Should You Learn Self Defence Before Your Gap Year?

Should you take up martial arts or self defence before travelling the world

Is learning a martial art or a bit of self defence a good idea for your gap year? Will taking self defence classes really increase your chances of staying safe when you travel? Well the problem is the answer isn’t exactly clear cut. Staying safe on your gap year involves far more than learning just a few martial arts moves, so this article asks if learning self defence before travelling is really a good idea.

Alongside the questions of whether taking a gap year is safe, many first time backpackers also ask the question of whether they should learn a bit of self defence before they go in an effort to be better able to protect themselves.

In the interests of fairness I do have to say I absolutely love martial arts of all varieties and think the study of Bushido is one of the best things anyone can do for themselves from a physical, mental and even spiritual perspective, so I may be a little biased in my views toward them.

I have studied the martial arts myself my entire life, fuelled by 80s martial arts movies and personal heroes like Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris and Dolph Lundgren, and I have a fair understanding of just how deeply and profoundly they can affect your physical and mental growth, health and wellbeing. Starting with Goju Ryu Karate when I was 5 years old and leading up to Ju Jitsu and Judo as well when I was a little older (long before MMA claimed to invent cross training!) I have also studied numerous weapons arts including Sai Jutsu, Iaido and Kendo, as well as training in various local martial arts on my travels to gain a wider perspective of combat arts in general.

So I genuinely do believe that the martial arts can be extremely beneficial and are an important aspect of keeping travellers safe on the road.

But they aren’t the only aspect, and that is important.

A large part of staying safe on your travels is using a variety of skills, tricks and tools to make yourself less of a potential victim or target, and there are many layers to that. Starting off with basic knowledge and awareness and taking reasonable safety precautions to keep yourself safe at a very basic level, and ending with actively training your mind and body to protect yourself if you need to in terms of martial arts or self defence training at an extreme advanced level. The bulk of safety advice lies of course in the middle of that, but essentially the more layers of knowledge and training you have, the safer you will be.

In theory.

In practical terms it doesn’t work for everyone.

Martial Arts Training Vs A Few Self Defence Classes.

Training in any of the numerous martial arts is an amazing way to learn how to physically defend yourself if needed, that much is a given, but simply learning a ‘technique’ or two in your local boxercise class is not.

If you want to train in any of the martial arts (and which one is best for you will be down to your own individual taste, body shape and style) to learn how to defend yourself and learn the culture and traditions of the warrior, then do it properly. Find yourself a traditional dojo or class, start at the bottom, train regularly and consistently and over a long period of time, and you will learn that art properly. You will know how to defend yourself if the need arises and so much more besides.

If you train in this way, if you take on a long term commitment and see learning the martial arts as a lifestyle choice, then this will ultimately benefit you when you start travelling by enabling you to significantly increase your chances of avoiding or dealing with potentially dangerous situations if they occur. Many people (including myself) have taken the opportunity to study and train in the martial arts even further on their travels, and that can only ever be a good thing.

But if you don’t have the commitment to study the martial arts long term, to be perfectly frank a few classes won’t help you all that much. You would be much better spending that time doing research on the countries you are going to and ensuring you have taken basic safety precautions in other ways, because you won’t develop the physical skills needed to defend yourself if necessary and you certainly won’t have developed the right mindset.

Learning self defence isn’t about pounding a guy bigger than you or learning how to ‘kick ass’. It is not a way to empower feminist ideologies of ‘beating aggressive men’, nor is it a way to ensure your confidence to ‘win any fight’.

I have heard all of these and many more besides as stated reasons to want to learn self defence before travelling. That is not what the martial arts are about.

If you see it that way and only take enough time to learn a few techniques in a couple of self defence classes at your local gym a month before your gap year, then they simply will not benefit you when you start travelling.

Don’t get me wrong, I have seen the confidence boost people get after even just a couple of classes, and if that negates the fear of travel enough to push you out of your comfort zone and get you going then that is a good thing. It is an amazing thing in fact. But this alone is not enough to justify the minimal one ‘mandatory lesson’ people tend to think will turn them into an instant black belt.

It won’t. Far from it.

If the worst does happen and you find yourself in a situation where you need to defend yourself, you simply won’t remember those techniques when the adrenaline is pumping in a real situation. In a worst case scenario it may even give you a false sense of confidence and bravado which can get you in more trouble.

So no, in this respect you shouldn’t take self defence classes before your gap year.

If you want to learn how to defend yourself do it properly and train long term,  choose a martial art that suits you and stick with it. You’ll find – as I did – that it will not only give you the tools to defend yourself if needed, but also an innate self confidence, philosophy and personal self esteem that will give you the courage, determination and fearless tenacity to travel anywhere in the world independently and on your own terms.

Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.

Basic Travel Safety Advice.

Gap Year Safety: The Ultimate Guide For Safely Travelling The World For Sale Now!

How To Lose Weight, Get Fit And Travel The World At The Same Time.

How To Stay Fit And Healthy On Your Gap Year.

Solo Female Backpacker Safety Tips.

Solo MALE Backpacker Safety Tips.

Quick And Easy Tips On How To Exercise On Your Gap Year.


Michael Huxley is a published author, professional adventurer and founder of the travel website, Bemused Backpacker. He has spent the last twenty years travelling to over 100 countries on almost every continent, slowly building Bemused Backpacker into a successful business after leaving a former career in emergency nursing and travel medicine, and continues to travel the world on numerous adventures every year.

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12 comments on “Should You Learn Self Defence Before Your Gap Year?
  1. Sarah says:

    I was genuinely thinking of taking up a few classes for this exact reason. My local gym has a kickboxing class and before I go on my gap year I wanted to learn a few moves in case I needed to defend myself. Do you really not think it is worth it?

    • Learning any martial art is always a good thing, but if you really want to get to the point where you are able to use that knowledge effectively in a life or death situation then a few classes won’t cut it, you have to train consistently. By all means start the class, but keep it going over the long term (and even continue to train when you travel) 🙂

  2. Dan says:

    I totally agree, for any training to be effective and useful, it has to be done repetitively over a long period of time. You definitely can’t just take a class or two and expect to be able to handle yourself.

  3. Aubrey says:

    Very interesting article, I have honestly thought about taking up a few classes and this has given me a lot of food for thought, thank you.

  4. Laura Fitzpatrick says:

    You are awesome! I knew you looked as if you could handle yourself but I had no idea you were such a badass!

  5. Marie says:

    This has genuinely got me thinking about doing some training myself, properly of course!

  6. theninjagypsy says:

    I 100% agree with this article! As a long-term martial artist (10 years down and a lifetime left to go), it is plain to see how important martial arts are for not only your physical safety but for all the other virtues and skills that it teaches you along the way. I am always a supporter of people starting to learn martial arts, but it is something that you need to stick with or it won’t stick with you. Props to you for an excellent and honest article!

    • Exactly, I think self defence is so important but it can also be a case of a tiny bit of knowledge can be dangerous if all people take is one or two classes, and thank you I’m glad you enjoyed it!

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Hi, I'm Michael! I'm a former nurse turned published author and world travelling professional adventurer! I have spent over twenty years travelling over 100 countries and I want to inspire you to do the same! Want to know more about me? Just click here!

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