What do we mean by 'backpacking'?

Backpacking is a term that came into use during the 1960s and 70s to describe self-organised adventure travel when often no detailed itinerary was made in advance.

  • A characteristic of traditional backpacking is carrying all that is needed to be reasonably self-sufficient in a rucksack on your back.
Hitching lifts from passing vehicles has become less common
  • Before motorised transport became 'the norm', hitchhiking by thumbing lifts from the side of the road was common for many as a cheap and straightforward way of getting around. Added to this, hitchhiking abroad became a popular and exciting way of exploring and meeting new people for the young on a tight budget. With the advent of cheap air travel, backpacking to distant regions such as in South and East Asia has also become also popular.

Backpackers often don't follow established tourist routes

  • They may then be more likely to wander into areas of political or civil unrest. Pre-travel health advice may be confusing if the backpacker is uncertain of their itinerary.

  • However following the advent of widespread access to the internet and mobile phones, regular advice on safety is readily available through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s website.

  • Travellers who are likely to changing or adjust their itineraries while away can access health advice during the trip from the FitForTravel website

  • Though an exciting and challenging way to explore other countries and cultures, backpacking can be exhausting and a degree of culture shock is almost inevitable.

  • Spare money for the odd night in comfort to recuperate is a good idea and can also cover the option of an early return home if required.

Accommodation and Luggage

A backpacker's accommodation on a Greek island
  • In the past accommodation was usually arranged on a day-by-day basis in youth hostels or the backpacker camped in tents. With the advent of mobile phones and online booking, planning is now much easier.

  • Being prepared to buy, often cheap, additional items en route can prevent setting out with an unreasonably large and heavy rucksack.

  • Items such as water purifiers and mosquito nets may be necessary.

  • Some backpackers go on organised routes and their luggage is transported for them at a small charge by road to their next stop.


There seems to be more fear nowadays than in the past regarding safety issues when hitchhiking. This fear applies to both to the hitchhiker and the driver who offers the lifts. Whether this increased concern is necessary is unclear - it may be due to more publicity when things go wrong.

  • Sensible precautions to reduce the risk of assault or mugging include avoiding travelling alone, especially for females, and being prepared to refuse a lift if there is anything to suggest there may be problems (e.g. the driver asking for payment).

  • More commonly backpackers now travel using cheap public transport on a day-by-day basis.

  • Backpackers can risk of being involved in and causing serious accidents if they are hitching for lifts close to the side of busy roads.

Health risks distinctive to this type of trip

Common health risks include diarrhoea, accidents and sunburn.

  • Since the standard of accommodation is likely to be unpredictable backpackers may be exposed to more food poisoning than the package tourist. Self-cooking can reduce this risk if the backpacker understands the reason for taking precautions and carefully follows preventive measures.

  • Sleeping in unprotected accommodation or tents can lead to exposure to insects such as mosquitoes and ticks — fever in countries where malaria is present needs immediate attention.

  • Comprehensive travel insurance including repatriation cover is essential.

Making friends

Backpackers often have the opportunity to meet up with similar like-minded travellers

  • Those specifically intending to mix with locals and visit isolated communities should realise there is likely to be a difference in the local culture, customs and values from that with which they are familiar, and this should be respected. Female travellers, for example, should be advised to respect local dress code such as covering legs and shoulders and be careful to avoid casual conversations which could be misinterpreted as sexual advances.

  • Sometimes travelling alone can lead to loneliness and 'drifting' into unfamiliar and possible dangerous communal lifestyles. Peer pressure can lead to activities such using unsafe motorbike transport, drug-taking and unprotected sex.