What Is Today’s Backpacker And Why There Is a Need For New Name

Note from Editors: In view of the current situation, please avoid all unnecessary travel and try to stay home. Don’t worry, like all things, it will end at some point and you’ll be able to travel again. In the meantime, check out what you can do while staying at home.

Many things have changed in the world since the first independent travelers ventured off into unknown a few decades ago…

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When hippies were discovering the Asia, Africa, South America or even Eastern Europe, travel was harder and they were immersed in the foreign culture. They may have a small budget, but the means of international transport were no cheap thing, so they had to do it unconventionally. The communication with home and Western world was harder, local language was easier to pick up when there was no Google translate to aid their hand gestures. Most of all, almost all of the roads were less-travelled or off-the-path.

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This is no longer true in majority of places around the globe, and thus backpackers evolved.

What it meant to be a backpacker

Backpackers were a different breed than what they are now. The experience was more focused on local people and learning their customs, cultures and languages. Since there were nearly no western restaurants abroad, backpackers had to eat what they’re offered. Even information on how to get from one place to another had to come from a local or fellow backpacker who has already done something similar, but it was much harder to find the latter. Lonely planet books became popular not so long ago, so preparation for such a journey took more than $20 in a book store.

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People who had passion for discovery, mostly carrying huge backpacks, were proud to be independent travelers on low budget. They came up with a name backpacking and felt an instant liking for people who did what they did. It meant something to be a backpacker, so much so it became mainstream now. And all of it was true as recently as 10-15 years ago.

What backpackers do now

Technological advancements made it easy to share information, cheap international flights made it easy to travel far, and mass media including internet made it easy to share information. Foreign independent long-term travel became cheaper, faster, safer and much more common. It’s even much easier to develop online source of income to support travels.

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So what backpackers tend to do now (not all, of course)? Party, and party they do. Seems like the easier access to backpacking and the fact that it became mainstream did the term no good deed. Instead of immersion in a foreign culture, young people just before going to university, or just after graduating, go on long vacation to party just like at home. The difference is that they call them selves backpackers, but instead of learning the new culture, they abuse the lesser regulation to do things they wouldn’t do at their home countries.

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For example, once a peaceful island of Koh Phangan in Thailand is now a backpacking destination where thousands of young people go to drink beyond any limit. The societies of such destinations change dramatically from hospitable and welcoming to greedy and loathing Western culture. No wonder, anyone who visited Vang Vieng in Laos can see it on peoples’ faces. Money is not what these local people were brought up to value the most, but since that’s the only good thing that is left for them after the visitors leave – they’ve learned to use it.

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Backpackers now are mostly people who travel to foreign countries to party and meet other backpackers. It’s only a wild break from their family and time to do things they’d be scared or ashamed to do back home. Of course I’m not saying that a traveller cannot drink, but if majority of the journey is spent drunk, it’s as good as staying at home.

What are the alternatives

Well, for one people who do this should revise what they call themselves – “drinkpacker” should work. Then again, there are already other names in use, such as “flashpacker” or “poshpacker”. I personally call myself tramp. This is a word that rarely anyone would like to be called in their city, but for me it means much more than a homeless. In the context of a traveller, it’s someone temporarily homeless so that they can have more freedom. It’s inspired by Into the Wild where the main character called himself Alexander SuperTramp.

What do you think about today’s backpackers? What other names can you suggest for independent long-term travelers?

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Agness Walewinder
Agness Walewinder
Travel freak, vagabond, photography passionate, blogger, life enthusiast, backpacker, adventure hunter and endless energy couchsurfer living by the rule "Pack lite, travel far and live long!"
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81 thoughts on “What Is Today’s Backpacker And Why There Is a Need For New Name”

    1. Agness Walewinder

      The point is more about the attitude, but it would be awesome to come up with a new name with no label attached.

  1. I don’t know if the name is important. Just because some kid bought an expensive backpack to go to Thailand and play up for a week, doesn’t mean he’s/she’s a backpacker.
    I hope that today most people can tell the difference between real travellers trying to be educated about the world and it’s cultures, and some drunken gap year kids.
    Sadly though they are giving us a bad name in many countries, as we are now seen as ATM machines and nothing more….it’s a tough one!

    1. Agness Walewinder

      I know. I felt like a cash-point in Vietnam where people were trying to rip me off all the time. So frustrating.

  2. Great article and very thought provoking Agness.

    The article brings back memories for me of 1993 when I went interrailing around Europe for a month with a backpack. This was before the days of the internet and we had a “Let’s Go” guide as our source of information. We experienced various cultures and tasted life in each country. We also made mistakes with travel planning and became stuck for a whole day in Milan station since the rail company said our tickets were only valid for night travel unless we paid a surcharge. We were on a budget so had to wait until the night.

    This culture of going somewhere hot/warm/different just to get drunk is a great shame. It also gives the countries where these people originate from a bad reputation. In many tourist spots of Spain and Greece the Brits have a bad reputation because they get drunk and misbehave in the claim of having fun on holiday.

    Backpacker/holiday maker, what ever the term for me it does not matter. People (as you point out) should always respect the local customs and cultures. Ignorance of these cultures is totally disrespectful and can land you in a lot of trouble/jail.

    Julia, I think the point is more about the attitude rather than the name applied to these people who travel.

    1. Agness Walewinder

      So true, many thanks for sharing. I also think the name does not matter here. It’s all about your travel attitude and lifestyle.

  3. An interesting read. You are so right, so many people abuse that name and instead of learning the culture, they drink and drink. Like so many people do in Kuta, Bali. While they are in one of the most exotic islands in the world, all they care about it seems is cheap alcohol and getting wasted on the beach. Such a shame.

  4. Interesting post guys. I also think it depends on the location as to what kind of traveller you will find. We found South America didn’t have many of these ‘drinkpacker’ types as there were more adventure sports around like hiking etc. Once we got up to Central America and the warm weather there was a lot more of the type of traveller who just drinks every night. And I must say in these warm climates it can be hard to resist at times too but a traveller should always be respectful of the locals and the fact you are in their community. It is a shame these travellers have ruined some beautiful places and given westerners a bad name, namely Kuta in Bali and parts of Thailand.

  5. The beginning of this post reminds me to a German lady in the middle 50’s that I meet in Hong Kong last year. She was telling me when she used to travel 30 years ago, it took her 3 months to reach Hong Kong first time. That day only a couple of hours. Before it was no internet or international calls. She had to write letter to her mum to let her know that she was alive.
    We are changing with the new technologies and losing part of the “innocence” of the former backpackers.
    Still, it makes it a personal internal trip for everyone.
    But yes, I will ban travel for people who not respect the local customs, no matter which name they use to call themselves!!!!!!! :X

    1. Agness Walewinder

      Great story Noelia! So true, we do really change with the new technology, sometimes it’s not a good change though.

  6. It’s sad to say, but this is the main reason I cancelled a trip to Thailand last year. The thought of bumping into these drunken made me shiver! I’d love to be around genuine locals, but as many of us have experienced, in some places they got used to the drunk kids and as a result have little respect for Westerners – our fault, really, rather than locals’. In recent months I’ve been called a “traveller” by many people and, although too broad a name, I think it describes most of us who like more than just party.

  7. Great reflective post here Agness! I never really thought of a way to describe a backpacker. For me backpacking is about putting on a backpack and heading out into the world to explore. I had no idea that the term backpacker these days is associated with people who drink and party abroad with other backpackers. If that’s the case, then I don’t want to be classed with them!! I don’t want to do that!! I’ve most recently gone backpacking to places like Nagorno Karabakh, Iraq, Iran and Azerbaijan. To me that should be the real backpacking – heading off into the sunset with a backpack and your camera. To places where there are likely to be no other backpackers! Be interesting to see other people’s opinions and comments. Safe travels. Jonny

    1. Agness Walewinder

      Not every backpacker is associated with drinking and partying abroad with other backpackers, but the majority of them, especially whose who travel in Asia.

  8. Very good point, I remember using the term ‘backpacker’ in an interview I once did and it actually offended the person I was writing about! Still not sure what the best term to replace it is though as everyone has their own distinctive travelling styles.

  9. Hitch-Hikers Handbook

    You are absolutely right in everything you wrote here. Great post, Agness!

    People love labelling themselves and even more so if they do something considered counter-culture or not mainstream. I’ve noticed that more and more people call themselves “digital nomads” nowadays, as the term “backpacker” is getting slightly less trendy.

    Things are also changing in the world of hitchhiking. Fifty years ago it was much more difficult to know where to stand to catch a lift as there was no HitchWiki, obviously, but on the other hand there were less motorways and people were generally more open towards this form of travelling… or at least this is what all the hitchhiking veterans we meet on the road say.

    1. Agness Walewinder

      Yes, everything’s changing nowadays. I really hate labeling, but it’s so true in most cases…

  10. I can see this article be in the middle of an heated conversation. I have to agree with you that the way backpackers travel nowadays is completely different, information is available everywhere online so it’s super easy to travel. A lot of people only like partying I agree with you, but there are many others (like myself for instance) that really enjoy discovering the local culture, experience it, look for hidden gems and so obvious spots. I think we are travellers no matter how and what we look for.

    1. Agness Walewinder

      I can totally relate France. I also really enjoy discovering the local culture, experience it, look for hidden gems and so obvious spots :).

  11. This is a very interesting post. I visited Vang Vieng in Laos a couple of years ago and absolutely hated it. I don’t really get why people would travel half way around the world to get drunk and/or high, but if that’s what they want to do, at least they shouldn’t damage the local environment and make it an uncomfortable place for the locals to live.

  12. santafetraveler

    I don’t think “tramp” will catch on. I think there are still some old-style backpackers out there. And just as many other terms evolve- perhaps this one has, too. If you travel with a pack on your back and no other luggage- I think you are sill a backpacker.

  13. Mike | Earthdrifter

    Drives me a tiny bit nuts when people assume I want a beer because I am a traveler. It is another way for them to profit off of something though. I I tend to drink once in a while, almost always spontaneously when I come across the right people somewhere. I do think it is awesome to try local specialities. For example Pisco in Peru, or deep, dark and rich red wine in Spain or the south of South America. As for the word backpacker, I am hoping that ‘earthdrifter’ will catch on and maybe even be in the dictionary one of these years. :-)

  14. IndieTraveller Marek

    Interesting thoughts :) I do think it would be nice to have a distinction between travelling ONLY to party and travelling to have a travel experience.

    But let’s also not glorify the past. Those trail-blazing hippies in the 70s may have established ‘true backpacking’… but they also very much went to countries where pot and other substances were easily available. Kind of like a party backpacker looking for cheap booze, right?

    And did they always eat the local food? Nope… that’s where the term Banana Pancake Trail came from.

    Personally, I find myself having a schizophrenic existence on the trail. I am very much excited by the idea of experiencing other cultures, exploring, and doing something meaningful, and I pursue those things often. But then I also end up in a bucket bar every now and then. Partying for me is not the goal of travelling, but after days or weeks of serious travel I also seriously need to let loose a bit.

    1. Agness Walewinder

      Marek, I totally agree with having a distinction between travelling ONLY to party and travelling to have a travel experience. Thanks for sharing, really interesting thoughts.

  15. Stefania @The Italian Backpacker

    “Drinkpacker” really is the right name for them! I shiver at the idea of meeting some: they look so silly to me! I love the idea of travelling independently on the cheap and meet other travellers. I think that’s the essence of the original “backpacking” experience. It’s just so bad that people are doing gap years just to say ‘I have been to Laos, or Thailand’, but make little effort to respect and to get to know the culture. I think I would feel out of place in a place like Vang Vieng.

  16. I’ve never traveled cross country or through a country with a backpack. But, I did do a lot backpacking in the back country many years ago. What boggles my mind is all of the light weight gear and equipment you guys are now able to take with you! Good post, Agness. Love the JD t-shirt, Cez! :)

  17. Into The Wild is one of my favourite films, but it’s also one that always manages to bring a tear to my eye. You make some very valid points here about the definition of the term “backpacker”. Intrepid travellers who immerse themselves in the local culture and embrace the change of environment, culture, and lifestyle are still out there but they are becoming a much rarer breed amongst those who call themselves backpackers. Nowadays anyone who travels with a backpack seems to be classed as a backpacker. Sometimes when I travel I feel embarrassed to be a Westerner. I have met a lot of ‘backpackers’ who spend their days and nights at their local hostel, drinking the local beer because they are ‘on a budget’. Yet it costs money to drink beer, money which in my opinion would be better spent catching a local bus to a local market and interacting with the locals. I agree with Ardun in that it does depend on which area you travel to as to what kind of treveller, or ‘backpacker’ you find, but things are definitely changing.

    1. Agness Walewinder

      I know this feeling Kiara when you feel embarrassed to be a Westerner. It happens to me quite often in China and during my Asia travels.

  18. Perhaps we’re looking at backpacking in the past with rose-tinted glasses, but you’re spot on about the impact that the party bunch has had on developing societies.

    The drinkpackers do what they do because they can party irresponsibly and get away with it thousands of miles from home. Think of it this way and you realise that such people can come from anywhere and can be found everywhere, including Europe, and in large enough numbers they make the atmosphere really unpleasant. It’s their choice, not ours to make, but not enough people realise the consequences of their choices.

    I’m still alright with being called a backpacker, however. It still connotes frugality (and I try to be as frugal as possible on the road without compromising my physical well-being), and I don’t feel the need to create a new category to distance myself from the party bunch.

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