When I was 10, my Dad announced he was taking me on a backpacking trip. So I asked him the question, what is backpacking?
He responded that I spend too much time indoors and I need to see more of the real world. We packed up our backpacks, and we drove out to Rattlesnake Ridge.
The walk up the mountain was grueling, but I never imagined I would have so much fun! Everything looks beautiful when you're 3000 feet above looking down.
Now when I plan my own backpacking ventures without my Dad's expertise, I must ponder the same question I asked him 18 years ago.
What Is Backpacking?
Backpacking is a term used to describe a wide variety of ways to travel. However, all of them share the same key principle: Backpackers move between destinations with no luggage other than what they can carry on their backs. That also means no personal vehicles.
Traveling in this way may feel limiting because of the need to scrutinize everything you bring with you. However, it is also liberating. As a backpacker, you have more freedom to go where you want without luggage weighing you down.
As you may know, transporting large amounts of items can be expensive and time-consuming. It is difficult to convince yourself that taking a train to the next city will be easy when you have multiple suitcases to ship.
How can you go on that three-day hike when you're paying for a hotel that holds all your most treasured possessions?
Backpacking trips can last anywhere from a few days to several months or more. They can be as simple as following a single trail or incorporate many different trails, towns, and even countries.
It's important to think about what you want to get out of your backpacking trip to formulate an effective plan of action.
What Is Backpacking? Digging Deeper
Do you want to travel from city to city, experiencing their nightlife? Maybe you're more interested in seeing natural features and tourist attractions. Possibly you would like to visit Europe on a small budget, finding shelter and ways to earn money as you go.
Whatever your goals, you need to have a clear idea of them before setting out on your adventure. They will have a drastic impact on how much money you need, how long you should take off work, and what you must bring with you.
Most backpacking trips fall into one or both of the following categories: Backcountry backpacking, and intercity / international backpacking.
What Is Backpacking: Discover the Backcountry
Backcountry backpacking is a term that describes trips in sparsely populated areas, typically along trails that continue for at least 50 miles.
Often there will be towns or cities along these trails where you can restock on food, water, and supplies before continuing your journey.
However, this is not always true. You will never come across towns when hiking through mountain wildernesses or national parks, for instance.
In any case, you should expect to go long periods without access to restaurants, motels, running water, wi-fi, electricity, and cellphone reception.
Because this is a backpacking journey and not a road trip, you will be traveling on foot. Experienced backpackers are capable of walking more than 30 miles per day. But that does not mean you have to.
For example, if your goal is to finish a 100-mile trail in 4 days, then you'll need to average 25 miles a day to succeed. But if you have a week to complete the same distance, then 15 miles a day will suffice.
Maybe you'd like to spend more time hanging around your campsites, taking in the scenery and exploring the nooks and crannies of different areas.
If so, do not stress too much about how many miles a day you're covering. But if you have a limited amount of time, make sure you get home before it runs out.
Common beginner mistakes
Being improperly prepared for your journey can lead to extreme discomfort, and sometimes injury.
One common mistake is wearing shoes and boots that either do not fit or have never been worn.
Have you ever bought a new pair of shoes that felt awkward for the first few days? This is not something you want to experience when you are walking several miles a day and have an extra 20 pounds on your back.
Having a comfortable backpack is equally essential. Do plenty of research before buying, and test how it feels fully packed. If you cannot walk around the block without hurting, then it is not the pack for you.
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Also, remember to wear the right clothes. Polyester is cooler and dries much faster than cotton, making it superior in most weather. And speaking of weather, check it whenever possible!
But no matter how comfortable your gear is, blisters and minor injuries are still likely to happen. So, do not forget to pack first aid items such as blister medication, sunscreen, Neosporin and Band-Aids.
Finally, perhaps the most common mistake that even experienced backpackers make is packing too much stuff.
While packing too little could lead to unpreparedness, carrying an excessive amount of weight on your back will make you exhausted.
As mentioned, many trails pass through towns. These towns are familiar with backpackers and will always have food, supplies, and a place to wash your clothes. Some of these towns may even let you send them supplies ahead of time.
So, if you know you'll hit a town within a few days, there's no sense in packing a weeks' worth of food, water, and batteries. No need for a large tube of toothpaste, or insane amounts of first aid supplies either.
Excessive amounts of clothes are also a no-no. You can get by with a pair of shorts, pants, a couple of shirts and something to sleep in.
Other unnecessary items include Rambo knives and hatchets, headlamps and portable showers. A pocketknife, small flashlight, and washcloth will do.
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To sum up, pack only the most essential items, and only in quantities that make sense for the distance you're traveling before being able to restock.
The same concept applies to intercity and international backpacking, although the composition of your luggage will change.
What Is Backpacking: Intercity/International Backpacking
Here the question of what is backpacking becomes slightly more complicated. The main difference between backcountry and intercity/international backpacking is the amount of time you spend in urban areas. While intercity suggests you are traveling between cities in the same country, international backpacking involves traveling in multiple countries.
Often you will stay in a city for weeks before moving to your next destination. You will need a place to stay, but you will have a home base where you can store items instead of carrying everything with you at all times.
Unless you plan on going backcountry, you can scrap all the camping equipment, which means more room for clothes! Even so, you only need about five tops and bottoms to mix and match. When necessary, you can always wash your clothes in a sink.
Remember that you will be moving on eventually, so you want to keep your luggage light. There is the option of shipping items home, but you should do this sparingly if you're on a budget.
Paying your way
Spending all your time in cities means you'll also spend a lot more money! Most people can not afford to leave home for weeks on end without some kind of income along the way.
Fortunately, some employers will hire you for short periods. It helps you to seek out jobs in advance, so this is where planning your journey will come in handy.
Even while working you should find ways to save money wherever you can. Do not expect to be staying in your own room every night if you want to have extra spending money. The most common place for backpackers to find shelter is in hostels.
Hostels provide cheap food and lodging for large amounts of people by having them share a room. Generally speaking, you'll be bunking with about 6 to 10 other people.
One alternative to hostels is the Couchsurfing Travel App. Use this to get connected with people from around the world who let people stay in their home for a fee.
There are many other ways to cut back on spending when backpacking between cities and countries. For example, opting for bus travel over flying will usually be cheaper. Be sure to consider factors like these when planning your trip.
What Is Backpacking? Now You Know
Are you excited to start planning your first trip? You should now have a solid foundation to get you started.
Remember to consider your goals, and what you would like to get out of your journey. Think about how much time and money you are willing to put in. Plot your journey on a map so you have a basic idea of where you're going.
Finally, make a list of things to bring and scratch off everything but the bare essentials.
If you have your own ideas about the question of what is backpacking, and what to do or not do, please leave a comment below.
Good luck, and happy travels!