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The Gap Year Blog

The History Of Backpacking

19 Jul 2016 16:10 PM

Image courtesy of Keith Parker

The exact origins of “backpacking” as a recreational activity are unknown, although some date the trend back to the early 1900’s after the invention of the rucksack by Ole F Bergans. In ancient times, backpacks were made out of animal hide and skin and used to transport hunter’s larger game. Other sources suggest that the trend began after Lloyd F. Nelson’s invention of the camping backpack in 1920.

But the modern frame backpack as we know it was invented by Dick Kelty in 1951. The design was used to shift the heavy load from the shoulders to the hips. The original Kelty design involved the addition of a hip belt to the existing wooden frame. Over a number of years the bags developed and wood was replaced with lightweight aluminium, a padded waist, zippers and shoulder straps. 

Re-distributing the load to the wearers hips assists with agility and balance and stabilises the load. Soon after Kelty’s bag was developed, hiking, walking, outdoor exploration and an appreciation of natural beauty saw a surge in the popularity of backpacking, which has continued into a modern-day love of adventure travel.

So how do we define backpacking as we know it? Some describe it as the combination of hiking and camping into on, or as independent, see-the-world and off-the-beaten track travelling.

Some sub-trends of backpacking that you may be familiar with are as follows:

Flashpacking: Typically, these modern travellers elect to travel in less expensive destinations in order to dine and stay in more lavish places. Think of it as backpacking with a flash, with the use of tech devices such as laptops, iPods and phones.

Gap-packing: This term refers to young backpackers who travel for an extended period on a gap year, usually between school and university or university and full time work. It comes with a sense of a trip being more of an educational experience rather than a holiday. 

Glamping: As the word implies, glamping refers to glamorous camping, whereby the individual may seek out the comfort of a bed, comfortable meal and glass of wine - with many travellers staying in eco-lodges or luxurious yurts.

Backpacking tests your strength, both physically and emotionally, and encourages individuals to move outside their comfort zone through new experiences. And it’s not only young people that enjoy this form of travel. An increasing number of families and seniors are choosing backpacking over traditional ways of seeing the world.

Image courtesy of Sarah Goodfellow, Madagascar Wildlife Conservation Adventure


So why choose backpacking over traditional travel?

You’ll have experiences like no other tourist: Being able to pack up your life and carry it on your back forces you into a different mindset – the key difference between a tourist and a traveller. You will find places not seen on travel brochures and guidebooks: the real world close up and.

Life experience: Being in foreign surroundings where you are engaging with a different culture is an opportunity to gain new perspectives and see the world in a different light. You will broaden your horizons by simply meeting interesting people, learning about history, art, nature and culture, and even yourself.

It’s cheap: Backpacking is great value travel, and if you’re going to developing countries such as South East Asia or South America, you can live like a king on £20 a day. You will be much better off sitting in the Sunrise Guesthouse sharing a traditional Chai tea with the owner than alone in your own 5 star hotel room.

Push your boundaries: Packing up and leaving home can be daunting, especially if it’s your first time away from your family. The open road teaches backpackers to move outside their comfort zone; sleep may involve using your backpack as a pillow, spending the night on a hammock at the beach, or in an overnight sleeper train carriage. It’s the open road that teaches you patience and to embrace the rich and rewarding moments that don’t become lost in an old Facebook album.

Gain independence: When you are abroad and reliant on yourself, you learn to adapt. You become incredibly mobile and gain a sense of freedom you may never have experienced. When you look back at some of the trivial stresses of home life, you realise the importance of life memories and worldly experiences.

By Lucy Johnston

Frontier runs terrestrial & marine conservation, community, teaching and adventure projects in over 50 countries - join us and explore the world!