We typically think of backpackers as college kids and gap-year travellers but backpacking is increasingly common for people of all ages. And why not? It’s an excellent way to travel that makes it easy to get from place to place and offers room for ad hoc adventures. 

Backpacking as an adult – which I’m defining as mid-20s even though 18 is considered an adult as you’re all just kids to me – is different than when you’re fresh out of school without many of life’s stresses (oh to be young again!). And as an adult, you can take the best of backpacking without the horrors of shared bathrooms and maxed out credit cards. You deserve to be a little more comfortable.

Tips for Backpacking as an Adult

Get a sturdy pack

Let’s be honest, you’re not getting any younger. If you’re going to be backpacking as an adult, you need sufficient back support or you’ll really be feeling it the next day. This isn’t the time to cheap out on the lowest price option or you risk being out of commission during your travels. 

Here are some excellent backpack options: the Osprey 55L Travel Backpack, the Mountaintop 60L Backpack or the North Face Terra 65L Backpack.

Have a loose plan 

The appeal of backpacking is being able to pick and go anywhere at any time, and what’s life without a little whimsy!  If you’re backpacking as an adult, I do recommend having a base plan that you can change if needed that still allows you to be spontaneous when you want to be. It’ll be more than worth it to avoid sleeping on a park bench or train station because you’re out of options. 

Having a bit of research under your belt also helps you make travel decisions on the fly. You’ll be privy to hidden gems nearby and know what’s feasible given your timeline, meaning you won’t have to spend a half day researching using a café’s free wifi before you can get going.

Focus on what you actually want to do

My travel style has changed significantly over the years. Where I used to want to see every important site in a city, now I prefer getting more of a sense of what it would be like to live there. I’ll spend time seeing the touristy spots that I’m actually interested in and avoid the others, but I’ll also hunt down local neighbourhoods and off-the-beaten-path spots. When you’re backpacking as an adult, get over what you’re supposed to see and do what you want, whether that’s learning more about your destination’s culture or eating everything you can get your hands on.

Stay a little longer

I tackled my guidebook like an exam that I needed to pass on my first backpacking trip. It still makes me exhausted to think about how much we moved around and everything we saw to this day. Get over the need to see absolutely everything and dismiss the thought that you can see a major city in two nights. You can’t.

Back in the day, I had the energy to move around every day or two. But I don’t anymore and I’m okay with that. Because I enjoy immersing myself into a new city and culture, I find that staying longer than typical backpackers allows for a good pace – and ensures that I’m actually well rested at the end of my vacation.

Budget better

You’re likely on less of a fixed budget than when you were 20, but things add up and it’s easy to get carried away. Pull together a quick budget using averages for accommodation, transportation, eating & drinking, and entertainment so that you have a reference for how much it will all cost in the end.

When preparing for a trip, I try to prepay as much as possible in advance including hotels and Airbnbs, transportation, and tours. This gives me time to pay a lot of my trip off before I actually travel, making it easier to splurge on amazing things that I encounter when I’m there.

There are great resources for budgeting on the go these days, including traveler favourite Trail Wallet. This Apple and Google Pay app allows you to track your expenses in real time by category so you have a crystal clear picture of how much you’re spending and on what.

Splurge occasionally 

You’ll probably have more money when you’re backpacking as an adult than a broke college kid, so incorporate little extravagances along the way. Gone are the days of buying cheese and bread or eating at McDonalds as you can’t afford a real restaurant. While an impromptu picnic is always fun, treat yourself to a few great eateries during your travels. The same goes for where you stay. Hostels are a great economic option but consider adding in a few Airbnbs and hotels to class up your trip a bit. I’m also much more willing to pay for a quick taxi than hauling my backpack across the city in the height of summer to catch my next train.

I also like to add in the occasional tour during my backpacking travels as well. A walking tour or food experience can be a great way to familiarize yourself with a new destination – and helps to set the tone for the rest of your travels. If you’re interested in history or art, a guided tour can also be ideal for getting the most out of your visit to a museum or gallery. It’s also likely to be one of the most memorable experiences of your travels. By choosing a great tour provider, you often end up experiencing quite a lot more than you would on your own – which is worth the cost in my opinion.

Bring the right stuff

As you’ll be lugging around everything you bring, make sure to only bring necessary items and ditch the rest. Here’s a guide for carry-on only traveling, which is highly relevant for anyone looking to go backpacking as an adult.

The main difference from when I backpacked a decade ago is that I now bring a lot of electronics with me. One of my non-negotiables is a smartphone with a local SIM card. I’ll often purchase pay as you go plans that allow me to use data, text and make calls. This is such a life-saver when I’m lost (which happens all the time) or coordinating with an upcoming Airbnb, but it’s also great to be able to connect with those back home and keep an eye on my business while I’m out and about.

Ditch the dorms

While dorm rooms were my go-to during my first Euro trip experience, I gave them up a long time ago. These days, I’m much more comfortable in a private room at a hostel or even a separate room at an Airbnb when an entire apartment is out of my budget.

Many people think that hostels only allow guests under a certain age or offer a subpar experience. While many hostels aren’t actually limited to ‘youth’, I’ve also found that private hostel rooms can be nicer and cheaper than 3 star hotels, making it a superior option for those on a strict budget. Many hostels are well designed, offer social activities, and have amenities like wifi, computer terminals, and the occasional restaurant or bar.

Earn as you travel 

I know too many people who leave their homes empty for weeks or months while they travel. I used to be the same, but have started using Airbnb to rent out my house while I’m on the road. Being an Airbnb host allows me to make money while I’m gallivanting around the world. Airbnb has a great cohost system, which connects you to other Airbnb hosts in your neighbourhood who will coordinate many or all aspects of the hosting process on your behalf. It’s a win win!

Protect Yourself

Travel insurance is unlikely to be top of mind when you’re just on the verge of adulthood. But as you travel more, and don’t have your parents on standby to bail you out of any issue that arises, it’s important to protect yourself. Travel insurance covers health issues that may arise as well as trip cancellation and interruption, which is hands down worth the cost in the event that something goes wrong. We’ve used World Nomads in the past and have only great things to say about them. For us it’s easy, affordable and even covers adventure activities that are excluded from other policies. Insurance shouldn’t be an afterthought – make sure it’s top of mind.

Backpacking as an Adult photo by Simon Migaj

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