If you have been accepted by a college, you cannot simply tell the admission officials that you are going to defer; you need to ask first. Of course, if you've already targeted colleges that allow deferrals, then this "asking" is usually just a formality. The college folks will want to know what you plan to do with your time away and will almost always say yes. They will also most likely expect a deposit to hold your place, and — at some colleges — this deposit will be bigger than the normal one that the school requires by May 1 for applicants who will start in September.
Some colleges also forbid gap-year students from applying elsewhere during the year off. So if you were to commit to a college by May and then change your mind about enrolling while you're in Asia, you might have to withdraw your commitment first (and lose the aforementioned deposit) before you submit other applications. It's not unusual for gap-year students to develop doubts about the college they plan to attend, but it's not all that common for colleges to restrict applications during the gap year. Even so, when you decide where to commit this April, you should at least be aware of what policies are in place for gap-year students with second thoughts.
You may, however, prefer to tell admission officials now about your plans for next year by explaining them in the Additional Information section of your applications or in your essay or via email, and that's a reasonable route to take as well. Some students want all their cards on the table from the get-go rather than feeling like they're surprising admission officials with the deferral request only after they've been admitted. Such students may also feel that their gap-year agenda is very much part of their long-range goals and thus wish to highlight these plans in the applications. For example, if you are going to be an Asian Studies major or an International Relations major (etc.), then it might be apt to underscore this interest in your applications by explaining how your backpacking adventure meshes with your academic aims. So if you're more comfortable disclosing your plans before you're admitted, that's fine.
However, do be warned that "The Dean" has encountered high school seniors who are "certain" about a gap year in the fall but not as gung-ho by spring. Thus, you might be wise to go through with the application process without disclosing your gap year until you see where you've been admitted, and only if you've decided by then that the trip is a go for sure. At that point, before committing to any college, you can ask admission officials at your frontrunner school to okay your year off. But don't wait until the end of April to do this. Allow enough time to get a response, in the unlikely event that the deferral isn't approved. You should also ask about policies that govern any merit- or need-based aid that the college has offered you because this could change if you're not matriculating straight from high school and might affect where you decide to enroll.
College admission officials, as well as faculty and deans, are typically fans of gap years. They've seen that applicants who start their studies after a year away are often more focused, enthusiastic, and mature than the standard 18-year-old freshman. So whenever you decide to reveal your intended deferral, it's likely to be met with approval.
Good luck and safe travels!
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