Are Travel Bloggers Fake Backpackers?

A few days ago I got an interesting e-mail from a reader: “You’re not a real backpacker, traveling with a laptop and an expensive camera goes against backpacking itself”.

What followed was a lengthy message about what constitutes as a real backpacker, in a few words, this guy’s romantic idea of a backpacker was of a perpetual vagabond that travels where his heart leads him and has no interest in visiting popular attractions or to take photos of his adventures.

Writing about the trip? Probably in a torn diary but never online. Yes, this reader was basically describing a hipster. The same type of person that skips the Taj Mahal for no other reason than because “it is too mainstream”.

What is a real backpacker?

While this reader’s e-mail was clearly biased against travel writers/photographers, his words sure got me thinking: Is the definition of “backpacker” now lost to general interpretation? If you’re a history buff, you probably know that the first backpackers were the hippies of the 60’s who followed the old-silk road of Asia with no material possessions other than their clothes.

Today? The typical gap-year student that drinks his way around Europe without immersing himself in the local culture can claim to be a backpacker. The professional travel photographer with a 2000 USD gear can also claim to be a backpacker. The expat that makes weekend getaways to nearby countries can also claim to be a backpacker.

In fact, I can claim to be a backpacker even though I hate backpacks and I always travel with a small wheeled luggage. I think that the point that this reader was trying to make is that in a world where everybody can claim to be a backpacker, it would seem that nobody is a real one.

Most people associate backpacking with budget travel in order to define it as the polar opposite of luxury travel but hey, that’s not entirely right since luxury travel can take many forms (to some people, first class is already luxury travel, to others, having your own private airplane is the real luxury travel) and it’s the same for backpacking.

Where do you draw the line for budget travel? Is paying less than 10 USD a day the real budget travel? Is working at the hostel for lodging and food the real budget travel? Is begging for money in the streets the real budget travel?

Who knows. Who cares.

Why you shouldn’t try to define backpacking

Traveling is your own personal journey of wonders and only you can decide what you want to be. Most people who claim to be “nomads” have absolutely nothing to do with the original definition of the word but in the end, I don’t really care about it and neither should you to be honest.

By defining a word, you’re limiting it. If you’re very stoic such as this reader, then you’ll have a hard time finding a “real” backpacker. To me, backpacking has no definition since it’s not a word, it’s a culture and there’s no way to define a particular culture.

There are backpackers who live to drink, backpackers who live to explore, backpackers who live to capture moments in photos, backpackers who cannot live without their smartphones, backpackers who cannot stand hostels, backpackers who go to Hard Rock Cafe, backpackers who document their travels in blogs such as this one and backpackers who simply cannot be defined.

Which type of backpacker are you?

Me hanging out with my Jain brother

Me hanging out with my Jain brother

82 Responses

  1. Manouk - Bunch of Backpackers

    Hi Raphael, interesting post! I think we’re all travelers, but I do think there is a classical definition of a backpacker and that it is: having a backpack and traveling low budget. But you’re right: there is no right or wrong! Let everyone enjoy the world in its own individual way. Personally, I love to travel independent, laid-back and adventurous. Worry-free. I enjoy contact with locals and fellow travelers. I like sleeping in hostels (because of the common rooms) and I’m not a big fan of carrying big electronic equipment ;). Only carry an old fashioned notebook with pen and my DSLR. No tablets, Iphones or laptops for me (I use the hostel computer once every few days). For me, that’s part of the travel joy (no social media/whatsapp addiction)! But like I said: there is no right or wrong:)!

  2. Karen Warren

    There are probably as many styles of travelling as there are travellers. I don’t think there’s any value in putting labels on people or saying what a ‘real backpacker’ should or shouldn’t do. Personally I usually take a backpack because I find them convenient but I’m not particularly low budget (although not at the luxury end either) and I suspect your correspondent would consider me far too old to be a real backpacker anyway!

  3. Dave Cole

    I don’t know if I’ve ever fit any of those definitions of “backpacker,” but I have certainly done budget travel. How one goes about the experience of travel is such an individual process that it would be a shame to force definitions on other travelers. Nice work!

  4. Globalmouse

    Really interesting post. I would agree with you, you can’t define a backpacker. In the vaguest of terms I would say that someone who travels with one bag and is fairly low budget. But I think this is so flexible. And ultimately, who cares? My backpacking days are behind me now I have young children, which will probably, to the person who questioned, you show in my next question!! – Where are those animal souvenirs from? Is it Oaxaca?! I love them!! :)

  5. Bianca @itsallbee

    I will never be a backpacker and I am fine with that. I hate back packs and every now and then have to carry one to stuff gym clothes or work laptops if I am sporting two. So travelling with a massive backpack was never going to be a way to travel. Like you said who cares! This person shouldn’t worry so much about the definition or living by whatever ‘real’ definition of a backpacker really is. Just enjoy travelling your way, whatever way that may be.

  6. jennifer

    I had a response forming in my head as I was reading this. But then Manouk’s reply made me alter it a bit.

    I was initially going to say that backpacking means many things to different people. I also use a wheeled bag, and while I do trips cheap, I do spend more than your average backpacker. I have never stayed in a dorm, but I will pick a private room in a hostel over a hotel. Most times. I don’t think you lose the spirit of backpacking based on what you carry your items in.

    But Manouk’s post makes me think that she has a great point. We are travelers. Two years ago, my Europe trip had me with only an mp3 player, a flip phone and a hand-me-down point and shoot camera.
    Last year, I upgraded and brought a netbook, my flip phone and my same hand-me-down point and shoot camera from the year before (that broke on day one – and had to be replaced on the spot by a cheapo point and shoot camera)

    For this year’s big trip, I have a smart phone (not by choice, I could not find a charger anywhere in NYC for my flip phone so I caved and got a smart phone, I hate it) and a laptop. Oh and my new fancy DSLR.

    The difference is, in year one I did not have a blog. Now I do and I want to update it when I am out. I also want to have decent pictures on it.

    So I think that if anyone wants to get nit picky about semantics with me, I am traveling more as a blogger than a backpacker. But honestly, it is just easier to say “backpacking” when talking to people outside the blogging community. It is a much more known term and doesn’t require follow up explanation.

  7. Tim

    I enjoyed your post Raphael however I think there is a definition of a backpacker type traveler. The problem is that over time that definition has become somewhat obsolete and therefore is a thing of the past; at least for those that were part of the initial iteration.

    Access to money, communication streams, instant news and responses, and various other technological progresses have changed the backpacking landscape. The idea of traveling and dropping off the face of the earth has all but disappeared. I miss that part of travel and it’s demise with the start of Hotmail.

    Flashpacking is a new term.

    That said I now enjoy traveling with a laptop and digital camera. Recording my adventures in ways that were impossible before. The act of travel, being independent, and escaping into the world have not changed; those are the main things.

    • Vesper

      Tim, I particularly found your reply useful to this post. Raphael is trying to show that the ‘backpacker’ term is more fluid, however, to say that there is no definition at all would be unwise. Perhaps it is more difficult to describe a backpacker in the modern world of travel where even poor college students and gap year kids have smart phones, but we can certainly try. If we take your comments into account – media, communications, and access to money, I think we are getting into a discussion about travelers who want to be low-budget movers and shakers while still having access to the perks of the high life. Most travelers in hostels are guilty on some level here. There are the occasional sing-for-my-supper guitarists and boho trashy-chic but they are far fewer these days.

      If one is keeping a small per diem budget, one may call themselves a backpacker but maybe the question we should ask is whether modern low-budget travel has evolved so much as to cancel the purist experience, rather than ask the definition of ‘backpacker.’ Isn’t the more interesting question to ask what kind of experience is one that is valuable? The statement you made is an essential one:

      “The idea of travelling and dropping off the face of the Earth has all but disappeared. I miss that part of travel…”

      So do I. I think there are some good answers we can come up with for this. Just because I live in a world which uses an overload of mixed media and commercial infrastructure to survive doesn’t mean I need to use all of that when I step off that plane into a new place. Perhaps I might use my laptop to write my Mom and e-mail about Machu Picchu but I don’t use it to instagram the latest capture of the village people. Perhaps I ‘skype’ my best friend at home, but I use my leather-bound journal to record my latest encounter with friendly Germans and un-friendly Italians on train bound for Venice? I think one of the best ways to encounter the ‘new backpacker’ is by meeting her in a conversation that doesn’t just talk about what the latest gossip is, but one who can put down her smart phone long enough to talk about what makes the world tick between people and cultures. Maybe we cannot abandon all technologies but we can connect and ‘drop off the face of the earth’ for moments at a time?

  8. megaworthit

    It’s reverse snobbery.
    If I want to call myself a backpacker, then I will. Is there a problem ? I guess that person has a problem with that. To me, each to his/her own way of travelling.

  9. Katelyn @ Diaries of a Wandering Lobster

    There is no right or wrong way to travel. And if you think that there is a wrong way to travel then chances are you’re a pretentious prick. I recently had a co-worker/friend tell me that she won’t stay anywhere less than a 4 star hotel. That completely rubbed me the wrong way, but, at the end of the day that’s how she likes to travel. I prefer to travel with a backpack, stay in hostels, bring my fancy camera, and experience the country as a local. And that’s just me. Great post! Hope to see you in Central America! :-)

  10. Emily

    Great post! There are so many different types of backpacking now – who cares what constitutes “real” backpacking! I travel with my laptop and camera, but they’re crammed into a backpack and I travel on a pretty low budget – usually staying in dorm rooms in spite of travelling with my boyfriend! Backpacking should be whatever you want it to be – and if I’m running a blog from the road it doesn’t mean I’m experiencing any less of the world!

  11. Shannon

    I can probably relate most to Manouk and Tim’s replies here. I can understand elements of what the person who sent the email meant. Of course I understand that high-tech cameras are fantastic for capturing memories, and that people may wish to bring a laptop with them if they will be travelling for a long period. However, I do feel that as social media and technology has increased, travelling has become less about travelling in the sense of exploring new places and really immersing oneself in a new culture, and more about a competitive display of wealth – ‘flashpacking’ as Tim described. Some people, at least of my age (21), wish to show off on Facebook or Instagram that they’ve been somewhere, but they haven’t necessarily ‘been’ there – just merely taken the photo as ‘proof’ and moved on without any further interest.

    I wrote about this theme in this post a few months ago, when I visited the Blue Lagoon in Iceland. ( Many people are bound to disagree with my view, but this is what I personally got from that experience. At the end of the day though, I think as long as you are genuinely making an effort to involve yourself in your new surroundings, it doesn’t matter how you travel. I guess that I personally will just always view the backpack as a symbol of travelling.

  12. Constance - Foreign Sanctuary

    Interesting post!! I think the definition of a ‘backpacker’ is used rather loosely these days and it means different things to different people. And I think documenting your trips with an expensive camera and writing/blogging with a laptop doesn’t make traveling any less of an experience.

  13. Jon @

    Nice post Raphael. I have no interest in labels but it does annoy me when some bloggers claim to be backpackers but get pretty much all their accommodation etc for free through sponsorship/advertising.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      That’s a very interesting argument, Jon! I haven’t been to a press trip yet so I’ll definitely share my thoughts about it once I do!

  14. Elena

    Everyone could be a backpacker! And there is such a big difference between their style of travelling and budgets – some who pay for a tour 10 times more than the real cost is (usually don´t speak the local language) and others, whose budget for the day is the 2-5$ they´ve made the same day selling some bracelets, empanadas or just busking on the street. And there is nothing wrong or right, just different budgets and experience. And we all enjoy it and think that our experience is unique!

  15. Anna

    At least I know I’m not the only one who hates backpacks haha. I always travel with a suitcase what causes a surprise and disapproval on other backpackers’ faces ;)

  16. Gwen

    Interesting! Until I read your article, I actually forgot that “backpacking” could be synonymous with low-budget travel. I am also a backpacker, but I only use the word to refer to multi-night treks in the wilderness! If I’ve got my bed (sleeping bag), my house (tent), and my cookware on my back, then that’s backpacking. However, I believe in England and most of Europe this would be called “trekking!” Although I have done low-budget travel to other countries via backpack, I’ve always called it “low-budget travel.” What’s in a name, anyway?

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      That’s interesting! To me, trekking is mainly used for climbing something (mountains, volcanoes, hills), as you said, same name, different meanings!

  17. tom

    Hey great post! Like you I hate labels, if you travel to another country by definition you become a tourist but plenty of snobby people like to think they are better than that.

    Having said that the term ‘backpacker’ or ‘backpacking’ historically means long low cost budget and independent travel. If you are rocking up to 5 star resorts staying in hotel suites and flying upper class then I guess you cant really say you are on a backpacking trip. As always though things do change over the years hence new terms being used such as flashpacker etc.

  18. Allan Wilson

    I always took ‘backpacker’ as a derogatory term, more so in Southeast Asia. In the west gypsies, tinkers and neds are all looked down upon. I just don’t see why anyone would aspire to be a backpacker or would pretend to be one if they are not. I travel a lot yet the thought of continuous travel is no more than horrible so on a tiny budget the backpacker life just sounds about as miserable as life gets.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      As far as I know, ned means non educated delinquent in the UK (something that has nothing to do with travel) and the term gypsy, a racial slur against Roma people has been appropriated by travelers who claim to be gypsies so I’m not sure if it’s offensive anymore. No idea about tinkers to be honest.

  19. Maria | Travelling Buzz

    “backpacking has no definition since it’s not a word, it’s a culture and there’s no way to define a particular culture.”, for me this is the most accurate explanation! Even though I don’t have much experience with travel I don’t think “backpacking” should be limited to one strict definition. Keep up the good work and greetings from Bulgaria!

  20. Kim

    Great post! I guess we all have our own view on the ways of the world. I have recently had people look at me funny when I had told them that my daughters and I were/had backpacked through Central America back to the states. They automatically thought I meant that I was throwing backpacks on myself and two daughters 16 & 12 and hitchhiking and camping back to the states…..and this was just their perception. Yes we threw some backpacks on but we did not hitchhike we bused and we stayed in hostels and hotels not camp in the wilderness. But to me we are backpackers that backpacked our way through Central America.

  21. JR

    I think you sum it up here: “Traveling is your own personal journey of wonders and only you can decide what you want to be.” This goes not only for backpacking but for any way you want to explore the world. Who is anyone to judge how you spend your money and time and then worry about the semantics under which category of travel it fits into? Anything that gets us out into the world to cross paths and connect with each other is all good! Peace!

  22. Sam

    Hahaha, yes, I agree: who cares?! Also, part of the problem is that the meaning of ‘backpacker’ (like the meaning of any word – that’s how language works) has changed since the 60s and is continuing to change. Be who you want to be, and ignore what everyone else says!

  23. Margherita @The Crowded Planet

    hahaha guys, this post made my night! I loved reading at all the ins and outs of this, another version of the old ‘traveller vs tourist’ debacle. Even though I’m past 30, I love budget travelling, staying in hostels and eating street food. I have a backpack and I hate suitcases, so am I a backpacker? I guess so, but those guys sleeping rough and living on $2-5 a day selling bracelets might say I’m not. The most important thing is that we all enjoy the journey! Thanks for the good read Raphael and everyone else who commented!

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      Age is never an obstacle in my opinion, I hope to backpack until I’m 90 years old. And even after that, I’ll probably be a wheelchair-bound wheel bag-packer :o

  24. Amber

    I wrote awhile back about the definition of flashpacker versus backpacker, looking to some bloggers as experts, and everyone does have their own definition, but so long as you are traveling on your own terms and doing what you love, who cares what you call yourself.

  25. Aggy

    Definitely a classic argument. There is just always people pickering about how to be “the perfect backpacker” and those who try to define what a backpacker is and how to be the “right type”.
    I wrote a similar post about this, and frankly for me, it really doesn’t matter! The point is that we all like to travel and it doesn’t really matter about the labels, it’s more about the experience and the lessons learned on the road.

    Thanks for writing this post!

  26. Lucy

    Really enjoyed this post, and it’s giving me a lot of mind fodder for an article I want to write on the continuing discussion of travellers vs tourists vs backpackers.

    I think the general conclusion that I’m reaching is that I just don’t give a shit (apologies for language!). Who cares what kind of travel you do? Who cares if you spend days scouring Angkor Wat and discovering its history or just drinking in the hostel lobby? It’s your life story, write it how you want it. I think the only problem I really have is the elitist snobbery that comes out of so many people’s mouths about how their style of travel is just so much better than anyone else’s. We’ve all done it – but why? Why should we care how other people travel?

    Anyway, thanks again for such an interesting post!
    Lucy xx

  27. Bob R

    Or, are backpackers fake travel writers? Or you can ask, Are travel bloggers real travel writers? Lots of questions. :)

  28. Jen

    My favorite line in your post was “Who cares.” Judgement and labels are never helpful to drive real conversation and understanding.

  29. Amber Ray

    I really enjoyed this post, great stuff for thought here!

    I guess I do kind of have a vague definition for “backpackers” in my head (mostly made up of qualities like traveling on smaller budgets and for longer periods of time), but I totally agree with you that there’s no reason to hem in the term. What really matters is what kind of traveler you consider yourself to be, and it’s not my place to judge that! What’s more, I don’t think it really matters whether one man’s “backpacking” is another man’s “luxury travel”… When I really think about it, even my own style of travel has changed over the years, but I don’t really think it changes how I label myself. Because at the end of the day, that’s all it is–labels we give ourselves.

  30. Angela Anderson (AngelaTravels)

    I have so much to say on this but so little at the same time. I think it is great you wrote this post. Just like there are luxury travelers, resort travelers, and budget travelers, there are many types of backpackers just like different types of travelers. I honestly say backpacking for overnight hiking/camping trips, but the term is interchangeable. Oh so many analogies I could use for similar examples of people’s interpretations of different things. As long as you know who you are and what it means to you, then kudos!

  31. SJ @ Chasing the Donkey

    I am no backpacker, and never have been. Shared rooms scare me. Being without my electronics scares me even more. But enough about me, you keep doing what you love, how you love it.

  32. City Sea Country

    I read your post a couple of days ago but couldn´t find the right answer to it. ;)
    I think it doesn´t matter if you call yourself a backpacker or not. What is relevant and important is having fun while traveling and don´t limit yourself by calling you a backpacker or not. We are all travelers, no matter if we are wearing a backpack or not, if someone (not me) travels with a Louis Vuitton suitcase or a plastic bag.
    It´s about traveling and everybody should have fun and do whatever pleases him or her.

    Thanks for this article and safe travels.

  33. Rashad Pharaon

    lol this was an awesome post and I loved the photos too. I don’t think anyone is qualified to set the “backpacking” rules. But… Raphael, didn’t you know? You’re a small-wheeled-luggage-packer! :D

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      Thanks to this article I found another two wheel bag-packers! I’m thinking about forming an Official Wheel Bag-Packers association in order to get sponsored by Samsonite haha

  34. Tam @ Travelling Book Junkie

    I hope that the person that emailed you wasn’t currently on their travels – that would be quite ironic considering they are commenting about taking some form of technology with you in order to be able to correspond with the outside world. When I think of backpacking, the initial imagine that comes to mind is someone that travels funnily enough with a back pack, which I have to say very often we do, however, we are not fans of hostels (preferring our tent or a hotel) and I think that in today’s world, where social media plays such an important part in daily life laptops and mobiles etc become the norm whether you are writing about you adventures or not and surely everyone wants to take pictures to have a gallery of images to reflect on when their travels come to an end :)

  35. Eva Maria

    I think that you cannot classify backpacking the same as you cannot classify people. Everyone is different and everyone will differently live his life, having his own rules and thoughts.

    But… I am not a backpacker yet. I have no backpack. That’s it!

  36. Brianna

    There is no right or wrong way to travel. Just do what you enjoy,its your trip. Travel isn’t a contest.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      I cannot believe how competitive some people get about travel! Whenever a conversation starts with “Did you visit (insert city name) ? You missed out the real (insert country name) if you didn’t!” I just want to hit someone.

  37. Alicia

    I must this post is quite interesting about backpackers. I believe there are now digital backpackers who write their travel experience in Macbook rather than in a diary. I cannot believe how the person miss the Taj Mahal because it was too mainstream.

    • Raphael Alexander Zoren

      Yes, it seems he was trying real hard to be seen as a “serious traveler” (seriously, what is a serious traveler?) instead of a tourist.

  38. Charlie

    Interesting debate, and some very good comments on this I thought! I think backpacker probably is a bit lost, especially with the evolution of flashpackers etc. In England we call it a rucksack, but ‘backpacker’ has definitely come into our language. I always avoid it and call myself a ‘traveller’ instead because it incorporates more types of travel I think.

  39. Daidri \ Thee Getaway Gal

    Well said!!!! I sure enjoy the way you give value to how someone else feels and thinks while kindly disagreeing. It’s respectful and well thought out. I couldn’t agree with you more, I think too often we try to hard to define things or words. My son set off for a backpacking trip on the Colorado Trail two weeks after graduating high school. He had his smart phone and a SPOT and I’m so glad he did. He wouldn’t journal wanting the experience to be his own but he definitely considered this backpacking and I couldn’t agree more. There’s no one way to do most things and I pray it never inhibits one persons thoughts of traveling. When we embark to see new parts of this world we should all embrace an open minded way of thinking.

  40. Vanessa

    I’m a little bit of all kinds of backpacker. I’ve done everything from camping and couch surfing to resorts. For me, it’s all about value. There’s no value in a filthy, dodgy hostel, no matter how cheap it is – there is likewise little value in a massive 4 star chain hotel when I could stay at a charming historic inn for the same price. Travel styles and formats have merged so much over the last decade it’s impossible to tell what’s what.