Safety First!

Better Safe Than Sorry. Minimize Your Risk

We can all minimize risk by not doing anything especially dangerous or out of the ordinary when traveling. Just as no one goes SCUBA diving on a stormy day or canoeing down a river the day after a big rainstorm, safety is about managing risk and not being an easy target. This list begins with items not to do, and finishes with things to do. Some may be obvious, but it’s always good to have a reminder and perhaps one of the tips will be new to you.

 

NOT SAFE. Avoid these. They’re the common sense things we would recommend to our little sisters

#1 Getting buzzed, drunk, or high when alone in public

When I’m at a bar and see someone behaving badly, the first thing I think is ‘what a fool’. Then, I wonder where their friends are. Friends save you when you’re not doing a good job of keeping yourself safe. Rely on them. Make new friends quickly, if you’re traveling solo. Just don’t do it alone, as situations are more likely to progress out of your control, leading to the next tip.

#2 Unsafe sex

Listen to your parents or sex-ed teacher. Don’t go anywhere alone with someone you don’t know well and don’t have unprotected sex. It’s perfectly likely that your partner will behave exactly how you’d like them to, but since you never know… Better safe than sorry! And, you’ll much more likely be taken advantage of if you’re buzzed, drunk, or high, since bad people are seeking an easy target.

#3 Visiting unpopulated places alone

Any solo traveler has likely done this, but if you’re new to solo traveling I’d recommend you avoid it. Anything can happen, like twisting an ankle, running low on water, or just suddenly becoming very uncomfortable being so far from anyone else. You’re less likely meet a scary person than to just become scared from being alone when suddenly a cold wind comes up, the clouds move in, and you realize you left your rain jacket back in your room.

#4 Leaving your property near an open window/door of a ‘safe’ place

In Laos a newlywed couple took an afternoon nap in their room and left their window open, since it had bars. It felt perfectly safe, but it simply didn’t occur to them that their passports on the bedside table were within reach of the window. They awoke to find their passports gone, as someone had reached through the bars and grabbed them. Lesson learned!

#5 Reading a map or guidebook while walking on the street

It’s great being a tourist, but anyone reading on the street stands out as a target who is unfamiliar with the area, and who is also not paying full attention to their immediate surroundings. Step out of plain view and step into a shop or cafe until you know where you’re heading. Of the 100 people on the street watching you be a tourist, it only takes 1 to ruin your day by pickpocketing you.

#6 Camping alone

Yes, it’s a cheap and easy way to travel. I’ve camped alone and never had any problems, but I wouldn’t recommend it to a little sister or a big brother. It’s risky, since obviously you’re sleeping and not aware of your surroundings, since you’ll be sleeping. Also, keep in mind that even if you’re 2 people, bad people can tie up one of you and harm the other. If you really need to know the scary story I heard, let me know. Camping in a deserted place near a tourist location, like a beach, is not the way to go… criminals are waiting for exactly that situation.

 

SAFETY FIRST. Be safe and follow these tips

#7 Use intuition, gut feelings, comfort level

If something doesn’t ‘feel right’ just leave. It’s a rare feeling when something doesn’t ‘feel right’, and no one is going to question you. Don’t feel badly if you’re not 100% polite about leaving– you’re allowed to leave without providing any explanation or telling a lie, since your safety depends upon it. Do not question your ‘bad’ or ‘uncomfortable’ feeling. It’s as simple as: Better safe than sorry. I cannot overemphasize the importance of this tip. I have had friends and acquaintances, both men and women, share stories that ended with “I knew it felt wrong, and I should have …” The blank space ends with ‘left earlier’, ‘yelled for help’, ‘gone into the supermarket and gotten help’.

#8 Follow advice given by trusted people, even if you don’t like it

Hotel managers, shop owners, expats. They want to take care of their visitors and make sure we love a place as much as they do. And, they know the place better than we do. It’s like eating apples– it’s healthy for us to follow their advice. Unfortunately, this is the resource that travelers use the least, instead relying on guidebooks and internet forums that are outdated or not fully informed. Guidebooks authors pass through a place, whereas trusted locals know who got pickpocketed on which street corner yesterday.

#9 Ask for assistance

As travelers, most others realize we are in unfamiliar territory, and are often happy to help. Try to be a bit informed, and then ask away. Locals usually don’t know good hostels or hotels, but can certainly tell you their favorite meeting places (parks, bars, etc) and restaurants. Or, if you want to hike alone, ask someone. They’ll know the safer and more heavily traveled trails. And, they’ll remind you of local holidays when there are more drunk people in public places, or school holidays when normally populated areas might be less populated, such as trails between villages. Also, if you want to go somewhere, even if just 2 blocks away, you can always ask if someone will walk with you.

#10 Walking

I’m often walking alone, so on quiet streets and in the evening I make it a point to walk near women or families as much as possible. These are ‘safe’ people when on quiet streets and after dark, so I nod or say hello to a woman and walk a few paces behind her. If she has kids with her, she might initially keep her eye on me to make sure I’m not harmful. However in my experience she always understands that I’m just trying to keep safe, too. I wave and smile at the kids, if they look at me and just be super friendly.

If someone is following too closely and I feel uncomfortable stepping into a store or hotel can get rid of them. In a neighborhood walk to the front door of a home, and hopefully the person bothering will leave. If necessary, speak in a loud voice or yell at the person bothering you, even if not in the local language. Your voice communicates the unsafe situation, and other people will watch you to see what happens next. The person bothering you will likely leave, now that you’ve attracted attention from other people.

#11 Keep cash and valuable items concealed

Items of value should now be visible or easily accessible to the average pickpocket or mugger. Keep those items in the front pockets of your pants or an innocuous backpack. Avoid carrying very much whenever possible. Just like you wouldn’t carry a laptop bag at home, if you don’t want everyone to know you’re carrying a laptop, don’t carry it when traveling.

#12 Maintain excellent posture & always be alert

Maybe your parents or teachers told you to stand up straight when you were younger. Traveling is a great time to get in the habit of always standing up straight, especially when you’re tired or walking alone. Good posture indicates that you’re strong, alert, and confident. Each of these characteristics is important, so that any bad person who sees you is more likely to seek out an easier target. Other ways to show alertness are

  • Look around. Don’t only look straight ahead or at the ground. You can look around and behind, showing that you are aware of who else is around you. Notice families, so you can stay near them. Notice suspicious people, both men and women, regardless of how they’re dressed. Many pickpockets dress as middle-class people to better blend in with their surroundings.
  • Move confidently forward. Do not hesitate and appear dazed, confused, or lost. If you aren’t sure that you’re headed in the correct direction, step inside a shop or other business and ask for assistance with directions.

Many of these safety tips are exactly the same both at home and when traveling. When traveling many people are on vacation and feel safe and free. However, everyone should take the same precautions as when at home, since no place on earth is free from criminals. 

I’ve met both men and women victimized by muggers, pickpockets, and rapists, so I take safety seriously. I recommend you also take it very seriously. Even when taking all precautions, crime can still happen, but is much less likely, since you won’t be the ‘lowest hanging fruit’. Don’t forget common sense, and seek advice from a guidebook or by speaking with a local person. Take care of yourself– your friends and family will be happier for it.

Other Resources

Is there an important safety tip that doesn’t appear above?  Please share!