Backpacking Safety Tips For First Time Travel

by | 8 Jan, 2019

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I do hope I’m not about to jinx this, but since we started travelling full time in 2015 we’ve never had anything stolen. Or been seriously injured. That isn’t a brag. It’s a fact. The same as travelling the world isn’t inherently dangerous. When you use your common sense and follow some basic backpacking safety tips at least.

Sometimes of course, regardless of how many precautions you take, you can just be in wrong place at the wrong time. I guess we’ve been fortunate in this respect. But that isn’t because we have restricted ourselves to travelling in only the ‘safest’ countries or are the ‘unadventurous’ types. Quite the opposite.

Difficulty of Montserrat Barcelona Hike

The thing is, no one can ever guarantee your absolute safety when you travel, unless, well, you don’t. But if you follow these safety tips for travelling we do guarantee that you will hugely reduce any backpacking risks. And begin navigating yourself around the world as a much more confident first time traveller.

Backpacking Safety For First Time Travellers

In this travel safety tips guide we’ll be covering how to keep both yourself and your stuff safe. Obviously your well being is the most important thing. But if you have something valuable or important stolen it can very much put a dampener on your trip and could be costly to replace.

And even if you have good backpacker insurance it will likely cost you an excess. Not to mention your time in getting a police report to make a claim and wasted energy anguishing over how it happened. Prevention is better than a cure, as the saying goes.

So let’s dig into the backpacking safety tips that we live by. And get you in a prepared and confident headspace for your first travel adventure.

James standing on Bunker Barcelona with amazing views

Safety Tips For Travelling in New Places

We know all too well how vulnerable you can feel landing in a new destination, with everything that’s important to you on your back. You’re exhausted. New sights, sounds and smells are assaulting your senses and all you want to do is get to your hostel and kick back with a beer.

You also stick out like a sore thumb and are an immediate target. But the key to protecting yourself and your backpack in this situation is preparation.

We always have at least the first night’s accommodation booked and have a map downloaded from Maps.Me. They work offline. So if you’re in a new country without a local SIM yet, you can still figure exactly where you’re going.

We’ve always found this prevents unscrupulous taxi or tuk tuk drivers trying to give us the runaround too. Because we can follow in real time that we are going in the right direction.

Travel safety tips

Safety Tips For Travelling At Night

Where possible we always also plan to arrive somewhere new during the daytime. It’s a no brainer that wandering around at 3am in a strange place comes with added risks when it comes to backpacking safety.

Of course arrival times are sometimes outside of your control. In those instances plan ahead as much as possible. Ask around or email the hostel to find out how much you can expect to pay by taxi. Or which is the best route to walk if it’s close by. Also check that they have a 24 hour reception.

We once had to wait on the street from 5am until 7am when the cleaner arrived outside a hostel in Bolivia. Not the smartest move to avoid theft while backpacking looking back.

Where to keep your passport when backpacking

If you’re travelling on your own or even in a couple, chat to fellow travellers and see if they are headed in the same direction. Safety in numbers and all that. I did this when travelling around Cambodia on my own. It also gives you more bargaining power when it comes to prices.

And once you arrive in a new place, always make it a priority to properly orientate yourself. We’re all for getting a little lost while exploring. But not to the extent that you end up on a dodgy street as it’s getting dark, with your phone out of battery and no clue which direction your hostel is. A definite backpacking safety no no.

We find one of the best ways of getting to know a new place is to do a walking tour on one of our first days. That way we get to ask a local about any sketchy places we need to be aware of. Also get yourself a portable power bank so you don’t run out of battery either…

Check Travel Warnings

When planning your backpacking travel itinerary and before you arrive in each new country on your travels, be sure to check in with your government’s travel alerts. If there’s anything major happened or happening that will affect your backpacking safety, that is where you will find the most up to date travel safety information.

You will also find the details for how to contact emergency services and contact your nearest embassy. Here is where you can find UK government foreign travel advice. And here is where the US Department of State travel advisories are.

Gap year travel

However, unless somewhere is being declared as a no travel zone, do take the warnings with a pinch of salt. Because even minimal backpacking safety risks tend to be highlighted and it can make new travellers over cautious.

Just because the foreign travel advice for Argentina says that ‘terrorists are likely to carry out attacks’ doesn’t mean that will happen or affect you. Likewise with ‘there is a risk of express kidnappings’ in Bolivia.

Words like terrorism and kidnapping are scary, but don’t let them scare you. I bet they also happen in your home country. Just be aware and prepared. Knowledge is power and all that.

Safety While Travelling

Something else that is a good practice to get into when it comes to backpacking safety is checking in regularly with home. This is particularly important if your travels will be taking you off the beaten path a little, you are travelling alone or you are planning a particularly adventurous activity.

We book our accommodation through Airbnb, Hostelworld or Booking.com so we also make sure a family member has our login details for these platforms. So that if something does go awry they can immediately access the details of the last place we were staying at.

Travel safety gear

Probably the best piece of backpacking safety advice we can give you is to stay alert at all times. Be aware of who’s around. Don’t go wild with these safety tips for travelling and start eyeballing people, but just let people know you’ve seen them. Walk with purpose and try not to look lost or worried, even if you are.

If you are particularly nervous about your first time travels it may be worth taking some basic self defense classes. Or there are plenty of good self defense tutorials on Youtube, if you can find a willing partner to practice on.

Safety Rules While Travelling

Okay we’re going to get downright morbid for a minute. Because despite what sensational news channels will have you believe, you are very unlikely to come across someone on your travels who is looking to intentionally injure you.

Safety Rules While Travelling

In fact the number one killer of backpackers is road traffic accidents. Closely followed by drowning. So three things. Don’t drive a motorbike abroad unless you can actually drive and always wear a helmet. Always. Secondly, if available always wear your seatbelt when on transport. Thirdly, don’t mess around near water when you are under the influence or jump off stuff where you can easily slip and crack your head open.

One of our best friends saw someone slip off a precarious waterfall jump in Thailand, crack his head on rocks on the way down, knocking himself unconscious. Divers found him dead at the bottom of the deep pool a few hours later. Don’t be that guy. And don’t give into peer pressure in those kind of circumstances. If your gut is telling you something is not safe, listen to it.

Travel Safety Gear

We’re going to be recommending a few pieces of key travel safety gear throughout this post, but most are to do with keeping your valuables safe while travelling. In terms of your physical safety while travelling you should pack yourself a mini first aid kit.

Purely because you might not always be somewhere with immediate access to medical care and avoid unnecessary medical care if you can treat a minor injury straight away.

Travel Insurance While Travelling

Of course even with all these backpacking safety tips, if things do go wrong, you need a plan b. A back up. And that’s where some good quality backpacker insurance comes in. If you’re heading off on a proper adventure you want to get yourself some travel insurance that covers all your needs.

We recommend Worlds Nomads. They have a no bullshit approach when it comes to explaining the terms of your travel insurance policy and are designed with adventurous travellers like us in mind. Get a quote here now:

How To Keep Valuables Safe While Travelling

Your stuff is always at its most stealable without you attached to it. So when you are moving between places be sure to separate all your valuable stuff into another smaller bag. And then keep it on your person at all times. Passport, money, electronics etc.

While travelling on an overnight sleeper bus or train we keep this bag between us, as a pillow and tightly secured to the seat with a bike lock like this while we are sleeping.

We used this a lot on trains in China too to secure our backpacks to the overhead luggage racks. Also when airport-sleeping to fasten all of our bags together. Of course these things can be cut, but thefts are usually opportunistic, so a barrier such as this is a good deterrent.

A good backpacking safety tip is to try to sit on the side of the bus where the luggage compartment opens. Sometimes it opens both sides so this doesn’t always work. But if you can, you have more chance of being aware of when bags are being taken off the bus.

It isn’t unknown for people to hide in bus luggage racks in order to be able to rummage through travellers’ luggage in some countries. So do be wary of this and always read reviews when choosing bus companies.

On one route we travelled in Thailand, the driver would cautiously open the luggage compartment with a metal pole in his hand before retrieving disembarking passengers’ luggage at each stop. True story.

Travel Safety Tips For Your Stuff

Quite often due to language barriers and poor organisation you may arrive at your stop quite suddenly and not have much time to gather your stuff. So whenever you get off a bus or train make it a habit to check your seat and around it for anything you may have left behind.

And never under any circumstances leave your valuables bag on a bus when getting off to pass a border control or for a break either. When it comes to how to keep valuables safe while traveling, this is backpacking safety tip 101.

How to keep valuables safe shile Travelling

We’ve met far too many people who had things stolen this way. One guy even just nipped off for a cigarette and came back to find his passport had been taken from his bag. And it was by someone on the bus too because no one else had gotten on.

Yep, don’t think that just because they are on your bus, people are on the same wavelength as you when it comes to not stealing other people’s things. We got back on a bus once to find the guy sat behind us rummaging around in our seats. Luckily we had taken everything valuable with us.

Hostel Theft Prevention

The majority of hostels provide lockers to keep your belongings in as standard. Even if there isn’t a full size one to fit all of your belongings in, there will usually be a smaller one to put your most valuable stuff in. If there are no lockers, pick another hostel, it’s that simple.

Be sure to carry a small combination padlock with you too as these are generally not provided. Some more modern hostels have charge points in lockers which is super handy. Because yeah, don’t be the idiot that leaves their stuff charging in the dorm while not there.

The same goes with the rest of your belongings. Added to the fact that it’s super annoying to share a dorm with someone who has their stuff constantly strewn all over the place, if you keep things tidied away in your backpack it’s less of a temptation for someone to nick it.

Also fellow travellers can be the worst when it comes to hostel theft. We met a girl in Colombia who had her phone and charger swiped from the side of her head while she was sleeping. Most likely by another girl who had urgently checked out early that morning.

Common Travel Scams

There are tons of travel scams going around in every country when it comes to backpacking safety. It pays to research them for each destination on your itinerary. There’s a common one in South America called the ‘mustard scam’ that I nearly got done by in a bus station.

Basically what happens in this common travel scam is someone sneaks up and squirts something on you. Only to then point it out and pretend to help you get cleaned up while they or someone else is pickpocketing you.

Luckily James saw the guy squirt liquid foundation in this case on the back of my legs and chased him off. But had I been travelling on my own and not aware of the common travel scam it might have ended up very differently.

Another popular one the world over is to take advantage of or create a distraction. Whether that be a street performance or a faked argument, always make sure you have your hands in your pockets or your bag held tightly to you when you feel your attention diverted.

And then of course there’s the age old taxi scam of ‘the meter’s not working’ or ‘I don’t have change’. Fortunately many countries now have Uber so you won’t get caught out by this backpacking safety issue. However do be aware that in many countries Uber are operating under the radar.

This doesn’t mean don’t use them. Far from it. Just be sure to occupy the front seat so it looks as if you know the driver. And don’t be surprised if they call you and ask you to meet them at a different location. This has happened to us lots in Colombia, Argentina & Mexico.

How To Prevent Pickpockets

If you are sat in a cafe or restaurant, always make sure your bag is secure. There’s a well known theft technique where a hook is used to lift bags from under tables and backs of chairs. All without the thief drawing attention to themselves by getting too close.

Another safety rule while travelling is to never carry your phone, your wallet or anything you need in your back pocket. It’s just asking for trouble. Same as leaving your phone on the table or bar at the side of you. Someone only needs to distract you for a second and it’s gone.

First time backpacker

If you choose to carry a bag with you, be aware that in some places this can automatically make you a target. Regardless of what you have in it. In some big cities in South East Asia for example, bag snatches by passing motorbikes are relatively common.

For this reason, if I have a bag with me I am always cautious to stand well back from the road when waiting to cross and always keep it close to me so it is difficult for someone to grab. In crowded areas such as metros, always wear your backpack on your front and keep your hands in your pockets if you have valuables in there.

Pickpocket Proof Bag

When it comes to backpacking safety tips for theft prevention, you will want to choose your day bag with that in mind.

There are plenty of good pickpocket proof bags on the safety travel gear market these days. We use a roll top backpack like this, and I have a sling bag that I can keep close to my body.

These cute bum bags/fanny packs are also very popular in many countries around the world because they are securely fastened to you, preventing snatch and grabs.

Ways To Hide Money While Travelling

We rarely carry more than the equivalent of £50 on us at anyone time and usually far less. When taking money out from a cash point we always take what we don’t need immediately back to where we are staying. This is essential backpacking safety advice – don’t put yourself at unnecessary risk.

Safety tips for Ttavelling in new places

The one time we couldn’t do that I hid the money we didn’t need inside my sock. No it wasn’t the most comfortable and yes it was sweaty by the end of the day. But unless someone was going to rob my trainers there was no way to know I had €300 hidden down there.

It probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. Before you use an ATM check for signs of tampering, never let anyone ‘help’ you and always use your other hand to cover up putting your pin in.

We always carry a few hundred US dollars with us as emergency cash. But this is locked away when we are based somewhere & when in transit separated into different locations and hidden away. If carrying a fair amount of cash, please don’t keep it all in one place.

Girls, these anti theft travel bras or secret bra pouches are really clever ways to hide money in clothing while travelling. Guys these belts with inside zips or these hidden travel pockets are a great addition to your travel safety gear for hiding money.

More Travel Safety Tips For Valuables

Same with your credit cards, it can be tempting to keep everything together so you know where they are. But just putting one card in a different bag or compartment could be the difference between being stranded in a foreign country with no access to any funds.

Also don’t take things that you don’t want stolen with you if you are going out on a bender. Leave your valuables locked away at the hostel. Whilst intoxicated, naturally your senses are lower and you’re not always so aware of who’s around you. Don’t take the unnecessary risk.

How to stay safe while travelling

Some people go so far as to carry a ‘fake wallet’ with a small amount of cash in it and a couple of expired credit cards. As a backpacking safety tip, it means that if they are targeted the thief isn’t getting away with much at all.

Another travel safety tip is to carry a cheap phone to swap your SIM into to take out and about with you. We never personally feel the need to go that far. Instead we try to look as non-touristy as possible by not flashing our stuff or taking unnecessary valuables around with us.

Of course as bloggers working online, this can be hard because we quite often need our camera or laptops with us. But we cut down the risks by asking locals and hostel staff about any unsafe areas. Then sticking to busy streets we have been on before.

Backpacking With A Laptop

Unless backpacking with a laptop is essential for you to work, my advice here is to leave it at home. I can’t think of anything travel planning wise you would need it for that you couldn’t do on a smartphone. Yeah it would give you a bigger screen to watch Netflix on, but realistically I think the hassle of lugging it around keeping it safe outweighs that.

However if you are planning on working as a digital nomad or are just adamant it’s something you can’t live without, there’s a few things you can do to reduce the risks of backpacking with a laptop. First and foremost when it comes to backpacking safety advice, don’t get your laptop out in anywhere that looks a bit dodge. Including on transport.

Secondly, don’t for one second leave it unattended. If you’re working in a cafe and need a pee – take it with you. Thirdly, get some travel safety gear to protect it.

We use shockproof and waterproof laptop cases and our backpacks specific compartments to keep it secure. These water proof, anti theft backpacks with a hidden compartment are a good shout when backpacking with a laptop.

Where To Keep Your Passport When Backpacking

Without a doubt one of the most important things you will want to keep safe while travelling is your passport. Without it you are pretty much stuck. For this reason some people prefer to always keep it on their person so they know where it is at all times.

Personally I think that is one of the worst safety tips for travelling. Other than when we are physically carrying everything because we are moving locations or need it as ID for something specific, we always leave ours locked in a safe or locker at the place we are staying.

For these instances and while you are physically on the move we recommend buying either an around the waist travel belt or an around the neck travel wallet to wear under your clothes. Either are great options for where to keep your passport when backpacking.

On a daily basis however, what we do is just carry photocopies and scanned versions of our passports on our phones. For me this avoids a few things when it comes to our passport safety while travelling; them getting nicked, them getting damaged, or us being forced to hand them over to anyone dodgy.

I’ll give you an example of the latter. In Bolivia there is a common travel scam whereby ‘fake’ police officers will stop tourists and ask to see proof of ID in the form of a passport. Only to either run off with it or confiscate it to coerce you into attending a ‘police station’. With the aim to get you on your own and further rob you.

Whilst we didn’t have any experience of this first hand whilst travelling in Bolivia, we did hear about it from other travellers that we trust. And I’m not trying to terrify you here. It’s just these things do happen and can be easily avoided if you are prepared with this backpacking safety advice.

How to Prevent Identity Theft While Travelling

In terms of our main bulk of money, we keep our cash safe while travelling by keeping it in an online saving account that doesn’t have a card. Then we simply transfer smaller amounts of money out every week or so into our current accounts that have cards attached.

That way if a card gets cloned the thief doesn’t have access to everything. To help with backpacking safety we always use a credit card to pay for anything online such as flights. Just because you generally have more protection on your purchases with credit cards.

Which brings me nicely onto how to prevent identity theft while travelling. Unless you are staying in a private apartment through airbnb or solely using data on a SIM when using the internet whilst travelling, you will be doing so over open networks.

Compare backpacker insurance

This leaves you wide open to having personal sensitive information stolen. As bloggers working online, even having our social media sites hacked would be bad enough. But imagine if that was your entire travel savings. It doesn’t bear thinking about.

Why You Need A VPN While Travelling

But there’s an easy travel safety tip to minimise the risk. Get a VPN. Which stands for ‘virtual private network’. I won’t get all techy here but what it does is basically scramble your data so anyone else online trying to look at it can’t.

Not only great for online safety while travelling, they are also useful if you are travelling in a country with any internet restrictions. Such as China. With a good VPN you can connect via a country without those restrictions.

Backpacking travel tips

The one we use is called VyprVPN. You can use it on four different devices at once and connect via servers in almost any country in the world.

Some more money safety tips for travelling are always keep a close eye on your bank statements. And for ease, in case you ever do fall foul of financial theft, we also recommend adding a third party back home to your account. Someone who you can trust to act on your behalf if needed.

Okay now that I’ve scared you half to death with all the common travel scams and stories of people dying in waterfalls, let me remind you we travelled to all these countries I’m talking about and never had any problems whatsoever.

This may seem like a lot of backpacking safety information to put into practice. But trust me, once you start travelling and get into the habit of using these basic travel safety tips, they will just become second nature.

Safety tips for travelling

So don’t be scared or worried about your safety while travelling. Just travel smart, be alert to your surroundings and take sensible precautions. Thieves and scammers will always choose easy targets. And on the whole the world is a safe place with far more trustworthy people than there are untrustworthy people.

If there’s anything else concerning you about your upcoming travels that we haven’t covered in these backpacking safety tips, drop us a line in the comments & we’ll do our best to help.

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