Backpacker tours on your gap year are awesome for so many reasons. There are literally thousands of options which stretch across the world covering pretty much every experience imaginable, from trekking the Himalayas to road-tripping Australia. Tours are not only great introductions to places, but also to people – both locals and those likeminded folk who you share the experience with.
Attempting to cover every single type of tour in every single part of the world would be reckless folly, so instead we’ve divided this section into two parts. The first gives an overview of some of the most popular backpacker tour destinations (think New Zealand, USA, Southeast Asia etc), and the second part moves a bit more off the beaten track (think South America, Africa, Antarctica etc).
Popular backpacker tours
If you want to see as many countries and absorb as much culture as possible, Europe is a great choice for a backpacker tour. It is by far the most compact of all the world’s continents; some countries are so small they’d barely constitute a sheep farm in somewhere like Australia.
The highlights are innumerable, whether you’re marvelling at the grand cathedrals of France, Italy or Spain, sailing the glittering coastline of Croatia or cruising through the awe-inspiring fjords of Scandinavia.
Australia is big. Like, really big. It’s a country where distances have to be seen to be believed. The big red heart of the country is the Outback, the vast interior wilderness of raw and beautiful landscapes, including the iconic Uluru (formerly Ayers Rock). And then there’s the Great Barrier Reef, thousands of miles of stunning coral and marine life.
And then there’s Sydney, with its world-famous harbour and immaculate beaches. Australia is the first stop for many travellers on their gap year and a great place to do a backpacker tour, be that bussing up the East Coast in a haze of parties and mini adventures, or spending a few nights sailing the Whitsunday Islands – aka Paradise on Earth.
New Zealand is, quite simply, the most beautiful country on this little planet of ours. It is made up of two islands – the North and the South – and both are equally stunning, with pristine mountain scenery, mirror-like lakes and gorgeous coastlines. New Zealand is also the adventure capital of the world, where many travellers do their first skydive and bungee jump, and a whole host of other activities that you’ve probably never even heard of (black-water rafting, anyone?).
This country was made for backpacker tours, whether you’re exploring Lord of the Rings territory or hiking around the indescribably epic Milford Sound.
The USA is really popular for backpacker tours and there are plenty to choose from. The country is famous for its awesome cities – New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco being three notable examples – but what’s lesser known is its abundance of incredible natural scenery.
Some of the national parks, such as Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Everglades, are truly breathtaking and the opportunities for adventure endless. But more than anything, the USA was made for road trips, whether you’re following the classic Route 66 from New York to LA or cruising the Pacific West Coast.
Southeast Asia comprises a few countries – the most popular are Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – and with its beautiful scenery, mouth-watering cuisine and chaotic cities bursting with culture it has always been a region popular with travellers. A backpacker tour is a great way to get acquainted not just with the main sights, but also the general culture, which can come as a bit of a shock if it’s your first time visiting.
Don’t worry though – you’ll very quickly learn to love and relish it! The choice of what to do is vast: in Cambodia you have the Angkor Wat temple complex (think Tomb Raider meets Indiana Jones); in Laos some of the best trekking trails in the world, in Vietnam the other-worldly Halong Bay and in Thailand more paradise islands than you could shake a snorkel at.
Backpacker tours off the beaten track
South America was made for adventures. Nowhere in the world is there such an intoxicating mix of scenery, history and culture, and the backpacker tours available will take you into the heart of it all. As always, the hardest thing is choosing what you’re going to do. We have everything from 6 month tours, which whisk you throughout the entire continent, to 1 week excursions focusing on a specific highlight.
Some of the best parts of South America include the Inca Trail in Peru, widely regarded as one of the best hiking routes in the world, the biological marvel that is the Galapagos Islands, the vast salt pans of Bolivia, the Amazon Rainforest in Brazil and the wild Patagonian landscapes of Chile.
Africa, the birthplace of humankind, is the most diverse continent in the world in every sense of the word. The richness of its history, culture, scenery and wildlife is simply unmatched. You could spend a lifetime trying to explore Africa and barely scrape the surface (not that that stops people!)
In terms of backpacker tours, culture vultures will love the ancient sites of Egypt and Morocco. Animal lovers will be amazed by the safari tours of Kenya, Tanzania, Botswana and Rwanda. Photographers will be falling over themselves when faced with Victoria Falls on the border of Zimbabwe and Zambia. Beach lovers may never return home after chilling out in South Africa.
Central Asia & Middle East
Central Asia and the Middle East are great places to explore but can be a bit challenging for unseasoned travellers, so for those of you heading off for the first time we’d recommend easing yourself into the region with a backpacker tour, be it traversing the steppes from China to Mongolia to Russia, or sailing the dreamy Yangtze River.
Parts of the Middle East can be a bit volatile; other parts are just too dangerous to visit right now, Syria being an obvious example. But these places only make up a small percentage; most of the region is perfectly safe and, being stuffed with cultural and natural wonders, like the ancient city of Petra in Jordan and Jerusalem in Israel, great for backpacker tours.
Bamboozling, bewildering, bewitching, there is nowhere quite like India. If you have never ventured out of Europe and plan to visit, a tour is highly, highly recommended, at least for the first part of your trip, just to placate the culture shock if nothing else.
The variety of tours is predictably vast. If you venture north into the Himalayan Kingdom of Nepal you can trek through the most spectacular scenery on the planet. If you head down south you can hop across to the island nation of Sri Lanka and visit its ancient cities and stunning beaches.
Many travellers dream of visiting the icy wilderness of Antarctica but few ever reach it. Certainly not a cheap trip, but if you have the funds it could just be the most epic journey you ever take. Unfortunately we don’t have any tours to Antarctica currently on our site, but they are out there. Just make sure you come back to tell us about the adventure!
Overland Tours are a very different way to see a country; they're safe, sociable and cost-effective. The other passengers will become like a second family to you and you'll make some real friends for life. Also, overland tours travel to countries that are notoriously difficult to travel around.
If you don't know much about Overland Tours then you had better read Mary Malyon's Guide to Overlanding. It explains everything...