what is backpacking

I’ve had a couple of friends ask what is backpacking like and how do I do it. How does one start backpacking when previous holidays have been organised tours or packaged holidays to one destination.

To most it sounds scary and daunting. But some want to give it a go, enticed by the flexibility it affords and the element of the unknown -> allowing for surprises.

I like to share with you my style of a backpacking holiday.

What is backpacking?

Let’s begin by defining backpacking. Some people have the image of a person carrying a large rucksack on their back, wearing hiking boots and apparel, walking endlessly to everywhere, with little or no money.

a couple wearing backpacks buying fruit at a local market showing what is backpacking all about

However, on my recent six month backpacking holiday in 2017, I saw independent travellers with their wheeled suitcases, designer clothing and shoes and all the modern gadgets. This new species is called Glampackers!

upmarket backpacking - a female walking along a street strolling her suitcase

In any case, no matter what type of ‘packer’ you are, essentially a backpacker is:

  • One who travels independently – independent from organised tours and packages.
  • One likes the flexibility to choose how long to stay at each destination.
  • One who books rooms while travelling, with minimal notice.
  • One who chooses what and where to visit according to their own taste.

The following 5 steps is the exact process I go through.

1. Flights

I always have set my departure date and arrival city plus the return date – which could be from a different location especially if I’m planning to travel through two or more countries in one direction.

Having a return ticket is useful for:

  • Obtaining visas.
  • Purchasing travel insurance.
  • Ensuring you have a flight home, in case you are stranded due to fully booked flights during high season or you run out of $$$$.

TG Tip:  For those who have free travel insurance included in their platinum credit card, the rules often stipulate you must have purchased a return ticket before leaving home.

In most cases, the dates are usually set by your approved holiday leave from your employer.

I have written a separate blog on how to find and book cheap flights.

2. Accommodation


The next step I take is to book my first 2 nights only.

Back in the old pre-internet days, I used to book my accommodation when I arrived in town. I would either call up the hostels listed in the Lonely Planet and compare prices to the hotel booking desks at either the airport or train station.

But today the internet has made booking so much easier, even though it is less ‘adventurous’ in my eyes. Sites like Hostelworld, Booking.com or Airbnb make the price comparisons process so simple and the booking process so easy.

For the rest of the journey, its open plan. When I arrive at a place, I start chatting with hotel staff and other guests. I listen to their interesting travel stories and begin writing a list of the must see/do. This is how I gauge how long I will stay in any one place.

I also find out where else travellers have been that they highly recommend. This is how I plan my next stop/destination. So 2-3 days before I leave, I book my hostel/room for the next destination.

Independent travel with internet

Due to the ease of the internet, pre-booking 2-3 days in advance is sometimes not enough. When I was travelling in Italy in July 2017, summer peak season, I soon found it difficult to be truly living day by day. When I was booking for 4 nights in Florence, I couldn’t find a hostel for 4 nights straight so I had to change hostels after 2 nights. Then I thought I better check Cinque Terre, as that was my general next direction, and could only find availability at a hostel 10 minutes’ drive away from the coast. Then I checked the Amalfi Coast and that was busy too.

So I ended up pre-booking my next 3 weeks. Which I didn’t want to as I like to have the flexibility to change but I had no option.

I did leave 6 days in the middle unaccounted for, to allow some freedom to explore new possibilities. I’m glad I did because I ended up staying in Cinque Terre for an extra 2 nights. I couldn’t get enough exploring these colourful coastal towns. Then I found some availability in Naples which was a pleasant surprise.  I didn’t want to go there again as I thought it was an ugly and dull city the first time around. However, the owner at Mancini Hostel mapped out for me a 2-day self-guided city tour. I saw parts the city that I didn’t know existed and therefore gave me a new appreciation of the bustling port town.

white coloured buildings and clock tower overlooking the sea

Top of Castel Sant Elmo, Naples.

Then the hostel owner insisted I visit the island of Ischia – saying I would miss the best island. So he booked my hostel for me and off I went. A true island getaway that felt half Italian, half Greek in nature. I would have missed the scenic volcanic island if I had my entire journey pre-booked.

boats docked at a port  with the mountainous island in the background

Arriving into Forio port, Ischia.

In summary, during high/peak season, it is advisable to pre-book but leave some gaps for interesting surprises.

3. Lonely Planet


I usually bring with me the Lonely Planet book, or the downloadable version. It’s a travellers bible.

In the first section of the book, it usually provides a rough outline of the country’s main highlights. I use that map to give me the initial general guide of how I will travel around the country.

But quite often, after talking to other travellers along the way, I do go off track to explore other wonderful destinations. That’s the beauty of independent travel – discovering new places.

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4. Tours


I also leave the booking of day or multi day tours while I’m travelling. For the same reason as above, you find cool things to do when you’re there.

Eg. When I went to Natal in Brazil, I discovered a fun beach buggy tour which involved flying over sand dunes and then taking us to a fresh water lagoon to do the flying fox drop into the lake - a definite must. One of my all-time favourite day tours.

Keeping yourself flexible leaves options open to you. While I was on the Big Island of Hawaii I wondered how I was going to get around this big island! Then I met a fellow traveller at the hostel who rented a car and was looking to share the travelling experience. So for the fraction of the cost of a tour, we travelled around the southern part of the island at our own pace. We discovered beautiful beaches – white sand beach, black sand beach, and even a green sand beach!

a female sitting on cliff edge overlooking the sea and the green sand beach

Green Sand Beach, Big Island (Hawaii)

Sometimes you find cheaper options locally rather than online.

The only time I definitely pre-book are festivals – for obvious reasons.

Other times, I simply follow the self-guided walking tours in the Lonely Planet guide. Sometimes you just want the basic facts, not a whole detailed historical spiel that you will never remember when you get home – unless you are a history buff!

5. Travelling to the next stop


This is my favourite part of the holiday. For me it’s the most adventurous part – the path, the journey. So many options to choose from – flying, train, bus, ferry, helicopter, small plane, car, hitch-hike (yes I’ve done that twice in Canada – for some reason it felt safer there), bike, walk, canoe, beach buggy, camel etc etc

As they say :

a female sitting on a camel in front of the pyramid plus a quote

I hardly even have this part of the holiday pre-planned, so that it gives me flexibility on how long to stay in each place. Quite often I don’t even research it, I’ll just play it by ear.

For example, I’m planning a trip this year to Corfu to attend a music/chanting festival. When its finished, I’ve decided to explore Croatia and continue to northern Italy. Now I have no idea how I will get from Corfu to Croatia. I won’t even research it until I’m ready to leave Corfu. You see, I won’t know what transpires until I’m there. I could meet other travellers who are going that way and so we join forces. Locals might tell me of a ferry service. Or I might look for a bus service so I can marvel at the scenery along the way. Or I might decide to stay longer in Corfu because I’m having such a great time, so then I’ll have to book a flight to Croatia as I’ll have limited time left. This is the life of a backpacker.

Other helpful backpacking tips


I’ve found the following tips essential in all my travels.

  • Always have travel insurance. As you don’t have a tour guide looking after all your needs, things can sometimes go wrong – lost/stolen items, medical attention etc.
    Of course mishaps can happen to all types of travellers, that’s why I highly recommend that ALL travellers have travel insurance.
  • Learn how to pack lightly. Everywhere I go, I hear travellers complain that they packed way too much stuff. You don’t end up using half of it anyway. Makes life a little easier when travelling from place to place.
  • Be confident and aware. It may sound real scary to travel independently or without anything being organised but it opens up the unknown – for wonderful experiences to appear. You meet so many people along the way that you're never alone anyway. Go with the flow and be pleasantly surprised.

So start backpacking!

In a nutshell, backpacking involves 5 simple steps:

1.

Set and book your outward and return flights.

2.

Book your first two nights’ accommodation. Book the rest as you travel along.

3.

Do some rough planning with the Lonely Planet guide.

4.

Book your tours as you travel along. Chat and listen to other traveller’s experiences/recommendations.

5.

Leave yourself open to use any mode of transport from place to place.

It’s not everyone’s style of travelling. However, if you want to give it a go, I hope these tips have helped you discover what is backpacking all about.

Do you want to share any backpacking experiences or tips? Or if you have a question, just comment below.

Thanks to Lisa W and Amanda W for asking me how I do my backpacking when on holidays, which inspired me to write this post.

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About the author

Lisa is a travel gypsy by heart, having already been to over 70 countries and still counting. Founder of Travel Groove, to share travel tips, tricks and knowledge with other travellers.

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