Essential Safety Tips for Backpackers

When I first started traveling at 17, I paid too much attention to backpacker safety. I held back from talking to strangers and used a money belt for the first three days (THANK YOU, Rick Steves).

Needless to say, being overly cautious takes the fun out of travel. But there is also such a thing as being downright irresponsible.

By my fifth backpacking trip to Europe at the age of 22, I had become reckless. I am a notoriously light packer, but you can’t be proud of your packing skills when you’ve forgotten your Kindle charger, tennis shoes and bathing suit bottoms.

I was carrying ONE debit card. No credit card, no stash of cash in my backpack.

I didn’t have a copy of my passport in my bag.

My parents had only a vague idea of where I was.

I was traveling alone. Sleeping on strangers’ couches I met on Couchsurfing. With a fever of 103 degrees and tonsillitis.

One night I even asked a guy I was sharing a cab with if I could sleep in the extra twin in his hotel room, just to save money. This is not a good idea, as a rule of thumb.

Luckily, I made it home without a hitch (I must have a guardian angel). But please, dear reader, learn from my foolhardiness and follow these precautions while you’re abroad. I promise to follow them too.

  • Carry a photocopy of your passport (or have digital copy). Carry your own and swap copies with your travel buddy if you have one.
  • Carry photocopies of your credit cards (or have digital copy).
  • Travel with at least two credit or debit cards (and at least one of each), and also keep an emergency stash of money in your backpack (no more than $100-200).
  • Treat your credit cards like the president and the VP. They should never be in the same place at the same time.
  • Make sure to have the phone number of your bank in case your credit card is stolen.
  • While you should always carry a copy of your passport, I prefer to leave my actual passport at the front desk of the hostel or lock it up in their security deposit boxes (bring a padlock from home, some hostels charge you to rent one).
  • Don’t be too trusting of fellow travelers at a hostel. If there is a locker available, I almost always pay to lock up my valuables.
  • Make sure the taxi driver has the meter on.  He or she can’t legally charge you if the meter has not been turned on, but it’s  better request it up front than risk a confrontation.
  • Especially for female travelers- bring a small can of pepper spray. I’ve never needed to use it, but it certainly gives me peace of mind to wield some kind of defense.
  • Also for girls- A cross-body purse is not only harder for thieves to pull off of your body but is also great when you’re carrying a backpack.
  • Never check anything important or valuable. Carry on your visa papers, jewelry, laptop, camera or other valuable items.
  • Bring your health insurance card. Can’t hurt, right?
  • Don’t give to beggars. You reveal the location of your wallet, which can lead to trouble.
  • Secure your backpack. I use a second lock (much smaller) so that my backpack can’t be unzipped from the outside.

What do you do to stay safe? Anything you find silly (i.e. moneybelts)?

 

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Ashley Fleckenstein

Ashley is an American travel blogger and freelance writer who moved to Paris at 21, traveled the world for a year and now lives in Denver. She's usually in pursuit of skiing, languages and perfectly ripe cheese. Her writing has been featured in National Geographic, Viator and Jetstar Australia.
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5 Comments

  1. I have a PacSafe day pack I use rather than a purse. Lobster claw locks on zippers, mesh lining, and cable lined straps.

    Reply
  2. I have a Pacsafe net that I can stash my bag in and then loop around a bed post. At night, I carry a phone with credit, and, this goes more for the developing world, I make sure I always have the number of a safe cab if I am going to be out.

    Reply
    • I recently purchased a Pacsafe as well and it gives me so much peace of mind!

  3. Hi Ashley, just wanna have your opinion:

    Usually planes have the option of both hand carry and check in luggage. I tend to travel light, so if I’m checking in my huge backpack, what kind of bag should I use for my valuables that I’ll be hand-carrying? I thought luggage would be the safest. Would locking smaller sling bag helps since people who steal your stuff probably could just steal and tear the bag apart with a knife or scissors?? Thanks in advance for any comments.

    Reply
    • Hey, Alexa. I´d say keep your super valuable stuff (i.e. passport, wallet) in a cross-body bag and other valuables in a backpack that you can put on your front when in a crowded area. That´s what I do anyway! :)

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