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Backpacking is traveling long distances with a backpack. Two forms can be distinguished.

Backpacking is the most thorough combination of hiking and camping. It is usually done for recreation, to explore a place that the backpacker considers beautiful and fascinating. A backpacker camps in one place, then packs all of his or her gear into a backpack and hikes off to a different location. This gear must include food, water, and shelter or the means to obtain them, but very little else, and often in a more compact and simpler form than one would use for stationary camping. Long-distance backpacking trips may be done lasting weeks or months, sometimes aided by prearranged food and supply drops.

Overnight stays may be out of doors (under the stars or in a tent), or in some sort of permanent shelter such as in a hostel or with members of hospitality services. Hiking and walking trails cover all types of terrain and range in location from semi-developed areas to complete wilderness. The main advantage of backpacking over day hiking is that it allows the hiker to see remote areas, almost entirely devoid of people or their effects, that are otherwise inaccessible. The main disadvantages are that the encumbrance of the backpack itself substantially reduces the hiking pace, so that less ground can be covered in a day, that the backpack is something of a nuisance and a distraction to enjoying the scenery, and that camping-related activities use up a considerable amount of time every day.

Backpacking camps are more spartan than ordinary camps. In areas with comparatively high use, a hike-in camp might have a fire ring and a small wooden bulletin board with a map and some warning signs regarding wildlife, campfire safety, and the like. In truly remote areas, a hike-in camp is no more than a level patch of ground without undergrowth.

A large industry has developed to provide lightweight gear and food for backpackers. The gear includes the backpacks themselves, as well as ordinary camping equipment modified to reduce the weight, by either reducing the size, reducing the durability, or using lighter materials such as special plastics and alloys of aluminium. Designers of portable stoves and tents have been particularly ingenious.

The food is typically highly packaged, dehydrated fare that can be reconstituted by adding hot water. Some backpacking meals are pre-cooked and vacuum-packed without being dehydrated, and reheated when needed by a chemical reaction, allowing the backpacker to avoid carrying a stove and fuel. (This technology was originally developed for military purposes.) However, meals of this type are heavier, and if the backpacker carries more than two or three, there is typically no weight savings.

The Scouting movement has traditionally been very involved in backpacking.

Backpacking is also a subculture of generally youthful travellers exploring the planet on a limited budget. They refer to themselves as backpackers because they can be roughly defined as travellers that travel with a rucksack (a large backpack) instead of a suitcase. They often go hiking and camping, backpacking in the other sense, but they more often explore more urban settings. United in having slim wallets as well as a passion for the exotic, they seek out low-cost options such as standby flights (or if backpacking trip is circumglobal, a relatively cheap round-the-world air ticket which permits numerous stops), youth hostels, free hospitality services and buying food at supermarkets abroad instead of going to restaurants. They often collect in beautiful places with low costs of living such as Goa (India), Essaouira (Morocco), or Thailand.

They are generally very social, and a highlight for many backpackers is meeting others on the road. They are quick to share advice on great sites, cheap accommodations, and e-mail addresses. Many strive to meet locals wherever they visit but find that the loose network of backpackers makes them feel at home instantly in a foreign country.

Many backpackers gain temporary work (usually low-paid, unskilled, casual, and sometimes in violation of local labor laws) in the countries they visit. For instance, London's pubs are well known for the number of Australian bartenders working in them; "Irish pubs" the world over hire Irish backpackers.

Novels about backpackers include William Sutcliffe´s Are You Experienced (India), Alex Garland´s The Beach (Thailand) and Emily Barr's Backpack (India, Vietnam, China).

See also: YHA, Tourism, Hospitality Services.