Since we’ve been back on the road, a question we get asked often is how does truck life compare to backpack life. Obviously, we miss our truck, that goes without saying. Poppins has taken on a life of her own. Literally, we refer to her in front of friends like she’s a member of the family, because let’s face it, she is. There have been several times during our backpacking travels where we would do anything to snap our fingers and have our trusty truck appear. Unfortunately we don’t have those types of magical powers…. yet. So instead it leaves us with much dialogue on the differences between the two.
The biggest difference is the obvious, having to downsize yet again, but this time only to a pack. At first the task seemed a little daunting, but as I started packing it was invigorating narrowing down all your belonging to a 65-liter pack. I was certainly jealous of Kevin because it’s a bit easier for guys: 2 pairs of pants that zip into shorts, 4 merino wool shirts that don’t smell after 5 wears, a bathing suit, some underwear and a small toiletry bag.
Even though I don’t consider myself a high maintenance female, it’s a bit more complicated for a lady. Nevertheless, I was proud of myself for being able to put all the clothes I would need for the next five months into only two and half packing cubes. What I was able to shed in clothing weight I made up for in my toiletry bag. The thing is the size of a bread box and takes up a good portion of my pack. With our upcoming nuptials, I justified the toiletry situation, choosing to be a bit more comfortable in that department, even if it meant more weight on my back.
When you start backpacking you become very mindful of what you put inside your pack. When we first left the states, our packs weighed in at a whopping 38 lbs. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a lot of weight to you, but every now and then you find yourself walking a little longer than normal in the smoldering heat and every ounce counts. In fact, as soon as we arrived in Panama, we were going through our packs to get rid of things we didn’t think we needed. Say goodbye to the 3 nail polishes I thought were a good idea at the time.
Over time we’ve gotten use to our packs, but it’s safe to say we got spoiled by having our truck to store all our belongings and whatever knick-knacks we picked up along the way. It was a blessing and a curse because we spent way more money on gifts and souvenirs while we were overlanding. Now, whenever we see something we want to buy, we really consider if it’s worth it because we know we have to carry it around for the next 4 months. So far, the only thing I’ve said yes to is Colombian coffee – totally worth it! But alas, this is just the backpacker’s life and something we’ve had to adjust to.
Hostels vs. Living in a Truck
Which brings me to my next topic, staying in hostels vs. sleeping in our truck. Hostel travel throughout South America is relatively affordable and super common. The cheapest way to travel by hostel is to rent a bed in a dorm room that usually holds 4 to 8 people, sometimes even 12! For the most part, we usually average $20 per night for the two of us, $30 in the more expensive countries. With the truck, when we did have to pay, which was maybe 75% of the time, we were usually charged $10-$20 per night max, and sometimes even less.
Sharing rooms of course took some getting used to, and I must be honest, it’s not my favorite thing. I knew going in that it was something I was going to have to deal with and overcome. Sometimes we luck out and get fantastic, considerate bunk mates. Other times…well, not so much. If anyone in the room is on a different schedule or has a snoring problem, chances are your sleep is going to get disrupted. Those of you who know me know I don’t like my sleep messed with. It gets old, fast.
Another downside of hostel living is sometimes they’re just flat out uncomfortable. They might be dirty, have pillows that feel like they are stuffed with cotton balls, have squeaky bunk beds, there might be no kitchen, no hot showers, or it might be super noisy. Generally, you know when you are going to a party hostel, but sometimes you end up at one when you don’t feel like partying and terrible music is playing into all hours of the night.
We of course do our due diligence before picking out a spot, and thanks to technology, there are several apps that allow you to try to find the perfect fit. It’s a gift and curse because you can get sucked into these apps for hours trying to find the best place to stay. Lucky for us, hundreds of people have come before us, and everyone has an opinion. We spend a lot of time scouring the reviews trying to make the best decision. Sometimes you just have to book a place, cross your fingers, and hope for the best! With the truck it was a bit easier thanks to the iOverlander app. We would decide where we wanted to go, then pull up the app to see what options we had in the area for overnight camping. Options were usually limited, which made it a bit easier to decide, but certainly took up way less of our time in the planning department.
In this aspect we really miss the truck. Having our own bed, pillows, and sheets! It was our cozy, safe space and we felt so comfortable in it. We also got way better sleep, for the most part. It was fantastic arriving at a camp site and being able to back the truck up to a gorgeous turquoise lake so in the morning it would be the first thing we would see. It just doesn’t get any better than that! I would take that any day over a bunk mate waking you up with their flashlight and rustling around at 6am because they have a bus to catch.
I will say that hostel life does have its positive points! We discovered early on that in some places you can get a private double room for the same price or slightly more than it would be for two beds in a dorm. So whenever it is reasonable, we will get a private room and it feels like we’re living the life of luxury! I don’t care how extroverted of a person you are, sometimes you just need your space. There are certainly times when we both don’t feel like being friendly, which can be difficult to avoid when living hostel life. Sometimes we just want to lay down in bed and watch Game of Thrones and not talk to anyone! You can imagine how great it is when we do have the private option, and then it’s just us and Jon Snow!
Another great thing about hostel life is knowing that we will have a bathroom every night! No offense Poppins, but this is a serious upgrade. We always thought twice about eating that enchilada at 8pm knowing that if it didn’t agree with you, you might have a serious problem. With that being said, it’s also not fun having to drive around looking for an acceptable spot to park and sleep for the night. We usually planned ahead of time, but every now and then we ran into a situation where we had to park on the side of the road, and you just never knew how that night could go.
Dealing with temperature change is another big difference between sleeping in the truck vs. sleeping in hostels. While super-hot and freezing cold nights were far and few between while we were in the truck, when they happened, they were not fun. We woke up a couple morning where the condensation from our breathing froze on the walls and ceiling of the truck. It’s great having lots of blankets and air conditioning when needed in hostels, and for the most part, they always have what you need.
I wouldn’t be doing hostel life justice if I didn’t mention the positives to the social aspect of it all. Within the first few weeks of traveling we had met more people than we had in all our time overlanding. So, for me personally, it’s a lot less lonely! Having constant access to Wi-Fi makes it easier to connect with everyone, and there are so many people that want to be friends! Playing games with Kevin is great and all, but its way more fun when we make friends to play with. Plus, we have learned a bunch of really fun new games to bring back to the states along the way.
In addition, hostel life provides a lot more space to spread out, which makes it a lot healthier traveling together as a couple. Kevin can go to one area and write, I can be downstairs in a hammock reading, and we won’t see each other for hours. With all the people we meet, there is also opportunity for us to split up and do things with other people. Kevin might go tour an active silver mine, while I run to a café with a new friend and just relax and enjoy fantastic Colombian coffee.
I will say that hostel life has opened my eyes to a new way of traveling. Even after this adventure is done, we will continue using hostels as a means of accommodation. While I complained a bit about dorm life – there are so many options out there where you can get great private rooms for anywhere from $20-$80 per night. Even if we were just traveling for a week or so it could be so much cheaper than a hotel, and not to mention, there are some really bad ass hostels in this world!
Busing Vs. Driving
We are often amazed by the bus travel in South America and we wish it was more accessible in the US. At all hours of the day you can walk into a bus terminal and it will be bustling. It’s the cheapest way to get from point A to point B in South America. For example, you can take a 10-hour bus ride and it will cost you $10-$20, depending on the country and quality of the bus. You really can’t beat that, it’s dirt cheap! We recently “splurged” on an overnight bus in Chile which was 14 hours. We rode “first class”, and it cost us $30 per person. What is first class on a bus you ask? It means you sit on the lower level rather than the upper deck which has about 10 seats rather than 40 like it does up top. The seats usually recline all the way back into beds and are usually leather instead of the questionable canvas. This makes a HUGE difference in your quality of sleep on those overnight trips, and greatly improves your overall travel experience.
Another great thing about bus travel other than it being super affordable is it gives you time to relax. We’ve been nonstop lately so it’s lovely having that time to sit without Wi-Fi and write a blog, edit photos, read, take a snooze, or just stare at the gorgeous scenery. I think I can speak for Kevin when I say he really enjoys not having to be behind the wheel the whole time. You may be thinking that a 10- or 14-hour bus ride sounds terrible, but it’s not so bad. They play movies, serve you free food and sometimes even wine! Not to mention we can travel through the night, so this not only saves us from having to spend money on accommodations, you also don’t have to burn a whole day traveling when you can be exploring.
When we were traveling through Colombia, protests had broken out in the southern part of the country. The main road was closed to traffic with the exception of emergency vehicles. Who knows how long we would have had to wait that out if we had the truck, or what precarious situations we might have fallen into. Luckily, we didn’t have to wait and find out. We were able to shift our plans a bit and hop on a flight from Bogota to the border of Ecuador and not have to deal with the hassle of trying to get through. This really worked out for us because we are now trying to fit in so much travel in a limited time, this could have really eaten into our schedule.
But bus travel isn’t all sunshine, rainbows and free food! We did encounter our first bus breakdown recently and it added another 4 hours of travel onto our day, which was obviously not ideal. Granted it was a lot less of a hassle than if we were broke down on the side of the road with the truck. Also, most bus terminals are located outside of the cities we are visiting, so we usually find ourselves having to navigate the local buses/subways, taking a taxi or having to walk quite a distance with our packs. There are also times where it’s super uncomfortable – buses can be really crowded, smelly, stuffy, hot, or freezing cold. It’s very much like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get! The chocolate I’m currently eating as I write this is a bus from Chile to Bolivia, through the driest desert in the world, on a bus without A/C, you can imagine it’s not so sweet!
Another downfall of bus travel is having to be a slave to bus schedules and routes. We really miss the freedom and convenience of being able to go wherever we want to go, whenever we want to! Instead we find ourselves having to wait around killing time and spending money, it’s not always ideal. We also miss being able to travel off the beaten path and going where there aren’t any travelers. It was always great discovering a random spot on the map and exploring it. Often on the bus we pass some really amazing spots and we have to watch out the window as it fades away. I also personally really miss being able to pull over when you see a delicious fruit stand and having the freshest mango you’ve ever tasted for next to no money at all. All in all, it’s not so bad though and we wish bus travel was more of thing back home.
I’m not sure where I stand on the safety aspect of truck travel vs. backpack travel because they both have their flaws. I can say without any uncertainty that I feel much safer with Kevin behind the wheel than I do a bus driver. Some of these roads in South America are insane and it can be a little unsettling staring over the edge of a cliff. Unfortunately, we have a heard a handful of stories of bus accidents resulting in many deaths, but accidents can happen on both sides.
Also, you always have to keep an eye on your belongings. Some cities are worse than others where you can set your bag down for one second and it can be gone. It was great having our own personal locker in our truck so we always knew all of our belongings were locked up and relatively safe. We’ve heard so many stories of people getting things stolen from a bus or from their hostel. It’s easy to be really trusting of your surroundings when everyone e is so nice, but we try to never be. All hostels offer lockers, so all our important stuff is always locked up if we’re not using it.
When it comes down to it, a vehicle can get robbed just as much as a locker in a hostel could. It was a bit more convenient keeping our things secure with the truck, but safety comes down to your own effort and awareness in keeping your stuff secure.
As for generally feeling safe, there isn’t too much difference. In the truck, we found ourselves in way more remote and secluded locations, which could sometimes seem sketchy, but we always seem to avoid any danger. We rarely had to walk around at night outside of out campground, mostly because we were on a slightly different schedule. With hostel life, we find ourselves in cities way more often, which sometimes leads us to be out at night to restaurants or bars. While we also have not found ourselves in any danger, living the hostel life has forced us to walk down a dark alley or two on our way back to our room. A little bit of conversation with hostel owners and other travels is all it takes to know a bit about your surroundings and figure out where to avoid and when.
It’s safe to say that the meals we made while we were overlanding surpass the meals that we’ve been making in the hostel world – hands down!
First of all, we no longer have endless space to keep food. While we were overlanding, we frequented Costco and would stock up on a lot of healthy essentials. It was great having a place like Costco available to use in Mexico and Central America, and I mean, who doesn’t love the free samples! We were so dialed down in our meal prep and it was great having the space and coolers that allowed us to do so. Now if we want to buy groceries, unless we stay somewhere for an extended period, we have to make sure we buy only what we need so we don’t get stuck carrying extra stuff in our packs. Or better said, so Kevin doesn’t get stuck with them. He takes one for the team by carrying around our food bag since we do have to hold on to certain essentials like olive oil and ingredients for Micheladas (of course). It’s a whole new ballgame that doesn’t always lend us to creating exciting meals.
That brings me to the condition of some of these hostel kitchens. Sometimes hostel kitchens are amazing and have everything you would need to whip up a delicious meal. Other times they don’t even have salt, olive oil, or a bowl for you to make some soup in. Over these past couple of months our food has been tasting pretty bland. We certainly don’t want to stock up on spices and then have to carry them around with us. With Poppins we had at least 10-12 different spices and it was fun to switch up the flavor profiles. Don’t even get me started on the knives at some of these places – I am counting down the days until I am reunited with all my kitchen utensils!
Lastly, because of the social situations of hostels and the fact that we’re in urban areas, we eat out a lot more than we did while overlanding. Since we don’t carry around a lot of kitchen staples with us, sometimes it cost more to go out and buy everything you would need for a specific meal. Not to mention the street food throughout South America is great, cheap, and easy. It’s often hard to justify spending money on groceries when you can get a good tasting meal (albeit not the healthiest) for the same price if not less. There are no if’s and’s or but’s about it, cooking in the truck was hands down a much more positive experience!
In fact, now that I am reflecting on all of this I really miss our truck meals! While most of the time they were humble meals, they were always delicious and made with love. I especially miss breakfast with the truck, it was great waking up in the morning and making a cup of the freshest Guatemalan coffee ever in our French press. Follow that up with some breakfast tostadas (smeared avocado, sauteed onions and peppers, scrambled eggs, topped with cilantro and fresh salsa… yum!) and we were in heaven! Ahhhh… those were the days!
We’ve tracked all our expenses from day one down to every cent. We can safely say that we are spending MUCH more money backpacking than we were overlanding. We weren’t sure how this was going to go because our truck was a big expense. We thought maybe what we spent on gas, maintenance and camping would be similar to what we spend on hostels and bus travel, but we were sadly mistaken.
Its been costing us $500-$1000 more per month to travel with our packs. Besides the food situation I already talked about, one major reason is that Central America is simply cheaper than South America, so we can’t blame that on backbacking vs. overlanding. On top of that, we have had to fly a couple times because we are covering so much more ground, and those trips alone cost us a whole week of living in Mexico. Thank god for credit card points!
Our overlanding travel was a much more go-slow kind of energy – hence why Mexico sucked us in for 6 months. We had time to go at our own pace and in fact, when we felt like we were spending too much money we would find a great remote spot and just stay there for a few days. We would often have days where we didn’t spend a penny. Now, our lowest day we’ve had on this leg has been $35 and that’s even rare.
Along the backpacker’s route we find ourselves in more urban areas where with the truck we were in more rural areas. By going the more urban route this means that there is so much more to see and do. We have found there are a ton more multi-day and inclusive tours to be done down in South America than there was in Central. We certainly pick and choose what we want to do, but we’ve still had a difficult time keeping our budget at bay. Fact is, we are most likely only going to be in a lot of these places once, so are we not going to take part in the once in a lifetime experiences while they are in front of us?
Of course, each country is different, and we knew that going into it. Chile, Argentina and Ecuador are more expensive; but Colombia, Bolivia and Peru are much more affordable. I was always under the impression that backpacking would be cheap, and I’m sure it can be for the frugal fanny out there, but it’s just not the case for us.
So Which Is Best?
Who knows what our experience would have been if we decided to overland in South America. I’m sure we would have had a fantastic time, but it was great getting a taste of both sides. We certainly feel passionate about our time overlanding and when someone asks us about it we light up and it’s hard for us to shut up about it. We miss the truck, but I guarantee as soon as we hang up our packs we will miss those too.
Like most things in life, there are many pros and cons to both sides. While backpacking, you will meet lots of new friends and experience all sorts of amazing things, albeit the things that most backpackers are experiencing. You will have to option of doing it quietly or jumping into the party scene and staying at some of the worlds best party hostels. You will come across hostels that have such a great chill family vibe with family style meals each day that make you never want to leave. You will most likely spend more time in the bigger cities and the more popular destinations, but don’t ever see that as a bad thing, because some of the coolest things you will ever find are there too.
While overlanding, you will find yourself in incredibly remote locations, with lots of peace and quiet. You will be able to access the same places that a tourist tour would go, but you can plan to be there when the tours are not. You will get to see and do things that only locals see and do, and you will have much more freedom to do what you want. You will have more space purchase things, whether it be food for the week or cool souvenirs. With that extra freedom comes extra responsibility though. You will need to take care of your vehicle and deal with the issues that come along with that. You will need to make sure you don’t run out of gas, and deal with flat tires. Maybe that’s a stress you prefer to leave back home. Its all about what you want to take on.
Its hard to say one is better than the other, since they are both so different. We encourage everyone to travel, however that looks for you, but we encourage almost everyone we meet to give overlanding a shot. There is something so special about it, unlike anything you have ever done. Maybe we wouldn’t really know how great it is without experiencing the backpacking side of things, so it seems to us that its best to try both.
As we are nearing the end of this crazy adventure I can’t help but feel the utmost gratitude for every single second of this wanderful journey – whether it was by truck, bus, boat, foot, train or plane. The amazing thing is that we got to experience it, with all the highs and lows, and we got to do it together.