Heads up, this is an unusual post about an uncomfortable topic. It’s an important one though, and it’s been on my mind for a long time.
You won’t see me writing much about “solo female travel” on this site, despite the fact that I often travel solo and that I am, in fact, female. I prefer to think of myself as a traveler first, and a solo traveler second (as that’s a unique experience on its own, regardless of gender).
But sometimes there is no denying the fact that yes, I am a solo, female, traveler.
For example, during a recent solo bicycle trip through a country in northern Africa (which will remain unnamed because it’s otherwise a lovely country and I don’t want to amplify negative stereotypes), I awoke in the middle of the night to a man reaching for my tent zipper.
No, he didn’t want to hurt me. He just wanted to see if I wanted to have sex with him. His cultural framework tells him that a foreign woman traveling alone is likely a willing and enthusiastic partner. He probably hadn’t met very many actual foreign women, if any.
While this story sounds like every female traveler’s worst nightmare, like a narrowly escaped assault, I’ve traveled enough to know that it’s more complex than it might seem. And here’s the important thing: this complexity actually works to our advantage.
The framework we’re taught for thinking about these uncomfortable topics is holding us back. Oversimplifications, half-truths, and myths can make us more fearful than we need to be, and can even put us in danger. With this post I want to show you that safety for solo female travelers is both messier and more manageable than it may seem.
If you’re a woman who wants to explore the world on her own terms but has struggled with that fearful voice in back of your mind, read on for a new way of looking at things. We don’t need to silence the voice, we just need to have a mindful conversation with it.
This post is all about the risk of sexual harassment, assault, the uncomfortable stuff. Don’t misunderstand me; there is a lot more to travel safety than this. For most travelers, including solo females, other risks like illness, accidents, or petty theft deserve far more of your attention.
But let’s be real: fear of harassment and sexual assault is a major issue for many female travelers, and it’s one that we’re often wary of talking about openly. So let’s dive in and tackle it head on, shall we?
Disclaimer: These are my opinions and suggestions. Take what you find helpful and leave the rest. There are many ways of looking at these things.
Fear is just fear (not a reason to stay home).
If I had a nickel for every woman who’s said to me “I could never travel the way you do, I would be so afraid!” I’d have, well, a big pile of nickels.
The thing is, I’m afraid too. How could I not be? In American society in particular, from the time we’re girls we are taught how to walk, dress, carry our keys, and even wear our hair in order to avoid harassment and assault. The media sensationalizes attacks against women as if celebrating our vulnerability.
It’s very strange, when you think about it. We are literally taught to be afraid, as if it’s part of our role as proper women in society. And the cost, in my opinion, is higher than the benefit. The cost is living with fear and accepting restrictions on our movement in the world.
Who said fear is truth? Fear is just chemicals in the brain causing a response in the body. Sometimes fear gives us important information, but sometimes fear is just fear. It’s up to us to decide what to do about it, and whether it’s useful information or just getting in our way.
So step one is to understand that the fear we feel when we think about traveling alone (or doing anything in life, for that matter) doesn’t have to be the end of the story. Feeling afraid of something doesn’t necessarily mean that thing is dangerous. We need to look deeper and decide for ourselves.
Bad things do happen.
When travelers take the leap, overcome their fear, and have good experiences, I sometimes see them develop a deceptively positive attitude: the world is a totally safe, kind, and friendly place. Nothing bad could ever happen.
This makes sense. Our brains don’t like cognitive dissonance, so rather than believe we’re putting ourselves in danger, we choose to believe there is no danger.
And it’s mostly true! I’m guilty of saying these types of things myself, because in my travels I have been astounded by the warmth, hospitality, and humanity of the people I meet. Spreading the message of a kind and connected world seems like a much-needed antidote to fear and suspicion.
But, the problem with this belief – that the world is a warm and fuzzy and safe place – is that it’s not strictly true. If we’re being honest with ourselves, we know that harassment and assault are always going to be a rare but real possibility.
Denying this truth does two harmful things. First, it can cause us to lower our guard a little too much. No matter how many positive experiences we’ve had and how many nice people there are in the world, there will be situations where it makes sense to think twice.
Second, when we let that fear fester, disowned and hidden away in a dark corner of our minds, it can take on even larger significance and sneakily steer our actions in ways we can’t see clearly.
Better to let this truth out into the open and acknowledge it. Yes, sometimes bad things happen. But….
They don’t happen very often.
Let’s keep things in perspective: the risk is pretty low. The right way to look at risk is through statistics: if I took this same trip 100 times, how many times would something bad happen? If the answer is once, then I had a 1 in 100 chance of something bad happening.
Depending on where I am and what the “bad thing” is, this number might seem high or low, but the point is, bad experiences are far from guaranteed even for solo female travelers.
There are plenty of women who have spent years traveling the world alone, in some truly adventurous places, who have not felt the need to compromise on their travel style or destinations. Most of us deal with a bit of unwanted attention from time to time, and some of us have been unlucky, but many women have trouble-free trips.
Not all bad things are your worst fear.
When we think about safety for solo female travelers, our minds tend to jump straight to ugly worst-case scenario thoughts: rape, injury, death. This can lead us to make emotional decisions that limit us more than necessary.
If we think about it, we realize this isn’t how it works. These ugliest of ugly acts are on one end of a spectrum, and very rare. On the other end are more common but “less serious” issues, like verbal harassment, unwanted come-ons, and groping.
Now, I’m not saying any of this is ok! Of course it’s not ok. As a global community we need to keep pushing for a culture that doesn’t condone these actions. But I’m a realist, and if I’m going to accept some risk I want to know which category the risk falls into.
For example, I’ve been to a number of places where the risk of being asked for sex is quite high, simply due to cultural misunderstandings. It happened about once a day in West Africa. But the risk of sexual violence seemed lower than at home in the US. For me, that situation was worth accepting in order to experience some extraordinary places.
In the realm of travel safety as in most of life, the worst things are usually also the rarest and least likely to happen. You’ll miss out on a lot in life if you make decisions by thinking mostly about the worst-case scenario.
It’s probably not going to be a stranger in the bushes.
Maybe you’ve heard this before about sexual assault in general: the “stranger jumping out of the bushes” scenario is actually pretty rare. It makes sense to me that the same would be true during travel.
Most stories I’ve read of dicey situations on the road involve someone that the woman had already gotten to know, at least a little bit. Sometimes it’s another traveler, an unethical Couch Surfing host, a pushy hostel owner, or a local driver who offered a ride.
The point is, these are people we have a chance, though small, to evaluate before we decide to trust them in a high-consequence situation. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, or that we can’t get it wrong. It just means that we’re not always on high alert in the right situations. In some cases, the stranger on the street isn’t as likely to be a problem as the drunk new friend offering to walk you back to the hostel. We should evaluate each situation on its own.
Places aren’t safe or unsafe, situations are.
I see this all the time, especially when talking about solo female travel: either a given country is “safe,” or it’s “dangerous.” What this seems to mean, as far as I can tell, is that “safe” places are the ones with easy tourism infrastructure and lots of tourists. “Unsafe” places are off the tourist track and less comfortable to travel in.
This is a dangerous assumption! Entire countries cannot be designated “safe” or “dangerous.” The important details are things like what neighborhood you’re in, what time of day it is, what you are carrying or how you are acting, and what other decisions you’ve made recently.
Europe, widely considered a “safe” place for solo female travelers, has certainly been the site of assaults. I studied in Italy as a college student and I can tell you about the prevalence of harassment there (it’s high).
On the other hand, I’ve traveled solo in Liberia, rural Cambodia, Sudan, all kinds of places where tourists don’t normally go, and felt that the local culture was a powerful protective force. In places with many tourists, you may go unnoticed. But in off-the-beaten-track places, locals are most likely watching out for you.
I’m not saying you should blindly pick a little-visited country and go running around alone in the middle of the night. These types of destinations require some judgment and experience. They can be unsafe if you’re clueless, so do your research. And some countries do have significantly higher crime rates than others.
But consider this: you may well be at higher risk in a popular European city than in a rural village in sub-Saharan Africa.
Safe and dangerous are much more granular concepts than we like to think. If you need to think about the risk of something bad happening, think about the risk of here and now, not some generalized concept at a country level. This way of thinking will unlock many fascinating destinations and ways of traveling that you may have previously written off as “too dangerous.”
Aggressors have their own motivations and fears.
Sure, some criminals are psychopaths and their brains just work differently. But most garden-variety criminals and harassers have their own set of social influences and personal risk calculations to deal with. By understanding this we can avoid unnecessary fear and, if it comes down to it, influence events in our favor by reminding someone of the potential cost of their actions.
For example, remember my story from the intro about the man who tried to come into my tent in the middle of the night? Some women might categorize that as essentially an attempted rape. That would be scary and might put me off traveling alone again.
However, using my understanding of the situation, the cultural context of where I was traveling, and the likely personal motivations of the guy in question, I categorize it as mostly an awkward misunderstanding.
Try visualizing an upside-down triangle, where each horizontal slice of the triangle (number of people willing to do an ugly thing) gets smaller as the things get more ugly, moving downward toward the tip of the triangle.
Each category in this list is probably a small fraction of the people in the category above it:
- Number of men in this part of northern Africa who assume a foreign woman traveling alone is sexually available (due to conditioning from the media they have access to, and cultural misconceptions – hey, we all have them)
- Fraction of men in #1 who would try to take advantage of this assumed availability by asking for consensual sex.
- Fraction of men in #2 who would be pushy when told no.
- Fraction of men in #3 who would consider physical force when still told no.
- Fraction of men in #4 who would actually act on the impulse to use physical force when told no.
- Fraction of men in #5 who would continue trying to use force when met with self defense and loud yelling in a quiet village, with other people around who know I’m there, in a culture where foreign visitors are respected and protected.
If each number is just a small fraction of the previous number, then what you end up with is very, very small number of people who might be in category #6. So small that I was not worried about it. My guy backed down at around step 2.5, as expected.
In other words, not every guy is a rapist (obviously). In fact, most are not. And of the few who are, many will be deterred by fear of consequences in certain situations, and we can do things to increase their awareness of this fear.
Why is this way of thinking helpful? Here are some concrete examples:
- Before this even happened I chose my camping spot – at a public place in a village where lots of people knew I was there – to help decrease the chances of someone going from category 5 to 6.
- I used a very simple deterrent – raising my voice and turning on a bright light – to make it very clear that he would be caught if he tried to go from 5 to 6.
- I didn’t get myself worked up into a total terror (though I admit I was a bit nervous) and do something stupid, like run away from the village in the middle of the night. I eventually just went back to sleep.
Some of this has to do with understanding the cultural context of the place you’re traveling in. Would I be more concerned if this happened in my home country of America? Definitely. The number of men in category 1 should already be so small that someone visiting my tent at night is already a major warning sign. But in northern Africa, maybe not so much.
The other critical piece is understanding what the aggressor has to lose in the situation. In many cultures, social standing is essential to survival and social networks are all-important. In these places only a very disconnected and unstable person would commit a crime in an environment where their social network will find out about it.
This is why villages and small towns are generally safer than big, disconnected cities. Similarly, in places where law enforcement is very strict, fewer people will be willing to take the risk if they know they might get caught.
Your “gut feeling” may not be accurate.
Nearly every list of solo female travel safety tips mentions “trust your gut” or “follow your intuition.” This is good advice if you use it right, but it can be misinterpreted.
A true “gut feeling” is a subconscious awareness of information in our environment that our brain hasn’t yet consciously processed. We may “get a bad feeling” about someone because, if we really thought about it, we would realize he has said contradictory things, or he’s avoiding eye contact and fidgeting because he’s on edge. We haven’t consciously thought about these things because we’re busy navigating a conversation, but on some level our brain has noticed them.
But, this is not necessarily the same thing as “just knowing what to do.” Sometimes our intuition gets jumbled up with a mess of other influences. We’re feeling a bit jumpy and our “gut” says everyone is a threat, or we’re having a good day and our “gut” wants to assume everyone is nice. It’s raining out and we’re miserable and that person offering a ride seems pretty nice.
Sometimes, especially for women I believe, our “gut feeling” is complicated even more by social conditioning. We want to be liked, please other people, or not cause conflict.
In these cases and others, we might try to check in with our gut and find that it’s silent, confused, or wrong.
If this happens, don’t panic. Use other sources of information to make your decision. And try to have enough awareness of what’s influencing your thoughts and emotions that you can separate true intuition from psychological noise.
You have more power than you think.
The story of sexual assault is often portrayed as a one-sided interaction driven by the aggressor. Aggressor sees victim, decides to commit crime, attempts crime, and succeeds unless victim fights back ferociously enough.
If this is true, then we have limited opportunities to change the outcome: avoid being seen by potential aggressors (advice like “don’t walk alone at night”), avoid looking like an easy target (advice like “walk confidently, don’t have earbuds in”), and fight back (advice like “take self defense classes”).
I wouldn’t argue with any of that advice. It’s solid (though the complicated part is that it over-emphasizes the need for women to avoid assault and under-emphasizes the need for men to not commit it.). But it ignores the nuance and complexity of many situations, and prevents us from thinking creatively about smart ways to respond when things start to go sideways.
In many cases, in between the possibility for assault and a “successful” attempt, there are many subtle moments when the outcome can be influenced. As discussed above, the aggressor is a human with fears and uncertainties; reminding him of these may be enough to buy the time you need.
For example, here are a few ideas for tipping things in your favor if you feel at risk:
- If someone approaches you at night, shine a bright headlamp or other light at him (makes you hard to see and draws attention to your situation).
- If alone in a remote place, consider taking a picture of the person or their vehicle, or pretending to make a phone call and describing the person’s appearance.
- Call to a fake friend down the street, or turn to a stranger and ask them a question.
- Do something weird and confusing – anything: bark like a dog, yell like a crazy person, exclaim “I’m so glad you’re here, I’ve been looking for you all day!”
- Appeal to a shared sense of humanity (warning, that’s a bit of a tough read, but very powerful)
To be clear, this is not victim blaming. Power is not the same thing as control. We may do all the “right” things and still be unlucky. No one should ever be blamed for failing to get out of a bad situation. However, I don’t think this should stop us from thinking about how we might try.
Luck, experience, and safety are not the same things.
We may travel for many years with no problems. This could lead us to believe that a) we know what we are doing and are therefore immune to the risks, or b) the places we’ve traveled are all very safe.
Either or both of these things could be true. But it could also be true that we’ve just been lucky so far.
Conversely, if something scary does happen, we might now feel that the world is a dangerous place and we need to be on high alert all the time. This is no fun, and not true.
We should definitely factor in our experience, but we shouldn’t assume the future is connected to the past. Unless there’s something about the way you travel or act that is increasing your risk, your negative experiences are independent events. Like flipping a coin, just because it came up heads last doesn’t make it any more likely to come up either heads or tails next. The odds are still the same.
Rational Safety Tips for Solo Female Travelers
I hope you can see by now that travel safety for solo women isn’t black-and-white. We are often living in the grey area.
I’m not going to tell you to never go out at night, say you’re married when you’re not, or never stay with a male host. I believe women have a right to explore the world as we are, without compromises that cut us off from some of the most rewarding travel experiences we can have.
These female travel safety tips aren’t about rules, they’re about a framework for thinking about risk. Apply them mindfully to each specific situation, and don’t shy away from the grey area.
Understand cultural context.
In my example above, a man visited my tent in the middle of the night. While camping in the US, I would have considered that likely the beginning of an assault attempt. In northern Africa I believe it was a cultural misunderstanding.
Cultural exchange is one of travel’s biggest gifts. When we learn how many ways there are of being human and crafting a society, we see ourselves and our own culture with a broader perspective. Traveling without making an effort to understand cultural context is both a missed opportunity and a source of risk. Understanding culture helps us interpret other peoples’ actions.
Try to understand how locals view women in general. Does their culture characterize “reputable” women as married, dependent, and confined to the home, and therefore assume that independent women are promiscuous? Are western movies and porn available, but real western women a rarity? Is street harassment unfortunately common even for local women?
What role does hospitality play in the local culture? In rural Turkey it might be common to invite a passing visitor into a home for a meal and bed; no red flags there. But in California, this would be unusual behavior and cause for careful thought.
Assess risk here and now. Update often.
As mentioned above, it’s misleading to say an entire country is safe or unsafe. Instead, look around you. What do you see? Bars on the windows, or kids playing outside? Is it nighttime? Are the streets busy or empty? What kind of people seem to be out and about: families, groups, single men?
Once you make an assessment, it’s not over. Keep updating, because things change. Two blocks away, or two hours later at night, the character of the neighborhood might be totally different.
Malcolm Gladwell makes the point that crime can be localized to very specific places and contexts in his book Talking to Strangers, which I recommend to anyone interested in thinking more about issues of trust and communication in a travel context or otherwise.
Be wary of situations that restrict your options.
This is why you’ve undoubtedly been told not to get in a car with a stranger, or to be wary of staying with a single male couchsurfing host. When you’re confined in a private environment that someone else controls, you have fewer options if things start to go wrong.
I think this is generally good advice. Feel free to meet that friendly local for lunch, but do it in a busy restaurant, and be extremely wary of any suggestion that you go somewhere with him afterward.
Feel free to spend a night with a local if invited. But it’s almost always a good idea to make sure it’s a family home, not a single man.
If you’re going to camp alone (I do this a lot while bicycle touring), make sure you’re either thoroughly hidden where no one will find you, or you’re in a place where you can easily be noticed if needed. Avoid the in-between places, because your options for help are limited if someone does decide to show up in the middle of the night.
If you’ve made a careful assessment and decide to get in a car or go in a house, then it’s a good idea to create a safety net for yourself. Speaking of which…
Weave a safety net.
By this I mean make sure the person you’re unsure about knows that someone else knows you are with them. Essentially, remind them of their fear of consequences if they were to attempt anything bad. You can do this if you start to get a bad feeling about a situation, or if you’re choosing to go into a situation that restricts your options.
Here’s the thing: it doesn’t have to be real! The other person just needs to think, or even suspect, that the risk of consequences is too high to bother with. Make them feel seen and they will lose their courage. There are ways to do this without being confrontational, if you’re trying to avoid escalating a tense situation.
Here are some ideas:
- Ask to take a picture with them. Say you are sending it to your family or posting it online (right now) because you like sharing stories of all the kind people you’ve been meeting on your trip.
- Mention that you told a friend all about your new acquaintance and where you were going with him.
- Fake receiving a phone call and casually describe where you are and who you’re with to the fake caller.
- Mention that your phone is tracking your GPS route and sending it to your family (this works best in places where people aren’t tech savvy, unless you’re actually doing this with a GPS tracker, which I have sometimes done on bicycle trips).
- If in public, engage a stranger: ask them a question or make a comment.
- If the person is in a vehicle, take a picture of their vehicle and license plate (again you can play oblivious tourist: “I LOVE your car, it’s so different than the ones at home!”).
- If things get tense, never hesitate to get loud and try to draw attention, even if the place seems deserted.
Notice your own assumptions and motivations.
Especially when we’re anxious, our brains can do funny things. Try to notice, if you can, what’s motivating your own behavior. Are you agreeing to something you don’t actually want to do, just because you said you would earlier or you’re afraid of upsetting someone?
Thought patterns like these make us easy to manipulate. If you notice them, you have a chance to choose your behavior instead of reacting automatically.
Know when to stop being polite and start being very clear.
As mindful travelers we usually want to be good representatives of our home culture and country. As women we’re often conditioned to be polite and likeable. For solo female travelers this double dose of pressure to act in certain ways can be dangerous.
Being kind and polite is a good place to start, but know that you do not have to stay that way. If someone is pushing you in a direction you don’t want to go, figuratively or literally, it’s time to snap out of polite mode. The risk of offending someone is absolutely worth the benefit of watching out for yourself.
Instead of being polite, be clear. “No” is a complete sentence. If things are getting uncomfortable, draw a clear line, verbally or physically. Hold up a hand, palm out, as a “stay away” signal. “Do not touch me.”
Drawing a clear line has a benefit for you too: if they cross it, you won’t waste time rationalizing their behavior with “maybe he misunderstood” or “maybe I wasn’t clear enough.” You’ll see it for what it is: a reason to take decisive action.
Overcome disbelief quickly so you can take action.
Sam Harris makes some good points about taking action in bad situations in this refreshingly rational essay about violence. It makes sense to avoid bad situations and to try and turn things to our advantage, but the minute that fails, it’s time to immediately react and escape.
In a different but related context, Laurence Gonzalez explains in his excellent book Deep Survival that we have a tendency to freeze with disbelief when something unexpected happens. This quirk of our physiology can be fatal in the survival stories Gonzalez writes about, and it can also lead us astray in unsafe situations as travelers.
Don’t waste time thinking “How can this be happening?” or “I must be missing something, this can’t be what I think it is.” Just accept that it’s happening, and take action. Better to be wrong than too late.
If you’re thinking this all sounds like WAY to much to think about while traveling, you’re right! This is part of why solo travel can be so much more mentally tiring than group travel. It’s also part of why I periodically need to just hide in a hotel room for a day while traveling solo, especially when traveling in an exposed way like on my bicycle. Awareness takes energy, but it’s important.
Remember, these are concepts, not rules to be memorized. I didn’t start out with this list. These are ideas I’ve developed and refined over time during many months alone on the road. They represent my own personal travel safety framework. I don’t need to think about them as much these days, because they are baked into the mental processes I use for decision making.
Essentially it all boils down to awareness: awareness of your environment, other peoples’ motivations, your own motivations, and the complexity of each situation.
Ask yourself these questions.
Here’s a shorter and easier way to capture many of the concepts above. Ask yourself these questions whenever you want to rationally assess the risk of a situation:
- How safe should I feel in this environment right now? What are the signs?
- How much should I trust this person? What are the signs? (Not how much DO I trust them, because that can be influenced by other things.)
- What are my options if things go wrong, and am I in (or thinking of going to) an environment that restricts my options?
- What might be motivating a potential aggressor and how much do they have to lose in this situation?
- What is motivating my own actions that might not be helpful right now? (Desire to be polite, not make waves, etc.)
In conclusion, and despite everything you just read here, I want to remind you: Most solo female travelers have positive experiences, and the benefits can be enormous. Don’t be discouraged!
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