My first solo backpacking trip was to Greece in 2014 when I discovered that the adventure and thrill of going solo was my new favorite thing. Since then, I’ve been all over the world: through the U.S., Europe and Asia. But, travelling alone as a 5’1 redhead girl (and often being mistaken for as young as 15) can be discouraging. In the back alleys of Washington D.C. (lost and struggling with a high fever), in broad daylight in Phnom Penh and in Amsterdam at night- I’ve had a few close calls to my safety. As someone who others view as easy prey, I’ve come to realize it’s important that females travelling alone take certain precautions that men hardly need to worry about. Everybody travelling has to be safe, acknowledge risk and be confident in dealing with bad situations, should they ever arise.
before you go
1. Before you take off on the solo adventure of a lifetime, you absolutely need to have a good sense of direction. Wandering cities when your phone’s dead or google maps has sporadically decided not to work, can land you in the wrong neighborhood way easier than you’d imagine. Girls who look lost or confused are more likely to be approached by strangers who (oftentimes) might just want to help. But if you know where you’re going, you’ll feel far more at ease than asking every second person for directions. Know where things are in relation to one another: be able to put places together on a map, learn street names and make mental pinpoints of restaurants and shops that you pass on the way to certain areas. When you become confident in where you’re going, it exudes from your physique, in both your expression and posture.
2. Choose the right hostel: think about what you want from your trip before you go on it. Consider the kind of mood you’ll be in (coming from other places, jet-lagged or sad to be leaving home, stoked to get on the road etc.). Are you the kind of person that wants to have a quiet time on their own? Choose the clean, family-run hostel. Do you want to make a heap of friends, do drugs and party all night? Then google ‘best party hostel in X’ and choose from the first five.Not only a personal choice for your comfort, picking a good hostel means you can avoid a lot of problems before they arise.
If you’re just there to do the touristy thing, see the city and leave then always choose a hostel in the city centre. When you’re going solo you don’t want the long rickety commute on the subway train with dodgy-looking locals late at night.
3. Plan ahead and choose a good time to arrive in the city. I know those late-arriving flights and buses are the cheapest, but getting to a city when all the public transport is shutting down and you’re completely disorientated isn’t a situation you should be putting yourself in.
Pay an extra €20 and arrive earlier in the day. When it’s bright out, city’s are a much safer place. The homeless people and drugged up locals (that often frequent main bus and terminals abroad) hide away in the shadows until night. Arriving during the day means you’ll be with other people: commuters, tourists and families, and you are far less likely to find yourself in a bad situation. Alternatively, the first bus/plane/train of the morning is often a lot cheaper and although it might mean getting to your departing terminal before sunrise, at least you arrive in a city whilst its locals are getting up to work.
when you’re there
4. Keep your head up, girl. Every female travelling alone will often be stared at, accosted and suffer the woes of the dubbed rape culture you hear feminist women write poems about. If you’re as fortunate as me as to stick out because of hair color, extreme height or some other physical attribute then you might get followed, too (hurray!). My personal way to deal with people eyeing me up is to look right back at them, raise an eyebrow, look as if you might stop and approach them. Never look away, or pull out your phone. Even if your heart is thumping the first couple of times, keep your expression even, roll your eyes and position yourself to be the domineering force in the equation. It keeps people from messing with you: the more you do it, the more people will back off. Eventually, you’ll start radiating the confidence that was only for show before.
5. Saying this, be nice to people, too. If you’re a good judge of character you’ll know that a lot of the time the people who approach you don’t want to steal your purse, rape you and dump your dead body in the river. Being confident in the city means being able to smile at locals and engage in conversation if it seems safe. You have to remember that sometimes women and men just see a beautiful young person they want to talk to: they haven’t planned it, they’re just going to go for it. If people ask you honest questions then reply: tell them no politely, say you’re meeting a friend.
Being a moody bitch to people who are treating you like a human being means everybody’s going to get in a bad mood. The more positive interactions you have with locals, from which you both walk away from smiling and laughing, the more happier, confident and excited you’ll be to be travelling alone.
6. After late culture nights or dinner, drinks or a show- you’ll eventually find yourself walking alone in a city at night. First- go to a well lit area (take-away etc.) check your directions, then put your phone in your pocket and walk with the confidence of a local strolling around their hometown.
Second- walk with people. There’s nothing shameful about tagging at the edge of a group or close to a couple; an older guy or another girl. Chances are they won’t even notice you and if they do, they’ll understand. Everywhere I’ve travelled to, I’ve walked with people in the middle of the day and in the dead of night. I’ve also been in the position to help other nervous girls, too. No words are usually exchanged when people walk with each other yet I’ve had guys I don’t know ward off druggies in Paris and Washington D.C. and happy loved-up couples rescue me from very daunting situations in Amsterdam (more than once).
7. If you get followed: I’ve been followed on countless occasions that it’s surprising I’m still alive. Usually worse at night, if there’s nobody around to save you, follow these steps. First, see if there’s anywhere open (bars, restaurants, late night supermarkets) and go in, wait it out or lose them in there and then hurry home.
Second, if you’re walking alone in an area with shopfronts but no restaurants and you feel as though someone is walking up behind you just stop walking. Don’t look at them, turn towards the shop front and pretend to be interested in the display or check your phone until they’ve passed. I’ve even walked back the way I’ve come to unnerve (and get rid of) people following me. If this doesn’t work and there’s no other people around or it’s getting really uncomfortable, get in a taxi and get out of there. Spend the extra money, rather be safe than sorry.
8. Eating in a city alone can be daunting, especially when you’re on a budget and just need somewhere to sit down without being talked to. The more you eat alone the easier it gets. To start you off, go to places you see other people eating alone. Or try small tourist bistros in the early evening for English menus but a quiet dining experience. I still spend hours deciding where to eat alone, walking in circles and almost starving before picking a place.
I don’t like places with young people or crowds because a) they feel sorry for you and b) it looks like you’re taking up a couple space with the empty seat opposite you. (I know I should gaf but I do). Have a glass of wine or a beer with your dinner, ease yourself into it. If you really feel awkward write in your diary or take out your laptop or phone.
9. If you want to find friends on a trip and are finding it pretty difficult there’s loads of ways to meet up with fellow backpackers. Try any pub crawl in the local area or one that the hostel recommend.
There are always free walking tours, or just go to the hostel bar or the local hangout. Try websites like meetup or couchsurfing to see events in your area. If you sit around the hostel common area for more than half an hour, you’ll meet someone who you can go out for the day with. If you’re sitting at a bar on your own, chances are someone (boys or girls) will come up to you and ask you to hang out with them, everyone travelling solo knows what its like to be alone.
10. Don’t forget to live your life to the fullest whilst you’re travelling alone, too. After a couple of weeks making friends then moving on, it can feel alienating and lonely. Don’t be afraid to go out to see a show or live music, don’t sit in your hostel at night and feel bad for yourself.
Have a couple of drinks in the nearby bar and watch the locals interact. There’s nobody around to stop you from doing anything. If you feel like getting away from the hostel group why not go on a Tinder date and explore the city from a local’s perspective? Take advantage of the fact that you can spend a day in bed, or hours lying down in the park or spend an afternoon online to your friends at home because you answer to nobody but yourself.
What are your travel tips from backpacking solo?
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