Confessions of a Seasoned Backpacker: Overcoming Your Pre-Trip Fears

I was sleeping on my friend’s floor in Osaka the night before I flew to Vladivostok. Only I wasn’t sleeping, because countless anxieties about the trip ahead of me were galloping through my head. What if the Air Vladivostok flight crashed, what if the home stay host I was staying with was actually an axe murderer, or at least couldn’t understand my attempts at Russian, and what if I got off the Trans-Siberian train at a longer stop and then the train left without me while I was still in the queue for an ice cream?

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It was similar the night before I flew to Tunisia. With no accommodation or trains booked, the most useless smattering of French phrases to make myself understood and virtually no knowledge of the cultural and architectural wonders that make up this small North African country, I was terrified.

You can probably guess what happened. Those two trips turned out to be two of the best I’ve ever taken. And in the years since, my tendency to be afraid of the next trip has diminished to virtually zero. Here are my tips to help you feel the same.

Cliff Diving - Senj, Croatia

A Little Information Goes A Long Way

Being informed about your destination helps limit your anxieties – usually. Read up on the customs or food, or look at some hostel reviews online, or visit some museum or gallery websites to get a preview of some interesting exhibits. Some independent travelers subscribe to the “going in cold” theory, wanting to let every impression of a new destination be unblemished by knowledge they’ve collected before, but that tends to be an anxiety-producing strategy.

Even in a culture far removed from your own, people are people, food is food, a bed is a bed. In short: the world ain’t Mars.

However, some kinds of information are not helpful. Of course, you should read government travel advice and check the security situation in your destination, but don’t get caught up in horror tales of theft or kidnapping. Unless you’re heading to Iraq during war time you have a good chance of being safe, simply by following sensible precautions. There’s no point having sleepless nights over it.

Remember Why You’re Traveling

In most cases, you won’t be heading off on a trip against your will. Instead of getting worried about your trip, think about your reasons for going and the goals you want to achieve.

Going beyond their comfort zone is a key motivator for many backpackers. It’s easy to sit at your office desk all your life, or take a short flight over to London or Paris where tourists practically outnumber locals. But if you want to expand your mind, learn about new cultures and ways of life, and give yourself some inspiration, traveling to a destination that provokes just a touch of anxiety in you is usually a good thing.

Get Practical and Counter Your Fears

If your fear becomes overpowering, grab it by the horns. Make a list of everything you’re scared of and then think of a counter-argument.

I’m still scared of flying, despite the fact I long ago lost track of how many flights I’ve taken in my life, to all corners of the earth. Flying will always be on my list of pre-trip fears. But I can quickly counter that with the standard arguments: it’s safer than taking the bus, the statistical chance of a crash is minuscule, and if I don’t fly, I’ll have to stay home. Problem solved.

You can also adopt the worst case scenario method. A few years ago I found myself hurtling along a potholed highway in northern Egypt with an unlicensed taxi driver who thought that traveling at 110 miles per hour was appropriate, and that driving without headlights at two in the morning was sensible to save gas. Fairly certain that the trip would end in a head-on collision, I consoled myself by thinking that if my end was near, at least it’d be while I was traveling and doing something I loved. And if I’d stayed home, I could’ve been hit by the garbage truck as I crossed the road. No driver can scare me now.

Relax … the World is Smaller Than You Think

It’s easy for me to say this after traveling to some forty countries carrying my own backpack, but I’m here to promise you this: 99% of the time there is no need to be afraid of any part of your trip. Even in a culture far removed from your own, people are people, food is food, a bed is a bed (sometimes!) and there are fewer and fewer places where phone and internet don’t reach. In short: the world ain’t Mars.

And If You’re Still Scared

If your head is still full of worries, just send me your tickets. I’ll take the trip for you and let you know how great it was.

Photo © u c c r o w

  1. You’re right – it is so important to remember why you are travelling. If you didn’t want to challenge yourself a bit or learn something about the world then why go travelling???

    “A ship is safe in the harbour, but that’s not what ships are for.”

  2. Well written and exactly what I needed. I just put in my 2 week notice at work, so that I can leave my comfortable life and travel to my hearts’ desire. I have a one-way ticket, enough money saved for the last 5 years to keep me out of the U.S. for at least 12 months, and a backpack with a few days worth of clothes. This is what I’ve always dreamed of….yet why the occasional anxiety?? It’s more normal then I thought thanks to your article and actually a good thing, because it means I’m getting out of my comfort zone and ready for an experience of a lifetime.

  3. Thank you so much for this. I am about to go backpacking for the first time through Central America and am a nervous wreck! Reading this helped me become more at ease. The problem now is to convince my family to stop thinking about the worst case situations that could happen to me…

  4. ‘Even in a culture far removed from your own, people are people, food is food, a bed is a bed’

    I love this part :) Great article, and that one sentence makes the whole idea so much more reassuring. I wish I had read that before I had embarked upon my solo journey. Thankfully I managed just fine though :)

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