Hippies, Hashish and Banana Pancakes: The History of Backpacking

Over the years, backpacking has become a popular rite of passage for many young adults. But some claim that backpacking has fallen the way of other heavily marketed travel niches and become too packaged and formulized.

Has backpacking lost its edge? Read on to find out.

1) The First Backpackers

While humans have been traveling for thousands of years, it’s only been in the last 300 that they’ve done so for reasons that don’t involve escaping from life-threatening situations like famine, war or the odd saber-toothed tiger.

Prior to the 17th century, people traveled purely for reasons relating to survival. Photo by Tropenmuseum.

In fact, the word “travel” comes from the French word travail, which means agony or torment and is rooted in the Latin word tripalium, which was the name of an ancient torture device.

That the travelers of yesteryear considered travel to be synonymous with being tied to a three-staked apparatus and set on fire shows just how unpleasant the experience must have been.

Weeks of walking over unpaved roads with the constant threat of disease, starvation or wild animal attacks or robbers were just some of the harrowing experiences those early nomads had to endure.

It wasn’t until the 17th century that the concept of traveling for educational or entertainment purposes began to take shape.

Young European men lucky enough to have been born into nobility or wealth were sent to neighboring countries on what became known as a “grand tour,” one last hurrah before they settled into marriages and careers, not unlike the pre-college gap-year trips many teenagers in Europe embark on today.

The wealthy aristocrats of the 17th and 18th century toured Europe upon completion of their studies, a tradition still practiced among many young Europeans today. Photo by Jean Preudhomme.

2) The Hippie Trail of the ’60s and ’70s

The hippie trail is the unofficial nickname for the route extending between Europe and India across which thousands of long-haired Westerners journeyed in the 1960s and ’70s.

Typically, the hippies (made up of Europeans, Americans, Australians and New Zealanders) started their trip in London or Amsterdam and headed east, hitchhiking or traveling overland via trains to Turkey and then buses and ride-shares across Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Hitchhiking was a common method of travel for backpackers in the 1960s and ’70s. Photo by Roger McLassus.

The hippie trail is thought to have been inspired by a sponsored expedition made a decade earlier in 1955.

The overland journey along parts of the Silk Route was made by British university students, whose travelogues were published and made into a documentary, thus sparking young people’s interest in the route Marco Polo had traced some 700 years earlier.

For the broke and unemployed adventure seekers, traveling overland by foot or bus was an appealing alternative to costly air travel. Photo by Dick Rowan.

As air travel was still in its infancy and very expensive, the idea of traveling overland appealed to the new generation of vagabonds because of its relatively low cost.

Plus, the Far East, popularized by the Beatles’ 1968 trip to India, held the perfect mix of mystery and mysticism needed to spur young people’s desire for adventure, enlightenment or, as often was the case, hashish.

Marijuana crops grew abundantly in Afghanistan, Kashmir and, in particular, Nepal, where until 1973, it was legally sold in hashish shops.

Unfortunately, due to wars in Lebanon and Afghanistan and the 1979 Islamic revolution, by the close of the decade, the majority of the hippie trail had become too dangerous to cross and the stream of hashish-happy hippies in the region began to dry up, taking their thirst for adventure elsewhere.

Freak Street in Kathmandu. Though called “hippies” by outsiders, the hippies themselves referred to themselves as “freaks” and to the “hippie trail” as simply, “the overland.” Photo by lavenderstreak.

3) The Birth of the Backpacker’s Bible

Around the time the hippies were hitching their way across India, early versions of what would become the backpacker’s most valued possession were being traded along the trail. And in 1973, Lonely Planet published one of the first guidebooks to cater to young backpackers: Across Asia on the Cheap.

Travel guides have been in existence since the 9th century. Photo by Joshua Berman.

Though guidebooks had been around since ninth-century Egypt, the Lonely Planet guide was the first of its kind to cater to budget-conscious travelers making the trek across the hippie trail or Southeast Asia’s Banana Pancake Trail (so named thanks to the numerous hostels and restaurants serving, among other Western dishes, banana pancakes).

Pancakes are just one of the Western food items found along what’s become known as “The Banana Pancake Trail” in Southeast Asia. Photo by Karen Green.

4) Then and Now: How Has Backpacking Changed Since the ’60s?

Prior to Facebook, Skype and the prevalence of internet cafes or iPads, the only communication backpackers had with their families was via the occasional rushed phone call or care package.

Without the ability to research hotels, check weather reports or bus schedules, much of the trip planning was left to the luck of the draw.

Though this meant backpacking was oftentimes a lonely and unpredictable experience, it meant that it was a thrilling experience, as well.

Because there was no Google searching their way out of a missed bus transfer or dodgy hotel room, backpackers often had to make do with hitching a ride on say, an oxcart, or sleeping on the beach.

Not having the safety net of the internet to fall back on meant that backpacking was oftentimes a far more dangerous and daring adventure in in the 1960s and ’70s. Photo by David Hiser.

5) Criticism

Nowadays, backpacking is safer and easier than ever before. There are backpacking agencies, for instance, which assist travelers through every detail of the process: from hotel arrangement and job placement to packing lists and orientation seminars. Some even provide airport pickups.

Backpacking nowadays with internet cafes, inexpensive portable computers, smart phones and GPS devices. Photo by Lecates.

The ease and convenience of this new approach to roughing it, combined with expat grocery stores and international cell phones, means that today’s backpackers aren’t escaping their routines, they’re merely temporarily relocating it abroad.

And this, some purists claim, defeats the purpose.

Whilst smart phones and laptops may make international travel easier, it can also make breaking away from Facebook and emails more difficult. Photo by Pepe Pont.

What do you think? Has modernization and technology changed backpacking for the better or for the worse? Let me know in the comments below.

If you liked this article, you might also like: 8 Historic Explorers Who Changed the World.

Main photo: Has backpacking lost its identity? By anoldent.

8 thoughts on “Hippies, Hashish and Banana Pancakes: The History of Backpacking”

  1. I traveled to Mexico in 1970 and across West Africa in 1973. In 1978 did the Gringo Trail in Central and South America. I would first like to dispel the notion that Lonely Planet was the first guide for poor backpackers. NOT TRUE! The first well-compiled hippie guide was the South American Handbook! I still have my 1973 edition somewhere. And yes, I feel sorry for todays young travelers. To much of the excitement has been lost to globalization and technology.

  2. Loved the story,brought back some great memories from an overland trip that i did that started in Katmandu in April of 1977,we were 25 or asorted travellers on an organised bus tour ,I was the youngest at 19 and the oldest was a very spritly genteman from New Zealand of 78,we had a honymoon couple in their late 60’s from Australia,one american school teacher in her late 20’s who I thought was stunning and another 15 asorted auatralians ane New zealanders.we travelled through Mrs Gandi’s India whear she was offering men the chance of haveing a versecterme and then being given a free radio,I had my bottom pinched in the grand market of Kabul in Afganistan,got whildly drunk in on Shariz in shiraz in Iran,got my bottom burnt sun baithing in Turkey after watching Liverpool win the European cup liveon TV.And lots more adventures in Bulgaria,Rumainia,and the Ukrain.In Lenningrad[St Pete’sburg]I swoped a pear of blue jeans for a Russian Uniform and smuggled it out raped up in my sleeping bag,our scotish driver Haggis had forty fits when we got to Helsinki and I walked around our camp site in it.All in all the best education a 19 year old could ever have.That Overland trip helped form the person that I am today,good or bad.Bur Travel is much more than great.Please forgive some of my spelling,not one of my strong points.

  3. Problem is that most of the world has been horribly exploited and commercialized by the Imperialistic United States since they killed those 3 men in Dallas in 63 which was a blatant Coup which had been tried by some of the same people in 1933.
    It isn’t a secret to those outside looking in as to who it was. This same group has systematically destroyed most of these places that were once beautiful and prosperous sovereign states.
    Afghanistan being one of the most noteable.
    Once touted as the jewel and example of the region to follow.
    Up until the invasion by the soviets this was a country well on its way to being a regional powerhouse.
    According to our western historians it has always been a backward, stoneaged land of nomads
    Maybe Google Afghanistan in the 1950s-1960s and see what our western ways have done to it and that maybe some of those backpackers worked for the people who gunned down that poor man in front of his wife and nation.
    A few last names seem to be attached to almost every foreign policy since Kennedy was killed.
    Mainly the last name Bush and associates
    Prescott was one of the key figures in the 1933 coup attempt and his son in the CIA from the 50s forward.
    His ties with the likes of LBJ and Richard Nixon are undeniable
    The memos and paper trail left by Hoover showing he was bullied and silenced by these intelligence agencies and one name in particular that was in a meeting with Hoover after the assassination. The CIA agent who was representing this shady organization was none other then George HW Bush who oddly enough called in an anonymous tip to the FBI the day before the shooting warning of a plot in Huston.
    A far right wing republican calling to warn of a left leaning presidents mruder ?
    Ya right.

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