Let’s be completely upfront. If you’re looking for an utterly relaxing vacation, please don’t go backpacking. It is a hell lot of work (sometimes). I am repeating myself, but that’s what I enjoy about traveling. The constant challenges you encounter, discovering new things about yourself and realizing what you are capable of and how you find insatiable bliss in living out of a suitcase or in this case, a backpack. But backpacking is not for everyone. If you are thinking about embarking on your first backpacking trip, here are some things I feel you must know:
Living with less than you usually do
Carrying more than 15kg on your back is pushing it. Stick to as few things as possible if you want to be able to walk around comfortably. But how do you survive for weeks and weeks with only two pairs of shorts and a few t-shirts? Trust me, you can. It is a refreshingly liberating feeling to just own a few things at a time. And trust me, when you come home, you are going to rip your closet apart because you can’t fathom how much stuff you actually own. The bottom line is, changing your outfits daily and always having fresh clothes during your trip is impossible for backpackers.
Sweaty or dirty, the constant feeling
I read this on Wayfarer Kate’s list of ugly things around backpacking and she is absolutely right. You step out of your hostel or hotel and you start sweating (at least when you are in Southeast Asia) or are immediately covered in dust because a motorbike just passed by and caused a stir. You also feel dirty because you don’t own many clothes and wear them multiple times even though they’re dirty. Yep, I am aware of the concept of laundry rooms. But that doesn’t help you. At least not in Southeast Asia. When your clothes are covered in dirt from a hike in Bali or a motorbike trip through Vietnam, the Southeast Asian laundry service is almost useless. Your clothes end up smelling worse than they did before and you’ll find even more stains on them. Rather rely on washing your clothes in the sink or shower (in case you have hot water!).
Planning, planning and oh, planning!
Isn’t it just exciting to embark on a trip, only having booked your flight across the big pond? Nothing else, no hotel, no nothing. What an intrepid and brave explorer you must be! While that is definitely true, I sometimes wished we had planned a bit more. It is super refreshing not knowing where you’ll find yourself in a few weeks but this also comes with the downside of spending hours and hours of your actual vacation planning. Raiding travel guides, websites, other people’s Instagram feeds or talking to people. Everyone and every website recommends something different. Everyone’s bucket list is different and their top ten lists of highlights also. Take your time to figure out what you really want to see and not what others tell you to see or do.
Constantly packing and moving
You’re a backpacker, right? Backpackers constantly move, switch location, live on a budget and see as much as possible. Let me tell you, this is so tiring. Every few days you stuff everything in your backpack (the space in there gets smaller and smaller after time because somehow you’ve managed to buy a looot of stuff) and you have to leave the place you just started to love.
The oh-so-famous cultural differences
So you’ve packed your backpack, you know where you’re going and you think you have it all figured out. Well, that’s not going to happen. Don’t rely on public transport, train times are never accurate and you need much more time than you estimated to get somewhere. That’s okay, I can handle that. The only thing is, that when you encounter a problem, it’s sometimes a bit adventurous to get help. The obstacle here is the language barrier. Over time I have memorized quite a few non-verbal conversation methods. And like a cheesy quote says, a smile is the shortest distance between two people. As long as you are polite, smile and ask for help, you will somehow get there. You also have to be trusting. If someone tells you they know where they are taking you or that this is the exact spot in the middle of nowhere where you have to get off the bus to be picked up by a taxi someone organized for you, it is up to you to evaluate whether they are trustworthy or not. Southeast Asian people are the sweetest and most giving people and always offer their help. But sometimes they see a human ATM in you. You are mostly not treated like a local, which can be super frustrating. You sometimes find yourself longing for your own country, where you can just pick up something from the grocery store that’s clearly marked with a non-negotiable prize.
Always picking up the unique vibes of a new place
You did it. You arrived where you wanted to be. Now it’s time to explore – yet again. As incredible as it is to see as many places as possible in just a few weeks, it is challenging to always find your way around a new place, figure out where you can find the best breakie and coffee and what you simply cannot miss while being there.
The same conversations and the goodbyes
Fellow backpackers love to meet each other. Unfortunately, you always have to go through the same notions with everyone: Where are you from? Where are you heading? Where have you been so far? Also, forget the questions about life back home when you meet a surfer. All they like to think about is reading the ocean and how to find the next sick wave. Once you’ve overcome the tiring first round of questions, you mostly figure out quite soon if you’re going to see this person again. Most of the times, it stays a one-time acquaintance or you spend a few days together because it’s convenient. But there are also these rare occasions where you meet people who you can see yourself staying in contact with. And with those, the hard part is the goodbyes. You’ve shared unique experiences with one another although you’ve only met a few days ago and you somehow feel a special bond between you. But then you and them go your own ways. Goodbyes suck, really.
The constant urge
And finally, the constant urge. Imagine this: you’re in Bali, you’ve found a place you truly like, the coffee is great, you’ve had the best food so far, the people around you are incredible and you don’t want to leave. At the same time, you know you only have this limited amount of time. And didn’t you want to see so much more? This is the perpetual feeling a backpacker has. Sometimes you stay a bit longer, sometimes you leave. Sometimes you regret leaving, sometimes you can’t grasp how much better the place you moved to is. I haven’t figured out the perfect backpacking strategy just yet – go with your gut feeling and it will be just fine.
Yes, there are just as many ups and as there are downs during a backpacking trip. You get lost, you hurt yourself, you hate a place or you just feel restless. If this doesn’t bother you, then backpacking is for you! It truly is a liberating way of traveling and I will do it over and over again. Immerse yourself in the local culture, get to know the people that live there and absorb as many experiences as possible – good or bad.