How to stay safe on your gap year – and three tips for parents, too

Natalie Paris
Following a few safety rules will help you enjoy your trip - SOL STOCK LTD (SOL STOCK LTD (Photographer) - [None]

The news that 22-year-old British backpacker has been rescued after allegedly suffering a two-month ordeal in the Outback, where she was kept captive and raped, has shocked travellers everywhere.

Though time spent seeing the world independently has been seen as a rite of passage for many young people for years, backpacking has not been without its risks. You are travelling to unfamiliar places, often relying on the help of locals and in some cases are completely alone.

Yet however frightening backpacking or gap year travel might seem for parents and those about to take the plunge, there are ways to minimise the risks that come with the pursuit of freedom abroad. Using common sense and trusting your instincts goes a long way too.

Attacks on backpackers in Australia

There have been other attacks on backpackers in Australia over the last few years. Two months ago a French traveller was stabbed to death on the Stuart Highway, the same road where Peter Falconio, a British backpacker, disappeared in 2001.

A man from Melbourne was charged with the murder of Philippe Jegouzo, 33, in the Northern Territory. Pande Veleski, 35, was reportedly found naked after spending a night in the outback following the alleged murder.

Last August, Tom Jackson, a British backpacker from Cheshire, died from stab wounds after he tried to defend fellow Briton during a knife attack at a hostel not far from Townsville on the east coast. He was attacked by French national, Smail Ayad, 29. The woman he had been defending, Mia Ayliffe-Chung, from Derbyshire, also died in the attack.

In February 2016, two female backpackers were attacked on a remote beach in Adelaide. A 59-year-old man is due in court soon, charged with attempted murder.

Sophie Collombet, a French exchange student, was killed in 2014. Her body was found in a rotunda at Karilpu Park in Brisbane. A meth addict, Benjamin James Milward, pleaded guilty to her rape and murder.

Peter Falconio and his girlfriend Joanne Lees were on a road trip around the Northern Territory when they were flagged down in a remote area by a truck driver, Bradley Murdoch. Ms Lees said that Murdoch shot her boyfriend and tried to kidnap her, but Murdoch, though convicted of murder, has always claimed his innocence. The body of Mr Falconio, then 28, was never found.

Safety tips for backpackers everywhere

Splash out on the first night

On accommodation, that is. While budget is a major consideration for gap year students, it’s always worth researching and booking a decent room for when you first arrive in a new country or town. Even if this is just for a night, it will allow time to get your bearings and spare the pressure of finding somewhere to sleep when you step off the train, plane or bus – when you will be at your most vulnerable.

Carry a dummy wallet

Consider carrying a 'false' or 'dummy' wallet that you can hand over in the event of a robbery. This should contain an expired credit or debit card and a small amount of cash in low-denomination notes. Robbers rarely check the contents thoroughly at the scene of the crime so this should be enough to fool them.

At the same time, never display signs of wealth when travelling. Things like cameras slung over shoulders or expensive watches on wrists identify you as a potential target. Keep money, wallets, purses and money belts under clothing and not in pockets. Some people make a living from pickpocketing.

Beware your own tweets

Criminals have long used social media to track the movements of their victims. Reduce your chances of becoming a target by only posting updates once you have moved on from a particular place or event. Never post plans of where you are heading next or where you are staying – this will help criminals to target you.

Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by thinking that it’s only your friends who can see your posts. In many cases this is not true. Depending on your security settings, you should also be asking yourself who can see what your friends are 'sharing' or 'liking' allowing more of the internet to see your posts. It’s entirely possible that you won’t even know the people who end up reading your fabulous gap year diary and who, more to the point, know where you are.

Forget your iPad

Leave all expensive gadgetry at home. You will see more of a country if you are not viewing it from behind a tablet or smartphone. It will also make you more aware of what’s going on around you and allow you to identify potential dangers.

Buy a cheap phone and local sim

Smartphones have obvious pros but are also high-value items and thus extremely desirable for criminals – and unless you want to pay roaming charges, they are of limited use when abroad. Instead, carry a cheap but robust phone with nothing fancier than text and call capability. The less complicated phones are often the most reliable and generally have a longer battery life. Also, they're cheaper and easier to replace should anything happen. When you get to your destination, purchase a local network sim card and so that you’re only paying local rates for in-country calls and texts.

Plan ahead and store all the important numbers you might need for your trip. These would include any local contacts, your accommodation, the emergency services, the embassy or consulate, and emergency contacts back home.

Pack, then leave half of it behind

There are two types of traveller. Those who pack light and those who wish they had.

Packing light requires careful thought as well as a fair amount of discipline. Don’t fall into the trap of packing something because you ‘might need it’. The chances are that the item will not make it out of your bag until you get back home. To keep clothing down to a minimum, work on the rule of threes: for each item of clothing, take one to wear, one for the wash and one clean set. Overladen travellers stand out and it’s also hard work carrying heavy weights for any length of time.

Buy a door stop

One of the simplest yet most effective security devices available for the gap year traveller is a door stop: simply wedge it under the door of your accommodation (from the inside) for added in-room security. Stoppers can be remarkably cheap – you could even make a wooden wedge yourself. Alternatively, there are some really fancy ones available. Some even come fitted with alarms so that a loud sound is emitted if they are displaced. This means that, even if you’re sound asleep, you will be alerted to someone is trying to get into your room.

Tips for concerned parents and those left behind

Encourage check-ins

Arrange to have regular check-in calls with your gap year traveller. This will allow you to keep up to date with their adventures, but also confirm they are safe and where they are meant to be. Skype and FaceTime are great for this, but texts or phone calls work just as well.

Keep on top of the news

Often when people are travelling, they are unable to keep up to date with current affairs or hear the news, even if it relates to the country or region they are travelling in. Make sure you keep up to date with the security and health situation in the countries your traveller is visiting by signing up to the Foreign Office’s email alerts. This way if any significant events develop you can inform them.

Be prepared

It’s imperative to have a home support system in place. This should include a process whereby the traveller can call home to obtain vital information in case they are unable access it. This is particularly useful for reporting lost or stolen credit cards, details of the travellers insurance policy, a list of useful phone numbers and a scanned copy of the traveller's passport. These documents should be compiled before the traveller sets off, so even if they lose everything they have duplicates stored at a trusted location. Of course support also includes being there when they miss home and just need to hear a friendly voice.

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