The Real Backpackers of YouTube

Back in the 1980s, a very brash form of opulence reigned supreme.

Wide shoulder pads were the de rigueur fashion for both men and women, garish colors somehow seemed sensible, and the catchphrase of “Greed is good” seemed an apt summary of the decade.

And a popular show reflecting the aspirations of many people for this decade? What can be considered one of the earliest reality shows: Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.

And see a future president, apparently.

People who could not own a private jet or a mansion by the beach could vicariously live a lifestyle of “wealth, prestige, and success.”  

And here we are almost a quarter of a way into the 21st Century.

We can look at similar garish opulence in New Jersey, keep up with people famous for being famous, , watch a popular dating-game show hybrid,  and perhaps even see people survive in adverse situations.

Kind of?

And with the popularity of Reality TV, niche interests are being showcased on the internet, too.

You can see Instagram accounts showcasing exotic places, listen to podcasts, and of course, watch YouTube videos. Lots and lots of them!

This video has 1.7 million views. As a comparison, the Game of Thrones season finale had 12 million viewers. And costs much more money to produce, market, and distribute.

So why do so many people want to see other people spend money, buy big houses, or travel the world? Because aspiring to do something will always be more popular than, well, doing something.  Few of us can buy an opulent house or kayak in a secluded inlet, but we can certainly watch and vicariously take part in the activity.

And in our small niche of long-distance backpacking, it is no different.

Two popular backpacking YouTube channels have nearly 150,000 subscribers each.

As a comparison, Backpacker Magazine has a little over 300k *readers* (I could not find subscriptions stats) and Outside Magazine a bit over 600k as of the Summer of 2016. With the current trend in print media, I suspect these stats may be lower, too.

To be fair, these linked stats do not include the online presence of traditional media outlets. But, to also be fair, conventional media outlets have to pay writers, distributors, and myriad other costs related to the infrastructure of producing a magazine. These new and popular media outlets, produced by handful of people at most, do not have these expenses.

But it is telling how popular reality backpacking TV is for well, backpacking.

So why is Reality Backpacking TV popular for an activity that is about hands-on use, direct experience, and participating in something intangible such as enjoying sunsets or the smell of the forest? 

For the same reason, people get into gear talk, I suspect, but even more so.  Meaning it is easier to aspire to do something when family pressure, work obligations, and lack of free time do not allow participating in the activity.  With the added bonus that the Reality Backpacking TV is entertaining and informative, too.    And like traditional television, Reality Backpacking TV is consumption rather than interacting such as increasingly less popular online forums.   For the typically affluent and well-educated outdoor consumer, but with the limited time bank funds, this trend of the popularity of Reality Backpacking TV makes sense.

In other words, we want to be entertained overall with our free time as we are often too tired to participate in the activity.   Some consume shows about dragons, animatronic cowboys,  or charming Italian-American legitimate businessman in the waste management business of New Jersey, others prefer to see opulent places with gold plated toilets, and others want to watch Reality Backpacking TV and purchase gear based upon this viewing.

And though I did not watch Reality Backpacking TV when I worked a stressful, but good paying job, in a beige box, my backpacking weekends often suffered as well.

John Muir wrote this prophetic words concerning national parks decades ago:

Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. Awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury, they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of Nature, and to get rid of rust and disease.

Except in the 21st century, we as a society have decided that we have free-time in twenty-minute chunks only to watch backpacking videos. And the tradeoff is that we have the income to buy multiple packs, puffies, and shelters every year after consuming these videos.  But not the time to be away in the mountains to enjoy free-time and make use of the gear.

And if you live a busy area, other equally busy and frazzled people often try to get to the mountains with limited free time. Standstill traffic on I70 and why I could take a photo.

And as long as free time is eroded, becoming more of an illusion during traditional time off, and places where communication is increasing and eroding our time bank funds further, Reality Backpacking TV will continue to be popular.

Backpacking is declining overall.

Interest in Reality Backpacking TV is not.

And the intertwined consumer and corporate cultures around the popularity of it all continues.

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5 years ago

I wish even half the people absorbed in this would even just go to their local parks or nature centers and take a hike. So many local parks are under-utilized and well, you don’t need to take a week off to go hike in them.

I’ve only recently realized how much hiking YouTube has taken off and I just don’t have the time to watch hours of YouTube. There’s also garden YouTube which could probably take me even further down the YouTube vortex if I let it.

Say hello to Joan—I miss her writing.

5 years ago

Yes indeed. I felt the inbalance in my own life so I made a personal rule- actual time doing must equal or surpass actual time planning, preparing, etc. And yes, exhaustion plays a part in the imbalance for me, but I’ve also realized that if I get outside after work, I wasn’t physically exhausted, I was mentally exhausted and being outdoors cures that.

5 years ago

Time is the big commodity of these days for most of us over 30, or in my case 46. With a 50+ hour work week and kids under 12 getting out for more than 2-3 nights isn’t in the cards right now. I was lucky this year to get out for 13 trips and focused on 15-25 mile loops that I could get in 28-30 hours leaving work at 4:00 driving an hour and a half and hiking until twilight. Using YouTube and sites like yours gave me some great ideas on trip planning and visuals on where I would… Read more »

Jim Austin
Jim Austin
5 years ago

This is a fantastic thought-provoking topic that you are to be commended for raising. I’d like to see some of the more popular YouTube backpacking people (I tried to come up with a more clever identifier like infotainer, guru, cyberstar, etc. but they do provide a worthy service and entertainment so idk…) chime in and bring their audiences with them. There are perhaps three or four YT favorites I follow semi-regularly and admit that since I’ve moved back to the Blue Ridge at least a couple of them have inspired me to do specific hikes and were the catalysts to… Read more »

Ted Heistman
Ted Heistman
5 years ago

I was a backpacker before I became a thru hiker, and though I greatly enjoyed thru hiking I found there to be a lot of peer pressure and shaming about not having expensive ultra light gear. I was percievec to be inexperienced, even though I had spent quite a bit of time in the woods because I had a Coleman tent etc. Backpacking is more of a solo, go at your own pace, activity. Thru hiking seems to be driven more and more by fkt chasers. Even though most won’t get an fkt.