Backpacking myths busted
By Lauren Baldwin

“I’ve had the same jeans on for 4 days now…”
It’s 3am and the hostel is still, silent. After an exhausting day of battling foreign public transport in Rome, we were finally sound asleep.  But not for long.  Chattering voices rise from the stairwell & wake us out of nowhere, drawing closer, and annoyingly, LOUDER.  All of a sudden our door is flung open with a bang! Light floods the room as 4 German girls charge in and swing their backpacks onto the ground with a thud, all the while chattering away non-stop. I look at my watch. 3.05am. Are they SERIOUS? After a restless few hours of interrupted sleep, its dawn, and I trudge slowly to the shower, looking forward to the hot steam instantly soothing my nerves…only to find out there isn’t any hot water…in fact, the shower doesn’t even turn on at all….
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Don’t be put off by the above story, it’s all part of the fun (believe it or not) of staying in hostels around the world.  People have weird and wonderful notions on what to expect from staying in a backpackers, with stories and opinions a mile wide.  But most of the time, all you need is a bit of patience and a smile to get you through your travels on a budget!  Of course you will be sharing with other people at times; you need to expect this sort of thing.  And of course not everything will always work properly or go according to plan.  And thank goodness it doesn’t! Otherwise what a god-awful, boring, predictable world we would live in! I guarantee you, at the time, although I did want to cheerfully MURDER those inconsiderate German girls, I can now laugh at the memory. Backpacking is all about venturing outside the norm, travelling outside your comfort zone, and trying new things.  True, it’s not for everyone, but the following “myths” commonly thought to be true should not discourage aspiring young travellers from venturing out into the world. (On the cheap!)

1.    “The newest, most expensive gear will make for a more comfortable trip”

You don’t need your sleeping bag, extra doona, oh and that special contour foam pillow mum bought for you last year…..this is TRAVELLING not living at home in the lap of luxury!  The whole point is to experience the unusual, the different and yes sometimes the strange. Most will be surprised to find how well equipped hostels are with often extra sheets provided, warm blankets and always a pillow.  Some hostels in America I found will even have housekeeping staff come and change the bedding each day for new and fresh linen!  And if there is something you need, just try asking the friendly staff – you would probably be surprised at how many items of use they keep behind the counter that you may borrow and purchase for a small charge; Phone chargers, international calling cards, spare batteries, sunscreen etc.

You also do not need the latest $400 backpack –remember, just because its new and slightly improved in some ways, does not make it any less heavy to carry!! Most middle of the range ones, like ‘Cuba’ from Black Wolf, retail for around $140-$180, and are more than suitable with easy to adjust straps.  They don’t look half bad either.  The point to remember is, no one cares about the brand on your back, only about the funny jokes and stories you tell at the end of a long day in the pub!

2.    “Hostels aren’t safe!”

Some people have this image in their heads that hostels are cheap and nasty alternatives to REAL hotels.  Well the first part is true enough, they ARE cheaper, which is a good thing, but the scary/nasty part? Not so true.  I’m not going to sit here and say every single one I have ever stayed a night in was tops, but on the whole, they are more than acceptable.  And if you do your homework before you go, you will find that the cities you are visiting will often have a top rated hostel voted the best in the business by fellow travellers – these are the ones you need to be checking out, and booking into. One I recently stayed at in Manhattan, New York actually had its own night security guard at the door! How’s that for added safety? Its usually not just a case of having he best location, cleanest rooms and top security, but also kick-ass hostel pubs & awesome staff to help you out with city maps, extra pillows, which nights they play trivia on and run the local pub crawl! Not sounding too scary is it? There is a great chance at these kinds of places to meet new people and make life long friends. 

3.     “It isn’t very glamorous to lug a big ugly sack around on your back…”

First of all, what many people don’t realise is that the amount of time you actually spend carrying your pack around is far less than what you might think.  As soon as you reach your destination, whether it is your hostel in Greece, your seat on the eurostar to Paris, or crazy taxi ride from JFK to Manhattan –you dump it!  Most hostels worldwide now offer locked cages to keep your backpack in under your bunk (just remember to bring your own combination lock – a key padlock will just not do) or if not, they will at least have a safekeeping area in reception that will fit your valuables like passports, wallets and phones.  And the rest is really just clothes isn’t it? Not really such a big crisis to leave them ‘unguarded’ in your shared room! Think about it – would you steal someone else’s dirty jeans?? (Ok, well, maybe if they were Sass & Bide!) 

No one will think any more or less of you if you arrive with a suitcase or backpack, in this day and age, no one bats an eyelid as it is simply only an indicator of how you are travelling. Not living. One summer I arrived in Florence with my friends to check in to our “hostel”, with our ‘ugly’ backpacks in tow, only to find that the supposed “hostel” actually translated into gorgeous, 1bedroom Italian pension…which is like an apartment fully furnished! This is the kind of thing you would never find in your Marriott’s and Hiltons, a traditional, old Firenze penthouse, in the heart of the city complete with a private balcony and all the creature comforts of home – we even had a washing machine and dryer in our very own laundry! So we suddenly went from being “aussie backpackers” to temporary Italian penthouse owners – not too shabby.  In other words, backpacking is not just about the luggage – it is simply a means to and end – a way to discover the little treasures other countries have to offer.  Don’t worry about looking like a struggling traveller, just because you are out and about without a gold studded suitcase.

Remember WHY you are BACKPACKING – in most cases, you are not heading off on a trip against your will. You are going for fun. So instead of getting worried about it, remember the reasons for why you are going and the goals you want to achieve, such as meeting new and interesting people, which is a big factor into why we choose to travel.

A perfect example of this is when I journeyed to Mykonos in the Greek islands with girlfriends, and was stuck on the ferry for 6 hours from Athens to get there…Not so fun. However, we found others in the same ‘boat’ as us (so to speak) who were also bored out of their brains, so we started chatting.  By the time we had docked on the picturesque island, none of us wanted to split up, so we decided to all stay on the same part of the island at the same resort. That was 3 years ago – we still keep in touch and I have since visited them during subsequent travels to their own countries where we had a great time once again.

Going beyond your comfort zone is a key motivator for many backpackers. After all, it’s easy to sit at your nice, cushy, desk job all your life, -and then take that one plane ride a year to Disneyland where the tourists outnumber the locals and English is the first language spoken. Hardly the real world experience you were hoping for.  So forget about all the ‘myths’ out there, throw your concerns out the window and go for it.  Life’s too short not to.

…..And if your head is still full of worries, don’t worry, I’ll take your trip for you and let you know ‘terrible’ backpacking was!

Lauren Baldwin