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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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?