As I began to jot down notes for this particular entry, I realized that most of my advice would contradict other advice I’ve given in the past. The adventurous aspects of travel are often at odds with keeping yourself safe.
The underlying theme of this topic is risk management. It’s not about playing it safe or recklessly seeking out adventure. It’s about toeing the delicate line between those two extremes. You’re going to have to make judgment calls, and sometimes you’ll make the wrong one. That’s okay. Mistakes are okay. What we’re talking about here is minimizing those mistakes and getting the most out of your experience.
Protection from Assailants
Carry a sidearm – preferably a knife or blunt instrument. Avoid firearms as they too often result in fatal accidents. Deter and defend, first. Being threatened or robbed is no justification for taking a life. Use deadly force only as a last resort if and when your life is in imminent danger.
- Consider learning a self-defense discipline. Seek out martial arts that emphasize defense over offense, such Aikido, Jujutsu, Muay Thai, or Krav Maga.
- Keep a low profile. Yes, you should endeavor to meet people and make new friends on the road. But try to avoid activities that attract the wrong kind of attention. Surround yourself with the right kind of people, which leads to the next tip–
- Trust your instincts. Admittedly, some people are better judges of character than others. On the road, you’ll need to pay extra close attention to that voice in the back of your head that tells you someone is untrustworthy. You don’t want to trust nobody, but you also don’t want to trust everybody.
- Don’t dress or behave like a tourist. You will attract thieves and con artists if you do. Avoid typical tourist garb, like polo shirts and khakis. Avoid gaudy accessories like sunglasses, brim hats, fanny packs, and large cameras. Be discrete when taking photographs or checking for directions.
Health and Medical Tips
Consult a travel health professional to discuss any medical conditions you have that need to be specially addressed while on the road. If you have specialized equipment, medications, or other needs, you’ll need to have contingencies for dealing with those away from the comfort of your home. Medical conditions shouldn’t stop you from traveling, but you need to give them thought.
Discuss your travel plans in detail. Your doctor may think of things you didn’t think of. Maybe you’re planning to hike in a region full of pollen that you’re allergic to. Maybe climbing a mountain is going to trigger your asthma. Or maybe there are some exotic STDs you need to be aware of in Amsterdam’s Red Light District. Don’t be ashamed – be honest. Tell your doctor everything, or else they can’t help you.
Refill prescriptions before you leave and make sure you have enough to cover the length of your trip plus a buffer in case you are delayed.
If traveling abroad, determine if you need any special vaccinations. You can get basic information directly from the CDC or the State Department. But really, you should get a personalized and comprehensive evaluation from a health care professional, as your needs may differ from the needs of a John Doe. Check out this podcast for more.
As much as I despise the insurance industry, I am compelled to share some advice on this topic. Many health insurance policies won’t do you any good if you stray too far from home. Discuss your travel plans with your insurance providers to determine what your options (and restrictions) are in the event you are injured or become ill on the road.
You may need to obtain traveler’s insurance. I can’t speak expertly on it as I’ve never bought it, much less used it. But World Nomads has been highly recommended by a number of fellow travelers. Travel insurance can cover stolen items, lost luggage, reimburse deposits for canceled trips, cover emergency medical expenses and transportation, and more.
Share your travel plans with a trusted friend or relative. Provide them with your destinations and route, along with copies of any hotel or flight reservations you have. Include any other pertinent information that may assist them (and rescuers) find you in the event you disappear.
Highlight any portions of the trip that may be especially dangerous. Schedule regular check-ins, and instruct your confidant to alert authorities if you fail to check-in after a certain amount of time. If something happens to you, make sure they know who else to notify, and have contingencies in place to deal with children, pets, or other responsibilities that need immediate attention.
Keep emergency contact information and other critical information on you at all times. Ideally, print this information on paper so rescuers can easily retrieve it if you are incapacitated.
If travelling abroad, register for the U.S. State Department’s free Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). You will receive travel alerts and advisories. It also helps consular officials keep track of its citizens in a foreign country in case you need to be evacuated.
Emergency Slush Funds
Keep a minimum amount of cash hidden on you or in your vehicle. Do this in case your bank accounts are frozen. Carry enough cash to get yourself back home.
Obeying (and Disobeying) Laws
When traveling abroad, beware that you are subject of the laws of the country you are visiting. Contrary to popular belief, American citizens are not entitled to special treatment nor exempt from obeying foreign laws.
While we’re on this subject… do not, do not, DO NOT play the “I’m an American!!” card overseas as if that makes you special. For one thing, you’re going to be disappointed to find out how seldom that actually works out in your favor. But at the very least, you’re embarrassing the shit out of the rest of us. You are not special because you are an American. You are not entitled. We are global citizens and guests of our host country.
If you break a law – such as trespassing or petty theft – in furtherance of the minimalist nomadism that I advocate here, keep in mind that you’re doing so at your own risk. I’m not judging you. I’m merely pointing out that a crime is a crime, regardless of your reasons for committing it. Be prepared to deal with the consequences.
Know Your Limits, But Push Them Gradually
If you’re overweight, asthmatic, or have injured ankles, it might not be the best idea to scramble up a mountain by yourself. If you’re not especially fast, strong, or skilled at self-defense, it might not be wise to walk alone down a city alley in the middle of the night.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever climb a mountain or explore a city’s nooks and crannies. But exercise common-sense precautions. Take classes for rock climbing. Take self-defense classes. Travel with a group of friends who will have your back.
You can and should step outside of your comfort zone. Just don’t bite off more than you can chew by throwing yourself into a situation that you are hopelessly unprepared for.
Travel Isn’t Nearly as Scary as Portrayed
Hostels are not traps for human trafficking and torture porn. Hitchhikers are not deranged, homicidal maniacs. Stories about uneventful road trips don’t make the evening news and they don’t perform well at the box office, either. Only stories full of adventure and danger get turned into movie scripts. Understand that most of your fears about travel come from ignorance and sensationalized media.
But that doesn’t mean that travel is completely safe. There are dangers on the road. Exercise reasonable precautions, manage your risks wisely, and trust your instincts.
Have I missed anything? What precautions do you take to keep yourself safe? Do you have questions? Do none of these solutions work for you because of specific circumstances that I haven’t considered? Whatever you’re thinking – I would love your feedback! Help me make this Road Trip Survival Guide the best it can be.