Backpacking India in 2019

Namaste!

This post is intended to supplement the fantastic information provided by HippeInHeels and BrokeBackpacker. I used their sites to familiarize myself with India before backpacking through it for several months. I generally cover packing, handling money, transportation, using the post office, getting a SIM card, and offer miscellaneous tips based on my experiences.

About Me

My experience is influenced by who I am. This section provides context to understand my decisions as some of mine may not be appropriate for you.

I am a tatooed American white male with long hair from New York City. I work in IT and do some remote freelancing. I turned 36 while in India and was in the Army Reserves for a few years when I was 18. I am a certified Yoga and Indoor Cycling Instructor. When given options, I usually choose the more difficult of them. I don’t often eat for taste and weather isn’t usually a factor in decision making.

Tip Summary

Before You Leave

Create a Google Doc with a rough outline of your itinerary and share it with family or close friend. This can also be used in an emergency as supporting proof of being a tourist in India.

Set a Google Flights alert to monitor flight prices. I caught a flight fror New York City to New Delhi on August 1, 2019 for $330USD leaving on August 17th, 2019 with Kuwait Airlines. There was a single transfer in Kuwait. The flight was flawless and I slept for most of the 24 hours.

With a flight booked, I expedited my paperwork starting with same day passport renewal in New York City which cost approximately $150. Make a reservation to expedite your passport or prepare to be in a long line. Note that your passport cannot expire within 6 months of arriving in India.

Once I had my passport renewed, Iused iVisa to expedite an Indian Visa for approximately $150. My visa photo did not match my passport photo and that was not an issue while traveling.

I purchased three months of insurance through WorldNomads for $320 and scheduled a visit with my primary care doctor for shots. I did not get the series of rabies shots, but I did get a tetanus vaccine. I already had measles, mumps, rabies, and hepatitus vaccines from childhood.

Print out the following.

(1) Flight Confirmation Email

(2) B/W and (2) Color copies of Visa and Passport

(1) Itinerary containing contact information, blood type, emergency contact

(1) Printout of your Insurance confirmation email

(Optional) Front/Back of your credit card with the last four digits obscured. Alternatively, take a photo and put it in Google Drive in case your lose your credit card and need to make online purchases.

Buying Bags

This section largely reflects backpacking by yourself for months. I used one big (pack) and one small bag (day). REI has a range of manufacturers to try on — Osprey fit my body type and also checked all the boxes.

For my pack bag, the boxes were:

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Osprey Atmos AG 65 Liter

I found the Osprey Atmos AG 65 Liter to check all these boxes. Using Google Shopping, I bought it from Cotsworld in the UK as the cost was $100USD cheaper from buying it from anywhere else, even after shipping.

This is what I looked for in a daypack:

I bought an Osprey Daylite Plus from REI for around $65USD. I would argue it is more important to find a day bag that fits well as you’ll wear it more often and for longer periods of time.

Clothing

I didn’t buy clothes in India, but they are immediately available everywhere. India is largely a conservative country — it was a bummer walking around Rishikesh and seeing so many women in western yoga pants and dudes in tank tops. On each tour I took, there was at least a couple women and a couple men who couldn’t go in some of the buildings due to their clothing. Just like, be respectful, ya?

These pants from Prana were perfect. I brought 2 pairs and switched between them when I did laundry. They have additional zippered pockets (not waterproof but there is a cover over the zipper) for the passport. They breath incredibly — I wore them as everyday pants and hiking the Himalayas outside Leh. They dry quicker then heavier pants and they have a built in belt.

I brought (3) long sleeve cotton shirts which are great for covering from the sun and hiding tattoos and (4) t-shirts which I exercised in and wore when the long sleeves were dirty. I brought (2) pairs of shorts, (6) pairs of socks including (3) pairs of knee-high compression, and (4) pairs of underwear, and one baseball cap. I did laundry about once every 7–8 days.

A pair of hiking boots can function as your everyday boots. These slip on and off while tied (you take off your shoes when you enter buildings in India, even to pop in a shop), wick water (came out to them filled with water from a rain and wore them 10 minutes later), and grip the terrain perfectly. If you opt for sneakers, be aware that you’ll have a harder time in the rain and off the roads. Indians wear sandals and you can too. I wore them for a week and fucked up both feet so badly that I switched back to boots.

Packing List

These would be required items.

(1) Lifestraw and compatible 32oz or 64oz water bottle. Between this and my passport, I’d rather lose my passport. I cannot emphasize how useful this item is in a country where you cannot drink the water from the faucet.

(1) Medium to Large Microfiber Towel for after showers.

(1) Amazon Kindle

(1000) Indian Rupees (INR) from a money exchange. You can use this to buy a SIM at the airport, ride a local bus into the city, and avoid the poor exchange rates offered at the airport.

(1) Pair of Electrical Adapters. You probably won’t need a converter as modern chargers operate in a range of voltages and frequencies. Read up on it anyways!

(1) Buff. This amazing item functioned as a pollution filter in Delhi, a neck sunguard in Leh and Rajasthan, and so much more.

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Cable Lock

(1) Small cable lock. I used this to lock items in hostels and while on trains.

(1) Hand sanitizer. Use occassionally and before meals.

(1) Pocket Tissues, small toothpaste, deodorant, travel toothbrush, tolietry bag (separate your tolietries from rest of your bag as flights cause pressure to build in the containers).

(10) Double Zip Lock Bags. Put everything in a zip lock bag. Papers, receipts, tolietries.

(x) Clothing.

(1) Shoes

These would be recommended items.

(1) Dry Bag. Borderline must-have. This held all my dirty laundry and I washed the clothes in the bag. Fill with soapy water, slush around a bit and close it up for a couple hours. Come back to rinse, hang to dry.

(1) Powerbank. Mine was in my checked luggage and was taken out on my first flight — I survived for 3 months without this, no problem. Most people have one though. In India, you cannot carry a powerbank in your checked luggage, it must be in your carry-on.

(1) One Pot and spork. Ready to differentiate yourself? Every hostel has, at least, hot water and oftentimes a stove. Buy maggi (Indian ramen) for 10 rupees and toss in some vegetables. Boil. Don’t have a coffee or tea option in the morning? Add instant + hot water, done. Can’t find enough protein? (see next item)

(1) Package of Dried Foods. This was overkill as it took 3 months to go through most of this. However, you only need to add water, it doesn’t even have to be hot (20 min wait any temp, 5 min hot water). Mix a few packs with ramen.

I don’t recommend, but you might want to bring:

(1) Headlamp. I used this twice in 3 months. Once in the middle of a night shower when the power went out and a second time to find an outdoor latrine. It’s highly useful when you need it but due to the frequency, necessity is debateable.

(1) Sleeping Pouch/Liner. I used this twice — once on a train and once in a really dirty bed in a hostel. Same as headlamp justification.

(1) Travel Pillow. I actually do not recommend this. It was cumbersome to carry around, took hours to fully shape itself, and I after losing it 3 weeks into the trip, I felt relieved.

(1) Toliet Paper. Didn’t even open it the entire trip.

Purchase when you land:

(1) Common medicines. I strongly recommend buying Ciproflaxin, Cipro for short. When you get stomach sick or fever sick, this is what you will take to get better. I also bought medicine for headaches, a laxative, and the opposite of a laxative.

(1) Shampoo, conditioner, extra toothpaste, soap, razors. Available everywhere for 50 cents USD.

(1) Sunglasses, sunblock, moquito repellant (Odomos is the brand and it works great. One tube got me through 3 months.)

Apps to Install

You’ll be able to do this when you’re there.

Helpful Sites

How to use an Eastern Latrine https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKkryfdtMNQ

HiH Blog https://hippie-inheels.com/asia/india-asia/

Broke Backpacker Blog https://www.thebrokebackpacker.com/backpacking-india-ultimate-budget-travel-guide/

IRCTC Website https://www.irctc.co.in/nget/

Money

While you’re in India, you may need money to exchange for goods and services; which you can accomplish in roughly two ways — take money out of ATMs or use money exchanges.

Between the two options, I recommend the former. I met people trying to do the latter and having a bad time.

I signed up for a Charles Schwabs High Yield Checking Account. There’s no minimum balance and they refund 100% international ATM fees. You pay nothing for the account, nothing to take money out of ATMs, and nothing to use this card internationally.

I had an incident where I went to 4 different ATMs and all failed to perform a transaction. When I checked online, three of them had actually posted that they dispensed money. I had to make a claim with Charles Schwab — they refunded the amount but having the receipts would have helped my case. When you take money out of ATMs, always opt to get a receipt.

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India runs on cash — even to pay for your hostel stays. ATMs will be your source of cash but they often run out of money, breakdown, or simply will not honor your card. To reduce the risk of not having money, identify a couple banks that consistently honor your card (Like SBI and ICICI). Try to keep a comfortable amount on you. I kept about 5000 rupees (about $71 USD) on me and that would usually last 2–5 days depending on the town.

In Hampi, they don’t have ATMs so I carried 10,000 INR. When I was catching a bus outside Hampi, I met a couple who ran out of money in Hampi, had walked up to Kamalapur (2 miles) to find the ATMs were out of money and the banks were closed. They had to head to Hospete on a public bus to try the ATMs there.

SIM Cards

Carriers

The two main options are Airtel and BSNL— I recommend Airtel as it is the most ubiquitous with great coverage. When I landed at midnight in Delhi, I went straight to an Airtel stand, woke up the dude behind the counter and asked for a list of plans. He sleepily typed a number onto a physical calculator (900 rupees), turned it to face me, and that was it. Suffice it to say, we didn’t make much progress and I chose not to get a SIM there.

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Obtaining a SIM

(1) As a foreigner, you must have an Indian local show up with you to vouch for you so that you may get a SIM. Yes, you read that right but don’t worry, as with most things in India, there is an inane proclamation but a very easy pathway around it.

(2) Network provider main offices will not give you a SIM, but they will often direct you to a satelitte office that will.

(3) Your chances of getting a SIM are most likely at a tiny satelitte provider. These are the ubiquitous, shack-like buildings with huge Airtel or red 4G signs on the side. This is where people go to fix issues with their service, sign up for new service, and so forth. You will likely get a SIM from here because there is only one person workingand they will be the Indian local who will vouch for you but since they also issue SIM cards, they can both set you up with a SIM and vouch for you in their shop. I went to five of these shacks before finding one that would sell me a new SIM. Why? The first and second said its too much of a hassle to setup a foreigner, the third and fourth said they won’t do it.

Once you find a satelitte shop that issues new SIMs to foreigners, there’s just one plan that you’ll get — 1.5GB data daily, unlimited call/text and its prepaid for 30 days. The cost is 169 INR but you’ll get charged between 400 and 700 rupees. Mine asked for 500 INR, but you’ll walk out with cellular connectivity.

Recharging Your Prepaid SIM

If you’re staying for more then 30 days and want to recharge your SIM, you can do this for 169 rupees with the Airtel app if you have access to an Indian-bank-issued credit card. Maybe you pay your hostel manager 100 rupees for them to enter it on the app for a one-time charge — or you can go to any of the shacks to get it recharged for between 200–400 rupees. Any shack will recharge it for you, it’s getting a new SIM that is the challenge.

Two more notes on SIMs, first, I didn’t have service in some areas so I turned on automatic data usage while roaming and it worked fine throughout all of India. Make sure you turn this off when you switch back to your original SIM.

It is worth noting here that SIM cards in Ladakh do not work in the rest of India and SIM cards from the rest of India do not work in Ladakh. So if you plan on going to Leh or Nubra Valley or Kashmir, expect to get a new SIM card.

Generic Advice Tips

Generic Advice

Communication

Nearly everyone I encountered spoke English and a local language, often Hindi. I learned the head wobble and it was fun — try to adopt it!

Monsoon Season

Cities hit by Monsoon season were doable but generally you’re indoors for a few hours each day while it passes. Small towns are more difficult, places like Hampi need to move visitors to higher ground. If you plan to travel during this season, I recommend a light rain jacket. Whether or not you plan to travel during this season, I recommend a one-time use rain cover.

Scams

Listen, there’s a wealth of information on common scams in India but all of it boiled down to common sense and confidence. Expect to look back on a few situations and realize you were scammed. You’ll find a shirt for 100 rupees that you paid 700 rupees for somewhere else. Someone will take you to a great restaurant that costs twice as much, or more, than surrounding restaurants (and 100x street carts). Remember, India isn’t a vacation, you’re paying for an experience.

I would recommend doing your own research on common scams, starting with Karl Rock on YouTube.

Diet and Exercise

I was plant-based when I went to India but to be realistic, ditched that right away. Expect to encounter ghee and dairy with high frequency. Dairy is often in the form of milk curd, which made me sick several times. Eventually, I got used to it — I suggest to just keep at it or avoid it altogether.

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Common street food

Some towns such as Pushkar and Hampi are vegetarian only. Eggs are not a vegetable.

Street food is awesome! There is a lot of existing literature on these. The most important point worth echoing here is to only go to street carts that have a line or other people eating at them.

Currys have a lot of oil in them. Many items are deep fried. Carbohydrate-heavy meals are a staple.

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Almost all hostels have a roof — how many exercises can you come up with?

Most towns did not have a gym, most cities had a couple gyms. If you’re a gym rat like me, I recommend establishing a bodyweight routine. I recommend thenx on YouTube, this routine was my staple.

All gyms were amenable to a day pass. Cost varies between 200 to 400 rupees.

Post Office

I’m biased here because this was the only place that consistently drove me crazy. Some things to note.

(1) It is up to the station master to accept your package. On top of the rules listed on India Post, this person will employ their own set of criteria to judge whether or not to accept your package.

(2) Your item must be packaged securely, in a box, and then wrapped in cloth. There will be shops that will ‘pack’ your item for you near the post office, they usually charge between 50 and 250 rupees per item. They literally sew a custom cloth bag for it and put it in the bag.

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Professional Wrapper outside New Delhi PO

(3) The outside of your bagged item must have: TO <destination address>w with phone number of recipient with international code on one side and FROM <local origin address on other side>. I used the hostel I was staying at for local.

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(4) You may have to OPEN the item so they may see what is inside, necessitating it to be re-sealed. I would visit a day prior and show them the item or a picture of the item.

(5) You must give them a copy of your passport to ship anything that is not a letter. Some require a copy for each item, some for a single shipment of however many items you have. Some require the passport be affixed to the shipment, some do not. Affixation method also depends on station master.

(6) You must fill out and affix a customs form to each package. You may get this form from a window at the post office.

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(7) If you are successful in convincing them to accept your package, you can choose SpeedPost or ParcelPost. Both include a tracking number which you can use on the India Post Tracking website. If you choose speedpost you must write speedpost on the item. Speedpost took about 5 days to arrive in NYC from anywhere in India. ParcelPost took about 10–15 days.

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(8) Hours vary wildly. If you plan to ship something the day you’re leaving the area, confirm their schedule the day prior and confirm they will accept your item.

(9) All packages are not treated with care. Your package will be thrown and kicked. You are responsible for measures to protect the item against extreme abuse.

Stray Animals

It is worth being aware that most places have stray dogs which are usually docile during the day but become more aggressive during the night.

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The beaches were full of cows. Watch your step.

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But the wild pigs generally steer clear of you.

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Travel

Transfering Terminals or Local Bus

If you are transferring terminals to a local flight, it can be fun to dive in and figure out the local bus. In India, it’s worth getting used to asking people where something is located or how to find something. Tuk tuk drivers will harass you for a moment but if you ask where the bus picks up, they’ll immediately tell you. The cost is usually between 10 and 20 rupees.

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Local bus ride

Tuk Tuks

Often referred to as auto rickshaws, rickshaws, or tuk tuks, these open-air 2–4 passenger golf cart vehicles feel like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Evio5UdK6zs

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They serve as taxis and get you around town. As a foreigner, you will incessantly be asked “tuk tuk?” as you walk down the street, exit buildings, or exist in public. Here are some important things to keep in mind.

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All in all, tuk tuks are fun! After your first ride, you’ll be hooked.

Booking Trains

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Bus Schedule in Leh, Ladakh

It was very helpful to be able to book trains by myself and used this site to figure it out. To accomplish this, I created an IRCTC account for $1 USD once I had an Indian SIM card as it requires an Indian phone number. I created a Cleartrip.com account and booked through them. I used the app confirmtcks to track my travel and train.

Alternatively, you can use a travel agent or buy tickets at the station. Trains often sell out months in advance but getting on the waitlist a few weeks prior generally ensured me a ticket.

Regardless of booking method, you should know what the ticket status means, what PNR means, and the differences between classes.

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Second Seating on a Passenger Train
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Hope this is helpful and you have a wonderful trip. Namastay!

Written by

Building IT infrastructure and teams where there was none before. Fitness, wellness, and adventure enthusiast. Consulting + more at www.dave-bour.com

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