Navigating A Safer Trail

5th June 2015

Backpacking can be a life-enhancing experience for young travellers – but for their nervous parents at home, the reality is more trepidacious than intrepid. Jennifer Lipman offers some pragmatic advice...

It was getting dark and the trail forked two ways. Hiking in the jungle of Brazil’s remote Isla Grande, with little water left and no phone signal, we desperately hoped we would choose the right path.

Thankfully we did, arriving at our hostel as the last of the light disappeared. But the truth was that my friend and I had been foolish; we should have set off earlier, should have brought a map. After all, we were keenly aware of the stories of backpacking holidays ending in catastrophe. Stories like those of David Miller and Hannah Witheridge, murdered on the Thai backpacker mecca of Koh Tao last year, or Bethany Farrell, who drowned on the Great Barrier Reef in March.

Such tragedies are fodder for Britain’s tabloids, making it easy for parents to imagine the nightmare scenario when their offspring head to Colombia, Australia or India. Yet we are a nation of travellers; Britons made 3.9 million visits abroad in January, and according to Essential Travel more than nine in ten adults have backpacked at one stage. We can hardly expect the lure of the road to be any less for the younger generation; indeed, says Dan Baker of Student Universe, backpacking is on the rise among students and graduates.

Yet parents shouldn’t worry unduly. For starters, says Baker, in the age of TripAdvisor “backpackers have plenty of resources at their disposal”. And, as Cécile Yerle of Hostelling International emphasises, “there are basic rules to follow when travelling that will keep you safe,” such as dressing modestly in religious countries, or reading blogs offering local advice to understand which neighbourhoods to avoid. Backpacking safely, she says, “is researching a destination in advance to know what to expect”. It’s a message parents should certainly reinforce.

Amid the surfeit of comparison sites, tell your kids to heed those that offer verified reviews to get a sense of their destination – and when to steer clear. “Read carefully the host’s description and reviews,” says James McClure, UK general manager for Airbnb, the increasingly popular rental site. “Every guest should in theory know exactly who they are staying with before they get there.”

An itinerary is a must, much as it goes against the backpacker vibe, not least because every country requires different documentation, like vaccine certificates. “Make sure they have at least six months remaining on the passport,” advises Chloe French of the Direct Line Group, which provides travel insurance. “Be aware of the entry requirements, including visas and how long these last.” No backpacker wants to get stuck at a border because of poor planning – and no parent wants a panicked midnight call.

And if a trek goes awry, it matters if there is someone to raise the alarm. “Make sure that someone always knows where they are,” says French. With WiFi everywhere these days, it’s hardly too much to ask for regular updates notifying of plan changes.

It’s also worth encouraging your kids to travel with recognised companies, whether tour operators like STA Travel or well-known airlines, to ensure higher safety standards. Around the globe, there are nearly 4,000 Hostelling International hostels, while there were 20 million Airbnb trips last year. In the age of social media shaming, global companies can’t afford to treat travellers badly. “Our community wouldn’t be growing like this if people weren’t having good experiences,” McClure says.

For a safe and affordable bed, Yerle advises backpackers to seek hostels with an online footprint and to book in advance. And while some might prefer the feel of an independent place, what’s key to the process is choosing wisely. Accommodation near bus stations can be seedy, and it can be advisable to fork out to avoid mixed dorms. Ultimately, there’s always a safe option. “It’s easy today to read reviews online and ask people staying in a hostel with you about their experience,” she says.

Perhaps the biggest pitfall for backpackers is protecting valuables. “There are thousands of different hostels and, frankly, some of them are as secure as a baby’s candy,” the authors of the new Lonely Planet’s book The Big Trip explain. “Look for lockable doors and lockers where you can use your own padlock.”

The authors advise backpackers to protect valuables and money overnight by tucking it inside their pillow cases. “Even the most out-of-it sleepers will wake up when someone’s tugging at their pillow,” they say, adding that theft is just as likely from fellow travellers.

The need for vigilance extends beyond the hostel walls, especially at pickpocket hotspots like stations, town squares or busy bars. In general, says French, they should avoid taking valuables with them and keep those they need out of sight. For all that you can spot a British tourist a mile-off, they don’t have to look like a walking ATM.

That’s where a money belt comes in. It might be the opposite of sexy, but it’s harder for a pickpocket to reach, and parents should insist it goes with – and is used. Likewise, it’s sensible to split cash and cards between their person and their luggage, and have some travellers’ cheques in case. On transport, remind them to keep bags near if possible. “Your backpack is your life when you’re travelling,” says Baker. “Keep it safe.”

And just as petty crime is a hazard of backpacking, so are scams. “Every traveller on the road will warn you about some great scam they claim happened to a guy they ran into in Bangkok or Amsterdam,” notes the Big Trip. “Some are just good urban myths, but the real ones are based on the fact that most visitors are hugely wealthy relative to locals.”

As Baker says, if tourists know the best backpacking spots, so do those “looking to make money in less scrupulous ways”. His advice is for backpackers is to seek tips from peers who have been there before, and to be sceptical. “If it’s too good to be true, it often will be,” he says.

Above all, worried parents should remind their offspring that the instinct for backpacking cheaply shouldn’t come at a cost to safety – even if the bank of mum and dad isn’t open. Hitching a lift might seem like a thrifty alternative, but they should think about the amount at stake. Equally, says Baker, locals will frequently offer cheap, unofficial tours of attractions. However, “these often will come with less than desirable health and safety standards.”

Much of it is about taking the precautions they’d take at home, like avoiding shady areas. And the risks apply to both genders; men, points out Baker, are often more inclined travel solo, which can be risky, while women should be cautious with new acquaintances and meet them in public. If possible, he says, they should travel with a friend. “Having someone to watch your back, as you watch theirs, is invaluable.”

If the worst happens, the experts stress that backpackers should report crimes quickly. French suggests arriving at a destination familiar with local emergency numbers and equipped with details of the nearest embassy. “Make several photocopies of your passport and keep them in different places,” she advises travellers. “Keep photos digitally on a phone, as well as on a cloud-based service.”

Assuming they’ve got insurance – which really ought to go without saying – French emphasises that it’s important to make sure it includes generous emergency medical cover, and for travellers to check what isn’t covered by the policy, like “claims arising from excessive alcohol consumption or drug use,” or trips to destinations that the Foreign Office considers risky.
Such advice might sound obvious, but it’s important to dispense, even to an eye-rolling teenager clutching a passport and a pair of flip flops. Yet it comes with a need to recognise that, at some point, parents have to step back. After all, the lure of travelling is partly about freedom – not least from nagging parents.

Still, there’s one final tip worth mum and dad pushing before check-in. “Don’t pack too much,” says Baker. “You’ll have to carry your luggage around with you everywhere!”

Find Your Local