Call Your Mother: Safety Advice for the Solo Traveler

Be easy to follow but hard to track.

If you intend to make your travels public, consider making them tardy. During my trip I never published any post about a city I was still in. When I did post things immediately relevant, I kept the details purposely vague. The whole world doesn’t need to know where you are when you’re traveling alone with several thousand dollars worth of camping gear and electronics in your car.

Train yourself to be startled correctly.

The vast majority of pickpocketing and street theft relies on the victim being too distracted to notice what’s happening. The most choreographed of these crimes often involve startling the victim, since it tends to draw focus from even the most diligent of travelers. This is why I’ve trained myself to put a gentle hand on my bag whenever something happens. And I mean anything. Subway finally arrived? Hand on bag. Ticket taker is here? Hand on bag. Tourists need their picture taken? Hand on bag. Any time there’s a change in my surroundings I confirm that everything is where it ought to be. This alone is enough to ward off most potential thieves. Pickpockets aren’t usually in it for the challenge. Don’t be an easy mark.


Hide everything so it looks like you’ve got nothing to hide.

My car was a thing of beauty by Trunkthe end. I had managed to fit almost all of my stuff into my trunk, which meant the cab looked like it could belong to anyone. I made the vehicle as pedestrian-looking as possible. I never left valuables in the cab unless I could conceal them under something innocuous. I also did my best to never open the trunk at the a location I intended to park it. I didn’t want anyone to see me walk away from a car full of goodies.

Make sure someone will come looking for you.

Before I left, I gave my boyfriend the passwords to my email and CouchSurfing accounts. If he couldn’t get a hold of me and was worried something had happened, he could easily look up who I had been communicating with most recently. I tracked where I slept every night in a spreadsheet, and I shared this with both him and my parents. I updated it regularly, and at any point they could pull it up at home and see where I was staying that evening. I’ll admit I wasn’t very good at calling my mother specifically (I don’t like talking on the phone), but I made a point to stay in contact with people back home on a daily basis, if only through facebook.

Befriending strangers isn’t a bad idea either. If you’re going on a hike, talk to a ranger first (the park may even have a check-in program for solo hikers). Ask the hotel manager where the best attractions are in town, and make it clear which ones you’re leaning towards. More than actual safety, there’s real piece of mind in this. If I were to be injured or abducted, there are eye witnesses who can say when they saw me last and what I said I was about to do.

Be like NASA and assume the worst.

I recently heard an interview that Commander Chris Hadfield did on Fresh Air. Terry Gross asked him about being scared in space, in light of all the danger. Commander Hadfield explained that no matter how scary the situation gets, no problem surprises you in space. As an astronaut you spend months beforehand working with the ground teams to think of ways you might die. You go over every disastrous situation from every angle to determine the best solution. Then you assume the first and second solutions fail and you come up with a third. No matter what happens to an astronaut in space, there’s a good chance he or she planned for it some 12 months back.

DangerWhile I don’t think you need to pour over every possible danger, planning your reactions is a great way to guarantee you’re prepared. Let’s say you’re worried about getting a flat tire in the middle of no where. First you’d probably try to fix it yourself – do you have all the supplies you need in your vehicle? Maybe you’re worried you won’t remember how – could you watch a video on youtube to refresh your memory? Perhaps your tools will break – could you bring extras of anything? Maybe the spare is flat too – do you know who you’ll call to get roadside help? Perhaps your phone battery is dead – could you get a car charger? Maybe you don’t have service – do you have shoes that could handle a long walk?

The list could go on forever, and mine often did. But once you know you’re prepared to do things like walk by yourself for miles, recover copies of everything in your wallet, and palm-heel an attacker until he deciders you’re not worth it, a lot of problems aren’t so bad. You don’t have to be a safety nut to be a safety guru. Just live your life, pay attention, and every once in a while, call your mother.

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