5 essential apps for backpackers

The whole point of my little trip to Canada was that I wanted it to be almost entirely unplanned. Having worked in an office where I knew I was going to be every day and what I needed to be doing ages in advance, I wanted my travel to be a little more unpredictable. Fortunately technology makes that sort of trip both easy and economical.

The following are the apps that I find myself using on a daily basis; I have no association with any of them, I am sharing this info because I genuinely find them useful. I hope you do too!

1. Skyscanner Flights

This is hands down my favourite way of booking a flight, on a mobile or otherwise. It works like the flight comparison sites, but it far slicker than most and is optimised for mobile use.

You can create multiple tabs for specific searches to refer to later, so if you are planning a series of ‘hops’ and want to tweak the specific dates and airlines, you can do so by creating a tab for each journey and switch back and forth between them for comparison.

By far the best feature of this app is the price comparison chart (see vid above), especially if you aren’t constrained by when you have to fly. Enter the origin and destination airports, select ‘Any’ in the Depart date field and hit search. You get a horizontally scrollable chart showing dates along the bottom, and bars of different heights representing flight prices on each date.

For the ultimate in random, cheap flight searches, choose ‘Everywhere’ as your destination airport and see the cheapest place that you can fly to on any date from whichever departure location that you choose! Great for an unplanned, last minute weekend getaway.

2. TripAdvisor

TripAdvisor app gives you the same information as the website, but uses less mobile data
TripAdvisor app gives you the same information as the website, but uses less mobile data

This is no secret really, and every hotel or hostel I’ve been to has had a sticker in the window, such is the pervasive reputation of this tool. The app is better for limited bandwidth connections, because… *geek-out alert, skip to the next app if you’re not interested*, the mobile app uses a text-based API, so it only exchanges the data that is needed to update the information that is seen in the app, whereas the website version also loads images and background JavaScript libraries required to make the site work, making the required download much larger. So if you’re on a roaming data plan, download the mobile app over WiFi before you leave, and use the app rather than the website when you’re out and about using mobile data.

You’ll save mb’s, and it’ll be a much smoother experience.

3. Evernote

Screenshot of Evernote location-based notes screen
Evernote location-based notes

Nothing beats this for keeping track of little snippets of information that you learn from people that you meet along the way. You could use a Moleskine if you’re an analogue type, but if you lose that little book, it’s gone. Evernote backs everything up, and can record where you were when you took down the note so making it easier to refer back to to later: “Which hotel did that guy in Tofino recommend again?..”

I also use it for keeping track of touristy maps and leaflets, partly so that I don’t end up with a bag full of paper, but also because it makes you look less like a tourist if you’re just checking your phone, as opposed to unfurling some A1 sized glossy map on a bench somewhere (I prefer to blend in and not look like a tourist where I can, especially when traveling solo).

Check out Bod for tea’s great crowd-sourced post on other uses if you’re blogging about your travels as you go.

4. Google Drive (desktop and mobile combo)

I use Drive for keeping hold of reservations, confirmations and electronic boarding cards for flights, which are increasingly used at airports to reduce the amount of wasted paper involved in frequent travel.

I sync my ‘Travel’ folder from my desktop, so when I make any bookings with my laptop, the PDF print-outs are synced to my phone automatically, so when I get to the baggage check I can just get the QR code on the screen scanned rather than having to dig around for a crumpled card pass jammed somewhere in a side pocket.

It’s a great feeling to check in online, from a WiFi-enabled shuttle coach en route to the airport, then walk past the check-in queues straight to the departure gate with a smartphone boarding pass, fifteen minutes before take-off. That’s how air travel should always be.

Worried about privacy? Please…you’re using the internet to book flights. Google already knows where you’re flying. 😉

5. OwnCloud

OwnCloud screenshot

For photo-backup. This is a bit trickier to set up, but worth the effort. OwnCloud is a Dropbox-like cloud storage system that you install on your own machine; be that server or home machine that’s always-on. Once set up, you can install the app and have your phone camera photos backed up automatically when you’re in range of WiFi (or even over mobile data, if you’re really brave/have unlimited data!).

Unlike Facebook or Google+, the full-sized image file is uploaded, with all of the extra EXIF data, geolocation and original timestamps, so you don’t lose detail or resolution when it syncs. It reassures me that if my phone breaks or goes walkies, I’ll still have all of the photos that I took with it on a server back in England. It also allows me to delete all of my photos from my phone to free up space to take more!

Dawson City in Pictures

Dawson City, YT at the quiet pre-tourist time is a largely empty, sleepy town. The people are friendly, and the pace of life is slow. There are no traffic signals, concrete pavements or chain-owned shops to break up the atmosphere of this century old mining town.

I chose to make most of these photos black and white because it suits the character of the place.

Severe subsidence due to melting permafrost is evident in parts of town.
Severe subsidence due to melting permafrost is evident in parts of town.

DSC_0003 DSC_0010_2

With the snow melting, water pumps are running all day to drain the bides of water that collect around the town.
With the snow melting, water pumps are running all day to drain the bodies of water that collect around the town.


The clock on Front Street from the riverside.
The clock on Front Street from the riverside.
The prominent CIBC building has been left to deteriorate for years due to an ownership dispute. It's now been settled, and restoration is underway.
The prominent CIBC building has been left to deteriorate for years due to an ownership dispute. It’s now been settled, and restoration is underway.


The SS Keno originally transported metal ore for processing. It's now a historic site, much like the SS Klondike, and was the last sternwheeler to navigate the Yukon (Whitehorse to Dawson) under its own power in 1960.
The SS Keno originally transported metal ore for processing. It’s now a historic site, much like the SS Klondike, and was the last sternwheeler to navigate the Yukon (Whitehorse to Dawson) under its own power in 1960.


A signalling light on the SS Keno.
A signalling light on the SS Keno.
The Klondike and Yukon converge just south of Dawson; ice on the former has already cleared, but the Yukon remains icy. Meltwater is collecting on the surface, but that doesn't stop locals from crossing it on foot.
The Klondike and Yukon converge just south of Dawson; ice on the former has already cleared, but the Yukon remains icy. Meltwater is collecting on the surface, but that doesn’t stop locals from crossing it on foot.
You can place a bet on the day and hour that the "Yukon breakup" of ice will occur every year, in a form of winner-takes-all lottery. Until that happens, there's no ferry so crossing on foot is the only option.
You can place a bet on the day and hour that the “Yukon breakup” of ice will occur every year, in a form of winner-takes-all lottery. Until that happens, there’s no ferry so crossing on foot is the only option.
The restored SS Keno is maintained on the dry dock beside the Yukon river as a tourist attraction.
The restored SS Keno is maintained on the dry dock beside the Yukon river as a tourist attraction.
The ice is thinning, with the river flowing fastest beneath the darker portions of ice.
The ice is thinning, with the river flowing fastest beneath the darker portions of ice.
This rope is attached to the yellow tripod on the ice, and is part of the annual "Break Up" event. When the tripod moves, ice on the Yukon River at Dawson has officially broken up.
This rope is attached to a yellow tripod on the ice, and is part of the annual “Break Up” event. When the tripod moves, ice on the Yukon River at Dawson has officially broken up.
Front Street from the CIBC building, with Moosehide slide up on the hill in the background.
Front Street from the CIBC building, with Moosehide slide up on the hill in the background.

12 Long-Distance Bus Travel Tips (for car people)

I’ve been on a bus more often this past month or so than I have for the past decade. Whilst naturally traumatic for the petrol head, I’ve collected together some tips of how to make use of shared automotive transport less terrible.

(The photo below was taken from a bus, because who wants to see a picture of one?!)


  • There are other people on a bus, you have not been hijacked. This is normal on public transport; and takes some getting used to.



  • Hydrate. Constantly. You don’t want to get to your destination and feel like a sloth on a lazy day. If you need to problem solve on arrival, you can’t let your brain become a raisin en route. This applies especially to those who aren’t morning people, and always arrive at the bus last minute in a pool of sweat.



  • Remember what your mother told you at the services: “Go now, even if you think that you don’t need to.”. You always need to (if you followed the last step properly), you’ll be glad you did when the loo is broken on the bus…


View from the service stop in Woss, BC.
View from the service stop in Woss, BC.


  • Take healthy snacks. This seems like a given, but being so used to just traveling with a credit card (and claiming back expenses where possible), I only realised how expensive service stop food is when I was on a budget. They’re also infrequent, which leads to unhealthy choices; if you’re starving at a 15 minute rest stop, you’re getting the first take-away you see.



  • Take a coat or fleece onboard. “But it’s air conditioned!” I hear you cry. It’s not for that; when you want to nap (and on an 8hr+ journey, you will nap) the rapid percussion of skull on plate glass is a recipe for a nice cranial bruise. Your coat is your cushion. In addition, at layovers on the Greyhound you have to be off the bus, and sometimes the waiting areas at remote terminals aren’t that cozy. That and in Canada, you might be boarding in sunshine, and alighting in snow.



  • Sit glass-side. For the napping. Some buses don’t have armrests on both sides, so if you nap aisle-side, you’ll wake up as you fall out of your seat on a tight bend. I’m not saying this has ever happened to me…



  • Research your route, if you like a view. This is straying into the “planning not traveling” domain a little, but if you’ve got a few spare minutes at the bus depot, use it to check for potential prettiness on the way, then sit on the side of the bus that will get the best views.



  • Sit mid-glass. This is for two reasons: you’ll get a better view of what ever is out there to the side, and you’ll have somewhere to rest your head that doesn’t have a sharp edge on it, as the pillars often do.



  • Get over your fear of bus toilets. If there is one and it’s working, use it. I’ve sat with people that have refrained form conversation for hours waiting for a rest stop, trying to focus their mind through the internal damage happening to them. I find this hilarious, as fortunately I can go anywhere (#TMI..). If you are sat next to one of those people, try to make them laugh.



  • [Bonus tip] If you’re prone to travel sickness, sit on the rear axle. Whilst this will be noisier as you’re nearer the engine, you won’t get flung around as much on twisty mountain roads as you’re at the pivot when the bus steers. You also get a wider field of vision out of the front and sides peripherally as you look toward the front of the bus, which I’ve also heard helps. (This one’s a bonus as I can’t confirm; I don’t do travel sickness.)



  • [Canada-specific tip] Pre-connect your phone/tablet to fast food restaurants and cafés. If you’re on a mainland route, you might have WiFi and and a power socket. Cool! You’re sorted! If not, look out for A&W burger restaurants, Starbucks, Tim Horton’s and to a lesser extent, KFC whenever the bus stops – Greyhound depots tend to be near retail parks that have these. Some depots have free WiFi too, so that’s another option. They usually have free WiFi that spills out into the surrounding area, so if your phone already recognises the names of the hotspots you can save precious seconds syncing before the bus drives out of range again.



  • [Blogging-specific tip] Use the right mobile apps to remain productive whilst you’re offline. I use Pocket to buffer articles to read later (stripped out articles sync automatically for offline reading), Falcon Pro and Evernote for writing things like this blog post when there’s no signal. Instagram let’s you take photos whilst you’re offline, so if you see something cool, take a photo and just hit the spinny refresh thing later on when you’re back on the grid. If you’re a traveling smartphone addict, be sure to check out the post on my essential travel apps.


Photographing the Aurora Borealis

I’ve not posted for a while (been having too much fun to stop and type!), but wanted to share my findings of my first attempt at trying to photograph the Northern Lights from Whitehorse last night, and show off some of the more successful images. It was the first time I’ve ever seen the aurora, so I was keen to capture something to remember the night.

A time-lapse image that I created with G+ autoawesome.
A time-lapse image that I created with G+ autoawesome.



I thought that I was going to be freezing cold, so layered up with my running gear as a base layer; lugging a bag full of camera equipment up a hill, I expected to get a bit sweaty so didn’t want a soggy cotton base layer reducing my cold endurance.

I then had a cotton t-shirt, jumper, hoodie, fleece and a breathable but windproof Rab rain jacket on top – having done some night walking, it’s all about reducing potential sweat chill whilst keeping air tight. I wore running gloves as they are warm but very thin, which makes using the buttons on the camera possible without having to de-glove at any point. Thick walking socks and winter walking boots kept my feet away from the icy ground.

That combination kept me comfortable for the ~2-hours that we were out, despite the temperature being a solid single figure negative the entire time. I wasn’t even cold when we headed back (but the others had had enough!).

Camera Kit

I used my Nikon D5200 with a Nikon AF-S NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4G Lens. Whilst the focal length is longer than ideal for this type of photography, I’m only carrying that and a Nikon AF-S DX NIKKOR 55-300mm f/4.5-5.6G ED VR Lens, which whilst being an excellent, versatile lens, wasn’t as fast as I thought I’d need for night shooting, and the 50mm has a marginally wider angle.

I mounted it on my Manfrotto 732CY tripod (no link as it doesn’t seem to be on Amazon any more…), which I have fitted with a Manfrotto MH293A3-RC1 293 Aluminium 3 Way Head with RC1 Quick Release. I’m glad that I opted for a lighter model, as it’s been everywhere with me in my rucksack since I left the UK.

Everything was in or strapped to my trusty Incase Photo DSLR Sling Pack Black, which has survived well so far during my travels despite being a bit of a trendy city bag rather than a rugged kit lugger.

The last crucial piece of the gadget puzzle is the Timer Remote Control/cable release, which is useful if you want to take shots without camera shake and don’t want to configure the shutter delay in-camera every time, or hold the shutter open to experiment with exposure times. This model also has an LCD display and programmable shutter timer, which makes time lapses easy; you set up the interval and duration of shutter openings, press the Start/Stop button and let it do its thing.

Disclosure: All of the above product links are via my Amazon UK referral links, so if you click through and buy something I get money from the referral to further my travels and gadget purchases. 🙂

Lastly, don’t forget to fully charge, and take spare batteries if you’re going to be out there for a while. The best time to shoot the lights is on cold, clear nights, and the cold does affect the performance of batteries. You won’t get as long out of them as you would in milder conditions, and some recommend putting your batteries in your pocket until you need them when it gets really cold.

Camera Settings

First off, remove your lens filters; you’ll get some annoying moiré on long exposures if you don’t for reasons I won’t go into here (if you’re interested look, up diffraction interference patterns).

After some playing around in full Manual mode, I used the following settings for most of the best shots:

ISO: 1000 – 3200

Aperture: wide-open at F1.4

Shutter Speed: 3″ – 6″
(only possible with fast lenses, I’ve heard that 30″+ can work for slower lenses but you’ll get star trails and the aurora won’t be as crisp over about 15″)

Enough of this, where are the pics?!

Here are a few of the best. Back indoors I can see that some are pretty noisy due to the high ISO, and it got worse throughout the night as the camera warmed up. I’m pretty pleased with the results for a first try though, let me know what you think in the comments.

48hrs in Kelowna

I had high hopes on the way into the Okanagan Valley, having taken the Greyhound from Pacific Central in Vancouver there were some great views on the way up, so couple that with the fact that if you put Kelowna into Google Images you see nothing but beautiful shots of a lake and the beaches that surround it, I was sure that I was onto a good thing. My mistake was assuming that the town was sunkissed all year round; all of the photos were taken in the summer, obviously.

Treelined beach is just next to City Park.
Treelined beach is just next to City Park.

Slight gloom aside, Kelowna is a nice little town. Okanagan Lake that separates the east and west portions of the town is a pleasant, scenic stroll.

A beach on the East side of Lake Okanagan.
A beach on the East side of Lake Okanagan.

I headed to the town centre, to get a local perspective, and was greeted by a local chap with a shopping trolley full of what I assume to be his life.

“You’re not gonna get hit eh?”

“I’m sorry?”

I cautiously responded.

“Your fluorescents, no driver’s gonna miss those on the crosswalk!”

I was suddenly aware that I was dressed like a city muppet; my bright yellow-laced trainers (quite the thing in Van), and lack of trucker cap outlining me as “not from round ‘ere”.I jovially agreed.

“Safety first, right?”

“Best way for it. God bless ya!”

He carried on pushing his trolley, leaving me amused that such a conversation just happened, and that he wish me well! In England, I’d have expected just:

“Oi! Twat-trainers! **** off back to the city.”

So even if it’s just the tourist angle I’m getting, people are generally as nice in Canada as their reputation lead me to think before I arrived, and it’s pleasant. We could all do with more of that.

The town centre was in the midst of reconstruction work, with what looks like a pedestrianised area being constructed between the two main coffee shop-lined streets. I chatted to some of the locals, some students from the UBC campus up town, and a couple of bar regulars. All expressed the same view – “this place is dead out of season. Noted, and observed.

So it was a good opportunity to catch up on some reading, sleep and healthy eating (Ok, that last bit’s a lie, I went to Smoke’s one night…). The hostel was good, another of the Samesun chain that I stayed at in Vancouver, and there were some nice people there to chill with.

For future reference, visit Kelowna in the summer. It’s when all of that “awesomeness” that you hear so much about, happens. Alternatively, go in the winter if you’re into skiing; I’ve heard good things about Big White.

First Impressions: Vancouver

Having arrived here on Thursday, I thought I’d post a few topics that I have found to be notable from the past few days. These aren’t necessarily highlights, nor is it an exhaustive account, but instead some general first impressions of the place from someone who has never been here before. Here goes:

Stanley Park



It is safe to say that this place is no secret as every tourist brochure virtually screams about its loveliness, but that fact does nothing to dilute the beauty of this little oasis of nature nestled alongside the downtown part of the city. The first full day that I was in the city was spent wandering the seawall from Canada Place to the Lionsgate Bridge, where I cut in past Beaver Lake and walked uphill toward Prospect Point Café; a cozy spot with a great view and a log burning fire. I still find it surreal to have this type of setup in the midst of a city; you really couldn’t ask for much more if you’re after an outdoorsy lifestyle with the comforts and luxuries of modern life.

How are you today?

I am loathed to use stereotypical comments about nationalities in general (indeed the mere thought of it causes me pause and the need to obsessively adjust my monocle between sips of Earl Grey), but to not say that the Canadians are a broadly polite bunch would be to omit one of the most unmistakably pleasant aspects of the Vancouverite that I have witnessed so far. I had breakfast this morning with a new group; one German, one Czech and one Japanese, and we were unanimous in our recognition and admiration of the way that everyone in this city genuinely seems interested in how you are today. I am not talking about that forced, scripted fixed smile that you get in certain parts of the USA, but a sense of genuine interest. It is completely at odds with what I am used to in the UK, where eye contact is generally frowned upon, and people look at you at best quizzically when you say good morning, and at worst think you are about to mug them (though maybe that’s just my face…).

Homeless People

This is so noticeable that I would be neglectful to not mention it: there are homeless people everywhere in downtown Vancouver. Having discussed it with some people in the city, including one helpful homeless bloke called Patrick (who I mention below), it seems to be the climate that brings those without fixed abode to lie on the streets of this picturesque coastal city. It doesn’t take much figuring out, as at the time of writing Vancouver is one of only a handful of places in Canada where the temperature is currently above freezing, and the causes of them getting there in the first place are the usual combination of rising house prices and lack of unskilled job availability. Hopefully the plans that the city have for the area will improve that in coming years.

The weather across Canada on the morning of the 18th March 2014. Source: Government of Canada



If they don’t call this the Shoreditch of BC they should, albeit a cleaner less “tagged” version (it seems that Vancouverites aren’t big on graffiti). Bearded hipsters: check, ‘custom’ fixie bikes: check, ironically-named coffee bar called Coffeebar: check, MacBooks and chai lattés everywhere: double check. It doesn’t quite have the edginess that London’s version of a faux-rough neighbourhood has though, and as the oldest part of Vancouver has touristy relevance that I can only imagine irritates the digital natives that dwell there. The barista in Coffeebar wasn’t even able to maintain her fixed expression and deeply trendy nonchalance throughout the entirety of our commercial interation, delivering my drink and snack with a sudden smile. No, no, no, that’s all wrong. You just wouldn’t stand for that sort of politeness in Shoreditch. I didn’t dwell in the coffee shops there for long, and dodged through a flashmob practicing on the pavement outside (yes really, I hadn’t ever though that they did those, isn’t it cheating?), and headed east further into Gastown.

After a few comments saying “dude, why do you hate Gastown?” I thought I should add: I don’t! In fact I really like it! To me it’s like a cleaner, nice version of a part of London that I also like! No hate, just a healthy dollop of sarcasm.

Except it wasn’t Gastown that I was looking at, it was Downtown Eastside.


I can’t claim to have been completely unaware of Vancouver downtown’s notorious rough district, but I wasn’t sure exactly where it was or whether it was as bad as the locals made it out to be. I headed south west, and met a homeless chap called Patrick walking the other way. We had a good chat, he immediately clocked my accent as English and guessed that everyone will assume that I am Australian (eerily accurate, as I’d been asked what part of Australia I was from in the FatBurger in the Harbour Centre earlier that day).

We had a good chat, he told me his mother was a war bride of a RCAF ground crewman based in Winchelsea, East Sussex; his patter was good, and the details were accurate enough to not just be bullshit, and it beats the usual begging with a cup approach, so I gave him a few dollars for some soup and socks at the nearby community centre. I am not naive enough to assume that is definitely where the money went, but the way I see it he earnt it by giving an Englishman some good Gastown tips (he pointed out a few English-owned pubs in the area that will give you a free pint if you show UK ID!), and his warning to definitely not to go the other side of Cambie Street, and if I was curious to see what it’s like, not to go alone. Ideally drive through it. I thanked him and walked on.

I went right through an alleyway between two trendy shops and was immediately faced with a scene so completely at odds with where I just was moments before. You literally go through a doorway at the end of an alley and go from trendy coffee shops to two people smoking crack whilst leaning on a shopping trolley, in broad bloody daylight! Prime location for some edgy street photography, but Patrick’s warning, my conspicuously bright orange Rab jacket and the fact that I was carrying some expensive kit meant that I didn’t think it was the best time to rock out the Nikon 55-300mm and poke it in some junkie faces. Mark one eyeball then was my camera.

I zigzagged southeast, past a few seriously sketchy looking “hotels”, lots of boarded up windows and a few people thinking that shirt buttons were optional whilst walking down East Cordova Street. It is definitely less plush than Gastown, but it wasn’t exactly on par with a scene from The Wire. Rough, it seems, is relative, and I got out alive without any bother. It just goes to show that you shouldn’t always take doom and gloom warnings at face value, and if I hadn’t gone I wouldn’t have seen how stark the change is when you cross the road back out of the district; it is as if there’s an invisible forcefield surrounding DTES, as the opposite side of the road is completely different at the boundary.

Granville Island

I discovered this place by accident after walking a loop of False Creek, and I am so glad that I did. It has an upmarket seaside vibe, with seafood restaurants and little boutiques. Crucially for me it has an outdoor shop, so I was able to buy some Nikwax for my walking boots – so far the only thing that I have found that I need and have forgotten, and if that really is all I omitted I consider myself lucky!