Travelling the world independently is one of the best things anyone can ever do for themselves. Apart from the fact that getting to see and explore the world is a reward in and of itself, allowing you to see and do things most people will only ever dream of, the experience will absolutely change you for the better. It will make you stronger, more worldly, more self confident, in short it will make you a better person and will empower you like nothing else will.
The problem is for half of the population who are dreaming of setting off on their very own round the world adventure, we all know that it is far too dangerous for a woman to dare to backpack around the world on her own, right?
If you listen to all the uninformed doomsayers and the mass media, you could be forgiven for believing that the world is full of muggers, thieves, terrorists, pirates and murderers just waiting for all you naive, vulnerable, defenceless women to step out into the big scary world. Given the fear mongering and misinformation out there, it’s a surprise anyone goes anywhere.
Of course there are dangers out there, of course women have practical concerns and of course they should take reasonable safety precautions when travelling, but here’s the big secret …
It is just as safe for a woman to backpack around the world as any man.
Despite what the media and your fretting mothers might tell you, thousands of women travel around the world every single day and come back home safe and sound. Travelling the world is statistically very safe, and the probability of anything bad happening to you is pretty low.
The trick to keeping yourself safe simply lies in …
Understanding the risks and dangers,
Reducing the risk as much as possible.
There are many ways in which you can do this. Research is one of the biggest weapons in your arsenal of course, being aware of the dangers and how to avoid them, or knowing how to deal with them if things do go wrong is one of the best things you can do to prepare. To find out more, read here.
Apart from that there are a number of tips and tricks any woman can use when out on the road to reduce the risk of anything negative happening to them and to keep themselves safe.
Confidence is just a natural weapon against people who may potentially want to do you harm or take advantage of you. Acting like you know where you are, what you are doing and showing that you are confident, even if you may not feel like it inside, sets off a huge subconscious alert of ‘don’t mess with me’. Again this applies equally to both genders, but is something that women in particular tend not to do. Predators are in general looking for victims who look and appear weak, it is instinctive, so be the opposite! People who behave and look like targets are generally the ones who become victims, so don’t let this happen to you. Just be confident!
Use your common sense.
Yes, it really is that simple sometimes. Travelling alone can be very safe indeed if you just use your basic common sense. You do it all the time at home so there is no reason why you wouldn’t do it while travelling either. Don’t walk down that dark alley in the middle of the night on your own, don’t accept that lift from the three friendly guys you met in the middle of nowhere and don’t drink so much that you have no control over what you do. I know it can be easy to lower your guard when you are travelling and having fun, but simply use your instinct and common sense as a baseline and you will generally be fine. This really isn’t rocket science, and this really is all it can take to keep you safe most of the time.
Again this is something that applies to both genders, but is so important that it is worth mentioning again here. Just be alert and aware of your surroundings, your belongings and the people around you at all times. Don’t take your eye of your pack, even if you do think it is absolutely safe. Be aware of the people approaching you and be mindful of the common scams or diversion tactics of pickpockets or thieves. When a stranger approaches you and starts chatting, odds are they may simply be curious about you and where you are from (in many parts of the world it is still highly unusual to see a woman travelling alone), but they may also be a tout leading up to one of the many scams they use to separate you from your cash. Be friendly, but be aware too. Of course you shouldn’t take this to the extremes of being overly paranoid and thinking everyone is out to get you, where even the most innocent of hello’s from a friendly traveller invokes screams of hysteria and cries of ‘rapist, mugger, murderer!’ Before you empty a can of pepper spray in the guys face and throw your pack at him for good measure before running off in hysterics. The poor guy just said hello for crying out loud! But a healthy dose of awareness, providing you don’t let it get to that paranoid level, can be a good thing.
Lower your profile.
Lowering your profile is a major part of keeping yourself safe. It is just as true for men too, as are the majority of these tips in fact, but applied specifically to women this basically can be translated into be selective in what you wear, dressing according to local custom and being respectful to local culture and norms in your behaviour. Melt into the crowd, don’t stand out and you won’t make yourself a target.
Wearing a bikini top and shorts may be appropriate in Malibu for example where a lot of women will be wearing the same, but it just isn’t appropriate walking around Haft-e Tir Square in Tehran.
Most of the problems women face when backpacking stem from drawing unwanted attention to themselves by wearing inappropriate clothing and not conforming to cultural norms. Simple, comfortable clothing such as cargo pants or shorts and a T shirt that covers the shoulders and is not too revealing is more than adequate in most situations, with the added precaution of a shawl or sarong so you can cover up your head, lower legs or any exposed skin if you visit a mosque or if the situation requires it. Visiting any religious building or site in many countries will sometimes require you to dress in a certain way, whether that is removing shoes, wearing a specific sarong, covering up exposed skin or covering your hair or any number of other traditional norms. This is an issue for men too, although often to a much lesser extent, and is often an issue of respect for religion and customs as it is about gender. It is my experience that people are generally very welcoming and will excuse the odd faux pax such as forgetting to take your shoes off in places of worship (someone will usually politely let you know if you have forgotten), providing that an effort is being made to respect local culture.
Don’t draw attention to yourself.
Along the same lines as lowering your profile, not drawing attention to yourself will mean you are much less likely to be singled out as a target for trouble.
Unfortunately there are sometimes some things that you cannot change about your appearance and you will always stand out to some extent. If you are tall, white and blonde for example, you will get attention in parts of Asia, South or Central America and the Middle East purely because you are different from the norm. Most of the time this goes no further than stares or long looks, and whilst this can sometimes be a little disconcerting, is generally nothing to worry about.
There are some things you can do however, and again, most of this goes back to basic common sense. Even if you normally look like a jewellery shop has exploded all over you at home, it isn’t exactly the smartest idea to wear all your bling on your travels. Just leave all the fancy rings and bracelets at home. Don’t be flashing huge wads of cash about or walk around carrying a massive £3000 DSLR camera around your neck while staring at the latest iPad. You may as well just be wearing a big neon sign that says ‘I’m a target!’
But not drawing attention to yourself can go far beyond appearance and can also mean moderating your behaviour. This doesn’t even mean you have to conform to local standards or expectations of women, just be polite and respectful. For example, don’t drink too much and get loud, obnoxious and abusive, especially if you are in a traditionally conservative, polite country, you’ll just attract a lot of attention you don’t want.
Be sensitive to local custom and tradition.
Understanding the place you are in and the culture you are visiting is essential when backpacking so you can be sensitive to local customs and manners. For women it does take on a slightly added dimension as there are many places, particularly but not limited to in the Middle East, where social norms and conventions demand certain considerations from women, and for backpackers it is wise to know what they are and make concessions to them. Many Muslim countries for example, especially those where Sharia law operates more stringently, are very conservative and regimented when it comes to women and this can manifest itself for backpackers in terms of what you choose to wear and how you behave. There will never be an expectation for you to cover up completely the way some Muslim women do, especially if you are not a Muslim, you are a guest there after all. But if you show respect to your host country by making some concessions to modesty then you will lower your profile and divert attention away from yourself as well as being able to delve deeper into the heart and culture of the places you are visiting. If you wear wildly inappropriate clothing, such as the oblivious women who walk off the cruise ships in Egypt wearing hot pants and bikini tops in a predominantly Muslim country, then you will draw unwanted attention to yourself. The further away from touristy areas you get, the more attention inappropriate dress will draw to you.
Also be aware of cultural differences when travelling. Catching a guy’s eye and giving a friendly smile back home may be considered completely innocent and friendly, but can often be interpreted as a sexual advance in the Middle East for example. If you are unsure it can often be a good idea to look around and follow the social cues of the local women.
This isn’t to say that you should completely deny yourself the opportunities to meet or interact with locals. If you do that out of fear or an over exaggerated sense of personal safety then you would be doing yourself a huge disservice and will deny yourself one of the best things about backpacking. So again, be reasonably cautious, but not paranoid.
Wear a wedding ring.
Seriously I know this sounds strange but I have it on good authority, even if you are not married wear a wedding ring. I have met many women on the road, travelling solo or with friends, and many of them have told me they have found that wearing a cheap ring on their wedding finger really does stop some unwanted attention, particularly in countries where there may be a culture of machismo and some men may be particularly forward, especially if they think you are single. A simple flash of the wedding ring should make any guy making unwanted advances politely move on to someone else.
You can pre book from time to time.
The accepted independent traveller norm is to just turn up, find a place to stay that suits your taste and budget, and barter for a room. This is absolutely the best way to travel the majority of the time, it is cheaper, easier, more flexible, you will find much nicer places to stay, and it is completely safe for anyone, man or woman, to do.
There are occasional exceptions to this rule though. When you are just arriving in a new country for example, it can be a good idea to pre book a nice private room for a few nights as you rest, acclimatize and get used to your new surroundings. The same is true for those times when you are travelling when you simply can’t avoid arriving in a new town or city late at night. The last thing you want to be doing is wondering about a strange new place in the dark when most businesses are shut and not many people are about. Just get to an internet cafe or somewhere with wifi and book one night somewhere. You can easily find somewhere else the next day if you like.
This does obviously have safety applications, but it also gives you a lot of peace of mind, and that can be just as important as self confidence.
Take advantage of gendered transport options.
In many countries across the world, you will find that there are public transport options that are for women only. Generally these take the form of women only carriages on trains or female only seats on buses, but can be found right across Japan, Malaysia, India, Egypt, Brazil, Mexico and parts of Indonesia and the Philippines amongst many others. They are not universal however, some parts of each country may have them and some may not, and there are a whole range of social, legal, moral and ethical debates about their usefulness and existence in the first place that I will not get into here. But they are technically designed to stop harassment and make women feel safe on public transport, so where they are available – if you feel the need to use them and you have the option to do so – then it is not going to do you any harm.
I really hope these simple tips and encouragement have eased your fears a little and given you the confidence to go backpacking, with reasonable common sense precautions you will reduce a lot of the already low amount of risk to your personal safety and security. Backpacking the world will be one of the best times of your life, and you should not let simple fear of what may or may not happen stop you from discovering not only what is out there, but who you are as a woman too.
So go, grab your backpack and get that plane ticket! Explore. Dream. Discover!
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