There are no hard and fast rules about the right or wrong ways to do things and, of course, everyone’s opinion varies. The following is simply our opinion, advice we would give any new overlander based on our own experiences. We hope you find it useful!….
First things first
You’re never ‘ready’ to leave! There’s always something else you can do to plan and prepare but in the end, you’ve just got to set the date and hit the road. It’ll all work out fine in the end!
Don’t try and pack everything you might ever possibly need – you’re not dropping off the edge of civilisation as soon as you leave your home country! Most things are available in most countries (toiletries, bungees, maps, tools etc), and often at half the price!
A lot of people we’ve met carry far too much stuff. We’re not extreme by any means but travel relatively lightly and yet have kit for most situations (we’re certainly not minimalist). Other than putting more stress on the bike, excess luggage is a pain to load and unload, and most of it won’t ever get used. The old adage of laying out the minimum you think you’ll need and then throwing away half of it is absolutely right!
Don’t pack too much clothing! 3 T-shirts and 3 sets of underwear are more than enough per person. Add to that a pair of shorts, lightweight trousers, a lightweight micro fleece and a hat (for sun and/or cold) and you’re just about done. (see below for advice on recycling laundry). Select certain clothes for dedicated riding/off the bike (riding t-shirts get pretty tatty but you won’t care when you’re on the bike!) Layers are best for warmth.
Don’t leave home without
In no particular order….
A head torch each. Great for doing things in the dark and still having your hands free, also good for reading when lights are harsh in hotel rooms or if you’re in a dorm. Go for long battery life over lumen power. Keep in tank bag or somewhere equally accessible
A good compact torch (LED means no need to carry spare bulbs & better efficiency). Keep accessible.
A decent multi-tool, preferably with pliers and a locking blade. Keep accessible.
Lots of colour photocopies of all your documents, plus scans saved to your laptop and emailed to yourself so you have multiple back-ups. Extra passport photos are useful too.
Silk sleeping liner. Highly useful, folds down to the size of a fist. It provides an extra couple of degrees of warmth in a sleeping bag on cold nights, is cooler than a sleeping bag in the heat, and will keep the bed bugs off in the more ‘budget’ establishments you’ll find yourself on occasion.
Baby wipes. A million and one uses!
Insect repellent. Can be surprisingly hard to find in towns off the beaten track and even in cities in less touristy countries.
Spare bungees, straps and cargo nets, zip ties. Incredibly useful.
Shock cord. A 10m length from a camping shop takes up little space but has multiple uses, particularly as a washing line.
Bin liners. Our day pack isn’t water proof so in bad weather we just place it in a liner before strapping it to the bike. Cheap and 100% water proof.
Ziplock sandwich bags (different sizes). Used for all sorts of things; leaky toiletries, spare bolts, water proofing, electronics… anything! We got some super small ones from a local jewellery store which are great for small bits and pieces.
Penknife. A small bottom of the range Swiss army type penknife is great to carry in a jacket pocket for picnics, camp cooking and, of course, opening the beers!
Stuff you just don’t need
A big supply of emergency food/rations. There’s always food to buy on the road – if there are people, there’s food – and if you’re about to hit real wilderness, you’ll know then to stock up.
Extra large fuel tank. Unless you’re really going off the beaten track into Mongolia or the Sahara or somewhere equally remote, you simply don’t need some monstrous tank with 1000km range. They’re incredible expensive, costing you money that will be far better spent keeping you on the road for longer. Some cheap plastic 5 litre jerry cans are more than enough. Fill them when you need them and when they’re not being used, they’re so light you won’t notice them. When we’ve been in places where we needed even greater range, we’ve simple filled our jerry cans plus a couple of empty water/soft drink bottles.
Life on the road
Daily mileage: Whilst you can easily cover big distances when you’re at home, we have found that realistically, you don’t want to be doing more than a maximum 250-300km per day. This gives you time to stop and see things en route and have regular breaks. Be sure to give yourself regular rest days too; even with the short distances and low speeds, riding overland can be fatiguing. It’s not just the riding, you’re constantly route planning, problem solving, dealing with language issues etc and it all takes its toll. We try not to be over-ambitious when planning a day’s riding; it’s amazing how crappy road surfaces, riding round town to find a place to stay or simply having a long chat with a local can put you behind schedule. Bearing this in mind, we try to give ourselves a 30% margin of error when projecting where we might get to by the evening. This 30% margin also relates to longer term planning too; we thought it would take up to a month to get to Turkey but in the end, we arrived in Istanbul seven weeks after our departure date! There were simply too many places en route that we never even knew about when we left. You can’t plan the whole trip from the living room – give yourself the freedom to deviate from the plan on a whim!
Navigation: In our opinion, it’s not essential to carry a SatNav device. We have survived happily with just a few very large scale maps even though the small roads or towns we pass through sometimes don’t even appear on them. Most places have sign posts, and if not you can always ask someone – a great way to meet people. That said, most travellers we’ve met do carry SatNav (or GPS enabled phones). It all comes down to your own confidence/skill in navigating!
Early border crossings: Given the amount of time it can take to exit one country and enter another at a border, and the fact that in some places the borders are not places you want to hang around at after dark, we have found that the best policy is to spend the night within a reasonable distance of a border so you can get the procedure done the next morning before any rush. This also then provides you time to get away from the border and acclimatise to the new country before it’s too late in the day.
Night riding: Once in the developing world, it’s wise to ensure that you finish your day a good hour before sunset. Riding at night can be unnecessarily dangerous; there are often animals in the road, vehicles driving without lights, and for criminals and corrupt officials, you are easy picking. Obviously, at times it’s unavoidable (riding through Taliban contested country to get to Besham in Pakistan was one such time for us – not ideal!) but remember, you don’t see much in the dark and surely that’s why you’re doing this trip anyway!
Fixers: At some borders, we’ve been approached by ‘fixers’ offering their services to help us get through the paperwork smoothly (for a fee of course!) We feel they’re an unnecessary waste of money – ultimately, as long as you’ve been to immigration and customs (they can sometimes be easy to miss!) and both have said they’re finished with you, you’re good to go!
Changing currency: In central Asia particularly, the official exchange rate was often wildly different from that offered on the black market. It’s good to know in advance which market you want to be using, and to have an idea of the rate. Generally, there are people at the borders who can change money for you. As long as you have an idea of the average rate, you’ll get a fair deal. Don’t be afraid to haggle!
Haggling: Unlike Europe and the West, bartering is a way of life and is totally expected in many countries. Bear in the mind, the price quoted to you will be very different from the one given to locals. Don’t be afraid to say a price that’s outrageously low; the trader will get away with what he thinks he can so go for it! It’s useful if you can ask a local beforehand what they would expect to pay. If you’re not happy with the price, walk away – this is usually a great way to prompt a final reduction. Bargaining often applies to accommodation as well as material goods.
Dealing with officials: In the developing world officials can have a tendency to be very, very official! Unless you’re really unlucky, the ease with which you deal with them correlates directly with how you act and treat them. Try not to be too meek, cocky, dismissive or defensive as this will only either irritate them or make you seem like an easy target. It may be stating the obvious, but it’s helpful to smile, make eye contact (visor up/helmet off, sunglasses off) and say/ask how to say a few words in their language. Talk about football, it really is the universal language. As soon as we say we’re from London, it prompts a spurt of randomly naming associated clubs and players and thus ensues banter and a general softening of attitudes. In general, walking the line between confident assuredness and a genuine willingness to comply shows them that whilst you respect their authority, you are at the same time a social equal who won’t be bullied. (Alternatively, one novel approach used by a couple of overlanding friends is to rock up at the border and start making animal noises. Whether it breaks the ice, or shocks officials into silence, it seems to work for them!!)
Bribes: Corrupt officials are an inevitable part of life on the road and obviously the way you deal with them depends on what part of the world you’re in and your particular circumstances. We’ve met people who’ve had dealings with corruption in half the countries we’ve been through (some of them paying out significant or regular sums of money to smooth their way), whilst we’ve only really experienced it in Azerbaijan and at the Uzbek/Kazak border. We can’t help but think that this is less to do with luck, and more about assuming the correct attitude in the first place (see above). On the entire trip, we’ve not paid a single bribe to an official (we did slip the captain of the Caspian sea ship $40 dollars which, in return, reduced our fee by $80 so paid for itself!) It’s important to stand your ground without looking worried or being aggressive. If they don’t think they’re going to get anything out of you, they generally quickly give up (see our Azerbaijan blog for when they don’t!) At the end of the day, if they think you’re a soft touch, they’ll take advantage of you and see what they can get out of you, and rest assured, once you’ve paid out once, their friends down the road will know all about you too.
Laundry: We often wash our clothes in the shower – wash them and yourself at the same time. If your room has a soap dispenser or complimentary bars, so much the better! This approach also applies to cleaning your riding kit – the easiest way is to simply walk into the shower wearing it and apply soap!
Keeping cool: Put on wet/damp clothes. Particularly useful for the ladies when having to wear shawls/head scarves – drop it in some water, wring it out, put it on and watch in comfort as the men sweat away.
Insect bites/stings: Carry some bite relief cream in your tank bag so it’s accessible when something unwanted gets into your jacket on the road.
Backing up photos: We originally made back-ups of our photos on USB flashdrives because they are small and can be stored somewhere less tempting to potential light fingers (ours are stored in a sealable plastic bag in our wash kit). We have since also bought ourselves an external hard-drive (cheaper than at home), big enough to back up our entire hard-drive – we’ve picked up many things from fellow travellers on the way (films, riding videos, e-books etc) and buying flash-drives gets expensive when you need lots of memory.
Contact details: It’s amazing how many people we’ve met wanted our contact details so they could follow the blog/stay in touch. We had stickers with our website logo made up as a gift from a friend before departure and they’ve proved very popular! We recently also had some business cards made up with our contact details on – most of the overlanders we’ve met had them and in retrospect, it’s something we should have done from the start.
We carry a ‘dummy’ wallet. Take an old wallet and put any unused foreign currency from countries you’ve already passed through, along with any old cards. You probably will never have a problem but if you do, just hand over the dummy and let them take it. We don’t carry a money belt; it’s always obvious when someone’s carrying one and it shouts out ‘here’s where all my valuables are’… If you walk around looking nervous you look like a victim, confidence and self-assuredness is the best defence.
Don’t carry a knife or other weapon for personal protection. In the event of being mugged, ask yourself whether you’d be prepared to get into a knife fight, particularly over the little you might be carrying.
By all means keep up with news and read forums on the areas you’re visiting, but remember to take security warnings with a dose of salt. Remember, newspapers tend to dramatise to sell and for every negative post on a forum, there’s a hundred positive experiences that didn’t get written about. The chances are, the only things you’ll experience will be warmth and friendliness.
Keep a photocopy of your passport on you at all times: If you’re stopped by some sort of official when you’re walking about town, far better to hand over a copy of your passport (say yours is in a safe/at an embassy etc) than risk giving up the original which can potentially be ‘held hostage’. Also, some countries require you to have your passport on your person at all times and a copy should suffice.
Drink loads of water, way more than you think you need. Warm/air temperature water, although not as refreshing, is absorbed far more easily by the body.
Food safety. The easiest way for you to get sick on the road is drinking contaminated water, which includes water used in food preparation. If you’re in a country with particularly poor sanitation, avoid salads and ice. Look carefully at the seal on your mineral water bottle – some countries (India…!) are known to fill with tap water and re-seal with glue. If in doubt, soft drinks can be a safer bet (if it’s been opened, it will have lost its fizz).
We left with a comprehensive travel medical kit but for day to day problems, we have at times bought medication on the road, such as painkillers and anti-diarrhoea pills. It’s a bit of a gamble when you can’t understand any of the writing on the packet and you’ve had to resort to miming to (hopefully) obtain the right stuff but it’s normally a lot cheaper.
(Em) Before we left, I read a few posts on the HUBB (Horizons Unlimited forum) concerning potential difficulties as a ‘female overlander’. Aside from the more frivolous worries of how to wear one’s hair (I always wear it in a plait to stop it from knotting in the wind, but that’s just me…) and how many pairs of pants to take (answer: not many), the main worry seemed to be what to wear/how to conduct oneself in Muslim countries. Admittedly, we didn’t ride through Iran in the end (visa denied) but I can offer my experience from Pakistan. Basically, I wore a wide cotton scarf/sarong around my shoulders under my jacket. When we stopped I could quickly take my helmet off and pull the scarf up over my head, though after a while I realised that it was just easier to have it over my head under my helmet (being thin it was perfectly comfortable). That way I was never in any danger of being offensive. I didn’t wear any sort of long tunic under my jacket (though perhaps if you’re wearing jeans or tighter fitting trousers this would be advisable) but if I took my jacket off, I made sure that my scarf covered my upper body as well as my head. Pakistan was one of my favourite countries of the trip so far; the warmth and friendliness we experienced was second to none. True, in rural areas when we were stopped at blockades or to ask for directions, men would direct their conversation to James and at times I felt pretty invisible but the trick is not to take it personally.
In terms of the general practicalities of being a female traveller, I purchased a She-wee off the internet (of some use in the beginning for road side loo stops but to be honest, it was quickly forgotten) and made sure I took a decent stock of ‘women’s sanitary products’ (tampons aren’t really available in central and southeast Asia except for major cities or touristy areas). Make sure you get any prescriptions sorted before you go (including the pill) and in quantities to last the duration of your trip if possible (I made arrangements with my doctor for a family member to get prescriptions of my behalf and send them out when needed). Baby wipes have become something of a personal obsession (one of the first things I look for upon reaching a town with decent shops!) as they are great in the absence of a shower and also have a multitude of other uses. I also keep a small bottle of anti-bacterial hand gel easily accessible; just the smell alone makes you feel cleaner! I’m happy to wash my face with soap (or a babywipe!) and don’t wear make up day-to-day, but it has to be said, eyeliner and a pair of stud earrings don’t take up much room yet work wonders to restore a bit of femininity from time to time! All in all, it’s completely liberating being on the road with the minimal amount of stuff and most things I’ve needed, I’ve been able to buy along the way (like when my bra went missing from a hostel laundry!…) Being a woman on the road really doesn’t differ from the experiences of a man except, perhaps, you’re given even more respect as you’re seen as being a bit of a badass!