Several years ago I was jogging outside at night in a neighborhood in Northern California that’s considered to be very safe. Suddenly, I heard someone running behind me. A man in dark clothes grabbed me so forcefully that he tore through the fabric of my shirt and sports bra. Luckily, I heard him coming just in time to be able to scream, fight back, and get away safely.
I never thought that something like this would happen to me, until it did. Unfortunately, it can happen to you too, but you can also take steps to prepare yourself. In Seattle, a female runner survived a brutal attack just weeks after her first weekend self-defense seminar. With a few key precautions and practices, we can all be safer at home and abroad. Here’s how to stay safe while traveling and avoid danger.
AWARENESS IS KEY
The number one safety tool we have at our disposal while traveling is awareness. We all believe we’re in tune with what’s going on around us, but in actuality, we’re daydreaming, playing on our phones, or spacing out while listening to music. Awareness is an active state of being that needs to be practiced, especially when traveling alone. The vast majority of criminals are looking for an easy target and they can size you up in a matter of seconds. Always walk confidently and make eye contact with people walking around you.
Here’s a quick exercise. Picture yourself on a two-foot-wide sidewalk next to a road. There are several alleyways running perpendicular to the street and they’re not well lit. You’re about 2 blocks away from the next major intersection. You’re wearing heels. To truly be aware you should be observing the following:
Everyone else who is on this two-block stretch with you–those in front of you, behind you, and to either side. Is anyone wearing baggy clothes that could hide a weapon? Does anyone have their hands hidden in their pockets? Is someone eyeing you or others? Make sure you look people directly in the eye as you pass them and glance to look at those behind you–this method is a major deterrent to most criminals as they want to avoid being identifiable in a lineup.
As you move down the street, the alleyways you are approaching are “blind corners.” You can’t see what’s there, so give yourself some clearance by walking in an arc away from the alley as you pass. This gives you more time to see and react to any potential danger that lingers in the alley.
Know where your “exit points” are. The next major intersection might be somewhere you can run to if needed. But since you’re wearing heels, make sure to have a backup plan. You could remove your heels to use as a weapon and help you run faster, or you might notice that there is glass on the sidewalk so if you need to run barefoot, the street would be better.
REMOVE ANY DISTRACTIONS
These days our cell phones are the number one source of distraction for us. Playing on them gives you tunnel vision and destroys the awareness of your surroundings completely. When you’re walking alone keep your phone accessible in case of emergency, but out of your hands. You’re less likely to be targeted for robbery if an attacker can’t see your phone.
Don’t listen to music or talk on your headphones either. I have a self-defense teacher who was using earbuds to talk on the phone in a hardware store parking lot (in broad daylight). He was grabbed by two men with guns and shoved into a vehicle because he didn’t hear them coming and was unaware. He’s incredibly lucky to be with us today.
STUDY POTENTIAL DANGERS BEFORE YOU ARRIVE
Practicing safety while you travel doesn’t mean you need to stay away from off-the-beaten-path destinations, or even actively “dangerous” ones as long as you’re planning ahead.
If you’re visiting a region that is known for crime, read up on on the conflicts ahead of time. What types of crimes are common against locals and what types of crimes are common against tourists? Once you know this, take some time to prepare for what to do in each of those situations and learn how to avoid them.
Say you’re heading to Guatemala and know that robbery (sometimes armed) is a common offense and your flight lands late at night. This is the time to splurge a little bit for the sake of safety. Rather than taking a taxi or collectivo from the airport in Guatemala City to Antigua, ask your hotel to arrange transportation and agree to pay inside the hotel upon arrival. Split up your cash and valuables amongst different suitcases and have a purse or a wallet that you’re willing to give up without worry if anything were to happen. Don’t make plans to be out after dark until you’ve gotten the lay of the land – ask at your hotel what areas are safe to walk around and when.
If you opt to stay at a hostel or Airbnb, make sure it has lots of positive reviews or is designated with SuperHost status which means the host has been rated many times with 5-star reviews and other qualifiers that show they’re reliable.
LEARN EMPOWERMENT SELF-DEFENSE
You may be thinking that you don’t have time for this, but any bit of empowerment self-defense training will go a long way. A good self-defense teacher will tell you that his or her number one goal is to make sure you are empowered to either fight or flight (rather than freeze) in the event of an attack. Either is ok depending on the situation. Freezing is counterproductive, but unfortunately is a normal reaction to the onset of any sort of physical attack–from robbery to sexual assault.
Going to a 2-hour self-defense seminar can give you the confidence boost you’ll need to react. You’ll also get a feel for punching, kicking, and kneeing–especially and preferably to the groin. Other key areas to target are the eyes and throat, or any shot you have at breaking a joint. You’ll learn about awareness and get to practice drills that’ll simulate the adrenaline rush you might face when attacked.
Attending self-defense seminars can save your life. Try to fit in at least one a year. They’re usually only 2-hours, and many are also free of charge (just google free women’s self-defense in your city). As an added bonus, self-defense classes are great workouts and can be really fun. To deepen your practice take classes in Krav Maga, which is informally dubbed as the art of staying alive.
SHARE YOUR TRAVEL ITINERARY
Help others help you by sharing your itinerary and travel documents before your trip with loved ones. You could be at a destination that suffers from an earthquake or another natural disaster and have to flee your hotel without your passport or cell phone. If you have a friend or family member back home who has electronic copies easily available, you’ll save yourself some additional trouble.
Sharing your detailed itinerary also helps your friends and family determine where you were during your last contact. Always register with your embassy–especially when traveling to areas prone to natural disasters and civil unrest. If you are a US citizen or national you can register with your nearest embassy or consulate through the free STEP Program.
PACK A FORCE MULTIPLIER IN YOUR CHECKED LUGGAGE
Pack something that self-defense teachers call a “force multiplier” aka a safety product like a tactical pen which has a very sharp end you can use to punch or hit with and hook a personal alarm on the outside of your handbag where you can easily pull it in an emergency.
If you plan to carry a weapon of any kind, make sure to practice using it in a safe environment so that you’ll be prepared if you ever need to use it. Avoid things like pepper spray and tasers which are hard to use and could be easy for your attacker to confiscate.
Also remember that in the event of an attack, many things in your immediate surrounding can become effective force multipliers – like a chair, a heavy pan, or a lamp.
PROTECT YOUR VALUABLES AND CASH
Always distribute your valuables by leaving one credit card in the hotel room and putting your cash and other debit or credit card in a different place on your body. Be clever about where you put your cash–roll it up and place it in an empty chapstick container. This will help reduce the burden of being robbed (or just being clumsy and losing your wallet!).
Refusing housekeeping can reduce the chance of petty theft and as an added bonus, it’s better for the environment. Just leave the “do not disturb” marker on your door or notify reception directly. This is especially important if you’re traveling with expensive camera equipment or laptops that won’t fit in the safe.
To avoid pickpocketing, don’t use your back pockets, external pockets on your handbag, or carry your valuables such as your wallet or cell phone in your hand. Consider purchasing a slash proof anti-theft backpack or wearing a fanny pack or money belt to reduce the chance of robbery.
If you’re traveling by train or bus and plan to sleep keep your bag attached to you. You could use a simple tether cable or even a carabiner to hook it to your belt loop or sleep on top of your bag with an arm looped through a strap.
Last but not least, purchase travel protection when visiting off-the-beaten-path travel destinations from World Nomads. It can add extra peace of mind for everything from lost baggage, to theft, to injury and emergency medical evacuation.
While travel safety may take a little pre-planning, it will give you more confidence during your trips and help prevent everything from minor annoyances to extreme danger. Happy traveling, stay safe and enjoy!
Sarah Groen is an avid world traveler and a Krav Maga Alliance yellow belt. She’s been to over 90 countries on all 7 continents, read her Meet The Stamp Collectors interview. Sarah is an entrepreneur and the founder of The Traveler’s PhD, an online community to connect and recognize the world’s most experienced travelers. Sarah also designs unique travel experiences for select clients. You can follow her personal travels on Instagram at @sarahgoesglobal.
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