pro Meal bars, or Luna Bars. That way, you can at least guarantee you'll never be hungry.
  • For lunch, a bag of bread, jam, and peanut butter offers a whole week’s worth of lunches for barely a dollar each. And when PB&J sandwiches get tiring, other quick and awesomely cheap lunch ideas are: bean salad (buy canned beans and veggies – such as kidney beans, chickpeas, green beans, corn, peas, canneli beans, mushrooms, and whatever else you find, drain the liquid from the cans, and mix whichever veggies & beans you want together with a splash or two of balsamic vinegar, olive oil, or tomato sauce), veggie sandwiches (slice some sweet peppers, cucumber, onions, tomatoes, and lettuce, and throw them on two mustard-slathered pieces of bread, and voila- also the perk of this is that mustard can go for a few days with refrigeration and stay edible, as opposed to hummus or condiments from animal products which need refrigeration)
  • For dinner, some more ideas are: pasta with tomato sauce, and to bulk it up, throw in a can or two of veggies or beans (I personally like peas, mushrooms, and chickpeas in my backpacker pastas); rice with lentils/beans/veg; stir fry; stews and soups (grab some veggie broth, veggies, beans, grains such as barley, and cheap spices to make a hearty few meals); curries; veggie ramen; veggie hot-dogs, which are surprisingly common to find and quick to prepare; if there’s an oven or you’re cooking over an open flame, take advantage and make roasted veggies by mixing them with olive oil and salt, or wrap up veggies, corn, and potatoes in tin foil to roast over a fire.
  • If you’re going to be staying somewhere with a freezer, use that opportunity to buy frozen veggies to add to your dinner for a variation from canned veggies (more nutritional content in frozen veg)
  • If you’re in a region where avocados are everywhere, take advantage and make guacamole, or smashed avocado sandwiches/toast with salt and pepper. If you want to get fancy, throw in chopped onions, tomato, and lettuce. 
  • In bigger Western cities, it’s common now to find plant milks at big supermarkets (such as rice or soy milk); look out for that if you have a hankering for cereal and you have a place to refrigerate the milk.
  • Learn how to say vegetarian/vegan, milk, cheese, butter, egg, and no in the local language, or at the very least, write them down and keep them on you! If you’re eating out and are unsure if something contains animal products, you’ll be able to ask. 
  • If you have a fridge and you find hummus at the local market, stock up on that and make some hummus veggie sandwiches. 
  • Snacks that can endure long travel days without spoiling or bruising: apples, pears and bananas as long as they're a bit underripe, carrots/peppers/cucumbers, pretzels (check for whey in the ingredients), dark chocolate (usually 75% cacao or more is vegan but check anyway), granola bars, nuts and dried fruits, potato chips, pickles (I may be weird about that but I love pickles and they last forever)

AND FINALLYwww.HapyCow.net is an excellent resource for finding vegan and vegetarian restaurants (or at least restaurants that offer veg options) in most cities around the world.

Happy carrot munching and globe trotting!