Introducing: The Burnt-Out Backpacker

Sometimes a big trip does nothing to solve an existential crisis.
burnt out backpacker stereotype
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Welcome to 'Introducing', where we get acquainted with Britain's weird and wonderful new subcultures. 

You hear them say, “We should just hail a tuk-tuk,” before they catch themselves and go silent again. They enter into a two-minute defence of their “kibbutz experience” when explaining why they keep demolishing the flat’s shared milk. And they insist on wearing those temple trousers down the shops despite it being 12 degrees. That’s the Burnt-Out Backpacker. 


The Burnt-Out Backpacker is someone in their late 20s or 30s who chucked it all in to experience life on their terms – only to return to their old life with a more developed perspective on how limited it is. Now, they’re caught between a fictionalised ideal abroad and an inhospitably expensive reality at home. 

The reasons they left in the first place are manifold: the crushing monotony of adult life, Britain’s depressing state of affairs, and their general malaise towards a job they’d been on about quitting for four years. But what the backpacker actually found on the other side of the world was a smattering of younger Brits and their own inability to disconnect, largely due to the vague boundaries of their precarious remote freelance work. They brought their laptop with them and sent off emails voraciously. Twitter was their lifeblood. They found comfort in recreating their modern, technologically-advanced life in developing countries through their smartphone.

Of course, the change of scene didn't treat the root of their ennui, and in fact, those feelings were only more pronounced on their return. What stresses them out now are the same things that precipitated the Big Trip. Their finances are not where they should be. Friends from their provincial hometown are all getting married with kids and houses. What’s more, they inevitably find the wanderlust mindset difficult to incorporate into the grindset needed back home.


“I could be doing this from Bermuda or somewhere.”

The whole plan was to sack off the email job, yet here they are, down the email mine once more. “I could be doing this from Bermuda or somewhere,” they say, although somehow the thought depresses them and you. But there seems to be no viable alternative. “It’s too late to change careers now,” they declare, aged 30. They deliver another peroration about how travel newsletters are the future, and you say you have to leave. You sense they feel so profoundly trapped that discussion of Big Trips is their only spiritual release. 

Some things have changed, though. You notice a new, cryptic, possibly culturally insensitive tattoo next to a burn mark on their torso. They’re quick to drink their spirits out of buckets, Valium is their new Smarties, and Imodium their go-to salve for all issues. Scandis in their DMs refer to them as The Warrior. “They are like brothers to me,” the backpacker says, glassy-eyed, though the fateful event that forever changed their bond and the trajectory of their lives remains elusive. They drive a moped now.

What you’re left with, depending on how you look at it, is either an alarmingly evolved person or a spiralling friend in need of a subtle intervention. On a night out, you watch as they descend into their new debauched factory setting, chaining foreign cigs as they wind up to retell the by-now extremely well-honed “gun story” about the weed deal gone wrong. “He was upstairs in the hostel all along,” they reveal, about the friend they searched for through the 3 AM Hanoi streets after he appeared to run away from henchmen. You’ve heard this one seven times, but it is good, you concede.


Soon they’ll be on the road again, they say. They’ve got criminal-sounding plans to overstay their visa next time – because there will be a next time – it’s just the location that’s undetermined. “I’m thinking of South America,” they say, rejiggering their embroidered anklet under their sock. “I’d just need to keep my wits about me is all.” See them now as they hold court, talking quicker and more authoritatively than before their trip, and now you let your mind dream of bad things happening to them in South America: a botched robbery in Medellin, or a bottling over the Falklands in Buenos Aires. 

Does the trip ever come, though? Or is the point to have one journey reserved in the chamber, a break-glass-in-case-of-existential-emergency trip to self-soothe should conversation turn perilously to the future or when the present feels stifling?

Over time, you notice their friends have migrated away on account of some amalgam of character defects and bad vibes, the true nature of which the backpacker may never be privy. Despite the trips, deep down the backpacker knows now that there is no version of this life that looks demonstrably better elsewhere. They will still be trapped within the same mind, experiencing the same brain wherever they choose to be. At least here they have the exact kinds of crisps they like.

Yet they did come back a changed person. It’s just hard to say if it’s for the better. “I’m thinking of taking up fire poi spinning,” they’re saying now. “I know it sounds bait, but I met some super-inspiring Dutch poi guys in Indonesia.” 

You watch on your wedding day as they corral a group of bewildered guests into the corner of the marquee, drop the fire poi mid-spin, steady themselves, and then go again.