by Lauren Fogelstrom
Photography by Lauren Fogelstrom
Before the final ascent to the glacier lake of Patagonia’s Mount Fitzroy, there is a sign that warns hikers of the steep elevation gain, rough terrain and extreme level of difficulty. In the early morning, the trail is nearly empty, but as the day goes on, the dirt switchbacks will fill with people steadily climbing the last few kilometers to the turquoise-colored lake in front of Fitzroy’s stunning rock face.
Across the border into Chile, the W trail leads travelers to other mountain peaks and across similar landscapes. It is a typical route for backpackers traveling through Patagonia. Spread across a week of hiking, the W covers over 100 kilometers of the Torres Del Paine National Park. Small huts nestled throughout the trail offer reservations for bunkbeds, campsites and meals that shelters a diverse group of travelers from around the world. The experience integrates the individual discovery of Patagonia’s natural environment with the unifying sense of community among backpackers.
Backpacking offers an alternative option to typical travel, such as a resort or hotel-based vacation. It is more sustainable, less expensive and ultimately more fulfilling.
There are countless routes within the U.S. and internationally for backpackers and hikers to explore. These trails vary in levels of difficulty, length and terrain. Two of the most famous trails within the U.S. are the Pacific Crest Trail (2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada) and the Appalachian Trail (2,181 miles from Georgia to Maine). Outside the United States, long-distance walks, such as the Camino de Santiago in Spain and Tour du Mont Blanc in Switzerland, Italy and France, weave through the European countryside.
Nora Johnson (CAS ’19) backpacked through the Sierra Mountain Range and parts of California.
“The idea that theoretically you could go anywhere in the world with just you and your backpack is one of the most liberating experiences,” she said. “Backpacking has been very important in the cultivation of my independence.”
The fact is that just having a backpack to complete a trip helps lower the cost of a foreign excursion, which can quickly get expensive. The price of these backpacking adventures amount to far less than a hotel room or resort tour. The estimated budget per person for the Tour du Mont Blanc trip (a 7-10-day trip) is 50 euros ($65) per day. This covers dinner, a bed and breakfast, according to Backpacker, a travel website. For the Camino de Santiago tour, the trip costs an estimated 30 euros per day to stay in pilgrim hostels and eat in local restaurants, according to the website.
Beyond saving money, backpacking tends to avoid many negative aspects of conventional travel. They benefit local economies, unlike large hotel chains and groups, which often also have harsh environmental impacts due to waste, pollution and consumption. Many Western travelers remain within the comfort of their own language, food and culture by staying at all-inclusive resorts. By doing so, they are never truly exposed to the places and cultures they’ve traveled to see. However, when a traveler takes the opportunity to backpack through a foreign country, they are thrown into the unknown and into an adventure.
Carolina Gomez (CAS ’19) took three months to travel through Australia, New Zealand and Fiji and has also backpacked through parts of Europe. Her experiences backpacking taught her how to live simply, rely on herself and take advantage of her surroundings.
“Why spend the money on a plane ticket or hotel fare to just do the touristy things you can see on Google. There’s a lot more to traveling than that,” she said.
Backpacking isn’t just an activity for rugged, extreme travelers, but a method of travel that encourages a more sustainable and less expensive immersion into authentic cultures and environments of any destination.