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To Go or Not to Go: Solo Backpacking

2010 May 16

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.

This post is endorsed by Nike. Just kidding.

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.

Adventure awaits…

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.

From left: Patty, two Aussie girls, Alex, Ciaran and yours truly after surviving the Death Road, Bolivia.

Two Norweigans and an American tearing up the roads of Nha Trang.

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.

Although the town sucked, the diving was amazing and I did get this picture.

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.

11 Responses leave one →
  1. May 17, 2010

    Hi Paul

    Awesome post. Love your blog – keep up the great work! Just wondering if this post applies to females travelling solo too? I’m thinking of backpacking alone but many of my friends and family are against it. What do you think?

    Jess

    • May 17, 2010

      Hey thanks Jessica. I’d say this applies to females as well. I met several girls traveling by themselves (much less than guys however) and none mentioned any particular problems.

      Despite that, I would say that as a girl you do need to be more aware in certain situations (not getting wasted by yourself, wandering alone at night, etc.). But basically they are the same things that you pay attention to at home. Of course this would be different in countries that have biases towards women (middle east, etc.).

      If you use common sense and be aware of your surroundings, you’ll be fine.

  2. May 18, 2010

    Choice Paul, thanks for the advice.

  3. June 2, 2010

    My sentiments exactly! I’ve traveled with friends, family, and girlfriend, and God love all of them, but I still prefer the company of yours truly when I’m on the road– and you lay out the reasons why in this entry just about perfectly. Great writing. You’re going on my blogroll too. In fact, I’m making a blogroll specifically to put this on there!

    Nick

    http://proofoflifetravel.wordpress.com/

  4. erin permalink
    March 24, 2013

    I’m a girl thinking about backpacking cuz like you said it’s hard to coordinate with people and I don’t want to end up fighting with by best friend. I have the time right now and my friends say go for it, but I’m not one to enjoy being alone and I’m kinda scared I’ll get into a bad situation or get lost. So I’m left undecided. a part of me says do it, but the other part of me says I’ll be lonely and scared. I want to see south america: the Amazon rainforest, all over peru, and Galapagous.

    • Paul permalink*
      March 24, 2013

      I say do it! I saw a lot of girls traveling by themselves in South America. The common misconception is that if you travel solo, you are always alone. That is almost never the case.

      South America has a very established hostel scene where you’ll meet a ton of other backpackers. You will almost always find someone heading in the same direction as you.

      As for “getting into bad situations”, it’s just using common sense. Even when you are at home, you probably don’t want to wander alone, drunk, at night. Same goes when you’re traveling. As long as you use your common sense and don’t go searching for sketchy situations, you’ll be fine!

  5. stevo permalink
    January 2, 2014

    great article

    just like to say i rember reading a articale like this when was deciding weather to go it alone in thailand
    was the most unreal life changing buzz of my life best decision i ever made was 24 landed in bangkok didnt plan anything just asked sum old dude in the airport wheres good area to stay well wers a dirthy area to be exact haha but it all took off from there the grin didnt leave my face for the next 30days travalling on sleeper trains to chaingmi after leaving the buzz of bangkok visting tiger sancuarys in bangkok then off to chaingmi shooting guns talking to bigbudda in phukett partying meeting new ppl everywerrrrrrr never alone cuz ur nxt door neighbours alone ppl on the beach are alone its so fukin awsome best experiance of my life planning ecudor this year well im planning on telling the woman im going not planning the trip best to play by year the trip

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