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What makes one a "backpacker" ?

Travel Forums General Talk What makes one a "backpacker" ?


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1. Posted by leong1 (Full Member 89 posts) 7y

While out to dinner the other day with some people that i just met in a new place, two of them started moaning that there friend went on a two week holiday with a backpack then went home and told everyone she was packpacking in Asia. They thought it was a massive laugh that she should think her self a backpacker.....

Anyway this got me thinking.. What is a backpacker.. I mean what really makes you one ???

I came up with being really cheep, Not doing the whole thing with a tour company and a feeling of freedom while travelling ( if that makes much sense )

Maybe other people have a better way to explain what makes a backpacker or things that are not ??

Please this has been racking my brain for hte past few days and to be honest i dont think it matters all that much if you are or you are not one. Just that you have a great time while travelling and you treat the places you go to with respect.


2. Posted by andy11 (Full Member 136 posts) 7y

Or course they were backpacking, there is no definition, backpack + travel = backpacker, no time limit involved

3. Posted by bex76 (Moderator 3715 posts) 7y

I agree, it's more about the mode of travel, not the length of the trip. Typically backpackers are more likely to travel for longer as most people who go away for 2 weeks would be more likely to be able to afford to splash out as the trip is shorter, whereas backpackers tend to travel on a budget so they can travel for longer.

4. Posted by bwiiian (Travel Guru 768 posts) 7y

No such thing as a "backpacker". Everyone just goes on holiday but some people go on package tours and other do it independently. You are not a "backpacker" just because you take a backpack with you, it's ridiculous and just a stupid snobby way of people trying to pretend they are more adventurous than they really are. If there is a definition of "backpacker" then it would be someone who really does go off the beaten track to unknown areas of relatively untravelled countries and takes a tent with them and is totally self-sufficient. You certainly can't go backpacking around Thailand!!

5. Posted by Sander (Moderator 4817 posts) 7y

bwiian: I think you're in the minority with your interpretation of what a "backpacker" is. There's a ton of people who identify with the word "backpacker" without doing any of those things (myself included), and I think our interpretation of the word would be the more common one. (We might at some point find ourselves in areas of countries that are all but unvisited by other travellers (I know I have), and we might in rare circumstances carry tents (I never have), but neither of those conditions are required, let alone sufficient, for "being a backpacker".)
The key defining characteristic of a "backpacker", I think, is mobility. We travel with backpack rather than with suitcase, and because of that we can make our own way from bus station to hostel (saving the money for the taxi ride, and thus being able to keep going longer), from the dodgy hostel we stayed at for the first night to slightly less dodgy hostel two streets further on which we heard about from a fellow backpacker, etc.

I don't know if the desire for mobility came first, and a backpack turned out to be the best way to get that; or if the backpack came first, and the discovery of greater mobility and its various effects resulted because of it - but either way, I do think mobility is the one real concept that lies at the root of what sets a backpacker apart.

There's often a mindset which goes with it, and travelling independently is almost inherent (but not completely, because the people on the kiwi experience are backpackers too, for the most part). Money is often a resource that we try to stretch as far as we can (when time becomes the limiting factor, rather than money, we often turn out to be "flashpackers" - but I'd call that a subcategory of "backpacker", rather than a separate one). We frequently research next destinations while on the road, altering our travel plans to suit (but sometimes there's plane tickets already booked which limit us in this). You can always find us at the major sights, right alongside the tourist hordes; yet when the tourist hordes disappear, we're probably still there to watch sunset and get a sense of how the long now affects this place. We'll also explore the little alleys around the major sight, because hey, we're not in any hurry, and it's there that we can see the 'real' (?) city. And that, I think, is enabled by not having a set itinerary, which flows from greater mobility and a longer-than-average amount of time to spend travelling.

I don't know if the friend which was mentioned in the original blog post "is" a backpacker. If she thinks of herself as one, I'd probably give her the benefit of the doubt and agree. If she spent those two weeks only flying in to Koh Samui and lying on the beach for the entire time, she wouldn't be. But if in those two weeks she bussed to Nang Ron, explored the ruins of Phanom Rung, headed over to Chiang Mai and saw more wats than you can shake a stick at... (arranging for each step of this by herself on a more-or-less ad-hoc basis) then yes, she probably is.

[ Edit: Edited on Dec 17, 2008, at 3:53 AM by Sander ]

6. Posted by tway (Travel Guru 7273 posts) 7y

I think anyone who decides to up and travel has a sense of adventure--even if they're just going on a short cruise or away for a weekend. For some, just staying somewhere away from home is a big change. That they don't parachute out of a rickety plane into uncharted jungles shouldn't give anyone the right to say they're not a "real" traveller.

I also think it's unfair to define "backpacker" by the length of time you travel. In this part of the world, you're lucky if you get 3 weeks vacation a year. Does that mean a North American who travels for 2 weeks is less a backpacker than a European who gets 6 weeks off and heads off with a 30L bag on their backs? One could argue that having ample time off to roam the world is a lot more leisurely than having to really plan and nail down what you want to see to ensure you get the most out of your trip. From our point of view, having 6 weeks off is like going back for your 6th plate at a buffet. It's indulgent. (Not that I'd complain if my employer went a bit mad in the head and gave us more days off, mind... ;) ).

I think putting labels on travellers is pretty elitest. It's a way to classify travel as us-and-them. If you don't like to stay at 4-star hotels, don't. If you don't like to camp and wear the same clothes for days, by all means don't torture yourself. We all love to see the word in our own ways. We should focus on that and we'll all have plenty of notes to compare!

7. Posted by Sander (Moderator 4817 posts) 7y

Good points, Tina. In the end, when I describe myself, I say "traveller", first. (Backpacking is just the "way" in which I (sometimes) travel.)

I do think it's interesting to find out what people think of with the term "backpacker", though; if there can be any agreement on what really defines the concept (if anything does). Beyond elitism or being judgmental, I do see myself heading into travel in a different manner and with a different attitude when I'm backpacking. When I went to London for two days, I was a visitor, not a backpacker (though all I carried was a small backpack, and I stayed at a hostel). When I headed to Norway with friends and we drove all over the country for three weeks, we went camping, not backpacking (though we cooked our own meals every day, and changed our itinerary on a day-to-day basis).

Length of time of travel indeed doesn't matter for defining backpacking (I backpacked through Germany for a week and a half, once), although I suspect longer travel times do make it "easier" to "be" a backpacker.

But yeah, I keep coming down to mobility. To being tied down to nothing but your backpack. It's obviously not an inherently "better" way to travel. But it is distinct (and something to identify with, something to help conceptualize what it is that you're doing), and can be a mindset that for (some? many?) people is just that tad of differentiation that will allow them (us) to get more out of their (our) travels than they'd (we'd) be able to do otherwise, as it breaks otherwise familiar patterns and allows them (us) to look at the world with fewer constraints and preconceived notions. (For me it was the freedom to discover what I truly cared about in life, building a new self-image over long months of going whichever way the wind blew.) That's not "us-and-them". That's "me-and-the-way-I-approach-the-world". Highly individualistic, albeit in a way that happens to be iconic and recognizable to a whole host of others. *g* But meanwhile I'll still be very happy to swap tales with and learn from all fellow travellers who happen to be travelling in a different manner.

...and a pox on North American employers who don't give you enough vacation days! *makes evil signs* :)

8. Posted by bwiiian (Travel Guru 768 posts) 7y

I have always travelled with a backpack, always stayed in hostels and travel around the world for about 4 months a year going to places that no-one ever hears of or goes to and also to places where everyone goes to. I am what you would consider a backpacker, BUT I would never use that word as it is SO cringy. It is an elitist word that has been way overused by anyone that goes on holiday. I don't know anyone under the age of 60 that travels with a suitcase nowadays, therefore by that logic everyone is a backpacker?? I think it's just the word that makes me go all shivery whenever I hear it as it is usually used by drunken white middle class people in bars in all major cities of the world. I am probably being a bit harsh, but it just seems that people won't admit to being on holiday anymore, they always have to be going "backpacking". Backpacking is just a holiday for 99% of people so why won't people just accept the fact that they are on holiday. I suppose it could all come from the embarrassing behaviour of my fellow countrymen around the Costas in Spain, who really are "just" on holiday and so people want to distance themselves from that type of holiday maker. But perhaps Thailand is the new Spain and backpacking is the new package holiday? Thailand certainly has the amount of drunken Brits there to qualify for both titles!!

9. Posted by Utrecht (Moderator 5595 posts) 7y

Additional question in response to the above reactions/answers:

Am I a backpacker when I only buy a plane ticket and arrange a rental car and travel around the country for about a month with the backpack in the back instead of on my back

10. Posted by Sander (Moderator 4817 posts) 7y

Utrecht: personally I'd say no. I did that several times during my last RTW trip, and didn't feel like a backpacker during those weeks. (You're tied to the car, rather than solely to your backpack.)
But what do you think? That matters more, I suspect.

bwiian: Heh, I see where you're coming from. I wonder if that's a UK thing, if "backpacking" has jumped the shark there. Here in the Netherlands, virtually no one I know travels with backpack (though regular suitcases have mostly been replaced by those trolley cases (is that actually the correct word for them?)), let alone calls themselves a backpacker. Most of my friends go either camping, or fly somewhere and then stay in hotels/guesthouses and rent a car to get around.

[ Edit: Edited on Dec 18, 2008, at 6:36 AM by Sander ]