Urban Backpacking Myths

| September 4, 2011 | 2 Comments

One of the great things about travel is the stories you bring home. Chances are, though, it won’t be long before the conversation turns from stories of first-hand experiences—to those tales that happened to a friend of a friend—or that you caught on the news or received in your inbox. Since the early days of backpacking, travellers have been keenly aware of second-hand travel information—where to stay and what to eat, see and do in any particular destination.

While the recommendations may have changed, our appetite for great travel advice hasn’t waned. So too, our love of urban travel legends. These legends appear on the road quickly and proliferate rapidly through hostels and guesthouses. And, while they may contain some truth, they’re often based on falsehoods. But the fact remains, we all love urban legends—we all love to hear them and we all love to spread them.

This is a list of a few of the most famous urban travel legends that are still doing the rounds on the backpacker circuit. That being said, despite these cautionary tales, independent travel is nonetheless a relatively safe way of getting your kicks. Keep an eye on government advisories when planning your itinerary, get comprehensive adventure travel insurance and read up on local ‘dos and don’ts’. And you’ll be good to go!

A Bad Case of Gas

This urban travel legend has enjoyed several decades of retelling and revision. As one of the oldest and most persistent, this myth holds that thieves prowl trains in Europe and the Far East late at night, using some kind of chemical agent to incapacitate unsuspecting backpackers asleep in their cabins and rob them of their cash and documents. This urban legend usually concludes with, “I had EUR250 in my fannypack when we left—but when I woke up this morning, I only had EUR25!”

sleepercar Urban Backpacking Myths

Sleep with one eye open! Muahahaha!

Regardless, in recent years, the US Department of State’s Overseas Security Advisory Council has actually issued a warning for train travellers in transit through Poland to beware of such scenarios. The US Department of State’s Overseas Security Advisory Council has warned travellers, too:

“Inter- and intra-country train travel, thieves have, in rare instances, used a variety of ‘knock-out’ sprays to incapacitate travelers and then take belongings from their person and accompanying baggage. In most cases the spray is used on sleeping passengers.

According to the Washington Post, Polish Embassy press attache Marek Purowski concedes that such incidents have occurred in recent years but that the perpetrators were not Polish citizens but “Russian gangs.” So is this a case of life imitating the art of storytelling? Perhaps — but remember, urban legends often retain, at their core, a kernel of truth.

The Disappearing Organ

Myths surrounding the theft of body organs are some of the most horrifying and popular of all urban legends about travel. Judging also from the number of movie and book plots they have inspired, this particular myth seems to be about the most popular urban travel legend yet.

kidneyharvest Urban Backpacking Myths

A screen cap from the movie Urbania.

Featured as a major plot line on a number of TV show and movies, I first heard this one during while in a hostel in China about fifteen years ago.·It begins with a mysterious and attractive stranger seducing a backpacker. The next day, the horny and now helpless traveller awakens to discover that he was drugged and a kidney and/or other organs were removed—presumably to be sold on the black market. The folks over at About.com describe it thusly:

The backpacker is instructed by the 911 operator to very slowly and carefully reach behind them and feel if there is a tube protruding from their lower back. The business traveler finds the tube and answers, “Yes.” The 911 operator tells them to remain still, having already sent paramedics to help. The operator knows that both of the business traveler’s kidneys have been harvested.

This urban travel legend is often embellished with some amazingly gory details describing victims sporting open wounds and lying incapacitated in bathtubs full of ice. As many of these urban myths do, this one plays upon our fears of travelling alone and being the victim of a random crime. That said, you should always be careful when drinking in bars, and don’t invite strangers to your room!

Indecent Exposures

This urban legend is a classic, albeit sick, story. An acquaintance of ours in the travel industry swears this urban legend actually happened to her clients—but we simply chalk it up another friend-of-a-friend tale. It goes like this—a young couple were vacationing at a resort when their room was broken into and everything stolen, with the exception of their old-school analog film camera and their toothbrushes.

toothbrush Urban Backpacking Myths

This doesn't end well.

Considering themselves fortunate to have not lost their vacation photos, they return home post-vacation and have the film developed only to discover that the presumed robber inserted their toothbrushes into a rather unsanitary orifice. We’re inclined to believe that this story plays upon our generalized distrust of strangers and strange places—emotional echos of those standard childhood insecurities. Stranger danger, anyone?


You’re probably familiar with most—if not all—of the stories here, demonstrating just how deep-rooted urban legends are in our collective psyche as travellers. Indeed, human beings will always be drawn in by the unsubstantiated rumour. These stories seem to have a life of their own, creeping through the travelling public one person at a time. And like a real life form, they adapt to changing conditions. It will always be the way of the traveller to tell bizarre stories, and there will always be an audience waiting to believe them. The urban legend is part of our makeup!

If you’re wondering why your favorite urban travel legend did not make the cut — let us know in the comments!

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About the Author ()

For nearly ten years now, Daniel of Two Go Round-The-World has explored how travel captures our imagination and engages our deepest emotions. One half of the duo that maintains the widely read Two Go Round-The-World blog, Daniel treats his subjects not only as works of art but also as symbols of the cultural and political forces that inspire them. His latest book, The Physics of Flocking, gathers his favourite writing featured over the past two years on Two Go Round-The-World in columns like 'Looking Back' and 'The Whole Picture'—along with new reflections.

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  1. Suraj Nair says:

    I had fun reading all urban legends and am sure that there will be more which needs to be shared.

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