8 Backpacking Myths Uncovered

Backpacking is surrounded by assumptions and stereotypes that are usually found to be untrue once on the journey. Here are 8 myths about backpacking debunked:

1) You need to be young

A common assumption is that backpacking is a joy of the youthful and that you need to be able-bodied, strong enough to carry all of your possessions and willing to sacrifice many comforts.

While all of this is true, the youth requirement is not. During my travels, I met people of all ages: brothers in their 30s who had broken up with girlfriends and quit jobs in order to travel, a man in his 40s who had suffered a terrible accident and decided to go backpacking with his workman’s compensation and a couple in their 50s who had been on the move for over 10 years.

The oldest person I met on the road was a 72-year-old woman who was backpacking with her daughter. She insisted on staying in the same run-down, less-than-clean hostels that we stayed in and riding uncomfortable creaky buses alongside us.

None of these people had regrets about their age. In fact, they valued and appreciated their time on vacation more than those who weren’t leading well-established lives.

At 72 years old, Lynne backpacked with her daughter.

2) You need a bathroom to go to the bathroom

Most people are used to the luxury of a tile floor, relative cleanliness and an endless supply of toilet paper. While traveling, this often becomes the stuff of dreams.

As a traveler, you will quickly lose all pretensions about bathrooms and gain the ability to relieve yourself according to local custom, which in most places can mean almost anywhere.

A bathroom in the Nubra Valley, Ladakh, India. Photo Author’s own.

3) It’s always going to be fun

Backpacking is great fun, but it can take work to get to that point. In my experience, I’ve found that the best times alternate with the worst.

Traveling between cities can be one of the most exhausting things you do on your trip. First, you must sift through the many deceptive travel agents to avoid overpaying any charges, then suffer through what can turn out to be an excruciatingly long or uncomfortable journey, only to arrive in the next town and search for a guesthouse.

This won’t be true for every journey. Some will be exciting and fun adventures, but some will wear your patience more than you thought possible.

Backpacking can be a worthwhile and eye-opening experience, but it won’t always be fun.

4) Being a foreigner is a disadvantage

This can be true, yes, but in many cases being a foreigner can work entirely to your advantage. In India, for example, foreigners have permission to cut lines at places like the bus or train station and bathrooms.

At the train station in Delhi and other large cities, there is a booking office for foreigners only, so while Indians wait in long lines and sweltering heat, you get to relax in an air-conditioned office and wait in an orderly line.

During my travels, I met a Belgian girl who had traveled all over Africa by herself. I was incredulous as to how she felt safe enough to do so. In her telling, “It was easy. Everyone in town knows who the foreigner is and where they are at all times.”

Locals always notice foreigners. Photo. Author’s own.

5) You will become unattached to your possessions

Part of traveling long-term detaches you from the idea of possessions, in general, but not to your meager belongings. Because you only have what can fit in a bag, each one of those items carries far more weight than it normally would. When you only have three shirts, it becomes very important to keep them clean and free of holes.

Hannah surrounded by her few possessions. Photo, Author’s own.

6) You should never get stuck in one place

Getting stuck is one of the best ways to get to know a country and the locals, and in the end, it should never be the regret of the trip. In fact, it will most likely become a highlight.

The longer you stay in one place, the better you learn how to enjoy it. You get to know the locals, where the best food is and discover things that you never would have just breezing through. You may even begin to scoff at the short-term tourists.

Getting stuck is the best way to get to know the locals. Photo Author’s own.

7) You will shower less

This only holds true if a shower is not available. If so, even if it’s a bucket, you will shower with it. Backpacking often involves staying in grimy hotels and utilizing equally grimy transportation. In most places, you will find yourself craving at least more than one shower a day.

After a ride in this rickshaw, a shower is a necessity.

8) You’ll end up traveling in a group

It sounds like fun, but traveling with a group can actually make the trip a lot harder. In India, I spent some time traveling with a group of people all from the same country. While with them, I found it difficult to do what I wanted, paralyzed by the group’s indecisiveness. Disagreements easily arose from preferences and worries.

Also, since members of this group were from the same country, they spent most of their time speaking their common language and appeared unapproachable to other travelers. By the end of the trip, they stayed friends with the people they started with and never branched out.

Traveling alone, or with just one other person, can be a rewarding experience.

More common myths about backpacking are that you can’t afford it, you don’t have time, and that it isn’t for you. Backpacking can be as cheap as you want it to be, there is always an opportunity for time off, and truly it can be, without question, a worthwhile and eye-opening experience for anyone.

Keep this in mind and happy travels!

Which backpacking myths have you had debunked from your travels? Let me know in the comments below.

If you liked this article, you might also like: 15 Things I’ve Learned from 10 Years of Living and Traveling Abroad.

Main image: a harrowing 28- hour train ride – it won’t always be fun!

Unless stated, all images by Hannah Engelson.

9 thoughts on “8 Backpacking Myths Uncovered”

  1. In Thailand I met a 76-year-old Canadian woman who said she’s going to travel until she’s too old for it. Obviously she wasn’t too old yet: she had just been river rafting on a rubber tube in Pai and travelled around Burma! I’m half her age, but I want to be like her if and when I get to 76!

    PS. I love that photo from the Nubra Valley. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve been.

  2. First of all Awesome blog! Alot of people think/say that travelling as a singel man/female is better than travelling as a couple and that its a great test on your relationship if you decide to travel with you girl/boy friend. In my expierence travelling with my girlfriend was great we met a lot of people and what is better then seeing a world wonder with someone you love? In the end getting back home and continue living together not travelling is way more of a test!

  3. I know backpacking is so popular, but I really never had the strength to do it, just seeing the huge backpack scares me :D

  4. I went on my first RTW trip with a friend, and although most of the time it was great I know I would have done so much more by myself. When I did start travelling alone it was like a weight was lifted – the freedom was amazing.

    And totally agree about possessions. Even though I’m not always travelling I tend to move countries a lot, so have no option but to cull my belongings each time. It forces you to streamline your life!

  5. I like the 6th one the best. When you’re stuck somewhere you’re not familiar with, you have no choice but to interact with people and you wouldn’t even realize that you’re growing into that place. I wouldn’t mind getting stuck in some place as long as I know that I’ll be safe.

  6. Angela, I’ve been backpacking full-time since the start of 2006 (with 11 months “home” in 3 trips). I just have a carry-on sized bag; the longer you travel the more crap you give away. So just start by buying a 35lt bag and you’ll be fine.

  7. A word I’ve fallen in love with is ‘Novelty’ – its the holy grail of life. The feeling when something is new and our feelings towards is at its highest. Its the joy we had as a kid when we were awed by everything, and its what we lose as we get older and get accustomed to things.

    We recapture that feeling when we travel and find ourselves in new places and situations. Just like a kid, the people around us act accordingly. They become accommodating, energised and sometimes a little patronising feeding off the wonder of a curious traveler. Being a foreigner definitely has its advantages.

  8. I like number 6 a lot. I love the fact that having less, makes what you have more precious , while at the same time you are learning to free yourself from the clutter of life.

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