Is Backpacking Changing Or Am I?

Solo female backpacker traveler safety

As you read this lament of a not so modern day backpacker I hope you will excuse this brief sojourn into my grown up self as I mourn the loss of my twenties – and even early thirties – and embrace my inner grumpy old man.

I have been backpacking a long time now, over ten years now in fact, and in that time I have seen so many changes in the world and in the backpacker community. More people are travelling independently now, and that is a great thing, but as modern technology has advanced and time has moved on, the way in which people travel has inexorably changed too.

I remember a time when travel was simpler, or at least it seemed to be. Back when ‘The Beach’ wasn’t nostalgic, when digital cameras were still a relatively new thing and mobile phones only came in the old Nokia brick versions (and in fact were still just phones, maybe with a snake game if you were really fancy). I started travelling back when Lonely Planet was still the bible and the only thing you had to do to find somewhere quiet, cheap and out of the way was head somewhere that wasn’t mentioned in their accommodation section. I even remember when to use the internet you had to seek out one of the many internet cafe’s scattered around popular backpacker haunts, and to call home you had to find an IDD phone, often in the back of an internet cafe.

Yes, I’m old. Shut up.

I mourn for that simpler time sometimes. Like some aging uncle Albert muttering ‘during the war’, I find myself increasingly shuffling round the hostels and guesthouses grumbling to myself and shaking my head at the folly of youth as I contemplate another upgrade to a private room. Sod it, I have a career now, I can afford it!

That’s what happens, right? Or that is what is supposed to happen anyway. The hostels are just for the young, so they say. I’m not in my twenties any more, I’m not supposed to want to stay in a dorm, I’m supposed to want my creature comforts damnit! As you get a little older and hopefully a tiny bit richer you are suddenly supposed to want a little bit more comfort, a private room with an en suite and a power shower. Presumably to soothe away all the aches and pains of my supposedly creaking bones after trying to keep up with the youngsters on yet another jungle trek.

Never mind that despite the fact I do occasionally want a nice private room in a guesthouse, I still might want to sleep in a hostel too sometimes! Hell, I may even want to sleep in a grand luxury hotel, a tree house in the jungle or a Buddhist monastery if the mood takes me, in fact I still do! I think that backpacking is about living the full range of experiences out there, not just limiting yourself to one class or type of accommodation because of a label. But then I’m getting old, what do I know? Oh that’s right, stay away from the hostels!

Maybe it’s for the best. You can’t even have a decent conversation in hostels anymore. The common rooms used to be filled with people, some occasionally reading a book or writing in a journal, but mostly conversing. Backpackers and travellers from all over the world swapping stories, giving tips and advice, telling tales and telling each other of new places to discover and see. Even activities like playing pool or watching a badly pirated DVD on a small communal TV were often done as a group. Everyone was welcome.

Now of course it is an entirely different experience. Instead of a whole range of new, friendly faces that greeted you in every dorm room all you see is a swathe of tablets as everyone stays in their own insular world of Facebook and Candy Crush, as if Apple has taken over the world literally instead of just figuratively and replaced everyone’s head with an iPad like in some grotesque episode of Doctor Who. Conversations are out of the window of course as everyone puts their earphones in and retreats to their comforting and familiar playlists that they can carry with them, safe in the familiar world of the same social circles they had back home, albeit online. I mean why bother travelling? Stay at home and watch the travel channel if that is what you want to do!

Social media has taken over now. Backpacking the world isn’t just about experiencing it, it’s about making sure everyone you have ever had a passing acquaintance with experiences it with you and gets a blow by blow account of how you deal with the door less toilets in China. Every new experience must be immediately uploaded so everyone back home can live vicariously through you with instant updates on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and any of the hundred other faddy social media outlets that have come and gone in the time it has taken you to read this far into the article.

Look up from your phone and tablet screens once in a while and enjoy the place you are in!

The world is full of amazing sights, from natural wonders like waterfalls and sunsets to man made marvels like the Pyramids or Machu Picchu. Talk to the other travellers or locals who are around you instead of Facebooking or chatting over skype constantly to everyone you know back home! You don’t need to tweet a status every five minutes or live stream every step! If you wanted to see these things on a screen you could have stayed at home and looked at pictures on the internet! By all means take a few photos, but then put down the cameras and explore too. See with your own eyes, look deeper than the average snapshot and discover your own unique vision of a place.

The worlds monuments, structures and landscapes are far more than just a damn backdrop for a selfie!

Talking of photography and cameras, that’s another thing that has changed, and not necessarily for the better.

Camera’s themselves have improved immeasurably, and I love the fact that small digital cameras can produce professional level pictures and video with a little practice and very little equipment. When travelling in the past I always came across people lugging huge DSLR cameras and an entire film studio around with them – usually looking like they were about to collapse in the heat – as they set up their fancy tripods and struggled with massive equipment bags in the most inappropriate environments. They just aren’t necessary any more with the professional level quality you can get in even a compact, even then I used to laugh to myself and shake my head as I snapped a quick shot of the sunset or temple, slipped my camera back in my pocket and then sat back and enjoyed the view of the place or thing I had travelled so far to see, but now there just isn’t any need to bring a whole film studio with you. The wonder of small digital compacts and bridging cameras. They’re perfect. Why do people have to reinvent the wheel?

The problem now is that as the enthusiastic amateur becomes a semi professional photographer and vlogger, the superfluous kit is making a comeback! Nowadays you can’t even enjoy the view without some idiot with a GoPro on an extendable stick waving it about in your face. When did these become a thing? They seem to have exploded from nowhere over the last couple of years and now every second backpacker seems to have one! A whole sea of cameras on extendable sticks held out as far as possible in an attempt to compete for your attention and photobomb as many other photos as possible!

India Taj Mahal

Viewing the Taj Mahal a few years ago. 

India Taj Mahal  Go Pro

Viewing the Taj Mahal now. (Disclaimer: Yes it is a mock up!)

Sure they have some practical uses, but unless you are halfway up a cliff, skydiving or otherwise doing something where leaning out to take a self shot isn’t wise, put the damn extendable arm away and use a normal camera like a normal person! Those things should come with an etiquette guide or at the very least people should be made to take an IQ test before they are allowed to buy one! I swear if anyone else waves one in my face they’ll be needing their medical insurance to have it removed!

But change isn’t all bad I suppose.

Yes I’m getting older, that is inevitable. I’m almost certainly already on that slippery slope of antisocial ageing, as if my tolerance levels are inexorably linked to how far my belt starts climbing up my torso. My patience for certain things is certainly lowering as I get older. I definitely foresee a major international incident occurring in the future when a plane gets diverted and met by law enforcement after another selfish moron reclines their seat into my knees or a video will pop up on YouTube of how someone had a go pro extendable arm inserted somewhere it should never go. It’s going to happen, I may as well accept it. But one thing I have never lost, despite my inevitable decline into becoming a grumpy old man, is my absolute passion for travel.

I have been revisiting a few countries lately that I haven’t been to in a number of years and the pace of development in some of them are astounding. It really is almost like visiting the country for the first time all over again, like an old friend who you have to get reacquainted with after a long absence. There is always so much to see and do. That constant change, that constant energy, it still provides me with that sense of freedom and adventure and ensures that there will always be new places to see, new places to discover, no matter how far I travel or how many countries I visit.

The backpackers I meet in the dorm rooms and the hostels now may have a few fancier gadgets with them, they may be downloading maps onto tablets instead of trying to find the right page in the guidebooks, or instantly streaming their adventures in a variety of media to all their friends and family back home, but they all still have that same sense of adventure, they still have that same raw need to travel and the same desire to visit new places, to see new cultures.

 

I still get asked the same questions every day through emails on my site or on various social media by potential travellers dreaming of their very first gap year. The backpackers of today have the same concerns and worries about safety, budgeting, health issues and itinerary planning that I had myself when I set off on my own gap year for the first time. They all have that sense of excitement and wonder, that intoxicating mixture of nerves and excitement. They still have that sense of impending adventure and that anything is possible once they step off that plane! It is the exact same feeling I had when I set off on my first gap year over ten years ago, and it is still the same feeling I get now when I set off on a new journey.

Maybe backpacking hasn’t changed much after all. On that note, I feel the need to book another ticket somewhere.

Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

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Michael Huxley is a published author, freelance travel writer and founder of Bemused Backpacker. He is also a charge nurse by vocation with an interest in emergency nursing and travel medicine, but his real passion is travel. Since finding his wanderlust a decade ago in South East Asia, he has bounced from one end of the planet to another and has no intention of slowing down.

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42 comments on “Is Backpacking Changing Or Am I?
  1. hometoitaly says:

    i was given the equvalent of a head slap for my ‘stupid attitude’ when i asked why selfies, promoting your FACE when there are such great things to see and the faces of the locals off the tourist routes…….and no one wants to see my face.

    • Haha, I don’t disagree! ;D Thank you for the comment.

    • Catyren says:

      I have always shied away from selfies and being in photos. But, the most common question I get from family and friends when I show them my travel photos is “why aren’t you in any of them?”. I think there is a fine line between the narcissism and wanting to be able to remember yourself in those places. Just have to find the balance. I have considered buying one of those extender sticks purely because I don’t find it easy to trust a stranger not to run off with my camera.

  2. Michele says:

    Great article. My first backpacking trip was 29 years ago I didnt even have a camera used disposables now I have a heap of gadgets. Hostels have changed and if the only wifi is available in the common areas then all conversation os lost 😒
    As a blogger it is hard to know what to share as it is part of what we are doing, what people want or is it?

    • Thank you Michelle, you must have seen even more change than me in that time! The social atmosphere of hostels has definitely changed. It’s still there, but it is definitely different.

  3. Haha! Loved the picture, it is so spot on. Those go pro extenders are so annoying! I haven’t been traveling for a long time, I’m on my first gap year, but there is definitely truth in those words. I can only imagine how things used to be. I think it would have been cool to see some of the places I am seeing now but like ten or twenty years ago before they were too developed.

    • Thank you Alice, I’ve thought the same thing myself about a few places I’ve been to. I think the answer to that as backpackers is to move onto the places that tourists would never think of going, now that the package tours have moved in en masse to traditional backpacker destinations like Thailand.

  4. Mandie says:

    How funny, because my post scheduled for tomorrow is about regaining the lost art of communicating face-to-face. I totally agree that we’re missing out on the best parts of travel if we stay glued to technology. Obviously, as a blogger I take photos and schedule social media posts too, but it’s about knowing when to unplug and just BE in the place that you are. Talk to people. Absorb. Connect. If you’re not doing that, then you’re missing the point of traveling.

  5. GREAT article! I’ve often wished that I could travel in a way that feels more “real” – where your family and friends back home don’t know anything about your journey until you come home and tell them about it. It’s a digital nomad struggle – wanting to completely unplug, but needing to stay connected in order to build your business and keep funding your travels. i often dream about trading in the phone and laptop for a spot in a monastery somewhere, begging for my meals, living more simply…thanks for a great post1

    • Thank you Rebekah! I’m lucky in a huge sense in that the majority of my travels over the last ten years have been just that, for me, without the burden of work or staying in touch. Even now – probably because of that time – I find it relatively easy to set aside time for work and staying connected and time (the majority) for myself and enjoying my travels. It’s all about balance. Thanks for commenting. 🙂

  6. I definitely think it’s changed to some extent, but it’s the sign of the times, I guess. Nothing bad, just a different thing. Although on the flip side I see plenty that backpack the old way and will sit right beside you and start talking. I think it just depends on how you project yourself in public. If you sit with a head buried in a laptop, the experience will probably be more electronic, less social, if that makes sense. With that said, I tend to avoid hostels that have an “electronic” ambience… 🙂

    • That is very true Rashad. It is certainly very interesting to see how different backpacking is today than a decade ago. I personally think there is a room and a time for both, the social and the electronic, but I also think some don’t always find that balance.

  7. Gail says:

    I started travelling at 18… back in ancient times (1990). In those days the hospitality exchanges were only on paper/mailing lists, not online networks like today where it’s possible to find hosts while enroute and without using Poste Restante or General Delivery. Also, nobody except drug dealers or medical people had cell phones or pagers. I was disconnected from my family and friends for months at a time, and connectivity was prohibitively expensive. The expression “flying by the seat of the pants” was no exaggeration!

    I’ve seen a lot of changes, too, over the years, in the places I’ve visited again and the types of travellers have grown. I stopped using hostels more than a decade ago in favour of hospitality networks because it’s a better connection to local life. Hostels are filled with other foreigners and if the goal is to meet local people, couchsurfing is the way to go. The ones I used in the early 2000s are either defunct or have little activity in their databases, replaced by bigger ones (Couchsurfing, BeWelcome), but I have no loyalty to the URLs, only the concept. I have had incredible experiences using hospitality networks, stayed in excellent accommodations (very few actual couches) but most importantly met stellar people I would never have met otherwise. It’s made a tremendous difference in how I travel because of who I meet.

    I’m a pro photographer now but I’ve been a traveller much, much longer than that, and I put the travel before the photography. When I see people taking selfie after selfie in front of monuments, it reminds me of the previous generation’s print photo albums — incredibly boring photos of the same thing over and over, but with different heads.

    I do embrace technology and I’ve been blogging longer than most (daily for almost 12 years), but I’m glad I’m old enough to remember what life was like before all the technology and social media, when travel was truly unplugged.

    • I know exactly what you mean Gail. I do love some of the ways backpacking has changed, but I am glad I got to experience world travel before it all too. I love technology and utilise it on my travels, but I can also disconnect from it very easily for the majority of the time (with the probable exception of my camera!) Thank you so much for the fascinating comment. 🙂

  8. Deepika says:

    You know, I have just started traveling and may be I am way too novice. But honestly, I can’t even imagine of the things that must have been way back. Sure it’s about soaking yourself in that moment, when you are there,enjoying the treats of this world. But often, I have the urge to ‘share’ my escapades with my family and friend if I am traveling alone. Ultimately, it gives me a big morale boost to share the beauty (and my fortune to be witnessing it, if it’s a selfie ;)) with larger people- who might not have the time or chance or willingness to travel.

    I know it sounds a little selfish- but my dad was astonished to see a picture of mine sea-walking because he couldn’t do it ever. He was proud of me, he told me later. He was happy and I was happy knowing that I could do something which he hasn’t done. More happiness followed, because eventually he was happy, just because his daughter did it! 😀

    • Haha that’s awesome! It doesn’t sound selfish at all. It is great to be able to share those experiences with loved ones, and the array of tech and software that is available now is fantastic at allowing you to capture moments in a variety of ways, all I’m saying is there is a balance. People don’t have to instantly share EVERY moment. Take photos, share when you get home, just take a moment to enjoy and see the places you visit and the people you meet too?

  9. Deepika says:

    Agree… but the itch to do it is too much 😉

    • Haha, I don’t really get that itch. Maybe because I experienced backpacking and travel without the invasion of social media and technology, I find it a lot easier to switch off from it all. 🙂 Thanks for the comment.

  10. antonette says:

    This is exactly what I was thinking a while ago when I returned to backpacking in New Zealand. I was there in 2002 and did it the total backpackers way and came back in 2011. When I got to my first hostel, I was shocked. Everyone was behind a laptop and I was just wondering: “how do backpackers afford a laptap?”. I suppose nowadays its even worse with people sharing their everything online, jumping for the best pictures and crying for online attention… maybe we should all let go and get back to the time where you sit around a fire and tell each other stories, not to be disturbed by buzzing phones. Cheers!

    • The eternal march of the social media posted selfie, helped by everyone having damn gopros now too! Haha! Technology has become normalised now and in many ways that isn’t really a bad thing, but what is wrong with just putting it all away once in a while and experiencing the place you are in with the people that are there? I would LOVE to see if many first time backpackers now could travel to a country for a single month without their smartphones! Thanks for the comment Antonette. 🙂

  11. col says:

    this made me laugh a lot. i backpacked in the 90s and again in 2005, nothing drastic had changed then, tablets were still being developed. cannot imagine what those dorms are like now, although people who travel are often social people therefore will continue to make many connections. Now i am in my thirties i think that it would be fun to experience staying in a dorm as they are often useful for getting recommendations from fellow travellers and having very random conversations.

    • Thanks Col, I agree it has ben a relatively recent change, but for someone used to the social side of hostel common rooms it is certainly a jarring difference! ;D Thanks for the comment.

  12. Noodles says:

    Loved this post! Can relate to it on so many levels. Remember when I decided to travel last year, deciding whether to take my phone or not, as several years previous on my last backpacking trip, everyone just used Internet cafes. Now they are hardly anywhere to be seen with Wifi being available in most hostels! And the bit about GoPros cracked me up! I had a similar rage while everyone flocked around the pond to witness the the sun rise above the Angkor Wat temples and was almost pushed to lamping someone with their own GoPro! All in all though technology has made travelling these days a bit easier, and I’m so glad I ended up taking my phone in the end – it saved me in multiple situations! But you’re right, sometimes you have to take in what’s around you and not be constantly glued to your phone! Really good read! I’ll be sure to check in for more updates! 🙂

    • Oh I’ve definitely been at that point of gopro rage myself! Haha! Technology has made some things easier in a lot of respects, but I know what you mean, I miss being offline and purposely searching out those internet cafe’s too. It’s all about getting a balance and keeping your phone switched off from time to time I think. Thanks so much for the thoughtful comment. 🙂

  13. Noodles says:

    Brilliant post – made me chuckle to myself

  14. emfletche says:

    “as if Apple has taken over the world literally instead of just figuratively and replaced everyone’s head with an iPad like in some grotesque episode of Doctor Who”

    This is truly my favourite line in a blog ever! And yes, I do see the irony of reading this on my tablet (not Apple though) that I’m surgically attached to…Great post 😁

  15. Hahaha yes! I will almost certainly end up in prison one day for having bludgeoned a group of tourists to death with their selfie sticks.

    But I actually don’t agree with the bit about lack of socializing in hostels, actually I wonder if you’re being a bit *too* old and grumpy there 😛 I’ve been working in a hostel in Mexico City for about five months and while sometimes the common areas are full of people on laptops and tablets, I think 1) a lot of them are doing some kind of remote work, alas a necessary evil, and 2) at least in the hostel I lived in, the overWHELMING majority of the time there was plenty of socializing and plenty of opportunities for meeting new people. We don’t all spend all our time seeing how far we can turn up the saturation on our aMaZiiNg sunset photos 😛

    • I think I’ll join you in that cell! ;D

      No I totally agree there are a lot of great party hostels out there too, and hostels are often still a great way to socialise. I was making a direct comparison about how different it is now to how it used to be, how people are more insular now in their technology cocoon. I’m not saying socialisation doesn’t happen now, far from it, but there is definitely a marked difference now.

  16. seedoconquer says:

    Great perspective and entertaining delivery.

  17. You don’t even have to be travelling to be bemused by head phones/gadgets? A simple walk with the dog along the beach or in the woods at home is a time to contemplate the beauty of nature and the sounds of the environment; enjoyed much more through your own senses rather than being ‘enhanced’ (NOT) by a relevant playlist or ‘listen again’ programme! But then I’m old and grumpy too…

  18. aneuwirth says:

    Awesome blog, thanks for posting! I am a teacher and when I took my students to visit DC last year I constantly found myself actually moving their cameras up for them so that their selfies were not just of their heads and the ground, but at least the monument or landmark behind them as well… I make it a habit to get away from technology when I can, but it is difficult even when we make conscious efforts anymore to truly disconnect. The question is, how can we convince a generation of youth to put down their technology when its the only thing that they’ve ever grown up with? Thanks again for a great read!

    • Thank you so much aneuwirth I’m really glad you like it. Haha, I wish more people would do that! That is a good question though, I count myself lucky to have travelled just as the age of mobile phones was coming into fruition and before all the rampant tech we have now was available.

  19. Joanne says:

    Hi! I just wanted to say great post, I really enjoyed reading it!

  20. Alison says:

    Hahaha, such a great read! I would have loved to have travelled before social media and easy phone cameras and selfies were a thing!

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Hi, I'm Michael! I'm a published author, qualified nurse and world travelling professional adventurer! I have spent 15 years travelling over 100 countries and I want to inspire you to do the same! Want to know more about me? Just click here!

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