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Do you have to drink while backpacking? Pressure on the sober backpacker

32 Comments 30 April 2013

Do you have to drink while backpacking? Pressure on the sober backpacker

Backpacking and alcohol.

To me, the two always seem to go hand in hand, and I don’t mean that in a good way.

I’ve traveled through most of my twenties and have found that usually more than anything, tourism companies use alcohol and parties to lure in my age group. But not everyone wants to drink during their trip or at all. Those who are non-drinkers all together or even just for a night might feel left out at a hostel, quite often actually.

I’m going to be completely honest about myself.

This is probably as much alcohol as I had at the famous Full Moon Party in Thailand. I was very ill during most of my visit to the country and barely drank or ate, for that matter, at all. I forced myself to do so during this event, because it’s what you do in Thailand. I spent a lot of money and really didn’t enjoy the entire experience.

I do drink every now and then, but I think when it comes to alcohol in my life, I’m extremely moderate and healthy. After spending time in England, I’ve found that a lot of people would consider me a non-drinker, though I don’t see myself that way.

I was your average freshman in college. I partied every single night, but was over it by sophomore year. I took advantage of the London drink culture when I studied abroad in the city at 20 years old and I’d say I was a pretty average drinker when I backpacked Europe that same year.

As I’ve grown older though, I’ve slowed down my drinking dramatically. It was no big choice either, just the way I developed I guess. I’m 26 years old now and I never drink for the sake of it. I don’t drink when I’m bored. I rarely am bored anyway. I absolutely hate shots and most alcohol for that matter. People who try and force me to chug things or take shots of alcohol, especially tequila, actually piss me off in that moment.

Why does it matter to you if I take a shot? And I promise you I will vomit immediately after. It’s happened a few times.

These days, on average, I’ll drink one night every two weeks, but more on special holidays or when visiting certain locations. Sometimes I’ll drink during the day if it’s really sunny and I’m with people in a park or at a beer garden. I don’t see the point in drinking things I don’t like the taste of. I like getting chatty over a bottle of wine with friends and I’ve faced the facts that when I do drink one glass of wine, 99% of the time I’m finishing the bottle. I love wine, the culture around it and trying different varieties.

Wine tasting in Wanaka, New Zealand. Moderation is key. You don’t have to get smashed to enjoy drinking activities on your travels and you don’t have to miss out on activities, because drinking is involved. There is compromise, even for 20-somethings.

This is how I am mainly because I just don’t get the urge to drink often. I also don’t have an off button during the times when I do drink, so there’s no such things as a calm night for me when it comes to drinking. Further, I for one don’t really like the idea of spending the entire following day in bed and running to the toilet every hour too often. I’ll do it for a good night every once in a while, but not often.

I, especially don’t like drinking when I’m traveling, because to me it’s money that I’d rather be spending on activities or even just another day on the road. Plus, while I can give up a day of being hungover in normal life, I refuse to do that in a destination I’ve never been to before and may never visit again.

I feel very much okay with myself on this subject and I have no problem telling people no these days.

That wasn’t always the case though.

In Europe, my first backpacking experience, a night out wasn’t so much a problem for me, because I was 20 and bounced back pretty quick the following day. However, I can remember one instance when it stopped me from doing something spectacular.

Obviously, we don’t have volcanoes in NJ, so you can image how excited I was when I booked a day trip to see Mt. Etna while staying in Taormina, Italy. Booked for my last day in the city, that would be my only chance to see Mt. Etna. However, I made a few friends in Taormina and spent the night prior partying with them as it was my last night. Long story short, I drank too much, overslept, I still haven’t seen Mt. Etna in person and maybe I never will. It was a good night, but I never spoke to those people again and I would have preferred the following day.

Obviously this is not my photo, because I missed my chance to see Mt. Etna. Photo: kevinstandage

I can’t remember if I laid off the booze after that, but I do know that drinking became a serious dilemma for me on my next backpacking trip three years later.


Home to Ayers Rock, one of the world’s oldest rain forests, koalas and kangaroos, yet for some reason most of the brochures and hostels on the east coast of the country plan more around boozing and parties than the country’s beauty.

Australia is a drinking nation and traveling the east coast is so much about boozing. I was doing ‘the best backpacker job in the world’ then, which was actually a nightmare at times for me, because I felt like I had to go out every night and visit every bar to fully describe my experience.

I didn’t drink on the famous Surfers Paradise pub crawl and everyone kept asking why.

This was not good for me at all at that time of my life.

I’d say I was over heavy drinking before even arriving in Australia, but to add to it, at the start of my visit in to the country I spent a few weeks on a yoga retreat that really made me look at life and how I wanted to live mine differently.

This is Veronica. I had quite a few conversations about alcohol with her while WWOOFing at Yoga in Daily Life. Photo by Bobbi Lee Hitchon

One of the things I noticed most about yoga during my first retreat was that it’s a completely sober lifestyle. This made me realize I wasn’t the yogi I thought I was and never would be, but I took that experience and incorporated it into my life, deciding to only drink rarely from that point on.

A lot of other travelers didn’t understand that. So in Australia I often felt peer pressured, unhappy and isolated. I did end up drinking more than I wanted to and most nights I don’t regret because I had a great time, but at the same time I hated that I was being pushed to do something I didn’t really want to do on MY travels.

Which brings me to my point.

Your travels are your travels, nobody else’s. I don’t judge people who go on trips only to drink and I don’t think people who have a few nights out on their holiday are bad in anyway. That’s their decision and if they’re having fun and are happy, that’s all that matters, but I think the people who choose to not be involved in that scene deserve the same understanding and respect.

I’ve found that some people can be quite petty and judgmental about non-drinkers on the backpacker trail.

It’s not fair at all.

Making the choice to travel is such an incredible thing. It requires a lot of balls and often a lot of saving. Not everyone is on the same budget or has the same amount of time, so how they choose to spend the time they worked hard for, is completely up to them. Know that about everyone you meet in hostels, on tours or in exotic locations and treat them as you would want to be treated.

I’m not going to lecture you on the risks of alcohol. While some of us may be naive to them, I think we are all well aware of them. Though I will say that those risks are heightened while traveling, because drinking is more accepted on holiday, alcohol is more readily available and, to be blunt, there is a lot of hate in this world and tourists, especially the drunk ones, are often more vulnerable to it.

You don’t have to drink while backpacking and you’re actually better off not doing it. The people who make you feel like you do, should be nothing but ashamed. There are a lot of people who choose not to drink while traveling, so never feel alone or like you have to compromise your morals or standards to feel apart of the group.

Have you ever felt peer-pressured to drink while backpacking?

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- who has written 310 posts on Heels and Wheels.

Creator of Heels and Wheels. Writer, traveler and more.

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  • WonderfulWanderings

    GREAT post! I consider myself a non drinker. There’s almost nothing alcoholic that I like and I really don’t see the fun in getting drunk. That feeling is confirmed each time I see really drunk people. I understand that some people need a drink to get loose at a party (I don’t, I’ll shake the night away sober as hell), but I don’t get why nobody understands or wants to understand that I don’t drink. It’s not that I don’t do alcohol at all, but I think you can count the glasses I half per year on two hands. I totally recognize what you say about peer pressure and it shouldn’t be that way.
    Also: often when I’m out people think I’m SO drunk, just becaue I’m having a good time. Like having a good time is impossible without being drunk…

  • Bobbi Lee Hitchon

    I totally understand! Thanks for sharing. Yea, I just don’t get why drinkers can’t accept it. I mean if everyone is having a good time, what difference does it make. I actually have on occasions not felt like drinking after one drink and just pretended like I was a bit loopy to avoid people asking why I wasn’t drunk. It did the trick. Thanks for commenting!

  • Vanessa

    Such a great article! One additional point would be that there are many cultures and religions that do not consume alcohol at all. If travelling is all about connecting with other people, then you are missing out on a lot of potential great friends and great experiences if you A.) Always chose an experience or activity that is alcohol centered and B.) People will start excluding you from invitations if they start to assume you won’t want to join in with them because it will be a “dry” event.

  • Bobbi Lee Hitchon

    You are so right. I think it can definitely limit you to some really special things if you are too focused on booze on your travels. Thanks for sharing that :)

  • TravelEachDay

    I don’t consider myself a prude but I was regularly shocked by the attitude of many backpackers we came across on our RTW trip. Although in our late 20s by then, we simply didn’t have the budget to drink every night (or even every week!) because we wanted to spend that cash on actually seeing the world rather than getting drunk in a bar.

    It might sound a bit judgemental but I met a lot of people who just seemed to be treating their trip as one long party. Which is largely fine… it’s just not for me.

  • Bobbi Lee Hitchon

    I know what you mean! I saw a lot of that as well. I remember meeting two guys in Budapest that never went out a single day on their European backpacking trip. They literally only went out at night and laid around watching DVDs at the hostel all day. I don’t get it, but to each his own. I’m with you. I’m on a tight budget and would rather spend that money on travel rather than booze. Thanks for commenting

  • ConfusedJulia

    I can definitely relate to this. When I was younger, I would drink anything and everything, because it seemed like the thing you “did”.

    These days, I’m pretty picky about what I drink, mainly sticking to just vodka and wine when I can. I also have a greater appreciation for wine and spending more on a better bottle or just enjoying a glass for the enjoyment of it, not to get drunk.

    However, when I’m travelling, I actually don’t drink that much, mainly due to two things: the fact that alcohol bites into my budget far too much and also the fact that beer is often the most widely available and cheapest drink. I don’t really like beer and therefore have tried to stop drinking it just for the sake of it.

    Don’t feel pressured to do anything you don’t want to do. No-one ever looked back on their life and said “I wish I’d got smashed and made an idiot of myself more” haha

  • Bobbi Lee Hitchon

    Haha you are so right! I definitely agree with you on beer being the only cheap thing available most of the time while traveling. I don’t really drink beer at all. As I mentioned, I only really like wine. Wine is actually more expensive in Thailand then in a lot of other countries, so while everyone was talking about how cheap it was to get pissed, I didn’t agree and I wasn’t drinking Chang-barf. Thanks for commenting. I think we are quite similar on the subject.

  • Turner Wright

    I have my own take on this as well:

    Though I do agree it shouldn’t be standard for travelers, there are so many out there who make drinking a part of their travels, you severely limit your social circles by not indulging.

  • Eytan Levy

    I get a little tired of backpackers whose ONLY idea of a good time is to intoxicate themselves. That’s not saying it can’t be fun, but it tends to be that the ones who are more fun to drink with are also the ones that are fun to be sober with.

  • RunawayBrit

    “I’ve found that some people can be quite petty and judgmental about non-drinkers on the backpacker trail.”

    I have found this to be true both travelling and at home amongst my friends. People seem to think that if you are sober you are judging their behaviour, so they get snarky pretty quickly. I have people who try to force me to drink when I’m out and it really annoys me – to the point where there are a few ‘friends’ that I actually will not go to a bar with anymore.

    I drink sometimes, but like you, I don’t particularly enjoy drinking – or the after effects. I don’t feel like I have to drink to have a good time. I will sing karaoke sober, I will hit the dancefloor sober – when drunk I will always leave and go home early.

    I have been out for three consecutive weekends recently with colleagues who are all younger than me. Of course, they equate my lack of drinking to me being old (I’m 34!!!) and often comment about it – both at work and when we are out. However, on each of those weekends I have been the first one on the dancefloor, the last one off it and the one who got home latest – at 6am. All the others went home around 2. Still they call me the old boring one.

    I don’t really understand it!

  • ellecroft

    I love a nice glass of wine, or a good cocktail, maybe even a beer in the sun…but I HATE getting drunk and just won’t do it – especially not due to peer pressure. I do find that a lot of people take it as a personal offense if I don’t join in with shots etc, and a lot of the time they just won’t let up about it…but I know that in the morning I’ll be up and ready to see another awesome sight and they’ll be lying in bed nursing a hangover…and I know which I’d rather be doing!

  • Yeity

    Great piece Bobbi – we’ve discovered this thing called ‘the creeper’ – it’s a hangover that slowly creeps up on you throughout the day (just when you thought you were in the clear). Comes with age and totally makes drinking NOT worth it.

  • Bobbi Lee Hitchon

    Yea, but you limit yourself from other things by drinking. Well, not all of us, but definitely me. I’ve not enjoyed so many experiences traveling because I was hungover and as I mentioned, I can recall one I’ve missed completely, but there have been more. I understand what your saying, but I think at the end of the day it’s really not an important thing in your life and if people aren’t going to accept that, why even care about socializing with them? Thanks for your thoughts and comment though.

  • Bobbi Lee Hitchon

    You’re so right! I think the meetings that matter and best friends or partners you find along the way are going to happen with or without drink.

  • Bobbi Lee Hitchon

    Haha I don’t understand it either! 34 is not old!!! Yea, I definitely agree it’s something that carries to life at home as well :/ It’s unfortunate. But as long as you are having a good time and doing your own thing. Who cares? Thanks for your comment and for sharing your experience.

  • Bobbi Lee Hitchon

    Haha. I love that name. I think I’ve had a run in with ‘the creeper’ quite a few times in my experience. I hate it!! Thanks for commenting.

  • WorldsWaiting

    Refreshingly honest article Bobbi. Personally I LOVE cocktails but, like you, get sick of people trying to push other stuff on me (I can’t stand beer and hate the drinking culture of drinking to get drunk). I appreciate the fun of having a few drinks when travelling but why do so many people make themselves ill enough that they become vulnerable? That, I just don’t understand.

  • Kate – CanuckiwiKate

    Nice job, Bobbi! I definitely agree, my drinking style has certainly evolved, especially after spending so much time (and money *cringe*) submersed in New Zealand’s drinking culture at university, which went hand in hand with my own university habits… I’ve changed my take on drinking as well, and while I do enjoy a wine with the girls or a beer in the sun, I’m not so keen on dealing with the hangover the next day – Like you, I’d rather be out exploring wherever possible! It is up to the individual to choose what, when and how much they drink, and no one has the right to force their own opinions and pressure someone else to fit their standards.

    Perhaps we’ve gotten wiser with our age 😉

  • Getting Stamped

    Great post! We leave for our RTW in 56 days and I am nervous of being pressured to drink daily…and I like to drink but no more than 1 night a week. I really enjoyed reading this psot!

  • Bobbi Lee Hitchon

    Thank you so much and thanks for commenting. I think you’ll find it a lot easier to take the pressure with a partner! I definitely do.

  • Bobbi Lee Hitchon

    I think that has a lot to do with it haha. I can’t handle hangovers like I did at 20! Thanks for commenting.

  • Bobbi Lee Hitchon

    Totally agree. I’m the same. Love a good cocktail every now and then. Nothing wrong with that :)

  • Charli & Ben

    I relate to your musings here Bobbi. I spent about 3 years socially drinking about 3 nights a week but even then I was always the girls looking after my ill fated friends at the end of the night. I never drank to excess and was usually sipping water with a wedge of lime – and of course telling people it was gin and tonic – once the clock struck midnight.

    I know I am going to sound like my Grandmother but…the youth of today place such importance of incorporating alcohol into socialising. I just don’t get it. Like you I am partial to a good bottle of wine and a catch up with friends but why would anyone choose to take an alcohol infused tour or the local night-life when abroad? Surely there’s much more on offer at any location.

  • Bobbi Lee Hitchon

    You put it perfectly!! I do hate the it feels like people need booze today to socialize-maybe it was always like that. I don’t feel I do, but every once in a while it is nice. To each his own I guess.

  • traveljerzgirl

    I completely agree with you! I don’t like to drink to the point where I can’t remember the night before and then have to wake up to a hangover.

    I feel the pressure and the stigma against not taking a shot or chugging a drink. Thats not fun to me.

    I do drink and I love me some wine too but not on that level and probably less when traveling as a solo female.

  • NinaBeeson

    I’m with you on this one bobbi.. Once i went for a backpacking trip in Thailand and met other male backpackers and they invited me to join them for a drink. But as a single female traveler, I always try to avoid myself from drinking alcohol, and getting drunk in a foreign country.. So i rejected the offer and they gave me the look as i’m a very boring person to hang out with.. which makes me feel a little bit left out in the dorm. I just wish they would be more I quit drinking because of religious reasons.. and i’m happy with my choice..
    but i still feel pressured whenever I travel alone…

  • Bobbi Lee Hitchon

    Awh that’s lame. Yea – like I’m okay with others drinking. I just don’t like their judgements on people who decide not to. It’s your choice and more power to you for being smart about safety on the road. There wouldn’t be half as many incidents amongst backpackers if it weren’t for alcohol I’m sure. If I was there – I’d take you out for a mango smoothie and just enjoy Thailand with you :)

  • owner

    Hi. I really liked this article. I am now a 50 year old woman who owns a backpacker hostel in Central America. 25 years ago I came back from a 1.5 year long backpacking trip in which I partied like an animal. Came back an alcoholic (but it took about another 23 year for me to realize that!). Now in my business, I see the beginning signs of it all the time. Those backpackers who are basically on spring break CONSTANTLY. But I also (because I am LOOKING for them for inspiration to stay sober) see many young backpackers that don’t drink. And guess what? They are enjoying themselves and are having healthier and more fulfilling travel experiences. So my point is, when you are a non-drinker, you are NOT alone. It’s just a matter of finding the right people to hang with and the right place to stay. Having patience helps too, and planning ahead can help too.

    It’s funny, sometimes I think that I would like to make my hostel a non-drinking, non-smoking facility, but to be honest I am afraid that I would frighten backpackers away. As it is, they view me as a mommy because of my age. So I have never dared to do it. But on the other hand, I wonder…perhaps it would attract a different, more pleasant type of clientele. And our staff (of which I am one) wouldn’t have to be concerned about cleaning up vomit and dealing with obnoxious drunk guests…What do you think?

  • Bobbi Lee Hitchon

    Thanks so much! I’m glad you liked the article and can relate. It be interesting to see how it went if you has a non-alcohol hostel. I’m not positive but I feel like I’ve stayed at a few a long the way that had that policy. Where is your hostel in Central America? That is the next big trip we want to take!

  • Emily

    I’m having that dilemma right now. I’m not a big drinker (though I’ll have one every once in a while) but the backpacker trail, espeically in SE Asia, seems to be all about drinking. It’s hard to have a social life on the road when everyone else’s version of ‘social’ is getting drunk every night.

  • PaLee

    Great article Bobby Lee! Honest and relatable.
    I’ve backpacked for many years, rarely drinking. And if so, extremely controlled. Having said that, For the greater part of my journey, I avoided the backpacker’s most common destinations, and rarely stayed at party hostels. I usually found myself engaged with locals and connecting with individual backpackers along the way. amazing Journey.
    Nowadays, after living in Thailand for several years, I’m looking to settle permanantly and open a hostel. I am now staying at different hostels around Thailand to get to know and understand the backpackers. I love them! I must say. What I find most common is the need for connecting with fellow traveller and sharing experiences and exchanging travel tips. having said that, I cannot avoid feeling a sense of pitty that drinking has become the predominant motivator and connector among the travelers. Even more so, even though alcohol is a profitable end of many businesses, I see the discouraging and lack of thrill with owners having to deal with drunken communities. Packpackers are beginning, unfortunately, to acquire a bad reputation.

    In my search to develop a good business model, I wonder what activities can replace drinking and still bring together the new beautiful inner souls of backpackers together?

    Is there a market to start a new culture at large? Alcohol free hostels?

    Since the backpackers are the future of this world, how do we plant good seeds, and allow them to transform a travel journey into real life value?

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