6 Steps to Becoming a True Backpacker

What does it take to be a backpacker? Common sense says it takes a backpack; but what about those who carry backpacks while staying in luxury hotels or traveling as part of a tour? Or those who travel cheaply, but prefer a suitcase to having all their possessions strapped to their backs? Ask ten people and you’ll get ten definitions, so I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands and come up with a definitive answer.

Wooden Bridge Green Sea

Photo by Siim Teller.

I began my inquiry by collecting data using the most advanced scientific tools and methods available to me: two eyes and some questionable powers of deduction. After an extensive analysis of said data that involved me eating a pizza and…well, I ate the whole thing anyway. As for the data, I took my observations of average backpackers, jumped to a number of quick conclusions and came up with a few simple things you’ll need to do to join the backpacking ranks.


1. Grow Dreadlocks or BraidsDreadlocks Khao San Bangkok

First, you’ll have to grow your hair out and either get it dreadlocked or braided. You’ll also have to stop washing it altogether. I know that sounds disgusting and dreadlocks look absolutely ridiculous on anyone not employed as an extra in a post-apocalyptic movie, but you’ll have to make some sacrifices if you want to be a real backpacker. And this one is a necessity (Photo by Matt).


2. Demonstrate Your “Travel Cred”

To accomplish this, you need to go somewhere “off the beaten track”, which generally just means some place full of backpackers, but shunned by other tourists. Obviously, you can simply lie about having been to such a place, but ideally, you’ll want to actually visit at least one. One is plenty; you’ll find very few have been to more than one.

Now when the conversation turns to exotic places you’ve visited—and it will turn to that topic—you can bring up your place. And you can keep bringing it up over and over and over. Should you run into someone else who’s also been there, you’re in for a treat. Now the two of you can dominate the conversation by constantly one-upping each other. Here’s how it goes.

First, the other person mentions something especially exotic they did in this already ridiculously exotic location. You, of course, have also done that thing (even if you haven’t), but you did it for much less money; naturally, it also took you twice as long and you endured ten times the hardships.  The other person will then mention being robbed at gunpoint, after which you bring up your stint in a local prison.


3. Stop Wearing PantsAli Baba Pants

Don’t get too excited, you still need to wear something, but that something should not be a pair of jeans or anything else that resembles pants (in the American sense of the word, i.e. trousers—to all the British readers: please continue to wear underwear). Instead, you need to get a piece of clothing made from a lightweight fabric dyed a nauseatingly bright color and shaped to resemble a triangle, with the two legs connected by a low-hanging clump that looks like you didn’t quite make it to the bathroom on time after an especially heavy and fibrous meal. Wear these every day and never wash them (Photo by Bluemonkey).


4. Carry a “Locally Made” Bag

Souvenir Purse IndiaAnd of course nothing complements a pair of hideous pants like an equally hideous bag. Every true backpacker knows that nothing shows off your adventurous spirit and individuality like a poorly made bag fashioned by a six year old in a dark Bangladeshi sweatshop and decorated with an exotic elephant or eastern-religion-themed design (Photo by Dietmut Teijgeman-Hansen).

Don’t worry about these bags weighing you down either; you don’t actually have to put anything in them. While these bags could be used to hold things, their main function is one of status—they show the world that you’ve been to a generic tourist-trap market and were talked into overpaying for a “one-of-a-kind locally made by the most highly skilled artisans” bag. Try to ignore the fact that every other person who has been to the developing world has the same bag slung over their shoulder—theirs is obviously a cheap imitation; you got the real thing.


5. Stop Shaving

This one is mostly for the guys—if you want to be taken seriously as a backpacker, you cannot be clean-shaven. Even if you can’t actually grow a beard, the pathetic attempt alone is enough to establish your travel cred. I can’t believe I even had to waste space on the page for a point as basic as this, but I’ve seen far too many fresh-faced wannabes trying to fool people with their dirty dreadlocks, triangle-shaped pants and empty bags.


6. Hate America

Finally we come to the most important point—you simply must hate the United States and you must make your contempt known in any conversation that lasts longer than 10 minutes. Luckily, the US does absolutely everything wrong and is the root of all the world’s evil, so you’ll have plenty to talk about.

Not only will this display of your progressive and intellectual thinking prove once and for all what a well-traveled and knowledgeable backpacker you are, it will also win you numerous new friends. Don’t worry about offending any actual Americans in the area; if they’re real backpackers, they will agree with you and if not, they’ll be back in the US and nowhere near your conversation.

If you actually are American, you really shouldn’t be backpacking in the first place—it’s just not done. If you insist, however, you’re going to want to pretend you’re Canadian, which means you’ll have to invest a lot of money in Canadian themed t-shirts, hats and of course little Canadian flags to cover your backpack. No real Canadian would be caught dead without those. With your new disguise, you can now join in on the America-bashing, while enjoying an ice-cold coca cola and watching a Hollywood movie.


There you have it: follow those steps and you’ll pass for a backpacker among all but the toughest critics. For those, you’ll need to employ some more advanced techniques, such as finding strategic (i.e. highly visible to other backpackers) locations to post up and write meaningless drivel deeply spiritual and complex metaphysical observations in your Moleskine notebook or taking every opportunity to scoff at anyone enjoying some western food, before yourself going off and hitting all the ‘Lonely Planet listed and approved’ restaurants for some “authentic” local cuisine.

Finally I’d like to take a moment to address all those I may have offended in writing this. Please leave me a long and detailed comment detailing where I went wrong—I am always looking for material for future posts. Then toss your bag, get a shave and a haircut and buy a pair of jeans.


    • says

      No, you’re absolutely right: I did leave out the ganja, because that point would be subject to location. In some countries like India, Nepal or Laos, backpackers can pretty much go around smoking all they want, but in other countries like Malaysia, Singapore or Thailand, that probably wouldn’t be such a good idea.
      Daniel McBane recently contributed to world literature by posting..Buddhist Monk in Vientiane Doing Some GroomingMy Profile

    • says

      Thank you. Every so often, I do try to write a post people actually enjoy reading. Looks like I got the one for 2013 out of the way nice and early….
      And by the way, I also really loved Laos; I would have commented on your post, but the Blogger.com commenting system and I have chosen to go our separate ways, due to irreconcilable differences.
      Daniel McBane recently contributed to world literature by posting..Why was Pedro in Beijing and Why Was He Naked?My Profile

  1. says

    Love this post; definitely got me and my husband snickering, as we have seen MANY people since reaching Thailand who tick all the boxes on this terrible list. So far, despite traveling for 7 months, we have somehow managed to avoid all of these pitfalls, though we did recently buy a sarong, and are also toting a hammock… it was a close shave, but I think we are still in the clear! I’ll be ever vigilant, and promise to keep wearing pants (except when I wear skirts, which I think is ok, what with me being a lady).
    Steph (@ 20 Years Hence) recently contributed to world literature by posting..Life’s a Beach in BoholMy Profile

    • says

      I feel your pain–Thailand is one of the worst places if you’re trying to avoid these types of people and unless you have very strong masochistic tendencies, you’re trying to avoid these kinds of people. It should come as no surprise that the picture of the guy getting dreadlocks is from Khao San Road–that place has to have the highest number of dreadlockers (dreadlock providers? artists? who knows…) per square meter outside of Jamaica.

      On another note, hammocks are fine…having one of those just marks you as a lazy person and I’d have one too, if I weren’t too lazy to hang the thing up.
      Daniel McBane recently contributed to world literature by posting..Cow Piss Vending Machine in TokyoMy Profile

    • Sunshine says

      Have you even TRIED wearing sarongs?
      They are the most comfortable thing, allow you to have as much leg freedom as if you weren’t wearing anything.
      Call me a hippie, but I wear these everyday, winter and summer, and plan to wear them on my 3month travel to Asia too. Especially because women are not seen the same way as in the Western society, and no. I won’t be wearing skirts and shorts – dammit, I don’t want to get raped or anything. Keep in mind that these men don’t get to see pretty white girls with blonde hair everyday, and most of them and illiterate and didn’t get a good education of – what to do and whats not ok to do. They will act on impulse.

      You all just sound like a bunch of rich people ” snobing ” out the ones who have found the most efficient and cheaper way to travel / live.

      And for the shaving – did you know how dangerous it is to even be in the contaminated water that you can’t even drink, but however, you all plan on shaving yourselves in it? Shaving creates micro-cuts therefore it lets the skin absorb easily and in the blood any bacteria or virus there is around. So unless you’re at a 4 star hotel with treated water out of your pretty western shower, I don’t see why you’d be stupid and do it.
      Being a girl, the idea of not shaving for 3 months repulses me, but I think I’ll just go to a spa every 3-4 weeks to have it all waxed out – because I can’t see any other option than this – or to really not shave for 3 months.
      So why all the mean comments and the anointment ?

      • says

        Wow. Where to start with this thing? I guess with the most obvious point–my post was a joke! Pretty much every last word of it!

        Now for the mean and snobby comments you refer to. I reread the whole page and you’re right, I did find a few lines that fit that description. Ironically, you wrote all of them.

        How can you call me and every person who commented on this post rich snobs, when in the paragraph before you basically called all Asian men illiterate, uneducated potential rapists with no impulse control (while referring to yourself as a pretty white girl with blonde hair, I might add). It’s a statement like that, that makes you a snob, not shaving and wearing pants. I’ve seen plenty of clean-shaven poor people with pants.

        I will say that I agree with you about the inappropriateness of some tourists’ clothing choices. Most areas in Asia are quite conservative and skimpy shorts are definitely not appropriate. However, wearing them does not incite the local inhabitants to rape (I really hope you weren’t serious with that); it generally just makes them feel really uncomfortable.

        Finally, the water situation is nowhere near as dire as you think. You won’t get sick from contact with the water and, in most areas, you won’t even get sick from drinking it.

        I’m glad you are planning a 3 month trip to Asia. You’ll quickly see that the people, the water and everything else is nowhere near as scary as you were led to believe. Yes, you will be annoyed at times and frustrated at times, but overall, you’ll have a great time and when you get back, come read this post again. I bet you’ll see some humor in it at that point.

  2. says

    That’s by far my favourite post, made me laugh. I agree with no shaving and wearing local made bags, hats. pants, bracelets and any kind of weird looking and shiny jewellery, but dreadlocks, c’mon!!!! That’s something I would never ever do! And yes backpackers should educate others on budget travel tips and they also should blog about their adventures!
    Agness recently contributed to world literature by posting..Five Main Differences between China and South-East Asian CountriesMy Profile

    • says

      Wait, you have a Moleskine journal?!? That’s an advanced technique–aiming a little high there, aren’t you? I mean, you don’t have dreadlocks, you look like you wash your clothes at least occasionally and not only do you not hate the US, you actually ARE American… Work on steps one through six first. Then move on to the advanced stuff…

  3. says

    Ha ha – hilarious. And terrifyingly accurate as well!
    I count myself as a bit of a ‘flashpacker’, which means I rub shoulders with the backpackers but then am able to look down at them with their smelly dreadlocks and stupid non-pants.
    If I had a dollar for every time one of them had told me about how amazing and exotic somewhere touristy like Chiang Mai is, I would be able to upgrade to being a luxury traveller!
    Turtle recently contributed to world literature by posting..Getting crabs in CambodiaMy Profile

    • says

      You know, when I first came across the word ‘flashpacker’, I just thought it was someone who backpacked quickly, as in someone with a full-time job who goes backpacking one month a year or so. Now I realize it’s just backpackers who had to invent a new word because they didn’t want to be associated with what has become the stereotypical backpacker. As such, it’s probably easier to just become a flashpacker, instead of trying to go through my six steps.

      And what do you mean Chiang Mai isn’t exotic?!? I was using that as the exotic location I brought up in conversations to impress people. I guess that explains the reactions I was getting…I just figured everyone was jealous.

  4. says

    I must be missing something :)

    I have yet to see a backpacker in any of the places I go to (except in London when on the way to somewhere). Maybe I’m too obscure – eeegads!

    I like that trouser replacement. What happens if he has to step higher than 3 inches?
    Graefyl recently contributed to world literature by posting..London and foodMy Profile

    • says

      There’s a certain trail all the real backpackers follow and if you’re not on it, you won’t see many of them. And that trail does not have many steps higher than three inches, because…well, have you ever seen a penguin try to waddle its way over an obstacle…?

  5. says

    Nice post! I’ve traveled in Asia for one year and yeah this is a good description that fits most people on the backpacker trail. You might add a seventh one which is trying to destroy your general wellbeing by drinking loads of oversized buckets with local spirits. Which results in a tattoo of which the meaning is hard to explain to other backpackers (not that I have experience with this one)..

    Furthermore, Like your blog! I’ll keep on reading it. just started my own a few weeks ago and currently writing all my articles of my travels!

    • says

      Ah yes, the buckets and the tattoos. Backpacker tattoo choices could fill a whole blog post on their own, especially the ones using Chinese characters that rarely mean what the bearer thinks they mean.

      • says

        haha, the chinese signs… thats a classic one! I met a lot of people with vague chinese characters on their body… I think your right it could fill a whole blogpost. I think a new idea for a blogpost on my blog has been born!

          • says

            Thanks for the nomination! I’ve actually been nominated a few times before, but ignored it since this isn’t really my kind of thing at all. I noticed you likened it to a chain letter on your blog and that’s a pretty fair comparison. Since I’m not the least bit superstitious, I’m afraid I’ll be ignoring this thing again. It also doesn’t help that I speak German…putting everything else aside, I just can’t get past the ridiculous award name.

    • says

      I know, I’ve seen so many guys carrying around bags like that and more often than not, they look empty. The few times I’ve asked, it turned out they had a little camera in there or some other tiny thing they could have just as easily been carrying around in their pocket. I guess it’s all about the fashion…

  6. says

    Hahaha so true! As an American traveler myself I will sadly admit to hiding my country status on occasion simply to avoid the whole “your country is a complete shit” conversation for the 10,000th time. Luckily I remain free of all the other horrendous backpacker trends :)
    Dawn @ Animal Volunteer Work recently contributed to world literature by posting..Volunteer With Animals In ChinaMy Profile

  7. says

    Oh so true on so many levels! But your going to tell me you do none of those things? At the moment I have to admit to sitting around typing this in those baggy pants – but they are just so comfortable.. I do also wear jeans and shave – so not sure if I make the club here or not.

    Great post :)

    • says

      No, I specifically picked these six things because they’re ones I don’t do–that way I was able to write this with a feeling of superiority…

  8. says

    Love this post! It’s pretty funny, but definitely shows the stereotypical backpacker. As an American who’s done a little backpacking, I can see why people may not want to admit their country. However, I’ve found it’s best to just own it. Most people will respect you if you’re cool about it.
    Emily recently contributed to world literature by posting..Wisdom Wednesday – Henry MillerMy Profile

    • says

      That’s true and to be honest, I’ve never really felt disrespected as a result of my nationality, but it can get little tiresome to hear the exact same (often perfectly valid) criticisms rehashed time and time again.

  9. says

    Love it Daniel. You get this in Europe too (except for the leggy skirty thing) – were there any in Berlin when you were there?. The guy with the dreads, I think I saw him in London this June. I like Moleskine type notebooks becuz they don’t tear up so easy. Use them as quick jots for my blog entries (ones I use are a quarter the price and a tad bigger but do the job) – also saves me the weight of batteries and voice recorder. The deep philosophy I’ll leave to you :)
    Graefyl recently contributed to world literature by posting..Tubing the DordogneMy Profile

    • says

      Certain parts of Berlin are absolutely crawling with dreadlocks, but the triangle pants are not as common here. Moleskin notebooks are like so many other great ideas — they can be incredibly useful, but the potential for abuse is just so high that I invariably form a negative opinion. Cell phones are another good example of this. A much better example actually, since you don’t see too many people outside the backpacker trail writing in their notebooks in a manner that makes it clear they want others to take notice.
      Daniel McBane recently contributed to world literature by posting..How to not Visit the Taj Mahal While in AgraMy Profile

  10. says

    Just bookmarked this post :) I’ve been traveling through South America for 7 months so far and completely agree. I’d have to say that the hating America thing is pretty true.
    Jonathan recently contributed to world literature by posting..Sandboarding in PeruMy Profile

  11. Dave says

    As an American backpacker, I would never diss anyone’s country and I would never start a political debate but when the American bashing started I would simply respond “Well, when you have been kicking ass and taking names as long as we have you just do what you want.” and of course I would always tell French people that there welcome because if it wasn’t for us they would be speaking German. No one ever had a response

  12. says

    Hilarious stuff!
    You pretty much summed up the typical backpacker guy. However, there are also some typical ‘girl’ stuff: wearing an anklet, a tattoo between the shoulderblades (or on the ankles), a high bun in the hair, and of course all sorts of handcrafted little bags…
    And then there’s also the books! Of course books by the Dalai Lama, and you must have your copy of The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. And a photocopied edition of the Lonely Planet of the country you’re in… Have you read ‘Are You Experienced’ by Daniel Sutcliff? Pretty hilarious story of backpacking in India!

    • says

      Wow, you’ve got enough new points here for two follow-up posts! In fact, you could do a whole one on ‘standard backpacker reading material’ alone…if you don’t write it, I probably will…

      I have not read “Are You Experienced,” but a ‘hilarious story about backpacking in India’ sounds like just my thing. I’ll have to check it out.
      Daniel McBane recently contributed to world literature by posting..Real and Fake Leg Rowing Fishermen on Inle LakeMy Profile

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