Backpacking danger: what are the risks and how have they changed?

Train poster from Belarus

Apologies for the blurry image - taken in a station in Belarus at night, but I hope the stories are clear enough to follow

Policemen getting younger, footballers 10 years our junior being described as ageing veterans, our early years forever framed in grainy black and white: all reminders that our lives move on at a relentless pace. In our travels too the passage of time provides clear evidence that the world we explore today is quite different from one I first set foot in as a wide-eyed teenager in the 1980s.

One particular area of change is in the dangers we face when we set off to different countries. As a teenager with an Inter-Rail ticket I knew that there were two main dangers for the unsuspecting traveller in Europe (three if you were a girl; thankfully I didn’t need to pay much attention to the lecherous reputation of Italian men).

The first was the Iron Curtain border guards who would take great delight in making life very difficult for anyone who dared attempt to cross their frontier. I did encounter a fearsome specimen on the East German border; a lady who boasted the imposing physique of the finest Olympians from her homeland. Like a communist bear with a sore head she conducted a half hour search and interrogation during which she shouted, cursed and poked around my backpack before glowering at me and disappearing in search of her next victim.

The other backpacking danger was a far more sinister one – that of old ladies with sweets with Italy again posing the main danger. In fact in the mid 1980s it is fair to say that Italy carried a very bad reputation among backpackers. It was common for solo travellers in Austria or Yugoslavia to get together and agree to visit Italy as a group and look after one another. But back to the sweets. A well-known scam at the time (is it still being done?) was for someone (most typically a sweet old dear) to offer you a sweet, only for it to be laced with something that would send you to sleep. Of course when you woke up your backpack would be ripped open and anything of value removed.

Nowadays the Iron Curtain has long gone and its surviving legacies have become a tourist attraction. Old ladies with sweets may still roam menacingly throughout the Italian railway system, although I suspect that they have made the most of the Schengen border arrangements and now mingle undercover with the elderly folks across the continent.

In place of these fears have come a set of new ones: international terrorism, random muggings and more recently travel plans destroyed by local unrest and strike action. But maybe there are others. Travelling as a fortysomething the perspective of fear and danger is framed not only by what the risks really are, but also by the many narrow escapes and other people’s war stories I’ve acquired over the years.

So what are the biggest fears for a modern-day backpacker in Europe? I’d love to hear whether they’ve really changed that much.

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Freelance travel writer

5 Responses to “Backpacking danger: what are the risks and how have they changed?”

  1. My biggest fear in Europe is that I’ll do something stupid like pass out on a train, then wake up with my shoes and wallet stolen!

    November 28, 2011 at 3:34 pm
  2. It seems the biggest fear is random deadly terrorism, but the most common is probably still the good ole pick pocketer.

    November 29, 2011 at 11:22 am
  3. Bali was a beautiful place and the people are wonderful but after the Bali bombings I’d never go back. Fear of terrorism in some of the most exotic places on earth keep a lot of visitors away.

    January 7, 2012 at 11:58 pm
  4. I think the biggest fear is getting physically attacked or robbed (from a girl’s perspective).

    April 12, 2012 at 4:25 pm
  5. Ben #

    I suppose you will never know how dangerous a country is until you have spent some time there. My biggest fear would have to be any kind of life threatening attacks like being caught up in a war or wandering into the wrong part of the country. with all of these risks mentioned, ive heard the most dangerous part of traveling is common things like being hit by a car, or food poisining. Still worth traveling.

    June 9, 2012 at 4:39 am