A Backpacker’s Guide to Working Out Without a Gym

As anyone who travels for extended or even short periods knows, it’s easy to fall into not so healthy eating habits and lose the exercise routines we do back at home. The unwanted pounds begin showing up alarmingly quickly.

My story

A not so healthy meal
Good food, good views, the perfect recipe for putting on a few pounds

Too many meals like the one above took their toll on my waistline and while taking a break from traveling in Bangkok last year I realized how out of shape I was. Luckily the condo I was staying at had a gym and swimming pool and over the next 2 months of hard sweat and eating well I slashed my 34 waistline down to a 30. I also gained muscle and was generally more toned.

When it came time to leave Bangkok for the islands, I was excited to be back on the road, but panicking at the thought of losing my fitness routine. I visualized all my hard work disappearing overnight! Not to worry, I’ll find a gym wherever I go, I reassured myself. And I did – Khao Samui had tons of cheap gyms and I managed to keep up a regular workout routine. Until one day I pulled my back doing a bad deadlift.

Thankfully I semi recovered in a few days, but with an excursion to Khao Phangan coming up I wasn’t going to risk going back into the gym again. In Penang, my next destination, other priorities took over, like my mission to sketch George Town. My travel schedule then became so hectic that pretty soon I’d stopped thinking about gyms altogether.

How did I maintain and even improve my fitness without a gym?

I’d worked too hard to lose the fitness I’d built up so began Googling ideas on what I could do without a gym. I read about body weight exercises and as well as being able to do them anywhere, I liked that they could also build muscle. So one morning in my hostel dorm, while I had the room to myself, I did my first complete body weight workout. Here’s what I did:

Push Ups with Feet Elevated: 4 sets of 15, using my bottom bunk bed to raise my feet. To further increase the difficultly I would hold one leg in the air for half the set then change legs.

Mind out for other travelers’ smelly socks!

Bench Dips: 4 sets of 15 using my bunk bed behind me for support. For more difficulty I would hold one leg in the air for half the set then change legs.


Tricep curls: 4 sets of 15 using my backpack as a weight.

“Borrow” someone else’s backpack or suitcase if yours isn’t heavy enough

Pulls ups: 4 sets of 10 using the safety rail of the top bunk bed (see photo below). There wasn’t enough height so I hung myself at an angle.

I would do this routine every other day with a rest period in between. Over the next few months as I traveled to other places I continued as best I could. I seemed to have good luck with the dorm rooms I stayed in not being full, often I was the only one in the whole dorm so had plenty of space and privacy. I sometimes worried I’d look like an idiot if someone came into the room while I was working out, but then again why should I? Staying in shape is nothing to be ashamed of. If for any reason I couldn’t work out in my dorm I found a park with hanging bars or sitting area with a bench.

Later on, to shake things up a bit, I began this push up routine I’d seen on YouTube:

I “love” this workout. Within a month I was doing 12 sets of 15 push ups in one session, that’s 180 push ups. Combined with alternately lifting one leg in the air to increase difficulty and by not collapsing onto the floor after each set but crawling myself up into standing position, I began to see definition on my abs like never before.

The Backpack Workout

Another method of exercising I later discovered was using my backpack as a weight while walking. I always take the opportunity to walk over public transport and one day on my way to another hostel I felt the urge to work out. Holding my backpack by the side handle with one finger I did dumbbell curls while tensing my abs. I repeated with the other arm. Combined with walking up and down flights of stairs or escalators, this routine really helped keep me toned and feeling energized.

Shopping malls make great places to do walking circuits

What about diet?

At the time I began researching body weight exercises I became aware of the Paleo diet. The principles of eating only natural, whole foods and avoiding anything processed made instant sense. Paleo foods are everywhere in South East Asia and I happily munched my way through protein rich foods like vegetables, eggs, grilled meat and chicken liver (chicken hearts if I couldn’t find liver). I cut down on bread, rice and other bloaty foods and drank lots of water. Sweet things were the hardest to let go of, but I gradually began wanting them less. If I did ever want a pancake or some chocolate I became good at taking one or two bites to satisfy the craving – I didn’t need to finish the whole thing.

Get you Paleo foods here
Get your Paleo foods here

The results

Over the next 6 or 7 months of continuous travel I succeeded in maintaining the level of fitness I’d fought for back in Bangkok. What’s more, I increased muscle mass in my arms and abs – not as much I would have with regular gym work, and certainly nothing to rival Schwarzenegger, but the improvement was there. Most importantly, I felt more agile, vital and stronger than at any other time in my life.

Feeling in good form on the hike to Monkey Beach, Penang, August 2016

Final thoughts

Staying in shape while traveling wasn’t that hard once I’d made the inner commitment. It actually became fun and something I’d look forward to. It helps to have a good reason deep down why you want to do it, and for me it was partly to reach and keep a physical shape I was happy with and also knowing that staying fit is my key to traveling where and when I want.

Special shout out to Nerd Fitness who helped get me going with tons of great resources for body weight exercise routines and Paleo guides.

How about you? Have you found ways of working out while traveling? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

10 thoughts on “A Backpacker’s Guide to Working Out Without a Gym

  1. Great tips! I’m a runner so I always run when I’m traveling and I also love hiking, which is great exercise.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey thanks for reading and your comment! That’s sounds great, I used to run a lot and took my running shoes with me when I traveled 🙂 I loved the feeling of running in a new city in another country 🙂 What do you do about diet?

      Happy travels!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes, running in a new city is so exciting to me and I see areas I wouldn’t otherwise notice just going by in a car or public transportation. As far as diet, I don’t go crazy. I just eat in moderation and if I want a small dessert, I’ll eat one. I just make sure I’m eating more fruits and veggies than unhealthy foods.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes, I think as well for me, running in an overseas city gave me a feeling of living in that place, in that I was doing something there that I normally only did at home. Hehe yes all things in moderation 😀

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Thanks for the tips beautifuldiaspora I could not agree more running to travel. In fact I have recently started a small album with photos I take whilst running, be it in Europe, the Caribbean or Asia (nothing on my blog yet but will be at some point). So far, the best runs I could recommend are mostly near river banks, such as in Bristol, Paris, Kyoto and Rome. I also found that joining an international workout community has helped me keep fit and work out regularly. In case of interest, the community I joined it’s named Fitness Base Camp. Surely there are others, but the good thing of this one is you start with a 90 day 10×10 challenge (10 exercise in 10 minutes), you need very little space to carry the exercises and everyone is very supportive and logs their entries, which keeps me motivated!

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Hi CrabAdventures, sorry for my late reply. I really appreciate you reading and glad you like the tips. Sounds like you’ve run in some amazing places and the river bank suggestion is great. I really like your tip about joining a workout community, that would definitely keep me motivated too 🙂 And the fact that it needs little space to carry the exercises is even better!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great suggestions. We find what you said is true about after the excursion and how we become lax in our exercise regime. So important to keep in shape.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi thanks for stopping by and for your comment 😀 Yes, I think a lot of people think about getting in shape “before” a trip, for whatever reason, but not about “during”. Thanks for following and happy travels!
      – Abraham

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Love this thank you! Will get ot work

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey thanks for reading and your comment 🙂 Happy if I’ve given you any inspiration at all!


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