Like many spheres of life, the world of backpacking has evolved to include its own special and distinct language, with specific phrases, terms and acronyms that you will need to know before you start travelling.
With so many backpackers from all over the world interacting and mingling together, and more than a few strange looks when dozens of local dialects clash (just watch a British woman’s face when an Aussie asks them to kick their thongs off! Priceless!) and cultural misunderstandings with language barriers, it’s not really all that surprising. A common phraseology helps backpackers bond as a group and a community, and terms like these are used throughout this site as well as numerous gap year or backpacking guidebooks and the gap year industry as a whole.
There are so many unique and specific terms and definitions that many long term travellers take for granted, but may be confusing to the first time backpacker dipping their toes into the waters of a new adventure. So here I will try and explain just a few of the basic ones so as you read through this website or any of the Bemused Backpacker books and eBook series, you can immerse yourself in the backpacker world just that little bit easier and prepare for your own journey that little bit better.
After Army: Often refers to young Israeli travellers who have escaped to travel the world after their military service, but can also refer to former soldiers of any nationality doing the same.
Backpacker: This is the basic most common definition of anyone who travels the world independently and on a budget, usually with the eponymous backpack over their shoulders. It can also be interchangeable with traveller.
Backpacker (2): A term used almost exclusively by Americans to describe those hiking or camping in the wilderness, despite the fact that a) those people are generally already known by the terms wilderness hikers or campers or simialar, and b) the ‘independent world traveller’ definition of the term (above) is widely accepted and used by most of the rest of the world and by the entire gap year industry.
Backpacker ghetto: An area of any given city or country that has an abundance of cheap hostels, a touristy market, a lot of bars and a heavy traveller infrastructure and is full of first time backpackers for this very reason. Khao San Road in Bangkok is an infamous example.
Banana pancake trail: An affectionate nickname for the common backpacker route through South East Asia, commonly but not always starting in Khao San Road in Thailand. It refers to the number of small guesthouses, cafes and eateries serving the eponymous and popular banana pancakes as breakfast.
Border run: Not a mad rush to the Mexican border after a bank job gone wrong, this describes a situation where a backpacker will get a cheap return flight, train or coach ticket to another country for a couple of days before returning to the country they were in to begin with simply to extend their visa. Also commonly referred to as a visa run.
Career Break: This has become increasingly part of the backpacker vernacular over the last decade as increasing numbers of professionals or those with long term careers take extended time off from their jobs or careers to go on a gap or snap year. Sometimes the term is used interchangeably with sabbatical.
Couchsurfing: Not a YouTube video of a prank resulting in a painful and hilarious head injury, couchsurfing is a method for backpackers to gain free accommodation in a hosts home, and in turn hosting other backpackers in their own house when they aren’t travelling. Has fallen in popularity in recent years.
Culture Shock: Culture shock is the disorientating feeling some travellers get 12 – 24 hours after riding in a new destination and experiencing a range of sights, sounds, smells and new surroundings that are completely unfamiliar and outside of their comfort zone. It can affect individual travellers very differently with symptoms ranging from disorientation and homesickness to panic attacks.
Flashpacker: This is a backpacker who travels in the same independent way as any traditional backpacker, but has a higher than average budget and stays in mid range to nice hotels and travels in more luxury and comfort.
Gap Summer: Often more commonly referred to as a snap year, the gap summer is generally used by college or university students travelling during the month or two month summer break in between years, or just before starting university.
Gap year: The traditional year out taken by many backpackers to go travelling.
Gringo trail: The traditional backpacking route through Latin America where the same countries or places in no particular order are visited by a constant stream of backpackers.
Grown up gap year: An umbrella term used to describe a gap or snap year undertaken by those outside the traditional youth or student demographics. It is a gap year taken by people who also have to worry about a career, a mortgage, bills, even a family perhaps or even what to do with their home or stuff while they are away, all those things that ‘grown ups’ have to deal with and work around in order to travel.
Itchy Feet: Not a communicable disease caught from the shared shower in a grotty hostel but the irresistible and often undefinable urge to travel the world that affects most backpackers at some point.
Off the beaten track: This isn’t a reference to some hardy back to basics camping adventure, this simply refers to the places many long term backpackers head to that tend not to have many – if any at all – other backpackers there, instead of heading to the usual places everyone else heads to.
Reverse Culture Shock:
Pretty much the same thing as culture shock, but this happens when a traveller returns home from a long trip and finds it dificult to fit back in to old routines and western society again. Symptoms can include trying to barter for a bottle of water in the supermarket or accusing the bus driver of ripping you off.
Round the world (RTW): Pretty much what it says, this describes the traditional gap year backpacking trip, often – but not always – involving a single ticket with numerous stops on various continents. Can refer to the journey or the type of aeroplane ticket bought.
SKIer: Stands for ‘Spending the Kid’s Inheritance’. A rather unflattering term for elderly people who spend their retirement (and their probably ungrateful sprogs inheritance in the process, hence the name) backpacking around the world.
Snap year: The increasingly common shorter version of a gap year, often between 1 to 6 months and taking in one country or one region.
Taxi Mafia: Found in many regions across the world, this unscrupulous group of conmen work as taxi drivers, ignore all laws and regulations that state they should use their meters, and instead collude to charge every backpacker they see at least five times the going rate or as much as they think they can get away with. They will use every excuse under the sun to try and not use their meter. Under no circumstance should you use these taxi’s.
The Bible: A nickname for a guidebook, typically Lonely Planet but is sometimes used for Rough Guides too. Often used by young, new first time backpackers who follow the ‘where to go and stay’ sections in these books slavishly (hence an overabundance of first time backpackers in the same hostels which invariably jacks their rates up). Not as popular as they used to be.
Tourist trail: Simply describes places or things that most tourists and backpackers head to see, the major tourist draws like the Pyramids or the Statue of Liberty.
Tout: Otherwise known as a conman, rip off merchant or many other unsavoury expletives, these people descend on backpackers just arriving in a new destination like locusts, attempting to divert them from where they need to go and force them into paying way over the normal price for something. Often work with a number of local scams or in tandem with disreputable local businesses or the taxi mafia.
Visa run: See Border run. Refers to the same thing.
Voluntourism: A term used to describe the for profit industry that has exploded in recent years, with profit making companies taking advantage of naïve travellers desire to help or ‘give something back’, by offering expensive volunteering packages alongside their RTW tickets. Packages of ‘volunteering’ in animal sanctuaries, teaching English abroad or building a school/well/ditch in a local village are common. They often cost a lot of money and have questionable benefit to the local population or the cause they are claiming to help. This industry is in no way to be confused with genuine NGOs, not for profit agencies or skilled volunteers who give their time and money to genuinely help a cause.
Wwoof: Stands for willing workers on organic farms or worldwide opportunities on organic farms. This is a loose network of organisations that allow volunteers, or Wwoofers to work on organic farms for room and board. Wwoofing is a popular way for young gap year backpackers to extend their trip.
These are just a few of the terms and phrases I’ve picked up over the years. Some are in jest, others actually refer to something specific that can be useful for first time backpackers to know. I’m sure you’ve all heard many more and I’m sure more will be added as the backpacker vernacular expands! Get in touch if you know any terms that should be included.