There are thousands of women who go backpacking alone every single year, setting off into the unknown with just their backpack and guidebook in hand, and the absolute vast majority of them have a great time with little or no hassle and return home completely safely. I have met countless women on the road, some of them who are now very good friends of mine, and they all say the same thing, that common sense and reasonable caution are all it takes to keep them safe.
Despite this, travel safety is perhaps one of the most common concerns by women before they set off, and travel forums, blogs and websites are constantly bombarded with women looking for advice and reassurance. There isn’t anything at all wrong with that, there is never anything wrong with giving advice and reassurance (that is partly what I am doing here after all), but on the whole the level of worry is unnecessary.
Saying that however there are a few practicalities that women do have to consider when backpacking.
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. If you are travelling alone and have to get a taxi, make sure you only get into officially licensed cabs, preferably buying tickets from a taxi stand if possible, and then sit in the back seat, not the front. This really isn’t rocket science, and this really is all it can take to keep you safe most of the time.
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. Melt into the crowd and don’t make yourself a target. Wearing a bikini top and shorts may be appropriate in Malibu 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 providing that an effort is being made to respect local culture.
Don’t draw attention to yourself.
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. But not drawing attention to yourself can go far beyond appearance. Don’t get loud and drunk in public, especially in conservative Muslim countries, don’t wear ultra expensive jewellery or flash around huge wads of cash. You may as well just be wearing a big neon sign that says ‘I’m a target!’ Most of this however goes back to the first point about common sense.
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 much of South or Central America or parts of Europe or Australia for example 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 will make any unwanted advances politely move on to someone else.
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.
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 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 and ethical debates about their existence in the first place that I will not get into here. But they are designed to stop harassment and make women feel safe on public transport, so where they are available and you have the option to use them, then it is not going to do you any harm.
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. 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!
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. 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.
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 it will be one of the best times of your life and you will not regret it if you do!