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How Do Travelers Not Get Killed?

So how do travelers move through the world and stay alive too?

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The following is a question from a reader named Eva about how perpetual travelers can move through the world and stay alive too.

hi! so i have many dreams of travelling but a question keeps popping up in my mind. how does a traveller not get killed ? i mean since you are on the road -either by staying in a tent or by just walking on a deserted road- someone somewhere will just have to try to murder/rape/rob you. do you have to carry a knife or something or avoid deserted roads( especially those big ones with fast moving cars.brr)? i know a may be paranoid 😛 thanks in advance!

Contrary to what may be shown in the media, people are generally not on the lookout to indiscriminately murder strangers. The world is almost incredibly safe for people traveling, and I’d make a wager that it there is a statistically better chance of someone being killed in their hometown, where they have many social/ emotional ties and can lead to potentially violent outcomes, than on the road, where he/ she doesn’t know or have no responsibility to anybody. Outside of a few politically sensitive regions, international travelers are pretty much too insignificant and socially distant from the communities we travel through to be in much danger. Really, we’re nobodies out here.

To put this in context, most long term travelers that I know have been in actual life or death violent situations less times than they have fingers on one hand. I’ve been in one only once.

Only one time in 14+ years of world travel through 52 countries have I been the recipient of violence.

(And it wasn’t even that bad.)

So I don’t believe the odds of being violently attacked increase with international travel.

Places are rarely dangerous, but behaviors can be.

I’m talking about things such as refusing to pay a boom boom girl, trying to prevent a robbery, having a drug deal go bad, disrespecting locals, trying to force the locals to respect you, trying to get justice, getting drunk and disorderly, improperly engaging in sexual relationships, leading dudes on, refusing to adapt the social signals you give off, thinking that all cultures are no different than your own and expecting the people to act the same as they do in your country, resisting robbery, offending religions, talking politics, flaunting money, trusting/ resisting/ interacting with the police, muddling in political protests, doing/ buying/ selling drugs, hitting on another dude’s girlfriend/ wive, getting involved in community/ family issues that you have no place in, not observing and obeying obvious danger signs etc . . .

Simply going out to remote areas and traveling is often not enough in and of itself to invite violence. It is often the particular situations that people put themselves in when traveling that prove dangerous, not the places they go or the act of travel in and of itself.

So avoiding these potentially bad situations that can result from poor choices and errant behavior is a better course of action than planning self-defense strategies for when you do find yourself at the wrong end of a gun, so to speak.

More often than not, on those rare occasions that you’re engage violently the person wants something other than to kill you — mostly money or, if you’re a woman, sex. Knowing the signs of these situations and staying away from them is key to traveling safer.

Traveling safe means no fear mongering.

Guidelines for staying safe when traveling

These are guidelines, not hard set rules, and every traveler must find the balance between curating their own security and enjoying their travels. That said, all of us break and bend these guidelines regularly, but knowing when you’re entering a potentially bad situation is key navigating it and mitigating the risks.

Don’t talk politics, especially when drinking

This is a classic way to piss people off anywhere. It’s alright to ask questions, but keep your opinions to yourself. Realize that you don’t know shit about politics, your opinions don’t matter, and your vision of political utopia is just as crap as the next person’s.

(It is unbelievable how many fewer arguments I’ve had since realizing this.)

The last think you want when traveling is to offend the tribe you’re living in.

Stay out of religion

It’s one thing to be the “Other” when traveling abroad, it’s another to be the enemy. In most cases, your nationality or native religion is not enough to make you an enemy — people are generally smarter than this — but going abroad and engaging in religious actives or talking religion is an excellent way to invite problems.

Also, it is easy to get in over your head when dealing with some religions. They seem simple, good, and gracious at first, but then you start to see what’s really going on and you could end up in a very grave situation. Religions have ways of sucking people in, and they are often not what they seem at first.

I once knew a woman who was held captive by Hare Krishnas when on a mission to Africa because she discovered that the organization she was apart of was embezzling funds. The organization didn’t want this information to get out, so they locked her up and refused to let her leave. That’s dangerous.

I have another friend who got a little to deep into Islam in India. It started off with prayers, robes, and eyeliner, and ended with an arranged marriage. He got sucked in and had to get out fast. This could have been dangerous.

Although these are just two anecdotal examples which, in and of themselves, don’t carry much weight, be aware of the fact that religions are rarely just spiritual groups, and there’s a complex social, political, and economic web that comes along with the prayers. Don’t get tangled up in this.

Don’t lead men on (for women)

A) Don’t bank on the fact that your male friends abroad will be as happy to remain “just friends” as they are in the USA/ Canada. This is very relative to culture, of course, but in many places the hetero though asexual “male/ female” friendship isn’t very common — especially when a foreign woman is involved. Be aware of how men relate to, think of, and engage single women and adapt your behavior to get your desired outcomes.

B) As a general rule, learn what the local signs of courtship are and only show them to the men that you truly want to engage in this manner. In some cultures, the leeway that you have with men is far more than it is in the USA, while in others, if you merely look at a dude the wrong way you’re going to have to peel him off your leg. Be aware that the signs and signals that communicate sexual interest vary in each culture, so learn them and use this knowledge to your advantage. The best way to learn this is to talk with the local women, and do what they do.

C) Be very clear and consistent with the messages you send. If you have a boyfriend/ husband — or are lying and saying that you do — don’t engage other men one on one or send signals that could be interpreted as flirtatious, or at least more than friendly.

D) Be aware that in some cultures you come with the ready made reputation of being a slut, so even the slightest cues can be misconstrued as sexual signals. This sucks, but it’s the way it is.

E) Leading men on is an incredibly dangerous thing to do, whether you intend to or not. Doing this can easily mix the emotion of anger with the drive for sex, and you don’t want to be anywhere near this combination.

Adapt to cultures, don’t try to change them

Some cultures seem screwed up. Some societies don’t treat other people/ you as you feel they should. For the traveler, right or wrong, should be or shouldn’t be are irrelevant constructs. Learn the way things ARE, accept them, and adapt.

You’re not going to change anybody, and trying to force people to adapt to your cultural values is asking for problems.

Be aware of your situation when in bars

Saying “stay out of bars” here would be very silly advice. Bars are places where people meet, socialize, and engage each other. To avoid them is to miss a big part of the travel experience in many cultures. But always be aware that bars can be the most dangerous places.

There is far to much advice to give on this matter than can be publish in the response, so I’ll keep it simple.

If you’re a dude:

  • Don’t act tough, you’re not.
  • Don’t try to right wrongs.
  • Realize that you have no face abroad, there is no reason for anyone to respect you.
  • Know that there could be more to the situation when hitting on local women.
  • Be aware that working girls sometimes go out disguised as non-working girls. Don’t get trapped.
  • If you go in for working girls, learn how to do so the right way.
  • Try to learn the lay of the land from other foreigners who’ve been there longer than you.
  • Be aware that schemes to entrap foreign men using pretty women as bait are multitudinous. Realize that if a situation seems too good to be true, it probably is.
  • If you have a problem with someone, leave. Don’t stand your ground. Don’t just go to the other side of the bar. Leave.
  • Know that every local probably has a group of friends somewhere nearby.
  • The concept of a fair fight is always open to cultural interpretation. If you fight one dude be prepared to fight all of his friends.
  • The locals are on home turf and are going to defend it virulently.
  • Fistfights escalate, there is probably just as much chance of a local coming back with a knife or gun than admitting defeat to a foreigner.
  • The cops are in the corner of the locals.
  • If you have any problem at all, apologize, show proper respect, then leave — even if you’re right.
  • Be careful exiting bars, especially late at night. Try to do so with friends.

For women:

  • Be aware of how local women who are not working girls act in bars. Do they go out alone? Are they talking to random men? What are they wearing? Copy them.
  • Don’t lead dudes on. If you have no interest in someone make it clear from the start. Yes, that means not accepting their drinks or invitations to sit with them.
  • If alone, make female friends fast.
  • People go to bars in search of sex partners. If it has a penis there is a good chance it’s keen on using it.
  • Don’t jump from dude to dude if you’re on the prowl. You’re just going to make the bastards compete and fight. This is Mammal 101 behavior.

Don’t get involved in illegal activities

This goes without explaining. Know the consequences, evaluate the risks, make your own choices.

Know when to walk away, know when to run

If something doesn’t seem right, it probably isn’t. Getting out and moving on is a better bet than waiting to see if a situation goes bad. Trust your instincts, and NEVER EVER worry about offending someone if you get the urge to get out of a situation.

Self Defense


Unless you’re going into a truly dangerous area where everybody is carrying weapons, don’t bother. Carrying recognized lethal implements — such as knives and guns — will often put you in more trouble than they get you out of. Now I always carry some kind of knife with me, but I don’t view it as a self defense implement, and I wouldn’t actually pull it on someone — even if I had to.

To be clear, I don’t want to take the chance of killing someone, even if they’re trying to kill me. If I’m in a violent situation, what I want to do is injure the attacker bad enough that they are temporarily incapacitated so I can get away. If you use a knife on someone there is always the chance that you could hit something vital and they’ll bleed out, leaving you in a very precarious legal situation.

No, I never recommend using recognized weapons for self defense.

But just about anything can be used as a weapon, and I keep myself stocked with some normal, everyday items that could be used to temporarily incapacitate an attacker with pain if the need be.

An excellent tutorial on using everyday weapons for self defense when traveling:

Hand to hand combat

I’m formally trained in Muay Thai, but I will never use it in an actual violent situation. In point, there is no way that I am going to fight someone unless it is a actual life or death situation, and if I ever am in such a situation I’m definitely not going to box. The same goes for all other martial arts: they are sports, you do them for fitness and fun, not self defense. In point, US Marines are not going around throwing right hooks and roundhouses in combat.

One of the most valuable lessons I ever received in my life came from a US Marine. He taught me how to do three things:

1) Rip an ear off.
2) Gouge eyeballs out.
3) Remove a nut sack from a body.

If you rip a body part off of someone, the fight’s over. Punto. You’ve increase your chances for survival.

The methods that the marine showed me were so incredibly simple and easy that a weakling could do them after a half hour of training. “It only takes seven pounds of pressure to rip off a human ear,” he said.

This is what I was taught:

The other two moves are pretty self explanatory.

Now, I’ve never once been close to being in a situation where I even thought about ripping body parts off, and hopefully I never will be. If I’m engaged by someone violently the first thing I’m going to do is try to kick/ knee him or her in the genitals. Only after that will I consider taking more damaging action.


Learn culture, learn signs of danger, learn how to take evasive action, then stop worrying and have fun.

Life or death violent situations happen rarely for travelers who are proactive about avoiding them. Most problems in travel result from a string of bad decisions and social miscues. If you know what a bad situation looks and feels like they are often not too difficult to subvert and keep traveling in the clear.

If anything, world travel has become too safe. A part of the thrill is lost when you start to realize just how safe this world really is. But you should go out into the world with a sense of fear, you should look at all situations and evaluate them for danger, you shouldn’t trust people when you first meet them, and know that even the safest seeming places and situations can flip to the opposite extreme at any time.

Fear is good, it’s what keeps you safe, but it shouldn’t keep you at home.


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Filed under: Travel Help, Travel Safe, Travel Tips

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3715 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

12 comments… add one

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  • Tristanbul August 27, 2013, 6:47 am

    Right on, Wade. In all of my travels so far, among the very few potentially violent situations I’ve been in, I have been able to defuse all of them. In one case, having two attempted pickpockets close in on me and aggressively get into my personal space set off the self-defense alarms in my head. The instinct was to physically react, but I instead just bolted for about 50 feet before seeing that they they didn’t pursue. A pickpocket can hardly do their job if you’re running.

    The other situations have happened just as often in my home country as they have living abroad: when staying out too late, on occasion drunk local tough-guys want to prove themselves. Sometimes, although not often, they single out the foreigner (especially if the individual is xenophobic and you happen to be talking to local women). Regardless of country, these type of people usually need a “reason” to actually begin any violence. They might make threats/challenges to you, but if you keep smiling and being friendly while ignoring or pretending to not understand the threats, 99% of the time it won’t escalate into violence. I usually just keep up the happy, dumb foreigner routine until they get distracted or bored with me, then I gracefully make my exit.

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    • Wade Shepard August 27, 2013, 9:10 am

      For sure, not showing a challenge is the best way to diffuse many alpha-male type situations, and getting away is always best. It’s hard to pick a fight with someone who shows little resistance 🙂

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      • Tristanbul August 27, 2013, 3:31 pm

        It’s true. Although I must admit I rarely slink away unless I’ve already seen the person physically attack others. Unless I sense the situation to be far too dangerous, my “graceful exit” usually involves going up to the aggressor, giving him a big handshake, a huge smile and an “it was nice to meet you” in the local language before I leave.

        I call it the Mister Rogers effect: you’re killing the aggression with kindness. Although there’s the rare chance I’ll get punched in the face for it, every time I’ve done this so far it has left the guy a bit bewildered and totally disarmed. You’re establishing yourself as the “big man” — in a non-aggressive way you’re saying “I have no reason to fear you, and no reason to fight you, because I am the one in charge.” And while the guy is a bit confused by your unexpected kindness, you’ve created the perfect window to leave. This greatly reduces the chance of him following you into a more isolated area on your walk home.

        So while it may slightly increase your chances of getting punched in the face, if he was planning to do it anyway, at least you’ll be punched in the face when you’re surrounded by witnesses rather than in a backstreet. I have to add though, the effectiveness of this technique depends greatly on the person — I’m a large guy and fairly imposing, but I can barely outrun a tortoise. Establishing myself as the “big man” works for me. But if I was shorter, skinny and quick, I’d instead just disappear when the chance came, knowing I could outrun the problem if pursued.

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        • Wade Shepard August 31, 2013, 10:51 pm

          Yes, right on. It seems as if you have a method for dealing with these situations that work.

          It’s my experience that there is a fine line between being a “Big Man,” and getting into an alpha-male competition.


          It is my impression that showing yourself as a “Big Man” from the onset is for the purpose of preventing conflict — people often look for obviously weaker targets to bully — but if you’re ever challenged a traveler is rarely going to win an alpha-male competition on a local’s turf, so it’s best to leave. In places where people are drinking alcohol the rules of engagement also change, and showing yourself as being top dog often just invites competition. Bars are often forums for men to show how big and bad they are, they are unique social spheres in and of themselves, and unless I have an ulterior objective I usually put myself in proper pecking order or get out of these places before the competition gets too heated.

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  • alf August 27, 2013, 1:34 pm

    I think it was in another of your articles that I saw a notion that I use everyday: traveling is like crossing a street.

    Being generally attentive to what is going on around will keep you safe, not only when traveling, but even at home. Being aware if you are heading into a seemingly shady part of town, being aware if somebody is following you, being aware of how you look (flashing your valuables, talking loudly, looking too ‘touristy’, etc.). Looking around you is a good way to stay safe, especially when you are alone in an unfamiliar place and when you are and/or look like an outsider.

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  • Bob L September 2, 2013, 8:46 pm

    This is a great article and should be one of your main links on the home page. The only thing you should add is that if someone tries to rob you, “most” often it is best to just let them. Possessions are not worth your life. Too many people are scared to death to travel. Too many others think the world is safer than they imagine their home turf to be.

    Bob L

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    • Wade Shepard September 3, 2013, 9:58 pm

      Definitely. In most countries they just want your money not your life — well, if you don’t give them a hard time that is.

      Just thinking about how many interpersonal problems result from being deeply intertwined within a social web — having friends and enemies and strong emotional bonds with people that could potentially flip violent — and travel just about anywhere where you know nobody and are not tied into the social net at all, and travel becomes amazing safe. Sure, sometimes they may want your money, but that’s about it.

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  • Megan September 9, 2013, 4:28 pm

    I appreciate this as a woman – not because this is news to me but I have encountered a startling and frustrating number of women in my travels whom just don’t seem to get it. One can argue that men and women aren’t really “just friends” in the USA or Canada either, but it’s usually understood that a period of friendship often is required before any courtship can proceed. Thus that creates a buffer for individuals to get to know each other and nothing is assumed. There are exceptions, but this is my experience in the USA the majority of the time.

    In many countries in the world, it is safe to speak with local men or even go out with them socially (once you have been acclimated to the culture for a while) but this should be done in GROUPS – with other women present, and where you are sure of the casual nature of the event and that you aren’t being set up with a guy unannounced to you.

    My best piece of advice for women travelers is to not ever isolate yourself – and don’t count on one other woman to be much help at deflecting unwanted attention either. Never go out with a man alone unless you are romantically interested with him – this includes even the most casual of situations. You will receive many offers to be shown around – if you’re looking for a tour guide, find another group of travelers and inquire with your host family or hostel or wherever you are.

    In all corners of the globe, we are viewed as conquests. It’s unfair, but you can still enjoy yourself just as much as the guys. In many corners of the globe, machismo can also lead to chivalry and I’ve often been protected and looked after by people whom I don’t even know. Befriending local women is a big advantage – enjoy their company. Being confident with yourself doesn’t mean you have to be by yourself. I try to surround myself with interesting travelers and local women (and men who have proven to be safe) by day and if I need alone time, it’s easy to get by simply reading a book wherever you are.

    I do have one question though, Wade: Is your three-point body protecting advice from the Marine good for women, too? I feel like my only self defense option is deflection and avoidance, but I am often worried about what would happen if I actually had to defend myself.

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    • Megan September 9, 2013, 4:35 pm

      Another point I meant to make is that it’s not always the local guys you have to look out for. There are no shortage of male travelers (and female for that matter, of course) who are looking for discreet, no-strings-attached flings with their female counterparts. I was in an uncomfortable situation at a hostel in Nicaragua when a Canadian man was angered by my rejection of his advances. I had not done anything to “lead him on” other than be attractive and in his presence for a few days – talking to him in groups of people. He clearly thought that he was god’s gift to women (admittedly, he was handsome but I am not into short-term flings with people I don’t know and his impatience with me was a total turn-off) and I did watch him land two girls in the three weeks that we shared hostel space (I loved the place and the other people there, otherwise I would have just left) but he just could not handle being rejected. So, please – women – be on the lookout for these douche-bags, too. NEVER be afraid to seem “cold.” It’s better to be standoffish than harassed. That was long-winded, but it’s an important note to make.

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  • Paul F. December 25, 2013, 11:20 am

    Hey Wade! How is the family? This is sort of in the scope here, but I feel that it is worth mentioning. Like you, I grew up surrounded by punk rock, and a large part of that subculture’s fashion is military-looking surplus gear. Even though I am almost 30, I still like the cheap stuff, and things that were made to be worn hard by soldiers for an extremely low cost I think are perfect for budget travelers. That being said, when I was in visiting the Florida Keys, there were many Cuban refugees that…disliked my choice of headgear, an olive militia-style cap. That coupled with the full beard that I wear made me look like an Anglo Castro. I loved that hat, it had a discreet pocket for some ID copies and an errant $20 just in case. While I never thought about it, being home at the time, what you wear can really send off the wrong signals, leading to confrontations and hassles that I could have avoided if I had just thought about it a bit. I guess my point is, just as you take into consideration of the dominant religious customs of an area you are visiting, try to be respectful and observant of political hot buttons, and dress accordingly.

    On an unrelated note, Africa seems ripe for budget traveling, especially West and Central Africa. Would you consider these viable destinations, or does making you and your family go through all the requisite vaccinations, increasing visa costs, and political upheaval
    preclude the dark continent for travel?
    Cheers Wade and family, Happy Christmas!

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    • Wade Shepard January 6, 2014, 4:15 am

      I feel that always being yourself and not tip-toeing around cultures and having an overestimated sense of what constitutes respectable behavior is always key. No matter where you go in the world if you follow basic manners you are not really going to offend anybody. Someone who gives you shit for wearing a certain kind of hat — especially one that is rather common and worn in all types of contexts — is an asshole looking to pick a fight. For some reason Americans seem to interpret “freedom” as the freedom to tell other people what to do or to project morality/ ideology/ worldview over anybody within speaking distance. Such small things really don’t offend or even register with most other cultures in the world. It’s my opinion that being yourself, being a foreigner, and not pretending to be “local” is best practice for traveling abroad. Likewise, the same standards of what constitutes improper behavior is also generally the same the world over. Unwashed and exceptionally smelly travelers — especially those who think it’s cool to not wear shoes — are just as offensive in Laos as they are Omaha.

      Though an understanding of cultural context is needed wherever in the world you are. If you’re in a formal situation, dress formally. It’s interesting to me how many of us from the USA are programmed into knowing that it’s improper to go into a church wearing crappy clothes but so many travelers try to stroll right into temples, mosques, and other religious places in shorts and tank tops. Really, most cultures are essentially the same.

      As far as politics go I have no strong political leanings any which way, so I don’t really find much interest in battling people over these issues. Mostly, I just ask questions. It is also generally accepted that foreigners have foreign ideas, and it is rare to encounter people who try to browbeat you into thinking what they do when abroad. If you do then you’re probably talking with an asshole, and it’s best to leave.

      What is annoying though is that many people seem to think they know all about you because they watch American movies, news, etc . . . This is more of an annoyance than a problem. Ignorance is normal everywhere.

      Basically, don’t worry about sending the wrong signals too much. Foreigners are rarely taken seriously anywhere.

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    • Wade Shepard January 6, 2014, 4:15 am

      On an unrelated note, I thought you were my editor at first, as you have the same name.

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