Taking a gap year as a solo female backpacker is often seen as too dangerous or risky, and as a result solo travel as a woman can be a little daunting, but it really doesn’t have to be. Travelling the world solo is one of the most empowering, rewarding and downright awesome things you will ever do, and despite what the mass media or well meaning relatives say it can be overwhelmingly safe too with the right knowledge, preparation and precautions. So here are the top 10 expert tips to help you reduce any risk to your personal safety and security whilst on your travels.
Travel safety, especially safety for solo female travellers is something I have written a lot about before, but it is a topic that comes up time and time again and one of the single most common questions I get asked about every single day, so I thought it would be a good idea to just go over some of the best and most effective tips for women travellers to stay safe on their gap years and backpacking adventures.
It is important to remember that the world in general is quite a safe place, and the simple fact of being a woman does not automatically make you more of a victim or make it too dangerous to travel. There is a lot of statistical, academic and scientific research to back that up.
There is risk out there, for everyone, but the real level of that risk and the realistic chance of becoming a victim of a crime and the severity of it all has to be put into a realistic context.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t risks however, of course there are, but there are ways to minimise those risks and it is essential that you don’t let fear dictate your actions. Preparation is good, paranoia is not. As I have said before, one of the main tricks to keeping yourself safe when travelling the world simply lies in …
Understanding the potential risks and dangers,
Reducing that risk as much as possible.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of expert tips or an in depth discussion on spotting, avoiding, deescalating or dealing with potential problems, all that is for other articles and discussions where I go much more in depth into the issues involved. There are also the common sense safety essentials that should go without saying. But here is a top 10 list of the most popular safety tips that all women about to embark on their round the world adventure can use to immediately reduce any risk to themselves.
This is an important tip as one of the most effective ways to ensure your own safety is situational awareness.
All that means is being actively aware of your surroundings. It can be so easy to put your earphones in on a long bus journey, lose yourself in your surroundings and not concentrate, and that means you are making yourself an easy target for any potential theirf, mugger or anyone who may want to do you harm, and you will not spot any potential trouble until you are right in the middle of it.
So stay aware of your surroundings and be cognizant of the things around you, your belongings and the people around you at all times, and you will be far more likely to spot and avoid any potential trouble before it even happens.
Confidence is absolutely key. Even if inside you are feeling a little lost or nervous, don’t worry, just acting confident will make a huge difference. Fake it ’till you make it!
Predators, thieves and con artists all prey on those who look like an easy target and look weak – it’s a natural animal instinct – so be the exact opposite of that. Be the person that makes them think you are more trouble than you are worth. Make them think that they will regret approaching you or trying anything on and they will soon move on to the next potential victim who looks like easy prey.
Act and look like you are confident, know where you are and what you are doing and it will greatly reduce your chances of being picked out as a victim.
Look like just another one of the crowd as much as possible and don’t stand out, if you don’t stand out, the chances of you being picked out as a victim are significantly reduced. Basically, this tip is all about not drawing any undue attention to yourself.
By being mindful of what you look like and how you act you can blend into the crowd, not stand out and by virtue of that not make yourself a target, and a lot of this does come down to what you wear and how you look. Look around at what local women or local expats are wearing and follow suit, you don’t have to completely copy that of course or go to extremes, just use your common sense.
If you look like you belong, you’re more likely to be looked over by potential predators or thieves or scam atists. If you wear anything that screams ‘tourist’, You may as well be painting a massive neon target on your back!
Wearing a bikini top and short shorts may be appropriate on the beach 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. Dress comfortably but sensibly, be mindful of and respectful of local customs and sensibilities and try not to stand out.
But it is more than what you wear, it is how you act too. Don’t get that huge tourist map out and stand around looking lost, be careful of that massive bulge where it is obvious you have a ‘secret’ money belt, you know what I mean. Act like you belong, and try to look like you belong too. A part of this goes right back to the confidence part of these tips.
Now it doesn’t matter what you do or where you go, there will always be some parts of your appearance that will make you stand out in certain parts of the world. That is completely unavoidable and I would never suggest you even try. In those circumstances it is still relatively easy to look like an expat or a foreign worker in that country, and combined with an air of self confidence and a little bit of the local language, will help you significantly reduce the risk of being noticed – and targeted – by undesirables.
Learn a little bit of the local language.
This is always a polite thing to do anyway, and learning the basics such as hello, goodbye, please, thank you and so on just shows a little respect for your host country as much as it helps you blend in.
Knowing how to say no thank you in the local language is an instant signal to touts that they may be better off moving on, knowing a few basic phrases such as asking for a drink or asking how much something is may signal to anyone watching you for nefarious means that you are comfortable in your surroundings and may not be as easy a target as they thought.
It is also a really good idea just to memorise and learn a few phrases that will help you raise the alarm in an emergency or ask for help if you need it. The word ‘help’ is not universal, and if you think something is wrong and need to ask a stranger for assistance or you need to ring the emergency services then having at least a phrase or two in the local language will at least give them an immediate idea of what you need.
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, everything from wearing appropriate clothing at religious sites to watching the topics you discuss with a local. Doing so will help you avoid bringing any extra attention to yourself and reduce your chances of accidentally finding yourself in a bit of trouble without meaning to be.
Keep your valuables hidden.
This should be a bit of a common sense one really and again, is all about not drawing any unwanted attention to yourself. Even if you look like a cross between Mr T and half of the Kardashian clan at home, it is no reason to look like an explosion in a jewelry shop when you are travelling. Just leave the jewelry at home. If you must accessorise then at least do so with cheap, replaceable baubles from a local market.
And I know everyone simply must travel with all of the latest tech and an entire extra pack of go pro accessories now, but it really is not a good idea to have them all on display all of the time. If you do, you are essentially a huge walking neon advert to every thief, pickpocket and con artist in the area. Carry your tech in an innocuous hidden part of your bag and only take your gadgets out when you need to, and be mindful of how you carry it when you do.
There are plenty of theft proof daypacks on the market now with a lot of features like slash proof materials, lockable zips, hidden pockets and attached zip wires. These features aren’t infallible but they do add that little extra layer of armour to your safety arsenal.
Bonus tip two:
Ladies, don’t slap me when I say this, but hide a couple of your valuables in your bra. (Okay, get all the double entendres out of the way, I heard them in my head as I was typing that, but I’m serious!)
You can get specifically designed bras with secret pockets and special hidden wallets that clip on to your bra strap, but a bra with extra padding (with the padding taken out) works just as well, and you can easily hide some paper cash in a waterproof bag in there. Think about it, it’s probably the most difficult place to pickpocket for obvious reasons, right? And probably the last place any potential mugger or pickpocket will look.
I’m not normally one to recommend money belts of any kind, with only a couple of innovative exceptions I generally hate the majority of them with a passion because they are usually not very discreet, are always around your waist or neck so will be the first place any smart mugger will look (and if they are around your neck can also be used as a weapon against you), but since you already have a natural hiding place that you are wearing anyway, why not take advantage?
If you want to take things that step further, WanderWave have a truly safe and discreet money belt system designed specifically for women that attaches to your bra and bypass the usual problems with traditional money belts.
Be careful with alcohol.
A lot of this is common sense really. I know this is your gap year and you want to have fun, that’s fine, no one is going to deny you that. Just be careful. Have a bit of fun and a social drink with those awesome backpackers you met at your hostel, just do it in moderation and don’t get so drunk you lose control and have no idea of what is happening around you, or to you.
It is always a good idea to keep your drinks to sealed cans or bottles when you are at a bar too, and just like you would on a night out at home make sure that no one can slip anything into it either.
Avoid walking alone at night.
This especially applies if you happen to be walking in a deserted or sparsely populated area. If you do go out at night try to be with or around other travellers from your hostel, or spend that little bit of cash and take a taxi, uber or grab. A big part of staying safe when travelling is avoiding risky situations or taking steps to minimise that risk, and this is really no different than the common sense approach you would take at home. I mean would you walk down that dark alley on your own at night at home? No? Then why would you do it in a strange city?
Carrying a weapon is obviously illegal in many places and for those same legal reasons I can never recommend that anyone actually does that. However a small can of cheap hairspray could feel remarkably like a bargain basement pepperspray when sprayed in someones eyes and that long, pointy keyring looks as if it would be painful if it was jammed into the side of someones head. Just saying.
Be prepared when you arrive in a new place.
Arriving in a new town, city or country, especially late at night, is often when travellers are at their most vulnerable. You will probably be tired and a little groggy from a long bus or plane journey, you will be disorientated and perhaps even a little bit culture shocked in the first day or two. It happens to everyone, don’t worry. The big problem is that also makes you a prime target for touts, thieves and other unwanted attention. This is where it really pays off to prepare things beforehand and is one of the few occasions where it is a good idea to book your accommodation in advance (splurging on a private room for the first night at least is a good idea to just to allow you to rest), and get a metered and licensed taxi there or pre book an uber or grab.
Most hostels and guesthouses will have free or cheap walking tours of the city and it is often a good idea to sign up for one after a day or two of getting yourself settled. Odds are you will be perfectly safe and sound exploring on your own, but being with a local guide who can answer any questions and a few other people will give you a lot of confidence and even let you meet a few new friends too.
Trust your gut instinct.
This seems like a bit of a cop out piece of advice but believe me it isn’t. Your gut instinct is one of the best and sharpest weapons you have for keeping yourself safe when travelling the world. If something doesn’t feel right, if that person you are talking to is making you feel a bit uncomfortable or you just have a bad feeling, then trust your gut and leave. Get out of there. It is always better to be safe than sorry.
Don’t worry about being polite. That seems like a strange tip, I know, but hear me out. If your spider sense is tingling and your gut is telling you that you need to get out of a situation, the last thing you need to worry about is being rude or offending anyone.
Remember, be aware, be prepared, don’t be paranoid.
The tips and advice given above are designed to help you reduce any potential risk out there as much as possible, so that you can get on and enjoy your gap year or backpacking trip in peace and safety, but they aren’t there to scare you or worry you into thinking that the world is a much more dangerous place than it really is.
Remember that being prepared and being careful are good and wise things to do, being paranoid is not.
Not every person that says hello is out to scam you, not all the attention you get as a woman is negative (sometimes you will feel like a celebrity as whole families just want a photo with the tall, pretty blonde westerner), often you are provided extra protection as a woman by other women and even by men, and despite what you may hear not every man is out to rape you. So before you get out that pepper spray and start screaming at everyone who comes within a 2 mile radius of you just remember, the world is generally a safe, welcoming and wonderful place.
Be open, welcoming and generally positive about your travels. Travel is in general terms overwhelmingly safe and not everyone is out to get you.
Simply having the knowledge and the tools to reduce the risk that is there means that you are prepared for the worst, not expecting it, and you are more ready and able to protect yourself and keep yourself safe if the worst does happen.
I really hope these basic tips have eased your fears a little and given you the confidence to look at all the different ways you can stay safe on your travels.
The absolute reality is that thousands of women travel safely every single day, and by taking reasonable steps to ensure your safety and security there is absolutely no reason you can’t too.
This isn’t a comprehensive list and there are a lot more in depth ways that you can reduce any risk and increase your chances of staying safe, but by keeping these basic tips in mind you are already well on the way to reducing the risk that is out there to acceptable levels so that you can relax and enjoy your awesome round the world adventure, and return home safe and sound.
Remember, travel is not as scary as you think it is once you get out there!
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If you want to gain a more in depth knowledge and understanding about how to reduce the risks of travelling and keep yourself safe on the road then you need these books.
With comprehensive advice from ex military personnel, self defence experts as well as qualified health care professionals and utilising the unique REACTE system of personal safety, Gap Year Safety is an absolute must read for anyone about to set off on their gap year. It delves much deeper into issues such as how to stay safe and not become a victim, how to recognise, avoid and deescalate potentially violent situations and what to do and where to get help if things do go wrong, Gap Year Safety is an invaluable resource to keep yourself safe on your travels.
Solo Female Backpacker deals with all these issues and more specifically from a woman’s perspective, with the same essential safety tips and advice from ex military personnel and self defence experts as well as inspirational stories from women who have travelled independently around the world.
With the information and knowledge contained in these books, many dangers and troubles can be avoided altogether, or at least dealt with safely if they do occur.
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