Digital Backpacker? What’s that?

What the heck is a digital backpacker?

By now, many of us have heard of Digital Nomads. It’s a term that’s been growing in use over the past few years. It’s been crawling its way into mainstream speak for a while, but hasn’t quite hit the ears of the majority of people, travelers included. But it’s getting there. When I first heard the term a couple years back, I thought, “hmm, that sounds interesting”. I was in the right mental space to let that nomenclature soak in. And when I first started preparing for this journey, that’s what I assumed I would be. But as 11 months have gone by now, I’m realizing that doesn’t quite describe me much at all. The truth is, if I had to describe my lifestyle, I’d say digital backpacker seems more relevant. I came up with the name a few days ago, and quickly got online to see if it was a common term or one I had just invented. Ha, who invents anything anymore? Oh, the arrogance. And while I did indeed confirm that the term was coined previously, it only showed up 3 times within the first 2 pages of results on Google. Interesting. I haven’t managed to actually find a definition of what it is, so (drum roll please), let me take the honor of being the first to try to define what a digital backpacker is and what the difference between a digital backpacker and a digital nomad is, based on my understanding and experiences, conversations, and observations over the past year.

So, to start, let’s try and define what a digital nomad is. According to this wiki post DN (Digital Nomads) are defined as “individuals who use telecommunications technologies to earn a living and, more generally, conduct their life in a nomadic manner.”  While that’s quite general indeed, and can cover a wide range of people, as it rightfully should, it doesn’t seem to put as much emphasis on the nomadic aspect of the lifestyle. But there’s a reason for that. Having read plenty of articles, blogs, and other literature on the matter, and having conversations with random people who have known digital nomads, one thing seemed to keep popping up. Digital Nomads generally do not move around very much. In fact, it seems most stay in a given location for a few months at a time before moving on. While they may take short trips to select locations from a “home base” in a city or town somewhere, the common thread that seems to stitch them together is this propensity to have a base.

When I left Montreal, I thought I’d be living this lifestyle as well. It just seemed to make the most sense. Spend 2-3 months in say Mexico City, and take weekend trips here or there, day trips, etc, then move on. That hasn’t turned out to be the case. But let’s get to that a bit later.

First, let’s try to define a digital backpacker. (I’ll admit, it’s quite cool to “seemingly” be the first to define a term, but also a bit intimidating). As with a digital nomad, the foundation of a digital backpacker is first and foremost the use of telecommunications technologies to earn a living. In fact that’s what separates both Digital Nomads and Digital Backpackers from every other type of traveler. But where lies the delineation between a DN and a DB? A digital backpacker, in addition to earning a living and have a nomadic lifestyle, actually conducts his/her life as regular backpackers do. So, rather than have a home base and staying in places for relatively extended periods of time, a DB moves around considerably more. In many cases almost as much as the average backpacker, who, on average seems to stay in any given location no more than 5 days or so. So, if a DN is more akin to a seasonal nomadic tribe moving with the seasons to where they can find food for a couple months and settling in, then moving to the next fertile ground when the season changes, a DB is more like a desert tribe moving from waterhole to waterhole, essentially constantly on the move, staying for a short time to get some rest, socialize, drink, eat, feed the camels, look around, then gather the strength to move forward. So, with that said, here is my official definition of digital backpacker: “individuals who use telecommunications technologies to earn a living that has for its primary goal, the enabling of a backpacker oriented lifestyle”.

So, the main differences between the 2 lifestyles seems to be related to time and priorities. This isn’t to say that DNs have chosen their lifestyle for other reasons than to travel and see the world, but their priorities seem to be focused more on geographic stability with flexibility rather than sheer movement. So, for many DNs, comfort is more of a given than it may be for DBs. DBs may spend much more time in hostels, while DNs rent apartments or use AirBnbs. DNs may end up getting to see as many different places as DBs but they tend to travel in spoke-like patterns emanating from a central point and returning repeatedly before moving to another central point to repeat that process. DBs seem to follow more zigzag patterns across a country or continent. Well, at least, that’s how I’ve been living the past months.

One of the rare but glorious moments that digital backpacking has managed to bestow upon me.

Now, here’s the truth. I’ve never met another digital backpacker, so yes, I’m full of shit and basing this on me, but HEY!, I’m the first one ok? So yep, not only do I get to coin the term, I am officially the only one like me I’ve ever met so far. While I’m sure that will change as I continue on this path, it’s been a source of curiosity, fascination and sure, even a bit of pride to feel like a bit of a pioneer of a “new” lifestyle. How many people get to say that? But truth be told, I haven’t met another “true” Digital Nomad either. And that’s been baffling. But, after much thought it also makes sense. I’ve spent most of my time in hostels. DNs don’t seem to do that, for reasons of cost and comfort. If you’re going to live in a city for 3 months, it would make little sense to stay in a hostel, unless you absolutely need the social interaction. Hostels are more expensive and aren’t as flexible in terms of cooking, coming in late, or having privacy. If you’re going to spend a significant amount of time somewhere, you want your own space, your own kitchen, and you want to spend as little as possible for those things. That really only leaves apartments as options. Now, while I personally haven’t met any DNs, I have met people who are on the edge. People who are traveling and writing but who are only on short trips and will be returning home soon, people who are on a sort of work vacation, still working occasionally while on a “vacation” or people who made great money in the past and are living off of it but still do a bit of work on and off. I’ve also met others who are nomadic musicians working and traveling, but have no digital component to their lives. And of course, many people I meet mention that they’ve actually met the mythical and illusive digital nomad. I haven’t quite been that lucky just yet.

So, for now, I’ll take some satisfaction from being a one-of-a-kind, but honestly don’t think this is all beauty. Don’t get me wrong, I love it, but sometimes, like the past almost 2 months, I have hardly moved around at all, and I’ve essentially done nothing but work. I spent 3 weeks in Bogota and literally only left the hostel for food and maybe 3 or 4 explorations. I’ve been in Cali now for 2 weeks and have left the solace of my hostel 3 times for entertainment purposes. I’m just not in an exploratory mode right now and I’m ok with that. My priorities are more work oriented for the time being, and being in an ultra-productive phase, I can’t say I even want that to change for the time being. You might ask, “what’s the point of traveling to different cities if you spend your time in a hostel?” Well, got no answer to that. All I can say is, regardless of where I spend the majority of my time, just being in a different city, even if I experience almost nothing of it, just feels new, different, fresh and sometimes that’s all I need. But, my mood will change and my motivations with it, as I’m readying to leave Colombia altogether. A change of country inevitably brings a change of mood and dynamic. It’s always been the case. But that’s the point, something keeps pushing me along, to the next place, the next adventure, the next office, the next curiosity. And while I’m sure it’s the case for DNs as well, I think the time frames are really what make the difference. I do believe over time I’ll settle into more DN style arrangements on occasion, but for now, I’m pretty happy with my unique brand of travel. So, if any of you out there are wondering whether you can meld the two worlds of work and backpacking, I can answer that question for you. YES! You can. Good luck out there.

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