5 Life Lessons Learned from Backpacking
You will never come back from traveling the same person as when you left. In addition to the cultures, food and the people you'll encounter, you will undoubtedly learn a lot about yourself as well. While you never know what you'll discover on your own journey, I thought I would take this opportunity to share with you five important lessons I've learned while backpacking the world.
1. You Don't Need Half the Things In Your Bag
The first time I was preparing to travel, I spent the months leading up to my departure researching various gear and brainstorming every plausible situation that could possibly play out. I was determined to be ready for whatever life had to throw at me. As a result, I set out with two bulky, massively overweight backpacks. To clarify, one of those bags was for my camera equipment, but even that was jam-packed with more stuff than I would ever need.
Some of the more regrettable items I brought along include three jackets, a water filtration kit, and duplicate toiletries. By the time I returned home, I hadn't worn one of those jackets, let alone all three, and I never once went camping, so the water filter went unused. Oh, and as it turns out, they actually do sell toothpaste in Europe.
The point I'm getting at here is to be honest and realistic with yourself. If you're considering packing something that there's a possibility you might use, leave it. You don't have backpack space to waste on maybes. As for the extra clothing, learn to dress in layers. Two shirts and a lightweight sweatshirt can be just as warm as that heavy jacket, but a lot less bulky. If you do travel into the winter, you can always buy a new jacket or have someone back home mail one to you.
2. Make Plans, But Be Flexible
When traveling, you will come across two kinds of people; the ones who have their entire trip planned down to the minute, and those who prefer to figure it out in the moment. I’ve found the ideal situation to be a mix of the two; roughly 75% spontaneous, 25% planned.
All too often I've seen the following scenario play out: Two people meet in a hostel and really hit it off. One invites the other along to something the following day, only to be told, “I really wish I could, but I already have two tours planned tomorrow, a museum trip the next day, and then I have to catch a flight the following morning! I'm so bummed I can't go now”. It doesn't have to be that way.
The point is this; try to not book too much in advance. Some of the most amazing things you are bound to experience will come from spur of the moment decisions. It's an awful feeling to think that you missed out on something fantastic because your itinerary demanded otherwise. For the most part, anything you want to do can be booked on short notice, so don’t stress about it! After all, the best part about backpacking is the freedom to go where you want, WHEN you want, so exercise that freedom!
Now that's not to say you shouldn't do any advanced booking. You definitely don't want to roll into a new city only to discover that every nearby hostel is fully booked. Have some forethought, but always remember that you are beholden to no one else's schedule but your own. Your plans are only as permanent as you choose to make them.
3. Be Frugal, Not Cheap
If you've read my blog, I know what you're thinking; "Isn't your whole point to teach people how to travel as inexpensively as possible". You're right, it is; but to do so by cutting out the superfluous bits where people tend to needlessly throw money away. Pack a sandwich in your day bag rather than going out for lunch. Bring a reusable water bottle with you when traveling instead of buying disposable ones. Skip the pricey hotels and opt for hostels or couch surfing instead. These are all things I can get behind. What I mean by this entry is this: don't skimp on the experiences.
I've mentioned before how cooking for yourself while traveling is a great way to save money. While I wholeheartedly stand by that statement, it doesn't mean you shouldn't try the brick oven pizza in Florence or the Phanaeng curry in Thailand. There are certain things, be it food, museums, operas, etc. that define the culture. If you pass on these things for the sake of saving a couple dollars, you're also missing out on what it means to truly be there. So save money where you can, but not at the expense of what matters most.
4. Say Yes More
This one takes some getting used to, but it is by far the most rewarding thing you can do for yourself. While traveling, you are going to come face to face with many unfamiliar situations. Some will challenge you more than others. Maybe it’s trying an exotic local delicacy. Maybe it’s cliff diving off the coast of Croatia. Whatever it may be, challenge yourself to say yes as much as possible.
It can be terrifying trying things so far removed from your comfort zone, but remember, that's why you left home in the first place. When in doubt, I like to think back to this quote: "A ship at harbor is safe, but thats not what ships were built for". Something as small as striking up a conversation with fellow travelers at your hostel can lead to some of the best nights of your trip. Granted, you're bound to encounter experiences that leave you thinking, “Great. I’m never doing that again”, but now you'll know! If nothing else, you’ll have a great story to share with friends back home.
5. The World is Not as Scary as You Think
When you tell people that you're leaving the travel the world, there will be some (maybe many) that will try to talk you out of it. They'll tell you that terrorists are lurking around every corner. They'll say thieves will steal your belongings. They'll remind you of that one movie where people who stayed in a hostel were murdered because that was totally based on a true story, you guys.
Come to think of it as background noise; nothing more than static. You will always have people telling you that you can not or should not do something. Their negativity is born out of their own insecurity. They know they would never be capable of doing what you're preparing to do, so they feel the need to drag you down with them. Don't let it happen. Rise above it and define yourself by your own action, not their inaction.
On my last trip, I made a complete loop around the world. That's a lot of destinations. Do you how many times I was robbed? Zero. Threatened? Nada. Murdered? Zilch. I'd even go so far as to say the vast majority of people I met were downright nice. Crazy, I know!
Do bad people exist? Of course. But we can't let them spoil it for the rest of us. Don’t let fear of the unknown scare you off of what will be one of the greatest experiences of your life. The world is too big and life too short to spend it sitting at home with the curtains pulled shut. So say hello to people in your hostel. Ask a stranger for directions if you get lost. And remember, at the end of the day, we're all in this together.
By Matt Vachon