Lessons Learned from Backpacking

Me backpacking in Madrid, Spain (2014). Over packing and wearing uncomfortable shoes were two rookie mistakes I learned from, among many others,

Have you ever dreamt of backpacking around a continent, freely wandering between cities and countries seeing all the things you’ve always wanted to and experiencing the exhilarating thrill of checking off bucket list items one by one?

For me personally, it was once something I fantasized about but never imagined I’d have the courage to do. It seemed so intimidating and far too adventurous for me. Plus, I knew I was too high maintenance to fit all my belongings in a backpack I’d have to carry everywhere or to stay in hostels with complete strangers.

But three years ago, I decided I needed to go for it [and I did]. As a gift to myself for finishing my Master’s, I booked a trip to Europe and began planning an epic journey to explore five cities across four countries. And since I didn’t know anyone brave (or crazy) enough to join me, I did a majority of it all by myself.

I admit that I was a bit nervous but I knew it was the perfect timing for this trip since I had reached such an exciting point in my life. For years, I worked so hard on my career and school, and it was all paying off as I reached some major milestones in life- completing my education and landing a job that allowed me to move 5,000 miles away to follow my dream of living in Hawaii. I asked myself, who knows how much my life is about to change or if I will ever get the chance to do this kind of trip again? I knew I had to go for it and seize this opportunity.

It ended up being the most defining trip of my life. I felt so liberated and happy the entire two and a half weeks. It had a massive impact on me by changing who I am as a person and igniting a fire in me to be fearless in the pursuit of my dreams. It made me even more addicted to travel and more determined than ever to explore every inch of this earth that I can.

It turns out that I was right about how much my life would change in the three years following this trip. I had an incredible experience living in Hawaii that awakened my soul and helped me find who I am. I got to travel throughout Asia and now live back on the mainland in California as a military spouse. I never would have imagined the path my life took but the experience of this backpacking trip has definitely influenced me so much along the way.

So now I find myself about to embark on another backpacking journey next week- this time to Southeast Asia. During my planning and preparing, I have been reminiscing a lot about my epic Europe trip and all the lessons I learned along the way that will surely come in handy this time around.

So if you have ever considered backpacking or want to plan a trip like this someday, this is for you. I encourage you to do so with every fiber of my being, and I hope that the lessons I have learned will help you plan an amazing trip and save you some of the trouble I went through.

But first off…

Why Backpack?

Some of you may be asking what exactly is the difference between traditional travel and backpacking. When you go on a “regular” vacation, you generally have one place you’re flying to and exploring. You pack a suitcase with everything you need and go. Backpacking is different because you travel extensively throughout your destination and then onto other countries nearby via train or flight. You carry only your essential belongings on your back so that you can roam freely between place to place without lugging around a lot of stuff in a heavy suitcase. Basically it is known to be a bit more rugged rather than glamorous and luxurious.

In fact, the term “backpacker” is sometimes associated with those hippie types who prefer what’s off the beaten path rather than typical tourism. They are the nomads and wanderers of society always thirsty for adventure who can backpack for months at a time and who crave authentic cultural experiences rather than lavish vacations on resorts. I deeply identify with this free-spirited community, although I am nowhere near as extreme as some brave souls who live on the road indefinitely.

This backpacker phenomenon has been going on for decades all throughout Europe and Asia, where access to endless travel options between drool-worthy destinations makes these continents a backpacker’s dream. But these days, you can pretty much find backpackers anywhere there are attractions to visit. There is actually an entire subculture of people that have made this a lifestyle.

One of the best aspects of backpacking is how inexpensive it is. Backpackers generally stay in hostels for rates as low as a few dollars a day in order to save money for all their bouncing around to different places. Typically there is a very tight budget to stretch and sometimes even no real itinerary- just wandering to wherever they end up. Traveling for weeks or months on end doesn’t have to break the bank as much as people may assume it does if it’s well planned ahead of time and if the backpacker is disciplined in being frugal. But at any cost, it’s worth it because of the people you encounter along the way, the lessons you learn, and the chance to create the most profound memories of your life.

The main reason people love to backpack is not because it’s cheap but because it’s the true definition of freedom and adventure. As I learned myself, the excitement of visiting so many destinations in one trip cannot be beat. If I am going to journey halfway across the world, I want to see as much as possible.

Personally I have never felt more powerful and free in my life than doing what my soul calls for and just exploring at my own pace wherever my heart desires. I believe it is something everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime because it is so eye opening and life changing.

My Lessons Learned from Backpacking

  • There is a reason it’s called backpacking. Bringing heavy wheeled luggage will slow you down big time and you will deeply regret it when you’re running around train stations that do not have escalators or elevators. There is nothing like seeing obviously inexperienced and flustered tourists struggle to carry their 50lb suitcase up three long flights of steps. It’s also a pain to check large luggage at the airport and wait for bags, slowing you down even further. That is why a carry-on sized backpack is the best way to go if you’re taking multiple flights. If you only have one roundtrip flight like I did to/from London and trains in between everything else, then it’s okay to check a larger backpack. I have both sizes for this reason, but either way I prefer backpacks by far. Save the suitcase for when there is just one destination.
  • Pack light. And by this I mean whatever you consider to be light, pack half of that. Only bring what you truly need. Once you see how hard it is to carry it all on your back, you will understand. I tried to pack super light and still grossly overpacked on my Euro trip. I was so miserable with all the weight on my back that I begged a departing friend to take some of my stuff in her suitcase and mail it to me when she got back home. I will never make that mistake again. When you backpack you do not need a new outfit every day. Bring only 2-3 pairs of pants to re-wear, a few different tops, and for the ladies a light dress or two. Learn to pick outfits you can mix and match with only a few pieces. Wash clothes to reuse along the way if needed by bringing a bit of travel detergent and a clothesline for your hotel or hostel. Try to stick to the basics when it comes to everything, not just clothes. Even though I love accessories and makeup, I only bring the items I truly need- a couple pairs of earrings, light makeup, a couple lipsticks, one pair of sunglasses. I can sacrifice being as stylish and glamourous as I’d normally prefer to be for the sake of my poor back carrying the burden.
  • Invest in a good quality backpack. I love the brand Osprey. They have backpacking totally figured out with each of their different size packs. All have very strategic compartments and extra straps for the chest and hips to help ease the weight on your back and shoulders. Talk to a salesman or watch a youtube video to learn how to evenly distribute weight within your backpack and best utilize all the features, which will go a long way. A durable pack will be your best friend for years to come.
  • Planning and research is essential. Planning and researching for my Euro trip took me months. I am the kind of traveler who needs an itinerary to stick to and I try to jam pack as much as possible into each day. Even if you’re the more spontaneous traveler type who wants to go with the flow, you will still need to do research ahead of time to at least gather general info. My personal process begins with first looking up the top attractions in each city on Trip Advisor, popular blogs and in guidebooks. Then I prioritize the things I want to do the most and see how much I can fit into my time. Next I try to plan what makes sense geographically, so that when I visit one part of town I can see everything close by instead of coming back again or going around in circles. I am sure to google “things to know before visiting…” for each city to be prepared and always find helpful info on things like weather, safety, what to pack, and how to avoid disrespecting locals and their customs. There is a plethora of information out there that is available to us and we’d be wise to use it as much as possible.
  • Find out about Visas and entrance requirements. There is nothing more tragic than planning to go somewhere and being turned away. It’s never happened to me and hopefully it never will because I always make sure to check embassy websites for info on what’s required to enter each country I visit. In Europe, it’s easy to hop borders but most countries outside of Europe have their own unique requirements, such as vaccinations, pre-approved Visas, etc. Do not just assume that as an American you are welcome anywhere. We are lucky enough to be able to visit most places with a Visa upon entry but not every time. For some countries you will be required to apply in advance and do some legwork. Also stay abreast of news and current events that could possibly affect your trip.
  • Backpacking does not mean you have to stay in hostels. Traditional backpacking generally means saving money by staying in a hostel where you share a room with others or even couch-surfing with total strangers. As I mentioned, I am well aware that I am high maintenance. I have nothing against hostels but I prefer to have my own space and especially my own bathroom. Therefore, I am willing to pay more for a hotel. Even still, I always try to find good deals on hotels and rentals instead of splurging on a high end hotel. For my upcoming trips to Thailand I got rates as low as $30 a night, which means more money for my activities and foodie pursuits. The way I see it, I am only going to be in my hotel to sleep, bathe, and get ready. As long as it’s clean, safe and centrally located, it does not have to be fancy.
  • Comfortable shoes will save your life. I have said this before and will continue repeating it as many times as I can. When backpacking, you will likely walk miles and miles every day. Your footwear can literally make or break you. No need to be cute or chic while you’re away exploring. Comfort is more practical and a hell of a lot smarter. Bring good sneakers and very comfortable sandals for hot destinations. Even as a shoe freak, I will never again bring more than a couple pairs of shoes.
  • Make sure you have an international plan for your phone. This has really come in handy everywhere I have been, not just for being able to communicate while away but most importantly unlimited data for using my GPS to help me navigate places completely new and foreign to me. Some cities even have apps to help you navigate their train systems, which I relied on heavily in London because I found their tube system confusing. I can also check out which restaurants have the best reviews, use my currency converting and language translating apps, order a driver, and obsessively google everything to learn more. All without restrictions or going broke from usage charges.
  • Take a travel diary. Whether you write it on your phone or in a small notebook, it’s so awesome to jot down your experiences to remember later on. After traveling among many different places, sometimes the details can all blur together. So I highly recommend taking a moment at the end of each day to reflect and document your experiences.
  • Solo is the best way to backpack. I am sure it is great with friends. But solo backpacking has become wildly popular for a reason. I am a huge proponent for solo travel and this other post on it explains the many reasons why. You have the freedom to wander at your own pace and do whatever you please without being tied down by the needs and wants of others. In addition, you’ll interact with and meet more people along your journey this way. The time alone allows you to really reflect on things and be present in your own personal experience rather than influenced by anyone else.
  • Embrace the journey. As I detailed in my recent post, being open minded and allowing some free time will help you to get the most out of your trip. When the trip is over you may be ready to get home and back to some semblance of a normal life, but keep in mind that you will look back at this experience for the rest of your life. So don’t think about stresses from back home or any future worries beyond your backpacking adventure. Be present and savor every minute. Make every moment of it count.

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