The internet has become a platform for the world to vicariously enjoy the stories of nomads, backpackers, adventure-seekers, and cultural explorers. Access to information has opened doors for many people and still there are many who aren’t ready (yet) to take the leap because of safety concerns, especially for women.
I’ve learned as a (mostly) lone, female, traveller, with a limited budget (sometimes under US$10 a day) that you can create safety for yourself. This is a list for curious people who like to walk around local areas in developing countries but is useful everywhere, even at home. These basic principles give me confidence to go to India alone, do solo multi-day walking and cycling trips where I camp in the open, and take public transportation with no announcements and signs. Most importantly, these habits help me enjoy, or at least learn from, life on the road.
I’m going to be blunt: being (read as) female, you can be a potential target no matter what you do. Accept that, but don’t let it scare you. In the end, most people are genuine, generous, and happy to help!
- Choose female hosts and/or well-rated ones. I highly encourage Couchsurfing even for first-time travellers, and AirBnB as a paid alternative. You can custom search your hosts based on gender, age, ratings, and other safety filters. It is far too difficult for someone to fake 25+ positive reviews (all those 25+ reviewers probably have extensive profiles and reviews themselves too!). The benefits include free accommodation, an informal local guide or advisor, insights into what living somewhere is really like, and someone who understands travelling and cultural exchange as well.
- Be as independent as you can. The less you have to rely on people and the more you know, the fewer risks you are exposing yourself to. Of course, trust your gut and many people are trustworthy and happy to help. Ask around when you need help, just be as informed beforehand as possible. The goal of preparation is so that you can travel on your own terms, rather than have your trip dictated by others (i.e. drivers, the guide you paid to take you back to your hostel, the free map advertisements suggesting restaurants).
- Be unattractive. Bring what is practical (i.e. has many pockets), unassuming (i.e. plain, dark colours), and even downright unflattering. Depending on where you are, wear a shirt with sleeves and trousers. Whether you want to or not, most of the world reads short shorts, tank-tops, and exposed bra-straps as sexual promiscuity and ‘invitations’. You likely will be attracting attention as the foreigner, and you don’t need to be attracting more.
- Learn some key words and phrases. This is out of cultural politeness, and also practical for getting around. ‘Hello’, ‘thank you’, ‘good-bye’, ‘please’, ‘where’, ‘how much’ are good starts. If you happen to be somewhere where your facial features could be mistaken for a local, a perfectly accented ‘hello’ and ‘thank-you’ can help you blend in.
- Watch out for groups of men (context specific). This sounds incorrect, but it needs to be said. The specific types I cross the street on are rowdy, aggressive, and/or drunk individuals, especially at night on a quiet street. One time, another lady and I were surrounded by a sober and initially unaggressive group in a busy marketplace that followed us with harassments when we ignored them (we went straight back to the hostel). Don’t recall being followed or threatened by a group of women or a mixed group. This obviously does not mean all types / groups of men are trouble.
- Keys are weapons and windows are exits. If your private-room door seems flimsy and you are staying in a sketchy area, you will sleep better knowing you have something sharp or heavy beside your bed. Keys are for poking eyes; a complimentary alarm clock, the lamp on the table, an empty bottle, and even your laptop are good options. Also, check the window both to see if it’s secure and something you can jump out of. However, whether in Europe, Nepal, Morocco, or India, I have never had problems in rooms or hostels.
- Safety in numbers. I encourage you to have a shared dorm in a hostel (i.e. 4-6 beds in one room). This is not only cheaper, but safer with other people around. It’s also a great way to make friends. You can often book women-only dorms, but mixed ones are just the same to me. Hostels often have lockers, so make sure you bring your own small lock for valuables. The other backpackers won’t want your backpack because all travellers carry about the same things: bare necessities!
- Follow people. I follow locals to street-side joints. I follow a safe-looking person when I notice I’m being followed. I follow people back to market areas when I’ve gotten lost. Tagging along close by to others basically means there will be an audience and potential help if there is danger; it is just a little added security that is probably enough to deter trouble.
- If in doubt, sit beside a woman. Sexist? Maybe, but a more comfortable choice if you are on an 8 hour bus ride!
- Trust your gut and err on the safe side. If something feels bad, just retrace your steps and get out as calmly as you can. Better safe than sorry.
- Refine your gut feeling. Reflect on a ‘bad’ situation after you get out. Was it really unsafe, or did you just feel uneasy because it was different? Everything might feel unsafe because a place is dusty, the roads are unpaved, the driving chaotic, and the buildings dimly lit. Those are often reflections of poverty, not your personal safety; instead, observe how people act, whether people stare (i.e. you are obvious, and should be careful), and whether local women are comfortable walking alone.
- What looks safe at home might not be there. Sometimes we don’t know when we are in a bad situation or unsafe area. If you have a local friend, for tips on which areas to avoid,what types of people to watch out for. I went around Mumbai mostly alone, where I took the auto, train, taxi, bus, and walked. I saw many rundown places and shacks that seemed fine, and most were, but some were notoriously violent areas.
- Walk (more) like a local. That means walking on the correct side of the road, and more in tune with those around you so you are not bumping into people or calling attention to yourself for being in the way.
- Act confident. Look like you know where you’re going even if you don’t; even if your heart is racing, remain expressionless and don’t change your pace; if totally lost, calmly find somewhere to sit or stand like you’re waiting for someone to take your time and figure out where you are.
- Don’t stare because people stare back. It is also a reflection in attitude; observing your surroundings is what you should be doing while travelling, but staring often reflects that you find something strange and out of place — in a place where you are the odd one out!
- Be prepared to glare back. If there are people staring at you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, glare back to show them you know they’re there. Of course, read the situation, and make sure it won’t escalate. Be firm, but not obnoxious.
- Map your washrooms. Better be prepared if you really need to go pee. Many interesting places may not have public washrooms. If you don’t like to squat, map out the city’s 5-star hotels and tourist-oriented restaurants. In big cities, global chains like McDonald’s, or large shopping malls, are good bets.
- Use street lamps, not flashlights. If there are no street lamps where you are, learn to wake up early and go home before sunset. In less-developed countries and rural areas, working street lamps are few and far between (sometimes there are none). Using a flashlight or grabbing a driver is not always a solution because shining the only light for miles makes you a target. If you are somewhere safe, stay overnight, and if you really want to go out, do so in (large) groups.
- Having company doesn’t make you ‘chicken’. I went to Taroko National Park in Taiwan because a lady on Couchsurfing offered to go with me and arranged everything from the overnight hostel to the registration-required hike through the Zhuilu Old Trail. I took trains all over India because I had another friend for company. If you have something you really want to do (just not alone) ask on travel forums like Couchsurfing or Reddit to see if a traveller or local also wants to go.
- Know your colour. Your ethnic background can impact how people treat you and subsequently your experiences. Do some quick research (or ask locals) to understand cultural dynamics in different places. In some places your visible ethnicity (white, Black, visibly Muslim, South Asian, East Asian etc.) can be an advantage, in others a disadvantage, and still others just funny stories of misunderstandings. My caucasian friends have groping experiences from India, but I wasn’t bothered while there. I am Canadian Chinese, but am often read as Japanese; in Asia, peddlers target ‘white’ tourists but rarely me. Instead, I have been stared at going through neighbourhoods in the UK, US, Canada, Turkey, and Italy to name a few. Usually, there’s no harm, and understanding cultural dynamics makes it easier for you to adapt quickly.
Your curiosity will pay off.
Acknowledge risk, but risk doesn’t mean reality.
After all these items, you may be wondering, is travelling solo even worth it?! Yes, because bad situations rarely happen, and instead you have so much to gain.
Going to 200+ places in the past 6 years, I’ve walked down countless small alleys, explored ‘sketchy’ areas, taken crumbling trains,hung out late in cities, and camped in parking lots — all with irreplaceable memories. Because I am solo, I meet wonderfully kind people — street-side fruit sellers, hostel receptionists, friends of friends for a place to stay, free rides. Travelling reveals an incredible diversity of kindness that you should experience yourself.
This is an updated list from my original Medium blog post. If you have friends thinking of travelling, please share this with them!
Happy travels to you!