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The Backpack Years

Two memoirs intertwine in The Backpack Years, a dual-narrative memoir by a married couple, written in a novel-like style. The candid and funny account follows Stef and James, two adventurous, incident-prone young adults on a transcontinental journey of bad choices spanning six years and thirteen countries.The Backpack Years is a story that proves running from your mistakes isn't always the wrong answer.

Plot/Idea: 7 out of 10
Originality: 7 out of 10
Prose: 8 out of 10
Character/Execution: 7 out of 10
Overall: 7.25 out of 10


Plot/Idea: In The Backpack Years, the Wilsons revisit their time spent traveling and working in 13 different countries. Told in alternating perspectives, the authors tell a vivid story of the joys and challenges of travel.

Prose: The dual-narrative approach is largely successful for the Wilsons. Readers will have no trouble differentiating between their voices. The prose is intimate but also offers a clear overview of the authors' life-changing adventures abroad.

Originality: Memoirs of travel are frequent. The Wilsons bring a level of originality to the text through the blending of two voices and the broad range of countries and locations explored.

Character/Execution: The Backpack Years is refreshing in its candor. James in particular unflinchingly recounts embarrassing and unsavory moments from his travels, which provides a level of welcome humanity to the storytelling.

Date Submitted: October 21, 2022

D. Donovan, Sr. Reviewer, Midwest Book Review

The Backpack Years: Two Memoirs, One Story is a chronicle of travel, romance, and experience that combines two life stories in a joint journey of mishaps and magic.

Stephanie and James were both driven by the same passion: to travel and experience new things. So, their coming together felt logical and purposeful despite their very different upbringings and life perspectives.

The story opens with James in a bar, ordering more drinks that get him further in debt. Angry and rigid, he leads a life far from his dreams, and seemingly far from the flexibility travel demands from its adventurers: "I always stood in this exact spot, at this exact time, surrounded by these exact people. At work, I liked the rules, regulations and boundaries of accounting, but its rigidity had infiltrated my social life."

His life feels like one of a preordained inevitability not necessarily of his choosing: "As I stumbled under a decrepit railway bridge, I envisioned a future I had no control over. I’d pass my exams and become a fully qualified Chartered Accountant at age twenty-two. Next up, a pay rise. I’d spend it on a new car, clothes and flat to reflect a professional life I was already disillusioned with. Debt repayment would devour the rest. Many kids from my neighbourhood ended up either addicted to drugs or selling them. I escaped an inevitable path, just to replace it with another one."

This would seem an unlikely beginning for an adventure. Surprisingly, the wellsprings of discovery often hold their roots not just in mundane lives, but frustrations and unrequited dreams. That is just the point James is at when his life really unravels (or begins, depending on the point of view).

Stef, too, is introduced in a bar, but her frustrations are different. She wants to make her parents happy, but there is also a stark difference between her reality and its motivation for continuing, and her dreams: "As a nurse and mechanic, they worked long hours to provide me and my sister Cassie with a safe and stable life in Pittsburgh, and I owed it to them to be good and work hard, too. For as responsible as I was, I’d also craved adventure for as long as I could remember."

The Backpack Years is as much about the process of joining dreams and forging new, more meaningful paths in life and relationships as it is about the journey that carries Stef and James into foreign realms.

Readers interested in how relationships evolve over shared dreams that also change by the very nature of interpersonal interactions will especially appreciate that The Backpack Years represents more than just another travelogue of foreign encounters.

These do drive the adventure component of their story, but within the outward challenges and excitement is an inner journey of growth and new ways of interacting, loving, and living which proves just as vibrant as the backdrop of exploration that will attract travel readers to this memoir.

The result is a candid saga of drinking, loving, laughing, and everything that lies between. It's a heart-pounding road trip through life that is delivered in a gritty, revealing tone: "Though we were broke, and our future uncertain, James and I carpe diemed the shit out of London."

Libraries looking for travel stories that embrace interpersonal relationships as much as new places and perspectives will welcome both in The Backpack Years. Its journey through alcohol, angst, love, and learning carries readers, via a streetwise voice and experiences, far from the beaten path of tired travelogues.

Discussion groups interested in stories of growth and the pursuit of happiness will find The Backpack Years holds plenty of insights and topics suitable for broader life inspections.

Grant Leishman, Readers' Favorite


The Backpack Years: Two Memoirs, One Story by husband and wife authors Stefanie and James Wilson is the story of two young people from different sides of the Atlantic who meet and fall in love in Australia while they were both on their overseas experience. Stefanie was a young American from Pittsburgh who left her planned future to travel the world and experience some fun before she settled down into a teaching career. James was an accounting trainee in Manchester who not only hated his career and his future but was deeply in debt to credit card and loan companies. Determined to leave his problems behind, at least for a while, James was traveling the world seeking new experiences. In an Irish pub in Sydney’s King’s Cross, Stef and James would find each other and begin a relationship that was at times long-distance, but would also involve one or both of them having to make momentous decisions if they truly wanted to stay together. After traveling all over Australia, New Zealand, and South East Asia, the couple finally settled in London but British immigration rules and a continued wanderlust hampered and threatened their relationship. It seemed to both of them that their love only really worked when they were traveling the world and experiencing new and exciting adventures and cultures. 

The Backpack Years is an interesting read both for the world travel aspect and the different cultures Stefanie and James Wilson were immersed in but also because it is essentially the same story told from vastly different perspectives. I particularly appreciated the fact that the story was told in the participants' own vernacular and no attempt was made to sanitize or harmonize the language and colloquialisms used by Stef and James. The glossary of terms at the end of the book will certainly help those unfamiliar with either the English or American terms. For me, the best part of this memoir is the frank honesty and rawness of the two authors' feelings at different stages of their relationship and their journey. There is no hiding behind clichés and happy smiles during stress and anxiety. The pair was prepared to open themselves up totally to the reader and tell the best but also the worst of their journey together. Despite the seemingly never-ending problems and even medical issues that the pair faced, one thing that shone through on every page was their dedication to each other and their determination to see this journey through to the end – together. As someone who lives in South East Asia, the journeys through Thailand, China, Hong Kong, Laos, Cambodia, and elsewhere and the cultures the pair encountered resonated with me. I loved that because they were backpackers, these were no flashy, smart, 5-star hotels, and some of the accommodation and the people they encountered had me chuckling and nodding in recognition. This is a fun and gentle read and one I can highly recommend.

Jadidsa Perez, Independent Book Review

A one-way ticket to love, adventure, and excitement 

Stefanie, a middle school teacher from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and James, a graphic designer from Warrington, England, first met in Sydney, Australia and connected instantly. With their shared love of travel and a newfound motivation in it, they find ways to make a marriage work. And now, a book. 

Co-authored by Stef and James, The Backpack Years tells the chronological story of travel and relationship events, where readers learn more about each person’s background, their reason for traveling/escaping, and how they handled obstacles along the way. 

The book portrays each country they visit—Spain, Australia, Thailand—and how the experiences shaped their relationship to become one of trust and devotion. Much of the book centers around travel in a time where language barriers, maps, and emails were much more common—giving both a nostalgic and fascinating feel. 

I absolutely loved the authors’ voices in this story—both of them honest, raw, and engrossing. Stef, in her chapters, is funny, retrospective, intelligent, and a pleasure to travel with. One particular highlight is her humming story when she’s getting her ears checked. I laughed out loud during that one, and I don’t think I’d be alone in that. 

As the couple traveled more, I felt even more drawn to Stef’s resilience despite James’s illnesses and their brewing marriage troubles. As a polyglot, she was able to navigate a plethora of situations in a galvanizing manner. It’s not every day we get to think of our middle school teachers as skilled world travelers. 

James, on the other hand, juxtaposes Stef’s personality in the best way. His voice is dryer with a more cynical tone that is as humorous as it is appropriate. His story feels more accessible and understandable for me, and I can’t help but sympathize with him. His difficulty assimilating to not just American culture but to Stef’s family is excellently described. His dedication to making things work, however, remains admirable. While Stef views many things in beautiful scenery, James offers a divergent perspective. These two narratives complete each other. 

There are definitely a few things I would have loved expanded though. Stef’s dietary restrictions are brought up in passing, and her self-awareness as an inner-city teacher and traveler in Cambodia could have hit harder if we dove a bit deeper into it. I just wonder if we could have connected the two and discussed the privilege of travel as a whole. 

I would gladly recommend this memoir to readers of true stories and travel. It’s delightful and definitely going down as one of my favorite memoirs of the year.

Rachel Deeming, Reedsy Discovery

✭✭✭✭ The Wilsons, through their tandem memoirs, take their reader on an achingly candid and emotional tour of their youthful travel experiences

I am always drawn to travel memoirs, being well-travelled myself and I have to say that I do like a seamy tale of backpackers, surviving on little money, little hygiene, bad diet, great amounts of alcohol, the bonhomie of their companions and their wits.

You get all of that here but also a lot more. You get the first hand experiences of people who are widely travelled and who have met a lot of people on their journeys, some good, some not so good. But in addition, you get a romance as Stefanie and James, in memoirs that run tandem, describe the circumstances that drew them together and the subsequent travels that they shared after their commitment to each other.

What struck me most about the book is how candid it is. Stefanie and James have literally laid bare their experiences but also their emotions in navigating (pun intended) not only their travels in strange, remote and sometimes unwelcoming places but also their relationship as young people who meet each other whilst travelling, who are from very different backgrounds and have differing perspectives.

As readers, we learn about their families and the traditions and cultural quirks of their home countries that separate them on occasion. We learn about the vast amount of places that they have visited, both separately and together and the difficulties associated with travelling to these places on a shoestring budget or earning-as-you-go. To the onlooker, it seems an idyllic lifestyle, liberating and carefree but Stefanie and James are keen to point out the drawbacks too and I like them for this: theirs is a balanced perspective in that they show the fun, the friendliness and the fabulous but also the threat and the strain that can come from a life without ties and familiarity.

However, whilst there are tales of a cautionary nature, they are also keen to promote the idea of how important it is to them to travel and how it builds resilience and shapes perspective; and that once it is in your blood, it is very difficult not to succumb to the urge to move again.

The narrative is easy to read and the change of narrator clearly indicated, and I found myself easily drawn into the stories of their travels, much as I would a novel, rooting for them as people as well as enjoying the view of the world they shared.