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13 Things Backpackers Already Know And Future Backpackers Definitely Should

Observations and lessons learned from 3 years of backpacking on a budget.

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1. You can get away with speaking English almost everywhere

It’s always appreciated and often very helpful to learn the basics of the local language in the country where you are traveling, but in most places in the world, especially where the backpacker trail is fairly well trodden, most people you meet will speak some English. Servers, people working for accommodations, cab drivers, and those who deal regularly with tourists usually speak English. It’s fun and always warmly welcomed to use some basic local language, like “thank you,” “how are you,” “how much,” and “where’s the bathroom,” but don’t let your ignorance of the local language keep you from traveling there.

2. You will debate meal choices based on trying to save $1 here or there, but then end up spending $20 on drinks later that night.

If you, like most backpackers, enjoy meeting new people and exploring the nightlife of a new city, it’s hard to take nights off from partying while traveling. You will constantly find yourself in exciting new places surrounded by interesting new people and a whole new world to explore. It’s easy to justify going out for a drink most nights while traveling, especially because alcohol is usually pretty cheap in the more traveled countries, but bonding over drinks and going out with a new group of friends can quickly turn into a $20 dollar night or more, and week after week of that can quickly chew up any travel budget. Regardless, you will probably end up eating rice most days but going out most nights. You will probably be in this one amazing spot with this one group of people only once in your life, right?

3. Adjusting to new currencies and conversion rates is easy

Unless you’re traveling through Europe, currencies will change at every border-crossing, and getting used to new amounts and types of money is just part of moving around the world. It generally takes about a day or a few meals to get used to converting money into your home currency. There are handy apps you can put on your phone as well. Don’t let strange new money stress you out; it’s actually pretty fun to figure out...and foreign coins and bills make great souvenirs!

4. Plans change daily… even hourly

The more you see, the more you realize how much there is yet to explore. When arriving in a new country, you might think that you have a good idea of where you want to go, but the first conversation you have at the hostel can change everything. As long as you keep your travel plans fluid, the next bus or ferry leaving town can take you somewhere you might have never planned on going, even somewhere you never heard of until your new German friend from the hostel told you that it was his favorite place in the world.

5. You won’t need a travel guide, but take one if you find it comforting

I am the type to travel with eternal optimism and the belief that things will play out how they’re meant to. The feeling of serendipity is without a doubt one of the greatest travel highs. Stumbling into some amazing hidden restaurant or finding a little hidden bungalow on the beach that costs $8 a night can provide some of the greatest feelings of success and joy while traveling. It feels like it was there just for you at that moment. If a Lonely Planet tells you to eat somewhere because it’s great, even if it is great, it’s exactly what you were expecting (and probably a bit expensive too). However, if an old lady cooking in front of her house makes you the best Tom Yam you’ve ever had, those are the moments of you’re trip you will remember. You found it, and it was just for you. Also, backpackers favorite conversation topic is...you guessed it, traveling! You will be constantly soaking up information about new places, great street food, and fun hostels, and I tend to trust a fellow backpackers fresh opinion over any travel guide. But if you’re more of a pessimist or a big planner, a travel guide can serve as a comfort blanket.

6. Never trust what people say about a place

This might seem to contradict what I’ve just said about our pretend German friend, but you will find that some people simply repeat what they have heard. I notice that a lot of people share opinions that aren’t forged from their own experience. You’ll hear “there isn’t much to do there,” or even, “I’ve heard it’s pretty boring,” which doesn’t even hide that it’s somebody else’s opinion—who might himself have just heard that rather than experienced it! I assume that there is beauty, food, and beer pretty much everywhere, and I am usually right. If you feel drawn to a place, go check it out for a night. This is true only to a point, and that point for me was best demonstrated when an old Venezuelan man told me, “If you go to Venezuela, you’re playing with your life.” I tend to trust locals and natives with this kind of advice more than backpackers, so I never made it to Venezuela. But if your new Swedish friend seems passionate about a place in a positive way, shows you beautiful pictures on her phone and tells you about a great hostel, you can follow that lead and trust that it will be a good time.

7. Carry toilet paper… always

If you’ve been spacing out, pay attention to this point because it's critical. Keep the TP on hand. Some places won’t have any, and sometimes you’ll need some when you least expect it. It might take your stomach a few weeks to adjust to new bacteria in new countries, and you will want toilet paper during these trying times. Also, in a lot of countries you will be using more of a “hole in the ground”-type toilet than a porcelain throne, which often comes accompanied with what is referred to as a “bum-gun,” but no toilet paper to finish the job. Keep it in your day bag.

8. Traveling alone is not lonely—you will make lifelong friends on buses and in dorm rooms

When people ask me what it’s like to travel alone, my description is something like, “It’s basically getting to an airport or bus terminal alone, then trying immediately to make it less lonely.” I’m a people person and enjoy chatting with pretty much everybody, and the people that you really seem to click with can become close friends almost immediately. Everyone traveling alone is in the same boat, and eager to make new travel friends. It’s really common to decide to travel to the next destination together with people you will meet on a bus or in a hostel, and sometimes, like with my good travel mate Irish Brian, that first decision to get on the same bus turned into over four months of traveling South America together. As we went along, we expanded our group from the two of us to a travel family of eight people from all over the world, traveling together for months.

9. Eat on the street, at food markets, and anywhere locals are eating

You will often find the exact same food on the street as you find in westernized tourist-seeking restaurants. For example, imagine you are walking around an island in Thailand. There will be pad thai being cooked by some elderly woman in her “restaurant” (read: house) for 60 Baht ($2), and there will be pad thai at every nice sit down restaurant named sunset room or paradise island for 200 Baht or more. It’s the same meal, and you already know which one is cooked with more love. I also follow the general rule that if it’s busy - it must be good. Some night markets or food courts can have an overwhelming number of options, and even if you don’t quite know what the sign is saying or picturing or what you’re about to eat, if locals are willing to wait in line it’s usually worth joining the queue.

10. Comfort food exists everywhere

If you are on the road long enough, some day you are probably going to hate rice. You just won’t want it in your mouth or be able to stomach looking at it. Luckily, people enjoy chips and cookies everywhere in the world, and 7/11 has a monopoly on corner stores the world over like I never could have imagined. Also, globalization has led to the ubiquity of KFCs, McDonalds, Burger Kings (Hungry Jack for Australians), and Subways too, so you will never be too far from the Colonel’s chicken or a Big Mac if that’s what you end up craving, after you’ve had your fill of rice.

11. You’re going to have a love/hate relationship with your backpack

I’ve been with the same backpack for almost three years now. When I end up somewhere I’m staying for a while and can unpack it entirely, that is a moment I cherish. I love my backpack, but living out of a top loading backpack for months at a time can be tedious. There have been too many times that I was looking for a particular shirt, and I would pull out all the other shirts, boxers, shorts, pants, hats, and articles of clothing from my bag before I found the shirt I was picturing. When this happens you will want to pillow fight your bag and then throw it in the Ganges River. I love my bag, though; he’s the only companion that’s been with me this whole time. He’s incredibly adaptable, and always has room for the weird stuff I acquire. I’ve made it home with a guitar, fishing spear, camping mat, and a few pairs of shoes all somehow tied to him in perfect harmony. My only bag advice to a future backpacker is that, because you will no doubt fill your bag along the way, decide how much you are willing to carry around, and get a bag that size. Don’t get a huge bag, thinking that you want to travel light but also want room for more stuff that you pick up as you go. You will fill your bag fast, and be burdened with carrying all of it.

12. At some point you will probably get bed bugs, food poisoning, sun burns, a mysterious rash, maybe all at once

As I’m writing this, I am on an island in Malaysia, covered in Bed Bug bites, burned down my whole back from snorkeling for two straight days, and also a bit ill from lack of sleep and carrying on with the party for too many nights in a row. You will most likely find yourself in these patches of rough health from time to time, but like everything, this too will pass. It’s a small price to pay for the euphoric moments that come from traveling. Plus, if some illness gets unbearable and you need medical attention, it will no doubt be much cheaper to have it looked at where you are than it would be in the U.S., Australia, or most developed countries.

13. It’s all set up just for YOU!

The one thought that occurs to me all the time, which I failed to realize before leaving to explore the world, is that it’s all set up for me! Well not for me specifically, but for US. All of us with wanderlust dreams of finding old temples, hidden beaches, and the different corners of the world that we’ve always wondered about while staring at maps. There is a person who lives near that temple, beach, or in that corner waiting to help you book a tour or find a room, restaurant, or taxi so she can make a living. Basically, it’s all a lot easier than I ever imagined it would be, this moving about the planet. If the bed bugs and potential for uncontrollable bowels has thrown you off, let this be my last thought—it’s much easier, but also more fun, educational, empowering, and life-changing then I imagined it could be, and I had some high hopes when I started.

All images courtesy of Travis King

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