Background: Whilst alcohol and drug use among young people is known to escalate during short holidays and working breaks in international nightlife resorts, little empirical data are available on the impact of longer backpacking holidays on substance use. Here we examine changes in alcohol, tobacco and drug use when UK residents go backpacking in Australia. Methods: Matched information on alcohol and drug use in Australia and the UK was collected through a cross sectional cohort study of 1008 UK nationals aged 18-35 years, holidaying in Sydney or Cairns, Australia, during 2005. Results: The use of alcohol and other drugs by UK backpackers visiting Australia was common with use of illicit drugs being substantially higher than in peers of the same age in their home country. Individuals showed a significant increase in frequency of alcohol consumption in Australia compared to their behaviour in the UK with the proportion drinking five or more times per week rising from 20.7% (UK) to 40.3% (Australia). Relatively few individuals were recruited into drug use in Australia (3.0%, cannabis; 2.7% ecstasy; 0.7%, methamphetamine). However, over half of the sample (55.0%) used at least one illicit drug when backpacking. Risk factors for illicit drug use while backpacking were being regular club goers, being male, Sydney based, travelling without a partner or spouse, having been in Australia more than four weeks, Australia being the only destination on their vacation and drinking or smoking five or more days a week. Conclusion: As countries actively seek to attract more international backpacker tourists, interventions must be developed that target this population's risk behaviours. Developing messages on drunkenness and other drug use specifically for backpackers could help minimise their health risks directly (e.g. adverse drug reactions) and indirectly (e.g. accidents and violence) as well as negative impacts on the host country.