At an altitude of 3,300 meters, while hiking along the crater of Cuicocha Lake in Imbabura (Ecuador), I came to a sudden stop. The realization that I was hiking by myself in this remote terrain, with not another person around for miles – and not a care in the world – had just dawned on me.
The thing about traveling alone is, you can’t truly open yourself up to adventures if you’re constantly worried about your safety. And without a fellow traveller to rely on, you have to work a tad bit harder to curb that nagging worry in your head.
Based on sticky situations, stupid mistakes and plenty of WTF moments on my solo travels in the past 4 years, these are my practical tips for staying safe on the road:
Get a local SIM card with data
I usually pick up a local SIM card to get internet access if I’m staying longer than a week in a place. But it wasn’t till my iPhone (temporarily) stopped working on my first day in Quito, that I realized how important a local SIM card is from a safety perspective. Wherever in the world I am, I make sure I have emergency numbers to call a taxi, a local friend I’ve made along the way, the police or the hospital. With Google Maps, I can quickly navigate my lost self from a shady area to a safe place. With Google Translate, I can quickly find the right words to shoo someone away or ask for help.
Unless you’re in a developed country like Germany or Canada where data is too expensive and free Wifi hotspots too common, invest in a local SIM card.
Stay with a reviewed local host
Common wisdom is to stay in a hostel where you can meet fellow travellers. But personally, when I travel to a new country, I’m curious to experience the way its locals live. By choosing a homestay or family-run B&B, I not only get to experience the local way of life, but also befriend locals who can keep an eye out for me. Take my hike along Cuicocha Lake for instance – if I didn’t show up home by late evening, I’m sure my host family would form a search brigade to look for me. Would a hostel / hotel care?
The important part is to find the right kind of hosts, and reviews by past travellers make that easy. On websites like Booking.com and Airbnb, only people who have booked the accommodation are allowed to review it. On Tripadvisor, the trick is to check that a reviewer has reviewed multiple destinations to ensure credibility. For offbeat places that are not listed on these websites, I turn to blogs and forums, and well, my own gut instinct.
When you travel alone, leave your genuine impressions in a review too; let our tribe grow!
Have easy access to a weapon, preferably a taser
I graduated from a pepper spray to an electric taser a couple of years ago, but that one instance – during a mugging in Costa Rica – when I really should have used it, I didn’t have it on me.
Lesson learnt: A safety weapon works only if you have easy access to it.
Now, if I find myself walking alone, down a lonely road in an unknown place or in a city deemed really unsafe, I hang on to my taser, which doubles as a flashlight. I’ve read that it’s capable of reducing a broad built man to the ground with cramps, which should give me ample time to run. But more than that, it gives me the peace of mind to navigate the world on my own, without feeling completely helpless about my own safety.
I know, I know; I’m all for freedom of wearing what you like. But let’s face it. If you’re wearing a short dress or tight shorts in a conservative part of the world, you’re calling for trouble. Like if you’re showing cleavage walking on the crowded streets of an Indian city.
I’m not much of a dresser, but when I find myself alone in a remote part of the developing world, I dress particularly shabbily – think hair untidily tied up, geeky spectacles, baggy pants, the likes. My reason is simple – I’m not there to attract attention or earn compliments, I’m there to learn about the local way of life or soak in the natural splendour.
Discourage unwanted flirtatious behavior
I’ve met enough men – young, old, married, whatever – along the way, who assume that I’m just longing for male company. It used to anger me earlier, but the more I observe and talk to them, the more I realize that most of them are not aggressive or threatening; they genuinely think they’re doing the right thing by offering their compliments or company.
Take the Dominican Republic for instance. I was staying in the remote Valle Nuevo National Park, and the brother of my sweet caretaker had offered to show me the trail to the hike through the forest. We got into a fun chat about life in the forest and the villages nearby, and then out of nowhere, he offered to keep me cozy in my hut when it got cold at night. UGH. I immediately changed the topic, then stopped talking altogether and pretended to focus on my camera instead. Once we got home, I refused to acknowledge his presence and told his sister I’d rather do the other hikes alone – which turned out to be far more fun anyway.
My approach has been to shun unwanted flirtatious behavior as soon as it begins – because I’d rather not find out where it’s going to lead, and well, it can ruin my aura of safety.
I’d love to hear a solo male traveller’s perspective on this though…
Get creative; cook up a story
After the mugging incident in Costa Rica shook my faith in the world, I decided to change my strategy of interaction with strangers who didn’t give me a great vibe from the start. My mission is to learn their stories, but I don’t necessarily have to share mine unless I really want to. I don’t have to tell them I’m traveling alone, or that I’ve been on the road for a long time – because the general assumptions are that I’m in need of male company and I’m rich!
I’ve cooked up an uncle in the police, a brother who is a boxing champion, my training in martial arts and my work as a investigative journalist. Who would’ve thought that the road can make you the most creative when you are at your most vulnerable? 😉
Keep money and bank cards in the front pocket of your jeans
The once ubiquitous money belts have been replaced by safe bags that can’t be broken into. But my simple and so far foolproof way to keep my money and cards safe is to simply slip them into the front pocket of my jeans. If I’m on a crowded train or walking through a shady area, I casually slip my hand into the pocket. I keep some backup money and cards, both in my wallet and in my rucksack, but chances of those getting stolen are far higher.
Keep atleast one person regularly informed about your plans
When I’m about to do something crazy – like board an un-manned cable car to cross over a deep gorge (hello Ecuador!) – I always wonder how long it would take for someone to trace me if I disappear. Although I keep my parents in the loop, I can’t tell them everything for fear of worrying them sick. But I do keep a more chilled out friend informed of my whereabouts, and discuss anything that feels suspicious or not right – it’s just my way of leaving a trail behind, you know, just incase something goes wrong that I can’t fix on my own.
Speak to locals
No one knows a place better than the people who live there. Speak to locals wherever you are – your host, your co-passenger on a bus, the lady who runs the cafe, the old man lounging in the warm sun.
Even as an introvert, these serendipitous conversations have led me to some fascinating stories and places, and nullified my fears of a place being too unsafe to navigate alone. In fact, time and again, near strangers from all over the world – including Jordan, Ecuador, Honduras and India – have offered me their numbers to contact them if I needed anything during my travels in their country.
Fear breeds fear: Surround yourself with positive influences
I can’t emphasise this enough. Safety is as much a state of mind as it is our circumstances, and while we can’t entirely control the latter, we can largely control the former. It’s why I choose to opt out of the constant fear mongering created by the media, and surround myself with people who push boundaries and seek adventures – even if virtually. And atleast for me, yoga is a great way to release stress and negativity.
I remember my first night in Baños in Ecuador. After my bus got massively delayed, I arrived late at night in the pouring rain and decided to treat myself to a comforting meal in a nice cafe. While waiting for it, I overheard the people on the next table talking about two Argentinian backpackers who were shockingly killed in a beach town in Ecuador. As alarm bells began ringing in my head, I decided to tune the conversation out and started browsing Instagram for photos and stories of Baños. Wanderlust quickly quietened the bells.
I’m not saying that tuning out the bad things in the world will make them go away. I’m saying that living in fear is no way to live, or travel.
How do you stay safe when you travel alone?
Insightful safety tips for solo female travellers from around the web:
Adventurous Kate: Top 10 Travel Safety Tips for Women
Breathe Dream Go: Q&A About Female Solo Travel in India
Be My Travel Muse: 31 Safety Tips for Solo Female Travelers from the Experts
Psst… if you find any good post on safety tips for solo male travellers, let me know!