What and how I prepared for a year of backpacking

Tim Sae Koo
Dec 23, 2018 · 15 min read

Hi, my name is Tim, and I am just your simple guy who ran the rat race in Silicon Valley. I started my first tech company, bootstrapped it for 6 years, scaled it to 40+ employees with $millions in revenue, exited in 2018 after feeling burnt out, and now backpacking for at least a year to heal, recharge, and seek the next meaningful problem that pains my heart to see exist outside the San Francisco tech bubble. That way I can be fully energized and ready to dedicate the next part of my life towards impact work I feel aligned with.

To do so, I’ve been preparing for the last 2 months on a variety of tasks to not feel so overwhelmed as I traverse the globe for 12+ months. And as I am coming to my starting date and country, I thought it could be helpful if I shared my learnings with you as you consider or are ready to backpack to multiple countries for an extended period of time.

So I noted down 11 things below to consider and prepare for so you can lessen the potential chaos (note: I have prepared and am traveling as a USA citizen). There will be links to learn more information about services and products I’ve chosen to make it convenient for you (and for full transparency, some will be Amazon affiliate links —feel free to support only if it brings you value). My goal below is to simply pass on the wisdom and knowledge I’ve acquired after months of research and conversations with other seasoned travelers so you can receive more on your once-in-a-lifetime travel experience.


1/ Intention/Purpose

I was advised by a good friend of mine who backpacked for a year (shoutout to Colton Soref) that if he could do it again, he wished he did one thing before he traveled: set a purpose or intention for the year.

I loved this and put this at top of my list of preparing because it sets the direction for my year. I get anxious and overwhelmed with all the options advertised or recommended to me by friends or Youtube videos I watch when I land in a new country. Setting your intention/purpose for your year focuses your attention on activities and places to visit that aligns with what you set out in the beginning of your travels.

And that’s what I did. For me, I set three intentions for the year:

  • Rest and recharge (from 7 years of constantly hustling and pushing myself to my limits in my first startup)
  • Heal (internal wounds and relationship with myself that I’ve neglected for so long)
  • Seek (problems that pain my heart to see that exist around the world, outside of the bubble I’ve been comfortable in, to dedicate next part of my life towards)

You can see all three are focused on the self, which I intentionally crafted so I would have the recharged battery, internal peace, and clarity to pour myself into my next calling/venture (I identify myself as a founder/entrepreneur). This means most of my decisions on where I visit and spend my time will revolve around spirituality, quietness, local culture, and introspection. In my opinion, intentions does not mean expectations. It means a direction that is pointed but open, and flowing with what life will unfold for me during my journey.

Though we will probably differ in our profession, identity, and life calling, I still encourage you to set a purpose/intention to lessen the option overload, avoid expectation disappointment, and receive the most out of your travels.

2/ Phone Service

To stay in communication with friends and family as well as have tools to solve daily challenges that will arise, many of us will depend on our mobile phone as we traverse the world.

There are many options here, and plenty of resources on the Internet, so I will keep this to the point of what I considered and chose.

Three options:

  • Free, but risky

Sprint offers a plan that gives you free service for a year with unlimited texting and data, but calling with a fee/minute. It’s called Unlimited BYOD (bring your own device). Basically it requires you to have a phone that is eligible for their Sprint network (you can check on their site) and hop onto their network. For those that are skeptical, this is their clever marketing strategy to win back market share against the big guys like Verizon, ATT, and T-Mobile in the States.

I’ve confirmed with their customer service many times and my friends who have tried this and it works, and Sprint covers around 200 worldwide countries with their service. Be warned: their data speed in other countries will downgrade to 2G speeds, which means it will be much slower. I think this is perfectly fine because you really only need your phone for Maps, occasional research, and texting. And with the proliferation of WIFI cafes, you should be covered.

The only risk is if Sprint feels like shutting your service down because you are outside the US for extended period of time using their international roaming service. But I’ve been told this won’t happen three times from their US-based customer service (yes I called them three times to speak to three different people to confirm).

  • Frugal, but spotty

The other way I’ve researched as a backup in case the above doesn’t work and you don’t want to pay a high monthly US mobile service is to port your US mobile phone number into Google Voice, and connect Voice to Google Hangouts and use Hangouts as your calling and texting app/service. It’ll cost a one-time porting fee of $20, but from then on, you don’t have to worry about any service shutting you down. And you get to keep your mobile phone number without needing to pay for a US mobile phone service per month when you’re outside the US (and possibly not using it).

You will still need local SIM cards for data in case you’re outside WIFI areas to receive calls and texts in your Hangouts. Beautiful thing is local SIM cards are typically 1/4 of the costs of typical US mobile phone services. Be warned that I have read sometimes Hangouts can act up and not send texts/calls as consistent so if you’re OK with that and not rely on it so much, this may be a good option.

You can read more research on this and learn how to set it up here and here.

  • Cheap, but inconvenient

This option is simple. Stop using your US mobile phone service and phone number all together and just buy local SIM cards when you land to different countries. The inconvenience is having to get a local SIM card as soon as you land (and airports charge the most for SIM cards) if you need data to call a ride to go to your first destination and possibly losing your US mobile phone number / paying due to inactivity. Friends and family may also have a tougher time reaching you with your new local phone number which switches around from country to country. Messenger or Whatsapp will probably be your best friend here.

Pricey, but stable

The last option I explored is to pay for a US mobile phone service and upgrade to their international roaming plan. From my research, this will average around $75–$85/month. Good thing is you don’t need to look for local SIM cards when you land to a different country as these services offer 200+ countries for roaming, and you get some slight upgraded speed, but will never compare to the speed you get in the US. Ask the mobile phone service you use if they will shut you off if you don’t use it in the States for a period of time.

3/ Health Insurance

Again, there are probably many resources here online to sift through, but I’ll stay simple here and say I went with WorldMed Outbound plan, which cost me $569 for the year, and covers the below (which I believe was more than enough and well worth the price):

4/ Travel Bags

I thought about this intentionally as I enjoy living a minimal lifestyle. I wanted to rock and wear minimal travel bags that were:

  • insanely easy to use
  • super functional
  • sleek design (fewer logos the better)
  • carry on to airplanes (I dislike checking in bags)

I ended up choosing these two bags: one for my back and one for my shoulder/hands.

A/ PAKT Bag (shoulder/hand bag)

My good friend Malcolm started the PAKT bag, and I love it. Not only is he conscious of his packaging (no plastic!), he also is a really talented product designer, which you can see how functional and simple to use he’s made his bag. No logos on outside, two main places for clothes/accessories, easy access to laptop for those security checks, quality materials and even zippers, and so much more. This has become my main bag for my 39 articles of clothing (more on that below).

B/ Minaal (backpack)

I’ve used Minaal for the last two years for quick travel adventures, and it has served me very well that I use it as my daily backpack. It has two main places (one for clothes and one for laptop/accessories) with lots of functional pockets, straps to ease load on the back, and even a hidden pocket with a rain cover for the bag. This has been my main bag for my technology and daily needs to easily access.

I oddly feel super proud to not only fit my life for the next year in these two bags, but be rocking these two bags that made it possible to fit my life so perfectly and not be a huge strain on my body!

5/ Neck Pillow

Ah, the notorious travel neck pillows. From my travel experiences, I’ve bought many of them. Some are compact, but require you to use air, which makes it not so comfortable. Some are bulky and comfortable, but too inconvenient to carry around.

Thus when I found the Trtl Travel Pillow, I knew this was the one. Super small and compact (1/2 lb), no beans/rice inside the pillow for support, and no air needed. It’s built with soft fleece and neck support via a brace. I’ve used it for the first time recently on a bus and knocked out very comfortably without needing much space, my arms for support on the armrests, or others to wake me up to move me from my tossing and turning. Waking up without neck pain isn’t so bad either.

6/ Finances — Credit and Debit card

I am no self-proclaimed expert on finances, credit cards, or travel hacking. So what I share is directly related to the needs and constraints I have, so use the following accordingly.

I wanted a credit and debit card that would NOT charge me ATM fees to withdraw local currency and extra foreign exchange rate adjustment fees for international purchases with a credit/debit card. That is relatively simple to find with banks these days. The differences between each of the banks’ offerings are the benefits / perks, including airport lounge access, extra points/cash back for travel transactions, and more.

So I went with Chase, specifically their Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card and Sapphire Banking for checking/debit card. This combination gave me the opportunity for NO ATM fees worldwide, NO Foreign exchange rate adjustment fees with both my credit and debit card transactions internationally, free airport lounge access via Priority Pass, free TSA Pre and Global Entry applications, 3x more points for rewards/cash back, and so much more that wasn’t as pertinent for me but may be valuable for others.

There are many other credit cards and banks I didn’t explore, and could open up for maximum point redemption for flights/travel, but I opted in for a more simple, minimal lifestyle that allowed my brain to be free from thinking which credit card I need to be using to qualify for their rewards so I could spend more time and energy enjoying the beautiful local culture in front of me.

7/ Clothes

Figuring out what and which clothes to bring was one of the easier parts in my planning. I’ve been intentionally living a minimal clothing lifestyle for 2 years, so picking and choosing what I would take for the next 12 months was simple. But I did follow these simple guidelines:

  • Bring clothes that give me joy and possibly smiles to others
  • Bring what is very functional (easy to match, does its job for weather, and can fulfill multiple types of outings)

This is what I picked:

7 boxers
2 shorts (WAI Shorts and Public Space)
2 long pants (Uniqlo)
2 sweats (Uniqlo)
2 leggings
4 tanks
5 t-shirts (Kopnooi)
1 dress shirt (Trumaker)
1 vest (Uniqlo)
3 sweaters (Public Space)
1 small kimono
1 cape
5 socks
3 pairs of shoes (functional/hiking boots, casual slip ons, athletic/basketball)

39 items of clothing

One last guideline I have decided to follow is that I am not allowed to carry more than the two bags I have, which means when I am inevitably tempted to purchase a new article of clothing from a different country, I will donate the same amount of clothes I am carrying now. This means I will always keep 39 items of clothing, nothing more. I believe this will also make me disciplined and intentional with what I purchase/wear.

8/ Technology/Non-Clothing

Outside of clothing, I wanted to quickly share the technology/other misc items I am bringing with me to offer inspiration/ideas for efficiency and minimal packing.

1 Macbook Pro with converter (for keeping in touch + misc work/research)

1 Apple Wireless Keyboard

1 External HardDrive (in case I lose or break my laptop) (also leveraging iCloud storage services to back up)

1 Kindle (for all reading)

1 Bluetooth Speaker (for all outdoor music needs + indoor shower dancing)

1 Mini Projector (for those lazy movie nights)

1 Wireless Earbuds (for those days not feeling wires)

1 DSLR Camera (for photography and video recording)

1 24oz Reusable Water Bottle (for minimal plastic bottle usage)

1 pair of Metal Chopsticks (for minimal plastic utensil usage)

1 Mobile Charger (for when I forget to charge the camera, speaker, earbuds, etc.)

1 Travel Notebook (for journaling self-learnings and observations)

2 Converter Chargers

9/ Plan for Theft or Loss

There’s enough to think about or deal with when backpacking around the world. And with so many variables to think about and chaos to manage, theft or loss of important documents or technology is very likely to occur. Setting up ways to either prevent or retrieve or backup these documents / devices can save a whole lot of headache for your future self.

A) Laptop and Mobile Phone

I use Prey Project to manage any possible misplacement or theft of my laptop and mobile phone. It is a free to use (with upgrade opportunities) application that you download for your devices. Whenever it has WIFI signal or data, it will be let you know where your devices are (assuming you misplaced them or they got stolen). If you misplaced it, you can easily login to their dashboard to sound an alarm to find where it is. If someone stole it, you can easily login to their dashboard and mark it to missing. Prey will then let you know the next time the device is connected to some signal WHERE it is, take pictures via camera of the thief, allow you to send message to them via the device for a safe return for a reward, and allow you to wipe your (sensitive) data with a simple click.

In the unfortunate situations that I never retrieve my devices back if lost or stolen, I backup my phone on iCloud and my laptop on an external hard drive (link above) once a week. This gives me the peace of mind that all I would need to do is just replace the actual device.

B) Important Documents

I carry my USA passport, CA driver’s license, and international driver’s permit as physical copies. In case they ever get lost, which would be absolutely devastating, I have at the very least taken photo copies of them on my phone and on my laptop. In addition to these photo copies, I have also taken photo copies of my bank documents, social security ID, emergency medical card, and one credit card information. This just gives me opportunities to still have a digital copy for emergency purposes.

10/ Video Updates (for friends/family)

This was the toughest one for me to plan and prepare for. On one hand, I was resistant to this idea of creating updates for family and friends because I was nervous it would take me away from enjoying what was in front of me and take time away from focusing on my intentions. But on the other hand, so many loved ones were asking for updates in one form or another to follow so they could live vicariously through me.

After a few hours of ideating and journaling (my go-to way to bring clarity), I dispelled those fears and came up with a way to update my community. And it turned out that this would be a fantastic way for me to personally reminisce 1 or 10 years from now. Here were my thoughts and decision:

Guidelines:

  • These video updates will not take away from enjoying my time or exploring my intentions
  • Should never add stress
  • Adds value that may not exist today (on Youtube) by sharing personal observations and learnings
  • Streamline the updates/stories with a certain format and theme (decision below)
  • Stay authentic and vulnerable
  • Contribute to my intentions

Format Decision:

  • Weekly publishing cadence (alleviates time pressure, allows more enjoyment)
  • Record video clips of my journey (scenery/landscape/adventures) without commentary throughout week
  • Take photos of my journey throughout week
  • Take written notes during my journey of learning lessons and observations to share afterwards via video commentary
  • Record video commentary of learning lessons and observations in quiet (home) setting AFTER the adventure/journey
  • Edit them all together into longer form video with native language music and share with loved ones via YouTube

11/ Countries to Explore

Many have asked where I am heading out to, and the best way I can respond is “around the world.” What follows is “do you have your itinerary all planned out,” and I respond with “I have countries I feel called to explore that align with my intentions/purpose for the year, but no dates planned or tickets bought yet.”

This means I have intentions to explore the countries listed below, but there are no dates and no expectations to hit them all if timing doesn’t work out. Opting in to slow down and listen to what my body and heart feels at any given time and what experiences people I encounter share that sway me a certain direction.

To make things easier, here is my tentative itinerary of 26 countries for others to be aware of if we can cross paths or want to join! I chose these certain countries from conversations I’ve had with people I feel speak a similar language as me in life, or have personally read / watched videos about them that align with my intention of resting, healing, and seeking.

Q1 2019 (Jan, Feb, Mar)— Central & South America (Mexico, Costa Rica, Guatamala, Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru, Argentina)

Q2 2019 (Apr, May, Jun)— Western Europe/North Africa (Amsterdam, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy, Croatia, Morocco, Egypt)

Q3 2019(Jul, Aug, Sept)— South/South East Asia (India, Tibet, Bhutan, Myanmar, Nepal, Vietnam, Indonesia, Philippines)

Q4 2019 (Oct, Nov, Dec)— East Asia (Korea, Taiwan, Japan)

Let me know if we will cross paths or you’d be interested in joining!

See you soon

That’s all I have for you! I hope this can be a resource for you *once* you are planning for your year of backpacking/journeying! Should you have any questions on preparations or excited to follow my year long journeys, feel free to connect with me on the socials.

And for those who are also taking on the beautiful challenge of backpacking around the world for an extended period of time: May you be safe, may you find what you seek, may you learn and grow, and may you inspire others to breathe in the wondrous culture of the world.

-Tim

Tim Sae Koo

Written by

Former Cofounder/CEO @TINT (acquired). Now pondering next meaningful problem to solve while backpacking the world.

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