8 Ways to Stay Healthy While Backpacking
Updated: Feb 28
Backpacking the world is an incredible experience. You're on your own, paving your own path catered to not only your bucket list destinations, but to hidden gems you stumble upon along the way. It's riveting, exciting, but something no one admits, is that it's stressful! Being on the go and maybe not knowing where you're staying the next night, or how you're getting to the next town is exasperating. Sitting on hot buses, language barriers, and getting food poisoning are just some of the tribulations experienced by backpackers.
After a decade of backpacking and getting all sorts of illnesses, I have summed up the most important tips and tricks for staying healthy on the road.
Tip #1 - Don't forget to Exercise
We all know the benefits of hitting the gym, so why forget about them while traveling? Exercise is proven to release stress, help manage weight, and protect the body from disease. It's not the easiest to find time or energy (and let's be real, confidence in a foreign city!) for the gym, but if you do have a free morning, lots of local gyms offer cheap day rates. If the gym isn't your cup of tea, there are plenty of other ways to keep active. Check out a free walking tour, gear up for that sunrise hike, or check out the local yoga studio. Movement is healing and if there's one thing I know that keeps me feeling good while backpacking, it's some form of physical activity. In my most desperate times, I've done Youtube video HIIT workouts in my hotel room. We do what we gotta do as travelers to stay in shape!
Tip #2 - Get your Steps in!
Going into a bit more detail from tip #1, getting your steps in is another form of movement great for staying healthy while traveling. The American Health Association recommends 10,000 steps (equivalent to 5 miles of walking) a day, but we all know that isn't always possible. After our 10 hour day on a public bus in the Philippines, my boyfriend and I were sweaty and exhausted. We were feeling cramped and stagnant from sitting so long, we made it a point to walk through the town to get the blood moving. Walking has a plethora of benefits that include increased heart health, boosted immunity and even reduces the risk of breast cancer according to this site.
"A study of over 1,000 men and women found that those who walked at least 20 minutes a day, at least 5 days a week, had 43% fewer sick days than those who exercised once a week or less. And if they did get sick, it was for a shorter duration and their symptoms were milder." – Harvard Health Publishing
The takeaway message here isn't to force a 5 mile walk every day, but rather make it a point to get at least some sort of steps in. Some days you may only fit a ten minute walk in, and other days you'll exceed 25,000 steps after exploring a city such as Rome.
Tip #3 - Bring your own Medical Kit
I don't leave on a trip without a stash of pills including everything from IB Profen to my migraine medicine. I don't like to take up too much space, but having a little kit of things helps out in the long run. My last backpacking trip was so jam packed that I ended up with strep throat, food poisoning, and a cold all back to back. Fortunately, I had a dose of antibiotics, Nyquil, and immodium and electrolyte powder. I came prepared!
Some countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Mexico sell antibiotics over the counter along with many other medications. This is really nice because you don't need to go to the doctor for a prescription, which gets very time consuming and expensive. If I don't have any antibiotics to bring, I'll call my doctor before a trip and ask for some preventative antibiotics.
A list of things I keep in my kit include IB Profen, Zzzquil sleeping pills, imodium, antibiotics, vitamin c packets, probiotics, and any prescription medication.
Tip #4 - Get your Rest
Getting sufficient sleep is so important and I wish I realized this in my early 20s. Whether you're out late dancing, or you have anxiety preventing a full night's rest, it happens and it affects us. Late nights are great, but having too many will weaken the immune system and put our bodies in a vulnerable state.
"Studies show that people who don't get quality sleep or enough sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus, such as the common cold." – Mayo Clinic
There will always be a party, especially as a backpacker. Just be aware that if you're finding yourself rundown more often than not, consider getting more sleep.
Tip #5 - Don't forget to have that Chill Day!
Backpacking puts a lot of stress on the body and mind, so saving a day here and there for beach days and movie days are important for our health. It's exhausting carrying our lives on our back and planning every day in meticulous detail. Being on go mode for weeks at a time is stressful, and stress weakens the immune system. Bopping around from city to city can cause major burn out. I have to remind myself that even though I'm in a new country and I want to see it all, sometimes I have to skip that tour or skip that hike, because I just can't.
To give not only your body, but your brain a rest, save a day or two for switching off and doing absolutely nothing. Remember, it's for your health ;)
Tip #6 - Bring a Reusable Water Bottle
This one isn't always obvious, and something I only recently started doing. I can tell you wholeheartedly that being dehydrated is almost inevitable. Having a water bottle isn't only eco friendly and cost effective, but it will keep you hydrated. For me, having a water bottle is a reminder to drink water. If I don't have water near me, it's like I forget about it completely. I've gone full days traveling without even taking a sip of liquid!
Bring your water bottle and make it a goal to drink at least one full bottle a day. If you're traveling somewhere warm, it wouldn't be a bad idea to invest in electrolyte powder or tablets. Being dehydrated causes weakness but can also lead to more serious complications like kidney issues. Stay hydrated, stay healthy.
Tip #7 - Take Probiotics
Probiotics are made of good live bacteria, basically the microorganisms that live in our stomach. Taking probiotic supplements are ways to add more good bacteria to our bodies that help fight off bad bacteria (i.e. disease). I am not a medical professional and this tip is only coming from personal experience. We all have different microbiomes so what works for me, may not work for you. However, the results I've seen from taking a probiotic every morning are worth noting. I have more energy because I have better nutrient absorption, I don't have cravings anymore, and I've noticed better health overall. My body seems to fight off viruses better and I have no digestive issues. It's also worth noting that a supplement isn't the only option and we can get probiotics by eating yogurt, sourdough or kombucha.
"Studies suggest that probiotic therapy can help treat several gastrointestinal ills, delay the development of allergies in children, and treat and prevent vaginal and urinary infections in women." - Harvard Health Publishing
Do your own research and decide if this tip is relevant or not to you. It isn't easy traveling with probiotics because most brands require refrigeration, but it is possible. At the very least, make it a goal to eat probiotic rich foods a few times a week. Gut health is the key to overall health!
Tip #8 - Be Mindful of what you Eat
Substitute the burger and fries for something more nutritional. Also, consider grocery shopping and cooking a few meals at home. Most hostels have community kitchens and most Airbnbs are fully equipped with the tools for cooking your own meals. The only places that don't have these facilities seem to be hotels, unfortunately.
I find that I feel the most energized and fresh when I eat at home. Eating out is enjoyable and all part of the cultural experience, but having a break from fried and heavy foods is good for us. There are so many hidden calories and ingredients like seed oils, something our bodies don't know how to digest. Don't get me wrong, there are usually healthy options, but getting in the habit of cooking here and there will only benefit you in the long run!
A typical day of eating for me while backpacking includes plain yogurt and fruit for breakfast, canned tuna sandwiches or salad with avo for lunch, and a dinner out in the new city. I stay in my budget and don't over eat if I only go out here and there. Of course, every day traveling is different from the last and using these as guidelines rather than rules will give you the best results.
Now you have all of the information to keep you healthy and fresh for your big backpacking trip!
Stay safe, stay hydrated, and stay healthy! Long flight? Get a copy of my book Kashmir to keep you entertained on the plane! Thoughts? Drop a comment below.