backpacking

Is Backpacking The Right Way To Travel For You?

[dropcap]Travel [/dropcap] is like love… or baking… or literary criticism – everyone does it in their own manner and style, and every outcome is different. [pullquote]There isn’t a formula for successful travel, no equation for guaranteed safety. [/pullquote]Travel is in many ways a gamble but, for those who dare to play, they stand to gain a lot more than the house. The way each of us travels is as individual and unique as our fingerprint, and thus, one of its challenges is that the novice traveller must work, through trial and error, to find their style. Do you prefer the comfort and stability of tours and all-inclusive packages? Or the scintillating thrill of walking the knife’s edge while travelling solo through foreign countries with nothing but a backpack and your fingers crossed? Or perhaps somewhere in between?

Finding Optimal Range…

The truth is that there isn’t so much a right or wrong way to travel as there is an optimal way for you to travel and to get the most out of it. But do remember that it is always worthwhile to push your own limits every so often, as you never know what you might love if you would only give it a chance. I have had the privilege of sampling many different modes of travel, from fully-itineraried safaris in Africa to solo trips where I had no one to tell me where to go or what to do, with only my own whim and sense of inertia to spur me onwards. Personally, itineraries are anathema to my traveling pleasure, while solo backpacking appeals to and nurtures my restless and adventure-seeking heart. So it is this latter kind of travel that I will attempt to break into pieces palatable to the novice backpacker. Keep in mind that this is my style of traveling, unique and tailored to me. So make it your own, or scrap it all together and start from scratch.

It Starts With A Dream… Then Money

Before I ever form a concrete flight or travel plan, I spend untold hours on the computer, making dream boards of trips I’d love to undertake and sights I’d give anything to take in, all from the safety of home (or sometimes work). The truth is, all travel starts as little more than a dream. It isn’t until you resolutely pluck one of these dreams out of the ether that you can begin to make plans.

One of the first things to consider in this monetarily-driven world is money. If you have any saved, you’re one of the forward-thinking few. If you’re like me, and money moves through you as though you had a leak in your foundation, you’ll have to find a way to make the money you need. A helpful resource for budgeting and keeping track of your money is the website Mint. On it, you can set goals and keep track of exactly what you’re spending money on. The visuals the site provides are a great aid for those of us who are less than financially minded.

For reference, I needed $4,000 for 5 months of travel in South America. In order to save half of this  I promptly put myself on a budget and put whatever was left over from my paycheck immediately in my bank account. I stopped carrying around my debit card, opting instead for cash that, when it ran out, was simply out.  I worked a lot in the service of this barely formulated dream, but you do what’s necessary.

What To Do About Your Job

If you have a job that you would rather not leave, see if you can mold your vacation days into a solid block of time. It’s cheaper (and more enjoyable in my experience) to travel for longer periods of time, as opposed to a few weeks here and a few weeks there throughout the year. If you’re set on doing a multi-month trip, see if there’s a possibility of working remotely. If neither of these are an option, you’ll have to make a choice. Ask yourself, “Is this my dream job? If I leave it now, is there a chance I’ll be able to come back or find a similar job? Are my gut and my heart telling me to go see new places and experience things I haven’t even the ability to imagine?” I was lucky. I had a job I hated and the choice was easy, but if the answer to the last two questions is yes (even if the first answer is also yes), do whatever you have to do. Take the leap.

Your First Purchase: A Plane Ticket

While ferreting away as much money as possible, I also snuck glances at ticket prices whenever my boss’ back was turned. My favorite website for plane tickets is called SkyScanner, but I often cross-reference prices on Kayak or on individual airline sites. The coolest thing about SkyScanner is that you can choose to search prices during the “Cheapest Month” or even allow the site to find the cheapest international flights in the world for you by choosing “Flexible” instead of typing in a destination. You can also choose a country or state instead of a city, and the site will show you the cheapest airports to fly in to or out of. My advice is to buy your plane ticket as soon as you have saved enough money to do so. Having a definite departure date is a great motivator and there’s nothing worse than waiting till the last minute and having to pay three times more for the same flight. That extra few hundred bucks could have gotten you on an amazing tour or extended your trip by a couple of weeks. Save money wherever you can, so that when an amazing opportunity comes up, like volunteering for three weeks in the Galápagos Islands and getting scuba certified, you can take advantage of it.

Making Your List

Once you’ve bought the ticket and know where you’re flying in to (and sometimes out of), it’s time to “plan” the rest of your trip. I put plan in quotations here because what I do could only very loosely be called such. This is when I go back to my dream boards. I do research. I read other people’s travel blogs. I make a list of a handful of things I can’t miss and a list of those I don’t especially care about. I choose one or two expensive things, like hiking to the Ciudad Perdida in Colombia. If I want to do a tour, I book it so as not to miss an opportunity because of a lack of space. And there endeth my planning. I don’t plan how long I’ll be in one place before I move on to another. This is because sometimes a place I think I’ll love, I hate and want to leave immediately and visa versa. When I first came to Cuenca, Ecuador, I planned on staying for a weekend. By the end of that weekend, I’d agreed to work at a hostel there for six weeks and at the end of those six weeks, I’d agreed to move in with the owners. One year later, here I still am.

Don’t lock yourself into plans. Allow yourself the freedom to stay for as little or as long as you like. Don’t try to cram as many places as possible into the time you have. You end up missing more than you see, in my opinion. In any case, the value of traveling for me comes from the people I meet paired with the relationships I build, as well as the places I see, and the former two can rarely be rushed. Travel is not a race.

Nothing Says Prepared Like Packing!

When that departure date is finally near, it’s time to pack. This actually requires a lot more thought than it would seem. The questions to consider are seemingly obvious: Where am I going? What will I be doing? What seasons will I be there for? What can I feasibly buy there and What do I absolutely need to buy at home? The answers usually require research. When I got to Bogotá, Colombia, I was very glad to have brought a heavier jacket. Many travellers I met kind of just assumed that all of Colombia was hot, like the Caribbean side is. They suffered for that assumption. So bring appropriate clothes. Bring basics, things that match, layers – anything that you can put together in a myriad of different ways. Always bring a bathing suit! Even if you’re going somewhere cold, you never know who will have a jacuzzi or will take you to the most amazing hot springs. The thing to remember is that you will be carrying all of this on your back. Those dancing shoes are going to add a couple pounds… that extra pair of jeans, too. And no, you don’t need that many pairs of socks. The one thing I would advise that you bring a fair number of is underwear. The longer you can go without doing laundry, the happier you’ll be.

Bring a small backpack with you as well. This is what you will use as a carry-on for flights and where you’ll store your valuables on long bus rides (keep it with you and not in the overhead compartments). You’ll wear it on your front, just like a marsupial.

If you pack well, it will be an excellent starting point for your trip. There’s nothing quite as frustrating as realizing you forgot something that’s expensive or impossible to buy abroad. Once the packing’s done, you’re ready to go!

Booking Accommodations

Above is virtually the extent to which I plan when I am actively travelling – money, plane tickets, tours and a handful of destinations, and packing. I have found  travel to be infinitely more enjoyable when I haven’t locked myself into future hostel reservations and imagined itineraries. When I set off on my South American adventures, I meant to start in Colombia and make it all the way to Chile, but in fact I got no further than northern Peru… and I would have it no other way.

In general, when moving from one city to another, I would reserve a hostel in the city I was heading to for at least two nights. I would do this maybe the day before I left for said place since, like I said, I always resented having made reservations ahead of time when sometimes I would feel as though I wanted to stay longer. I almost always used HostelWorld, as the hostels that were listed were always within my very minimal budget of $20 a day, including accommodation. Booking.com is sometimes good as well, especially because they don’t ask for a deposit to make a reservation, and as long as you cancel more than 24 hours ahead of your reservation, they don’t charge any fees. I found that it cut down on anxiety to at least know where I would be staying that night.

I’d also recommend arriving in new places during the day. I always felt at my loneliest and most vulnerable arriving in an unknown city in the dark. Even the friendliest towns take on a sinister quality under the shadows of night. But aside from hostels, I pretty much followed my gut in terms of how long to stay in one place, where to go next, etc. If I met some awesome people, sometimes we’d band together for a week or two, but eventually I would get the itch for solitude and the freedom that entailed and I would go off on my own again.

Travelling Solo And Infinite Possibilities

Solo travel is both the most amazing and the scariest thing I have ever done in my life. 99% percent of the time it was beyond my wildest dreams. It was only on overnight buses through desolate landscapes or with an unfriendly (or overly friendly) taxi driver or at those unavoidable moments of unease that I ever was afraid and thus wished that I had a companion to help shoulder that fear and anxiety. But in general, solo travel is only marginally less safe than travel with companions, and that’s only if you put yourself in high-risk situations, which include walking alone in unfamiliar neighbourhoods at night, getting drunk with strangers in strange places, or otherwise opening yourself up for attack. Unfortunately, if you’re a woman travelling alone in many countries, you may always be, regardless of your level of awareness and just by nature of your gender, open to attack. It’s a reality of travel. You have to allow for the possibility of the worst.

The thing about travel is that it crystallizes experience. The worst is no more likely to happen to you on a bus travelling at night through Ecuador than on a college campus in the U.S., but I think the transience of travel makes you much more aware of the infinite possibilities – how each moment could have an unforeseen culmination, just as likely to be good as bad. Travel is about risk assessment and, for me, that means following my instincts. Does this tour operator seem legit? Are these scuba tanks properly maintained? Does this man offering to buy me a drink seem like a creep? You can plan and plan and plan some more, but a true traveller knows that even the best-laid plans often fail to come to fruition, and your gut is an excellent compass for guiding you through those times.

So find your travel style. Dream. Plan. Travel. Bring only what you need. Buy only what you can’t live without. Do whatever you need to do. But for some unnamed, undefined god’s sake, go out and do.

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