Whenever someone finds out I have traveled a lot the past few years, and plan to continue, there’s always the same series of questions. Where have you been? How do you afford it? Why would you go there, isn’t it [insert negative adjective]?
I do my best to answer genuine confusion, but its really hard to explain the why and be taken seriously. [My mom will be the first to answer anyone’s questioning as to why I do something with, “because he can.” ] I usually let it go at that.
I come from a family that loves Disney and loves comfort. I am no stranger to vacationing, nor general travel as a Westerner. You know, the nice hotel rooms, direct flights, guaranteed great meals… yes, I support that 100%.
But, with that out of the way, the way I have traveled on my own, and the reason I have been able to do as much as I have in such a short time, is summed up in a single phrase: backpack culture.
The term backpacking is fairly interchangeable. It can be as inspirational, or as practical as needed. The Internet does a fantastic job glorifying it – and frankly, its one of the few things that the romanticism around it is justified. I’d attempt to define it in short like this:
backpacking | verb | bak-pak-ing | : the act of challenging your comfort zone, through the use of one bag, minimal amounts of currency, large amounts of willingness and curiosity to interact with the people and the world around you.
I’m not kidding when I say I love to luxury travel. Shout out to the parental unit for making that possible in my life! However, backpacking transitions from a vacation meant for relaxation and recuperation to a trip for the sake of traveling and experiencing the world as it exists every day that you are not there to see it.
The world goes on, each and every day, in its own routine and rhythms. You’re not there to see it. The media likes to tell you how it is, as do other travelers you meet at home or while on the move. The goal of backpacking is to ninja-sneak into a destination and to see the routine and rhythm for yourself. A good analogy is a wildlife biologist. They enter the wild, with their own comforts and influence on their environment, but seek to disturb it as little as possible, to see the way it works when they are not there.
While backpacking, it is important to note that you must be accepting of difficult situations that are outside your comfort zone. Many times inexperience leads to a fear of strangers, or a cultural that is so different from our own may seem intimidating or unwelcoming. The mindset of “getting dirty and uncomfortable” is important to carry with you, even if you’re not truly getting dirty (although, its certainly very possible!).
Where you lay your head at night is entirely up to you. I’m not one to judge travel styles – I truly believe that backpacking is entirely what you make it, as extremely hardcore or as light vanilla as you may be interested in. However, if you’re staying in a hotel, you are not backpacking.
The locals will not be staying in a hotel. Only other travelers, especially ones of privilege, will be. You must find some place where people can expose you to the natural environment of the destination.
I highly recommend finding renting services that allow you rent out a local home. Renting home-stays is truly the easiest way to get a genuine experience, but keep safe and comfortable (especially if you’re not huge on the “dirty” aspect of travel). Couch surfing is fine, but renting creates accountability through a money-service, and creates layers of protection through local laws and basic morals. Hostels are good for the same reason, but I recommend investing in private rooms (only a few dollars more than dorms), as they allow you peace of mind with your belongings behind a locked door.
Staying local will guaranteed save you money. You’ll be pointed in the right directions for local restaurants, things to do, places to shop – or in other words, you’ll avoid the money-grabbing tourist traps.
Side note on tourist traps: “must-see” tourist traps are different than what I’m referring to here – yes, go see the Eiffel Tower and shop at its base… but there are plenty of “shopping centers” or “main streets” that locals would not touch with a ten foot pole, and you’ll save money if you know where and why.
Additionally, if you stay local for lodging (home-stays or hostels), you’ll be paying $20-$60 a night. Traveling with a companion? Divide that by two.
I generally succeed on budgeting $50/day in every location I go, usually including lodging. The only thing I budget separately are big transits (airplanes and trains). Having a budget like that accomplishes three valuable things while backpacking:
- It forces you to stay local, taking advantage of the genuine atmosphere that the locals partake in daily, instead of the 5 star restaurant city tour extravaganza you found in the guide book.
- It makes you accountable to not drifting back to your comfort zone, where you can just buy your way to comfortability. It pushes your boundaries if you’re trying a local eatery, instead of a HardRock Cafe with plenty of American food. This also usually means you have to actually speak to locals, which forges relationships and more “real” experiences.
- It makes travel actually affordable, answering in short the question “How do you afford it?!”
- If you’re gone for two weeks, $50/day including lodging is $700, plus airfare, roughly $1500 for a trip. That means saving $28 a week for a year and you’ve got yourself a trip of a lifetime. More on that in a different article*.
Every culture has a stereotype, and every single one is eager to combat it when encountering members of other cultures. The best example I have is my interaction with the Turkish culture.
When I was in Turkey, it was less than a week after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris. The attacks were in response to a cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad, which is not supposed to be drawn in Islam. However, killing people is not supposed to happen either, as Islam in its true non-radical form is one of the most peaceful religions there is.
When we arrived in Turkey, one of the first exchanges I had went (paraphrased) like this:
Host: “Welcome to my home, make yourself comfortable…”
Us: “Thank you so much, hello, hi…”
Host: “Now, I must tell you, you are safe here! Those people in Paris, those are not Muslims! Islam is peace, Allah would be ashamed of such people and encourages the rest of us to tell the world we are good, we are friends!”
Like, literally, first few exchanges and the folks we met were defending themselves.
People who are willingly putting themselves out there for travels will be welcoming, fantastic, and willing to help with absolutely anything. Do not be afraid or assume that all strangers, or all people different than us are dark and scary. They are just like us, hoping to be accepted in the world and glad to interact with other kind-hearted friends.
In short, the backpack culture is the realization that the world is a much more welcoming place than you could ever imagine. Hostels, home-stays, couch surfing, overnight trains, overnight flights – whatever you piece together to make your trip is going to challenge your notions and instincts of what the world is like.
Each region has a different variation on it as well; Europe is heavy on hosteling, while Latin America is heavy on home-stays. I’ll be writing further pieces on both of these variations, but all in all backpacking remains the same skill set and the same mindset.
Backpack culture is the network of humanity that will help in times of need, and encourage you to try their version of things.
Backpack culture is letting down your comfort walls and changing your perspectives.
Backpack culture is your relationship with the world.
Get out there, and treat it well.