sheep hearder in Kazahkstan

Getting Beyond the Backpacker’s Scene

Backpacker Tips: Getting Beyond the Backpacker’s Scene

First, what exactly do you mean by the “the backpacker’s scene”?

We’ve all been there. The crowded hostels of Europe. The well-beaten path along the Turkish coast. Khao San Road or Jalan Jaksa’s traveler’s ghettos. You’re getting tired of spending so much money to be so far away from home only to fritter away much of your time drinking and talking your next travel move with other western backpackers.

sheep hearder in Kazahkstan
A sheep hearder in rural Kazakhstan

Getting beyond the backpacker’s scene is getting off the well-trodden path. It’s taking the path lesser traveled. It’s losing sleep, taking chances, having more encounters. It’s moving out of your comfort zone.

So how do I get beyond the backpacker’s scene?

Choose your destination wisely.

Don’t go to the Greek Isles during the summer. Go to Kyrgyzstan instead. You want to lose the tourists and even other travelers as well? You want fewer backpackers? Don’t linger in Bangkok. You want to actually have to use your phrase book? Go to Mongolia or the Republic of Georgia or Syria. If you do end up going to Florence in the high season, you’re going to have to get creative in order to circumvent the hordes of retired American tourists and generate a unique travel experience for yourself.

Ditch your guidebook.

I know it sounds like a drastic measure to take, but guidebooks do a good job of keeping all of us tucked snugly in at friendly Mohammed’s hotel in Amman. It points us in the direction of that delectable, authentic, and inexpensive café downtown that all the German’s are eating at. Remember how you met that couple from New Zealand in Damascus and ran into them again in Cairo a month later?

Bring a tent and sleeping bag.

Camping in Nagorno Karabakh
Camping in Nagorno Karabakh

When you carry a tent, you have a place to sleep wherever you are at the end of the day. Especially in a place like Norway, which has a law that allows you to camp freely in the wilderness. Even when this law doesn’t exist, many times you can get away with setting up your tent just out of sight. Traveling with a sleeping bag allows you the opportunity to crash at a bus or train station or even in a city park if need be. Often times when locals see your desperation, they’re more likely to invite you home.

Don’t plan so much.

Not having a strict plan allows for improvisation in your trip. Allow spontaneous decisions to come to life. Go home with people you just met. Stay an extra day at your new friend’s apartment. The most memorable part of your travels are usually those unplanned.

Get online.

copenhagen cycling
Cycling around Copenhagen with a Dane

Sometimes planning is good. Sign up and use a web site that connects travelers with locals. Try Couch Surfing or Hospitality Club to keep you to stay away from hotels and hostels and into the homes of locals. Then you’ll be walking in residential neighborhoods you wouldn’t normally be in and riding bus routes that tourists don’t usually ride. Your hosts know the best places to get coffee, pizza, or kimchi. And these nice people will most likely introduce you to their friends. You all of a sudden know 12 people in Cork and you just arrived.

Get on the bus.

Carry a good map. Ride to the outskirts of the city. Get off the bus. Walk. Throw away your map. Don’t worry about getting lost. Someone will help you find your way back.

Don’t always take reliable or quick transportation.

Cancel your domestic flights. See the countryside the way it’s meant to be seen. Don’t take the inter-city express bus. Get on the pueblo bus. You might lose some sleep, but you’ll be riding next to Guillermo the farmer and his newly hatched chicks while stopping in every village between Porto and Madrid.

Stick up your thumb.

Don’t listen to those naysayers who tell you it’s dangerous. Sure it can be, but so can taking the bus or flying. People like company in their cars. Stand on the on-ramp, put your pack in front of you, and take off your sunglasses. Stay positive. Before you know it, you’ll be in Bordeaux and will have met several French people that you may or may not have understood a single word with.

Get out to the countryside and small towns.

Show up in a town that has nothing of touristic interest. You will actually meet a local. The conversation with babushka might start by her asking why in God’s name you have come here. Don’t do a whirlwind tour of the European capitals. Sure, visit Moscow, but ramble through a string of Russian towns that you will never remember the names of.

Stay a while.

If this technically moves out of the realm of traveling and into vagabonding, so be it. Linger to absorb the local culture. Organize a few weeks exchange in Switzerland using Help Exchange. Volunteer on an organic farm in New Zealand with WWOOF. Teach English in Madrid or rural China. Take a cooking course in Thailand or study meditation or yoga in India. Do a long-distance walk or pilgrimage. Do a cycle tour of Nova Scotia.

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9 thoughts on “Getting Beyond the Backpacker’s Scene”

  1. Awesome and right up my alley! I absolutely LOVE the tip to visit a town with no touristic interest. Thanks for posting!

  2. Inspiring for travel and everyday life…it’s a plan less and live more kind of mantra. Really interesting!! thank you.

  3. I love this article. Very well done. I am tired of people who travel around the world and just end up sitting with other people from their [home] country and talking about how much they travel. Some people just travel for a stamp on their passport or ammunition to one-up someone at the next Catalonia wine mixer.

    I tried something different… One year (at least) in one place… and completely immerse myself in the culture, people and spirit of the place… Buenos Aires, Argentina.

    Keep up the great work!
    .-= Gareth Leonard´s last blog ..What to expect in 2010 =-.

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  5. Aaron | HappytimeBlog

    This is a great post and stacked with great ideas to really travel and experience a place. I especially agree with thumbing a lift, it has only ever led me to meeting kind-hearted people and having an amazing time, I’ll be stopping by more often and hopefully meet you on the road one day..

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