Why Everyone Should Go Backpacking At Least Once In Their Life

Human beings are made up of lots of different emotional layers. Sometimes we forget about the layers that are hidden and over time, more layers build up, burying forgotten layers further and further down towards our core. Sometimes, all we need is a little bit of help to peel back those layers again – to do a little deconstruction, shed that dull skin – and all of a sudden you feel newer, healthier and brighter. So, how can backpacking help you do that…?

Travel to find change

“A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” – Oliver Wendell Holmes

Instigating significant life change is something incredibly difficult as the unknown is a scary place. The idea of leaving something that’s secure and familiar – even if it’s not making you happy  – seems reckless. We can talk ourselves out of it, make countless excuses and convince ourselves there’s nothing we can do. The sense of being powerless in our own lives continues until we’re resigned to it.

Travel can be an incredibly transformative experience. I’m not talking about holidays, work trips or organised trips, (although they are unarguably beneficial in countless ways) I mean backpacking. Backpacking is the kind of travel that allows for freedom of time and movement, completely removed from schedule, detailed planning and rules coupled with a limited budget. It has to be a journey that’s challenging enough to be intimidating, will allow you to switch off for a significant period of time and that incorporates something of the unknown.

It’s easy to assume that travelling for months on end is the preserve of pampered western kids looking for some kind of commitment break before or after Uni, but it can also be so much more than that. Travel – in the right way – is an important form of education and should be encouraged. It’s also certainly not the preserve of western culture as any experienced traveller will tell you. From thousand-year-old tribal cultures like the Aborigines to more modern religious doctrines such as the Mormons; separating from the society you grew up with to learn about “the outside world” for a period of time is a common rite of passage and an ongoing theme in human culture.

Travel is an education

At the ranch of an Argentinan friend, Juan who I met travelling. Erin (who’s coming to my wedding next year hopefully) I met travelling and lived with for 3 months.

Travel is an education because not only do you learn in a “traditional sense” by absorbing new languages and cultures but also because you learn about yourself. You’re challenged in ways you would never be challenged if you don’t travel, absorbing lessons and experiences that will help you throughout your life.

I learned more Spanish by living in Argentina for five months than I did German or French even though I had years of lessons in the latter two languages and had never spoken a word of Spanish before. I learned and experienced different cultures including food, music, history, art, geography, skills & animals in a way that’s impossible from just reading books, watching films or television.

Those who also criticise backpacking as a way of shirking work, wrongly assume that the western definition of work is the most important thing we do, as humans. If your job leaves you fulfilled or makes you feel like you have a purpose, you’re very lucky, but it still doesn’t mean you have nothing to learn from travelling. Many people are bound and chained by the need to succeed, but if your narrow vision of success prevents you from being happy… why pursue it?

The effect of travel on the self

If we all live our lives within one society, believing those rules that we live by to be true and defining ourselves by the parameters that society dictates – then how can we truly explore ourselves as human beings? Our experiences will be forever coloured by our prejudices. Our prejudices, in turn, are fed by our environments. What better way to explore ourselves and the world than to remove ourselves as far as we can from what we’ve experienced so far. What if we strip down our preconceived ideas about the structure and substance in our lives and attempt to see things from a different perspective?

“Mentally, you are a composite of many influences – from your DNA to your parents’ relationship, to your peers at school, messages in the media and your life experiences. As we grow and respond to the world around us we develop an idea of who we think we are & what we believe to be true. This constraint gives us a personal view point and a framework from which we live our lives, but if we are not open to reviewing these ideas and opinions they can equally become a trap and restrict our perspective and movement” – Gerad Kite

Our sense of self and who we are is shaped at an early age, however, the self is just a social construction that we use to group each other into “who I am” and “who I am not”. From being toddlers we start to develop a sense of who we are. We’re given a name, told lots of things about ourselves and are constantly looking at social markers, listening and absorbing things from others.

To be able to truly learn about yourself and examine why you are the way you are or what is important to you, you have to strip away many of those things that you use to define yourself. Travel can do this because you leave behind your home, friends, parents, siblings, comforts, work, country, language and culture. All that you take is “you” and a few possessions.

Without these familiar people, things and routines it’s just one-on-one; you and whatever you create on the way. Gradually realising that you can survive and even thrive in this way is eye opening. The challenges you face because you don’t have your usual support network are often difficult, but you soon overcome them. The scarier you find the thought of travelling and the bigger your journey’s challenges are, the more beneficial your experiences (good and bad) will be in the long run. You accomplish things alone that you never imagined you could and find things out about yourself you thought not to be true… it’s a real adventure of the body and mind.

Travel rewires your brain

“Every man can transform the world from one of monotony and drabness to one of excitement and adventure.” – Irving Wallace

Much of our lives are spent performing routines. Our routines are the backdrop of our lives and the days’ events are mere characters in it. These routines can bound you up in cycles that are hard to break. This greatly limits the capacity of our brains and being the complex organisms we are, our sedative minds start switching off or looking for other (potentially unhelpful) ways to occupy themselves… Unnecessary worrying and anxiety can all be symptoms of your brain looking for an outlet.

When you travel, you’re being challenged and learning at such a fast pace each day and your brain switches on in a way that is impossible for most people in everyday life. You’re alert, listening, watching, experiencing and feeling without the clutter of day to day routine. This alertness is the natural state of the brain. Your neurons are firing and your synapses are growing in complexity. You feel more energised and creative because your brain is working the way it should… how it was intended to work. This neural activity stimulates you, makes you feel more alive, more intelligent and awake as your capacity for learning is greater than it’s ever been.

This “high” is why you can get addicted to travelling and why almost everyone suffers from “post travelling blues” – the backpackers affliction of returning from a long trip away. The brain begins to slow down, routine starts to kick in and your brain has to adjust once you’re home. It’s the hardest part of travelling but the lessons you learned will always be there, even when your heightened state of awareness slows down.

Learning to be spontaneous

Some great girls from Denmark, Argentina and the UK I met when I got to Paraty, Brazil.

Getting the opportunity to be regularly and truly spontaneous is normally so rare, but when you travel that all changes. One minute you could be checking in at a hostel and the next minute (literally) you could be on the back of a local kid’s motorbike heading to a secret waterfall in the jungle with new found friends. Maybe you’ll be getting ready to go to the bus station at 2pm but by 4.30pm you’re sat in the passenger seat of a private plane high above the beautiful Brazilian coast. Maybe the local bus doesn’t show up, so you hitch a ride in the back of a local farmers pick up truck, listening to stories from his childhood.

These things aren’t rare when you backpack – in fact, they become completely normal. All of the above happened to me or a friend (I wasn’t lucky enough to be in the private plane!) and you’ll hear countless animated stories from your fellow backpackers until it becomes part of your new, everyday backpacking life.

“Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have. Make the NOW the primary focus of your life.” – Eckhart Tolle

Learning how to stop (not worrying about) but not concentrating on the past or the future ensures that you don’t take the NOW for granted. The now isn’t something to get through on your way to the future or just a test for what you’ve learned in the past. The now is where your life is happening and it’s the only place your life is happening.

Money as a barrier to travel

“You don’t have to be rich to travel well.” – Eugene Fodor

Travel in the way I’m trying to address it in this post isn’t something that only people with a lot of money can experience. In fact, having a lot of money can be an extreme hindrance when it comes to transformative travel.

An abundance of cash makes budget travel less of a necessity so instead of struggling through the inevitable shoestring budget of a less well-off backpacker, you can be very tempted to travel in style and sort out any problems you may experience on your trip by throwing money at it. This makes travelling far too easy, struggle-free and smooth sailing. Without challenges, you do not learn and you’ll never get the essential feeling of “having overcome the odds” that not having easily accessible resources brings.

I can’t emphasise more the gulf between going on holiday or traveling on a reasonably unlimited budget to backpacking. Anyone (usually a parent or an adult) that tells you to wait, start your career and travel in later life has (I guarantee) never, ever been backpacking. They may have the best intentions but they don’t have the privilege of understanding why they could be wrong. If career is important to you, perfect. You’ll be even more equipped to succeed in whatever you choose to do with a bit of backpacking experience under your belt.

Relationships when backpacking

Germany, America, Dominican Republic, Argentina, France, UK – just a few of the nationalities gathered here after a BBQ at the house of a friend I met in Argentina.

When you meet people backpacking you bond with them incredibly quickly. You won’t be able to avoid meeting people. Everyone talks to each other, it’s normal to travel alone and it’s easy to strike up conversations no matter where you’re from.

The short friendships you make can be intense and long lasting. Finding true understanding that the barriers that separate people in the world are artificial (apart from geographical) is something you know but really don’t really realise until you feel it.

I’m still friends with many people I met whilst travelling for the first time 5 years ago. From people who are now some of my best friends to others who were gems of encounters. Even if some people I met didn’t speak much English I feel a genuine connection with those people after having shared those significant experiences with them.

In pursuit of happiness through travel

We wonder why we’re not happy and try all kinds of things to reach the hidden nirvana. Happiness, of course, is transient, but when you know how to source it, how to mine for it, it becomes a reachable internal state which you bring to the surface time and time again. Travelling is understanding how to break the veneer away and look deeper into yourself. It gives you the gift of understanding that you do have the capacity for fulfillment – if only you look in the right places.

“A few times in my life I’ve had moments of absolute clarity when, for a few brief seconds, the silence drowns out the noise and I can feel rather than think and things seem so sharp and the world seems so fresh, it’s as though it had all just come into existence. I can never make these moments last, I cling to them, but like everything, they fade. I have lived my  life on these moments. They pull me back to the present, and I realize that everything is exactly the way it was meant to be.” A Single Man – Tom Ford.

This is a quote that I feel almost perfectly encapsulates travelling for me. It’s is a way of prolonging a feeling of clarity where you can feel rather than think. You feel a happiness never experienced before, a freedom that allows that happiness to bloom inside of yourself, a barely repressed joy that is alien.

Even though you’re removed emotionally from every material thing or unnecessary burden you were told would make you happy, you instead find a joy within yourself and in your relationships with others. You feel like you’re experiencing the world for the first time (for you are, in more ways than one) and you suddenly or gradually break free of every constraint.

There’s one moment that sticks out for me from the first time I went backpacking. The moment occurred on a boat just off the coast of Brazil… with the sea spraying in my face and the sun setting in front of me, bag on my back, alone and far from home. I was there in that moment, absorbed in the beauty around me – nothing concerning me in my past and nothing worrying me in my future. I was so happy I cried actual tears of joy. Why did I feel like that? At that time I didn’t really know. I was alone in the world with only the bag on your back, but more indescribably fulfilled than I’d ever been in my life.

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