Life as a Solo Backpacker

After experiencing life as a solo backpacker for 2 months, I learned a lot about the lifestyle and about myself. It’s different from what I expected. Although I lived abroad through my study abroad program and taught English in Thailand, I had not experienced the true “backpacker” lifestyle. I soon discovered there is a big difference between living abroad and backpacking. While living abroad, I could only take weekend trips but I always returned back to my temporary home.  However, I really wanted to have the freedom to go from place to place without a time restriction so I decided to take some time after teaching to live the nomadic life for a bit.  This was the most appealing part of backpacking in my mind. No doubt that backpacking is an incredible one-of-a-kind experience but like everything, it doesn’t always come easy.  Like everything truly amazing, there are difficulties that come along with it. So here are a few of the things I learned about life as a solo traveler:

1.Being alone but never alone:

Before leaving I was super excited about solo backpacking. It seemed so empowering. As a woman, it’s something I always wanted to experience but felt an underlying worry because of my gender, concerns of loved ones and the general stigma attached to it. Being able to travel on your own, make your own schedule, and become completely dependent on yourself to get where you need to and adapt to constantly new experiences and places is one of a kind. I’m generally a pretty independent person and have gotten pretty good at being on my own, but I was not prepared for the loneliness of solo travel. It’s a different kind of loneliness. It helps that everywhere you go, you are surrounded by plenty of friendly people who are most likely in the exact same boat as you. The thing that really got to me sometimes was the constant change. You meet nice people and temporary friends who are super cool and you spend time with them for 2 days, and the next thing you know you are moving to the next place and so are they. There’s always more people to meet.  That’s one of the things I love – mingling with interesting people from all over the world, hearing their travel stories, making new experiences and new adventures that you never imagined. So despite being constantly surrounded by people, there’s still a sense of loneliness at the constant change of travel.  I learned to take something positive from each new person, and find joy in knowing I got to share these little adventures with them along the way.

2. Hostels:

Hostels, in my opinion, are probably the best thing about solo travel! A lot of people I talk to seem to have a bad impression of hostels (especially coming from the US), but I think they are amazing! They aren’t just a room with bunk beds where people go to sleep.  They have an entire culture around them, and each is unique from the next.  Hostels are all about the environment and the atmosphere that they create for their guests.  They become a temporary home you create with a bunch of travelers – and are one of the things that truly give you a sense of comfort and peace while you are traveling solo.  Despite the constant change and movement that comes with travel, you arrive at each new hostel to find a place full of friendly people and positive vibes.  Many have really cool built-in restaurants and bars, so you don’t even need to go out to get food.  The greatest part about hostels is that they generally really promote meeting new people – there is always a nice common area for travelers to hang out and socialize!  Hostels have tons of services and information for guests.  Most of your travel needs can be met easily through these hostels – you almost don’t even need to plan a whole lot ahead of time!   Though (at times) you might miss the comfort of a hotel and that little bit of privacy, it is a little depressing and definitely much more lonely to stay in hotels as a solo traveler.  So, (assuming you look for places with the good ratings on Hostelworld – and not the sketchy ones) hostels are all-around a pretty amazing thing when you are a solo traveler.  People from all over the world with their own stories come together with a shared purpose and love of travel to share good conversation and adventures together – what could be better?

3. The Journey:

The best part is the journey, right?  I do wholeheartedly believe that. But… there’s A LOT of time spent in the journey as a solo backpacker. Especially in Southeast Asia, you learn to adapt to uncomfortable situations, and you learn the true meaning of patience. Buses, planes, and sleeper trains. Hours spent cramped in the back of a minivan, getting lost and trying to find your way places, carrying everything you have on your back, yep all the joys of long-term solo travel!  Somehow, all the discomfort seems to be worth it the second you arrive in your destination (well maybe not the second you arrive – but right after a nice shower and nap).  Anyways, you quickly realize that there is a lot of time spent in that in-between phase.  You have to debate between spending less time and more money by flying, or spending more time and less money (and less sleep) on an overnight bus ride.  You’re waiting in endless lines with your heavy backpack going through immigration as you cross over the border or land in the airport of your next country.  You’re arriving in new destinations with little sleep feeling completely clueless as to how to get to your hostel or navigate this new place.  You’re getting lost walking through new towns and trying to gather information in a country where you have absolutely no idea how to speak the language. Generally, the journey consists of a combination of sleepiness, confusion, smelliness, excitement, curiosity, pretty views, passport stamps, currency exchanges, getting lost, and lots of time pondering about life.  And then eventually you arrive at your destination.

4. Being Sick:

I learned the hard way one of the most difficult experiences as a solo traveler is being sick.  And unfortunately, not long into my nearly 2 month journey, I got worn down with an illness – and a bad one.  This was a rough time for me – and it seemed to turn around all of those really positive aspects of solo travel.  Especially getting sick in a country very foreign and in a place where people don’t speak your language, where you aren’t comfortable with the medical services and are so far from a place you feel comfortable – it is not the best place to be.  And there’s a certain kind of loneliness that creeps up on you.  Being alone and sick while staying in hostels surrounded by people having fun and exploring and doing all the things that you wish you could be doing (and feel like you should be doing) really isolates you.  There’s no homesickness like the kind you get when you are sick and alone.  The hardest part is knowing that you want to go explore and enjoy these places, but not having the energy to truly go out and experience it.  Especially with a long sickness during travel, it can really wear you down.  Being sick taught me to be patient with myself and listen to my body despite feeling the need to keep moving and doing things – and eventually (as with everything) I got through it.

5. Getting into the routine of not having a routine:

Solo travel is good and bad in that it is always changing.  When you are traveling, you find that it is pretty much impossible to have a consistent routine.  So if you are someone who needs a set schedule or plan for the day, it can be tough to adapt to this lifestyle.  You are also adjusting to a completely different lifestyle.  It’s different from just a weeklong vacation where you are taking a break from your job, your home responsibilities and priorities.  As a backpacker, traveling IS your life for this period of time so it is adjusting to a different type of routine.  It’s strange to get used to not having priorities such as work and school.  That’s not to say that it’s all easy – there’s always planning involved and different things you have to be prepared for as a solo backpacker.  You get used to the routine of packing and organizing everything in a precise and careful way into your backpack so that it is easy enough to unpack and repack at each new destination.  You get used to booking hostels and flights and buses and applying for visas and making sure you have everything you need as you arrive in yet another country or place.  You get used to being on guard – making sure your belongings are in a safe place and that you are in a safe place.  There’s a lot of fun and excitement in this life, but there’s a lot of small details which you need to take care of for yourself.

6. Trusting and depending on yourself:

When you are traveling alone, there are generally always people around and new best friends you just met yesterday but you ultimately are still always alone.  There’s a lot of really great aspects about being on your own but you don’t have that safety net of friends that can help you feel safe and comfortable and figure out your plans.  You are making the decisions of where to go next, whether it is a good idea to go somewhere, what to spend your money on, how you want to spend your days, how long you want to stay in each place.  You get used to making decisions for yourself and trying to find your way and make sense of these new places without a full understanding of the language and customs of each new place.  You have to be on guard of yourself, making sure you trust the people you are around and making sure you feel safe.  You have to be smart and listen to what your instincts are telling you.  Sometimes your judgment may be clouded due to lack of sleep or impatience especially after a long journey.  People know you are a foreigner and try to scam you, taxi drivers always charge more than they should, you just get used to making judgment calls.  You have to learn to trust yourself, to make the right decisions, to do things that make you feel comfortable.  You learn to be strong and independent, you get to know yourself, and you get to enjoy being on your own.

7. Being in the moment:

As a solo traveler, you must learn to truly live in the moment.  There’s not so many distractions and things to occupy your time as there are at home.  You’re constantly a tourist.  You’re constantly in new places, exploring new sights, learning new languages, eating new foods, and experiencing new cultures.  You’re not spending your days behind a computer screen and you probably aren’t wasting time on your phone (because you probably don’t have data). You don’t have a routine or the things that you have to take care of.  You just have to take care of yourself because you only have yourself and the small amount of belongings that you carry on your back.  So you’re just out there, doing things, seeing things, being places, and experiencing life.  It’s a different kind of life but it allows you to truly be there.  It allows you to adapt to the constant change and excitement, but truly appreciate each and every day and moment for what it is.  You’ll never be back in that exact place or time or moment again.

Ultimately, solo backpacking was an amazing and eye-opening experience for me and one that I will never forget.  I can recount a million unique moments with incredible places and interesting people that made the experience what it was.  Though there were some difficulties, the beautiful gift of each new place made every struggle worth it.  It’s not just about seeing places and being places, it’s about truly experiencing all they have to offer – the culture, the food, the holidays, the language, the people.  During my experience, I got to experience some incredible holidays, learn new languages and customs, try so many new types of food, see some incredible landscapes, and spend time with local people of countries completely diverse from my own.  These are the moments that opened my heart and mind in ways I never knew possible.  These are the moments that I will forever cherish.

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