Image: The Taj Mahal
Miriam Marcus for
Without a private tour guide to lead the way, backpackers line up with hundreds of local citizens to view the majestic Taj Mahal. This is one place backpackers must open their wallets a little deeper than usual; while Indian nationals pay only 20 rupees for admission (approximately 50 cents), foreign tourists must cough up 1,000 rupees (approximately $25).
updated 8/15/2007 7:32:08 PM ET 2007-08-15T23:32:08

It's easy to over-pack for a trip to India. Besides clothes for different climates, many travelers bring photo gear, a laptop and toiletries unavailable on the subcontinent. But each year, a few intrepid adventurers set out with nothing more than what they can carry on their shoulders. They camp or stay in hostels. They wash their clothes in the sink. They eat food from street vendors. And they ride coach in India's overcrowded train system.

They're the backpackers.

"Backpacking is meant to go beyond the cushy tourist experience," says Julie Vodhanel of Let's Go, a provider of budget-travel guides. "India appeals to backpackers, because it's even less expensive to eat and sleep there than, for example, Europe."

English and Australian students often backpack through India during their "gap year" between secondary school and college. Many Israelis make nearly religious pilgrimages to India after they serve in the army. Americans often travel between graduating from college and entering the workforce.

One of the main draws of backpacking (besides pinching pennies), is the camaraderie. "Staying at hostels is a great way to meet people your own age on the road," says Laura Gordon, a former Let's Go writer and avid backpacker. "You make friends from literally all over the globe. It can also be really convenient, especially for female travelers, since hostels are the best places to find groups to go out at night with."

Hostels in India can run as little as a few dollars a day, but you get what you pay for. "It can be uncomfortable and noisy at all hours of the night," says Gordon. "The rooms may be run-down, and your fellow hostelers might be quite obnoxious. In India, it usually means living without A/C."

Skimping too much can even be dangerous. Many hostels are in dodgy neighborhoods, and while India is a fairly safe country with little violent crime, backpackers shouldn't let their guard down. "Robbery is common in heavily touristed areas," says Gordon. "Also, eating cheap meals increases your risk of getting sick from untreated water, which is the biggest cause of illness among travelers to India."

Image: Kids on the Beach in Chennai
Miriam Marcus for
Children on the beach in Chennai (formerly Madras) were very excited by the prospect of viewing their own likeness on a digital camera. The handheld visual journal is never too far from a backpacker's reach.
But backpackers need not be shortchanged on experience. Many use cash saved on lodging to splurge on adventures. "Adventure travel is not limited to any particular season," says Ashwin Damera, founder and CEO of, a Web site that caters to budget travelers. "For the summers, the best option would probably be a session of parasailing, while the rainy season would be ideal for hiking and trekking through the hills."

Damera also says clubs have formed to coordinate group activities for backpackers including hot-air balloon rides, paragliding and deep-sea diving.

And backpacking isn't just for budget travelers. Destination Himalaya, a California tour operator, leads high-end treks to a range of Indian destinations. A three-week tour through the Tibetan festivals of the Himalayas costs $3,600 per person. Two weeks along the Malabar Coast is $3,900. Guide John Harper says Destination Himalaya caters to a crowd a bit older and more affluent than the typical backpacker. "These are fully catered treks," he says. "It's not just a group going out on their own. We've got a team of sherpas to cook and set up camp." But Destination Himalaya customers are still backpackers. "People aren't going to carry your pack for you," says Harper.

Most backpackers, however, don't have sherpas setting up camp. Living on a shoestring is always a challenge, especially in India, where pinching pennies means crummy hotels, suspect food and grueling travel. But the few who brave it are rewarded with an up-close-and-personal view of India—one that even if they wanted to, they probably couldn't forget.

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