Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Wired for travel: modern backpacker essentials

Remember when staying in touch with friends and family while backpacking meant the odd crackling trunk call home or popping a postcard into the post and hoping that the snail mail didn't beat you home?

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
  • Laptop
  • Hairdryer
When it comes to high-tech gadgets I must confess that I am guilty of carrying around a laptop, digital camera and mobile phone. Mind you, I only recently joined the mobile phone revolution taking one with me for the first time last year on a research trip to South Africa and Libya. Even then, I carried what I lovingly referred to as my 'travel' mobile – an early model Nokia that I purchased while living in South Africa which still sings out to me in annoying high-pitch monotone – leaving behind my flashy, 3G, Bluetooth, picture taking, video conferencing mobile. As to the laptop and digital camera, these are tools of my trade, so for me they are essentials. To be honest though I often spend most of my time jealously eyeing off the packs of less encumbered travellers wishing I could make a trade.

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


Anonymous said...

Hairdryers? Reminds me of wilderness camping and spotting another group with one girl lugging around her make-up bag. Crazy.
My 'modern' essentials? Cameras (film and digital) but primarily used for landscape and wildlife as I don't like taking photos of people. Susan Sontag's thinking is very good, I'm always aware of how much time people spend behind their camera and not actually interacting with the environment and culture they are in.
MP3 player - on some trips, but generally I don't take one, prefering the random conversations with strangers on long-distance trains in India, or overnight coach journeys across South Africa or Bolivia. If you want to shut someone out, burying yourself in a book is just as effective.
Otherwise, my essentials are more 'old fashioned' - a pack of cards, and a novel.
You travel to experience somewhere different, so much of travel is already done in a 'bubble' that seperates the traveller from the host, as Walter van Beek has theorised. Too much technology and reliance on communicating home just makes the bubble less permeable. Ditch the expensive gizmos, talk to people, and without the burden of fear over losing the laptop and hairdryer you'll probably find yourself more willing to explore places you might otherwise not.

Anna said...

Books, books and more books - I've been known to take up to 15 books on a 2 week holiday/work trip. My tip is to buy from your local second-hand shop - whose prices allow you to take the risk on a few authors unknown to you (especially if you leave in South Africa where book prices are obscene) and to leave the bad choices behind as you move around - you might not like it but the next travaller might :)

I guess this habit of mine also means that I create some distance between where I am travelling in reality and where I can go to in my head but for me that's what being away is about - the combination of new things and zoning out.

Natasha said...

I agree with Dan (Edinburgh) on his point about "the burden of fear over losing the laptop." Depending on where you travel, technology can definitely act as a barrier - not only in terms of spending too much time behind a lens, but also in terms of reinforcing cultural, historical, and socio-economic divisions. Here I think of Stuart Hall and his invocation of Doreen Massey's "power geometry' - "[G]lobalization is very unevenly distributed around the globe, between regions and between different strata of the population within regions." In other words, traveling with an iPhone in the Marina in San Francisco may be more of a norm that opens doors to social interactions with people who may also own or have been thinking of owning an iPhone. However, an iPhone in El Condado, San Juan, Puerto Rico might just make you stick out as a tourist and a target for theft. Most importantly, travelers must acknowledge the ways in which they will be appropriated by people in other countries. Think of your country's history with the other country (i.e. Do you come from an imperialist/colonizing country?)

For instance, I recently heard a story about a Chinese-American traveler who spent two days, one night at the Waterfront in Cape Town. Clearly, he was more a tourist than a traveler, and was read as such. Decked out in his Versace he queried a man working at his hotel about walking to a restaurant. The man responded by saying that theft is a problem and thus, the traveler (tourist) should take a taxi. The traveler/tourist returned to the US, claiming that Cape Town was this dangerous place. The reality was that he hadn't even seen Cape Town. He failed to realize that being an American in South Africa had certain implications. Staying at a 5-star hotel at the Waterfront and rocking Versace reinforced certain stereotypes and a particular "power geometry."

So, my advice is to find out where you're going and what part(s) you want to see. Let's be real, there are rich and poor areas in every country - where do you want to go and what side do you want to see? My personal rule of thumb is to bring anything and everything you want, but if you are so attached to "that thing" that losing it could potentially ruin your trip, leave it at home.

Natasha said...

Speaking of technology and traveling, does anybody have any suggestions about digital voice recorders for interviews? Please note that I want interviews to be available via Podcast eventually, so quality is a must.


Kim Wildman said...

RE: Digital Voice Recorders

I just checked out another site I belong to for an answer. From there I'm led to believe that Olympus is the market leader in miniature digital recorders. It certainly has a full line of models. Try a Google search for Olympus USA and take it from there.

Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Natasha - I've just picked up an olympus ws-321M digital recorder which is small, discrete, with a 1GB memory and hooks up straight to a laptop to download audio files. in-built mic works pretty well, would recommend it (and if you can afford to then get an external mic such as the Olympus ME-51S which really improves recordings of group discussions etc).

If you have an ipod you can get a plug in mic for them - I used a 2nd generation ipod and belkin mic for my PhD fieldwork and it was pretty decent for most one-on-one interviews. A colleague has just been using a 3rd gen ipod and mic and said to get any recordings he had to hold it right next to someone. So, yes, as Kim says, go with Olympus.