India is one of the most culturally rich countries in the world, so we can totally understand why you want to travel there. Many people feel overwhelmed by India, so here are our top tips for first-time backpackers heading there.
1. Pack accordingly to your destinations
The weather in the north and the south of the country can differ dramatically, so make sure you pack clothes that are suitable for where you’re going. The mountainous areas in the north can reach lows of 7 degrees Celsius during the coldest time of the year, but the south won’t usually drop below 25 degrees all year round.
Layered clothing is your best bet as they can be built up when it’s cold and picked between when it’s hot! Although it’s not necessary for male travellers to cover up, longer clothing will help keep mosquitos away from any uncovered skin. Opt for baggy clothing with light material to stay cool in the heat.
For female travellers, it’s especially important to dress conservatively. Generally speaking, shoulders and knees should be covered, although places like Goa are more relaxed with this. Check out our tips for women backpacking in India for more details. Long, baggy clothing made from light, airy material will help you stay covered but also be appropriate for the heat.
2. Eat what the locals eat
India has an amazing range of delicious food, both in restaurants and at street stalls. You might think that staying away from street stalls would help you avoid any dodgy food, but you would be missing out on something really incredible. Eating at food stalls is one of the best ways to stick to a budget when travelling around India, you just have to know which ones to eat at.
Look for the ones that have the biggest crowds or queues around it. If other people are eating there – especially locals – then chances are you’ll be fine eating there too. If not that many people are drawn towards a stall, we would generally take that as a sign to stay away as well.
Go for the ones that are constantly cooking fresh food. Food that looks like it’s been sitting there for a while leaves the opportunity for germs to get to them. Piping hot and steaming is what you’re looking for, and if you’re not sure, as the chef if they can cook some fresh for you. Most will happily do that and if they don’t, wander along to another stall who will!
3. Considering going veggie for your trip
If you’re looking to take all the precautions possible about avoiding sickness on your trip, consider not eating meat while you’re travelling. It’s a lot easier to accidentally eat badly cooked meat than badly cooked vegetables. Many Indians are vegetarian so there is a huge range of food for you to try. So much so that you could eat a new thing every day and not be tired of eating veggie! Many travellers don’t even notice that they’re not eating meat because Indian cuisine is so full of rich flavours.
From crispy samosas to Pani Puri to a restaurant quality meal of curry, naan and rice, Indian street stalls really have it all. And that’s not even mentioning the numerous styles of curries there are to offer across the country!
If you do choose to go veggie (and even if you don’t, this is still a useful tip) try to avoid things like salads, where the vegetables might have been washed in contaminated tap water. Fruits like bananas or melons which can be peeled in front of you are the best options for a refreshing snack.
Some stalls will have fruits already peeled and cut, so try asking the owner to cut some fresh for you. Just like before, most will be happy to and if they don’t, you might as well just find one who will!
4. Keep toilet paper or tissue in your bag
Indian toilet habits are very different from those in the west. It’s customary to use your left hand and a hose once you’ve finished your business. Although many people have praised the refreshing benefits of this, if you’re not quite ready to change your ways make sure you have toilet paper or a packet of tissues in your bag.
If you have a big backpack and a day bag, make sure you have resources in both, so you’re still covered when you leave your backpack at your accommodation!
5. Purify your water
Some people assume that food poisoning can only come from the food you eat, but a lot of the time it can come from contaminated water. In India, tap water is not safe for drinking, so your best precaution is to stick with fresh, bottled water – even for brushing your teeth!
Before buying bottles, check that the seal of the lid hasn’t been broken and that it doesn’t feel loose at all. Some shopkeepers have been known to fill bottles with tap water and reseal them. So trust your gut. (Literally!) If something seems off about the bottle, take a new one or try a different shop.
If you’re travelling in India for an extended amount of time or have space in your bag, it’s a good idea to invest in a water bottle with an integrated filter like this. In the long run, you’ll save so much money and help save the world by reducing the plastic bottles you would have used!
PRO TIP: If you order drinks at a restaurant, make sure you ask for no ice, as ice cubes are usually made with tap water!
6. Keep an alcohol-based hand sanitiser with you
As we mentioned, tap water in India is not the safest, but you’ll want to keep your hands clean throughout your trip – obviously. But this is especially important if you’re planning to adopt the Indian method of eating with your right hand!
Washing your hands with soap and tap waters won’t be as effective as is would be at home, so hand sanitisers are a great way to keep your hands clean on the go. Alcohol-based ones are the most efficient as killing at any bacteria on your hands. And you can get them in small sizes to tuck into all your bags!
7. Stay up-to-date on your vaccinations
A lot of people’s concerns about travelling in India revolve around the possibility of getting sick. It is common to get an upset stomach when travelling there, especially if it’s your first time.
Your immune system is more susceptible than that of a native who is used to the environment in India, so the best precaution you can take is to get vaccinations before you go. Although these won’t make you immune, they will help your body best handle any illnesses you might get, otherwise, you could experience it much worse.
If you’re up-to-date with your primary courses (the injections you get as a child), then a course of boosters is usually recommended, covering the main diseases Diphtheria, Hepatitis A, Tetanus, Typhoid. Check out NHS Fit for Travel India for more details!
8. Buy travel insurance
It’s always a good idea to buy travel insurance no matter where you’re going because even the best planners can never predict what’s really going to happen! Flights can be cancelled, and baggage can be lost, leaving you with a giant hole in your pocket. And there’s always small a chance that you might get a little sick on your trip, despite following our ultimate guide. Most of the time, the things that go wrong when people travel are out of your hands, so take control of the one thing you can and buy travel insurance! In fact, many travel companies – including us! – require proof of purchase when using joining their tours. Don’t know where to start? We’re big fans of the insurance World Nomads provides.
9. Don’t let the little things get to you
India is a very large country with a population of over 1.3 billion people and over 18 million in Mumbai alone, so having lots of people around you when you’re in a city or on public transport is pretty much guaranteed. Just like a trip anywhere else in the world, things can and probably will go wrong!
It can be frustrating but try not to let these things ruin your whole trip. India is an incredible country with so much to offer and some truly amazing places for you to see. If you let them, these will undoubtedly out-way any hiccups you have, and you’ll have some lifelong memories to share after your trip!