The Reality of Backpacking & 5 Things to Note Before Leaving

Every time I embark on a new adventure to a foreign country people ask me the same questions. “Are you scared?” “Why are you going there?” “Why would you want to go alone?”

I always have the same response. “There are always new places to see, new people to meet, new cultures to explore and new lessons to learn. Solo travel gives you a chance to see yourself at your ultimate bests and all time lows whilst you live your life exactly how you want to.”

If you are thinking of going on your own journey there are 5 key things that you NEED to know, and not everyone will tell you.

1. It’s Not Easy

If you’re looking for an easy holiday, put down your backpack and pick up a 23kg suitcase. If backpacking was easy, everyone would do it! Backpackers understand that travel can throw anything and everything at you, when you least expect it and even when you do. Keeping a level head is key. Go along for the ride and stay strong.

A common example of turmoil travel can create are the insanely long bus journeys. Before all bus journeys remind yourself one thing, “Sit back and RELAX.” You will get there eventually. What may be advertised and completely ¨assured¨ as a 15 hour ride can easily turn into 24 hours or more. Roads in developing countries have not yet met the staggering heights of roads in Western countries, so delays are common to say the least. Give yourself plenty of cushion time when planning a bus trip. If you have a flight at 19:00 and the bus is said to arrive at 17:00, you can almost guarantee that you will miss your flight. Just be smart and patient.

More than buses, travel is exhausting. You constantly change beds, carry around heavy backpacks, hike mountains and party through the early hours of the morning with new friends. You get to sunbathe on some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, but then suffer from sand fly bites for 2 weeks afterwards. You eat the best kebab of your life at 3am outside your favorite club, then you wake up with the worst food poisoning of your life at 7am. You book into the #1 hostel on Hostelworld in Barcelona and get bed bugs on your first night. There are infinite examples of how even the best days turn sour and how the worst days become your favorite.

At any point throughout the day take a moment to remember how lucky you are. Look around you and see the amazing sights and the best of friends and smile to yourself. Smile and laugh and know that no matter what the next day brings, you can do this.

Decided to book Ha Long Bay Castaways the night before. Best decision EVER!

2. Throw Away Big Expectations

As I always like to say, ¨No expectations are the best expectations.¨ When it comes to traveling having expectations is normal, but don’t harbor on a set idea of what is to come. The beauty of backpacking is knowing that you don’t always know what’s next. However, it is also important to have a base knowledge of places you want to visit and activities that you want to do, but a full itinerary is not necessary. That is not to say that people who have a set itinerary won’t have the same, wonderful experience as you, but knowing that there is no pressure to plan, plan, plan is crucial for curating a trip that is right for you.

Spontaneity is one of my favorite parts of traveling. On my first solo backpacking experience I planned every step of the way. I had an absolutely wonderful time all across South America. However, one lovely Sunday afternoon in May I was sitting with my new group of friends in Cuzco and I had pre-planned to leave the city that same day. Little did I know that I would meet such an amazing group of people who also wanted to go to similar places as I did. In that moment all I wanted was to stay and go with them, but my itinerary held me back. I did enjoy the rest of my trip, but I can only imagine what a fantastic time we could’ve had.

After that experience and a few other situations where a loose itinerary would have been helpful, I promised myself that I wouldn’t stick to such carved-in-stone plans. This method has never failed me. Some of the best trips and experiences of my life were planned after a bottle or two of wine, after seeing a picture of a beautiful place and saying “I am going there”, or simply by the flip of a coin.

Create expectations for your backpacking adventure, but always leave plenty of room for change because you never know where the open roads will take you.

3. Don’t Be Scared, Be Prepared

Solo backpacking can be daunting and scary at times, but it doesn’t always have to be. Yes, there are many things out of our control in this world and no matter where you go there are people who will try and take advantage of you. Whether it is a pickpocket in Rome, a scam artist in Bangkok, or a mugger in Argentina, they are out there and it is up to us as backpackers to be prepared to face them.

I created a list of safety precautions to better protect myself whilst traveling.

It is imperative to be a smart traveler. If you are prepared and well protected it makes it that much more difficult for people to take advantage. Don’t be an easy target!

4. You Never Have to be Alone

You may be a solo traveler, but that doesn’t mean you are constantly alone. Unless I choose to go off on my own, I never feel alone. Between staying at hostels and going to tourist destinations, it is beyond easy to meet people as long as you are willing to. Keep an open mind to all types of people and you won’t need to worry because they are looking for friends too! Backpackers tend to have common mindsets when it comes to the world and friends, so conversation flows rather easily!

Travel friendships and romances are some of the most intense experiences you can have while traveling. You may know some one for a day or two, but suddenly it feels like months. When you travel for several weeks with someone you meet while traveling, it feels like years! People I met on the backpacking trail are some of my best friends in the entire world to this day.

You only have limited time with travel mates, so be yourself and enjoy! Never take them for granted because in a blink of an eye you will be going separate ways. You can travel the world and see the sights, but it is the people you meet that make all the difference.

5. Do Exactly What You Want

It is your trip so you should do exactly what you want. This trip is about you and enjoying your time abroad. Often times when traveling you will want to go where your new friends are going, whether it is to a different city or to a fancy restaurant for dinner. It is important to remember that you don’t have to!

You may meet a group who are only traveling for 2 weeks and so their wallets might be a bit heavier than your own. They heard about the best poutine in Laos, but it costs 125,000 Kip (15 USD) and that is your entire day’s budget during your 6 month long venture. It is okay to say NO! They won’t think any less of you if you go to a street food cart and pay 15,000 Kip for a chicken, bacon, cheese and garlic baguette. Backpackers understand we all have different spending limits and they respect that. Pressure for small things like food and accommodation can add up quickly if you slip into the group mentality, so be wary if you are on a tight budget.

Also, follow your gut. If you feel like going to a completely different country, or you fancy taking salsa lessons — DO IT. You will never know until you try. While you are out exploring the world, explore your limits. Trust your instincts and yourself because you will be amazed by how much you can accomplish. Many of the adventures backpackers have the privilege of going on are once in a life time experiences. Don’t look back on your trip and think, “If only I had gone to Moscow when I had the chance.” Live your life however you choose, with whomever you choose, wherever you choose and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise (unless you are making dangerous/poor choices — in which case, your mum is right).

Being a solo traveler gives you the freedom to think about only you at the end of the day. If suddenly you want to pack up and leave, the people you met only 2 days prior and who are going on a different route than you in the following 5 days, will not hate you. They get it, so go, go, go! If something feels right, chase it! Live every moment in the now.

I was staying at a Mad Monkey Hostel in Cambodia and on the wall was a quote that I believe perfectly defines why I travel,

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.”
Machu Picchu — April 2014
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