Backpacking Versus Living Abroad as an Expat

Me and Friends Backpacking in Colombia


Backpacking is traveling around the world living the life of a vagabond. It’s surviving in hostels and scrounging up change to pay for street food and whatever local produce you can pick up on the cheap. It’s about sleeping in places without AC, without heat, without hot water, without modern amenities and without creature comforts…sometimes with little creepy, crawly friends who have six or more legs. It’s backpacks and free grass and dreadlocks and pub crawls and hostels and unshaven dudes/chics and LSD and beers and sweaty hostel sex and uncomfortable silences around sofas after a few joints have been passed around and the conversation moves into politics or religion. And while backpacking has become something of a young person’s “journey to prove themselves” before they head off to college, or a lifestyle for the international vagabond who just wants to “get away from it all”, there is a major difference between run-of-the-mill backpackers and professional expats /digital nomads.

Don’t get me wrong. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. You can be a backpacker and still be a digital nomad, but backpackers are rarely professional in the sense that they need certain creature comforts and modern amenities to keep their business rolling. And, most backpackers are rarely interested in making sure they have connectivity, health coverage, backup plans, secondary passports, international investments and establishing long-term networks for business and family reasons. Instead, they are more focused on just “exploring the moment”, even if that means no connectivity and continual hostel (no pun intended) conditions for the length of the backpacking journey.

Hostel in Villa de Levya, Colombia

Hostel in Villa de Levya, Colombia

Backpackers feel at home in hostels, preferring to make their way country to country without any long-term requirements. Professional expats are there for immersion travel, investments, secondary residencies and passports and medical tourism and cheap schools for their kids. They are there to save money, to explore a culture, to experience cultural immersion and see every little nook and cranny a place has to offer. Backpackers stay for a night, or maybe a few nights, before moving onto the next hostel in the next city or country, continually on the go.

While this is nomadic by its very nature, it lacks the structure of a long-term plan. That’s not to say you can’t have a long-term plan and be a backpacker; I’m talking in generalist terms here. Backpackers tend to be those types of people who don’t really have a plan. They are wanderers, vagabonds (not in the criminal sense) without a home, continual nomads who are drifting from place to place without any real purpose other than to “explore”. And that’s certainly one way to see the world.

Professional expats, on the other hand, are looking at long-term apartments where they can get the best bang for their buck; they are looking at how long it will take to get access to the universal healthcare plan, how long until the new passport, how long until they can open up a local bank account, where they can store gold, how they can purchase property, where they can invest and who they can make business deals with. It’s about living an upper middle class or lower upper class existence on the cheap (at least compared to U.S. standards) so that you can reap the most rewards in terms of business.

Before you set out on the road you will have to make a decision as to which type of digital nomad you are going to be: a professional or a backpacker. They both enjoy culture and adventure and travel…they just do it in two very different ways. With that being said…which type of traveler are you, or which type do you want to be when you eventually make the transition into the location independent lifestyle?

You can see the entire 187 pictures in our Villa de Levya album over at our Facebook Page. 

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About T.W. Anderson

T.W. Anderson is the founder of the Marginal Boundaries brand. He is the writer, editor, videographer, photographer, and social media guru alongside Cristina Barrios, the other half of the brand. In his spare time, he is the creative director of the Saga of Lucimia, a forthcoming MMORPG from Stormhaven Studios, LLC.


  • That’s my method, Will. I set up a base of operations first, then spend a couple of years exploring everything there is in the local area, with local guides/friends who go WAY OFF the beaten path taken by most backpacking tourists. Plus I get residency and super cheap cost of living :)

  • Will says:


    I’d like to be a bit of both – set up a “basecamp” like a professional ex-pat and then take short “backpacking trips” to explore nearby areas.

    If I had to choose though it would be the professional expat: work and save money, make investments, and become a “local.”

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