If you want comfort and ease, do not go backpacking. You will be sorely disappointed. Despite what Instagram might tell you, this method of travel is not glamorous or romantic. No, backpacking is something far better: it is real. I've never felt more uncomfortable and more alive than when I backpacked through New Zealand with my sister. Here are the top five lessons I learned on this wild adventure.
1. Trust your gut.
If alarm bells sound in your head, listen to them. In your adventures, whether overseas or in your own backyard, you will inevitably find yourself in situations that give you bad vibes. In my case, it was the creepy farmer my sister and I were staying within middle-of-nowhere New Zealand. We tried to convince ourselves that the gun by his front door and maggots in the kitchen were just "cultural differences." But after three days of living in a constant state of fear, we listened to our instincts and escaped in the middle of the night. Had we listened to our guts earlier, we could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble.
2. Keep your sense of humor.
We got chased down a mountain by angry cows. I lost my credit card. The only shower available was outdoors in a field of sheep. Anything on top of that, that could go wrong did go wrong. But you know what? The trip wouldn't have been nearly as fun without all the little fiascos; after all, they make for the best stories. So embrace the suck, and don't let a bit of misadventure keep you from having a good time.
3. Make friends wherever you go.
Getting to know locals will turn an ordinary trip into the adventure of a lifetime. On the way from Los Angeles to Auckland, New Zealand, I struck up a conversation with a college student who was born and raised in Auckland. He spent the next 12 hours giving me the insider scoop on the city, telling me about coffee shops, neighborhoods, beaches, parks and tons of other off the beaten path spots that only locals knew. Next time you're on a trip, put down the guidebook and talk to people. You'll be amazed at what a difference it makes.
4. Pack light.
The best advice I ever got about packing was this: Lay out everything you think you need for the trip, then only pack half of it (shout out to my adventure buddy for this one). Sounds crazy, right? It actually works. This method forces you to take only the things you can't live without, and you learn to improvise for the rest. The best part? Unencumbered by excess stuff, you'll be free for more adventure than you thought possible. In New Zealand, I got by for weeks with a bandana as a towel and a flannel shirt as a pillow. Pack light, travel far.
5. Stay thankful.
Throughout the trip, disasters befell us left and right, and threatened to rob us of our happiness. Our flight across the Pacific was riddled with turbulence. We got sunburned. Through the challenges we faced, my sister kept our spirits up by creating The Grateful Game. When all hell threatened to break loose, as it often did, she would say, "Okay, Grateful Game time. Ready, set, go!" and we would start rapid-firing off things we were thankful for: underwear, chocolate, clean hostels, flat whites, you name it. We always felt better after one of these sessions, and they never failed to turn the most sordid mood into a happy one.
I learned more in the cities and backcountry of New Zealand than I have in any classroom (sorry, professors). This crazy country of mountains, beaches and crazy old farmers taught me to trust my gut, keep a sense of humor, make friends wherever I go, pack light and stay thankful. These are lessons I'll take with me everywhere I go, and I hope you can take some of them on your next trip, too. What lessons have you picked up from your travel adventures?