Backpacking travel: fiction versus reality

What does backpacking travel mean?

There are countless definitions of what it means to travel as a backpacker: “one who travels with a backpack / independently / cheaply” etc. So to start, I would like to tell you what it means —for me— to travel with the backpack on my shoulders.

Traveling as a backpacker —or traveling with a backpack or backpacking— is an attitude and a style of travel that goes much beyond the format of our luggage.

It usually goes hand in hand with a low budget: those who travel with a backpack know (or learn over time) that unforgettable experiences and the best moments of a trip, in general have little to do with the amount of money invested.

Traveling as a backpacker is also traveling independently, without tours or travel agencies, facing every moment along the way with the personal resources at hand.

Those who travel as backpackers usually get very involved with the local culture and the people, adapting to new situations and getting to know the lives and customs of the locals. All this fits well with a slower travel pace.

After this personal attempt to define backpacking, let’s see the fiction that is usually woven around it, as if backpackers were some mythological creatures. On the other hand, let’s see the reality of those who have the backpackers mentality.

Our backpacks, in a riad in Marrakech where we did Couch-surfing

Some destinations are more “backpacker friendly” than others

As traveling as a backpacker is traveling independently, it also means looking for personalized destinations off the beaten path, those locations that fit our own wishes and interests. What characterizes a backpacker is his curious mindset, his will to explore and learn new things, ultimately finding his path. All this is something internal, personal and can be experienced anywhere in the world, it is just a matter of attitude.

Traveling light is a very good idea

On my first backpacking trip to Europe I made all the possible mistakes of a newbie. I planned a marathonlike trip in which I was jumping from one city to another every 3 or 4 days, driven by the desire to see everything in one month. As if this was not enough, my backpack got overweight with souvenirs during the journey (at the end of the trip it came to weigh 24 kilos, crazy!). Over the years, through my own mistakes, I learned how to pack more efficiently and prioritize what mattered most: the comfort of being able to move lightly is priceless.

Mi mochila y yo
Front, profile and back: three facets of a backpacker in the Bulgarian winter

A backpacker always lodges in hostels

Since we started traveling long term, we discovered other ways to accommodate that were much cheaper —and better— than hostels: for example, doing house-sitting (taking care of houses and pets), volunteering (exchanging hours of work for lodging and meals) or couch-surfing (hospitality exchange in houses of locals). These options are excellent to combine everything we wanted from a trip: slow pace, low budget and a strong connection with local life. 

House-sitting in Spain, volunteering in Morocco and Couch-surfing in Italy, our three favorite accommodation options

If you want to read more about all the lodging options we use to have great experiences and at the same time save big money, here is a post with lots of useful information:


Traveling as a backpacker is an excellent opportunity to learn minimalism

How many times did you go on a trip and came back saying: “OMG I used only half of everything I took with me”? Me, many times, but when you travel with the backpack on your shoulders, there’s no space for this kind of mistakes. The price will be paid with painful back aches along with less movement options and it is simply not worth it. Backpacking is an excellent opportunity to practice minimalism and see how little we need to travel (and to live!). Less stuff means more freedom!

A backpacker can afford traveling only in cheap countries

Let’s examine an example. Can you believe that in North Macedonia (Eastern Europe) we spent twice more than the daily budget of Italy (Western Europe)? How is this possible if Italy is expensive and North Macedonia is cheap? Simple: in Italy, we didn’t pay for accommodation, we lodged through volunteering, house-sitting and couch-surfing. We lived with and as locals, we cooked our food and we even had the food included for free in some cases. In North Macedonia, on the other hand, we were unable to do any of that, so we had to pay for accommodation and restaurants. In short: we had a totally different lifestyle. The result is a conclusion that there are no expensive or cheap destinations per se but that this depends on the lifestyle you have in each place.

Clothes are washed also when traveling

It doesn’t matter if we are traveling for a week or a year, we will have to wear the same clothes over and over again. This is an obvious fact, but it can be forgotten when filling up the backpack and we can end up carrying a thousand pairs of socks. Better take three or four and wash them!

Mi primer viaje de mochilera por Europa
My backpack and I in Amsterdam, on my first backpacking trip through Europe

To be a proper backpacker you have to sell handicrafts on the beach and wear flip flops

I think this is the avatar of the backpacker par excellence: beach, eternal summer and macramé bracelets. I don’t diss selling handicrafts to keep on travelling, not at all, but it is only one of the existing options for generating income on the road. We can travel as backpackers and work seasonal jobs between journeys, work online as digital nomads, sell home-made food and beverages, work with a working holiday visa, sell self-made postcards or drawings, etc. and the list goes on with anything you can think of.

Buying clothes on the road can be very cheap

This point brought back memories from my trip to Southeast Asia and how badly my luggage was made. The first and most serious mistake: I carried a suitcase and not a backpack. Even worse, the suitcase was huge and full of my best clothes! I barely had set foot in Bangkok as I understood it: I had done everything wrong. The other travelers used clothes from the local markets, which adapted to the general dress code and to the 40º C weather. Theirs were usually loose and very fresh clothes, while in my luggage there were only suffocating tights and mini shorts. In summary: I ended up buying a pair of loose and fresh pants from a common street stall for three dollars and they immediately became my second skin for the whole trip.

Maybe you are thinking “but that can only be done in Southeast Asia because everything is so cheap”, but no! Europe is also a great destination to travel light and to buy what you need there. “Europe? But isn’t Europe crazy expensive?” If we talk about new clothes, maybe outside seasonal sales yes, but it’s not the case with used clothing. Buying second-hand clothes is very common in Europe, they’re usually as good as new and can be obtained from 1 euro onwards. Yes, you read well, a few euros for jeans, sweaters, coats or whatever you imagine. So why carry unnecessary weight if we can buy along the way what we need at ridiculously low prices?

Tienda de segunda mano en Sofía, Bulgaria
Sofia (Bulgaria) one of the places with the best second-hand stores I saw in Europe

If you are over 30 years old (or 40, or 50 or whatever) you cannot travel as a backpacker

There is no right age to travel backpacking. As I said above, the essence of backpacking has to do with the attitude, the curiosity to explore off the beaten path, for that there are no age limits.

A slow trip has less costs and more gains

With slow travel I don’t necessarily mean traveling for many months (or years), but rather I refer to the speed of movement within the trip. The more we move within a period of time, the more we are going to spend. In addition, a slow travel pace helps to get more deeply involved with the local culture and really meeting the people, which will probably give a very rich collection of experiences and not just a set of points on the map of visited places.

Final thoughts

This post is not intended to convince that backpacking is better than making another type of trips. Instead, the intent has been to shed some clarity (based on my experience) on what it is like to travel with the backpack as an adventure companion.

If you are thinking of starting a backpacking trip, take it as an opportunity to experience the world in your unique way. There exists no universal backpackers rules or a collective “must to do” list, but just mere advice from other equal travelers. Let the trip itself lead you to discover your path.


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