For information on travelling through uninhabited areas, sleeping in tents or cabins, see wilderness backpacking.
Backpackers take their name from the large rucksacks they typically use to carry their belongings while traveling. They generally favor an independent and grassroots style of travel, staying in hostels with dormitory-style facilities or in other types of low-budget accommodation.
New backpacker hot spots now include Eastern Europe, China and the South Pacific. China can be extremely difficult without a local knowledge or language skills. However a new independent travel network, Dragon Bus China, has been developed by westerners with an intricate knowledge of China that may well satisfy your independent travel desires
Backpacking works best in areas where public transportation is readily available, both between cities and within them (such as much of Europe). Where private automobiles dominate (as in much of North America) or transport in general is sketchy (as in much of the developing world), you'll depend more on hitchhiking to get from place to place, which can be less dependable and less safe.
Backpackers are renowned for their desire to travel large distances at the least expense possible. Popular means of travel include:
- Rail is often convenient for both short and longer journeys. Try to plan your journey to avoid very busy trains, as trains can be full with passengers standing close together. Some trains require seat reservation, and you may need some planning to avoid a surcharge or to get a ticket before they are outsold. On a quieter train there is often plenty of room for luggage and a chance to walk around during the trip. In some countries train tickets are cheaper when bought well in advance.
- Ferries are a normal part of voyages in some parts of the world.
- Local buses are useful for getting the last few miles to your destination. Longer distance buses and coaches provide an alternative to rail journeys, sometimes saving money, often at the expense of comfort. In some countries long distance services require reservations and every passenger has a seat and cannot be as packed as buses and trains without mandatory reservation.
- Backpacker tours allows travelling with like minded travellers, but you are less likely to meet locals than on a bus or train.
- Hop-on hop-off transport
You might not be able to carry more than a few days' worth of clothing, due to limited storage space, and laundry facilities where you're staying could be expensive or non-existent (or at least difficult to find).
To address the concern, many backpackers will bring a few pairs of "quick-dry" or "travel" underwear which is designed to be washed in the sink and hung up to dry overnight. If you have access to a sink every day, you could get away with packing only two pieces of underwear! Pack detergent in a suitable small container. If you lost yours, you may be able to buy detergent in travel-sized packaging (check that it can be closed tightly).
There are also travel-sized detergents you can buy to facilitate washing your own clothes.
Other essential pieces of clothing include:
- Trousers. There are many fairly conservative countries (or cultures within countries) where wearing shorts in public is not well looked upon, and even in places where shorts are accepted, wearing shorts is a dead giveaway that you are a tourist. Also, many traditional places of worship such as Buddhist temples or Christian cathedrals require visitors to cover their thighs. A dress gives less protection against mosquitoes and the like, but may be more comfortable in hot climates.
- Sleeved shirt. Along the same vein as long pants, cathedrals and temples may not allow entry if you're wearing a tank top or midriff-baring t-shirt.
- Cargo pants. Pockets are handy. Also, you can get cargo pants that are easy to wash and dry (jeans, on the other hand, take forever to dry) and have a zipper around the leg which allows you to convert pants into shorts very quickly. For the maximum utility out of one piece of clothing this would be a good option to explore.
- Black shoes. They're not great to hike around in, but some nightclubs have a strict dress code and you won't be able to get in without them.
- Party shirt. Like the black shoes, have one piece of clothing for a night on the town.
- Pyjamas or clothes that can be used as such; you will probably often use lodging with shared bedrooms (dorms) or shared bathrooms.
All that said, the most important rule when it comes to clothing is to pack smart. You're not preparing for a disaster, nor are you out to impress anyone with your wardrobe (except for the party shirt). Take as few pieces of clothing as possible, and reuse them as often as possible. You also don't need to carry everything from home: if you are travelling to a low-income country, chances are you find better clothes for a cheaper price at your destination. Just pack what you need until you know enough to do the shopping.
See also the Packing List travel topic.
Unlike the business traveller who can expect his upmarket hotel to provide full services, you need to carry:
- a towel and soap
- a clothes line for your laundry
- a padlock for lockers
- linen – in some parts of the world many hostels do not provide bed sheets or charge for providing them.
A sarong is lightweight and remarkably versatile – beach blanket, wrap, furniture cover.
Backpackers often purchase raw ingredients locally and cook their own meals, as this is the cheapest option. Many hostels have kitchens and cooking utensils for this purpose. Kitchen etiquette demands:
- Don't dominate shared resources, such as refrigerator space, stove space, pots, etc.
- Don't steal shared cookware.
- Wash pots, pans, dishes, silverware, etc. immediately after you use them.
- If you have food, utensils, or anything else you don't need anymore, consider donating them.
- Write your name (and date) on anything you put in a shared refrigerator, and don't leave it there to get moldy.
Some hostels provide food to their guests. This may be included in the price of a bed, or it may be an additional purchase.
Backpackers also patronize street vendors and inexpensive restaurants. Some establishments give discounts to guests of nearby hostels.
Backpackers all over the world are generally renowned for their drinking of alcoholic beverages. However, this is usually limited to local beer and other low cost drinks. Don't overdo it, and respect local customs.
In some areas tap water or water in the wild are unsafe. Plan how to cope. Have refillable bottles for when you get to a good source, and be considerate if you have to use bottled water. In some regions tea is readily available, and as it has been boiled, it may be much safer than water.
Accommodation standards in the backpacker price range vary for each region of the world. Europe, New Zealand and Australia have some of the best types of backpacker hostels, whilst the USA is gradually embracing the backpacking culture and outside of major tourist cities, motel accommodation is more common.
Asia is relatively cheap and backpackers favour staying in hotels or local homestays.
South Africa has a high standard when it comes to backpackers. They are very popular amongst young travellers who come to South Africa. Most of the backpackers are found in Cape Town and along the garden route. They are seen as very safe and secure and a great place to meet new people.
Youth hostels and budget hotels are the best bets for inexpensive accommodation in much of the world. Hostels are dorm style accommodations ranging anywhere from private rooms to sleeping 16+bed sleepers. You may give up some privacy with shared bathrooms and even shared rooms, but it also gives you a chance to meet fellow travelers. Backpacking has traditionally been very basic, but more "resort-like" purpose-built-residences also known as "flashpackers" have emerged.
Bringing a tent and camping out can bring a backpacking trip down from "affordable" to "cheap". One problem is that campsites tend to be on the outskirts of cities, or downright away from cities, far from sights you might want to see, and may not be served well by local public transportation. They often have all the natural charm of a parking lot and all the modern comforts of – a parking lot. OK, usually with a group bathroom and showers, laundry facilities of some kind, and maybe a place to get snacks. In many places, most of your camping neighbors will be car/caravan/camper users, but some sites will have an area set aside for tents. Ask about rates before booking a stay; they may charge you as much for your 2-person tent as for a 30-foot RV.
See staying safe.
Most backpacks and some clothing should be treated with insecticide to reduce risk of various annoyances and of infections spread by bugs.