Over the past three years, I’ve been to over thirty countries, but it was only recently that I started backpacking. I was in Colombia on my first solo travel trip where I was tagging along with some backpacker friends I made and I decided that my mini suitcase was going to have to go. In short, I wanted to be like the cool kids.
I got home from Colombia, bought one of those big Osprey backpacks that almost everybody has, and took off shortly for my next and longest trip so far. I felt like a real backpacker, not just some poser with a little suitcase.
Let me start off with saying that backpacking is a lifestyle, and whether or not you’ve got a giant backpack doesn’t matter. I mean yeah, there’s a difference between backpacks and suitcases but for the most part, backpacking is just a certain style of travel.
The best way I can define it is simply long-term, low-budget travel with a lot of flexibility.
Staying in hostels, you meet a lot of backpackers and hear a lot of self-aware opinions on backpacking. You also meet a lot of non-backpackers and hear their opinions on backpacking, so combining those opinions and my own, I’ve come up with a little checklist to see whether or not backpacking is the right style of traveling for you. However, I do think everyone should try it at least once.
Are you comfortable with being away from home for a long time?
I’ve met people who have been traveling for over two years without stepping foot back in their home country that haven’t had any problems. I’ve met people who had been gone for two weeks before getting homesick and deciding to go home. Traveling for a long time, especially alone, can be exhausting and lonely. Yeah, you’ll make friends and usually be surrounded by other people, but you won’t have the immediate support or familiarity that your friends and family could provide.
Everyone is different, and it is definitely a matter of preference. Some people thrive off of the uncertainty and adventure of long-term traveling, while others prefer shorter vacations before going home to recuperate before their next trip. I typically travel for 2-3 months before going home for a month to reset and plan for my next trip.
Can you afford to be gone for that long?
Traveling on a backpackers’ budget will typically stretch your money out for a long time. Depending on the country, I’ve found that I actually spent less money per month of traveling than I did paying monthly expenses (rent, utilities, food, etc.) during my last year of college. I typically spent around $1200 a month while in college, and about $1000 a month while traveling through South and Central America for the past year.
Do a little bit of planning and budgeting to see how much typical costs are in the countries you are planning to go to, and then have an emergency wad of cash of probably $100 US dollars for every week you’re gone. It’s always better to bring extra money, something that came in so handy when I was in the ATM-scarce smaller towns of Central America.
People usually think of backpackers as young adventurers in their late teens or early twenties, but a lot of them are actually a bit older, having been in the workforce for a few years before leaving after saving up enough money to travel for a while. Traveling does not have to be expensive, but you absolutely do not want to be dead broke in case an emergency comes up.
How well do you deal with unexpected roadblocks?
Back in the day, I would plan my trips out so strictly that a missed bus or a delayed flight could have sent the entire trip collapsing into a downward spiral. Traveling can be hard, and you are going to encounter a lot of challenges. The most important part of traveling for me is being flexible and staying cool even if an unfortunate change of plans is necessary. If the thought of potentially being stranded in a foreign country sends you into an emotional frenzy, then maybe it’s best to reconsider. Traveling is never as glamorous as Instagram makes it seem. For every gorgeous view, there was probably a stressful process to get there.
Attitude is everything, and I can’t stress enough how important it is to be able to roll with the punches.
Cuba has been an incredible country with the most welcoming people I've ever met. It was definitely more challenging than I anticipated, with having to ramp up my Spanish to levels I've never had to use before, running out of money after like 3 days, and learning to get by without the sweet sweet wifi that I had taken for granted throughout my travels. In place of google, we had the old fashioned search engines of asking the overly fun-loving Cuban people how to do literally anything. By the end of the week, we had just basically accepted that nothing in Cuba is going to go exactly as planned, but there was always someone willing to go well out of their way just to help us figure out what the hell we were doing. Go to Cuba with an open mind and they'll accept u with an open heart 💃🏽. Hasta pronto, Cuba (and our pink convertible) 🇨🇺
Are you willing to adapt to the culture of the country you’re going to?
Backpacking, more than other types of travel, really pushes you closer to the local culture of the country you’re in. You won’t be sheltered in a cozy little hotel room getting room service for every meal. Traveling on a budget forces you to live as the locals do. That means likely going to the local markets rather than eating out for every meal, learning how to use the subway or local transportation instead of taking taxis everywhere, and sometimes, even staying with a local rather than a hostel or hotel.
I’ve gone abroad with my university twice, and I’ve noticed some of the people on those trips were just not willing to give up their way of life in America. Refusing to try new foods and instead opting for American fast food chains is an obvious example, but more than that, lacking the effort to adapt to or even be respectful of the local culture. They could get away with it there because we were almost always together as a group of Americans, but when you’re traveling solo or with just a few friends, you are going to have to make adjustments.
Every culture is different and exciting, and I think all travelers should make an effort to learn and fit in to that culture as best as they can. It not only makes traveling a little more fulfilling to you, but it shows initiative and respect to the locals who will absolutely appreciate the effort if it is genuine.
Are you ready to live a little on the wild side?
No, you won’t be going fully feral, but backpacking definitely calls for sacrificing comfort. You’ll likely be sharing rooms with up to dozens of other people at some point. Say goodbye to that water pressure (and sometimes warm water) that you’ve taken for granted in your showers back home. Laundry? Don’t make me laugh. You’ll be re-wearing dirty clothes two or three times before you force yourself to go to a laundromat. Backpackers do get an unfortunate, but not totally undeserved, reputation of lacking hygiene.
You obviously do not have to sacrifice basic hygiene, but you definitely won’t have the same amenities you’re used to having back at home.
Traveling is not always glamorous, and backpacking is even less so. However, it saves a lot of money and gives you the opportunity to create once in a lifetime experiences as well as lifelong friendships. The backpacker community across the globe is one of the friendliest, most open, and most fun group of people you will ever become a part of. You will meet interesting people from all sorts of backgrounds, coming from all over the world (but most likely Australia).
If you’re ready, go for it.