Why Backpacking Is Great (And Other Myths)

I wrote this horribly opinionated, elitist, provocational polemic last year, and have been wondering what to do with it ever since. There may be nuggets of truth in there somewhere, but please don’t take it too seriously!

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From the outset – I don’t think I’m a particularly unconventional person. I just think it’s worth approaching the world with a skeptic’s eye, and I detest laziness, ignorance and complacency. This outlook tells me that conventions are there to be questioned.

Here is an assortment of travel-related myths that I’ve come across:

1. Travelling = Backpacking

“Let’s get straight to the heart of the matter. If we want to go travelling, we need “stuff”. Common sense requires that we immediately start thinking about our luggage. After all, it’s going to carry everything we need – laptop, mobile, cameras, etc. And so it follows that the solution to our kit-carrying dilemma should be a bloated sack of straps and strangely-shaped padding that attaches firmly to one’s back.

“I mean, what other options are there anyway?”

2. Travelling = Public Transport

“Now we need to move our stuff. Easy! There’s this great idea of public transport. It means you have to share, and you have to pay someone to do the actual work; and of course you can’t just go to any old place – you have to go wherever’s available, or at least somewhere on the route.

“But all of that is far better than the alternative, which is to do it all ourselves by some form of independent transportation.”

3. Travelling = Paying To Sleep

“We’ve got our stuff, and we’ve got a way to get it from A to B. But what happens when we get to B? We need somewhere to sleep, eat, drink, and be the social creatures that we were born to be. Luckily, most inhabited places will have some form of accommodation available for people just like us, and food as well, and all we have to do is pay the proprietor to sort it all out for us.

“This clearly beats the alternative, which is to make tedious preparations to – well, to sleep rough in any old place, or cook (hah!), which just wouldn’t do at all, and would be completely impractical and usually impossible anyway.”

4. Travelling = Cities

“Stuff – check. Transport – check. Accommodation – check. But where are we actually going? Well, city would have everything we needed in terms of food and accommodation, and doubtless much of the interesting stuff we have to see is going to be in places like museums, and all museums are in cities. Plus, people speak English, there’ll be free Wi-Fi, and public transport easily takes you from one to the next – perfect!

“Anyway, there’s nothing interesting to see out in the middle of nowhere, even if we could get there, which we can’t.”

5. Travelling = Lonely Planet

“But how on earth are we going to know what to see, how to find accommodation or transport, in these exotic lands with strange alphabets and languages? Surely the answer lies in a guidebook! A guidebook is full of useful information about interesting places that someone else has already found and compiled in order to enhance your travelling experience in exchange for money. A guidebook will tell us what is worth seeing and will even plan our itinerary for us, given the time we have in this place.

“Great!”

6. Travelling = Planning

“Thanks to our guidebook, we know exactly how long it will take to see the interesting places we’ve chosen to see. It logically follows that there is no point allowing extra time, because there won’t be anything else we want to do. We can plan the next long journey by public transport so that everything is already sorted. And we can book all our plane tickets ahead of time, because we already know where we’re going to be and exactly how long we’re going to stay in order to see the interesting stuff.

“This trip is starting to sound awesome!”

7. Travelling = Travellers

“The great thing about this guidebook and planning stuff is that the guidebooks tell us exactly what times of year to visit places, and the very best places to stay, and because they’re so popular we can be sure to meet other people doing exactly the same stuff.

“This is great, because we’ll easily find drinking buddies, and it will mean we can speak English, which is a clear improvement over having to learn other languages and even alphabets, or miming or that sort of thing.”

Al Salam Camp, Luxor, Egypt

OK, so maybe I’ve heard one story too many about extended binge-drinking holidays to Thailand/Goa/Australia/Mexico masquerading as ‘travel’. Cycling isn’t the be-all and end-all (walking, skiing, rafting, horse-riding or unicycling would be good too), but if you have a working pair of legs, there’s not much else which comes close.

Why Bicycle Travel Is Better Than Backpacking

Gone is the spine-bending monolith strapped to your back that labels you as yet another stinking rich Westerner. Your bike will carry everything you need, and won’t complain about it, because it’s the most efficient vehicle ever designed.

Gone is the reliance on other people as your means to get around. You’re the engine, and you’re holding the handlebars. Food is your fuel. If there’s a road, it’s yours. If there isn’t, it doesn’t necessarily stop you either.

Gone is the nagging little voice that spends the whole day reminding you to find a bed. You’ll start thinking about it about an hour before sunset, ask a farmer or find a good spot yourself, and be all set for the night.

Gone are the cities you’re unceremoniously dumped in every time you get off the plane, train or bus. You’ll live your life at ground level, sharing with rural folk the elements, the seasons, and often a drink, a meal or a night indoors at their invitation.

Gone is the way that the joy and beauty of the world has been reduced to a bundle of pages on the shelf of a bookstore. You’ll experience the process of organic, unguided discovery, rather than the strange obligation to appreciate what somebody else discovered and then sold you instructions on how to replicate.

Gone are the pre-planned itineraries. Travelling free means shunning the attempted packaging of organic, imperfect reality into “sights”, “activities” and “places” that strips the soul out of the continuous experience of life. You’ll travel at your own pace, appreciating what touches you personally, rich beyond measure in the luxury of time .

Gone are the self-perpetuating pockets of Western isolation. You’ll always be a foreigner in someone else’s ordinary world. You’ll go for months without using your mother tongue. And if that sounds difficult and scary, it’s actually fulfilling and refreshing.

And that’s without mentioning the extreme level of fitness that comes with taking 6-8 hours of exercise a day, or the 5,000 calories you will eat in the same duration without worrying about your waistline.

In Conclusion

Actually – STOP! Forget all that. Please, keep your backpack! Don’t travel how I and others have chosen to travel. We’re still the lucky minority. And we want to keep it that way.

6 Responses to “Why Backpacking Is Great (And Other Myths)”

  1. Pete

    I agree with all of this of course.

    Also, I struggle with the words “Traveller” or “Backpacker”. I think they have been invented because “Tourist” has come to have negative conotations. But cycle tourist is right. You are a tourist who happens to travel by bike.
    “I have been travelling for six months.” = “I have been on holiday for six months.”

    Lonely Planet is another pet hate of mine! They are almost always unnecessary for almost anyone. And all the maps are rubbish.

    Reply
    • Tom

      You’re right. I’m on a tour, and on a bike, so I’m a cycle-tourist. But at what point does one stop being a tourist? I came to Yerevan in the same manner as any other city I visited. Now I’ve rented a flat here and I live and work here semi-permanently. Am I still a tourist? Is there a time-limit for stops after which you are no longer on a tour? How long do I have to be doing something before it can be described as normal life, rather than a break from normal life? Is it just all semantics? Questions, questions… 🙂

      Reply
  2. Pete

    Yeah it is all semantics. But the meaning of words can be important. “Change is as good as a holiday” so the expression goes. There’ll be blurred lines of course but I think heading off around Oz with a working-visa, and doing a bit of fruit picking, still counts as a holiday! Perhaps if you spend the majority of your life touring then the settled working time becomes the holiday? I don’t know…
    It is just worth being aware that some words like “traveller” or “backpacker” are a bit pompous. In my opinion they are being used to make out that the person in question is somehow superior to someone on holiday for a week or two.

    Reply
  3. marci

    Elitist (as you’ve identified) since not everyone has the option to travel like this. Frankly, I’m envious. I wouldn’t be safe traveling this way, as a petite woman.

    Provocative (as you identified) enough to raise some good questions. I’ve definitely heard the voices that you’re quoting, and they irk me too.

    Opinionated (yes), but that’s what makes it interesting. Glad you’re out there!

    Reply
  4. Sheila

    On the subject of being careful of how we use words, I have to point out that “Travelling for six months” does not equal “Being on holiday for six months”. Some people travel to make their living (it is their work, regardless of whether or not they love or hate their job), some travel in order to offer their skills for humanitarian projects, some to fulfill religious obligations (whole-family pilgrimages in the hopes that the sick family member they’ve been carrying on their shoulders is healed when they arrive), some travel weeks to get to the nearest health clinic, some travel from place to place because they have no home and their vouchers at the local homeless center have been exhausted (time to move on again), some travel to escape literal death or torture (their life depends upon it), some travel stealthily to cross borders in order to find work to support their families, some are nomadic because it has been their tradition for centuries……and the list goes on. My point being, the word “traveler” can apply to a whole range of people in the world and we should not assume that because one travels they have expendable incomes and/or that the time they travel is exempt from angst or work or obligations.
    On the subject of travelling in relation to those who are privileged enough to travel for pleasure or adventure (and that’s regardless of if they have expendable incomes or not), I think there are, most definitely, superior ways of travelling. I don’t think it’s elitist at all to challenge people to take a good hard look at their assumptions about what it means to be a “traveler”. In fact, I think we need to do it more often in the context of travel forums, on our blogs and in the midst of fellow “adventurers”. To be clear, that doesn’t mean I think one traveler/person is more superior to another. But the truth is, we do have choices and how we chose to travel reflects our priorities and values.
    Want to travel in a way that completely exploits our environment and other people? Make our highest priority how cheap we can get our gear, clothing and transportation, without paying attention to how many human rights violations or atrocities were inflicted in order to provide the item or service. Hop on a plane despite the huge negative impact upon the environment. Drive from place to place. Don’t venture into local neighborhoods to buy from local businesses (just buy from the gift shops in your hotel). Drink and dance the night away in our newly purchased clothing we paid almost nothing for down the road. Talk about how horrible it is when we see poor people begging on the roads and feel a little sick when we see the shacks they live in but don’t connect the dots between how we’re choosing to live affects their lives.
    Those who travel under their own or renewable power and in the least aggressive manner possible are expressing different values than those who fossil-fuel-power themselves from place to place. And the hard truth is that one way is better than the other on both an environmental and sociological level. Those who still don’t make that connection are the ones “on holiday”.

    Reply
    • Tom

      Well written, and I couldn’t agree more.

      I admit my own guilt in having gone for the cheapest imported clothing and gear at various points in the past, when I wasn’t quite as aware of the consequences of that kind of consumption habit. Now, I still keep my costs down by not buying a lot of anything, but I have no problem spending more when I DO buy things in order to support small businesses who put passion over profit and want to keep doing what they do. I’ve been boycotting big retailers more or less entirely since the start of the year. Ultimately, that’s what I want to do myself, and what anyone looking for a bit more meaning in their livelihood wants to do, so it would by hypocritical not to contribute to its sustenance.

      It’s almost impossible to avoid it entirely, especially on the road in the U.S.A, but… step by step.

      Reply

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