I thought it would be worthwhile to create a list of some of the basic survival skills that anyone travelling anywhere to do anything risky should know or at least familiarize themselves with in order to stay safe on the road.
I’m not talking about anything that involves a crazy amount of bushcraft, training or desperation. No rubbing sticks together to create a fire, how-tos on purifying your piss, or crawling inside of a dead yak’s anus.
These are things that really just involve an awareness of the fact that these strategies and tactics exist and, in some cases, and to varying degrees, some minor practice.
As someone who has been living on the road for the last ten years, travelling back and forth between Southeast Asia, Latin America, North Africa, Europe and North America, I’ve been in some situations and seen some things that have made me much more aware of the fragility of human life.
I sometimes find myself thinking about all of the times I could have made a decision that ended up costing me my life, but either through experience, chance or some combination of both, I lived to tell the tale. While it is difficult to tell when those moments might have been, I think an appreciation of the precariousness of life is a useful thing to have, regardless.
With that in mind, here is my list of 13 pieces of basic survival knowledge every traveller should have.
Table of Contents
Let’s start off with situational awareness. It’s not really a skill, inasmuch as it’s a way of being in the world.
I’m always amazed by how little situational awareness the average person seems to have. How carelessly people walk down the street, enter crowded areas, use ATMs, enter apartment buildings, hotels and their cars.
An understanding of what situational awareness means and how it can save your life is location-independent and something everyone should try to cultivate, but it’s especially important when you’re travelling somewhere where your safety is much less secure and even more so if you don’t speak the language and understand local social and cultural dynamics.
Training yourself to take stock of people and faces when you walk into any new room (whether it’s a convenience store, a bar or a hotel lobby) and identifying potentially threatening people is a best practice for anyone travelling. Take note of anyone walking towards you with hands in a bag or pockets.
Another important tenet of situational awareness is to know who’s observing you. Take a minute to scan the vicinity of an ATM you’re thinking about withdrawing cash from. Don’t ignore strange body language or behaviour on public transportation, and don’t turn your back on anyone behaving erratically.
Where the fire and emergency escapes are
Another thing that I always try to do when I’m travelling is to make a note of where any emergency exists and where escapes are.
One of the things that I didn’t fully appreciate as a very safe and very coddled person from the global north was just how much corruption, greed, and apathy endanger the lives of the average person in the third world.
This is apparent in everything from how little attention is paid to things like weight and capacity limits on boats, buses, vans, elevators, etc., to the complete lack of fire and carbon monoxide detectors in most residential buildings.
I saw more fires and more urban fire destruction in my two-plus years living in Colombia than I have seen in the rest of my life combined.
Anytime you get on a passenger ferry or an airplane, stay in a hotel or an Airbnb, or get in a bus or passenger van, take stock of your exits. Take stock of where fire extinguishers are. Take stock of where emergency hammers are for breaking glass.
What to do in a rip current
If you are someone who travels to the beach and ocean and spends a lot of time in the water, sooner or later, you’re going to be faced with a rip current.
I’ve spent thousands of hours snorkelling and diving all over the world, in cold seas and the tropics, and I’ve been caught in a couple (I’m surprised it’s not more) of rip currents.
A rip current, often simply referred to as a “rip,” is a powerful and fast-moving narrow flow of water that moves away from the shoreline and into the open sea or a larger body of water. Rip currents can occur at beaches, coastal areas, and even around sandbars and other underwater features and are a common and potentially dangerous natural phenomenon. Understanding them is crucial for water safety.
The anatomy of a rip current
- Wave Action: Rip currents often originate as a result of wave action breaking on the shoreline. As waves approach the shore, they carry water and create a buildup of water between the breaking waves and the shoreline.
- Water Return: This buildup of water needs to find a way to return to deeper water, and it often does so by flowing in a concentrated, narrow channel or “rip” back out to sea. The water moves with considerable force and speed, which can catch swimmers off guard.
- Appearance: While rip currents are usually not easily visible from the shore, some signs might indicate their presence. These can include choppier or discoloured water, foam or debris moving rapidly seaward, or a noticeable break in the pattern of incoming waves.
Responding to a rip current
- Stay Calm: Do not panic. Rip currents do not pull you under; they pull you away from the shore.
- Don’t Fight It: Avoid swimming directly against the current, as this can exhaust you quickly. Instead, swim parallel to the shore to escape the narrow flow of the rip.
- Signal for Help: If you are unable to swim out of the rip current or feel too fatigued, signal for help by raising your arm and calling out. Lifeguards or other beachgoers may come to your assistance.
- Float or Tread Water: If swimming out of the rip current seems impossible, conserve your energy by floating or treading water until the current weakens or you can safely swim parallel to the shore.
- Swim to the Side: Once you are free from the rip current’s pull, swim diagonally back to the shore at an angle rather than trying to swim directly against the current. This might mean having to detour hundreds of metres off course and then walking back along the coast.
You can download offline maps
Another good practice (though, admittedly, not really a skill) to get into is downloading offline Google Maps anytime you go somewhere new.
It’s not always possible or worthwhile to buy a SIM card and a data plan in a lot of countries, and cell and wireless network coverage is still awful (and non-existent) in many parts of the world.
I’ve used offline maps in a lot of different places, and they are highly useful for finding your way when you’re lost. In some places, you don’t want to be wandering around after dark looking for your hotel or a bus station or driving around on pothole-filled roads.
Google Maps’ option to download offline navigation for a given geographic location is fantastic.
You can download offline translation
Again, not a skill, but definitely something to be aware of.
Language barriers aren’t just inconvenient; they can also be an impediment to your safety. Being able to communicate with local people, especially the ability to ask questions about risks and safety, is critical. Sometimes it can even get you out of potential trouble.
I’ve been hiking through the forest before and stumbled upon what I am fairly certain were illegal timber harvesters setting up camp. There was no internet service, neither party spoke the other’s language, and they looked quite concerned to have been spotted.
There weren’t any guns, but I was heavily outnumbered, and there were machetes, chainsaws, axes and the like everywhere. I took out my phone, opened my offline translation app, informed them I was looking for snakes and turned my phone screen towards one of the friendlier-looking guys.
He moved his head in for a closer look, smiled a toothless betelnut smile at me, shouted something to the other four or so dudes in the background, and motioned with his hand that I should continue walking.
It is hard to say with certainty what they were up to, what their first impression of me was and how they might have responded had we not had our little interaction, but it’s not inconceivable to imagine a scenario like that going wrong.
How to safely help someone struggling in the water
To a lot of people, it’s probably not immediately obvious as to why knowing how to help someone struggling in the water is a survival skill.
The UK’s Royal National Lifeboat Association, however, urges people to avoid trying to save struggling swimmers on their own. This is because what very often happens is that someone who is panicking in the water ends up drowning their would-be saviour.
The safest thing you can do is to try and locate public rescue equipment or improvise using something that floats–a ball, a large bottle, etc.
Telling the person to remain calm and to lie on their back instead of thrashing about is also helpful.
How to purify water
I’ve met a surprising number of people over the years who spend a lot of time outdoors and don’t know how to purify water.
There are basically two methods: boiling or treating.
If you need to boil water–maybe you’re in a natural disaster scenario, and critical infrastructure like aqueducts have been damaged. There’s a lake or stream close to you that looks like it has reasonably clean water, but you’re still going to need to purify it.
According to the CDC, if you bring water to a roiling boil and let it boil for a minute, it should inactive all major waterborne bacterial pathogens.
If you’re using chlorine tabs, 1mg of tablet is generally sufficient to treat one litre of water. Let the tablet work its magic for half an hour–i.e., let the chlorine dissolve the cell walls of the bacteria.
Chlorine tabs are very common and work against hydrophilic viruses, bacteria, fungi, and protozoans.
Iodine tablets are another common chemical water purification method and they work the same way. The EPA recommends “five drops of 2% tincture of iodine to each quart or liter of water that you are disinfecting. If the water is cloudy or colored, add 10 drops of iodine. Stir and let the water stand for at least 30 minutes before use.”
How to drive in flood conditions
In theory, you should avoid driving into water of unknown depth. Obviously, real life is more complicated than that and you might find yourself, at some point, having to do exactly that.
Maybe you’re in Southeast Asia during monsoon season, you’ve rented a car, you’re out in the country and all of a sudden, you’re in the middle of a torrential downpour.
Rivers very rapidly rise in these conditions, and a lot of places in developing countries don’t have adequate water dispersal and diversion infrastructure. If, for whatever reason, you have to keep driving and can’t safely stop, knowing not to drive through flood water with your windows up and your seatbelt on could save your life.
I’ve spent enough time in flood-prone areas, heard enough second-hand horror stories, and seen enough Liveleak footage of catastrophes to take this very seriously.
You want to be able to scramble out of a window as fast as possible should your doors fail to open.
How to scare away feral dogs
Dogs are great…when they are properly cared for by competent, responsible owners. Street dogs are pests. They are loud, spread disease, strew garbage everywhere, breed uncontrollably and can become quite territorial (particularly in packs and especially at night).
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been charged or menaced by feral dogs around the world (from Aruba to Egypt to Mexico to Thailand). And it’s not just the thought of being mobbed and chomped by ten mutts that scares me. It’s the all-but-guaranteed hospital visit, even if you escape with just a couple of bites.
Street dogs spend their days searching for and eating refuse, so just imagine what a bacterial culture of their mouths would reveal. Not only that but in many places, most of them are unvaccinated against rabies.
Of all the viruses out there, I think rabies (even more than Ebola and Japanese Encephalitis) scares me the most. Want to know something even scarier? There are often country and region-wide rabies vaccine shortages (even in developed countries).
So, how to protect yourself from street dogs? Avoiding them when you can and knowing how to understand and respond to canine body language is important, as is knowing how to spot the signs of rabies in animals. In the event of a confrontation, however, I’ve found the best tactic is to bend down to the ground and, ideally, actually pick up a rock or, if there are no rocks at hand, pretend to pick one up.
I’m always amazed by how universally this is understood by dogs. It’s like the eye roll or the finger wag, but for canines. It makes sense, though. People around the world, unfortunately, in every country, throw rocks at street dogs.
Feral dogs 100% understand what you’re doing, and it almost always makes an aggressive dog think twice about trying you–even just the action of bending down and miming picking up something off the ground. Thankfully I’ve never actually had to throw a rock at a dog, but it’s worthwhile knowing they’re afraid of the gesture.
Avoid disclosing personal information
Be courteous and respectful, but keep your guard up. That should be your philosophy any time you interact with a stranger, especially in places where life is cheap, you don’t speak the language or understand the culture and crimes (from murder to theft) are unlikely to be solved or punished.
If you don’t like the questions someone is asking you, lie. If they ask you what hotel you’re staying at, say you’re still looking. If they ask you how long you’re going to be in town and you just got there, say you’re leaving tomorrow.
You never know what someone might be setting you up for.
This one is for both men and women, but mostly for the ladies. No, I’m not trying to tell you what you can and can’t wear, I believe in a woman’s right to yada yada yada, but ask yourself this: is it worth risking your safety to make a philosophical point that you might end up not even being around to feel good about afterwards?
Just because you should, in theory, be able to walk around a bus terminal on the outskirts of Dehli at 2 a.m. wearing leggings and a crop top without fearing for your safety doesn’t mean you should. The same principle applies to wearing expensive jewellery and expensive clothing where you shouldn’t.
Yes, technically, it is everyone’s human right to ride public transportation in Bogota with a Patek Philippe on and not have a gun pulled on them, but what are you expecting to happen? He says damelo and you say, “I know you’ve come to kill me. Shoot, coward, you are only going to kill a man”, and they name a bunch of schools after you?
How to respond to various natural disaster scenarios
Over the last ten years, I’ve spent a lot of time living in places where natural disasters are a relatively common occurrence. I’ve had flights cancelled by hurricanes and the ensuing flooding, and I’ve had to reevaluate travel plans because of offshore earthquakes and potential tsunami risks.
Below, I’m going to break down (backed up by recommendations from trusted government agencies) what to do in the event of an earthquake and a tsunami.
One of my favourite places to visit in Indonesia is the province of Aceh, in the far northwest of Sumatra. It’s got fantastic diving and snorkelling, and it is still quite a ways off the standard tourist route in Indonesia.
If the name rings a bell, it’s because it was the epicentre of the 2004 offshore earthquake and tsunami, which killed hundreds of thousands and was one of the deadliest disasters in modern history.
The town of Aceh was pretty much levelled, and more than 130,000 people died. You’d be hard-pressed to meet someone in the relatively small city of Banda Aceh who had not lost at least one family member.
I struck up a conversation with a taxi driver while I was waiting for a ferry, and he told me that he had lost both his brothers, his mother and his mother-in-law.
One of the things he told me that has always stuck with me was that when people first saw the massive drop in the water level as the tide rapidly went out and exposed the beach, they actually flocked to the beach to observe the phenomenon. They didn’t realize what was happening.
Another friend in Krabi, Thailand, who was a rescue diver and translator in the aftermath of the disaster, told me the same thing. People were so mesmerized by the build-up to the tsunami that by the time they were facing down a 20m wall of water barrelling towards them at 500mph, it was too late.
All of that is to say, knowing what to look for and how to respond in the event of a tsunami is an important survival skill–anywhere in the world, but particularly anywhere in SE Asia.
I grew up in Vancouver, part of the Ring of Fire, the area of the world with the highest seismic activity, so earthquake drills were part of public school education.
I still remember some of the steps–stay inside, get under heavy furniture, cover your head and torso–but it’s worthwhile to know what to do if you find yourself in an earthquake scenario.
I remember experiencing a series of small but noticeable tremors in Albania a few years back and my Irish girlfriend had no idea what to do. I told her to move away from the window she was sitting near and get under the table on the other side of the room.
Perhaps a bit exaggerated, given the relatively weak “earthquake,” but I hadn’t considered that people who don’t live in earthquake zones don’t know how to respond to earthquakes.
Tell friends and family where you’re going, who you’re going to be with and when they can expect to hear from you
Any time you’re travelling anywhere by yourself, it’s always a good idea to let at least one person at home know where you’re going, who you’re going to be with and when you’re going to check in to let them know you’re okay.
I make detailed itineraries for people all the time, whether it’s my brother, my girlfriend or a friend–anyone who could potentially act on my behalf if I were to be in trouble. You never know when that last-minute WhatsApp or Facebook message as you leave your hotel or board a plane could save your life.
This is especially the case if you’re going into remote areas where you aren’t familiar with the terrain and there is poor or no cellular or Wi-Fi coverage.
Those are my 13
There are, of course, many more things to know and understand to stay safe while travelling (or just in your day-to-day life).
The knowledge/skills I’ve chosen are things that I’ve thought about, picked up and used personally over the years. Touch wood, I’ve yet to face any truly harrowing experiences where my ability to put this knowledge and understanding into practice is the difference between life and death, but it never hurts to know these things.
Get out there and explore the world, but keep your eyes open. At the end of the day, your safety is your responsibility.