What were two girls thinking when they decided to backpack across India for a month? Honestly, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into! Yet it was more than what we could ever dream of! So where and how do you start planning to backpack in a country that is Asia's second largest!

Choose your partner

This can break or make your trip! This is far more important than the places you will see. Backpacking can take its toll on you. Take somebody with similar interests. Everyplace has a variety of things to offer. If you want to walk and your friend wants to take the coach tour, you can kiss each other goodbye! I set out with my best friend Shruthi. For us, it was a journey of having seen each other through tough times; a journey for new things to come.

Plan the route

List all the places you would like to visit. Then shortlist destinations with geographical proximity, charting out a route depending on the number of days available. You don't want to spend more time travelling TO the city than being IN the city. Have a fair idea of the trains, bus and cab services. You could always book your tickets to the next destination as soon as you land if need be. We did 14 destinations in one month by starting our journey at the capital and trickling down south.

Here is the route we followed:

Delhi, Haridwar, Rishikesh, Mussoorie, Dehradun, Mcleod Ganj, Amritsar, Chandigarh, Jaipur, Jaisalmer, Udaipur, Mumbai, Gokharna and finally Varkala.

It is nice to have a broad outline but don't stick to it. The initial plan had Auli, a hill station in Uttrakhand that is famous for skiing, but due to unfavourable weather conditions we diverted to Amritsar and it was a turning point in our journey! Sometimes the “Touristy” aspects are meant to be there for a reason. The Wagah border experience invokes patriotism with the flags flying high, the crowd cheering on; communal harmony is at its best here!

Budget

Most of us relate to travel being expensive. That's not true. You don't need an exorbitant amount to backpack — that is for luxury holidays! India is one of the most pocket friendly destinations. Set aside a per day expenditure for food, water, stay and transportation to give you a minimum budget. We are a google-bred generation; the first step to basic research is a lot easier. But don't go completely by it, talk to people who have visited the place before, walk around places… Find a place that interests you, look for better deals and always take a look at the rooms before you check in.

A backpacker always is cost conscious. If you have friends or friends of friends/family in the city, see if you can spend a night there. A little home atmosphere could help recharge you. If you're going to a place where ATMs are not accessible, withdraw an amount that will see you through. Always keep an extra amount if you are tired of staying in cheap hotels; you may want to sink into a nice bed for a night. Also be aware that all sightseeing places charge a nominal entrance fee and you should be prepared to pay extra for cameras. We met somebody who flew all the way from Taiwan went to Agra and did not see the Taj Mahal because it was expensive! You also don't want to be calling your parents to wire the money for you to reach home!

Expectations

“Lower your expectations to the point where they're already met,” said Calvin. The best thing about backpacking is the thrill in planning for the trip and yes, that can get you carried away. Be prepared for surprises — good and nasty ones! Be realistic; for Rs. 300 a night do not expect a TV, A/C in your room and laundry service.

Backpacking allows YOU to set the pace of your journey. If you fall in love with a place you can always extend your stay! You don't need to report to a particular time and are allowed to explore all by yourself! The same place will have starkly different experiences for different people. Don't let that stop you from having your own!

Our experience

This journey was the best decision of our lives and we are grateful to our parents for allowing us to chase our biggest dream. We started our journey on November 30 and reached Chennai on December 31. It was a whole different world out there. We often felt like strangers in our own country but more often felt so accepted in new places bringing down all borders. The only time we ever looked at our watch was to see what time was the train! The best thing about travel is the people you meet from all walks of life. We met people from across the globe — bikers, retired professionals, automobile designers, travel enthusiasts, dancers, yogis, so many different people, and so many different conversations. You exchange stories with other fellow travellers on the destination you've visited. A 60-year-old hippie we met told us, “You tell me your past, and I'll tell you your future”.

From giggling for no reason at the calm banks of the Ganges at Rishikesh, to a lovely drive in the woods at Dehradun, to a delicious Langar at the golden temple, to sleeping under a starry night in the deserts of Jaisalmer, to lazing in the secluded beaches of Gokharna and Varkala — the biggest lesson we learnt was that simple pleasures in life require no credit cards! For everything else…phew back to work!

Checklist

Essentials

A photo identity proof (Driving license copies)

Mail them to your e-mail along with research details and emergency contact numbers

Check weather conditions before you pack.

Pack less; buy if needed. Keep space for souvenirs as well!

A good back pack and a sleeping bag. Very important!

Basic guide to clothing

Hats (with decent size brims)

Small umbrella

Sunglasses

Flip-flops

sneakers

socks

bandana

headbands

scrunchie ( for girls ;) )

1- light weight cotton towel

4 short sleeve t-shirts

2 long sleeve shirts

4 pairs undergarments

4 pairs socks

2 pair capri pants (easy to dry)

1- winter jacket

1-shawl

1-thermals

1- mittens

1-pullover

Travel aids

A notebook for notes/accounts

Bed sheet

Sleeping bag

A small bag for day trips

Road Maps

Pen drive (for photographs)

Camera, camera charger and computer cable

mp3 player

Playing cards or other games

Whistle to alert others

For Security

Flashlights

Knives (Swiss/multi-purpose)

Small locks — for leaving bags at cloak rooms

Pepper spray

Food

High protein snacks bars/nuts

Hygiene

Towelettes for hands

Toilette paper

Lip balm

sunscreen

bodywash

Hand sanitizer

Tooth brush/ Toothpaste

Sanitary Tissues: Small packages

Dettol

Nail clippers

Bandaids

mosquito repellant

Brush or comb

baby oil

moisturizing lotion

nail kit

Deodorants

Chewing gums/mouthwash

First Aid kit

first-aid manual

sterile gauze

adhesive tape

elastic bandage

your list of emergency phone numbers

safety pins

calamine lotion

thermometer

antibiotic cream

Painkillers

Anti-septic cream (for cuts and scrapes)

Band-aids

Oral rehydration powders

Pure Aloe vera gel (for sunburns)

Tablets for diarrhea and constipation)

Motion-sickness tablets

Tiger balm

Last but not the least carry your spirit of adventure and your sense of humour!

Stay safe

Be wary as well as open to people! It is an oxymoron but you will have to be a good judge of character, if not you will learn!

Carry photocopies of your identity and keep it in different places. Also exchange copies with your partner.

If you call home, inform them of your route.

Always stay together and never be out of sight of each other!

Don't share personal details. Lie about your name if necessary. Never tell people how long you are there and where you are staying!

If people ask for your number and e-mail take their details and say YOU will get in touch.

Do not let any stranger tell you what to do, ask for opinions but never let them join you or take you there.

Shina is a 25-year old freelancer