Backpacking is often regarded as an activity, which is undertaken only by those people who have a deep love for the outdoors, adventure, or for roughing it out. However, while it is true that backpacking is not for the fainthearted, it is an activity that perhaps everyone should try at least once in his or her lifetime. For, backpacking can prove to be an enormously rewarding experience. It is the objective of this paper to describe the benefits of backpacking as well as explore some of its more practical aspects.
The term "backpacking" means literally that, as in "carrying something in a pack on the back." However, in point of fact, the word "backpacking" has grown to connote much more than the simple act of carrying a pack on the back. Indeed, today, backpacking virtually signifies a subculture in the world of travel and tourism: "Backpacking is traveling long distances with a backpack. Two forms can be distinguished. Backpacking (wilderness) is the complete combination of hiking and camping. Backpacking (urban) is a subculture of generally youthful travelers exploring the planet on a limited budget." (wordIQ.com)
Henry David Thoreau once said, "It is a great art to saunter. The swiftest traveler is he that goes afoot. Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind." (Gregory, Chapter 14) Thoreau is not alone in his view that walking is the best form of travel for a debate has long existed over the distinction between a traveler and tourist. In fact, Tony and Maureen Wheeler of Lonely Planet consistently emphasize a traveler rather than a tourist identity in their travel guides: "the difference between a traveler and a tourist is often that the traveler does the walking." (Kenny, p.111)
The reason why Thoreau, the Wheelers and countless other backpacking enthusiasts extol the virtues of traveling by foot is easy to understand when they describe its advantages. For instance, Gregory says that walking is his preferred mode of travel because, "With comfortable shoes, a light pack, and an interesting environment, this is matchless pleasure. My eyes have time to focus on anything or anyone, my ears to discern the many sounds .... Walking is travel on the human scale." (Gregory, Chapter 14)
If backpacking allows a traveler to closely experience the environment and cultures in different parts of the world, it appears that backpacking in the wilderness may be the best way to commune with Nature. In America, for instance, there are still many wild spots with beautiful scenery that are best experienced by backpacking. Bialeschki, a professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, says that even the crowded Eastern Seaboard has such places: "A night spent along the banks of the roaring Linville River, in a gorge capable of generating its own microclimate .... Unlike most of the rest of the region, it's a place little changed since the European invasion." (Miller, 2003)
Similarly, there are still places all over planet Earth that are still unspoiled by human civilization. Besides experiencing Mother Nature in all her pristine glory, many people believe that backpacking in the wilderness results in a feeling of being connected with the universe: "The reason we go into nature, into the most wild environments, is because the soul is at home there." (Valles, 2002) Perhaps it is this feeling of being at home that also results in most backpackers reporting a feeling of peace and tranquility on their backpacking expeditions in the wilderness.
This is particularly true in the case of solo backpackers. Indeed, leisure research studies focused on solitude and privacy in wilderness settings reveal that hikers and backpackers are subjects who score high on scales associated with emotional release, personal autonomy, reflective thought, personal distance, and intimacy (Coble et.al., 2003). In fact, several of these attributes can also be associated with urban backpackers, especially solo ones.
One such solo backpacker, Paul Neville reports, "solo independent backpacking promotes life-changing cultural immersion opportunities and ... A chance to get to know, understand, and appreciate yourself." (Neville, 2003) It is important to note that solo backpacking is not alone in the psychological well-being it affords. For it is widely acknowledged that backpacking in groups, in both urban and wilderness settings, results in a host of psychological benefits as well.
The other significant benefits of backpacking, which cannot be overlooked or emphasized enough, are the development of self-sufficiency, responsibility, co-operation, endurance, survival skills, planning ability, and a chance to prove one's mettle (Shivers & Shivers, p. 286-7). Thus, it is evident that the activity of backpacking can prove to be an enormously rewarding experience.
However, although backpacking is rewarding, it involves exercising a great deal of care in terms of planning routes, equipment, and even practice of basic hiking and camping skills. Indeed, as several backpacking guides advise, it is prudent to spend time in finding out all the information available on a planned destination or site before venturing out into the unknown. Such groundwork will go a long way in ensuring that backpacking proves to be an enjoyable experience and a comfortable one. Indeed, as Miller points out, backpacking offers a rare sense of accomplishment derived from knowing that mere survival depends on human savvy, skills and what's in the backpack: "Conquering a technical rock climb ... breaking five hours on a 100-mile bike ride all have their rewards. But it's hard to top surviving a winter storm in comfort miles from civilization because you knew how to prepare for the occasion." (Miller, 2003).
It is apparent, therefore, that backpacking should only be undertaken after a great deal of thought, research and planning. Indeed, it is also advisable for beginners and the inexperienced to seek advice from rangers; stick to well-marked routes with easy terrain, well-marked camp sites and plentiful water; and let someone at home know the itinerary (Hamilton, 2004). Even in the case of long distance or urban backpacking, it is important to carefully plan out gear in order to be able to traverse the world with freedom and flexibility.
In fact, all experienced urban backpackers propound the "travel light" philosophy: "My advice for most non-camping travel ... is to use a large daypack ... two changes of clothes, a rain jacket, a pair of sandals, a few toiletries, camera and film, a few other items, and even a down sleeping bag, if desired." (Gregory, Chapter 14) Gregory's advice especially holds true for travelers who plan to always stay in hotels or hostels, who don't need gear associated with "roughing it," and who are going to be on the move a lot.
The exact choice of equipment also plays an integral role in ensuring that backpacking proves to be a pleasurable activity: "The best pack is strong and long-wearing, spacious enough to handle all required supplies and equipment, and easy to put on and take off. It should ride lightly on the lower portion of the back." Backpacks should also ideally be made of waterproof canvas with a central pocket, smaller back pockets, and two smaller side pockets (Shivers & Shivers, p. 286).
An important point to note here is that backpackers should test their backpacks for comfort and fit. This is because the most important part of a backpack or rucksack is its back system: "It's the one part of the rucksack that comes into contact with the body, and how well it fits is crucial to how much you can carry, how far and for how long ... most of the weight of a rucksack needs to be channeled away from the shoulders and back muscles into the stronger thighs." (Deegan, 2000)
Fortunately, for backpackers, manufacturers have now developed a wide range of gear that meet the need for efficiency, comfort, and ease of carrying (Shivers & Shivers, p. 287). Of course, the choice of equipment varies depending on whether the user plans to use it for backpacking in the wilderness or for traveling long distance in the urban world. If it is the former, equipment that is economical in its ability to carry all that is needed is desirable. This means that the pack must be strong, lightweight, comfortable to wear, and capable of stowing sleeping bags, eating utensils, food, survival kit, water supply and shelter (Shivers & Shivers, p. 287). If, on the other hand, the backpack is being used for urban travel, the choice of pack entirely depends on an individual traveler's plans for traveling light or roughing it.
Another critical aspect of backpacking is knowledge of first aid. Indeed, familiarity with first aid must be acquired especially before undertaking backpacking expeditions in the wilderness. This includes not just knowledge of bandages, dressing, splints and sutures but also assessment of breathing problems, cold problems, shock, and dehydration (Merry, 1995). Indeed, first aid and emergency kits are a mandatory item in both solo as well as group backpacking trips: "The remote possibility of becoming…