Friday, June 4, 2010

Can you ever be too old for backpacking?

Backpacking around the globe is a great adventure, especially when you are young and don't have any strings to tie you down. But with so many people putting off having families and travelling later in life, should there be an age limit on backpacking?

I was 27 years old when I set out on my first adventure-come-backpacking holiday – a month-long overland trip taking in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Zambia. But it wasn't until a few years later, after I'd turned 30 and had landed a job with Lonely Planet, when I finally felt secure enough in myself to take off on my first real extended solo backpacking adventure - this time bussing and training my way around the lesser known parts of Eastern Europe. So as a bit of a late backpacking bloomer, I've usually always been the oldest person in the dorm.

Yet some 10 years on as I unpack my bags from my latest adventure in Cambodia I'm wondering if, at the ripe old age of 41 years, I'm starting to get a little too old for this? I've already traded in my traditional rucksack for a far more practical and convenient – and might I add less backbreaking – trolley backpack, so perhaps it's time I hang up my hiking boots and sign-up for a seniors' only bus tour of Europe?

For me, age always has been, and hopefully will always be, a number. But at the same time, as the years have marched on I've noticed the gap between myself and younger travellers at hostels is indeed widening – while they revel in all-night drinking parties and only crawl into their bunks just before dawn, I'd much rather find a hole-in-the-wall restaurant where I can enjoy a local meal along with a glass of wine (or two) and be in bed well before midnight. I also appreciate a few more luxuries, such as hygienic bathrooms and clean bed sheets, than I did when I was younger. But does this mean I should give hostels a wide berth?

Hostels of course offer a great budget alternative form of accommodation and they are excellent places to meet like-minded travellers. Yet while they were once the domain of drifters and students, today's hostels cater to the young and the young at heart with many dropping the "youth" tag and opening their doors to families and mature-age travellers. Granted I'd find screaming children as annoying as drunken teenagers and late night snorers, but no matter whether my dorm mates belong to Gen Y, Gen X or the Baby Boomers as long as they share my independent travelling spirit then, as far as I'm concerned, they can only make my hostelling experience richer.

Perhaps as Alison Brick once noted for Vagabonding in the end it's all just a matter of definition. That is, if to you the word backpacker means the party-all-night, sleep-all-day gap year student whose round-world trip drifts by in a drunken blur, then by all accounts my backpacking years are well behind me. But if you believe backpackers are in fact independent travellers who don't go in much for set itineraries, who avoid package tours and who relish the opportunity to get off the well-beaten tourist trail, then apparently I'll never be too old to be a backpacker.

Naturally I subscribe to the latter definition. So while I may well be the oldest person at the hostel, as long as I continue to enjoy the challenges and complexities of independent travel, I can’t see myself giving up backpacking anytime soon.

What do you think? Can you ever be too old for backpacking? I'l love to hear your thoughts.


Caitlin @ Roaming Tales said...

I guess I have a definition somewhere in between. I don't think just being an independent traveller without a set itinerary makes you a backpacker. I think you also need to be:
- travelling for an extended period of time, not just a couple of weeks.
- a budget traveller who stays in hostels (or finds other cheap/free accommodation), catches local transport and makes meals or eats street food.
- someone who carries a backpack not a suitcase, because it's the most practical way to travel when you are getting local transport etc.

I don't think you can be too old for it, but certainly a lot of people become more concerned with comfort as they get older, while simultaneously having less time to spend on the road, and more money to spend. So age is not disconnected.

Caitlin @ Roaming Tales said...

PS Americans use 'backpacking' slightly differently - over here, the word often means bushwalking with all your camping supplies in your backpack.

Kristina said...

I think there is no age-limit to backpacking. for sure the older you get, the more luxury you like and also can afford (clean bathrooms and sheets for example).this is nothing to be ashamed about :)
but for me backpacking is more a definition of the way you travel. independent travel. experience the heart of each country. being openminded. doing it your own way. smell, feel and see as much local life as possible. and for that you will never be too old!
viele grĂ¼sse, kristina