Backpacking etiquette 

It’s that time again. Time to go backpacking.

Which is both an amazing and a terrifying feeling. I’m excited about all of the amazing places I’ll see, fascinating local people I’ll meet, and fellow travelers I’ll befriend. But life on the road has its hiccups. A lot of them will occur right in your temporary home: the hostel dorm room. This is where you’ll meet a huge cross-section of people from different walks of life, and they all come with their own way of doing things. Some of them will know their hostel etiquette and make for great roommates, while others will make you suspect they’ve just been let loose on humanity for the first time.

If you happen to fall into the latter group, or if you’ve never traveled in this communal way before, we’ve compiled a list for you to review before you set out, designed to help you take your kindness on the road. Because kindness is badass, and a kind backpacker is like Bruce Willis on an electric Harley Davidson, wearing a hemp jacket and drinking sustainably farmed coconut oil.

Here’s a guide to being a kind traveler, inside the hostel and out. 

1. If you come in late, come in quiet

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So that club on the beach with the chocolate fondue and glow in the dark bikinis was pretty rad. Unfortunately not everyone in the hostel was there. Some of them might be getting up early to take landscape shots of a hill or something. They’re most likely boring, and probably jealous of your party life, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve a good night’s sleep. If you get home after 12am, take a breather before entering your dorm room, and try to wake up as few people as possible. 

2. Keep your opinions respectable, or maybe just to yourself

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Hostels are an incredibly mixed bag of nationalities and opinions. Your veganism might be saving the world, and Bernie Sanders is probably the best president America could hope for, but shockingly not everyone will agree with you. Even the ones who do might not want to hear about it at breakfast while they eat toast with jam for the ninth morning in a row and stare at their map like it holds the answer to life, the universe, and everything. It’s 42. Just tell them, but maybe hold your thoughts on fracking in the Arctic until dinner. 

3. Pack a small flashlight

small flashlight

The time will come when you need something from your bag and it’s too dark to see. If you turn the light on, you risk being ‘that girl/guy’ who woke everyone up. Bring a small light, and keep your friends friendly.  

4. Carry a Polaroid camera

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Admittedly this is a big investment, and a bit cumbersome to carry, but if you can afford it, the rewards will be huge. Giving someone a real life photograph will make them feel all kinds of special, like it used to feel when someone wrote you a letter on actual paper. It’s a great conversation piece, and more likely to create a lasting memory than a Facebook tag. Plus the new models are actually pretty badass. 

5. Leaving early? Pack the night before

backpack

Backpacking is all about enjoying every moment. That probably means the night before your morning flight you’re going to ignore your own advice and party until 4am. That’s fine, but when you wake up at 6am to pack your bags, you’re waking up the whole room. Pack before you go out, and everyone will remember you as that cool person who lived on the edge, but did it with courtesy. 

6. Bring extra toothpaste

Backpackers are always looking for this. Not that you should become a toothpaste dispenser for people who can’t drag themselves to a 7/11, but it could help someone out when they’re in a bind. Plus you never know who you’ll meet at the bathroom sink – some of my best friends were made talking through a mouthful of Colgate.

7. Be welcoming

hostel etiquette

Especially if you’re in a group and they’re not. Solo travel can be… well, lonely. The dorm room is a community, and a lot of people come hoping to make friends. Try and help them out with that, even if you’re not alone and don’t really need another member. Connections can have a huge impact on someone’s trip.

8. Ask interesting questions

Backpacker’s all come armed with the same questions. “So where have you been? Where are you going? Where are you from? How long are you traveling?” Naturally these are the things you’re most curious about, but try to remember this person might have told the story of their travel route more times than they’ve said their own name. It becomes repetitive, and knowing exactly what a person will ask you takes the fun out of meeting them. Switching one of these questions for something about their favorite Star Wars movie, or what they like on their pizza, will tell them you’re curious about them as a person and not just searching for travel tips.

Outside the hostel 

9. Go local

market lady

Eventually you’re going to leave the hostel. Hopefully. When you do, try to make choices that a curious traveler would make. Fast food is great, and so are air conditioned shopping malls, but it’s likely neither of them were designed by the people who live in the country you’re visiting. Chances are there are restaurants and shops run by genuine locals not far from where you stay. They might be less convenient to communicate with, but the experience will show you something real about where you are, and local people will hugely appreciate your business.  

10. Learn a couple wordsDSC_0382_4

This can be a lot of work if you’re going from country to country faster than they can print your Visa’s, but it will pay dividends when you need to talk to people, which will be a lot. Even just the basics (hello, thank you, goodbye) will earn you some smiles and tell the locals you care about their culture. Work on pronunciation with the hostel staff. They’re bored, and need entertainment. 

11. Know where you are

shanghai street-day

Everyone on the backpacker trail is trying to have the best time they can, and you should too. Just remember you’re not at home. Local people get used to the flow of travelers, and they tolerate the noise, but it doesn’t mean they like it. If you’re there to see a new culture, why not respect the local customs while you’re at it? Partying is inevitable, but keep it kind by not waking up neighboring households or disrespecting locals. They’re your unwilling hosts, so try your best to make them glad you came.

There’s no right way to have a good time, but there is a kind way to travel. Follow this list and you should have most of it covered. Just remember that you could meet your roommates again down the road. A little courtesy could be the difference between a warm welcome and them switching out of your room. As for life outside the dorm, the most badass thing you could do is to embody the one great rule of travel, which asks that we leave a place at least as good as we found it, if not a little better. 

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Josh Doyle

Josh Doyle

  • Charles Daly

    Love it. Brilliant advice. I want to send this to everyone who’s ever woken me up in a hostel.