This week we had the chance of interviewing Alex Simpson- an avid hitchhiker, couchsurfer and above all an adventurer! He has done the tough as hell Mongol rally, he has hiked on the ‘Death Road’ in Bolivia and aims to participate in the Rickshaw run. Read on to know how he managed to live the life of a travelling hobo and little tips and tricks on how you can do that too!
Hi Alex, thanks for taking time out to chat with us. Let’s dive right in! We know that you have been a nomad for a few years now. Tell us more about the becoming of a long term traveller.
Hey Sachin, so after finishing university back in 2015, I headed off on my first long term trip around the world. Call it a gap year, call it escaping the ‘real world’, all I knew was that I wanted to go, and I didn’t want to stop going.
I’d saved up all the money I could over the years and had undertaken a few shorter trips already during university. Still, nothing quite prepares you for that first step out the door and into the world. It’s a whole new life unlike anything you’ve ever experienced before. I had a whirlwind of an adventure, travelling the world for over a year, following the seasons as they came and went. Long term travelling isn’t always easy, but for anyone who’s ever considered the possibility, just take that first step and make it happen. You won’t regret it.
Any particular incidents that somehow changed your perspective on life and convinced you to get on the road full time?
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to explore the world. I was a very impressionable kid, always looking beyond the horizon and wondering what was out there. When I was 14, I cycled 80km on a cheap push bike from my parents’ house, just to get to the sea. I ended up bursting a tyre on the way back and having to get my dad to pick me up, but that urge to break the boundaries of my existence has always been there. I’ve never been too comfortable with being settled, and I’ve always wanted to get out there and experience the world, its people, and its landscape.
Growing up on the little island of Britain, the scale and grandeur on display throughout the rest of the world has always been an enticing prospect. Whether it was depicted on TV, in books or at the movies, the beauty and wonder of the world’s mountains have always captivated me, and it’s ultimately what drove me to pack my bag and head off to explore them.
So for you seeking out the best trekking destinations around the world is what it’s all about, what is life like on the trail?
Liberating. Long term travel presents you with such a kaleidoscope of people and cultures to explore. But sometimes, just being in the company of yourself and reconnecting with the world is the best medicine there is. It’s just so refreshing to discover places far off the beaten track, where you’re the only person around for miles. If you also happen to be in one of the world’s many beautiful places, well that’s a welcome bonus. Even in a country as busy and populated as India, there are spots in the Himalayas where no-one has stepped a foot. Travelling to areas like that, where you’re just a tiny dot humbled by the grand spectacle in front of you, that is what I thrive off, and I think everyone should experience that feeling at least once in their lives.
Trekking without a teahouse in sight in Himachal Pradesh, India
Of course, you have to be entirely self-sufficient and prepared for whatever nature can throw at you, so it’s not something everyone can just leap into without any experience. Luckily however, there is a plentiful supply of more well-known trekking trails around the world with a bit more infrastructure and support, and with views every bit as stunning. South America boasts some great examples, like the Torres del Paine trails in Chile and the various treks to Machu Picchu in Peru. These landscapes quite rightly draw massive appeal among the travelling community, and you’re likely to meet new people from all over the world every day on the trail.
Catching the first glimpse of Machu Picchu in the distance on the Salkantay trail, Peru
New Zealand has the best of both of these styles of trekking, with an energetic community of travellers buzzing about the country every summer. It’s a perfect place to hitchhike and you can easily live a very free lifestyle trekking and hitching rides in between.
Sounds like you love hitchhiking then, have you travelled across many other countries in this way? How has that experience been like?
Yeah I do love it. It’s such a great way to meet other travellers and locals, make friends, and have great conversations about places to visit or life in general. I also hitchhiked a lot through South America, especially through Patagonia as transport can be expensive there. I actually found it to be a great way to improve my Spanish, as I got talking to more locals with each ride I got.
In cheaper countries, it is a lot more worthwhile to use public transport, but just because a country is expensive doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go there and experience everything it has to offer. Hitchhiking allows you to have the freedom to explore where you want for free, and you might just have some of your best travel experiences from the chance meetings you have with people along the journey.
Obviously you must always be safe and do your research. Hitchwiki is a good forum for experienced knowledge on hitchhiking pretty much anywhere in the world. There will always be times where you might be waiting a while, but the next ride will come around the corner soon enough. Just have an open mind, stick your thumb out, and see where it takes you.
My first ever hitchhiking experience in 2014 with these awesome people at Geiranger, Norway
You’ve had some mad experiences like hiking the death road in Bolivia, if you had to pick your top 3 experiences what would they be?
1) When I first set out to travel the world, it was with my friends on the Mongol Rally, which still has to be one of the most epic things I’ve ever done. It’s organised by the same people who host the Rickshaw Run, and like that bonkers race, it’s all done for charity. It basically involves a bunch of crazy people trying to get from the UK to Mongolia in the cheapest and smallest cars you can find. My friends and I set off for the incredible journey in totally impractical cars for what lay ahead, painted to look like Woody and Buzz from Toy Story, just for a laugh! Central Asia is so full of possibilities but still relatively unexplored by travellers. Get there to experience it before more people catch on!
Our Mongol Rally convoy on the Pamir Highway – Photo credit: André Correia
2) One place that is already firmly in the minds of travellers is Everest Base Camp in Nepal. It’s where I first began my solo long term travel after the rally, and it ultimately became one of the highlights of my journey. As one of the best supported trekking regions in the world, it certainly draws a lot of people, but there are ways to get around this. I took the long and much less travelled route to get there, hiking in through the foothills from Jiri and then taking on the Three Passes Trail. Teahouse trekking in the Himalayas is such a great way to fully immerse yourself in the culture and people of the region, and provides convenient access to some of the world’s most extreme and awe-inspiring landscape. Trekking agencies can make the whole adventure a lot easier, but I was on a very tight budget so I went alone and ended up having one of the best experiences of my life.
Spectacular views on the Three Passes Trail to Everest Base Camp
3) A few months later I was in Patagonia, the wild and desolate tip of South America, where the Andes drop into the Southern Ocean. A few spots have become popular with travellers, but most of the region remains untouched, and you really get the sense that you’re in a different world. The area has seen several border disputes between Chile and Argentina, and when trekking it’s very easy to accidentally find yourself in the wrong country. Well that’s exactly what happened to me. Long story short, I ended up spending a few days climbing mountains in Chile, before trying to cross the border back into Argentina and hoping no-one noticed. Well I guess if anyone from their immigration departments is reading this I might be in trouble, but I had an absolutely fantastic time and made some great memories.
You mentioned that you did the Mongol Rally back in 2015 and are hoping to do the Rickshaw Run in India. What are the three tips you would like to give to enthusiastic newbie rally drivers?
1) Get the basics sorted and have a rough plan, but once you’re on the road anything could happen, so be open to change and go with the flow. There’s no point planning too much because the real adventure comes from the unknown and the fun you have trying to navigate it. So once you’ve got your vehicle, visas and all the necessary supplies, just go for it and see where you end up.
2) Spend some time learning a bit about the mechanics of the vehicle you will be using, and make sure you have all the tools you might need. We once had to hitchhike 200km to get to the nearest town in the middle of the Gobi desert, just because we didn’t have the right size spanner. When you’re stuck in the middle of nowhere without anyone around for miles, it will make your life a lot easier if you can get back on the move on your own.
3) Take your time. If there’s something you want to check out, don’t drive right past it. Get out and really experience what you’re passing through. Sometimes it’s too tempting to just push on because you’re in a hurry to get to the finish line, but what’s the point? For these events and many others like it, it has nothing to do with getting there first; it’s about having an awesome adventure on your way there.
So we know that you are an absolute sucker for road trips. What is your ultimate road trip destination?
For me that would have to be the American and Canadian West. I caught a flight up to Alaska, bought an old car there, and spent the last three months of my long term travel road-tripping around the continent before selling the car in San Francisco and flying home. The original plan had been to head East to New York, but the landscape and freedom of the West was just too good to leave. Along the way I picked up hitchhikers and had some great times with them, as well as visiting so many awesome national parks and stretching my legs every now and then to go climb some mountains. The classic US road trip has been travelled for decades, but the raw wilderness and freedom to be found up in Alaska and Northwest Canada was the real highlight.
Sunset while cooking dinner in the wilderness of Kluane National Park and Reserve, Canada
What kind of odd jobs did you do to make money on the road? Any advice for newbie long term travellers?
Despite saving up as much as I could, I realised halfway through that I wouldn’t have enough money to go the full year. So, like many travellers before me, I headed to Australia on a Working Holiday Visa. Luckily, I have family in Tasmania who I stayed with for Christmas and for just over a month afterward while working at a local grocery store in Hobart. It wasn’t the most fulfilling job but it was great for short notice and Tasmania is just such a wonderful place to live. Wages are incredible in Australia, so even on minimum wage I was earning $20 AUS/1,000 INR an hour, and soon made the money I needed to see out the year.
Unfortunately not all passports are eligible on schemes like this, nor do all countries boast such great wages, but wherever you are, someone will always be willing to pay you money for a bit of hard work. Fruit picking or any other farm labour is very popular among travellers and easy to get anywhere in the world, though the pay is less guaranteed. An alternative to just doing it for the money, is doing it for the experience. Sites like workaway and wwoof offer some really cool opportunities all over the world in return for free accommodation and food. You won’t need a working visa for gigs like this, and you’ll meet plenty of other like-minded travellers to go explore the area you’re in on your days off.
How did you overcome monetary limitations to travel long term when you had just started? Any tips that you might have for our readers?
There’s only so much money you can save before a trip or earn on the road. Ultimately, it’s about the spending choices you make when you’re out there. The three main costs of travel are transport, accommodation and food, so the less you spend on these, the longer your long term travel will be.
- In more affordable countries always use public transport, and whatever the cheapest option of it there is available. It might not be as comfortable but once you’re at your destination, your wallet’s not going to care how the journey was.
- In more expensive countries, consider using a ridesharing site or give hitchhiking a go. You’ll end up having a great adventure before you even get to where you’re going.
- If public transport is expensive and you don’t want to hitchhike, consider buying your own vehicle. This might sound like a lot of expense, but when you sell the vehicle once you’re done with it, you’ll get most of your money back. You might even make a profit!
- One advantage of having your own vehicle is that you can spend a minimal amount turning it into a portable bedroom. Be careful where you choose to do this and always be aware of the law.
- Public transport can also remove the cost of sleeping if you catch an overnight option. If the journey is more than 8 hours, there’s no point wasting a day as well as money on two nights of accommodation.
- If you’re hitchhiking, carrying a tent and camping supplies provides ultimate freedom and no expense required. Again, always be aware of the law.
- Couchsurfing is a fantastic resource and really helps the budget traveller. It provides not only a free place to stay, but also limitless opportunities for making friends all around the world.
With my CouchSurfing host at Portage Glacier in Alaska, USA – Photo credit: Kevin De Michelis
- Always cook for yourself whenever you can, wherever you’re staying and however you’re getting there. Carrying a small camping stove is really useful. You might get a few funny looks in the bus park waiting room, but a full stomach is a traveller’s best friend.
- Preparing meals is also a great bonding exercise with couchsurfing hosts or fellow travellers in hostels.
Putting all of this advice into practice might just turn you into something of a travelling hobo, but if you’re living life to the full and having fun, that’s all that matters.
So what’s it like being a travelling hobo? Are people accepting of this lifestyle?
Haha yes, well I guess that depends on what kind of people you’re referring to. A lot of the places I’ve been to, people aren’t that used to seeing foreigners, so I’d say most people in the world are just really friendly, have an open mind, and are eager to talk with you. Of course in more developed countries you might get a few funny looks, but as long as you’re not causing a problem for anyone and not breaking any laws, why does their opinion matter anyway? Living that lifestyle is what enabled me to go to more places and experience more of the world, so if all I have to put up with is a few funny looks from people, I can take that.
What are the three positives of leading a life of travel? Share some anecdotes if possible.
1) The people you meet and the stories you make together end up becoming some of the most profound moments of long term travel. I was climbing Mount Temple in the Canadian Rockies when three people working at a nearby teahouse caught up with me at the summit. My car had broken down and was in need of some serious repair, the whole situation had gotten me pretty annoyed. I went climbing to think my options through, and ended up having a great time with these guys from the teahouse. While I was stuck sorting my car out we went on several more hikes and days out together, and I ultimately left the area with a fixed car and one of the best weeks of the trip.
Such gorgeous sights!!
2) If you travel for long enough, you get to follow the seasons around the world, never having to endure anything too hot, cold or rainy, as you have complete freedom to choose where and when to go. I travelled from the summer in Europe and Central Asia, to the dry season in Nepal and India, to summer again in Australasia and Patagonia, to the dry season in Bolivia and Peru, before finally making the most of summer again in Canada and the US.
3) The intense freedom of making your way through the world is one of the best feelings there is in life. It’s so liberating to just carry everything you own on your back, going wherever and doing whatever the hell you want. The simplicity and beauty of this lifestyle is hard to replicate in your day-to-day life, but what is your home if not someone else’s travel destination? Capturing that freedom and indulging in it every now and then is one of the best lessons travel will teach you.
What are the downsides of long term travel?
While the highs of solo long term travel are some of the most euphoric moments of your life, the lows can often be some of the worst. When things go wrong and there’s only you to sort the situation out, it’s all too easy to get down and lonely. You have to remain level-headed and remember that whatever gets thrown at you, you’re more than capable of getting through it, and you will be a stronger person for it.
Would you recommend a long term trip to others? Why/why not?
YES!! Embarking upon your own personal journey in the world is one of the greatest adventures there is. But even if you have worries or you’re not confident in yourself, you can still take a long term trip organised through a travel agency or a work programme. The only question is how you do it, not whether you should. The whole world is out there, so what you are waiting for?
If you had to describe long term travel in one line.
Less comfort, more experience.
What’s next on the map?
Last time I went all the way around the world travelling East, next time my girlfriend and I are heading West.
Alex is a traveller, adventurer, and all round go-getter from the UK. Having navigated his way through 37 countries by the age of 23, he’s got a huge wealth of experience and loads of epic stories to share. Look out for more articles coming from him soon as he gets his blogging and travel writing under way.