How to be a “Real” Backpacker

Recently, on the bus from Penang, Malaysia to Phuket, Thailand, I met a group of four Indonesian men traveling together. Equipped with designer bags, sunglasses, and beaming smiles, they joked that they wanted to be “real” backpackers, like me. This got me thinking about what it means to be a “real” backpacker. While I’m wandering around Southeast Asia right now, I wouldn’t say that I’m backpacking. Why? Well, frankly, I brought too much shit on this trip. So does carrying around one piece of roll-away luggage limit me from backpacking “for real”? In my opinion, yes. Having too much to carry weighs you down literally and figuratively- for your freedom to go just about anywhere you want, stay wherever you want, and sleep wherever you want is severely limited.

My Indonesian brothers with backpacking aspirations

My Indonesian brothers with backpacking aspirations

Before I go any further, I want to delve a little bit into the stereotypes of backpackers. These can be naïve, comical, and sometimes spot-on. This isn’t by any means what I think, but more of what I think they, the non-backpackers and non-travelers of the world, believe. A backpacker is a person who:

  • Is usually in their early twenties
  • Carries a backpack on their shoulders at all times
  • Has no goals in life
  • Wants to travel as a means of escaping “the real world”
  • Is broke and will accept any means of transportation including hitchhiking, train hopping, or simply hoofing it until their feet bleed
  • Has no sense of personal hygiene and will skip showering for days, especially if not buying soap will save money
  • Is rough-around-the-edges, philosophical, and unafraid of cockroaches, large rats, and bed bugs
  • Travels around Europe, living off of bread, cigarettes, water and/or beer
  • Does not own one shirt or pair of pants that is not ripped, stained, torn, or from a decade past
  • Just got out of college and has nothing better to do than wander around pretending to be a poetic expat
  • Sleeps on park benches at night to avoid paying accommodation fees
  • Parties all night, sleeps all day, and most definitely will be hooking up with someone within the hostel simply because they’re on “holiday”

So, in order for my Indonesian friends to be real backpackers, would they have to follow this list? Not hardly. Should they ditch their designer luggage? I would say so. (This is mostly for practical reasons- having flashy jewelry, fancy clothes, expensive electronics, etc. simply attracts attention to you as a potential Mr. or Mrs. Money Bags. As any kind of traveler, even if you wear what the locals wear, speak the same language, and eat the same food, they know you’re not one of them. My advice is not to flaunt it.)

Here I am in Panama, traveling not-so-lightly. Do I look like a "real" backpacker?

Here I am in Panama, traveling not-so-lightly. Do I look like a “real” backpacker?

There are many kinds of travelers, including backpackers, tourists, vacationers, slow travelers, flash packers, escapists, expats, and so on. Here is my thought on what one needs in order to be a “true” backpacker:

  • As little baggage as possible. Bringing one medium/large, ergonomically correct backpack is crucial to making your trip easy or plain hell. A day pack serves well for short journeys when you can leave your bag behind at the hostel or hotel.
  • Curiosity and open-mindedness. A backpacker should always be open and respectful to the country’s people and culture. If you visit a country just to be an asshole to someone or make fun of their customs, stay at home and direct that energy into the mirror.
  • Flexibility. You will encounter various situations traveling the world that will shock you, delight you, and make you uncomfortable. Being chameleon-like in your adaptation skills makes your trip much more enjoyable.
  • Situational awareness. Open your eyes and look around you. It’s as simple as that. Live in the present moment and take in all that your senses are experiencing. This not only adds to the quality and depth of your time spent traveling, it will also help keep you safe. You are more likely to keep yourself out of harm’s way if you know what’s happening in your surroundings. It’s a hugely important, and vital, detail.
  • Love for life, learning and humanity. There are boundless opportunities when traveling abroad to get to know various cultures, customs, foods, religions, beliefs, and so on. If you’re a close-minded misanthrope, I don’t think you’ll fare well outside the parameters of what you know.
  • Courage, sense of adventure, and willingness. Perhaps the most important thing about backpacking- or any kind of travel- is to have the courage to step out of your comfort zone. The world is a gorgeous, chaotic place with many secrets and mysteries. Stepping outside of yourself, of how you think the world should work, of what you think is right, is very difficult. Traveling is oftentimes a trying adventure with many ups and downs within a single day. Real life is not a five-star hotel, but if you’re brave enough to step out into it, the rewards are manifold.

What do you think defines a “real” backpacker? What are some stereotypes you can think of? Do you agree or disagree with what a “true” backpacker needs, and is there anything that should be added to this list?

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