Ever wanted to ditch your day job and embark on an adventure around the world with nothing but a backpack and a good pair of walking shoes? Travel blogger and founder of the Broke Backpacker Will Hatton can relate. Over a decade ago, an adventure-seeking, 19-year-old Hatton embarked on his first backpacking trip – and he’s never looked back. So if the idea of long-term travel makes your toes tingle and your mind wander, keep reading for all the inspiration (and information) you need to start packing.
Who is the Broke Backpacker?
Nice to meet you, Will! Let’s start at the beginning: I see that you’ve been traveling for 10 years – surely that’s taking long-term travel to the extremes! How did this journey start and what inspired you to turn it into a blog?
That is indeed a long time, and it has certainly been one hell of a journey! I first hit the road when I was 19 and headed off on a truly life changing adventure with barely any money, a motley collection of my dad’s ancient, beat-up camping gear, and a sense of optimism that rarely let me down.
Traveling broke meant traveling raw and it proved to be an intoxicating, addictive experience for me. I learnt all about the art of budget backpacking, and whilst I didn’t have much cash I was able to go very far. My experiences on the road working odd jobs, hitchhiking, camping out, sleeping rough and meeting new people constantly pushed me out of my comfort zone and I learnt a lot.
My mindset changed enormously over my first couple of years travelling in India and backpacking around Southeast Asia. I developed a lot of new skills on the road, became more confident in my ability to problem solve and slowly but surely stopped being so painfully shy and awkward. I discovered that I had a bit of a knack for the vagabond-life.
I’ve always enjoyed writing so I kept a journal where I noted down amusing anecdotes or observations, things that made me laugh or gasp on the road. Eventually, I started blogging.
I was inspired to share the wealth of information I had discovered when it comes to traveling in far flung lands, the kinds of places that weren’t often covered as travel destinations back in the day, on a budget. I felt that a lot of the travel information and travel blogs that were online weren’t for people like me – you know, people with no money. There were already a few travel blogs knocking around a dozen years ago, but many of them seemed pretty out of touch with the reality of what it was like to be a broke backpacker. And thus, the broke backpacker was born! My mission: to arm aspiring adventurers and vagabonds with practical info on discovering some of the world’s last adventure frontiers on a budget…
I hoped that if I shared my stories and my strategies on how to travel in an authentic way while still barely spending any money, I could inspire other folks to get out there, hit the road, and have an epic adventure.
Fast forward some long-ass amount of time later and that’s exactly what’s happened! The Broke Backpacker is, however, no longer a one man band. Today, there is a whole tribe of talented adventure connoisseurs, nomadic souls, and crusty-yet-lovable dirtbag-drifters working hard on creating epic new content to teach people how to travel far, how to travel cheap, and (most importantly) how to travel well – sincerely and meaningfully.
That’s quite the adventure! What did you do before starting the Broke Backpacker?
I worked in a warehouse 60 hours a week for a year when I was 18, it was back-breaking, badly paid work, but it gave me some savings with which to hit the road.
Since then, I’ve picked up a lot of random gigs on the road; I’ve worked on building sites, in bars, on farms, at markets and everywhere in between. I used to do a lot of volunteer work – four hours a day in exchange for food and board is an easy to find option all over the world. There are LOTS of backpacker travel jobs you can find all over the world, and I’ve worked most of them.
I would often load a backpack with hippie shirts in India and send it back to the UK to sell at a festival later or I bought and sold fine herbs and other knick knacks whilst traveling around. I’ve always been pretty enterprising.
How have you managed to keep traveling for this amount of time? Do you have a base that you regularly return to?
I was 100% nomadic up until a few years ago. Occasionally, I’d return to the UK to sell stuff I’d sent home and visit my parents.
Since about 2018, I’ve split my time between roaming the world and basing myself in digital nomad hotspots. Right now (and for the past while), I’m based in beautiful Bali – partly, because the beaches and diving here kick ass, but also, I’m currently deep into one of my other dream projects: building my own hostel! Tribal Hostel in Canggu Bali will likely be my base for a while once it’s completed, and this very special digital nomad friendly hostel will be open in June 2021.
Do you still “go on holiday” or would you say long-term travel becomes a bit of a way of life?
At first, working on the road felt like a perpetual holiday! I was putting in some decent hours and making cash while hitting up the beach, sipping coconuts, and necking cheap Southeast-Asian beers! So, initially I didn’t take “holidays”.
The thing about the digital nomad life though – as amazing as it is – it really takes it out of you after a while. Full-time travel plus full-time work is kind of like having two full-time jobs. Over time, I started needing my own space more and more.
These days, I like having my own space and utilising it well. I create both physical and temporal spaces to get my work done, and I leave that space when it’s time to go play. In a way, I’m recreating some of the structure of a nine-to-five job, however, I’m adapting it in a way that’s entirely on my terms.
So now, a holiday for me looks like a long weekend away without the laptop (and phone, if I can help it). Frequent digital detoxes have become a staple of my routine lately. I’ll head off for some diving or spearfishing, and every so often, I’ll take a month to myself to go full-traveller-mode again and explore the peaks of Pakistan (or somewhere else equally offbeat and mesmerising).
What do you love most about the job?
I truly love my job. I work on multiple passion projects, get to focus my time and energy on things that matter to me, choose who I work with, and crucially get to decide when I work and when I take time for myself.
Something I’m very grateful for is the community that I’ve built. My team really has become something akin to a tribe for me. We all work in cohesion bringing our individual skills together which then, in turn, go towards helping other travellers. Nothing puts a greater smile on my face in the morning than checking my emails and seeing one from a reader thanking us for how much we’ve helped them.
Furthermore, I’ve seen how much power my blog has to change things for the better. I use my platform to speak out on topics that really matter to me like responsible tourism, reducing your plastic footprint, and how much of a prick Bolsonaro is. More often than not, I impact the reading of at least a handful of people (bare minimum) and that’s a damn good start.
For various misunderstood locales like Pakistan and Iran, The Broke Backpacker is sometimes the first place people ever read a positive word about these countries. Because I operate a tour company to both these places – Epic Backpacker Tours – I’ve seen lives changed on the ground because of the positive message we shared on the blog. I can safely say that I’ve seen the evidence and we do make a difference. Being able to provide employment opportunities for amazing people both remotely and on the ground in Pakistan and Iran gives me a warm fuzzy feeling too!
That’s a lot to love! Is there anything you don’t like about the job?
I wouldn’t give up this gig for the world, but most people probably don’t understand how much hustle it takes and how much work it was to build. These days, I manage an entire team spread across numerous time zones, heaps of business partner relationships, numerous ventures, plus everything coming up in the pipeline, and stay on top of my physical and mental health (and spend time with my doggos).
All of this keeps me from disappearing for months at a time on long-term travel trips the way I like to (that’s the way I feel travel should be). To be honest though, even with all the crazy uncertainty that Covid brought to the table, I truly love this job. But, it’s important to note that there was a two-year period where I was basically shackled to my laptop, with all my credit cards maxed out, working my ass off 80-100 hours a week while being under incredible amounts of pressure to make this business work. Those days are now behind me, thank god, and it was an important part of the journey but it was stressful AF and I wouldn’t want to do it again.
Exploring long-term travel with a backpacking master
What’s the longest trip or travel stint you’ve been on, and can you tell us a little about it?
Ahh, the UK to PNG journey, overland with no planes – that was and still very much is my dream.
I started the journey and made it a considerable distance by any means possible. I hitchhiked, bussed, and trekked all the way across Western Europe and Eastern Europe, the Caucasus region, and then down through Iran, Pakistan, and all the way to India (where I promptly explored the Motherland of Madness by way of psychedelic tuk-tuk!).
Sadly, that journey never saw its completion. I met a wonderful lady in Iran, promptly fell madly in love with her and we got married, sparking a four-year romance that ended in amicable friendship.
It was this crazy and unexpected development in my life, five years ago, which put me on a new path – the path of turning my fledgling travel blog into a business that could support the lives of two people. It was an amazing journey and if I had not met that Persian princess my life would have been very different; I don’t know if I would have had the burning fire to build this business into what it is today. That’s another story though – you’ll just have to dig through the archives of The Broke Backpacker to find out what happened…
My UK to PNG trip has taken a backseat for me over the last few years, however, it’s certainly to be continued. When the time is right, I’ll return to India to pick up where I left off.
It definitely sounds like a trip worth taking! I think a lot of people like the idea of long-term travel; it’s got very whimsical, care-free notions. But realistically, as you’ve pointed out, you have to combine the travel with work to make it work. How easy is it to balance work and leisure time when you’re on a long-term travel adventure?
That depends on entirely where your priorities lie. If you want to just drink, party, and move around a lot, then that’s what you’ll ultimately do. Travel is always filled with distractions.
But ultimately, for many people, long-term travel can eventually become aimless. People romanticise it as the holy grail, however, living without goals takes a toll on anyone after a while. Work – whether you’re volunteering on an eco-farm or grinding through the digital nomad life – is good for the soul, provided you’re passionate about it.
I think it’s very important to keep working on yourself; deciding who you want to be, what you want your life to look like, and how the hell you are going to get there. Travel offers a lot of opportunities for personal growth but it is not a cure-all, you have to do the work to keep moving forwards with a happy and fulfilling life.
It took a major change in my priorities for me to realise I needed to focus – really focus. I couldn’t just keep changing cities two times a week. I’d found new reasons to maintain financial independence and also new reasons to stay in control of my own life and be free on the road.
That said, balancing everything including a profession while on the road is hard. It takes practice and a lot of balance (which is a good lesson in and of itself). For anyone trying to find the same balance, I’d recommend going to somewhere cheap that’s accessible but still culturally invigorating, somewhere you’re excited to wake up to every day and don’t feel the need to move on. For me, that place was first Chiang Mai and then later Bali.
Does your style of travel change on a long trip? And if so, how?
Yes, so much so – a long trip looks very different for me than a short trip. Short trips inevitably involve more planning to see everything you want to see.
That’s why I’m such a proponent of slow travel. Without the feeling of an invisible clock looming overhead, you’re freer to go with the flow. You stay open to surprises and new experiences, and ultimately, connect with the local people and culture wayyy more than just on a quick tour. Personally, I think long-term travel is the best way to travel.
As someone once told me a long time ago: when you travel, it’s good to have a direction and no plans.
You mentioned doing quite a lot of long-term backpacking when you first started travelling. What’s that like?
I used to take special pride in how cheaply I could backpack – plus I had no money, so I needed to be extremely frugal. Travelling without spending much money became the norm.
Travelling like that, I went all over – East, West, and beyond! You don’t need to have a lot of money to travel. I explored both sides of Europe, budgeteered my way around South and Southeast Asia, spent considerable time in Latin America, and even visited a few financial heavy-hitters like Japan and Australia. I slept on numerous park benches in Japan, ah good times…
Honestly, everyone should try it once. Travelling without much money teaches you a lot. Yeah, of course, it teaches you how to be resourceful, but it also teaches you how to be grateful for what you have, and it teaches you what bliss there is to be found in simplicity.
So much of travel these days is built upon manufactured Insta-influencer BS. The truth is that some of the best experiences I’ve had on the road happened while hitchhiking in crappy weather somewhere I couldn’t even pronounce the name of, six days out from my last hot shower.
And you better believe when that next hot shower finally comes, it’s so much better. Because you learn to be grateful.
So it’s a real mixed-bag experience then! What are some of the things you love about a long trip?
Simply the time available, particularly if it’s an indefinite trip. Truthfully, anything short of a month in a country (or ideally two months) makes it hard for me to really justify saying I ‘travelled’ it. Visited it, sure, but I did not truly get beneath the skin of that place.
On a slow trip, you can travel for real. You can spend weeks at a time in a place just making friends who then invite you to come back and visit again. You pick up pieces of the language, adopt cultural nuances (I still wobble my head India-style sometimes), and uncover secrets you wouldn’t on a short trip. To me, a long trip is travel.
What are some of the things you dislike that you think most people haven’t necessarily considered when they depart on an extended trip?
Ooph, where do I start? You start to miss cooking for yourself for sure. Staying in hostels with a kitchen does help, but sometimes you just want a fry up with some bangin’ tunes while dancing in the kitchen in your undies!
Personal space becomes rare too. I found it was particularly difficult finding it when traveling in Asia – not to mention the fact that you’re nearly always the most interesting guy in a room if you’re in somewhere like India, it can be pretty exhausting. Sometimes, I miss just being able to blend into a crowd.
Oh and laundry – getting laundry done on the road gets expensive. But handwashing it yourself gets pretty damn old pretty damn quick too. It doesn’t help that some hostels are just kinda jerks and won’t even provide you with a bucket. So there you are at 11 in the morning standing in the dorm bathroom (in your underwear) washing your other pair of underwear in the sink! Such is the life of a long-term traveller.
That point about laundry is a really good one! If you’re spending more time in a place, how much “effort” do you put into that place? Do you learn some of the local language or adopt local customs?
Always. If you’re a long-term traveller and come away from spending a decent amount of time in a place and don’t even know how to say ‘thank you’ in the local language, you should probably take a long, hard look at yourself in the mirror. To me, ‘putting in the effort’ is synonymous with showing respect, and that’s the most crucial thing all long-term travellers should do.
When I stay somewhere long-term, I don’t feel the urge to go out and sight-see the same way I do on a short-term trip. I live in Bali now, but I haven’t been to many of the places a holiday-making tourist would see in one week. It just doesn’t seem urgent.
However, by being here for such a long time, I’ve integrated into the local culture in a much more rewarding way. I’ve participated in traditional ceremonies and celebrated the local holidays. I’m also taking Indonesian language lessons – something that’s really hard to focus on when moving around a lot.
What kind of qualities do you think are important for long-term travelers?
Long-term travelers need to be flexible and adaptable. You can’t possibly plan out what your life will look like when you travel. You just have to be ready to trust yourself to make smart decisions in the flow of the moment. It’s important to appreciate the little things and to foster a sense of gratitude – you’ll just be happier that way.
Patience and understanding go hand in hand with that too. Look at the madness of India: even catching a 20-minute bus ride can turn into an all-day misadventure. But getting angry at locals when you don’t understand the language or what’s happening (and when they’re probably dealing with the exact same misfortunes as you) is not helpful in the slightest. Sometimes, the best quality a long-term traveller can have is just knowing how to take a breath and – somewhat ironically – sit still.
Finally, courage and determination. The truth is that the world is getting smaller and tourism is becoming more rampant. A backpacking trip to Thailand simply doesn’t carry the same weight or personal growth as it used to – it’s backpacker-party central now. Instead, the courage to start seeking OFF the well-trodden tourist trail and the determination to get there by any means possible is what is going to provide you with the most meaningful travel experience. It’s also important that you take the time and energy to truly push yourself out of your comfort zone, to put down your phone, to approach strangers and make connections.
A peek into the future of travel
What was the last year like for you, given the pandemic and its effect on travel?
Well, 2020 can eat farts for breakfast – I feel everyone is on the same page there! The pandemic hit me doubly so. It threw my travel plans out the window (I was meant to visit friends in Pakistan and go exploring in South America) but it also brought The Broke Backpacker down to barely a trickle of its original traffic and our revenue was slashed by over 90%.
COVID has hit the travel industry extremely hard, and this was tough since my businesses support a lot of people – not only the creative team but numerous behind-the-scenes workers. Many families in Pakistan and Iran are also supported through my business, Epic Backpacker Tours, and the work we do on the ground. So truthfully, yeah, it sucked.
It was hard and there was no shortage of scary moments… But a lot of good came out of it too. With the help of my team, we got through it, and that has made us a lot stronger as a unit. And while it’s devastating to see the impact COVID has had on so many people’s businesses and livelihoods, knowing that we’re one of the ones that pulled through with incredibly hard work, smart strategies, and working together as a team… hell, a family… that means more to me than maybe I could ever put into words.
Right now, it feels like we’re ready to take on whatever 2021 may bring.
That sounds like an incredibly tough year, but it sounds like you’re ready for whatever comes next! You mentioned 2021, how do you think travel will change this year and beyond? Many believe slow travel and long-term travel will become more popular than the usual city breaks and weekend getaways. What’s your take on this prediction?
I hope it’s true – the more people that begin travelling mindfully, the more we’ll be able to move away from the ugliness of the pre-corona tourism industry. The world needs that.
Moreso, I’m finding the greatest impact to be on where and how people travel; a two-week blitz across Western Europe is not as enticing as it used to be. But then you look at something like backpacking in Kyrgyzstan with its wide-open spaces, low population density, low COVID case stats, the jaw-dropping adventures available, and it’s like “Wow! I gotta get my ass over there…”
So slower and more respectful travel, I hope so. But more offbeat, adventurous, and outdoors – that’s definitely something I feel coming. At the very least we know that the camping industry is booming right now! I truly think it’s important for people to get offline and reconnect with nature. Personally, I know if I don’t do this pretty frequently it really will affect my mental health.
Do you think long-term travel truly is a more sustainable way of traveling?
Long-term travel is more sustainable – both personally and environmentally.
For the environment, long-term travel generally requires less flight time. That means fewer carbon emissions for more time abroad. Although not true universally, for the most part, long-term travellers avoid luxury forms of travel. They stay with local families in homestays, use local transport, and eat at local places: budget and long-term travellers, while spending less money overall, put money into the hands of people who truly deserve it.
Conversely, week-long holidayers tend to pull out all the stops. They splurge on their seven days of freedom before charging back home to lather, rinse, and repeat. Long-termers are incentivised to stick to a budget, and they’re incentivised to balance their personal health and life too.
Ask any long-term traveller who took it too far and too hard in their travels at one point – balance is key. Eventually, travel will take a toll on your health if you’re not living sustainably on the road.
What are some of the drawbacks of long-term travel as opposed to short trips?
Well, I just mentioned the toll on your health, which is definitely a thing if you’re not taking care of yourself. Culture shock, homesickness, and burnout (as well as general discrepancies in mental health) can rear their ugly heads.
Long-term travel, while travel, is also just life in a different place. It’s still filled with a lot of logistical and taxing moments that you’d breeze over on short trips. When you’re hitting a few cities in a week or you’re just away for the weekend, you have so much momentum that you never get bored or stop to overthink things. But when you travel slow, life still catches up with you and you still have to deal with some of the usual domestic burdens – just in a new place.
And all that without your mum around to give you a hug. Trust me, you really start to miss the hugs from the people who know you best.
I can imagine! What are some of the advantages of long-term travel as opposed to short trips?
The chance to really travel. We romanticise travel in our society, but before we had advertising and Instagram to gloss it up, what kind of travel did we really respect?
In the oldest of tales, the traveller is always a hero on a long and challenging journey through strange and unknown lands. It’s rewarding and beautiful… but it’s never easy. That’s because the ancients knew that true meaning is found in the journey – not the weekend trip away.
A long trip gives you the chance to craft your own story and journey. There’s very little in life that can properly match that experience.
How would you like to see people take the lessons from the last year into their future travels?
Don’t take travel for granted. And don’t take your life for granted either.
We’ve now seen on a global scale how fragile existence really is. This might be the most salient reminder we’ve had since WWII.
So don’t waste that lesson. Don’t tell yourself “now isn’t a good time to travel” anymore (pandemics notwithstanding). The world isn’t going to be here forever, and neither are we. Go travel and see what makes the planet so beautiful. Stop wasting time.
Oh, and wash your bloody hands too!
For everyone inspired by those words, what would your tips for planning a trip in 2021 be?
Dot your i’s and cross your t’s! If you’re travelling in 2021, keep extremely on top of regulations and travel restrictions. They can be confusing and they change a lot. Just really focus on that stuff so you don’t get caught out and maybe, just maybe, wait a few more months till things truly have calmed down a bit. And, if you can get vaccinated, do so.
Travel slow – given the pandemic, you might just need to! Take your time, move slow, enjoy where you are, roll with the punches, and learn and grow through the experience. Wherever you are, there you are.
It might be a scary new world right now, but that’s exactly why people need to get out there and explore. There are a lot of kickass reasons to travel again in 2021, however, respect what is happening too. Respect the locals of the places you visit – it’s their home first and foremost. Keep clean, respect distances, and wear a mask.
Respect your family too. It’s okay to go travelling in this new world we’re presented with, but remember that your choices have an impact on the ones who love you more than anyone else. Make the right choices by them. Stay safe, stay clean, and be the sexiest human you can possibly be with the sexiest moral compass you can imagine.
Finally, make some people smile! The world needs more smiles right now, amigos. Just do good. Always be kind, never be weak. Get out there and have an adventure that benefits not just you but the folks you meet along the way.