Lonely Planet Writer

A shared history of backpacking

Carol sets off with a mateBackpacker Bob’s letter to Tony Wheeler, sharing his memories of trekking over the years inspired another Bob to do the same.

Bob number two and his partner Carol, who hail from Australia, sent us the following morsels about their decades on the road, with some photos to illustrate how times have – or haven’t – changed.

Cue Bob and Carol:

“We have, similarly to ‘Bob’, both travelled extensively; individually in the 1970’s and together since then. We also both started our first trips by boat as it was cheaper than flying, Bob travelling by “ship/jet” which was the cheapest way to London. (AUD$360 one way) consisting of a boat from Fremantle to Singapore and a charter flight from Singapore to England, and Carol travelling from South Africa to England on the Union Castle ‘Mail ship’.

1975 in Europe – in our 20s

By the 1970’s backpacks had improved a little and had metal frames. We also attached our national flags to help us get lifts when hitchhiking, and added badges from the countries we had visited. All extra belongings were tied on to the outside of the pack (sleeping bags, water bottles and cooking pots!). Cooking pots and a small gas cooker being essential as we couldn’t afford to eat at restaurants. Accommodation was sometimes in youth hostels, but more often than not sleeping rough – beaches in Greece were great!

1984 in Alaska – in our 30s

Backpacks had improved further by the 1980’s. They now had hip-straps which made a significant difference to carrying a loaded pack. We continued backpacking throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, travelling to many destinations in South East Asia, Africa and Northern America. Planes were used to get to and from Australia (as plane travel had become cheaper and we were now more affluent, but ‘time poor’, as we travelled during annual leave from our jobs). Hitchhiking had given way to local buses and trains. Accommodation was a mixture of youth hostels and small cheap hotels.

1990s with children - suitcases replace backpacks

We continued to travel in the 1990’s, but in a slightly modified way as travel now included children. We found that backpacks needed to be replaced by suitcases as one seemed to need extra paraphernalia for them (from nappies to flippers and goggles and boogie-boards). Accommodation was often pre-booked, and though some cheaper hotels and public transport was used, swimming pools became more of a priority, and all sight-seeing become a balance between things of interest to kids as well as adults.


2000s, backpacks to rollerbags - in our late 50s

With offspring old enough to be living independently we have resumed our travels along the backpackers’ routes through South East Asia. As joints aren’t as young as they used to be backpacks have been replaced by soft duffel bags with wheels that can be pulled along!

At the end of last year we spent a fantastic four weeks travelling down through Vietnam; and further trips to Cambodia, Thailand and Laos are planned for later this year. Small family run hotels are now stayed in, and public transport of all sorts used to get around. Eating is a combination of local ‘pavement’ and market food to more upmarket restaurants to try local cuisine in all its forms.

It has been reassuring to realise that we can still travel in a similar way to our backpacking days, with a few modifications for age! And great to find out that there are many of our fellow travellers from the 1970s who are now hitting the road again. We have thoroughly enjoyed the company of many backpackers and rollerbaggers of all ages at the communal breakfasts in our little hotels en route.”

Our Facebook community also contributed to the Bobs' retrospective, posting 'then and now' reflections on our fan page. Changes to how we stay in touch were, unsurprisingly, a central theme in your stories.

Csaba Bán writes: “One of my best trips was nine days in Lebanon in 1999, when we (a couple) lost our LP on the very first day, so we had to figure out everything ourselves. No internet, no mobile phone, just good old talking. During these nine days we met only one other foreigner.”

Vibeke Omby Ibsen recalls backpacking back in the 80s. “We didn't have letters from home for more than three months. That was adventure!”

Ann Elizabeth Hamilton started travelling at age 21 in 1976: “In Asia we had no guidebooks, the ATM hadn't been invented and we relied on poste restante for all communications with home. I'm 55 and foray on the road every 6-9 months but still manage to go independently even where English is almost nonexistent. Those early skills still help me in the eternally addictive search for limitless adventure!”

When Gary Valdez backpacked through Mexico in the 70s, he “hitch hiked and took cargo trains to very far away from the main highway places. Now, there are roads and highways to these places and I see the natives chatting on the internet! It was disturbing at first, still is a bit."

Enrique Avilés thinks travelling seemed less paperwork intensive way back when. “As an Ecuadorian nowadays I need a visa for almost every country.”

For Todd Lake, backpacking “has changed considerably. Before the internet, it was more of an adventure. You never knew where you might end up, or what would happen when you got there. Now we have internet, and laptops, and cell phones. We can look up and get airplane, bus, train, or any other kind of tickets. We can book everything in advance. While some of the adventure is gone, the technology has allowed us to explore places we many have never considered going to before, which can be a good thing.”

Kezia Carpenter contends that "part of the ‘freedom’ that accompanies backpacking is the ability to disconnect from one's world/life back home. Technology makes it too easy to stay connected and it's natural to use what is available and take advantage of its benefits. Pre-internet, I remember picking up mail at Amex offices during a yearlong trip. Even though you can gauge your internet usage during a trip; there is something to be said for picking up a satchel of mail every month or so and opening actual letters, some with small gifts or a special cassette with a personal message or mix of songs. Even though connection was intermittent, it felt much more meaningful and personal. Or, that's how it felt for me."

Mariana Va misses a sense of leaping into the unknown. “More and more I run into people who have been to that little nook that I thought was my own secret paradise... and those little paradises are becoming more and more crowded. Does it make me sad? Yes. Has this shift allowed me to travel more? Yes. Is change inherent and inevitable in all aspects of life? Yes. These might be some of the last generations of ‘backpackers’ so enjoy!”

Paula Smith says technological strides are critical to 'keep parents sane'. And, "despite the perceived loss of adventure I like to think I am making my own set of adventures as I go anyway."

Gareth Sear feels the influence of lifestyle and age “People going travelling are getting older, young people worry about the CV gap not getting a job, money etc.”

Anita Rusdihardjo points to the upscaling of hostel culture as a major change over the years, but is less cynical about excessive beating of the unbeaten paths: “Even in the most touristy destinations you can still escape the hordes provided you come in the right time of the year (Bruges in the autumn is magnificent!) and a handy guidebook (most of the local restaurants/cafes being shown in Lonely Planet’s city-specific pocket guides really are visited by locals only!)

While Gerry Parke reminds us that “it’s the essence of travel that's important, not the gadgets we carry, prices we pay, or even destinations we visit. The reasons we travel remain a constant as the incidental details evolve around it.”

Share your own memories (or your parents!) and help us patch together a shared history of backpacking over the years.

Feeling nostalgic? Head to the Thorn Tree where you can read or post travel flashbacks like this one.

[Photos: Bob & Carol's album, lindyireland/Flickr]