How smartphones have ruined the joys of backpacking

Slipping a smartphone into your rucksack along with your sleeping bag and malaria medication might be safe and sensible, but it’s robbing you of the joys of getting lost on purpose.

Today’s travellers have no idea how liberating it is to head into the world and be entirely offline, without anyone knowing where you are unless you tell them well in advance.

Backpacking pre-smartphones meant writing long, whimsical letters home on tissue-thin aerograms and finding dusty post offices from which to mail them. Or if you were feeling really flush, you'd queue at a phone booth and sacrifice your beer budget for a three-minute phone call home, once every few months.

Admittedly, it wasn’t ideal to wait for an hour to make an expensive call, only to find your loved ones were out. I remember phoning my parents from a mountain-top in the Himalayas, only to have our non-plussed cleaner answer the phone. She wasn’t very interested in the Dalai Lama. But that feeling of freedom was simply wonderful.

Travel before the digital revolution

In the mid 1990s, I was one of the last to travel around the world before the digital revolution shrank it forever. Without smartphones and internet cafés, the only way to find information about my next destination was my much-thumbed Lonely Planet or Rough Guide. They were so heavy, a friend of mine broke her wrist lifting her guidebook-filled backpack. 

And forget texting – if you wanted any communication from family and friends, you left a long list of Poste Restante offices to which people could send letters and parcels for you to collect along your way. I can still remember the anticipation of lining up, giving my name and eventually receiving a pile of envelopes full of news from home.

Airmail, travelBCFC/Shutterstock

It was also the only way you could send messages to other travellers on the road you wanted to meet up with again, too, but you had to time it right, or you’d miss them.

But then came the internet, and instead of travellers sitting in bars pretending to be Ernest Hemingway penning lengthy missives home, they began tapping away at keyboards in internet cafés, instead. 

Then smartphones happened and new mobile technology did for internet cafés what emails had done for stamps. And despite being connected 24 hours a day, from almost anywhere in the world, no-one writes anything much at all these days. Why send poetic prose when you can WhatsApp an emoji from Mount Fuji for free. Thumbs up!

The romance has been lost

Now you can update Instagram instantly and post every flight you take on Facebook if you feel like it. Leave your location setting on and everyone will know exactly where you are. You can even put a tracker on your phone to help family and friends rest easy – I understand it's a safety tool, it’s just not very romantic.

Back before the digital age, having no communication increased the sense of adventure – especially when you dutifully followed your outdated guidebook only to find the hostel or campsite long gone and you were stuck on the beach overnight. It’s not ideal, of course, but that’s the kind of travelling experience you remember for the rest of your life.

Traveller on the beach

Today’s travellers will no doubt think me an old fossil for suggesting they ditch their phones. After all, travel has changed with every generation – the 1960s pioneers who hit the overland Hippy Trail from the UK to Australia, well before detailed guidebooks came along, would scoff at the 1990s herds like me slavishly following a guidebook. 

While nobody can time travel back to the pre-smartphone days, you can switch it off – just for a while – and see what happens. Just be sure to tell your mum so she doesn’t call the police.



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