“You’re so brave!”
When I tell people I’m travelling solo, that’s the most common response I get. And while it’s a well-intentioned comment, I’m irked that anyone still thinks a woman setting off alone might feel isolated or intimidated. In an ideal world, solo female travel wouldn’t be defiant or courageous, it would be simply a personal preference. In fact, when I take a trip by myself, my senses seem acutely tuned in to my environment, from the people I meet (or shy away from) to the streets I walk down (or skip).
Still, when we asked our readers and social communities what they learned on solo journeys, more than half of the women responded with tips on avoiding harm. And while 26 per cent of millennial women have travelled by themselves, it’s a reality that women of all ages face certain vulnerabilities on the road. Like many of my friends, I take self-defense classes for peace of mind. Yes, the courses teach groin kicks or elbow strikes, but they (and our readers) also preach avoiding hazardous situations altogether.
Yet as I read the stories women shared, their enthusiasm for adventure and transcendence of fear impressed me the most. Reader Rita Pearson may have summed it up best: “Number one, safety first. Number two, just go!”
From over a thousand responses, we collected powerful words of wisdom—and encouragement.
Travel solo, and you’ll need to have your own back, so to speak. Elena Burnett, who has spent years hiking and photographing remote sections of national parks from Mesa Verde to Great Sand Dunes, does serious prep work to assure her safety. “Buying a topographical map is one of the first things I do before a trip,” she says. “It allows me to have knowledge of trails and landmarks.” She also warns solo trekkers to be ready for weather changes and to carry adequate water and a first-aid kit.
Tip: If you’re travelling on a backcountry trail or to an area without cellular service, a satellite GPS lets you keep in touch with friends and family and call for help if needed. Burnett swears by her Garmin inReach. And consider taking some NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) wilderness first-aid training, too.
Travelling solo doesn’t have to mean you’re completely alone. Many tour companies cater to women looking for individualised experiences with a little help from local naturalists or guides. On a safari in Botswana with photo tour specialist At Close Quarters, reader Rachelle Aikens was surrounded by wildlife watching and photography experts, allowing her to take better images and learn about the region.
Tip: Join a woman-only group tour and you’ll probably find yourself in the company of like-minded travellers and potential friends. Wild Women Expeditions offers adventurous trips to places like Patagonia and Egypt; Damesly leads tours and creative retreats in destinations like Colorado and Istanbul.
When your days aren’t spent chatting and plotting your next snack stop with a travel companion, you’re forced to interact with locals and other travellers. This often results in new friendships. “Be the traveler that you would want to meet on the road,” recommends Aikens, whose open attitude helped her make a new close friend on her Botswana safari. The two women became so close that they now chat weekly and are going on a trip to the Arctic together.
Tip: Most cities offer free or cheap walking tours, which are a great way to link up with like-minded visitors. You could also find local classes and events through Meetup or Airbnb experiences, or tours through a company like Encounter Travel, which caters to singles. Tourlina helps women find female travel companions and Bumble BFF can also link you to fellow adventurers. Still, exercise good judgment and meet people only in public spaces.
Our prompt triggered over 40 responses from women who recommended developing stronger instincts and going with your gut. As a solo backpacker, Burnett tries to remain calm and be aware of both her physical and mental limits. “Don’t be hesitant or afraid to take defensive action if you feel uncomfortable or threatened,” she says.
Tip: Read Amanda Ripley’s The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why, which details tactics on how to take action quickly in potential emergencies.
Even though you’ll meet people on the road, as a solo traveller, you’ll spend lots of time on your own. So come armed with ways to occupy your free time (or stimulate your creativity) like reader Nanci Mansfield, who found that her sketchbook and pen broke the ice with a stranger in India. Intrigued by a man and his mosque-like dwelling, Mansfield asked if she could draw him. Though he initially had doubts, she won him over. “It’s a story of acceptance,” she writes. “I walked in a stranger, but walked out to a chorus of ‘byes’.”
Tip: Before you set out on your journey, consider some things you’d like to do more or try if you had more time. Sketching, taking photos, or journalling can both help you document your experience and fill downtime with hobbies you’d like to pursue instead of just playing another game of Candy Crush Saga on your phone.
“I like to immerse myself in the places I visit, taking time to live, breathe, and absorb nature and traditions,” says reader Ginny Greenwood. In Yangon, Myanmar, this led her to check out of her hotel and into a hostel for companionship. A fellow guest even hooked her up with a motorbike guide who spoke some English. He took her to see local crafters at work including bronze makers, jade sculptors, bamboo weavers, embroiderers, and puppet-makers. Greenwood and her guide then watched the sunset over the world’s longest teak bridge.
Tip: Staying at a hostel with other solo travellers can not only give you a sense of safety and fellowship, it also can also open you up to other interesting experiences. Online hostel booking sites like Hosteling International and Hostelworld.com have reader-generated reviews that, while not foolproof, might offer female adventurers an idea of whether a spot is worth bunking at or not.
It’d be unwise to befriend every passing traveller, but solo trips highlight how helpful and welcoming people can be all over the world, language barriers or not. When reader Vivienne Valles arrived in Turkey, she got an assist from a gracious local. “Coming off the Istanbul subway, I wasn’t sure how to get to my hotel,” she says. A local woman came to her rescue. “I don’t speak Turkish, and she didn’t speak English, but she understood what I needed.” The woman ended up walking Valles all the way to her hotel.
Tip: Learn a few basic phrases in the local language or download Google Translate before you leave. Even a couple of words or a pleasant greeting can help you communicate. In a pinch, drawings and gestures help, too.
On your own, you’re more likely to tune into little details about sites and local culture. Visiting Japan, reader Salena Parker was mesmerised by the delicate construction and vermillion hue of the Great Torii of Miyajima, the jumbo 19th-century gate to the 13th-century Itsukushima Shrine (a UNESCO World Heritage site). Located in the Seto Inland Sea near Hiroshima, the structures pay tribute to three sister deities. “My host sister said that the gate serves as a bridge from the human world to the spirit world,” says Parker. While the site may have been an Instagram op for some travellers, those details made it more profound for her. “It’s a thriving piece of world history,” she says. “It reminded me that there are stories to be found in the heritage of women.”
Tip: A home stay (or checking into a bed and breakfast) can expose you to locals and their customs. Parker says hers was “a great experience in cultural immersion and language learning.” Find information at Homestay.