Around the world backpackers used to diligently pack their canvas backpack with bare essentials, kiss their families goodbye and set out knowing that contact with home would be minimal… a postcard here, a long distance call there.
They were on their own and, for the most part, disconnected.
Over the years, a profound shift has occurred where backpackers are infinitely more connected. The term “flashpacking” has crept in to our everyday travel vernacular to help explain this shift, and rather than it being the exception to the rule, this way of budget travel has overtaken traditional backpacking to become the norm.
Hold on… I’m new to all of this. What exactly is this “flashpacking” you speak of?
There is no formal definition, but according to Wikipedia (the ultimate twenty-something authority on just about everything):
“A flashpacker is an affluent backpacker. Whereas backpacking is traditionally associated with budget travel and destinations that are relatively cheap, flashpacking has an association of more disposable income while traveling and has been defined simply as backpacking with a bigger budget.”
This description is slightly misleading because it implies “high-end backpacking” (which to me means staying in single rooms with en suites, dining out frequently and generally living large out on the road).
While that’s certainly sometimes the case, more frequently the term applies to the average backpacker who brings a litany of technological wonders along for the adventure to enhance the experience and stay in touch with those they left behind.
As it is, when backpacking you’ll often run across fellow travelers with iPods and digital cameras… but it’s also not uncommon to see backpackers (staying in the very same 8 person dorm room and eating ramen noodles for dinner) with laptops, cell phones, video cameras and other devices in their precious packing space.
I’ve even seen girls tote along hair straighteners! Everyone has their own priorities, I suppose.
OK, I’m sold! I’d like to incorporate some high-tech essentials into my travels… but I’m on a strict budget. Help?
The good news is that we are living in a great time for technology. Technology is getting smaller, lighter, faster, better and competition helps provide lots of options and keep costs low.
Here are a few of my favorites which are perfectly suited to the budget backpacker lifestyle:
Probably the most essential flashpacker item is the MP3 Player. Having some tunes to help pass the time during a long bus trip or drown out the snoring of a roommate is invaluable.
Chances are you already own an iPod.
But if you don’t, or would prefer to bring a less valuable gadget on your journey, my favorite alternative to the Apple monopoly is the SanDisk Sansa Clip. Small, powerful and cheap, it boasts a 15 hour battery life, belt clip, a memory card slot, FM radio, voice recorder and fun color options to add a personal touch.
The website lists the following prices, although you can check out Amazon.com for some additionally discounted rates: $40 for 2 GB (or 500 songs), $50 for 4GB (or 1,000 songs) and $70 for 8 GB (or 2,200) songs.
There seems to be thousands of camera options on the market today, and it can be overwhelming to try to sort through all of the specs of varying megapixels and shutter speeds. Here are two options to get you started:
Option 1: You may not be the next Ansel Adams, but you want to be able to take some simple point and shoot shots without breaking the bank.
Try the Nikon Coolpix L24, a new 2011 addition to the Coolpix brand. At around $120, it’s a very affordable option. It is a simple camera to use, with very few settings and a large screen for photo review. Truly point and shoot, it’s perfect for the beginner photographer, or twenty-something backpacker.
Option 2: You take photography a bit more seriously. You don’t want to bring your high end camera, but you’d still like to come away from your adventure with quality shots.
Try the Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS3. At $350 it’s definitely pricier, but it is very compact and comes with a number of great features. It takes photos quickly, has a 12x zoom lens and a nice-sized screen, can take 720p HD video and it has 27 pre-set scene options to help you get the most out of different environments like the beach, sunset, night, scenery, snow, food and fireworks (just to name a few).
LAPTOP… BRING OR LEAVE AT HOME?
Sometimes it’s helpful to have a laptop along for the ride. You will often have to pay for internet time at hostels, so save money in the long run by having a simple laptop where you can compose your posts, emails and videos offline so you’re ready to go when your precious internet time starts.
Try the Acer Aspire 1. Starting at around $250, it’s small, light and compact; the backpacker’s perfect portable device! It’s incredibly durable with a 10 inch screen and a thin design. However, with the low price and compact size, there are a few downsides… there is no CD/DVD drive, and the small screen can be a bit hard to get used to at first.
Ah, YouTube. How I love thee. There’s nothing like putting together a video of one of your amazing backpacking experiences, uploading it to YouTube and sending a link to all of your friends and family back home.
And it’s just so darn easy.
But before you can post your jealousy-inducing videos to YouTube, you need the camera.
My favorite is the Flip UltraHD Camera. It’s fairly cheap, HD, incredibly durable (who knows how many times I’ve dropped mine) and it easily connects to any computer with a USB port. There are two price options: $150 for 1 gig (or 1 hour of record space), or $200 for 2 gigs (or 2 hour of record space).
Another perk to the Flip is that it also comes with free editing software embedded in the camera in case you want to tweak your videos. All you have to do is connect the camera to a computer via the built-in USB arm and then you can download the software.
(Helpful tip: It’s better to do this on your own laptop than the hostel’s computer…) The editing software is fairly easy to use and uploading to YouTube is as easy as hitting a button.
While you’re not necessarily going to get professional-grade videos, you can still put together an impressive, polished piece. To get an idea of what you can do with minimal effort, here’s an example of a Flip video I took and edited of an experience I had in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.
STAYING IN TOUCH AND PHONING HOME
Skip the fancy cell phone with the costly roaming fees and sign up for a Skype account. With a variety of different calling plans, you can choose to purchase time by the minute (as low as $.02 cents a minute!) or monthly plan (as low as $7.99/ month).
A common misconception is that you need a video camera to Skype. Not true!
While it’s fun to have video to video calling, you can call from your hostel computer to any phone line. All you really need is an internet connection and a headset.
Most hostels are fully prepared for this and have all of the equipment you need. Just go to Skype.com to sign up for an account and then you’ll be chatting with the folks back home in no time.
This all sounds amazing! Is there a downside?
You will have to be a little more watchful of your possessions. While I’ve never had problems with any of my equipment on the road, it would be prudent to ensure that you either have a lock for your backpack or put your valuables in a locker during the day, just in case.
Also, it’s really easy to get swept up in all this technology.
People back home can get used to the regular correspondence and the pressure to communicate (whether through regular blog postings, emails or Skype calls) can at times become akin to a chore and even detract from the welcome isolation that comes with being far, far away from home.
The key is balance.
Use the newfound ability to plug in to your advantage, but be sure to set boundaries with yourself and your loved ones. Done right, high-tech flashpacking can be used to enhance your time abroad and help you hold on to the memories of your experiences for years to come.
*Remember to pack that universal plug adapter/converter for long journeys to stay charged!
What are your thoughts on flashpacking? What gadgets make your pack-list?
When you travel, do you prefer to use modern technology to stay connected with your far-away friends and family or keep the contact more minimal? Oh, the evolution of backpacking…