5 Golden Rules for Staying Safe when you’re Backpacking

Shocking – that’s the only way to describe this viral GoPro of Canadian Alex Hennessy being robbed at gun-point in Buenos Aires.

It got me thinking about travel safety tips in general, and what I’d tell anyone about to set off on their first backpacking trip. First off: the world is not a dangerous, unkind place, and the benefits of going somewhere new far outweigh the risks. But that doesn’t mean you should leave your common sense at home – here are my five tried ‘n’ tested tips for avoiding a whole lotta trouble while travelling the world…

1. Actually do your research

Before you go to a new place, find out which neighbourhoods are safe and which are known to be sketchy. Always book your hostel in advance for the first night, and find somewhere you can arrive at any time, day or night, that you wouldn’t be fearful rocking up to with a giant backpack. Keep this local knowledge in mind as you explore the destination, and always avoid areas that are known to be flat-out dangerous.

2. Stay alert

Travel is distracting. You can become so overwhelmed with the new things you’re seeing and doing, the excitement pushes other concerns to the back of your mind. In Madrid, I had a favourite leather bag stolen from the ground beside my feet – because my attention was on the tapas I was eating for the first time, my boyfriend and the charming guy trying to sell us roses (…who probably swiped my bag).

Travel safety tips for backpackers

Keep these travel safety tips in mind to build your alertness while travelling:

  • When you get up from a table, always look back to check you haven’t left anything.
  • Ask yourself “can I see or feel the belongings I have with me right now?” If the answer’s no, you’re not being vigilant enough. For example, keep your phone in your front pocket (never out on the table), your bag on your knees in a restaurant, or slung across your body when you’re walking (if a shoulder bag. Some people also keep their backpacks on their front to avoid pickpockets, but I personally feel this is a move akin to wearing an LED on your head saying “rob me, I’m new here!”).
  • Whether you’re sightseeing by day or out drinking after dark, get used to doing an area sweep – this means taking a moment to gauge who’s around and what the atmosphere’s like, and being ready to act on what you see. So if that next table of guys at the bar are staring too much or giving off a weird vibe, move away – don’t leave the evening to chance, your gut’s probably right.
  • Ask yourself before you leave the hostel: “am I going to stick out like a sore thumb out there?” If the answer’s yes, then think about what you can do to change things up. Not blending in can make you a vulnerable target, because you’re sending off signals that you don’t know the area at all. For women, this might mean covering up arms and legs; for men with blonde hair who feel like it makes them stand out, wearing a hat.

3. Don’t carry your money all together

In my wallet right now there are two credit cards, two debit cards and some cash. If I was pick-pocketed, it would be a headache to call the banks to cancel cards – but that’s all. If I was out of the country, however, the first step of even getting to a phone I could use might be a difficulty.

When you travel, carry your money in the opposite way to how you do it at home. Only take the cash you need out, plus one card for emergencies, and keep the rest in your hostel locker.

Don't keep your money all in one place while travelling the world

This means a) you avoid having to pay by peeling notes off a giant stack and b) if you’re robbed, you only lose a bit of money – not everything. Take at least two cards: a main account and a back-up, in case you lose the first.

4. Don’t flash the cash

This is true of your own backyard, too, but it’s amplified when you travel (if you have the ability to travel at all, it’s likely you’re financially better-off than many locals you’ll meet, depending where you go). Talking loudly on your iPhone in the street or piling on expensive watches and jewelry are obvious no-nos: they represent a lot of money to someone more desperate than you, who might be willing to do whatever it takes to get them.

Being discreet is one of the easiest travel safety tips to start using

It’s best to take only what you need travelling, and nothing of any financial or emotional value – then you’re in no danger of losing anything you care for. Get a cheap phone, bring old clothes and leave your grandmother’s heirloom ring in its box at home.

5. Have a back-up plan

Yep, this means doing all that boring pre-trip admin that just might save your bacon. Stuff like…

  • Getting a travel insurance plan that covers all you mean to do (scuba diving, bungee jumping… wingsuit diving?)
  • Scanning copies of your passport, the fronts and backs of debit and credit cards and any other important documents like visas. Keep one set of scans in your backpack, and another in your pocket – if you lose anything, you can take the copy to your embassy.
  • Splitting any medication you need between your backpack, bag and pocket. That way, if you lose one, you still have some of your supply left.
 It's important to always have a backup plan while on the road

This attitude shouldn’t stop once you leave your front door, either. Keep asking yourself “what’s my plan B,” at junctures throughout your trip. For example “if there’s a transport strike on the day I arrive at the airport, what’s my plan B for getting to my hostel?”

This means you’ll get in the habit of preparing for problems rather than being blindsided by them, understanding your options and always taking ownership of your actions – a sure-fire way to ultimately stay safe on the road.

Have you got any other travel safety tips you would share with new backpackers? Tell us in the comments…

Thanks to Juris_louwesDonkeyHotey, Laura Mason, Sascha Kohlmannand FAEP for the images off Flickr. Please note, all images were held under the Creative Commons licence at the time of posting.

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