Travel Lessons I learned when backpacking at 30

Ten days after I turned 30, I got on a plane for Hong Kong to spend the next 3 months in Southeast Asia as a backpacker. I was nervous like anyone else bound for the first time to this part of the world may be. But I was also nervous for another reason – I was now 30 and backpacking longterm for the first time. I already knew most backpackers were in their early twenties (or even late teens). Was I bound for failure? Would I stick out like a sore thumb? Would I make any friends? Was backpacking at 30 a horrible idea?

I’m not going to beat around the bush. I had an amazing time. I went to some great places, saw awesome things, and met phenomenal people. This was a trip I had been dreaming of for years, and I didn’t want to regret not doing it.

So if you are in a similar position, I wanted to use this post to show you what backpacking at 30 could be like.

what I learned when backpacking at 30

One last caveat though before we get into it. I want to clarify what I mean by a backpacker. I don’t like defining this term (because I feel like people like to use it to categorize one type of traveler from another), but I think I should explain the two main things that separated this trip from all of my other adventures.

The first is that I mostly stayed in hostels. And the second is that I was traveling long term. I think both of these factors played heavily into the experience I had (both with what I did and who I met).

1. you will be the oldest

For the most part that is. Of the people I met and befriended (both long term and short term), I was definitely among the oldest. In fact, from what I remember, I only met one other guy that was my age and only one that was older (35). Both were men. And though I spied women who I thought was in my age range, I never met a single one older than 28 staying in hostels.

This one “fear” I had turned out to be true. I was among the oldest. And yes there are a lot of young backpackers. But there is also a big population in their mid-twenties and late-twenties (around 27 or so).

It took me a week or so to get over this. To just accept and embrace the fact that I was older and maybe a bit different.

what I learned when backpacking at 30

2. age doesn’t matter (if you don’t let it)

The second part of that statement is the most important. Once I got over my fear, I didn’t let the fact that I was older matter. I just met people and talked with them, and had a good time.

I had a great conversation with one European girl who turned out to be 18 years old. We hung out at a bar for over an hour just talking about our experiences and life. It was great. And it never felt like I was so much older or out of touch or anything like that. Because I didn’t let it.

This was what I discovered. Most younger people seem older because they are out and traveling on their own. And yes, though they may be partying hard, they also seemed just a bit more mature. And the older (like me) seemed younger because we had thrown ourselves into this backpacking world. We still wanted to do things and see things and, yes, party some.

I reconnected, in a strange way, to my younger self. Those things I liked to do but had abandoned through the years. The spark of trying new things everyday. This is what came rushing back to me and I stopped feeling older (most of the time).

what I learned when backpacking at 30

And though some of the younger backpackers may have felt like I was odd, most didn’t care. At least the ones I met and connected with. They embraced me as one of my own because I didn’t let my age separate us.

One last caveat here though. Backpacking is mostly for people in their early twenties. You’re sharing rooms, traveling cheaply, and, yes, drinking. I ended up embracing this. And for some of the people closer to my age, they would splurge in a way if they needed to (like a private room at a hostel).

But if just the idea of staying in a hostel horrifies you…I think you need to decide first what comforts you’d be willing to part with and which you would not be.

what I learned when backpacking at 30

3. you may not be able to party like you used to

As mentioned above, I reconnected to my younger self. And for me and the people I hung out with, that meant more drinking.

However, no matter how much my mind forgot I had turned 30 that year…my body did not.

The answer here is simple…moderation. Moderation. Moderation.

Don’t go shot for shot with a 21 year old. They will always win…or be in less pain in the morning.

In turned out that my body just needed more sleep than others sometimes. I’d hit that snooze. I’d take a day off. I’d blow an afternoon on a nap. Sometimes…I just needed rest.

And that’s okay too.

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4. you’ll give less f*cks

This is true no matter what as you get older. And I felt it backpacking as well. I just stopped caring what other people thought.

If I needed to go out and eat alone, I’d go. And sometimes I wanted to eat alone. At 23 I might have been nervous. At 30 I just didn’t care if I was by myself.

This also really showed itself in my itinerary. Other than a few set things, I just went where I wanted and stayed as long as I wanted. I didn’t care that I wasn’t following the normal “trail.” I didn’t care that I spent a lot of my time on islands and beaches. I didn’t care if other backpackers thought I wasn’t “doing it right” or that I shouldn’t call myself a “backpacker.”

Like I didn’t have a strong urge to go to Vietnam…so I didn’t. And though others tried to convince me to go, I stuck with what I wanted to do. The pressure just didn’t get to me.

I just gave less fucks with what others thought about my travels. I was traveling for me and that was all that mattered.

what I learned when backpacking at 30

5. your responsibilities may seem more real

This applied to me mostly because I was working while I was traveling. It was just a few hours a day 5 days a week, but I had a responsibility. I had made a commitment to the company I worked for.

Not many others are going to think the same way. And I did have to turn down some things because I had to work. As much as I may have wanted to do that lake tour a day early with these really awesome girls I met, if I had a meeting, it came first.

This will seem unreal to some of the travelers you’ll meet. Most will have cast off their responsibilities to escape.

If you have anything like a job you’ll be keeping up with, it will separate you a bit simply because you’re freedom will be more restrained.

Stay strong (if you want to that is).

what I learned when backpacking at 30

6. you may miss home sooner

I’m not going to lie. I started to miss the comforts of home. Sleeping in a big bed. Going to a grocery store I understood. Not checking for bed bugs. Shopping for clothes that fit me. And taking a hot shower are just some of the things I started to miss.

(And that last one is no joke. For literally 1 month not a single hostel I stayed in had a “hot” shower.)

I think I could have kept going for another month or so, but I did start to miss having a permanent base. A home.

And if as you’ve gotten older and started to enjoy certain comforts, you may find yourself missing those at a faster rate than your counterparts.

what I learned when backpacking at 30

7. you may need to splurge

This goes with the point above. Tired of staying in dodgy hostels and waking up to hostel mates banging in the bunk next to you?*

Just slip off and do you for a bit. You may have more money than the average backpacker due to the fact that you’re older. So don’t fret about using that money to keep your sanity. I did this a couple of times during my trip (usually just for a day or two). And I found it relaxing.

I always went back to the hostels in the end (I got lonely without them), but a few days to rest and recharge will not hurt.

So don’t fret that you need this. Simply enjoy it and then rejoin the backpacking horde when you’re ready.

*I lucked out and never had this happen to me. And people were shocked that I was able to backpack for 3 months in Southeast Asia and never once woke up to people having sex. It unfortunately is common.

8. some hostels will just not be for you

By the end of my trip I knew what to look for in a hostel. And the reviews were crucial in determining this.

Basically there were two hostels I avoided at all cost:

  1. Party hostels
  2. Quiet hostels

I avoided these by reading descriptions and reviews. If most people mentioned it was a party hostel, I didn’t stay there. And if most people mentioned there was no atmosphere, I also didn’t stay there.

I was on the hunt for the in-between. I wanted a hostel with some party. With people talking and hanging out in the common room. With groups going out each evening to the bars around. Atmosphere definitely mattered.

So don’t fret if you’re not up for a party hostel. You’ll find one that speaks to you. And you’ll start to learn what to look for.

I’ll also be putting together a list of my favorite hostels from my trip soon!

what I learned when backpacking at 30

9. making friends is a skill that requires practice

I’m a good mix of an extrovert and an introvert. I have my moments with each. But even with that, I didn’t hit my stride with making friends for a month. A whole month.

Now that’s not saying I didn’t meet people before that, but I definitely know that there was a turning point where it just got easier.

Making friends is a skill you have to practice. And after we get out of school and college, we have less and less opportunities to do it. So by the time I was 30…well let’s just say I was rusty.

Don’t get discouraged if you feel awkward. Just keep introducing yourselves to others. Keep talking with them. Keep engaging. It will get easier.

what I learned when backpacking at 30

My strategy? Well when I would get to a new place, I’d grab a beer and head to the common room. I’d then scout out the people there. I’d target other solo travelers, groups playing games, big groups talking. And then I’d ask, hey can I join?

I did try to avoid two types of groups though unless they initiated – couples and friends who were traveling together. I made some amazing friends who were parts of these groups, but I also noticed that sometimes they wanted to keep to themselves.

I left that to them and then went after the ones clearly mixing.

what I learned when backpacking at 30

10. you are not too old

I was not too old. I found my stride. I made friends. And had amazing adventures.

You are not too old either. You are a young and wild soul at heart. (Too corny?)

Don’t let what others may say stop you. Many of my friends put up their nose about the idea of staying in hostels and roughing it. My response?

I saved so much money and was able to travel for 3 whole months because I stayed in hostels.

I spent less than $1,200 on accommodation for 3 months. That’s less than what I would have paid in rent. By a lot.

So go. Just go. You won’t regret it.

what I learned when backpacking at 30

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