If you follow this blog regularly, then by now you know that I’ve developed quite a series on backpacking over the last several weeks – from where you should go to how to backpack like a boss on a college budget to backpacking like a local and fitting in wherever you go. So now we move to a topic that’s not quite as fun, but very practical to discuss as we continue exploring the topic of backpacking.
Safety isn’t sexy. Safety is boring and stuffy, and it’s the question your parents always bring up that cramps your style when you’re trying to be bold and adventurous. When it comes to travel, it’s still not one of the sexy topics I could write on, but because of my experiences and the incidences I’ve witnessed, I felt compelled to write for StudentUniverse travelers so they’d be aware of the tips to follow to stay safe while backpacking. Maybe if it saves you from losing your passport, credit cards, or worst-case scenario, prevents an assault, then it’ll be an appreciated subject of discussion.
Less is best
Apart from this being my minimalist personal mantra, this goes for what to bring when you travel as well. The less you bring with you that you can’t live without, the better. I had the most important things to me in my awareness at all times- my laptop, iPad, cell phone, passport, and debit card. At any given moment, I know that they were either in my backpack or safe at my hostel locker or couchsurfer’s place (see below for CS safety). Of course I brought cute clothes and other personal items I cared about, but all of it was replaceable. There’s so much going on when you travel, new stimuli and surroundings, rushing to make your next train, etc., that you don’t want to be worrying about the belongings you stashed at the hostel.
Map it out
(Full disclosure: My stinginess is about to reach a level unheard of in our techie age!) For five months of traveling around 9 countries across 3 continents, I went without a data plan and relied on wifi the entire time. Gasp! Surprisingly, I managed well enough and only cursed my cheapness 2 or 3 times after moments of desperation. It only became an issue when I was trying to navigate somewhere new. Whether I was wandering the Old City of Jerusalem, lost in the Kolkata madness of honking, swerving tuk-tuks and taxis through the jungle they call streets, or fresh off the tube in London trying to meet up with my friend there, I realized early on the importance of determining the route before leaving a wifi zone. Even if you wisely buy a cheap cell phone plan while you’re abroad, it’s still wise to screenshot the directions in case you go off the grid; you’ll still have the route safely tucked away in your camera roll. (iPhone hack: when you route the direction with wifi or data and have the blue line mapping the way, the blue dot stays active and zooming in and out usually shows you where you are in relation to your destination.)
Who to ask for help
You need a good lunch suggestion in Paris. You’re confused about which way is north, south, east, west in Rome (so is everyone). When asking for help, directions, or suggestions, ask someone “behind a counter” I don’t necessarily mean this literally, I just mean someone working in the nearest café, tourist center, McDonald’s, a security guard, police officer, etc. This isn’t always possible, but just use discretion when asking someone off the street.
Discretion, you say?
If traveling with a friend, you have an advantage in the safety spectrum. When one of you needs the restroom, the other can watch the bags in the train or at the restaurant, etc. When you’re traveling solo and are lugging around a backpack or suitcase and most likely another bag, it’s unreasonable to bring it into the 2 by 2 foot bathroom of a European train. This is really when your discernment skills are tested. Take your most valuable items with you, but gauge the people and situation around you. Several times I felt comfortable asking the people sitting near me to keep an eye on my stuff; other times I took it all with me. This goes for any situation, such as hostel roommates, couchsurfing hosts, or going out for nightlife: be aware of your surroundings and go with your gut instincts on people or situations.
Trust your instincts. I’ll never forget this weird situation that happened in Prague, Czech Republic. I had just gotten off the train that brought me to the station where I’d meet up with my Couchsurfing host for the night. She was running late, so I was standing on the platform between 2 busy lines during subway rush hour. I checked my phone over and over for a message from her. Nothing. I was fine though, I was just hanging out all chill.
As another set of trains was arriving and hoards of people shoved on and off in an eery silence, this rush of adrenaline based on fight-or-flight anxiety overtook me. It was a new, unknown city to me, and since I stand out like a blizzard in June, I would’ve been easy prey for someone to yank a bag from my person, jump into the closing doors of a train, and be out of there before I had a chance to realize what had happened.
I moved to the middle of the platform, stood stock still, and gripped my bags as close to me as I could until my knuckles were white. I soaked up my surroundings, taking inconspicuous inventory of everyone around me and what they were doing. Nothing seemed amiss, but the heightened awareness and fear in my gut continued for a couple minutes. My mind seemed to clear as I thought through an escape route and plan if any number of scenarios occurred. Thankfully the adrenaline slowly dissipated and I was fine. I shudder when I think about what could have happened had I not moved. I think it’s also essential to mention that as the feeling was leaving, I looked to the end of the platform and saw 3 Prague police officers near the front of train who had not been there before. The mystery remains as to why they were called down there and why I felt that gut instinct of fear when nothing in my surroundings had changed; but it confirmed for me to always take those instincts seriously.
“You really trusted people enough to stay at their place…alone?” It’s a valid concern to have, but just remember safety first is the Golden Rule in Couchsurfing. Once your profile is set up, and you’ve described yourself truthfully in the About and My Home sections, you can expect the same from other users. When searching for a host, you simply read through their profile and references. If they don’t have much information up describing themselves or any positive references, that’s a clear sign not to stay with them. Trust your instincts. If something is telling you no, even if they have a thorough profile and positive references, you don’t have to stay with someone when red flags are waving in your mind.
Once you start requesting to stay with people, you can also pick up their vibe from the private inbox responses. If they don’t seem consistent with their profile, move on to the next option, or take a deep breath and just book the hostel.
Couchsurfing is one of those things that you really do get better at and more comfortable with over time. For my very first go at it, I remember sitting outside McDonald’s (for their free wifi) at midnight in the middle of Athens, refreshing my browser every 10 seconds in case I missed a Facebook message from my host while simultaneously wondering if I’d just been hugely punk’d. He showed up, thankfully, and I felt especially safe at a couchsurfing ambassador’s home, for those of you still worried about my rationale and propriety.
This leads me smoothly into the “spirit of couchsurfing” you’ll catch onto quickly if you ever participate in it yourself. It really is all about the cultural exchange. Hosts are opening their home and becoming vulnerable to theft or damage from surfers. Many surfers are in it only to save money on accommodation. However, hosts can spot these people quickly based on how personalized the request is or reviewing the individual’s profile, and then they’ll be less likely to host them, just as an FYI.
People who get the most out of couchsurfing are those that are in it to meet others, learn about that particular city through a local pair of eyes, and hopefully have lifelong friends all over the world.
Pickpocketers are real. Don’t be a victim
You can find this advice in any travel pamphlet. I know I saw it everywhere, and I disregarded it after a while. Several months before the Prague situation I described above, I was walking through Puerta del Sol in Madrid with a new friend I’d met on the plane en route: Nice, France to Madrid. We were chatting it up, and I was focused on what she was saying while taking in everything around me. My side-body purse was swung comfortably around behind me. As soon as I felt the slightest tug unnatural to the usual tousling in the middle of a crowd, I turned on my heel, looked down at my open bag and up into the eyes of a woman and her boyfriend, way too close to me and Lili. I stopped, viciously rummaged through my bag and the open pockets where I assured myself that my ID, debit card, and euro’s still rested safely, and asked in a strained, forceful voice, “Did you take anything from my bag?!” She stood there like a deer in headlights. I double- and triple-checked my bag to be sure they hadn’t taken anything. Before I had a chance to say or do anything else, they high-tailed it out of there in the other direction. Point to the tourist.
Take pick-pocketing seriously. Keep minimal amounts of money on you and always keep bags in front of you or closed tightly and secured when behind you.
Whether your going backpacking for the first time, or your an avid backpacker, you should keep these safety tips top of mind to ensure that you have the best experience possible.