low-cost, lightweight, independent and often international travel
Travel topics > Activities > Urban backpacking

Urban backpacking is a form of budget travel focusing on flexibility and low cost, usually sleeping in hostels and other budget accommodation.

Two Danish backpackers in front of the Vienna State Opera

For information on travelling through uninhabited areas, sleeping in tents or cabins, see wilderness backpacking.


In this context, the term "backpacker" refers to a budget traveler, gap-year traveler, or student who is spending an extended period of time overseas, possibly working or volunteering.

Backpackers take their name from the large rucksacks they typically use to carry their belongings while traveling. They generally favor an independent and grassroots style of travel, staying in hostels with dormitory-style facilities or in other types of low-budget accommodation.


Backpackers know no borders and can be found travelling all parts of the globe. Famous destinations include Australia and New Zealand, Europe, South America, India, and Thailand.

New backpacker hot spots now include Eastern Europe, China and the South Pacific. China can be extremely difficult without a local knowledge or language skills. However a new independent travel network, Dragon Bus China, has been developed by westerners with an intricate knowledge of China that may well satisfy your independent travel desires

In Africa a popular route is from Nairobi to Cape Town (or for the more experienced Cairo to Cape Town).

Get aroundEdit

Backpacking works best in areas where public transportation is readily available, both between cities and within them (such as much of Europe). Where private automobiles dominate (as in much of North America) or transport in general is sketchy (as in much of the developing world), you'll depend more on hitchhiking to get from place to place, which can be less dependable and less safe.

Backpackers are renowned for their desire to travel large distances at the least expense possible. Popular means of travel include:

  • Rail is often convenient for both short and longer journeys. Try to plan your journey to avoid very busy trains, as trains can be full with passengers standing close together. On a quieter train there is often plenty of room for luggage and a chance to walk around during the trip.
  • Boat
  • Bus Local buses are useful for getting the last few miles to your destination. Longer distance buses and coaches provide an alternative to rail journeys, sometimes saving money but maybe less comfortable. In some countries long distance services require reservations and every passenger has a seat and cannot be as packed as a train.
  • Backpacker Tours are a good way of travelling with like minded travellers, but you are less likely to meet locals than on a bus on train.
  • Hop-on Hop-off transport


There are a couple of things to consider when packing clothes:

  • You might not be able to carry more than a few days' worth of clothing, due to limited storage space.
  • Laundry facilities where you're staying could be expensive or nonexistent (or at least difficult to find).

To address those concerns, many backpackers will bring a few pairs of "quick-dry" or "travel" underwear which is designed to be washed in the sink and hung up to dry overnight. If you have access to a sink every day, you could get away with packing only two pieces of underwear! There are also travel-sized detergents you can buy to facilitate washing your own clothes.

Other essential pieces of clothing include:

  • Long pants. There are many fairly conservative countries (or cultures within countries) where wearing shorts in public is not well looked upon, and even in places where shorts are accepted, wearing shorts is a dead giveaway that you are a tourist. Also, many traditional places of worship such as Buddhist temples or Gothic cathedrals require visitors to wear pants.
  • Sleeved shirt. Along the same vein as long pants, cathedrals and temples may not allow entry if you're wearing a tank top or midriff-baring t-shirt.
  • Cargo pants. Pockets are handy. Also, you can get cargo pants that are easy to wash and dry (jeans, on the other hand, take forever to dry) and have a zipper around the leg which allows you to convert pants into shorts very quickly. For the maximum utility out of one piece of clothing this would be a good option to explore.
  • Black shoes. They're not great to hike around in, but some nightclubs have a strict dress code and you won't be able to get in without them.
  • Party shirt. Like the black shoes, have one piece of clothing for a night on the town.

All that said, the most important rule when it comes to clothing is to pack smart. You're not preparing for a disaster, nor are you out to impress anyone with your wardrobe (except for the party shirt). Take as few pieces of clothing as possible, and reuse them as often as possible.

See also the Packing List travel topic.


Unlike the business traveller who can expect his upmarket hotel to provide full services, you need to carry:

  • a towel and soap
  • a clothes line for your laundry
  • a padlock for lockers
  • Linens- some hostels, although rare, do not provide bed sheets.

A sarong is lightweight and remarkably versatile — beach blanket, wrap, furniture cover.


Backpackers often purchase raw ingredients locally and cook their own meals, as this is the cheapest option. Many hostels have kitchens and cooking utensils for this purpose. Kitchen etiquette demands:

  • Don't dominate shared resources, such as refrigerator space, stove space, pots, etc.
  • Don't steal shared cookware.
  • Wash pots, pans, dishes, silverware, etc. immediately after you use them.
  • If you have food, utensils, or anything else you don't need anymore, consider donating them.
  • Write your name on anything you put in a shared refrigerator, and don't leave it there to get moldy.

Some hostels provide food to their guests. This may be included in the price of a bed, or it may be an additional purchase.

Backpackers also patronize street vendors and inexpensive restaurants. Some establishments give discounts to guests of nearby hostels.


Backpackers all over the world are generally renowned for their drinking of alcoholic beverages. However, this is usually limited to local Beer and other low cost drinks.


Backpackers favour cheap hostel and hotel accommodation. Other popular ways of travelling and saving on accommodation costs include all inclusive coach tours, camping and hiring a campervan.

Accommodation standards in the backpacker price range vary for each region of the world. Europe, New Zealand and Australia have some of the best types of backpacker hostels, whilst the USA is gradually embracing the backpacking culture and outside of major tourist cities, motel accommodation is more common.

Asia is relatively cheap and backpackers favour staying in hotels or local homestays.

South Africa has a high standard when it comes to backpackers. They are very popular amongst young travellers who come to South Africa. Most of the backpackers are found in Cape Town and along the garden route. They are seen as very safe and secure and a great place to meet new people.


Youth hostels and budget hotels are the best bets for inexpensive accommodation. Hostels are dorm style accommodations ranging anywhere from private rooms to sleeping 16+bed sleepers. You may give up some privacy with shared bathrooms and even shared rooms, but it also gives you a chance to meet fellow travelers. Backpacking has gradually started changing from being very basic to more "resort-like" purpose built-residences also known as "flashpackers".


Bringing a tent and camping out can bring a backpacking trip down from "affordable" to "cheap". One problem is that campsites tend to be on the outskirts of cities far from sights you might want to see, and may not be served well by local public transportation. They often have all the natural charm of a parking lot and all the modern comforts of... a parking lot. OK, usually with a group bathroom and showers, laundry facilities of some kind, and maybe a place to get snacks. In many places, most of your camping neighbors will be car/caravan/camper users, but some sites will have an area set aside for tents. Ask about rates before booking a stay; they may charge you as much for your 2-person tent as for a 30-foot RV.

Stay safeEdit

See staying safe.

See also pickpockets and common scams for information on security measures.

Stay healthyEdit

Most backpacks and some clothing should be treated with insecticide to reduce risk of various annoyances and of infections spread by bugs.

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