By Janne Cress
Abstract: In this essay I explore the backpacking culture in a context of stereotypes, identity construction and self-enrichment, and I relate these concepts to topics of authenticity and ‘realness’. My main focus is the extent to which the archetypical, stereotypical image of backpackers corresponds with the self-identity and experiences of backpackers nowadays. At the time of writing, I was in my second year of anthropology. If I would be asked to write the paper again, with all the knowledge that I have gained in only one year, it would probably become a very different paper. But that, of course, is part of the (fun) deal of being a student.
Besides being a wonderful and eye-opening experience, my first trip as a solo backpacker last summer certainly made me think about what ‘being a backpacker’ implies. In times I didn’t feel like talking, I overheard other conversations about ‘true’ and ‘authentic’ experiences, such as drinking airag (fermented mare milk) with the Mongolian locals and playing peek-a-boo with Chinese kids. It made me think about myself, too: I remember Naadam, the annual national festival in Mongolia, and I got the Mongolian flag painted on my cheek, just like everyone else out there. For some reason, it made me feel like I was ‘one of them’, whatever that may be. Looking back on it, it seems naïve and absurd.
Initially, I wanted to put the focus of my research on status, and the strategies that backpackers employ to gain status out of their experiences. During my fieldwork however, it soon became clear that the concept of status was not at all something that occupied the minds of my informants. I felt frustrated in the beginning, as if I had met the ‘wrong’ people, and had collected useless data, although I knew this wasn’t true. It made me think about the image I had in mind, when I thought of the backpackers I was hoping to encounter before I began the interviews. To what extent was this an archetypical, stereotypical image? I then came up with my second and current research question: To what extent does the archetypical, stereotypical image of backpackers correspond with the self-identity and experiences of backpackers nowadays?
To answer this question, I will firstly define the stereotypical image that is being constructed of backpackers by (popular) media, and which is used in everyday discourse.
After that, I will, on the basis of several themes, compare this image with the backpackers I have interviewed for this project. Finally, I will come back to the stereotype and explain how this image relates to backpackers nowadays.
Before I began my research, I wondered whether I was biased. After all, having backpacking experiences, I could consider myself part of the research subject, and therefore have predominantly positive feelings towards them. However, I don’t think this is the case, for two reasons. First of all, I have only made one big trip on my own as a backpacker, and as a consequence I’m not as fully immersed in the backpacking culture as I maybe would have been, had I been more experienced. Secondly, and more important, I don’t consider backpacking as a major component of my identity, but more as something that I love doing during the holidays, and I don’t identify myself to a great extent with other backpackers; rather, I would call myself more skeptical about some of the travelers I met during my trip, who did see themselves as a backpacker in the first place.
Since it was, much to my displeasure, impossible to do some participant observation in a far and warm country, I stayed in the Stay Okay Vondelpark hostel in Amsterdam for three nights to conduct my fieldwork, hoping to meet backpackers who spent their days there. Unfortunately, the period I stayed in the hostel was the week of autumn holidays, which meant the place was full of both Dutch families from the other side of the country who wanted to experience Amsterdam for a few days, and drunken British people, celebrating someone’s hen party. Despite not being able to experience interactions between backpackers or, to put it very superficially, to ‘observe them in their natural habitat’, it felt good to feel the travel vibe during the days I conducted the interviews, and I think it allowed me to sympathize more with my informants than when I would’ve stayed at home.
Most of the appointments for interviews were made after topics I created at the Lonely Planet-forum and the couchsurfing.org website, in which I asked whether there were any people who wanted tell about their travel experiences, in exchange for a cup of coffee. To my surprise, e-mails kept coming and after three days I had conducted seven interviews and decided that would be sufficient.
One could ask oneself to what extent the people I interviewed were representative for backpackers worldwide. I think their nationalities and personal background were very diverse and therefore representative, but I also feel that people who travel through Europe (and whom I interviewed), have probably different interests from those who would only travel to Southeast-Asia, the latter being a relatively cheap and less westernized area.
The definition of a backpacker
I haven’t used a fixed definition of a backpacker, one that prescribes the conditions one has to meet: as long as people considered themselves a backpacker, it was fine to me. This allowed me to get in touch with a big group of many different people, who all had a different definition of what being a backpacker is, but who still identified themselves with all those other people on the road. It is precisely for this reason that I have chosen not to approach backpackers as a subcultural group, a group with definite boundaries of which you’re either in or out. Being a backpacker is such a flexible concept, it’s as easy to join the group as to leave it.
Besides, can we speak of a backpacking culture in general? There are without doubt certain practices that have been developed and adapted by backpackers. Being on a low budget, traveling off the beaten track and having no fixed travel dates are all examples of these practices that have neatly been used by the tourist branch and commercial corporation to make money out of this trend. If there wasn’t already a backpacker’s culture, it is certainly shaped by guidebooks as Lonely Planet, hostels and travel organizations that are specifically aimed at backpackers and so forth. So in short, I would definitely speak of a backpacker’s culture, rather than of a subculture.
The stereotype of ‘the backpacker’
After having explored countless popular websites, there seemed to be several ways of categorizing ‘types’ of backpackers. Some of the authors of these articles differentiated between backpackers of different countries; there would be, amongst others, the Australian backpacker (laid-back, adventurous, friendly), the American (loud and enthusiastic) and the European backpacker (traveling in pairs and not very outgoing). Others posed that there were, regardless of the country they came from, different archetypes of backpackers. One of those archetypes is that of the arrogant hippie, who only travels off the beaten track and is always telling about his experiences to anyone who is willing to listen, who doesn’t use a guidebook, looks down on less experienced travelers or those who use any kind of luxury and thinks personal hygiene is overrated. This image appears to be the one that most people have in mind when they think of backpackers. It came up in other articles, as well as in the interviews, which is why it will be the stereotype that I will use for comparison in this paper.
Backpacking as youth culture
Mary Bucholtz, in her article about the study of youth cultures, describes the anthropology of youth as characterized by a focus not on ‘the restrictive notion of culture that dominated early work in cultural studies but with the practices through which culture is produced’ (Bucholtz 2002: 526). This sets the direction for agency, and perhaps tensions between agency and structure, but never the latter on its own.
From this point of view, it could be stated that there is a certain structure, namely that of ‘everyday life in society’, put very broadly; a structure in which people are expected to follow education, and eventually to get a job and maybe a family life – in short, to settle down. There is room for those who want to develop themselves, but not too much. A gap year looks good on your résumé, five years of traveling, working here and there and in this way forming a threat to the reproduction of a certain society, however, doesn’t. On the other hand, there is the sense of agency that youth employ to cope with this structure, and while some people have no problem living up to society’s expectations, other people rather play with them. In both cases, agency is involved. I’m not trying to argue that people who get a job straight after their graduation are blind sheep that follow the herd, neither am I saying that the backpackers of my study are more rebellious, since the main part of them returned to the routines of everyday society life when they got home. However, there are people who employ backpacking as a form of resistance to the state. Traveling with money that one earns ‘on the road’, as one of my informants did, allows one to be more free, in the sense of less restricted to one place, one job and – especially when you give up your place to stay in your home country – one government.
Most of the people I interviewed told me that they were backpacking while they still could; that is, before being restricted by a job, a wife, a dog and/or a mortgage. They either just graduated from high school or had finished their studies, and wanted to see the world before settling down in a more definitive way. “It’s now or never”, many of them said, and they were planning on getting a contracted job after they would return home.
Two of the people I interviewed were older than most of my respondents; one of them was in his thirties, the other one in his forties. They worked for six months a year, freelance or in a flexible company, and traveled for the other six months. Both of them stated that they thought backpacking was a ‘youthful’ thing to do, and they felt a bit of a misfit on the road, amongst all the younger travelers. However, they enjoyed backpacking and kept doing it.
Shortly put, while my emphasis lies on the practices of backpackers and not on a certain age, there is a certain age period that many people choose for traveling, since this is the period in which people are least bounded by certain obligations.
Backpacking as an identity
Having traveled individually myself last summer for the first time, I found it interesting how some of the people I encountered seemed to identify themselves as a backpacker in the first place; a globetrotter, an adventurer, a cosmopolitan. I asked some of my informants what they thought being a backpacker was, and many different definitions came up. To some, a backpacker was someone who traveled with a backpack, no more and no less. To others, it was someone who traveled in an independent way, on a low budget and to still others, it was someone who traveled in a more adventurous and ‘local’ way than mainstream tourists. Asked whether they thought they’d fit in the image they just described, the answer was always yes. Some felt there certainly existed a stereotypical backpacker, and this would be the one I just mentioned above, as is also depicted by the media. None of them, however, seemed to feel that being a backpacker formed a major part of their identity, except maybe for Connor, who called himself a ‘wandering musician’, since he traveled through money he earned with playing his violin on the way.
Backpacking as a learning experience
One of the stereotypical characteristics of the backpacker is being an extremely annoying show-off, as one of the blog-articles states: ‘They will regale you with stories about the remote village in Upyourownarse where they chilled out for a few weeks and smoked really strong weed with the locals. They’ll then go on to tell you about their new ‘deep inner meaning and a sense of the world round’ that you just could never understand’.
None of my informants gave the impression to want to show off as a backpacker towards the people in their home environment. For example, almost all of them kept up their Facebook account, but only, they told me, to inform friends and family of what was going on. Some of them had a travel blog, but for the same reason: to keep friends and family up to date. One blog was even secured with a password, to prevent the entire world from reading his stories.
Neither did anyone say to be familiar with something like a hierarchy amongst backpackers, or road status, as is described by Anders Sørensen (2005: 856). Throughout the interviews however, it struck me that the concept of ‘learning’ was something that came up during almost every conversation. Statements like ‘there is still a lot to learn’ and ‘I’ve learned so much from other backpackers’ were very common. Apparently, backpacking is not something you either do or don’t: it’s something you can get better at. A more experienced backpacker knows how to get the cheapest buys, the best hostels and the most ‘authentic’ food. Some backpackers also stated that they looked up to more experienced backpackers.
One of the people I interviewed, and who mentioned this learning experience was Connor. He was the only one that I didn’t get it touch with by internet; I walked into him on my way to get lunch, and he stood there on a pole, playing his violin. To a certain extent, he resembled the stereotype of a backpacker that I employ in this paper- otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to recognize him as one.
What are the tricks you just mentioned? Can you name a few?
Ehm… You mean like specific ones? Ehm, the cheapest way to eat is to get lots of potatoes. And cheese and carrots, and like, just make it all stir-fried, and just get it in the supermarket, cuz you can get all kinds of things cheaper in the supermarket than you get them in other places. I don’t know, like, ways to make sure you don’t get ripped off by people like, always make sure to ask bars and stuff if they have student discounts and the hostels a bit, searching for discounts and whatever, ehm, yeah.
And you described yourself as young… Do you see yourself as an experienced traveler?
No, I’ve met some people who are definitely been to more places than myself. I don’t know, I’m just trying to stay humble, and realize there’s still a lot to learn.
I found the use of the word ‘humble’ striking, since it shows respect and an attempt not to appear arrogant towards those ‘above’ him.
Let us now apply some of the concepts of Pierre Bourdieu to this backpackers case study. Bourdieu speaks of a field, a network of relations among the objective positions within it. It is a field of struggles, one that both ‘undergirds and guides the strategies whereby the occupants of these positions seek, individually or collectively, to safeguard or improve their position, and to impose the principle of hierarchization most favorable to their own products’ (Bourdieu cited in Ritzer 2011: 532).
One’s position in the field is determined by the amount and weight of the social and cultural capital he possesses. All the tips and tricks concerning backpacking, the insider’s knowledge, is what Bourdieu would call ‘embodied cultural capital’. It is with this know-how that backpackers establish a position in the field, in this case ‘on the road’. And although the hierarchization that Bourdieu talks about hasn’t got much to do with status, there is certainly a distinction between those less and more experienced. By learning tricks from other backpackers, those who are less experienced can improve their position and in this way move through the field.
Off the beaten track
Another characteristic that is often ascribed to backpackers is their desire to travel ‘off the beaten track’, that is, to visit the less know places, and follow less known routes, in an attempt to leave the masses of ‘mainstream tourists’ and even other backpackers behind. This is what the Lonely Planet-guidebook is sometimes scolded for; it claims to bring you to good yet still relatively unknown places, but doesn’t since millions of travelers take the book as their guide. Some citations of the blogs about stereotypical backpackers include: ‘They usually avoid most tourist destinations or areas because “it’s too commercial, man.”’, and ‘While you are answering their questions for the 19th time, they squeeze their own adventures between your stories. Adventures they have come across without travel guides; they hate travel guides, because they are a form of oppression (…).’
Almost all my respondents told me they were looking for a local experience when they traveled, a local experience being one in which local people were involved, as Erwin explained:
With hitchhiking… It’s almost only local people who offer you a lift. Tourists are scared, or they get warned by the rental companies, like, don’t take hitchhikers with you and all. So it’s almost only local people and I find that much more interesting than the average tourist, you know. You want to get to know a country, and you can either do that by walking around and see the nature, but it’s even better if you really speak with the people, live and travel together with them, and hear about their experiences and lifestyle.
In many cases, a local experience was considered more ‘authentic’, especially if it meant that this experience was less modern and western than found in the big cities of the country. Ways to achieve such experiences are hitchhiking, taking local transport, couchsurfing (sleeping with local people for free), and buying local food and other products.
Most of the people I interviewed also mentioned that they felt there was a difference between backpackers and ‘mainstream tourists’, by whom is meant holidaymakers, people who visit all-in resorts or hotels for a few weeks during the holidays. Some experienced this distinction in a stronger sense than others. Connor, for example, was clearly annoyed with mainstream tourists, of whom he thought formed a completely different group than the one he himself was in, but admitted that he himself was a tourist, too.
I don’t really like tourists too much… I think they’re kinda annoying. They’re just always getting in people’s way, and like, wandering around aimlessly, looking up at stuff. I don’t know, like, I’m definitely… I definitely feel like a tourist to a certain point, but at the same time I’m not really doing what most tourists are doing like, just coming to a place, and like, see it, spend their money on whatever, and take pictures and get out.
Backpacking and race
While not often talked about, besides being a show-off and keen to avoid mainstream sites, the stereotype of a backpacker is also a Western, if not white person. In recent years however, with the upcoming economy, more and more Asian people, in particular Japanese, Chinese and Koreans, have hit the road. One of the interviews I conducted was with Heather, a girl from South-Korea who came to Amsterdam just after she had traveled through Australia. She was the only Asian person I interviewed, and came up with a point I would otherwise not quickly have thought of.
Here is something I could tell you. I think it’s really different, being Asian and not being Asian. Because people… I think people are more comfortable talking to non-Asian people. Because, mostly with Asians, you don’t know whether they speak English, or another language. And eh, they’re just different. Mostly, when Asians go to someplace else, they stick to each other, rather than making new different friends. They stick to the Koreans or Chinese, or whatever… And they say that I’m not a typical Korean, because I don’t like doing that. Cuz I think the whole point of traveling is meeting people.
Hamzah Muzaini, a Singaporean who has done intensive research on backpackers, writes that he has more than once experienced that White tourists completely ignored him, and only started talking to him when they realized he wasn’t a local, and could speak English. Muzaini calls this a ‘tendency to maintain only perfunctory links with locals, where the latter are allowed in the former’s world ‘‘on a limited, periodic, or an as needed basis.”’ (Muzaini 2006: 156). Whereas Muzaini says that because of the attitude of Western travelers that there is little interaction between them and Asian backpackers, Heather poses that it is the Asians’ reserve that is the cause.
The stereotype revisited
Definition of stereotype
a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing. (Oxford dictionary)
As we secretly all knew beforehand, the backpackers’ stereotype grasps in no way the person who backpackers feel they are or represent, and it was by no means the goal of this research to prove this. Yet the image exists for a reason. Some of the characteristics that are ascribed to backpackers, such as looking for a local experience, are more often applicable to people than others, such as being a show-off. I believe the origins of the stereotypical image of the backpacker lie in the way people represent themselves. I did not encounter someone who resembled the stereotypical hippie backpacker as sketched in the blog articles (maybe Connor would have been the one who came nearest), but I did meet people who did on my own trip – so it would be safe to say there are at least some backpackers in the world who do resemble most features of this image. The stereotype of a backpacker isn’t a wallflower, who wanders around the world, shyly; no, it’s someone who likes to show off, and who views himself as a traveler in the first place and brags about this to the people around him. I would therefore say that a small group of backpackers have created an image that now symbolizes the entire backpacking culture, and that this image is adopted by non-backpackers. I’m not arguing that this stereotyping should be stopped; it is a human trait to categorize people in types and it would be tilting at windmills to try to fight this process.
It is hard to say to what extent backpackers themselves help to keep up this stereotypical image. Due to the way backpackers are talked about in popular discourse and in the media, a certain image is shaped of what being a backpacker is like. This probably creates certain expectations amongst people who are planning on traveling too, as some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. In the following years, I expect it to become less and less likely to meet travelers on the road to whom backpacking is a way of life. Whereas backpacking used to be a more unknown way of traveling, something that was undertaken all by oneself and without any help of travel agencies specifically aimed towards backpackers, it will probably become a more mainstream way of traveling in the next years, partly due to media and the tourism branch. The backpacker’s stereotype will slowly disappear, as it will become clear to the media and therefore the world that backpacking is a relatively cheap way to explore the world, a way accessible to all kinds of people, appealing to young people in particular.
(Written for Youth Cultures in a Transnational Context)
Bucholtz, M. (2002). Youth and Cultural Practice. Annual Review of Anthropology 31: 525-552
Muzaini, H. (2006). Backpacking Southeast Asia: Strategies of Looking Local. Annals of Tourism Research 33(1): 144-161.
Ritzer, G. (2011). Sociological Theory. Singapore: McGraw-Hill.
Sørensen, A. (2003). Backpacker Ethnography. Annals of Tourism Research 30(4): 847-867.
 The online articles I have used to sketch this image were the following blogs: