Can backpackers save the world?

So, in the tradition of many twenty-something university graduates, I have decided to go backpacking. For most, the carry-your-home-on-your-back brigade otherwise known as the turtle lifestyle is seen as a cheapo holiday alternative for those who can’t afford the all-inclusive luxury hotel spa extravaganza. In fact, they’re not wrong. Since the first recorded ‘backpackers’, a couple of English university students, set off in 1955 to follow the Silk Road, an ancient trail created by Marco Polo to connect the East with the West, backpacking has got a reputation for being makeshift and inexpensive. It’s unsurprising when most of the demographics are young university students or thereabouts.

In fact, contrary to today’s standards where many backpackers choose to fly to their destination and start exploring from there, the first backpackers used the overland transport available from the beginning as flights were out of the price range for most of the eager young adventurers.

hippie trail
The Hippie Hashish Trail

Pretty soon, inspired and carefree, the backpacking phenomenon took off. The 1960s saw the birth of the Hippie Hashish trail which, as its name strongly suggests, saw many a happy young wanderlust westerner stumbling through Asia and coming to rest in a drug-fuelled blissful heap on a beach in India. Perhaps more hedonistic hippies than heroes, these backpackers symbolised a rebellion against the status quo. Suddenly the idea of settling down with one of those proper jobs became a little too claustrophobic.

In some respects, the foundations of the counterculture are the same today. For some, backpacking still represents a fraction of that hedonistic frivolity, and there’s a dedicated following of the ‘sesh’ across the globe. For others (myself included), backpacking has an alluring charm to it which far outranks the luxury of a package holiday any day. Each to their own, but for me, a package holiday is not my kind of cuppa. They’re vacuous in comparison to backpacking’s more worldly cohort of slightly grungy, adventurous, wide-eyed thrill seekers with a stack of weird and wonderful stories to tell.

But can they save the world?

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Not getting vertigo must be a Superhero talent…

Well, no not in the literal sense. Backpackers aren’t usually synonymous with superheroes. But inadvertently perhaps, the lifestyle provides a more tolerant understanding of cultural diversity. Thanks to the habit of scrimping and saving, the natural habitat of the backpacker is the hostel. A social hub and community for travellers from every corner of the globe, hostels provide opportunities to create lasting friendships on an international scale.

In fact, as backpacking has grown in popularity, so too have hostels. They’re no longer seen as yucky holes of filth with overfriendly bed bugs and tetchy residents. Instead, with some boasting saunas, swimming pools and massage chairs, they’ve cultivated a glitz and glam to rival many a luxury hotel. Now, backpacking has become an easier, safer, and more comfortable mode of travel, encouraging more people to attempt it and more friendships made. Not exactly a huge advancement in securing world peace but hey, at least it’s something!

Still, backpackers may not have powers to rival Superman when it comes to the planet but in regard to ecotourism, the lifestyle makes a pretty honourable attempt at it. Yes, the ice caps are still melting, and the oceans remain as plastic-coated as ever. But, propelled by frugality and the frank inability to carry more than a rucksack, backpackers tend to choose practicality over materiality and so create less waste. In fact, a hostel kitchen is a little like a zoo. If any passing traveller is foolish enough to leave their food unlabelled, well, kiss it goodbye because it’ll have already been snapped up by scavengers eager for a free meal. Wild but efficient, there’s no such thing as food waste.

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Sharing is caring

From meals to rooms and carpools, the art of sharing is no strange feat for the backpacking community, giving the world’s resources a little respite. So, although an eco-friendly and cultural form of travel, backpacking may not save the world, but these attitudes that come with the lifestyle are a step in the right direction.

Has the rise in gentrified and more expensive hostels endangered the backpacker lifestyle? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.

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Thanks for reading,

F x

If you enjoyed this then you might like 10 reasons to be a solo female traveller.

Source: Nomads: The History of Backpacking.

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