Hostel Backpacking: Do You Have What It Takes?

What Makes a Good Hostel Backpacker?

I’m not sure where I stand on the whole nature-nurture debate (or, for that matter, where anyone stands — the last time I heard anyone talk about that was eighth grade biology). So I can’t tell you if great backpackers are born or made, or whether that even matters in the end.

What I can tell you is I’ve got a few specific qualities that have made me rather suitable for hostel backpacking; and if you share any of these traits, perhaps it’s time to accept — nay, embrace — your destiny, and get to it already. (There are worst destinies to have, trust me.)

Note: I’m using the term “backpacker” here to mean “a person who travels for an extended period of time, keeps all their possessions in one bag, and typically stays in hostels or other shared accommodations.” I never actually had a backpack (that one up there is Simon’s), but I hope you won’t hold that against me.

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Once I’ve fallen asleep, it’s hard to wake me up.

When I look up hostel reviews online, some of the most common complaints are things like, “room was too noisy”; “area was too loud”; “too many partiers and staff did nothing.”

A lot of this can be avoided with a bit of awareness. Most hostels do a pretty good job of advertising if they’re the “relax and take it easy” type or the “let’s all trash this joint and get weird” type, and a little research can go a long way if you’ve got a preference.

But hostels are always going to be about sharing limited space with a lot of people, and that means noise, any way you swing it. Deep sleepers certainly have the advantage here; life is a lot easier when every returning drunky, or fighting couple, or newbie traveler packing at 5am* aren’t waking you up every five minutes.

Light sleeper? As stated above, try to find hostels that aren’t “party-focused.” If that fails — or if you like a good party, just not every single night — pack some ear plugs (and maybe an eye mask, in case that “newbie traveler” has the gall to turn on the overhead lights).

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I pack to fit my suitcase, no matter how small.

I don’t shed any tears leaving clothes behind. If you don’t make it in the first round of packing, tough cookies. I’ve got a plane to catch. (Notice that I do not claim “advance planning” as one of my strong suits.)

My first two years in New Zealand, I used a suitcase that a surprising amount of other travelers considered too small. “That’s your only luggage?” they would stutter at me in disbelief. At first, I brushed it off, but eventually, these folks started to get in my head. This tiny suitcase! It would not stand! So I bought a bigger one, filled it to the brim, and promptly became a miserable human being (you know, more so than usual). After two weeks of dragging that monstrosity around Bali in sweltering heat, I was about ready to chuck it in the ocean.

There are many lessons to be found here, probably, but I think the most important one is that I’ve got an appalling lack of upper body strength. Also: if it ain’t broke, don’t fucking fix it.

Heavy packer? Get a small suitcase and leave out whatever you can’t fit. If this is too “tough love” for you, try packing cubes to make more efficient use of your limited space.

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I’m not picky about my laundry.

Confession time: Until Simon and I started living together, I didn’t really…sort my laundry. It just seemed kind of pointless. (Note: I should probably add that 99% of my clothes are black, so it probably was pointless, in my case.)

Nearly every hostel or caravan park will have washing facilities, but their availability will be limited. You may not have four separate washers all to yourself, or time to run multiple loads. It’s a heck of a lot easier to throw it all in together and hope for the best.

Also, the washers will usually be awful no matter how you use them, so there’s that.

Not so lax about your own washing? You can always set aside a couple of days free from tours or big activities to do your laundry. These “housekeeping days” are a must when traveling long-term, anyway; you can use them to book any next trips or accommodation, have a lie-in, stock up on any supplies running low, and so on.

If nothing else, you’ll want a solid day to let any washed clothes dry completely; dryers in hostels are notoriously bad, and I’d much rather have dirty clothes than ones that have been packed up while wet. (Consider this when showering just before departure, as well — do you want to pack a damp towel?)

Also common among hostel dwellers: shower washing your most recently worn underwear. Convenient, only takes a couple of extra minutes, and ensures you always have at least one clean pair.

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I don’t have a strong sense of smell.

Hanging out in a hostel usually means hanging out in or near a kitchen, where you might find several people cooking at once. As a result, several of my roomies used to complain about their hair reeking of garlic and onions. Why your hair smelling like the beginning of a delicious meal is a problem, I don’t know, but I could never detect it, anyway.

Same thing after our bus went through Rotorua, New Zealand — nicknamed “Sulphur City” and known for its eggy aroma. Everyone else claimed it had seeped into their clothes, while I carried on, blissful in my weak-nosed ignorance.

Of course, when I had to share a hostel room with seven guys, one of whom had shoes you could smell from the balcony? Nothing could save me.

Have a good nose? Unfortunately, I can’t help you much with this one. Breathe through your mouth, and stay the hell away from boys’ dorms, if you can.

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Have you ever gone hostel backpacking? Did you have any issues or challenges not addressed here? How did you deal with them?

* Don’t be this person. Trust me, this advice is the greatest gift I can give you (and your future hostel roommates): if you have an early departure, pack the night before.

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