Backpackers ‘R’ Us, Unless Media Has a Say

By Catrina Boar

It’s a cold December evening, the popcorn is finished, and it’s time to settle in for a movie.  The chosen theme for the viewing party will be backpacking and the crazy trek of sexually hungry, young, fit, white, and somewhat foolish young adults that flail around Europe, entertaining us for a couple of hours. It is in many ways unfortunate that the norm or type cast of the typical backpacker is often reduced to these traits. It seems that the media, on screen or even in print portrays three main stereotypes about backpackers. First, they are young, usually in their late teens or early twenties and in perfect physical condition. Second, all backpackers are portrayed as Caucasian. Third, if you are a traveling backpacker then you are promiscuous and naive or easily influenced. Most advertisements use an ideal image of youth and health to sell the idea that backpacking is a fun and energetic activity and to convince people to participate in these activities.

The most common theme in media when it comes to backpacking is the idea that you have to be a young adult/late teen to backpack. Every image depicted in media of backpackers is that of a healthy, in shape person probably in their late teens or early twenties.  In the backpacker magazines, everyone looks young like they are in the peak of their physical lives. The film Eurotrip casts all of the main characters who backpack across Europe as college students. Finding media that depicts someone older is very difficult and for good reason, this idea of youth and health is an ideal image and can cause people to want to be more involved in these activities. For example, in the television show Gilmore girls, one character Emily, says in response to Lorelai (the leading lady, a thirty-something single mom and Emily’s daughter) going backpacking “Yes, but you’re not a kid, you’re a grown woman. What are people going to think when they see a grown woman bunking down with a bunch of twenty-year-olds?” This scene makes it clear that Lorelai is too old to backpack as well as defining the proper age to backpack.

Specific scene from season 3, episode 13:

This form of media is interesting because it not only depicts the stereotype that you have to be a young adult to backpack, it also shows how they are deviating from that stereotype by allowing a woman in her late 30’s to go backpacking. In contrast Rory (Lorelai’s daughter) is the stereotypically “proper” age for backpacking, as the series tells her story of life in high school and university.

Another contrast to this stereotype is the article “What a 74 Year Old Man Can Teach Us About Backpacking” by Stephanie Yoder, freelance writer and online blogger. This article joins Yoder as she interviews a 74 year old backpacker who took the tragedy of his wife’s death and turned it into non-stop traveling throughout the whole world; Asia, Africa, Europe, etc. He believes that “The biggest problem with kids today, is that they’ve lost the drive to explore. Its human nature to want to see what’s out of sight, what’s over the next mountain.” This is interesting because it is actually claiming, albeit by personal opinion that younger people do not backpack as much as they should. I found that a lot of people start backpacking early in life and that this allows them to stay healthy and strong to where they can continue backpacking into advanced years. Alternatively, there are examples of older people just starting out as backpackers because they want to do something new and exciting with their lives. It’s the whole idea of a bucket list, older people or those with severe diseases do it because it’s an experience they wanted to have before they die.

However, in support of the idea that backpackers are mostly young adults is an article by Tracy Stephenson Shaffer. According to her piece “Performing Backpacking: Constructing “Authenticity” Every Step of the Way”, backpacking is a “rite of passage” for those in their late teens and early twenties as they face the transition between childhood and adulthood. This is expressed in this quote from her article.” Backpackers by definition go about the touristic experience with all their costumes and props on their backs so as to be free to improve, to expand the time and space of “typical” tourism in hopes of getting a unique sense of place and a deeper understanding of self during their travels. Ironically, while backpackers work to create sincere, singular, and original experience with the people they meet and the places they visit, backpacking has become almost an obligatory rite of passage amongst young middle class and upper middle class American adults.” (Page 140)  This is interesting because it not only supports the idea of young adults being the primary age of backpackers; it also focuses on American (presumably mostly Caucasian) people.

When it comes to the stereotype that all backpackers are Caucasian, I looked at movies, television shows, and magazine photos. In EuroTrip, all of the main characters are Caucasian and from the United States. Although the show Gilmore Girls is filled with multi race characters, the two who went backpacking (Lorelai and Rory) are Caucasian. It’s possible that media is trying to idealize backpacking by using a racist image that only Caucasians are exciting enough, or adventurous enough to participate in the activity. Another example comes from when I looked at ten random cover images of the magazine, below are just three examples.

this is it

Although not every cover I looked at showed people, the majority of those that did were clearly Caucasian people although there were a few that depicted other races. Some covers were far off picture or depicting the backs of the people in the photos, probably as an attempt to avoid race discrimination. However, most look Caucasian and those where the faces are clearly depicting Caucasian people. In the photos where the subject’s back is to the camera or they are far away from the camera, the people still appear to be Caucasian, although it’s difficult to prove this with any degree of accuracy. This creates the idea that only Caucasians enjoy exploring the wilderness and backpacking. According to this magazine it is very clear that hiking, and backpacking and camping are beneficial and that everyone should do it. They use ideal images of beautiful landscapes, mountains, rocky areas, few people, and wilderness to sell this idea. In contrast my personal experience backpacking has demonstrated that people of all races backpack, it is not just for Caucasians.

The idea that backpackers are promiscuous and easily influenced is not a rare representation. Various movies such as EuroTrip as well as many horror films that involve backpacking such as the movie Hostel use sex as a way to grab attention. Sex sells and media knows this and takes advantage of it. It is likely that the ideal of sex is related to the youth stereotype being applied to backpacking. Backpacking itself could be seen as a sexy activity; media may romanticize it with “foreign lovers” or even as a couple’s first trip together. Young and sexually hungry/active go hand in hand. EuroTrip is a movie where everything that could go wrong does go wrong, including sex.

EuroTrip trailer:

The movie EuroTrip creates the idea that Caucasian backpackers lose every bit of intelligence that they have when something sexually enticing or exciting happens. As an example, one of the main characters (Cooper) goes to Europe specifically to have sex resulting in the following proclamation:

     “You know America was founded by prudes. Prudes who left Europe because they hated all the kinky, steamy European sex that was going on. And now I, Cooper Harris, will return to the land of my perverted forefathers and claim my birthright… which is a series of erotic and sexually challenging adventures.”

Conclusions people could draw based on this movie is that backpackers are foolish, they lose their money, tickets, and passports but don’t really seem to worry about it, as well as being sexually obsessed. However, when looking back at Shaffer’s article “Performing Backpacking: Constructing “Authenticity” Every Step of the Way”, the theme of promiscuous and easily influenced behavior is incorrect. In fact this article examines how different people work to individualize their experience rather than conform to influence.

       Before the final credits roll and the popcorn bag is thrown out let’s recap.  Backpacking is an activity where a person explores a new environment or even escapes their current one; no matter their reason or their methods, backpacking is always individualized and personalized to the person or group.  Often times in the media we experience backpackers being shown in what could best be described as negative light. You have to be young, you have to be white, you need to be a tad naive, and a little bit promiscuous.  However, what’s been shown in the previous pages is that backpacking can give you an experience that’s foreign and incredible as well as spontaneous and affordable; it can be almost a “rite of passage.” Another look shows that backpacking is an adventure that everyone should experience no matter their age, gender, race, wealth, or hunger to crawl into bed with numerous partners. The truth about backpacking is that it is what it is.  If you want backpacking to be a party, make it a party. If you want it to be the hiking trip of a lifetime, make it that way. If you want to use it as an inexpensive way to make travelling spontaneous; go for it. The influence and representation from the media on this activity (and many other subjects for that matter) should not dictate what we do, who we are, or how we are seen.


EuroTrip, 2004 movie, rated R.
Teenage Comedy Movie
Written by Alec Berg, David Mandel, and directed by Jeff Schaffer. The film stars Scott Mechlowicz, Jacob Pitts, Michelle Trachtenberg, Travis Wester, and Jessica Boehrs.

Ten random cover pages of “Backpacker Magazine” – National Parks Guild
Various authors, editors, and photographers.

Gilmore Girls, 2000 TV series
TV show. Family Comedy. Originally aired on WB, then CW.
Created by Amy Sherman-Palladino and her husband Daniel Palladino, starring Lauren Graham (Lorelai) and Alexis Bledel (Rory)

What a 74 Year Old Man Can Teach Us about Backpacking by Stephanie Yoder, full-time freelance travel writer. Story posted July 19th, 2011.
Her website:

Performing Backpacking: Constructing “Authenticity” Every Step of the Way.
Author: Tracy Stephenson Shaffer
Text & Performance Quarterly. Apr2004, Vol. 24 Issue 2, p139-160. 22p.