From time to time, I receive correspondence from readers who are seeking advice, be it recommendations for a specific destination or tips on staying safe and saving money on the road. I’ve decided to start posting my responses to the most popular questions in the hope that they will be useful to anyone relatively new to the backpacking scene who is looking for some reassurance.
This first question is one I remember researching extensively before my solo trip to South America. These are my top tips:
‘How do I stay safe while backpacking?’
There are countries, cities and neighbourhoods where you have to be particularly careful, but it’s best to remain extra vigilant the whole time you’re travelling. I always carry a shoulder bag with me on buses and never put it in the overhead compartments. In South America, I even wore it when I slept on night buses, and usually covered it with a blanket too.
Don’t let your guard down in seemingly secure places
Also wear your bag at dinner in the evenings. Never put it on the floor, not even if it’s wedged between your feet. I had my bag stolen from under a table in Cali. It was the one and only time I had felt secure enough in the company of a large group of friends to let my guard down.
It’s always a good idea to keep your valuables in hostel/hotel lockers, especially your passport. If you go out at night, just take some cash and nothing else if you can help it. I use a cheap camera on nights out so I wouldn’t be too upset if I lost it. Another handy tip is to wear a thin hair tie as a bracelet and attach your locker key to it. Not only does this mean you always have easy access to your key, but you also avoid having to break into your own locker should your bag go missing (I am speaking from personal experience here!).
Back up your photos
Ok, so this won’t keep you safer, but it is a topic that arises time and again when I hear stories about people losing their luggage or having it stolen. Material items can be replaced, but you will never be able to replicate your photographs. They are the most valuable and personal possession you carry with you as you travel and not backing them up is the most common regret of anyone who is unlucky enough to be mugged. I carry a netbook when I’m backpacking and I transfer photos from my camera on a daily basis. I also back up my computer files onto a portable hard drive and upload my photos to an FTP site for safe keeping.
Conceal your wealth
When you’re out during the day, don’t flash your cash, and put your camera back in your bag once you’ve taken a photo. Don’t wear jewellery or clothes that will make you stand out as a ‘rich tourist’. If you can help it, try to be subtle about reading your map or guidebook. The more confident you look and the more you fit in, the less of a target you will be.
Use secret compartments and spare wallets and phones
There are some ingenious designs for travellers’ clothes on the market, including unbranded padded camera bags that don’t scream ‘I have an expensive SLR slung over my shoulder’ and scarves and underwear with zip-up pockets. Some people carry a spare wallet and cheap phone in case they get held up by a mugger. If you hand them something and look like you’re cooperating, they’re unlikely to suspect you’re concealing your real valuables.
Check official advice
Check your government’s website for information on risky areas. It will list both natural disasters and areas of unrest that are best avoided. It will also update this information regularly and be far more reliable than a 5-year old news story or blog post. If you can’t avoid a dodgy area, read up on how to keep the odds of staying safe in your favour. For example, when I was in Colombia, the bus journey between Cali and Quito was known to be a common target for hijackers. I was too tight to buy a plane ticket and avoid it all together, but I did make sure I went with a reputable company and was only on the road during daylight hours. These were tips I got from travel forums, locals and hostel managers.
Take registered cabs
Take the time to check that any cab you get into is registered. Call a listed number to book one or have your hostel do it rather than flagging one in the street. If you do have to flag one, avoid those with darkened windows and ask to see the driver’s license before you get in. Drivers in foreign countries can be reckless so, if a functional seat belt actually exists, use it!!
Never do drugs
You can never be certain of the ingredients in recreational substances, and taking them is always risky to your health and potentially lethal. If you use overseas, it is more likely that your supplier is a complete stranger who you have no basis for trusting. More importantly, most drugs are illegal in most countries and the penalty for getting caught can be far more harsh than most people realise. Read Marching Powder (about a Bolivian prison) or Hotel K (a prison in Indonesia) and you will understand why it’s just not worth the risk.
Drink in moderation
Alcohol might seem like a safe alternative, but you should be aware of the potential consequences of overdoing it. If you’re in a place with a high crime rate, you need to be alert. Even if you’re convinced your environment is safe, you should remember that accidents and the loss of belongings are not covered by insurance companies if you were under the influence when the incident happened.
Practice safe sex
This advice should stick whether you’re at home or abroad, but it’s even more pertinent if you’re in a region where specific sexually transmitted diseases are endemic. Use a trusted brand of condoms and remember that seeking medical advice overseas may be significantly more difficult than in your home town. If you’ve been travelling for an extended period of time overseas and have been sexually active, it’s a good idea to have a routine check up when you return. Be aware that it takes a few weeks for some infections to be detectable, so check with your nurse whether the ‘all clear’ really does mean you’re clear.
Get your jabs
The idea of being jabbed with a needle is unappealing to most of us, but when compared with full-blown hepatitis, it really is a small price to pay. Research your destination and don’t leave it to chance. Yes, some preventative medications are expensive, but they are a necessary evil of travelling, much like insurance. If you’re required to take pills, for example for malaria, make sure you understand the dosages and don’t be complacent.
Buy travel insurance
It’s time consuming trying to find a policy and, if you’ve travelled enough without incident, you might even start to resent all of the money you’ve seemingly wasted on it. Again, it’s not worth the gamble. Medical bills can skyrocket if you need to be treated overseas, and if your belongings are lost or taken, you need to be confident that they’re replaceable. If you plan on taking part in any adventure sports, make sure they’re covered too.
Use travel money cards
Travel money cards work just like a regular debit card, except that you top them up by transfering funds from your actual account. If they are lost, your bank account details cannot be traced. They have the added benefit of generally charging much lower conversion rates and withdrawal fees.
Select your ATM wisely
When withdrawing money, choose an ATM that’s closest to your accommodation, then rush back there and store the bulk of that money in a safe place. When you’re on the move, distribute your cash throughout your bags’ compartments and on your person and, if you carry a locker key, use it on your backpack if you have to shove it in a bus compartment you can’t keep an eye on. Also remember to cover your pin and to check for anything unusual about the card slot. It is possible for someone to clone your details without stealing your card, so if your bank reports unusual activity, don’t tell them they’re being paranoid.
Ask locals for advice
Locals or expats are the people who can tell you the most timely and specific safety advice. When you arrive in a new destination, ask your hostel about places to avoid and safety measures they recommend. Muggers often have specific tricks they’ve developed to distract your attention while they take your belongings. Quite often, a specific trick will be associated more commonly with a specific area. These may include:
- flicking or spilling something on you and then attempting to help you clean it up, while their friend picks your pockets
- posing as a police man and asking to search your bags or asking you to get in a vehicle
- slipping sedatives into your food/drink (never accept drinks from, or share food with, strangers)
Your guide book will probably list some of these schemes, but ask at your accommodation too.
While it’s important to stay aware of these safety issues, they will become second nature with practice. Remember that crime occurs all over the world and sporadic stories of upsetting incidents overseas shouldn’t put you off travelling. Experiencing other cultures and environments is one of life’s greatest adventures.