11 Key Backpacking Safety Tips

The world has a lot to offer. It’s immense and full of wondrous things. Although it’s pretty much impossible to experience it all, backpacking is and always has been, one of the greatest ways to get the biggest bang for your buck.

Jumping from city to city, country to country, or landscape to landscape with all you need strapped to your back is one of the most efficient and exciting ways to explore Mother Earth. It doesn’t matter if you’re wandering through bustling city streets, trekking across the rugged backcountry, or embarking on international adventures, there’s truly nothing like a great backpacking trip.

Backpacking safety tips

While exploring this way is unparalleled, safety should always be your top priority. You should never unnecessarily risk that which is irreplaceable, you!

Even if you’re a seasoned traveler, there might be things you’re overlooking. It’s easy to skip certain precautions or become complacent. I know I’ve “winged” it when I should have “wonged” it and it got me into a few hairy situations I’m not proud of.

But this article isn’t just for the familiar, it’s for everybody, especially brand-new backpackers. In it, I’ll cover essential backpacking safety tips and general safety advice that everybody should follow, no matter the level of expertise. Some of the info might seem obvious, but there could be a thing or two you’ve never thought of. I assure you, it’ll be worth reading!

Before You Leave

There are things I recommend everybody do before they hit the trail or even set foot out the door. Mainly researching and gathering supplies and information.

When I was looking up the best times to visit South America, I knew I wanted to be in Bolivia during its wet season so I wouldn’t miss the Uyuni Salt Flats. If I hadn’t looked up their precipitation charts, I would have missed one of the best, and by far most beautiful, places I’ve ever been to. It was life-changing.

Before you leave - backpacking safety tips

I didn’t however look up the best local tour companies and almost paid a terrible price. A group of us hired a man whose car was falling apart halfway through the journey, in the middle of a Bolivian desert. This was not good. We had to turn back and find another company after arguing with the man for an hour, who only spoke Spanish mind you. A great learning lesson for me, and now for you!

The point is, do a ton of research before you leave. There’s no such thing as too much knowledge, especially when it comes to traveling.

1. Create a Plan and Set a Schedule

Now you don’t have to break down each and every day, minute by minute or hour by hour, but you should form a general schedule of where you want to be and what you want to do before you head out the door.

Ask yourself how much time you have for your trip, how far you want to go, and what’s your pace going to be. Once you narrow down some of these parameters, you’ll have a better sense of what to do next.

Create a plan - backpacking safety tips

Some typical follow up questions you’ll need to answer

  1. What is your transportation situation?
  2. What are the associated costs with your entire trip?
  3. Do you plan to stay in hotels/hostels, sleep in a tent, or a hybrid of both?
  4. Are there any scheduled bookings you absolutely cannot miss?
  5. Do you need any permits? If so, can you get them ahead of time?
  6. How busy will it be?
  7. What is the currency/exchange rate?

If you have a lot of time on your hands, map out the main attractions/areas you want to see or go to, but allow enough time and money to be flexible. The longer the trip, the more likely distractions will pop up and pull you towards them. A good rule of thumb – allow two days of freedom for each week you’ll be away.

After you’ve penciled in a rough itinerary and have considered all factors for getting from point A to B, familiarize yourself with the layout of the land. Visiting a big city? Learn about where the safe neighborhoods, transportation hubs, and must-see attractions are. Going into a remote wilderness? Check on water sources, dangerous plants, and/or wildlife, and cell phone reception.

Familiarize yourself - backpacking safety tips

Basically, learn as much as you can.

After you feel comfortable with what you’ve come up with, share your agenda with an emergency contact, trusted friend, or family member. Try and schedule check-ins at pre-determined intervals while you’re away. That might seem like overdoing it, but better safe than sorry right?

2. Gear and Equipment

Next is, of course, bringing the proper stuff with you. If you don’t have the right tools for the job, how can you expect to complete it? Not only do you want to bring the right gear and equipment, but you also want to avoid carrying the wrong items as well.

Say you’ll be wandering through a colder climate. Layers, layers, layers! Maybe you’ll be in a tropical locale that’s extremely humid. Grabbing a reusable water filter should be high on your list (I didn’t heed this advice and nearly died from dehydration in Hawaii). Traveling Internationally? Better invest in a money belt or backpack with anti-theft features.

Gear and equipment - backpacking safety tips

No matter where you’re going, it’s crucial to think about all of the potentially dangerous situations that could and, sometimes do, come up. After you do, weigh these likely/unlikely scenarios against the things you’ll need to combat them.

Some useful suggestions below for both urban and rural backpacking. This is just a small selection of options and is by no means a complete list –

CITY

COUNTRY

If you’d like, check out my article on the 11 Essential Items For Any Backpacking Checklist for an in-depth breakdown of what to bring with you. It’ll provide a great foundation that you can build upon with your specific wants and needs, depending on where you’re headed.

3. Acknowledging Cultural Sensitivity

My younger self had a difficult time with this next category. It was hard for me to understand why certain social norms were the way they were in other countries. Like why must you ONLY eat with your right hand in the Middle East or India? Well, I’ll tell ya. It’s because they consider the left hand unclean as it’s designated as the “wiper” if you get my drift.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to be more respectful to the region I’m visiting. Not only will locals take notice, they might be more inclined to help you if you need assistance.

Cultural sensitivity - backpacking safety tips

Also, inadvertently offending the wrong person and upsetting them, can get you into a world of hurt if you’re not careful. Using the wrong hand gesture or dressing inappropriately in the wrong area can increase the likelihood of a physical altercation. Know before you go!

Simple steps you should follow to cover your butt

  1. Research the main cultural differences, especially the offensive ones
  2. Be open-minded and avoid stereotypes
  3. Ask a lot of questions when you arrive
  4. Learn basic phrases in their language
  5. Be respectful of the local customs
  6. Check out their festivals
  7. Be patient and kind

As long as are proactive and care, you should be fine. Keep your eyes and ears peeled, don’t take anything for granted, and always be open to learning.

After You Land

Ok, you’ve done all the possible research you can back at home. Now it’s time to put your newfound knowledge into practice. After you get settled, secure your gear and rest. Look into what your next step is and prepare for it. Now the fun begins!

4. Safety Advice in Big Cities

If you’ll be spending most of your time in popular touristy cities like London or Beijing, there are certain safety concerns that you should keep in mind.

Crowded streets, traffic congestion, and dark alleyways all have unique issues to deal with. The main thing is to trust your gut. For example, if you see a lot of signs that say “Be aware of pick-pockets”, avoid that area, or keep your valuables in a money belt if you can’t or don’t want to.

Safety in big cities - backpacking safety tips

Don’t let anybody, especially panhandlers, force you to buy anything or go anywhere. If it seems too good to be true, it usually is. Here are a few sites that detail common travel scams you may run into – Protecting Yourself From Scams, and Scams That Affect Travelers. Read up on them and take note of the warning signs.

Some other quick tips

  1. Stay alert
  2. Always be aware of your surroundings
  3. Avoid walking alone at night in unfamiliar neighborhoods
  4. Stick to well-lit, populated areas
  5. Don’t walk with your phone in your hand
  6. Wear your backpack on your chest when using public transpo
  7. Use reputable transportation services
  8. Keep your belongings secure to prevent theft or loss.
  9. Leave your valuables at home
  10. Don’t set your bag down in public ever, even for a photo.
  11. Never disclose personal information or travel plans with strangers

As long as you use your common sense, you should be A-O.K. A good way to think about it is this; what if a good friend is about to do what you are thinking of doing? Would you let them, or warn them? Apply that thinking to your actions if you’re ever in doubt.

5. Trail Safety

On the flip side of the coin is how to stay safe when you’re in the middle of nowhere on a backcountry hike. Concerns shift when you’re out on the trails. Instead of worrying about people and their intentions, your focus will now be on the land and the plants and animals that encompass it.

Trail safety - backpacking safety tips

Again research is key here. If you did your due diligence before you left, you won’t run into any surprises. Adhere to trail etiquette, respect the wildlife, and don’t disturb the natural habitat.

Always stay on designated trails. There are too many stories of veteran hikers who got lost and didn’t return home. Stay away from and Don’t Feed the Wildlife.

Be mindful of your surroundings, watch for potential hazards like loose rocks, steep drop-offs, and slippery surfaces, and adjust your pace and footing accordingly.

More trail safety tips

  1. Always watch your step. If you come across a large log, step onto it and peer over it before planting your foot on the other side. There could be a snake or other hazard just waiting for you. Know where you’re walking
  2. Learn about any poisonous plants in the region and what they look like. Don’t touch or eat them of course
  3. Tuck your pants into your socks if there are concerns of ticks or other insect infestations
  4. Bring plenty of food and extra water with you
  5. Create an emergency plan
  6. Use sun protection (hat, sunglasses and sunscreen)
  7. Use trekking poles for added stability and support

Each region has its specific worries. As long as you know what you’re getting yourself into and have taken the time to prepare, you’ll be in a good spot when you’re out and about.

6. Wildlife Encounters

When you venture out into nature, dangerous wildlife encounters are a possibility, especially in remote wilderness areas. I don’t mean to scare you, but there’s always a chance a bear or mountain lion has meandered onto your path.

Wildlife encounters - backpacking safety tips

Don’t freak out! The best thing to do is stop and slowly, without turning your back, walk back the way you came. Different animals require specific actions though so it’s best to learn about them all. Here’s an article that goes over some of the most common confrontations – Wildlife Safety Tips

Try and familiarize yourself with the behavior of all the local wildlife. Where do they hang out? What do they eat? When and where do they sleep? Things of that nature. If you know what they do, you’ll know how to avoid them.

Some other universal tips

  1. securely store your food and trash in something like a bear canister. They’re designed to keep smells from attracting any unwanted friends, especially at night.
  2. Make noise while you hike. This makes your presence known. The last thing you want to do is startle a dangerous animal.
  3. Carry bear or pepper spray with you if you can
  4. Avoid hiking at night or dawn and dusk. These are high hunting times with the most activity from predators.

Overall, stay aware and give animals space. As long as you can keep a safe distance, there’s nothing to worry about.

7. Health and Hygiene

This might not jump out at you as a safety tip, but maintaining good health and hygiene is extremely important, especially during international travel. Staying hydrated, eating nutritious meals, and keeping yourself clean will help prevent illness and fatigue.

Health and hygiene - backpacking safety tips

One thing you’ll want to be extra careful to avoid is food poisoning. It’s the worst! I spent a terrible night hunched over a toilet in Ecuador that I’ll never forget and I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

Common ways to avoid food poisoning

  1. Always wash your hands before eating
  2. Avoid uncooked food
  3. Stick with either hot or cold meals, lukewarm is a no-no
  4. Only drink bottled water
  5. Avoid ice
  6. Eat where it’s busy and other tourists are dining
  7. Be cautious of street food
  8. Don’t eat or drink unpasteurized dairy

Keeping yourself clean will also help with warding off infections and chaffing. I know it’s kind of gross, but nobody likes a case of “monkey butt”. If you’ll be out in nature for most of the time, use biodegradable soaps, hand sanitizers, and unscented baby wipes.

The world is full of different bacteria and diseases. As long as you stay smart, keep it clean, and avoid the tap water, you should be alright.

Additional Factors

Let’s go over some other potential issues that people tend to ignore or at the minimum, forget about. These next few shouldn’t be taken lightly as it only takes one bad decision to ruin your day.

8. Environmental Hazards

This next section pertains more to outdoor adventures, but they’re good to know even if you are only a city backpacker. Knowing how to guard yourself against these is generally a good idea. They sometimes find their way into rare situations.

Nature comes with its fun little risks like rugged terrain, high altitudes, and natural disasters. There’s even an occurrence of somebody getting hit by a meteorite in France in 2023. It’s rare, but it happens. The point is any environment can pose danger.

So what do you do? I’ll tell ya. Check if there are any likely threats at your destination. Are you going to be in an area with heavy snowfall? Think about avalanches. Going hiking in lower-lying areas like canyons or riverbeds? Check for flash flood warnings. Traveling during the dry season? Look into wildfires.

Environmental hazards - backpacking safety tips

Basically, take a minute and see if any potential disasters are lurking in the shadows, no matter how trivial. Sometimes there’s a higher risk than there normally is and that little bit of information might sway your decision on continuing on or not.

9. Navigation and Orientation

This is another section that leans toward the wilderness but is important nonetheless. All backpackers should learn and know basic navigation. Even if you’re in a big city, understanding which way is North and which way is South can help you out in more ways than you can think of.

Navigation and orientation - backpacking safety tips

This goes double If you’ll be walking through unfamiliar and untamed terrain. You best bring along the basic navigation skills and tools. Grab a local map, learn to use a map and compass, or invest in a GPS device and practice with them until they are second nature. You never know, it might save your life one day.

No matter the type of traveling you’re undertaking, always pay attention to landmarks, trail markers, or natural features to keep yourself oriented. You should always, always, always, know where you are and where you’re headed.

10. Emergency Preparedness

Nobody wants to believe they can fall prey to an emergency. We kind of live in our own little safe worlds where things happen to others, but never to ourselves. This is a bad mindset to have. You are only human and in being such, are prone to bad times. What you can do however is prepare yourself for the risks that might befall you.

Emergency preparedness - backpacking safety tips

One thing all backpackers should do is imagine all that can go wrong and provision accordingly. For one, you should always carry emergency supplies; a first aid kit, a multi-tool, signaling devices, and an emergency shelter.

You can also be proactive. Take a basic first aid and CPR class, learn how to signal for help in the wild, or read up on/take a basic survival technique course. You never know when the info will come in handy. Don’t believe me? Read up on how a field course saved a hiker’s life on the PCT trail.

The great thing about these types of classes or training workshops is you can find them anywhere. Here’s a great place to start if you live in the U.S. – Wilderness Survival Classes. Take a moment and see if there’s one near you.

The last position you want to put yourself in is one that requires search and rescue. Don’t let your circumstances get to the point where you need to call for help. 

11. Weather Awareness

Last, but not least, the weather. Depending on where you are, things can change rapidly. Rainstorms, drops or hikes in temperature, extreme wind, and even lightning and thunderstorms can pop up out of nowhere. All of which up the risk for your personal safety.

Weather awareness - backpacking safety tips

Make a point to regularly check the weather forecasts of your backpacking destination and plan accordingly. Bring a good variety of clothing to regulate your body temperature, pick comfortable hiking shoes that provide traction and stability, and if all else fails, seek shelter in case of nasty conditions.

It’s up to you to decide what’s acceptable and what’s not. If you hate being wet, don’t backpack during a heavy rainy season. If you love being warm, avoid hiking in high-altitude locations. You’ll know what feels right and what doesn’t. Just don’t forget about checking beforehand.

Final Thoughts

Backpacking is great and offers rare opportunities for adventure and exploration unlike anything else. It’ll change your life if you let it. I have an entire article on 25 reasons why you should start exploring that should convince anybody who’s still on the fence.

Benefits of hiking - backpacking safety tips

But, you need to be smart and know your limits. I have witnessed or have heard firsthand, people getting into dangerous situations that could have been easily avoided. It only takes a moment of ignorance to change the entire trajectory of your trip.

Never fear though because you should now be well informed on the major precautions you should take, how to do the proper research, and what to bring along with you on your travels. As long as you educate yourself, everything will work out beautifully.

Well, I hope you enjoyed these backpacking safety tips. May your next journey be amazing! Best of luck to you on your next adventure! Happy trails!

Author

  • James Ryan

    A seasoned hiker and adventurer who loves to travel and experience new things. An extrovert and creative at heart, James is most definitely a "People Person". He started this blog in the hopes of making somebody's day just a bit brighter!

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