One hundred years young: youth hostels celebrate a century

It's amazing where a night on a schoolroom floor can lead, writes Louise Southerden.

As fate would have it, it was a dark and stormy night when the worldwide youth hostelling movement was born. German schoolteacher Richard Schirrmann, who lived in one of the most industrialised parts of Germany and was a firm believer in the power of the “outdoor classroom”, was on an eight-day hiking trip with his students when the rain started pelting down.

They usually slept in farm buildings en route but on this particular night, August 26, 1909, the farmer they asked couldn't give them shelter. So they tried the village school, where the headmaster offered them an empty classroom to sleep in. That night, as the thunderstorm raged, Schirrmann lay awake, thinking: what if there was a network of schools like this, offering accommodation to young people all the way across Germany, or the world?

“Villages could have a friendly youth hostel, situated a day's walk from each other, to welcome young hikers,” he wrote in a 1910 magazine article. “Two classrooms will suffice, one for boys and one for girls. Some desks can be stacked away, thus freeing space to put down 15 beds. Each bed will consist of a tightly stuffed straw sack and pillow, two sheets and a blanket ... each child will be required to keep his own sleeping place clean and tidy.”

Schirrmann's article was so well received and he received so much financial support, he set up the first Jugendherberge (literally “youth inn”) in his own school in Altena, western Germany, later that year.

In 1912, the schoolhouse was replaced by the world's first permanent youth hostel in Burg Altena, a 12th-century castle fitted out according to Schirrmann's specifications, with two dorms, triple-tier wooden bunk beds and a communal kitchen and bathrooms.

Altena Castle is now a major tourist attraction and still offers accommodation. It's also the hub of centenary celebrations happening around the world this month and next.

Youth hostelling has come a long way in 100 years. It spawned the worldwide backpacking phenomenon – the YHA magazine first coined the term “backpacker” in April 1978 – as well as hundreds of hostel networks (Nomads, VIP, HOLA Hostels Latinoamerica, Budget Backpacker Hostels New Zealand and Scottish Independent Hostels, to name a few) and thousands of independent backpacker lodges.

Meanwhile, Hostelling International (HI), created in 1932 when 12 European associations banded together (including the original German Youth Hostel Association, which now has 550 hostels), is now a global brand. It's by far the largest backpacker accommodation network in the world, with 4 million members and 4000 properties in 80 countries. YHA Australia has more than 70,000 members and 120 YHAs; the term “hostel” is often side-stepped here and in other countries they're generally called “HI hostels” to distinguish them from other backpacker lodges.

Twenty years ago, staying in a youth hostel meant no daytime access (to get young people to spend their days in the great outdoors), restricted reception hours (to reduce overheads) and a few chores (to help build character and minimise costs). Sleeping in a dorm, while cheap, wasn't always comfortable, not when your fellow backpackers snored, packed in the wee hours of the morning or slammed the door coming in after a big night.

Today, many HI hostels are as upmarket and high-tech as major hotels. Beds can be booked online (with 24-hour reception) and most hostels have double rooms with ensuites and air-conditioning, free Wi-Fi, plunge pools, restaurants and hip bars. Dorm rooms have become smaller; some have just four beds and private bathrooms. Staff are more likely to be experienced professionals now, too, rather than fellow travellers working for free board.

And Australia is leading the way, says YHA NSW chief executive Julian Ledger. “Australia and New Zealand are at the cutting edge, partly because there is a lot of competition that has led to a greater focus on customers and continuous innovation.”

When Sydney Central YHA opened in 1997, for instance, it was one of the first hostels to have keycard room entry. It is also one of the biggest hostels in the world, with 550 beds in 151 rooms, a rooftop pool and sauna, the Scubar in the basement and a full-time activities officer – but still offering self-catering facilities and communal living areas.

HI now has the largest range of accommodation options – from farmhouses and tree houses to castles, lighthouses, ski lodges, prisons, even railway carriages – of any backpacker network. You can sleep on a tall ship in Sweden or in a 17th-century villa in Manhattan – or a beachside eco-hostel.

Although hostelling has always been eco-conscious, there has recently been a big push to make hostels greener. Australia has two purpose-built eco-YHAs (in the Grampians and at Apollo Bay, both in Victoria), an eco-lodge at Port Douglas and two Ecotourism Australia-accredited hostels in Melbourne.

The new $25 million Sydney Harbour YHA in The Rocks, due to open in November, will produce its own electricity using a gas-powered generator.

What really distinguishes a youth hostel from any other budget accommodation, however, is the social element.

“There's a sense of community ... that is the heart of hostelling,” says Jim Williams, editor of The Hostel Handbook, a guide to hostels in the US and Canada.

Ledger agrees. “I always encourage young people setting out to stay in dorm rooms. Meeting people starts in a share room and it's fun, communal and more economical."

The 100th anniversary of youth hostelling is being celebrated worldwide all year. The German YHA is hosting more than 200 events. In Australia, most YHAs will have a barbecue or party on Wednesday. See and