Unsolicited backpacker advice that I’m so over

April 06, 2024

My backpack looks like an oversized tortoise shell and I’m fine with it. Inside it, you’ll find all kinds of items that a “true backpacker” might consider contraband: heels, several books, outfits that don’t have a purely functional purpose, a straightening iron, more than one pair of trail runners. City slickers would consider me to travel light. But holier-than-thou backpackers would be outraged.

I don’t travel with just the bare essentials. In fact, I break many of the unwritten “rules” of travel. I also don’t get overly frustrated when cab drivers go the wrong way or when I overspend here and there. I can rough it, but I won’t always. Or even often. I’ve been known to dwell longer in the places everyone else recommended I skip. I became passionate about travelling more than a decade ago and yet I do not own a spork.

The unwritten rules of travel are ones I think are meant to be broken. “Unwritten rules of travel,” might be generous. Let’s call it unsolicited traveller advice. And man, I’ve heard sooooo much of it.

Funnily enough, in the earlier days of travelling, I believed so much of the bulls*hit (sorry but let’s call a spade a spade?) that backpacker culture often perpetuates. I actually worried about the fact that my backpack was bigger than my torso despite the fact that on my 5’3 frame, most things are. I judged myself for wanting to wear makeup on the road and really loving the comfort of a fluffy bed in a private hostel room.

Those rules arent real regina george

Now? Nah. I know the style of travel that I enjoy and expect. I also have a better idea of what I want to invest my energy in when it comes to travel. And let me tell you, much of the unsolicited travel advice is not it. When it comes to some of the classic tropes, some have an element of truth while others are just downright hilarious. Here are some of my least favourites:

“Pack ultra light at all costs”

Sure, you probably don’t want to show up at your destination lugging three cumbersome and overstuffed suitcases. There’s validity to the packing light advice. I agree that you do want to carefully consider the items that you bring to make sure you’re bringing what you truly need and want to have on the trip. That said, some travellers take this too far. When we start shaving off fractions of a pound just for the sake of it and bragging about fitting all of the essentials into a fanny pack-sized bag, that’s where I bow out. Judge me if you want.


Disco ball? I never leave home without it.

“Always save your nickels and dimes”

Planning a budget is all well and good. Hey, I don’t want to be paying for a trip months after I’ve unpacked. Sometimes though, there can almost be an unspoken competition amongst travel companions about who can make their budget stretch the farthest. Oh you took a taxi when you could have walked or taken the crammed local bus? Ammature! You didn’t haggle the price of every last fruit and vegetable you bought at the market or order the cheapest thing on the menu at that local hole in the wall? What are you even doing?

Honestly, for me this is too much a) math and b) stress. I drop a few extra bucks here and there. So be it.

“Watch out for taxi drivers trying to scam you”

I don’t know when taxi drivers got the reputation for being the villains on a personal mission to ruin all backpacking adventures. The truth is that most cab drivers are just hard-working local people trying to get through the work day. Another thing that I think is commonly misunderstood is that confusion may be rooted in the fact that local drivers may not communicate directions that way you’re used to at home. For example, in Toronto, I’d direct a driver based on two common cross streets. In many parts of Latin America though, drivers are looking for a landmark. For example, “Drive me to Todo Santos church, please.

“Capsule wear is where it’s at”

You won’t get deported if you wear more than just three neutral-coloured T-shirts and two pairs of shorts during your entire trip. You’re allowed to have style as you make your way from hostel to hostel, and country to country. Wild, I know.

Giphy 2

It's fashion, baby.

“Get used to roughing it”

Not having high-maintenance requests when it comes to accommodation or routine enables you to be flexible and open to new experiences when travelling. Maybe you didn’t think of yourself as the type to book a bunk in a hostel… but upon doing so, you had some of the best conversations of your trip. Or, you swapped bookish ways for a crazy overnight adventure in the jungle which you’ll remember forever. Great. You also don’t have to rough it allll the time though. If rustic stays and muddy trails aren’t really your thing, it’s ok to just… not.

“Get off the beaten path…”

Confession: I’ve said this. Recently. I do genuinely believe that getting away from the crowds or obvious attractions can lead to really, really cool experiences. That said, it’s a really commonly touted piece of advice and one you don’t have to follow if you don’t want to. Maybe you’re completely happy just chilling on the beach or booking the well-reviewed tours. Maybe travelling at all means you’ve already gotten “off the beaten path.” As with all things travel, you do you.

“But also, that place you’re going to isn’t that great. You can skip it”

Some will say to get off the beaten path but in the same breath suggest ignoring an area that’s too quiet or simple. This advice irks me when it’s unsolicited. This is because I find it dismissive, ill-informed, and a little bit arrogant. Most places have something to offer and each traveller is looking for something different anyway. Also, someone who has hopped through a few of the sites for a few days is by no means an expert on said place.

“Eat as cheaply as possible”

This is similar to the point about saving money at all costs. Look, sometimes you just want the gourmet burger at the tourist-trap restaurant WITH dessert. It’s all good!

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Treat yourself.

“Work to travel”

“I work to travel,” says a proud backpacker as they go on an anti-capitalist rant and rattle off all the ways they like to live unconventionally. On one hand, I think it’s great to make travel a priority if that’s what’s important to you. On the other hand, there’s immense privilege to being able to a) quit your job and travel or b) live the digital nomad life. That privilege shouldn’t go unchecked.

“Live like a local”

“Live like a local,” comes from a place of wanting to experience the genuine lifestyle of a place: its foods, local businesses, events, daily practices, and rhythms, and spending with intention to give back to the community. Those are all really good things. That said, it may be worth widening this discussion to recognize the fact that us travellers are not locals. We cannot expect to seamlessly blend into a place where we lack local context, experience, and culture. We also can’t really claim to “live like a local,” if we don’t face all the same tough realities that locals do (such as economic instability, malnutrition, gender-based violence, physically exhausting work, poverty, inadequate housing… the list goes on). Give back and appreciate what local life has to offer, of course. Just remember and respect the privilege your return ticket holds.

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