There are as many ways to travel as there are travelers, and a lot of people discount backpacking as an uncomfortable and unattractive way to explore the world, maybe because it goes hand-in-hand with gritty hostels and shoestring budgets. However, the backpacking experience is much more than living cheaply: it’s about seeing the planet from a different platform, one that has a strong sense of community and a number of unique opportunities at the ready. If you’re wondering whether you could handle a month or two (or six) on the road with only your pack on your back, the short answer is “yes”. If you’re looking for specifics, consider these six excellent reasons to backpack across a new country, region or continent this year.
1. You’ll learn how to be thrifty (and happy)
So often, saving money is a chore, something you have to do to plan for the next move in life and get through your daily obligations. But when you’re backpacking on a tight budget, you have the excitement, newness, and perpetual holiday atmosphere to keep your spirits up and motivation strong. Sure, it would be nice to enjoy five-star dinners and world-renowned performances whenever you feel like it, but with so many potentially life-changing experiences just around the corner (if you can make the money last), a bread and cheese dinner and night in a hostel common space here and there isn’t too much of a compromise. Soon you may begin taking pride and fulfillment in living with less each day, and that’s an attitude that will help you in the long-run, too.
2. You’ll get fit and strong
Lifting a pack up and down, walking it around cobbled streets, climbing impossibly long staircases – all of these integral parts of backpacking around cities will keep up your cardio fitness, drop a few pounds, and maybe even help you pack on some muscle. Of course, you need to be smart about it, since the right planning and effort can make all the difference between a fit body and an injured body. First, splurge on a pack with a padded back, and be sure it fits your body properly. Secondly, don’t overload it – you’re bound to accumulate a little more as you move along, and the more small bags you have hanging off your sides, the more likely your body will suffer from the weight imbalance. Finally, be sure to stretch often – morning and night, if you can fit it in – to keep your muscles limber and refreshed.
3. You’ll change your perspective
Visiting a new city or country will certainly help to widen your world view, but rolling up a suitcase to a Holiday Inn for a few days is not quite the same as staying in cheap, local accommodation with authentic touches and regional expectations. When you’re backpacking through a string of cities on a tight budget, you’re forced to make some sacrifices along the way, but rarely more than many of the locals around you must make every day. Buying your meals from street vendors or the local green grocer may change the way you see food (and what it’s worth), while bunking with a group of foreign travelers in a foreign land will show you just how many types of people, goals, and expectations there are in the world. In the end, you can expect a humbling and insightful experience.
4. You’ll join a remarkable community
If you travel enough, you’re bound to run into fantastic people of all ages and backgrounds, but backpackers share a bond that’s rarely found elsewhere. These are people who have been on the road for a long time and more than willing to share their wisdom, or else just starting their journey and eager to soak in stories and advice. The commonality between them is honesty and generosity: backpackers want to share, and are generally open for any fun new experience, plus they’re often willing to help you out (especially if they’ve been through some dicey situations themselves). Many people will drift in and out of your life quickly, but you’ll have the chance to learn a lot from them, and could even forge some life-long friendships.
5. You’ll learn to let go
When you set out on a big, exciting journey, you’re probably dragging quite a few assumptions and expectations along with you. Sometimes these will be met – and that’s always nice – but many times, things will go awry, plans will have to change, and money may be lost. You may fight and pout at first, but eventually you’ll learn to live with things as they unravel, because you have no other choice. Backpacking is an exercise in accepting the fact that you cannot control everything, nor should you. Some of the best opportunities come when you least expect them; practicality shouldn’t keep you from going with the flow.
6. You’ll appreciate your home in new ways
Once you’ve been in foreign countries, amid foreign languages, hopping on and off trains and planes for a month or two, you’re bound to be tired and probably a little homesick. After all, most backpackers are drawn to new travel experiences rather than away from terrible home lives, and the spectre of your familiar setting becomes a comfort in uncomfortable situations abroad. Distancing yourself from your job or social circle for a while can also bring a much-needed pause to reflect on what you like about your life, and what may need to change. In any case, you’ll likely return with a different view of the influences and aspects you may have taken for granted.
While backpacking can be a liberating way to travel, your eye-opening adventure will still require some careful planning. Politics, social situations, and schedules change, and so it’s crucial that you make sure you will be able to get where you want to go before you head off. Look into different forms of transportation to find the best route (sometimes it’s not the shortest), and be aware of your budget and realistic about your spending habits. Luckily, a rough itinerary coupled with a backup plan and some good reference material can be enough to get you started on your journey.