I had no plans for the next destination. I knew I would head to Baños, Ecuador, from where I was staying in Cotopaxi, but beyond that, I had nothing planned, no place to stay, and no bookings for any of the many adventures around there. I wasn’t worried.
I was staying at a beautiful hostel nestled in the tranquil plains looking out towards Vulcan Cotopaxi, far from any town. There was no wifi, which was partially intentional, in order to foster more community within the groups that stayed there. This created a wonderfully social environment that was accessible and inclusive to all there.
Some travelers, however, felt anxious about making their plans for the next destination on their route. No wifi?! Where will I stay? How will I get there? Can I book the river rafting in advance? One of the lively staff members at the hostel replied to one such anxious traveler, “We are backpackers, we don’t need reservations!” This quickly became the motto for my trip.
“We are backpackers, we don’t need reservations!”
After a few weeks of backpacking alone in South America, I became more skilled at planning for the unplanned. Like improv comedy, you need to practice to get comfortable and quick once you get on stage for the show. After some practice, you’ll be able to predict patterns and cues that help you make the best choices for yourself based on what your expectations are.
I quickly learned that leaving my plans open for the unexpected was incredibly freeing, especially after realizing that it would always work out. When you have plans and schedules, you form expectations around those experiences. When they go wrong, or if you miss something, feelings of frustration arise because your expectations were not met (and maybe you lost money too, ouch). With no plans, there are no expectations. Without expectations, everything is already exceeding what you thought would happen. Everything that does happen becomes the perfect plan because it just happened, and it was great.
This way of thinking facilitated some of my best experiences while traveling. I found myself in unexpected situations, around different types of people, and discovering beautiful places that I would have never found. Some instances would be challenging, yes of course, but those challenges only helped me grow and learn for the future. If you want to get the most our of your travel experience, or your life for that matter, welcome in challenges as a conduit to personal growth. When one hostel is full, keep going until you find one. And when you do find that off-the-beaten-path, hole-in-the-wall hostel, you might find that is was exactly what you needed.
This mindset works wonderfully if you are backpacking for a while alone, but you can foster this way of traveling with others as well. Even if you already have a family, you can take some of these tips to open up pockets of planned trips to allow for spontaneity.
Here are ten tips for "unplanning" your next backpacking trip:
1. Research rather than plan. Look up enticing destinations, a few hotspots within that area you are interested and a couple possible hostels, so you know some options if nothing else comes up. Know if where you are going is busy during certain times of the year more than others. Maps are cool too. Check those out to understand where different resources are around where you are going (bus stop, downtowns, sites).
2. Ask other travelers and locals about places to stay, things to do, and and tips about each place. This is the best way to get on-the-ground info. Remember to take everything with a grain of salt. Different people have varying standards and outlooks. Know yourself but take any advice you can get.
3. Find a balance between plans and no plans. Use resources like hostelworld.com to book necessary nights at hostel and hotels, but don’t rely on it. Create more of an outline for yourself rather than a plan.
4. Be flexible with dates. Know roughly how long you want to stay in each place, but allow for extra days spent here and there if something catches your fancy. Know when to leave a place and move on as well.
5. Be prepared for the unexpected challenges, changes, and decision making that will happen. Expect the unexpected!
6. Alter how you travel if you are alone or with others. When you are alone, you can really go wherever you want whenever you want to, but you have to be more aware of your surroundings and make sure to have enough cash to do so without relying on others. When traveling with others, be able to go with the flow or help make decisions as a team. Be ready to bail if their plans don’t jive with you.
7. Know your boundaries. Make sure you are making *good* decisions for yourself, meaning that you feel safe and confident, even if you do not know what will happen.
8. Plan one part of your experience in a new place, and let the rest unfold. Book a hostel, but don’t make any plans. Or plan to go somewhere, but wait to get there to find a hostel that works.
9. Plan big things a few days in advance. Some packaged treks or trips do require a few days in advance, so get informed and book bigger commitments ahead of time. Other than that, sign up on the fly!
10. Be open to new experiences! They will fly at you from every angle if you give them a chance, and can become the most memorable experiences.