“My consuming desire is to mingle with road crews, sailors and soldiers, barroom regulars—to be a part of a scene, anonymous, listening, recording—all this is spoiled by the fact that I am a girl, a female always supposedly in danger of assault and battery. My consuming interest in men and their lives is often misconstrued as a desire to seduce them, or as an invitation to intimacy. Yes, God, I want to talk to everybody as deeply as I can. I want to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west, to walk freely at night…”- Sylvia Plath
First off, I just have to say that I’m infuriated that it is necessary to write an article on how women can best protect themselves when travelling. If the world was a safer place for women this article would be about the coolest treks in the world or the best scuba diving spots. Instead, we live in a world where violence against women (VAW) is pervasive and women are at risk of experiencing sexual and gender based violence (SGBV). It happens often and it happens everywhere.
As women, we are all vulnerable to different forms of SGBV as well as generalized violence. As a solo female traveler, the risk of harm can be even greater. While this can be intimidating and stressful, I refuse to let it stop me from exploring the corners of the globe. (Sorry mom.)
A Point of Information.
Before I share some tips for traveling, allow me to say: you are not invincible. What I am slowly coming to terms with is the fact that I am not guaranteed safety. Just because nothing really bad has ever happened to me abroad, doesn’t mean it won’t. (Knock on wood.) This isn’t meant to scare anyone, but rather to keep daredevils like myself in check.
We all hear about the horrifying tales of women being kidnapped (think the movie Taken) and often forget about the countless female travelers who gallivant around the world unharmed. My point is that it is best to find middle ground: the world is not one giant mine field with one wrong step leading to imminent death, but neither is it all rainbows and sunshine.
Now that I have that out of my system, here is a list of tips I’ve picked up on my travels that I’d like to share with all the women out there who want travel and do so safely. Just because there is a risk of harm (as there is with everything) doesn’t mean women should be prohibited from hiking in Nepal, museum hopping in France, or playing on the beach in Argentina.
- Make Friends
For me, this is the golden rule. Not just for travelling, but for life. There is strength and safety in numbers. If you are a solo female backpacker, I highly recommend making friends because A) you don’t want to be that loner for four months, and B) you are much safer when you are in a group. Even if you are traveling with a friend, I still recommend reaching out and forming friendships. A mugger, for example, is much less likely to approach a big group than a woman (or two) walking along a street at night. Making local pals is even better because they can give you the scoop on their city/town. (Great for security purposes and maximizing fun!)
- Read Reviews
An easy way to up the safety factor when you are travelling is to read reviews. Going to a hostel? Make sure it is in a safe neighbourhood and the security is good. Travelling by public transit? Check to see if pickpocketing is common. Hostelworld.com provides reviews for accommodations and TripAdvisor has reviews for basically everything. If you are planning to volunteer through HelpX or Work Away or staying with someone on Couch Surfing, definitely read the reviews. More specifically, read every single review. Make sure no one says anything bad about the host(s). While HelpX or Couch Surfing can provide an awesome experience, you can expose yourself to harm by placing your safety in their hands. As such, it’s even more important to be diligent about reviews. If you are a solo female traveler, I recommend that you only stay with female Couch Surfing hosts. That said, if you are going to stay with a male host check if any women have stayed there before. If not, I would stay away. If yes, make sure they had positive experiences. (I’d even send them a private message on Couch Surfing to make sure they felt safe!)
- Learn the Areas
Like anywhere in the world, a city or town will have good spots and bad spots. It’s a good idea to ask around (locals, hostel workers, friends who have been there before) about the areas to avoid. Walking around Times Square in Manhattan at 2am is one thing, but exploring Harlem in the middle of the night is a whole other bag of beans.
- Share Your Location
Another good idea is to have a person (mom, friend, uncle, whoever) throughout your trip that knows where you are each day. I (at my mother’s request) text/email/message her almost every day when I am backpacking to let her know my location. Texting, “Hey, I am taking a bus from Barcelona to Sevilla today!” takes 30 seconds and it lets someone know where you will be that day. If anything happens to you, they will at least have a general idea of where to start looking and which embassies/local authorities to contact. If you are going into the wilderness (which I recommend) where there is no cell service, let your contact person know you will be MIA for a few days so they don’t get concerned when they don’t hear from you.
- Register With Your Embassy
Along that same line of thinking, I highly recommend registering with your Embassy in each country when you travel. If you are Canadian, you can go onto travel.gc.ca and sign up with the Embassy in two minutes. You just input your personal information, where you are going, for how long, and an emergency contact. If anything happens while you are in that city/country the Canadian Embassy in that country will send you email updates with safety information. If something really bad happens (like an earthquake) the Canadian government will get a team out to try and rescue you right away! Note: Your government websites will also have travel advisories for each country and their regions. You should go onto these websites to make sure your next destination, the country as well as specific areas, are safe for non-essential travel.
- Know Your Limits
Two life facts: everyone is different and you know yourself best. These are important things to remember when travelling. First, as our parents would say, “Just because Joe is jumping off a bridge, doesn’t mean you have to jump off a bridge!” (This could actually be a legitimate example considering how popular bungee jumping is.) If your travel buddy or a newfound group of pals is going to do something (be it paragliding, trekking, or motor biking) you may feel obligated to go and to keep up with the pack. Though it’s hard to be the one who opts out, remember that you don’t have to do any activity that makes you feel uncomfortable. Horrible driver? Don’t rent a motorbike and drive during rush hour in Vietnam! Never exercised before? Don’t try to trek Everest Base Camp! While the #FOMO can be tough, putting yourself in a dangerous situation is much worse. Recognize and accept your limits. You will thank yourself.
- Trust Your Gut
This is huge, especially for women. I can’t tell you how many times I have been in a foreign country and have chosen not to participate in an activity, taken a different route home, not engaged with a specific person, etc. etc. because I had a gut feeling. Everyone has a sixth sense, for good reason, and this shouldn’t be ignored. For women, trusting your instincts can often mean the difference between safety and danger. Does a club give you a seedy vibe? Get out. Does the guy on your street art tour make your stomach knot a little? Move away from him. Does an area make you feel uneasy? Call a cab. This is not being paranoid, this is being rationally cautious in a world where SGBV is the norm.
- Don’t Be Stupid
I saved the best for last. Don’t be stupid! Again, this may seem like an unnecessary or common sense rule, but it should not be dismissed. Being a smart traveler is listening to your instincts and applying your common sense to every situation. Being stupid as a traveler is to be ignorant and uncritical of your surroundings, act carelessly, and disregard warnings. When the book “A House in the Sky” came out, many people asked me if it had deterred from traveling in the future. My answer: hell no. While the kidnapping and detention that Amanda Lindhout survived is horrific and should never happen to anyone, I believe it was avoidable. In my opinion, Amanda Lindhout was a reckless traveler. In fact, she even wrote that she recognized the danger of going to Somalia at the time but wanted to launch her journalism career. This is when ‘don’t be stupid’ comes into play. For example, if there is an internal conflict in the region or your government has issued an explicit no travel advisory, then don’t go there. Yes, that seems obvious. Which is why this rule is called ‘don’t be stupid.’
This Oyster Ain’t Gendered.
The world can be cruel to women but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t see the world. If we deny ourselves the opportunity to explore, then we miss out and the patriarchy wins. So don’t be stupid, trust your gut, make some friends and take a few precautionary measures. Women deserve to be wanderers too.