How to travel safe - Street Smart Backpacking 101

You hope that you never need to resort to these tactics, but sometimes you find yourself in dicey areas and it’s better to be prepared than clueless.

Having been mugged and pickpocketed several times, I’ve picked up a few techniques that help me stay safe.

Assess your surroundings, what is the sketch factor?

street fighter
Here are a few indicators if you are in a safe or dangerous part of town.

Always keep these in the back of your mind when walking around anywhere unfamiliar.



  • Maintained houses
  • No garbage on sidewalk
  • Well-maintained fixtures (lights, grass, pavement, bus shelters)
  • Broad daylight


  • Broken glass or windows
  • Poorly lit areas
  • Cars broken into or ones that look abandoned
  • Graffiti (not the artsy / mural kind)
  • Shanty-type houses (though be aware that this depends on the average income of the country you’re in)
  • Feral dogs or cats
  • Bars on windows (though this could be a remnant from decades past)

And it’s also important to assess the people:


People milling around, particularly:

  • Older folks
  • Children
  • Dog walkers
  • Mixed couples and single women
  • Professionals/office workers
  • Police officers visible on street corners (this is a mixed observation, because yes help is close by, but there is a reason why the local PD is stationing officers there)

Not safe:

  • Groups of youngish men, particularly if not dressed well/professionally
  • People standing around, not walking, particularly in parks after sunset
  • Large numbers of tourists (watch your wallet, camera, purse)
  • Completely empty (though this isn’t an indicator by itself, depends on density of area - just don’t wander into empty alleys)
  • If people are staring at you or paying undue amounts of attention, seeking to communicate with you
  • People actively approaching you or trying to get your attention (these may be touts, but aggressive sales can turn to scam can turn to mugging very quickly)
  • People semi-hurriedly heading in the opposite direction (someone may be being harassed ahead of you and locals are taking cover)

Do some digging

This all being said, I do find that locals and guidebooks can sometimes overexaggerate how dangerous certain places can be. Unfamiliar or poorer neighborhoods does not equal dangerous and a vast majority of world and it’s people are unfailingly nice. If you’re anywhere for a decent amount of time, ask locals if they explicitly avoid particular areas of town or if they’ve ever been robbed and the circumstances.

Most crimes you’ll ever encounter will be extremely non-violent. Pickpocketing that you won’t notice til later. A street scam designed to distract you. A bar with drinks that are considerably more expensive where they conveniently don’t show you the menu. It is extremely extremely rare that you’ll ever come into direct confrontation with any people that wish you bodily harm. For most petty criminals, the risk simply isn’t worth the return.

What you can do to keep from being a target:

1) Walk with purpose

It’s fairly obvious to spot tourists. From opening your mouth or just having the wrong color of skin or clothing brands, people will know immediately that you’re not from the area. If you walk with purpose, people are at least more likely to assume you are an expat that knows where they are going and has local friends and connections.

Even if you are lost, walk with intentionality until you find a safe person (note safe people above) that can give you directions. It’s very unlikely an older lady or person walking their dog is going to try to mug you.

2) Walk in opposite direction of traffic, on a main drag

This is similar to CIA agents insisting on sitting facing the door. It makes it far less likely people will surprise you, or follow/harass you in a car while walking. If you have the choice, use main streets and one way streets going in the opposite direction of your destination. This also gives you the opportunity to see possibly troublesome groups ahead (remember: groups of youngish men) and cross the street instead of walking through them.

3) Do not talk to or acknowledge people that are trying too hard to get your attention

Frankly, anyone trying to get your attention outside of business hours, unless it’s a really apologetic direct request (“Excuse me, do you know where…?”) should be a big red flag that they not have your best intentions at heart. A polite closed response “No thanks” or pretending you didn’t hear is perfectly fine. Don’t let polite be the enemy of safety, but keeping track of your surroundings will help you judge an appropriate response.

4) Ask a police officer for an escort

If you see a police officer, feel creeped out and aren’t going too far, there is no shame in asking for an escort. Even if you don’t speak the same language, articulating “Not safe, walk with me?” will likely get you a sympathetic response.

5) Take a cab, especially if you have luggage

This is a no brainer in many parts of the world. While we all need to max out our FitBit quota for the day, 3am after a night of going out is not the time to do it. Double goes for having luggage at night. This is asking for problems and cons are well-trained at separating you from your luggage or forcing you to make a choice about which bag to keep.

6) Do not take out your phone, wear expensive jewelry or take out a map

Again, another no brainer. You are screaming “Tourist! Has no idea what’s going on!” While you may want to look good, this is really not the time to advertise. Put the jewelry away. Taking out a phone, even to check where you’re going is ill-advised. Duck into a corner and hide the phone screen with your body. If you’re a guy, pretend you need to relieve yourself. And maps are just an invitation for harassment.

7) Buddy up

There’s always increased safety in numbers. If you go out with friends, try to take the same route out or back together. At the very least agree on a meeting place and time. If you find yourself stranded (say missing the last train), it can help to buddy up with a local or tourist in a similar predicament.

8) Do not be afraid to run or jog

If someone does accost you, or if you feel unsafe, don’t be afraid to go for a leisurely jog for a few blocks. You are very unlikely to be chased and this goes along with the “walk/move with intentionality advice above”. You aren’t running for your life, but a few dozen meters of seperation can make a large difference.

9) Carry a glass bottle or largish umbrella (it’s more about deterrence than using it)

Lastly, while not advisable for everyone, I’ve carried a half-finished beer bottle while walking home, or packed an extra large umbrella. Just as added precaution against someone who may see me as a target. I have absolutely no intention of using it (and this is a bad idea — see below), but the deterrence factor is important. They are going for the easiest target, don’t let it be you. Don’t be the slowest wildebeest.

What to do if you are mugged:

If you do find yourself in a bad situation where you are likely to be parted from your belongings, here are important things to remember:

1) They have made an intentional choice to accost/rob you, and this is likely not the first time. There is a good likelihood they will not back down and a decent chance they will resort to violence. Any medical bills you incur are likely to exceed the value of belongings you have on you.

2) Many times, they have friends waiting just out of sight. While you may think you can take them on one-on-one, there are so many factors out of your control (lack of knowledge of surroundings, concealed weapons, collusive police) that you should really really think twice about fighting back. It is far better to not resist and just file a police report and insurance claim later.

3) Stay calm, confident and smile. While this may sound counter-intuitive, it’s important to remain upbeat and inoffensive. The less abuse they receive the less they are likely to inflict on you. Cracking a joke or smile might distract them enough not to check your other pocket.

How to be prepared:

1) Don’t travel with anything you value

This starts before you even leave on your trip. Don’t pack anything that is irreplaceable or sentimental in value. If you don’t value your belongings much, then you won’t feel the sting as much if you lose them.

2) Buy property insurance

For a fairly nominal monthly rate, you can insure your property against theft. Keep in mind you will have to file a police report and follow the terms of your insurance policy (be careful about declaring anything that was used in a business)

3) File a police report

As soon as you can, go to a police station and file a police report. This is often required for insurance coverage. If there is a language barrier, many countries have tourist police that will act as translators.

4) Don’t wear extravagant clothing or accessories

Really, you aren’t out there to dress to impress. Just look “good enough” for wherever you’re going. Wearing designer clothes or bling may impress the people at the bar or show (really your accent will do just as much) but you are a walking “Steal from me, I have low repercussions, high return” sign.

5) Avoid touristy areas

A vast majority of pickpocketing and scams in any city are focused on the touristy areas. Instead of walking the main drag with it’s crappy trinket vendors and over-priced gelato, consider checking out and staying in other neighborhoods.

6) Know local scams

Finally, it pays to go to and look up common scams under the “Stay Safe” section. They way, if anything bizarre happens to you (person squirts mustard, offers a tea ceremony or throws a baby in your face) you won’t be caught off guard and will get out of the situation quickly.

7) Be polite, but aware - not your place to be a hero

In many parts of the world, you’ll come across people that want to talk to you. You’re different. Possibly from a place that they have heard of and want to go. It’s really important to interpret your surroundings and put the person and the question in context. “Where are you from?” is a perfectly honest, polite conversation-starter in a coffeeshop or even on a subway. It’s not nearly as appropriate at 2am on a shady street.

Likewise, people adept at cons are great at distracting you with seemingly harmless conversation starters. If you’re walking somewhere and someone asks completely out of the blue “How’s your day going?” It’s perfectly fine to respond with something polite, but closed-ended “Just fine! Thank you” and continue on your way without stopping. “Can I tell you a story?” can be met with “Sorry, in a rush” without skipping a beat. Unless you’re really familiar with an area, it’s not really your place to act the magnanimous good samaritan or helpful guide.

If someone is truly actually lost, they are better served by a local. While you may be tempted to help someone in need. It’s highly unlikely that someone who legitimately needs help is going to turn to a foreigner who may barely know the language or the area. Personally, I can’t conceive anyone that would flip into their non-native language if they needed help with a car or a medical emergency.

8) Nonchalance and comfort are the name of the game

More broadly, being less of a target is more about acting nonchalant or comfortable even in unfamiliar surroundings. If you look scared, lost, confused, predatory people will flock to you. But if you see odd things and don’t act surprised or change your behavior, people will more likely assume you know what you’re doing.

Similarly, if you cross paths with someone that makes you uncomfortable, doing everything you can to act normally is going to be your best shot at security.

Hopefully, all of these tips will help you have a scam and crime-free trip. Feel free to comment below on your best tips to stay safe abroad!

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