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What I learned from backpacking in my 20s and 30s

For some people, long-term travel is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. For others it’s a lifelong passion. I fall into the latter camp, and have bookended my 10 years or so of adventures thus far with two epic trips.

Before the second stint of globetrotting I had my doubts: would I ever recreate the joy of that first trip? Could I still handle life on the road? Here’s what I learned spending four months backpacking in my 20s and again in my 30s.

A woman stands on top of a volcano peak in trainers, black shorts and a pink sleeveless t-shirt with her arms outstretched. The Nicaraguan landscape spreads out far into the distance behind her and the blue sky is scattered with clouds.
Feeling on top of the world in Nicaragua © Emma Sparks

Technology has transformed the way we travel for good

I knew something was awry last year when I rocked up to a hostel common room in Flores, Guatemala, plonked down my bags and was met with... no eye contact, no hellos, nada. Every one of my fellow travellers was glued to a laptop, phone or tablet. Smartphone zombies in commuter-clogged London are a common sight, but I wasn’t prepared for this. 

On my first round-the-world trip in 2011, backpackers rarely travelled with expensive tech and were free from digital distraction, aside from the occasional hour spent video calling home and uploading photos at overpriced internet cafes. Serendipitous encounters happened on the regular and, without the shackles of Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, people were – ironically – more social.

It’s not all doom and gloom, of course. What we might lose in organic conversation today, we gain in practical tools. Being able to book hostels, transport and experiences on the go made my recent Central America trip feel seamless, and mapping apps made it almost impossible to get lost. I am now dependent on Google for my navigational needs, despite having once traversed Kuala Lumpur quite happily, with nothing but a hand-drawn map.

This evolution will no doubt continue – the next life-changing travel app might be just around the corner – but I’ll always look back fondly on that period in my twenties, pre-ubiquitous free wifi, when sparking conversation with strangers was that bit easier.

A smiling woman in a striped t-shirt and black shorts pushes against a huge boulder as the sun spills into the top of the frame.
Discover your own power in Fiji © Emma Sparks

Your body is the ultimate travel tool – use it

At 22 I had a list of body hang-ups as long as an unravelled hammock, but solo travel soon changed that. Countless hikes – up O'ahu’s Diamond Head, through Queensland’s ancient rainforests and around Thailand’s hilltop temples – made me see my sturdy thighs as strong, instead of something I wanted to shrink; my broad shoulders still looked wider than I’d have liked in a bikini, but they bore the weight of my backpack like nobody’s business. 

I put my body through a lot and it served me well, so with every extra passport stamp came more confidence, gratitude and perspective. Over time I realised that without these limbs, lungs and love handles of mine I’d never have made it around the world alone. Travel has taught me that bodies are for celebrating, not berating.

At 30-something, these days I’m more concerned with the perils of ageing than aesthetics, such as sun damage and dodgy knees. Hotel beds wreak havoc on my crick-prone neck and being hungover in the heat is no longer bearable, yet I do it all anyway, because life is short and – I hope I’m still young enough to say this – YOLO.

A beautiful cove is filled with speedboats and tourists in Thailand
The beach in Maya Bay, Thailand, is awash with visitors © Emma Sparks

Travel is a privilege – proceed with care

Overtourism existed long before the word started hitting the headlines in 2018. I saw it for myself in Maya Bay, the idyllic Thai setting for The Beach, which closed indefinitely to tourists last year. Seven years before the closure, my heart sank as our speed boat jostled for space in the overcrowded cove – the shoreline was cluttered with people. I joined the throng, waiting patiently to take a picture that would give the illusion of a secluded paradise, all while harbouring a growing sense of guilt. It’s easy to resent others for getting in your way when abroad, until you realise you’re no different. 

Thankfully, responsible travel is on the rise. Reusable water bottles are now a common sight on the road, elephant rides have fallen out of favour as their negative impact on the animal's health has been exposed, and sustainable hotels are increasingly sought after. For my latest big trip I chose lesser-visited destinations, took fewer flights and made sure money I spent was going back to local communities. But I know that next time I’ll need to do even more to offset the impact of my travels. As the climate change movement progresses, the way we see the world is going to change dramatically. 

Photo of a woman from behind wearing flip flops, trousers and a tank top as she walks on a dusty path through lush tropical gardens in Guatemala
Exploring the natural beauty of Guatemala © Emma Sparks

A bigger budget doesn’t always mean better experiences

I’m lucky enough to count staying in an overwater villa in the Maldives, enjoying a private plunge pool in the Caribbean and eating lobster in Mauritius amongst my travel experiences. I’ve also slept in grimy 20-bed dorms, eaten tuna out of a can for lunch for days on end and washed my pants in hostel sinks (sorry roomies) all in the name of saving precious pennies – and I wouldn’t change that for anything.

These days I’m still budget-conscious, but with a better financial safety net than 22-year-old me ever had. The option to splash out once in a while is liberating, but experiencing both sides of the coin has taught me that a tight budget doesn’t mean you have to miss out, and luxury won’t always lead to the best memories.

A woman is sitting on a pale stone wall with her back to the camera. She's looking towards a mountain that overshadows a large town in the middle foreground.
Sparky facing her fears head on in Guatemala © Emma Sparks

Escaping your comfort zone should be a lifelong ambition

The prospect of solo travel in my early twenties was daunting, but I did it anyway. Sky-diving was emphatically not on my to-do list, but after a (drunken) pact, I still threw myself out of a plane. On that first trip I put trust in strangers and flung myself into unpredictable situations with a gusto and naivety that only carefree youngsters can; I leaned in to the thrill of saying yes more and reaped the benefits. Yet the older you get, the harder it can be to ignore the ‘what ifs’ in the back of your mind. It’s easier to settle into routine and cling to creature comforts, which is why, even after countless travel experiences, taking risks only gets harder for me. 

I let fear get the better of me while learning to surf in Nicaragua. I’m no water baby, and the strong Pacific waves were alarmingly large. As I entered the ocean a huge wave loomed up ahead and, in a panic, I couldn’t decide whether to lift the board or push it beneath the surface to clear it… too late. My board rushed up to my face and – smack! I flipped backwards, the tide dragging me to the shore in a tangle of safety cord and bloody foam. My mistake? Not embracing the challenge with the enthusiasm of my younger self. I learned that hesitation can hurt – a lot – and the only way to increase confidence in the face of the unknown is to square up to what scares you more often.

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