To Go or Not to Go: Solo Backpacking
Should I go, even if it’s by myself?
is one of the most common questions when it comes to a backpacking trip. Life has gotten so complicated that it has become very difficult to take a couple of months off and go travel the world. Trying to coordinate that with multiple people becomes nearly impossible. In many cases, friends will commit to a group trip only to have it fall apart because of jobs, school and whatever other reasons. In some cases, the tickets have been bought and the hotels booked.
So say that’s you. What are you supposed to do now? 2 months in a foreign country, with an incomprehensible language, thousands of miles from home, no familiarity with the culture, no idea where you’re going, not a single person you know, all… by… yourself???
In the poignant words of Phil Knight’s version of the Greek goddess of victory: Just do it.
Don’t think, don’t hesitate, don’t wonder, don’t question. Just. Do. It.
Sometimes we all need a little nudge to get over the edge. Consider this your nudge. Because I promise you when all is said and done, and you look back on your trip, you’ll realize it was one of the best decisions of your life.
Backpacking is so exciting because you go to new places, experience new things and learn new stuff. Everyday is a different experience and you’re constantly taking in new information. The only thing that isn’t new is YOU. Surprise, surprise, you’re still in the same body you’ve been in all your life. But the funny thing about traveling solo is that you may end up learning more about yourself than what you learn about the world.
Being on the road as a solo backpacker forces you to step out of your comfort zone and really get out there. Think about it: everyday we are surrounded by familiarity. Your family, your friends, your coworkers. You know the city you live in, you know the restaurants you eat at, you know the bartender at your favorite watering hole. It’s comfortable, it’s safe, it’s warm and fuzzy, it’s unicorns and rainbows.
The real fun begins when you get out of that zone. Backpacking solo makes you deal with unfamiliar environments, uncomfortable situations and unpredictable events. And often times there’s no one else to lean on so you have to figure it out for yourself. You find out what kind of person you are; whether you crumble or you stick it through.
Either way, with trial and error, you build confidence in yourself where by the end you can pretty much handle any situation that comes along. And that’s the funny thing about life: you don’t know what you’re capable of until you do it. But when you finally do sack up and do it, you’ll have that experience and confidence with you for the rest of your life.
Along with really discovering who you are, backpacking solo offers other advantages:
I’m the boss, baby – You don’t feel like doing jack today? No problem. You feel like eating at this restaurant but not the other? Yes sir. This town sucks and I want to leave tonight? PEACE. You literally get to do whatever, whenever, you want. You can be as selfish as you want and really do what you want to do in that moment. There’s no need to worry about hurting others’ feelings or going “along with the group”. It’s a pretty liberating experience and I recommend you try it at least once in your life.
You meet tons of people you otherwise wouldn’t – We all love the familiar so guess who you’ll be hanging out with the most when you go traveling with a friend. That’s right, you guessed it. When going alone, unless you’re a hermit (which means you wouldn’t be backpacking anyways), you’ll be forced to meet other backpackers along the way. A lot of people don’t realize that just because you’re going solo doesn’t mean you are alone. There are plenty of like-minded people on the same path as you looking to meet and have fun with other travelers. Many are traveling alone or with one other person so everyone is pretty much in the same boat. If you aren’t completely socially retarded you’ll be fine. Try something like, “Hi, my name is ____.” Next thing you know, you may just end up crossing a continent together.
Some great company I met along the way: Malen, Amanda and I traveled from Saigon to Hanoi and into Laos while Pat, Alex, Ciaran and I crossed the greater part of South America.
Street cred – In the spirit of one-upping your fellow backpackers, going solo is right up at the top in terms of how “legit” your trip was. I’d say the hierarchy of how hardcore a trip is goes from an organized tour group –> family vacation –> traveling with friends –> rocking it solo. It’s always kind of cool to tell others that you went on a massive trip by yourself because it’s a pretty big accomplishment.
Of course, traveling solo does have some disadvantages. The two I found the most prevalent were occasional loneliness and the cost of hotel rooms in some cities.
Two distinct times I remembered being extremely lonely/isolated were in Genova, Italy and Khao Lak, Thailand. In Genova, I checked into a hotel in the evening and didn’t meet a single person there. All of the places were full so this was pretty much my last choice. Being a hotel, it was very difficult to meet other people so I spent the night going to a bar and eating by myself. I felt pretty pathetic but the next day I was off to the French Riviera so I couldn’t complain too much. The other time was in Khao Lak where I went to go diving in the Similan islands. Little did I know that Khao Lak was a German resort town. For 3 days, I spent wandering the town amongst a horde of German families who stayed at the 5-star resorts and I heard more German spoken than English or Thai. It was pretty miserable and if it weren’t for the amazing diving, I would’ve left in a heart beat.
The other disadvantage is that you can often get a lot cheaper rooms if you are with other people. For example, when traveling through Vietnam during Tet (Vietnam new years), the trio of us found shared hotel rooms that were considerably cheaper than getting 3 bunk beds. Same was true on Koh Phi Phi where we were able to share an AC room for less price than three shitty dorm bunks.
Other people list safety as a concern of backpacking alone but I’ve never really felt threatened (maybe Quito, Ecuador…). Travelers, in general, tend to look out for each other so even though you may not know them, if something goes down, you can expect to band together.
So there you have it. Backpacking solo is awesome. I might even prefer it. For those of you still hesitating, I say: Go forth, the world is waiting.