With the great leaps made in technology in the last ten years – the spread of the internet, wireless connections, Bluetooth, mobile communication – today's backpackers have become increasingly tech-savvy and digitally driven. So much so, that they're now lugging around packs full of flashy gadgets and gizmos worth more than £1 billion ($2.11 billion AUD).
According to a recent survey conducted by AA Travel Insurance, the top five essential backpacking items are a far cry from the basics you might expect to find buried deep in a rucksack. They are:
- Mobile phone
- Digital camera
- MP3 player
While I certainly regard digital cameras and MP3 players as worthy backpack fillers, the danger is that in using them we risk isolating ourselves from the world we are trying to explore. Have a look around you the next time you're out on the road and you'll soon notice that there are many travellers for whom the only way they seem to experience the world is by viewing it vicariously through the camera's lens. But in so doing, they become what renowned theorist Susan Sontag labels 'tourists of reality' - tourists who relentlessly seek out 'constructed' realities (those sold and endorsed by glossy travel brochures) while denying themselves the reality of their own unique experience. I once did a two-week trip through Zimbabwe with a German backpacker who spent the entire time with his eyes glued to his video camera. I'm not even sure he noticed that there was anyone else on the trip let alone realised that that there was a whole other world beyond the range of his viewfinder. Again, with MP3 players or similar devices you see it time and time again when a traveller on a bus or a train becomes so absorbed in their own insular musical world they take no notice of the amazing scenery that flashes by them and often miss making real connections with local people and places.
The real problem is that technology has become an umbilical cord backpackers use to stay connected to home. Many spend endless hours in internet cafes downloading digital photos, posting minute details of their trip on MySpace or Facebook and even producing video travel diaries for sites like YouTube. But the question we need to ask is: if we are spending so much time on the road keeping in touch with home; should we have ever left in the first place?
My advice is, yes, do take a digital camera, mobile phone and MP3 player - a camrea is a great way to record your memories, a mobile phone can save you in a pinch and an MP3 player can help fill in the endless hours waiting for buses and trains - just make sure they're compact and lightweight. When it comes to laptops, however, in my opinion, unless you are a travel writer or travelling for business, leave the laptop at home - that’s what internet cafes are for! And don't even get me started on how a hairdryer ended up on the essential packing list!
Bear in mind that whatever gadgets you take with you, you have to be prepared to lose them. Besides misplacing them yourself (easily done, I once left my mobile phone in the taxi on the way to the airport) they're tempting targets for thieves, so there is no point in taking the latest flashy, high-tech gizmo. Above all, be careful not to allow technology to form a barrier between you and your new surroundings. After all, seeing the world, experiencing new cultures and meeting local people is what travelling is all about.
What 'essentials' do you travel with? Do you think technology has become more of a curse than a blessing?
Image sourced from FreeFoto.com