Backpacking is a term that has historically been used to denote a form of low-cost, independent international travel. Terms such as independent travel and/or budget travel are often used interchangeably with backpacking. The factors that traditionally differentiate backpacking from other forms of tourism include but are not limited to the following: use of public transport as a means of travel, preference of youth hostels to traditional hotels, length of the trip vs. conventional vacations, use of a backpack, an interest in meeting the locals as well as seeing the sights.
The definition of a backpacker has evolved as travelers from different cultures and regions participate and will continue to do so, preventing an air-tight definition. Recent research has found that, “...backpackers constituted a heterogeneous group with respect to the diversity of rationales and meanings attached to their travel experiences. ...They also displayed a common commitment to a non-institutionalised form of travel, which was central to their self-identification as backpackers” Backpacking as a lifestyle and as a business has grown considerably in the 2000s as the commonplace of low-cost airlines, hostels or budget accommodation in many parts of the world, and digital communication and resources make planning, executing, and continuing a long-term backpacking trip easier than ever before.
While travel along the old Hippie Trail has been rendered complicated since the early 80s due to unrest in Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran that continues today, backpacking has expanded to most regions of the world. In recent years, the increase of budget airlines and low-cost flights has contributed to this expansion. At present, new "hippie trails" are being formed towards Northern Africa in places such as Morocco and Tunisia and other destinations being reached by low-cost airlines.
Technological changes and improvements have also contributed to changes in backpacking. Traditionally backpackers did not travel with expensive electronic equipment such as laptop computers, digital cameras and PDAs due to concerns about theft, damage, and additional luggage weight. However, the desire to stay connected coupled with trends in lightweight electronics have given rise to the flashpacking trend, which has been in a state of continuous evolution in recent years . Simultaneous with a change in “what” they’re carrying, backpacking is also becoming less and less reliant on the physical backpack in its initial form although the backpack can still be considered the primary luggage of backpackers.
A simple definition of the term Flashpacker can be thought of as backpacking with flash, or style. In another sense, the term defines a growing segment of travelers who adhere to a tight accommodation and meal budget, while spending freely for activities at their chosen destination. Some may define flashpacking as an incongruous mix of 'slumming it' and luxury; of adventurous travel with those on a budget by day and sedate dining and comfortable accommodation by night. Flashpackers have been further defined as tech-savvy adventurers who often prefer to travel with a cell phone, digital camera, iPod and a laptop, although none of these is required in order to be a flashpacker. As with other forms of travel, the term flashpacker is mainly one of self-identification. The origin of the term itself is obscure.
The term also reflects a growing demographic of travelers who are forsaking traditional organized travel, venturing to destinations once the reserve of more adventurous backpackers, and the increasing number of individuals who leave well paid jobs or take 'career breaks', using the time to travel independently, but with greater comfort and many of the gadgets they are accustomed to at home. As a result, hostels are evolving and offering more up-market accommodation to those still traveling on a budget in order to obtain their business. The hostels have realized a need to evolve in order to meet the changing demands of travelers. It is likely that flashpacking and flashpackers will continue to evolve with changes in technology.
Of equal importance in backpacking is the sense of authenticity. Backpacking is not a vacation but rather a means of education. Backpackers want to experience the “real” destination rather than the packaged version often associated with mass tourism, which has led to the assertion that backpackers are anti-tourist . There is also the feeling of "sneaking backstage" and witnessing real life with more involvement with local people
Backpacking, like other forms of travel, remains controversial. As with the general history of backpacking some of these criticisms date back to travelers’ actions along the Hippie Trail. Criticism comes from many sides, including the host countries and other travelers who disagree with the actions of backpackers although the perception of backpackers seems to have improved as backpacking grows more mainstream.