Vagabond Tales: The Thin Line Between Backpacker And Homeless


Kyle Ellison, Gadling

Long-term backpackers can be a competitive bunch.

In case you’ve never spent time in the common room of a youth hostel, either nursing a hangover, mingling with strangers, or ogling at the opposite sex, the conversation always starts with a simple and genuine phrase:

Where are you from?

Once initial pleasantries have been exchanged and conversation materials run thin, the discussion naturally turns to where you’re going, where they’re going, and where you both have been.

Get ready, because the competition is set to begin.

Although it starts gradually, what was once an interest in your fellow traveler slowly turns into a comparison. “Oh, you hiked that trail. Cool. I hiked this trail.” “You spent two weeks in Bolivia, cool, I spent five.” “You’re 16 months into a two-year trip? Damn.”

And so on.

Then, of course, there are the country counters, where the entire purpose of setting out on the road is to increase your own personal number (as evidenced by this recent article on insanely competitive travel).

The “how many countries have you been to?” bomb inevitably gets dropped as conversation progresses, and it’s much like that moment with your new love interest when you raise the sensitive topic of their number. It’s in the back of both of your minds, and it’s finally just laid on the table.

As is to be expected, exaggeration is common.

At the end of the day, however, the largest competition on the budget backpacker circuit revolves around one thing: money. Namely, how much, or how little, are you managing to spend?

How far are you stretching your budget?If you saved $10,000 for your extended trip, do you travel for two weeks at $5,000/week, 10 months at $1,000/month or ten years for $3/day, fortifying your trip along the way with some under-the-table cash jobs, extended sessions of hitchhiking and sourcing your meals from the leftovers of strangers?

Amongst “travelers,” there is an unspoken credo that your traveler legitimacy is inversely proportional to your daily budget and level of comfort. How so? Let’s take a look at this purely hypothetical, yet all too true chart regarding the way your traveler status is determined by something as simple as where you’re sleeping.

All-inclusive resort = Fraud
Hotel = Tourist
Private hostel room = Upper-class backpacker
Hostel dorm room = Middle-class backpacker
Cleaning dishes at the hostel in exchange for a bed = Lower-class backpacker
Tent = Camper
Train station/Overnight Train = Resourceful
Build your own shelter/sleep in a sewer/smuggle self aboard a Thai fishing boat = Legend

All half-hearted joking aside, either way, amongst competitive, long-term backpackers, he who travels longest and visits the greatest number of countries in the most frugal of ways possible, as recognized by the unwritten constitution of budget backpacking law, ultimately is deemed the winner of a non-existent competition. I know because I once felt like that, and it can easily render you homeless.

I was 22 years old, with $7,000 saved, a fancy degree in one hand and a copy of Rolf Potts’ “Vagabonding” in the other (which despite my tone is a tremendous read).

My timeline: two years. On seven grand. Not a problem.


Kyle Ellison, Gadling

After three months of living in a van in New Zealand and surviving on canned beans and corn, I found myself in a fetid hostel in the inner city of Melbourne, Australia. My money was nearly gone, I couldn’t legally work and the $20/night bed was simply too pricy.

If I could just cut a few of my expenses,” I thought, “I could continue this loathsome existence for maybe a couple of weeks longer.” I checked out of the hostel, grabbed my backpack and ukulele, and spent that night in the train station.

The following day involved half-priced, day-old baked goods, using free Internet in the public library, and playing ukulele on the banks of the Yarra River. I made $10, I spent it on pizza and spent another night in the train station.

The following day was much of the same, and my two-year trip around the world began to take on an element of survival. I made another $12 playing music by the river, and I decided I needed to accelerate my earnings. I walked in the door of the city casino, doubled my money playing roulette, and with $25 graciously in hand I smiled at the idea of a shower and a bed.

That was, of course, until I saw a table that hadn’t hit red in the previous 14 turns. Despite having studied probability in school, the nice, round $50 I would walk out with when it surely hit red was simply too much to pass up. When the tiny white ball clinked into a black space for the 15th time in a row, so too did my immediate reality descend into a very dark place.

I was no longer traveling, I realized. I was homeless. I was not a frugal, resourceful, earn-your-badge-of-honor traveler by shaving expenses to extend your trip. I was a smelly, unkempt, ukulele-playing, college-educated, homeless immigrant who trolled the public library by day and inhabited the train station by night. I was no longer punch-drunk on seeing the world. I was hungry, tired and largely miserable.

To add fuel to the fire that fellow Gadling writer Pam Mandel so eloquently raised, I didn’t start a Kickstarter campaign and ask strangers to bail me out. I bought an airplane ticket back home on my credit card, got a job and I dug myself out of the hole.

I decided to move in with a girl I’d left at home. Today that woman is now my wife, and we travel together to this day.

Since that time I’ve continued to travel for the better part of seven years, taking time every now and then to hunker back down and work. I learned that your global backpacking excursion doesn’t have to be a one-off affair, and it’s not as if when the money runs out you’re destined for a life of non-travel. Purists might claim that I gave up too soon. I like to think I reset.

Granted, there is definitely a difference between being “houseless” and “homeless,” and thousands of travelers successfully find ways to stay on the road for extended periods of time. This man walked around the globe for 11 years. This man gave up money.

The distinction, I suppose, comes in accepting the reality of your situation instead of the romanticized version. If you’re eating out of dumpsters, sleeping in the park and patting yourself on the back for being the world’s most resourceful traveler, you might want take a step back for a moment and look at the bigger picture.

Consider it a word of caution to potential long-term travelers. Trying to win the traveler game might earn you a few badges of respect, but employing the strategy of extreme cost-shaving will only take you so far.

For me it was the Melbourne train station. A ukulele, an empty stomach and a call to head back home.

Want more travel stories? Read the rest of the “Vagabond Tales” over here.