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Article Words : Wanderlust team | 27 December

How to get off the beaten track

We all love discovering lessen-known parts of the globe – but it can be easier said than done. Here's how to leave the tourist trail behind...

Getting off the beaten track means different things for different people. It could be discovering a hidden spot, having an authentic experience or heading to a new region. “Above all, getting off-the-beaten-track means finding places that won’t turn up in any guidebook,” considers adventurer, filmmaker and author of The Road Headed West, Leon McCarron. “It’s about seeking out the unknown. This doesn’t always mean total wilderness or a lack of people, but it does mean a lack of tourists and an absence of any solid information.”

For Hannah Engelkamp – who walked 1,600km around Wales with a donkey  – it’s about having an active, involved, engaged experience: “It’s more to do with the creativity and curiosity of your own eyes and mind than studiously trying to be one step ahead of the crowd.”

“Plan as little as possible,” says TV producer and writer Antonia Bolingbroke-Kent, who penned A Short Ride in the Jungle: the Ho Chi Minh Trail by Motorcycle. “That way you won’t be disappointed if things don’t go to plan. Book a flight and a first night somewhere, then get out into the unknown.”

Leon’s preferred method for uncovering wild sites is to look at a map, cross out all the places he’s heard of and look for the most intriguing bits. He also suggests setting a target, like following a river from source to sea. But the best way to find somewhere new, he says, is by getting to know people: “Ask locals and see what they recommend. My absolute top tip: follow dirt roads. Very few tourist resorts lie at the end of a gravel track.”

Go slow, go solo

Going it alone in an untrodden region can be scary, but it can also be a life-affirming experience. Also, when you travel solo you’re more approachable and less distracted, so more likely to spot unusual things.

“Hidden places are everywhere; you just have to make a little more effort,” says Antonia. She suggests finding out where all the tourists are, then heading the other way.

Leon rates South-East Asia in particular: “Beyond the big cities, especially in Thailand and Cambodia, there are the most incredible little towns and villages, not to mention some awesome coastlines and a few jungles to boot.” He adds that the USA – thanks to its sheer vastness – is great for finding places that are missing from guidebooks and travel blogs.

But what about cities? “Cities are easy!” reckons Leon. “Start in the centre, choose a road and walk in one direction. In less than an hour you’ll almost certainly be somewhere completely new to you.”

To really make the most of the experience, travel under your own steam, adds Antonia: “Having a motorbike, car, bike, horse or tuk-tuk will give you access to places fewer people get to visit.”

Hannah loves to explore on foot: “You see the spaces between destinations – the places that real people live. Walking is the perfect speed to get a sense of the landscape, and experience the subtle changes in culture, accents, hedgerows, menus, weather and everything else that makes the world brilliant.”

Join a group

Joining a tour can be adventurous too. Many tour operators use tried and trusted local ground handlers who know the best places to go; many will arrange stays at local homes or meals at restaurants unknown to guidebooks. Some operators – such as Undiscovered Destinations – specialise in off-beat spots.

“We believe that locals know best,” explains company director Jim Louth. “Working with entirely local people on the ground makes the experience that much more authentic.” He adds that while going it alone suits some, others need some support: “We often receive bookings from experienced travellers who’d like to start their trip with a short, organised tour to get a feel for a country, before staying on to explore on their own.”

Wild Frontiers regularly offers recce trips trialing new or untested destinations. Founder Jonny Bealby has been running recce tours since 2004 and says they’re his most popular trips. “We take people to the Congo, Afghanistan, into the Hindu Kush and many other places,” he says. “The secret to any offbeat experience – be it with a group or going solo – is knowledge, and that generally comes from traipsing thousands of miles around the globe.”

While getting off-the-beaten-track can offer unparalleled travel experiences, it’s not without some risks, so taking basic safety precautions is key. John Heppenstall, head of consular campaigns at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, says travel advice and researching health risks is vital. “It’s also crucial to take out comprehensive travel insurance,” he explains. “Think about the activities you might be doing and make sure you’re covered for these.”

John also suggests sharing your itinerary with family and friends (especially lone travellers) and contacting the FCO if you run into trouble; it can issue travel documents and advice to injured Brits or victims of crime. Visit www.gov.uk/knowbeforeyougo.

Last but not least, pack light but remain self-sufficient. A sleeping bag, tent, down jacket, reliable rucksack and comfy hiking shoes are musts. “Take a camera and a notepad too,” says Leon. “There’s no feeling quite as liberating as standing on the shores of a new country with your life on your back and no fixed plans. That’s how all the best adventures begin.”

Main image: Hiking man (Shutterstock)