What I Learned from Backpacking as a 40-Something

Backpackers on Khao San Road in Bangkok

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Backpacking as a 40-something isn't as unusual as it sounds. Just by turning up, you immediately get to share a bond and common interest with weird and wonderful people from all walks of life. But on this particular night, as younger backpackers shrieked mating calls above thumping music and sang drinking songs in their native languages, I felt oddly conspicuous.

Backpackers of all ages typically engage each other with a protocol, kind of the same way modems performed handshakes in the mid-1990s. Instead of using a series of garbled noises and high-pitched squeals (some nationalities still use those), we ask questions in a predictable sequence to form a connection. Earlier, a friendly Norwegian half my age had unexpectedly followed up the default “where are you from?” icebreaker by bluntly asking how old I was.

She should have asked me how long I was traveling, therefore sizing up my experience and budget as a traveler. She was curious and meant no harm, but her unexpected deviation alarmed me. A scan of the crowded outdoor bar on Khao San Road confirmed what I feared: I was indeed the oldest customer.

The cold fingers of doubt crept into my mind. Did I come across as someone clinging to the travel glories of yesteryear? Was I supposed to be over in Bangkok’s posh Silom neighborhood paying triple prices with all the other 40-something travelers now?

Pushing a stroller through the perverse terrordome of Khao San Road at midnight is brave, but I’m glad a European family did. They rescued me from my introspection while we chatted above the chaos. We connected as outliers. I also hope their kids one day recover from what they witnessed. The excitement on the toddler’s face was undeniable. He was surrounded by older boys holding balloons and sand buckets. Better he didn’t know the red balloons were inflated with laughing gas sold for backpackers to huff, and the buckets contained cheap cocktails that could knock down a water buffalo.

We all seemed to be a little out of place.

Travel Keeps Your Brain Young

Later, while driving a motorbike around the volcanoes and rainforests in West Sumatra, I met plenty of budget travelers my age and older. Then I encountered even more on the trails in Nepal. It turns out, I wasn’t as alone as feared. Many people still enjoy backpacking in their 40s and beyond; they tend to be choosier about destinations and more protective of brain cells. There were no laughing gas balloons to be found in the Himalayas.

Neuroscientists agree that learning new information physically changes the composition of the brain. On the other hand, as we plod through our comfort zone, the brain goes on autopilot and gets lazy. Want proof? Try brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand tonight. Compared to your usual routine, the switch-up will feel clumsy and exhausting.

According to Hebbian theory, doing the same things over and over strengthens the same neural circuitry. With the help of CT and PET brain-scanning technology, along with countless scientific grants, researchers have confirmed what our grandmothers told us: The older we get, the easier it is to become “set in our ways.”

So what could be better for loosening up a stiff, 40-something brain than world travel? I’m not referring to the all-inclusive sort where discomfort is managed and mitigated by someone else. I’m talking about budget backpacking at age 40 and over. Yes, it exists, and it’s more rewarding than ever.

Gap-year students shouldn’t be the only ones allowed to get equatorial sunburns and terrifying rashes. These experiences are beneficial at any age, and if you don’t have two insects biting you simultaneously, you aren’t doing it right. When safely flushing an exotic toilet becomes a complex, baffling operation, your bored brain is going to get a workout. Just navigating an unfamiliar culture daily is the cognitive equivalent of running a half marathon.

A female traveler walks a busy street in Cambodia
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Backpacking Isn't a Midlife Crisis

Americans routinely get asked at age 17 or younger to choose what we will do with our time for the next 50 years until retirement. Unsurprisingly, midlife career changes—and career departures to go travel—are common.

With remote work a growing option, you may not even have to leave a sensible job to go traveling in your 40s. Bandwidth is finally good enough to swap your cubicle for a cafe somewhere coffee still costs a dollar. Bali is one popular option for such work. You’ll need to come up with a decent alibi for why you can’t make the 3 p.m. call (it will be 3 a.m. your time).

A few skeptical cohorts may question your decision to do now what they dream of doing after retirement, but don’t let them discourage you. No midlife crisis is necessary to enjoy backpacking in your 40s. In fact, a year on the road is probably cheaper than a Harley or a red convertible.

Your Reception As an Older Backpacker

Your reception as an older backpacker, although generally warm, may vary from place to place. Unless you’re a monk, which I am not, roving around aimlessly with few belongings could cause you to be perceived as a vagrant and a slacker in some societies. In this regard, younger travelers enjoy more flexibility. They aren’t yet expected to have settled down with a home bigger than a 55-liter backpack.

In many Asian cultures, the oldest male is expected to pick up the check in group settings. I’ve had servers put the check next to me more than once. Fortunately, my astute hosts grabbed the weighty object before any loss of face was involved.

Locals may make other assumptions based on your age. For instance, I once had a mother wordlessly hand me her baby as she sorted luggage in our overnight bus's overhead. The swaddled infant stared into my foreign face in horror, too surprised to even scream. Neither one of us knew what to do.

Other backpacking travelers will almost invariably treat you well no matter your age, especially if you have some travel experience to share. Sure, I’ve had a few teenagers eye my bag wondering what percentage of the weight is prescription meds, but that’s an exception. All backpackers quickly learn that a good trip becomes an amazing trip because of the people, not the landmarks. You’ll enjoy more than a few memorable conversations, and age rarely comes up. If the topic turns to TikTok, just nod and pretend you understand.

Backpackers in a hostel dorm
Matthew Micah Wright / Getty Images

Hostel Life for 40-Something Travelers

Hostels are where the age difference for older backpackers in their 40s really becomes apparent. Staying in hostel dorms with bunk beds means dealing with a lack of basic privacy and an average of two hours of sleep every other night. A good experience is largely the luck of the draw. Hostels do, however, have some advantages. You’ll immediately become part of a temporary tribe. Your new roomies may turn out to be some of the best people you meet.

As a dorm resident, you’ll be expected to join the nightly party or silently endure. You can’t shoo everyone off the lawn, so you may as well join and make a fun memory. Your roommates will come crashing in late when bars close, anyway, probably armed with cards and more drinks. Seize the night, and enjoy many a skål! with the young Scandinavians. Just remember, there’s a good chance their ancestors once outfought and outdrank your ancestors. You’ll ponder this cultural history the next morning as unseen angry macaques bang your head like bongos.

Fortunately, an ideal compromise exists. Many hostels offer private rooms onsite. This could quite possibly be the best thing that has ever happened for us 40-something backpackers. You can still enjoy the advantages of staying in a hostel without the snoring, attempts at secretive sex, and 4 a.m. plastic bag crinkling that plague all dorms.

Backpacking Changes You

As a reasonable adult at home, walking across town to save 50 cents on pad thai seems like something you wouldn’t want your friends to know about. But even backpackers whose bank accounts aren’t yet scorched wastelands do this. Old travel habits never go away. We also boastfully let other backpackers know where they, too, can walk for an hour to save 50 cents. Telling a fellow backpacker the walk isn’t worth the reward could be a serious road faux pas—don’t do it.

While backpacking, you quickly learn how Benjamin Franklin’s claim “time is money” isn’t true. If it were, we would all be racing our Learjets to the next island. Instead, we more often end up herniating disks on a bus that predates the Korean War.

No, time is … time, and backpackers of all ages are blessed with copious amounts of it. If you’ve just quit a corporate job for the less lucrative pursuit of passport stamps, you’re going to feel like you’ve never had so much time in your life. With this glorious new resource, you can take the long way when walking, read many books, grow yourself, and get to know inspiring people. Backpacking in your 40s will easily become one of your best life experiences.

And there is a bonus! Thanks to how the brain stores moments, time feels stretched when you have more novel experiences—all but guaranteed while traveling. After being away a month, you may feel as if you’ve been on the road for three months.

That means you’ll have triple the time for recovering from late-night card games with Scandinavians. And maybe someone can teach you how TikTok works.

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