Backpacking can mean many things, but the idea of embarking on an open-ended journey into new unexplored lands, living minimally through a backpack and one’s own instincts, is the basic premise. People don’t always get it, as it doesn’t fall anywhere in society’s predestined plan: high school, college, real job, marriage, house, kids, and death. Far too many people fall into this trap then wake up one day wondering what happened. There is however, much more to life, and embarking on a backpacking trip around the world might shed some light on a few of the missing pieces. Obviously not everyone is fortunate enough to travel, and hopefully this will improve over time. The real secret is that in a country as affluent as the United States, it’s really not as hard as people want to make it out to be. The benefits obtained far outweigh any similarly priced alternatives.
Unfortunately in the U.S. just over 1 in 3 Americans own a valid passport. This is substantially higher than in 1989, when it was only 1 in 30, but it pales in comparison to Canada and Australia, which are around 60-70%. However, this stat is inflated due to the fact that U.S. citizens are now required to have a passport when traveling to their top two destinations, Mexico and Canada, beginning in 2007.
It’s not hard to see why most Americans prefer to travel within the United States; it’s much cheaper and easier to plan given our ridiculous commitment to work. Americans put more work hours in than any other industrialized country, yet are the only industrialized country without a federal law requiring paid sick days. To put that into perspective, Americans work roughly 500 more hours a year than the French, yet receive an average of 13 days paid vacation compared to 31 days for the French.
The United States is also very unique geographically and demographically as it is very large and diverse, allowing for extensive travel within its borders. It is home to vast array of climates, cultures, and people. The U.S. is truly blessed and owes much of its historical prestige to this unique variety of landforms and communities, but getting caught in the bubble of America can limit ones growth and causes narrow-mindedness.
To have a truly open-minded perspective, a country must periodically travel outside itself and look back in. How can a people know who they truly are until they step outside the bounties of their creature comforts and reflect back? This allows for self-reflection on a new level and if interpreted correctly (learned from), can transform individuals and society at large.
It’s especially important for the United States to embrace a culture of travel; it not only has the wealth and resources to do so, but it plays arguably the largest role in international geopolitics. It has massive influence all over the world as it’s home to the largest military, consumer market and stock exchange. U.S. foreign policy affects more than its own people, so it’s crucial its citizens be properly informed and cultured if moral decisions are to be made.
Unfortunately, the United States has been at war for 222 out of 239 years since its inception in 1776. Just take a moment and let that sink in… Why does there always seem to be an enemy of the United States and why is this country so quick to attack? Think of the message this sends.
Backpacking can play an important role in reconnecting the U.S. to the rest of the world. There is something to be said for going to a foreign country, especially a country where it’s known to be dangerous, and actually being in the presence of the local people, on their turf. This includes laughing with them, listening to their stories, and feeling the many ways in which they are just like the rest of us. Not only would one become smarter and more compassionate, but the connection between individuals and countries transforms the relationship from a superior-inferior relationship to that of equals. Agreement might not always be reached on every issue, but new seeds are planted and mutual understandings begin to form, making the idea of war seem unimaginable.
Backpacking can also play a crucial role in helping people realize what’s actually important in life. To be without the luxury of ones own room, food, car, and array of personal items, forces one to live on only the basic necessities of life. Things once thought to be essential and desirable are broken down and re-evaluated. It’s incredibly liberating and humbling knowing you’re able to relish the fullness of life with only a backpack and a few belongings to your name.
The key is walking directly into new experiences with few possessions and an open mind to see what happens. There are varying degrees of how open one can be, and each person must decide on their own personal tolerance, but it’s essential that there is some conflict along the way. For some, this may be simply going to a new city in Europe for the first time; while for British man Graham Hughes, it meant visiting all 201 countries in 1,426 days without using a plane on a budget of roughly $100 a week!
Growth only happens through conflict, and conflict only comes through stepping outside ones comfort zone into the realm of the unknown. International backpacking is the ultimate unknown because it involves journeying into foreign countries where cultures, ideas, food, and languages are often different. While this may create a considerable amount of stress, remember that this is the point, and is what makes it a truly exciting and unique life-experience. One could be floating down a river in Laos, or choose to get lost in the rich history of the European cities. Better yet, maybe even journey off the beaten path to places few westerners have even heard of, let alone seen.
Whatever it is, the canvass is blank and the time is now. Humans are not machines. We have incredibly resilient minds with the ability to feel a vast spectrum of emotions that transcend physical reality. Only through the constant expansion of preconceived boundaries can one truly see the infinite amount of color life has to show. Don’t sell yourself short with limiting thoughts of disbelief and pity. Life is what you make it; so wake up, get out, and be free to explore this beautiful planet called Earth. If you only have one life then why would you not?
“Not all who wander are lost.” – J.R.R Tolkien