Spending hours on public transit, eating from questionable food vendors, staying in grimy hostels – backpacking is dirty and there’s a typical look that most backpackers have.
While on the road, I live in dirty jeans, wrinkled shirts and hide my greasy hair under hats or bandanas. I look like a backpacker, there’s no doubt about it.
This is totally acceptable backpacker behavior and as long as my clothes aren’t stinking up the hostel room or bus, I don’t care (and to be honest, if I checked into a hostel looking the same way that I look like when I’m home in Los Angeles, they would send me straight back to LA… And I would deserve it!)
That being said, there are a few times while backpacking where it’s important to look ‘nice.’
You never know when you’re going to be invited to a celebratory dinner at a locals house like I was in Ghana or score tickets to a fancy-schmancy concert like the Minister of Music and Elton John in Costa Rica (which was awesome!)
There may be occasions where your cargo shorts and hiking boots won’t cut it.
So what are you supposed to do? Are you suppose to give up critical room in your pack for ‘church clothes’ that you may or may not wear?
Absolutely not. And little forethought you won’t have to…
Here’s how to not look like a backpacker
Girls who look like backpackers
Easy peasy, ladies. Pack a little sundress in a dressier color (think red, black, navy.) Trade one of your hippie tie-dye sarongs (every backpacker has at least one) for a solid black one to use as a shawl over your little sundress for a night out (and a beach towel at all other times.)
As for a ‘clutch,’ I travel with a black pleather oversized wallet that is usually stuffed into my fannypack holding my credit cards, money, and cellphone. For a night out, I just take it out of my fannypack and vo-la, a clutch.
I only wear jewelry that I have already bought as a gift for my mom or a friend and stashed at the bottom of my pack to give them when I get home. I’ll bust it out of its little gift bag or whatever and test drive it for a night (my friends don’t care, they know what’s up.)
The only thing that you can’t easily swap out is shoes. I use to travel with only two pairs of shoes, one pair of flip-flops and one pair of hiking/ running shoes which had always been enough for me. But after having to wear my grubby flops to an unexpected Moroccan wedding where everyone else was in heels or dress shoes, I changed my tune.
I now travel with a pair of itty bitty black kitten heels. Heels are the easiest universal symbol to show “This event is important and I care about how I look right now.” My kittens are super comfy and literally take up space equivalent of cucumber or large carrot in my pack (we got bored and measured it in the hostel once.)
If you are really tight on space or hate heels then, by all means, burry a pair of tiny, simple black pleather sandals or ballet flats at the bottom of your bag.
Maybe you’ll never use them and totally forget about them at the bottom of your bag… Okay, that’s still better than having to try to find acceptable heels with hours’ notice in the middle of Africa.
And there you go, a cute little “look-at-me” outfit that you literally pulled right out of your tough-as-nails and covered-in-mud pack.
Guys who look like backpackers
Y’all have it so easy when it comes to this… It just takes a little bit of preplanning which is where I come in.
Fellas, buy one pair of cargo pants in black (think Dickies) and you’re good.
Make sure one of your long sleeve shirts is a button-up (which I’m sure already is because button-ups are a backpacker’s best friend) and try to rock it in a nice plaid or solid color besides black (you don’t want your pants and shirt to both be the same color.)
Pair your black cargos with your button-up shirt, sleeves rolled neatly halfway up and no one will even notice your Colombia hiking boots.
I would go with black cargos instead of the Go-To khaki because black hides dirt way better than khaki. It’s no worries after an intense volcano hike on Monday to wear those same pants (presuming they don’t stink) out to a decadent dinner on Tuesday.
Guys and Gals who look like backpackers
Wash your dirty hair. Brush your teeth. If you can’t wash your clothes before the event (understandable if it’s last-minute) then at least try to get the stains and stink out (my ‘perfume’ is Lemon Eucalyptus bug spray and mint- which also keeps bugs away- while on the road.)
And if you still look like a backpacker…
Be gracious. Bring a small gift (flowers or a small potted plant is great but if you don’t have time or think it may be inappropriate – or if you’re seriously too broke – take some photos with the group plus a few more and get the hosts mailing address before you leave. Print ’em for $0.40 cents each at a drug store back in the States and send them as a Thank You to your host. I did this after the dinner in Ghana and she flipped out, she was so so stoked!)
Have fun!… and be sure to take a few photos of you all gussied up to make your mama proud back home 😉