Am I a Backpacker Now?

So now that I've got a shiny new REI backpack and am planning a summer trip around Europe, I've had a couple friends ask me if this means I'm a “backpacker” now. This question perplexed me at first for two reasons — first, does one just suddenly “become” a backpacker as soon as they purchase a pack? And second, well, am I? Do I fit into that backpacker mold?

I've already weighed in with my opinion on the whole traveler vs. tourist debate — but what about the whole other debate that surrounds the definition of a “backpacker”?

Sure, you might say that the only thing need to “be a backpacker” is a fancy backpack from an outdoor/sporting goods store. But I'd argue that it's much more than just where you store your stuff.

Being a “backpacker” is a mindset as much as it is a physical categorization.

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Photo by JD | Photography, on Flickr

Let's look at what makes a person a backpacker, beyond what they carry on their back:

  • Backpackers tend to be much more budget-minded than any other type of traveler. They are the ones most likely to be sleeping in hostel dorm rooms, on airport floors, and even on strangers' couches. They will not be found at luxury resorts, they'll probably forego any form of travel insurance, and they'll take any opportunity to save a few dollars, no matter where they are in the world.
  • Backpackers tend to be younger. Yes, there are older backpackers, but the majority seem to be in their 20s, or close to it. They take time off before or after college, and head to the backpacker “hotspots” to hang out with others like themselves.
  • Backpackers tend to shun the “touristy” things. This isn't true of all backpackers, of course, but I feel like it IS true of a lot of them. It's part of the reason why countries in South East Asia are so hot with backpackers — because most “normal” tourists don't venture there. That, and it's cheap (see number 1…).
  • Backpackers usually think that they are about as “local” as you can get without actually being local. Because backpackers are seeking affordable, non-touristy experiences, you'll find them on local transport, eating at local restaurants, and shopping at local markets. Forget language barriers or culture shock — backpackers overcome them.
  • Backpackers are searching for experiences. That time they hitched across Europe? That time they got scammed in India? That time they climbed a mountain/temple/other really cool thing? Those are the experiences the backpacker lives for. That, and the partying with other backpackers.

It's interesting to look at “the backpacker” from where I stand. I'm somewhere in between college student and professional adult. I can see the “dirty hippie” definition of these travelers that many adults hold of them, and at the same time can also see the “adventurer” definition that they ascribe to themselves. Both are true, to some extent.


But, the question still comes down to, am I a backpacker?

I'm not really sure that I am.

While I DO travel for experiences and stories, I DON'T necessarily travel like a true backpacker.

For example:

  • I don't like to travel light. Yes, I bought a backpack and plan to use it a lot this year. But I don't necessarily delight in the thought of having to constantly wash my underwear, wear the same 5 shirts over and over for months, or be confined to only 2 pairs of shoes. I like options in my wardrobe, and that's one luxury most backpackers sacrifice.
  • I like to plan. Showing up in a place without a place to sleep or any plans? No thank you. For me, planning a trip is half the fun!
  • I HATE hostel dorm rooms. Like, really hate them. I don't like sharing my sleeping space with strangers, and I'm usually kept up by the requisite snorer in the room (because there always seems to be one). I don't mind sharing showers/toilets… just give me a bed in a room of my own, please.
  • I like to splurge on things — and often. Like most backpackers, I travel for experiences. But, unlike a lot of backpackers who adhere to a strict budget, I'm willing to splurge on great experiences when the opportunity arises. As long as I can afford it, I'm definitely not likely to skip something awesome just because of a price tag.
  • I don't like to party. I don't really drink, so backpacker party meccas (like Vang Vieng, Laos; Sihanoukville, Cambodia; and party beaches in Thailand or South America) really don't appeal to me at all.
  • I hate the backpacker pissing contests. You know the ones — “I did Vietnam for $25 per day!” “Oh yeah, well I did it for $20 per day!” Or the ones in which you compare your longest miserable bus ride or most bug-infested hostel experience to determine who is the most badass backpacker of the bunch. Who cares? Let me travel the way I want to, and I won't say anything about the way you travel either.


That being said, though, I also have a few things in common with “the backpacker”:

  • Having unique and meaningful experiences is important to me. I don't want to have the exact same travel experience as the person sitting next to me; I want to return home with stories to tell.
  • I want to meet people from all over the world. Whether other travelers or locals in the place I'm visiting, I like meeting new people and talking about the world.
  • I want to cause as little adverse impact as possible when I travel. While I'm not sure this is a concern of all backpackers, their travel style in general is usually less intrusive than, say, the spoiled resort traveler who expects to be catered to wherever they go.

 

So what's the verdict? Am I a backpacker?

It's difficult to say. My travel style and preferences don't necessarily line up with traditional backpacker style, and yet I think my mindset does.

Maybe I'm just a kinda-sorta-backpacker?

 

What do you think? What makes a backpacker a backpacker? Are you one?

 

70 Comments

  • Good question, we don’t consider ourselves backpackers but according to Wikipedia we are.
    “Backpacker or Backpacking may refer to:
    A person participating in
    backpacking (wilderness)
    backpacking (travel)
    A traveler whose luggage consists of a backpack
    An inexpensive place to stay, such as a hostel (chiefly New Zealand, also Australia)
    Backpacker (term), person who listens to hip-hop/rap”

    Not sure where the hip-hop/rap reference comes from?
    A Cook Not Mad recently posted..A Cook Not Mad: The Prequel

  • Jeremy says:

    I guess if you have a backpack, then you are officially a backpacker. I still always hate the distinction we as travelers put on ourselves to classify others into groups though. I have a 95L duffel, have taken guided trips, love cruises, and often stay in private boutique hotels to get away from the dorm life. I have been told on several occasions by self-proclaimed backpackers that I am doing it wrong, and that their way is better. Overall I think the true definition of backpacker is a broad term that could also be swapped with gap year or long-term traveler and ends there. But then again, once someone tells me they have a passport and travel I stop trying to make any distinctions at that point. In travel there are two types of people, those that do and those that don’t, and that is all I care about.

  • Leah Travels says:

    I like your analysis, but why must you label it? Just be yourself and do what you enjoy. I say if you need to put a name to your travel style, make one up! The name should be as original as you are.
    Leah Travels recently posted..Reflections of Lake Matheson, New Zealand

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I love that idea! I’ll have to come up with something to call myself now… 🙂

      And I don’t necessarily feel the need to label what I do, but since people have been asking me if I’m a backpacker now, I figured it was worth exploring!

  • Jessica says:

    I agree completely! I was just about to write this almost same exact post. I just bought a backpack last week, and while I have no desire to pack lightly, I’ll be gone in Europe from June until January, and I’m kind of dreading the fact that I’m only going with a backpack, and now I’m thinking I want to backpacks…. where am I going to put all my stuff? What is your schedule in Europe? We must meet up if we get the chance.

    Best of luck,
    Jess

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Hahaha, you’d look quite funny carrying two full-size backpacks around Europe! 😉 Where in Europe are you planning to be?

  • Tash says:

    I think I am very much like you.

    Although, in terms of the party factor – I love to g and and drink as an activity, but it certainly isn’t my main objective when travelling – I mean, I can spend my time in pubs at home, so new experiences in new cities are my preference!
    Tash recently posted..The Twin Towers

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Yeah, I travel to do something different, not just more of the same! (Though sometimes “the same” is still good every once in a while on the road.)

  • I would say I am NOT a backpacker for pretty much the same reasons you listed … I’m getting to be not that young anymore, I don’t really like to party … I don’t like to spend a ton of money, but I also am financially blessed enough that I don’t HAVE to forgo certain experiences just to save money. I also like to plan, but leave some room to just chill and see where the day will take me. Great question — I think this is probably harder for people to answer than the traveler v. tourist one.
    The Time-Crunched Traveler (Ellen) recently posted..The Weekly Worldview: Connecticut’s Wadsworth Falls

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Sounds like you’re a lot like me, then! And yes, “backpacker” really is a bit difficult to define if you’re going beyond the obvious.

  • Geogypsy says:

    Guess I’m an ex-backpacker because the pack is too much for my wiped out shoulder. Which is probably from carrying too heavy a backpack, daypack or purse over it. But I’m with you on having my own room and still getting in lots of off the beaten track adventures. Take care of those shoulders.
    Geogypsy recently posted..Road trip to Laughlin, Nevada—not to gamble

  • Jill says:

    Be you, do what you do! I guess I’m a backpacker minus a few attributes and plus a few attributes. I tend to hate the “drinking” culture and the pissing contest of the backpacker’s life. But I love the “On the Road” feeling of skipping doing my makeup and sleeping on strangers couches. I love hanging out at the local spots and (trying to) pack light. Also, I’m quite curious on what to call myself. I finished college a few years ago and in the in-between of starting a professional life. Does that make me an adventurer? A Gap-Year-er? A hippie? A slacker? Ehhh, tend to think about it too much and it’s too hard to define!
    Jill recently posted..Photo of the day: Hoarding of Boarding Passes

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I’m definitely at the same point in my life! That weird in-between phase. I went back to grad school this past fall, and it’s so strange, because I definitely don’t feel like I fit into college life anymore… At the end of the day, though, I suppose I don’t really care what you call me, as long as I can travel!!

  • Laurence says:

    I just like to travel. You can call me whatever you want 😉
    Laurence recently posted..To Barcelona! (Your input required!)

  • Yeah I do agree with you about the facts that backpackers tend (at least most of them) to do the pissing contest or go to party really often.

    I do have a backpack from 2 years and half now. I do travel around the world since November 2009 but I don’t feel backpacker and I don’t feel that I am not backpacker. I am in half way I think…. just like you
    tunimaal @ Gaijin Japan Blog recently posted..Tokyo Tsukiji Fish Market: J’ai mange un Sushi à 8 euros la pièce

  • John says:

    Back in my more ‘nomadic’ travel days, I never actually carried a big backpack – all my clothes went in a duffle bag. When my friends back home would ask me how my backpacking trip was going, I’d inform them that I was not ‘backpacking’ (i secretly couldn’t stand the term at the time) but rather, ‘dufflebagging’. I Still define my travel style as dufflebagging – it’s not quite backpacking, but it certainly does have some things in common with it.
    John recently posted..The Santa Barbara Zoo – Lions and Tigers and Ocean Views, Oh My!

    • Jeremy says:

      That is awesome. My big bag is actually a combo backpack, duffel, and has wheels. I believe that it neither makes me a backpacker, duffeler (my coined term for it), or hard shell roller… I like to believe that it just meant I made a smart investment for a good bag O:-)

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Dufflebagging — hahaha, LOVE IT! I’ve done that once or twice, too.

  • Jeff says:

    Great post and I like how you explain your style of backpacking and make no apologies for it. Splurge, avoid dorm hostels, and search for great experiences all at once.

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Thanks, Jeff! I don’t see any point in making excuses about being myself. 🙂 I may not fit into any one definition, but that’s fine with me! I like my travel style, and I’m sticking to it!

  • We call ourselves “Flashpackers”.. lol. Gerard and I are like you – we don’t necessary fall under the backpacker category but I wouldn’t say we’re tourists or vacationers either. Somewhere in between in the kinda-sorta realm. 🙂
    Kieu ~ GQ trippin recently posted..Road Trippin’ with Greyhound Australia

  • How exciting that you’re traveling around Europe this summer!!! At the end of the day it’s just a label right? Who cares, you’re a traveler!!! 🙂
    Andi of My Beautiful Adventures recently posted..My Wedding & Honeymoon: Day 17

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Exactly!!! And yes, I can’t wait for Europe this summer! It will be my first big trip (not counting study abroad) that will be longer than 2 weeks!

  • I fit much of the description you gave of a “backpacker,” but I’m not in my 20s. I’m actually in my 40s! Also, I don’t do hostel dorms anymore. And I don’t care for the party scene. (But those who party a lot at hostels, I’d call “partying hostelers.” Sometimes I stay in a low-budget place near a hostel–then go there to plan day tours and to have a beer.

    You seem like a sorta kinda backpacker, based on what you’ve said. To me, it’s mostly a mindset and and somewhat of a style.
    Lisa @chickybus recently posted..Sunflower in Full Bloom, Dominican Republic (Photo of the Day)

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Of course there are exceptions to everything, which is why definitions and stereotypes of this nature are really kind of silly when it comes down to it.

      But I agree that it’s mostly a mindset, more than anything else!

  • Christine says:

    Interesting to think about. I have a “backpack” but it’s front-loading and I carry it like a duffel bag–still, it means I’m pretty minimalist in what I travel with. I carry the same amount of clothes for two weeks or four months! I hate the backpacker scene–at least, the party-every-day-for-$5 in Southeast Asia scene–but I do love meeting young people who are so keen to travel and see the world. I’m much more of a backpacker than see-the-world-on-two-weeks-a-year-with-an-enormous-suitcase type of person–if that makes any sense 🙂
    Christine recently posted..California, I’m coming home

    • DangerousBiz says:

      That makes total sense, Christine! I feel the same way (though I’m using my front-loading backpack as a real backpack! 😉 ).

  • Audrey says:

    We travel with backpacks, just because it’s easier for the style of travel we do. But we don’t call ourselves backpackers as we’re in between worlds. There are so many characteristics of “typical” backpackers that we just find sad – the pissing contest being at the top of the list. Also, I get that money is tight, but I hate seeing backpackers bargain with a street vendor for $0.25. That local person could probably use that money just a bit more than the backpacker. But, backpackers have blazed the trail in so many areas that I admire their sense of adventure and spirit.

    In the end, we all have a personal travel style that works best for us.
    Audrey recently posted..Panorama of the Week: Swim in a Cenote – Yucatan, Mexico

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I like that you said you’re “in between worlds.” I think that’s a very good way of putting it. I agree on the haggling with a street vendor over what amounts to $0.25… that bugs me, too. In those cases, those backpackers are downright cheap, as far as I’m concerned.

  • Cam says:

    I usually avoid labels because I often find that I contradict myself later.
    A few years ago we traveled around the world for over a year straight, living out of a backpack, staying in hostels (but never dorms, gross), running a tight buget – we thought of ourselves as “flashpackers”, because we didn’t fall into the category of young, party animal backpacker, but we weren’t 2-week vacationers either.
    Now, fast forward 2 years and add a baby to the mix, I find myself looking forward to shorter trips with very little “backpacking” involved – yup, I’ve transformed into a vacation traveler and I didn’t even know it!
    I guess trying to define a “backpacker” is like trying to define an athlete? Does going for a hike count? 😉
    Cam recently posted..Traveling with Baby – Not as Scary as it Sounds

    • DangerousBiz says:

      It’s definitely a really difficult thing to define! It took me an admittedly really long time to write this post because of that. Lol.

      But, as others have said here, I don’t think the style really matters as much as the fact that at least you’re out there traveling!

  • Claire says:

    If there is a backpack on my back, then I consider myself a backpacker. Like you, I don’t identify with many of the stereotypical aspects of backpacking, but if I am wearing a pack, I am probably traveling on a budget and therefore, a backpacker! That’s what everyone thinks when they see you with one anyway, might as well embrace it 😉
    Claire recently posted..On Big Bellies and Beautiful Beaches

    • DangerousBiz says:

      So true that that’s what everyone thinks when they see you, regardless of how you’re actually traveling!

  • Lisa says:

    I hope you have a great adventure. I agree two pairs of shoes and repeatedly wearing five shirts would suck.
    Lisa recently posted..Breathing Deep, What’s Your Walk on the Beach?

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Haha, yeah. Packing light certainly is great since you have less to carry. But, long-term, I think I’d just get annoyed with my limited wardrobe options.

  • Sam says:

    I’ve been places where they thought of backpacking as heading into the wilderness with your pack and tent and food supplies – it’s a term which varies a lot.

    No need to fit into a label, you can be a hybrid backpacker!
    Sam recently posted..Fresh Lobster in Connecticut

    • DangerousBiz says:

      A hybrid backpacker – I like that!

      And yeah, for a lot of people, “backpacking” means venturing off into the wilderness. Though, most people assume you’re doing just that as soon as they see a backpack on your back!

  • Ethan says:

    I agree with you, being a backpacker is more than the bag. It is a lifestyle, even a culture that one must willingly embrace.

    To be honest with you, I think it is cool to be a backpacker.
    Ethan recently posted..jamorama software

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I think a lot of people associate backpacking as being a very “cool” thing to do. And I like how you said it’s a culture – that’s so true!

  • Katie says:

    LOVE this post. I have come close to writing something similar but can never quite find the right way to explain it. I don’t consider myself a backpacker at all for many of the reasons you say you aren’t. I don’t like traveling light, I NEED to have plans and I hate my backpack. I realize it can be more convenient for travel in some areas but after my current trip, the backpack will likely never see the light of day again.
    Katie recently posted..A Day Trip to Orheiul Vechi

  • Hogga says:

    I don’t really like labels when it comes to this stuff… I mean, do what you like and don’t judge others, right? That being said, it still happens haha. The pissing contests piss me off though lol… like seriously, who cares? We’re all real impressed by how much more awesome you are than us. Excuse me while I go over here. Please don’t follow lol.
    Hogga recently posted..Hostel Drama in Costa Rica

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I’m glad I’m not alone in hating the stupid pissing contests!! That bugs me so much.

      I don’t really like labels either (mostly because they’re never true all the time), but, like you said, they get slapped on us regardless of whether we want them to or not!

  • Rebecca says:

    Ohmigod, love this post! I so fall into the same category as you, but in different ways. I travel light, but love plans and pretty much MUST have my own room. I hate people invading my space and am a super light sleeper. I am not much of a party’er and would never actively seek drinking out myself. And ohmigod, the pissing contest is THE WORST! What is the point of traveling all that way and not do anything because it’s not cheap?
    Rebecca recently posted..Random Weekend: Book: America Unchained

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I had no idea this post would get such a great response! It’s wonderful to know that so many others out there feel the same way I do!

  • Arti says:

    What a wonderful post. Outlying the travellers of all kinds. I think I do not fall in the backpacker category as I dont travel that light.
    Arti recently posted..My Guest Post for Indie Travel Podcast: 4 Things To Do In Jaipur!

  • EJ Juen Jr says:

    Hi, you have a great list of what a backpacker is, this made me think what my true identity is–as a traveler.

    Based on your definition, I’m a backpacker without a backpack. 🙂

    Or maybe I’m a shoulderpacker backpacker. lol
    EJ Juen Jr recently posted..What to do in Baguio City? – City Getaways

  • Jeremy says:

    Haha backpacker pissing contests! I’ve seen quite a few. It’s funny, though–the more I travel, the less “backpackery” I get. I’ve gotten tired of living the cheap life–I like to enjoy some of the nicer things while I’m on the move. It’s been two years since I’ve been gone and I find myself shelling out on things most backpackers would gasp at!
    Jeremy recently posted..Hiking the Franz Josef Glacier: A Photo Essay

    • DangerousBiz says:

      I don’t think becoming “less backpackery” is a bad thing, though! I know you and I have talked about it before, but I, too, like to splurge on things when I travel that many backpackers would probably shun me for! No shame.

  • Will says:

    I think you’re kinda-sorta the typical self absorbed American traveller. These are the types that other backpackers try to avoid. Irritating, insufferable bunch

    • DangerousBiz says:

      Well that’s slightly offensive. Why even bother commenting?

      I guess it just makes you the kinda-sorta stuck-up Internet troll whom I find irritating and insufferable.

  • John Skofield says:

    The problem I have had with the backpacking culture (and to me it is a culture) is the mentality of first everyone following the same beaten path, second, the way in which they lodge when even on an island in Fiji. To see signs like what time will be laundry pick up and specials on a black board and having a meeting about it with everyone just seeing it as perfectly normal. To me it’s a commune. Or a summer camp with restrictions. I felt so strange there in this island in the Yasawas that I sprinted for the chance to get away from everyone and headed to Taveuni Island.

    Another thing that annoys me is that you can get drunk in your home town or even your room with your buddies. Why would you travel miles away to do what you do at home. Stupid. (I have the same issue with the Sheratan hotel golfers who travel many miles to golf! who swim at the hotel pool when there is an amazing sea and reef just meters away in some cases on islands and nature also.)…stupid.

    I travel alone and try to avoid tourists and foreigners as much as possible. I usually work out a deal with a local to be my private guide and pay him or him well and venture off just the two of us and would just go on my own completely in some cases. I spend much time in nature or lodging in the middle of nature.

    Lastly what drives me nuts is when I am doing hard searches for those far off places that are off the backpacker trail (like Taveuni was some years back) I keep getting only the info that is geared to the backpacker culture or the expensive package tours 10-20 in a group culture…..both I avoid. But it is getting harder and harder to find exotic places non-touristed.
    Where is the info for the middle of the road spender who is not of the backpack culture?

    • Amanda says:

      Hey, don’t hate on the backpackers! Plenty of places wouldn’t even HAVE a tourism industry if not for those backpackers. I wouldn’t go so far as to call hostels communes, either. They are great places to meet people and stay on a budget. Maybe it’s a little different in Fiji, but hostels in the rest of the world aren’t all like that!

      (And also, if you’re traveling somewhere, hiring a guide, and seeing a place that is not your home culture, I’m sorry but you ARE a tourist. That’s kind of the definition of tourism…)

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