Scrolling through Facebook, I recently came across an article from Matador Network, suggesting that solo female travellers shouldn’t head off until they “understand these seven things”. I have to say I found it a disappointing and slightly aggressive effort. After almost eight months of backpacking alone through Asia, I feel I know a fair bit about solo female travel now, so I decided to pull together some tips that I myself would have liked to hear before I left back in January. Here’s my take on what you should know before you set out on your trip…
1. Wear what you like. You know what you feel most comfortable in, and you have enough common sense to know what kind of clothing to bring for the activities that you’re doing on your trip (although I stupidly didn’t realise that I would need warm clothing for the summits of volcanoes before sunrise – so do your research!). I’ve met girls who, like me, live in elephant-print hippy pants and don’t bother with make-up, and I’ve met girls who wear their regular clothes and still take the time to style their hair and do their face. Go with whatever you feel you want to do – before I went travelling, I never left the house without dark eye make-up, blowdried hair and my contact lenses in; as I reached South East Asia with its sticky heat, I simply found myself less and less inclined to pull my hairdryer out or try to keep eyeshadow on my damp face, or to faff around with contact lenses in bathrooms without soap. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t either. No one is going to judge you on how you look; they’re too busy enjoying their own trips.
2. If you’re going to countries where pale skin is seen as desirable, make sure you bring as much sunscreen and facial wipes/moisturiser as you can reasonably fit in your bag. Pretty much everything local will have whitening chemicals in it, and outside of the big cities you will struggle to find anything without. In Asia, I even found that sometimes brand-name toiletries would be a special version with whitening added. This tip applies to you whatever colour your skin is; you don’t want to be putting that crap on it.
3. Bring tampons, condoms and a sufficient supply of your birth control pill if you want/need them; depending on where you’re going, you may or may not be able to find these things with ease, and sod’s law dictates that you’ll run out when you’re in the middle of nowhere if you don’t bring enough.
4. You are not a delicate flower. So much advice aimed at female solo travellers is about safety. Yes, we are more vulnerable to certain types of attack. Yes, we have to deal with harassment that our male counterparts don’t receive; but we don’t have to let that affect our trip. Read up on local cultures, dress appropriately, and by all means take care in sketchy areas; but don’t go overboard with the precautions. You wouldn’t shut yourself away and live your life around fear or “what ifs” at home, so there’s no need to do it whilst travelling. I’ll go out for a drink by myself, walk around after dark to see a city come to life at night, and go hiking alone. I do my research, trust my instincts, and go out and enjoy my time in whichever countries I want to visit.
5. You don’t always have to be polite. As women, society brings up us to believe that we must always be pleasant; we must return smiles and greetings, answer questions, and just generally be nice. When I first started travelling, I felt that I had to respond to every “hello miss!” and “hey, lady!” and “how are you” and “where are you from” and “what’s your name”, and I couldn’t refuse requests for photos with people because that would be rude, and I didn’t want to be rude. Then I realised that the problem wasn’t me feeling tired of dealing with this; the problem was with the local men (yes, pretty much always the men) who felt entitled to my attention and my presence. I don’t respond to men back home who cat-call, make comments as I walk past, or tell me to “smile, love!”, and I certainly wouldn’t let them take photographs with me, so why was I doing it out here? Now I respond to greetings or questions with a brief hello before walking on, and I only say yes to selfies with children, families or teenage girls. Own yourself, and don’t feel pressured into situations which make you uncomfortable, just out of fear of seeming rude. They will have forgotten about you within ten minutes anyway; you’re not hurting anyone’s feelings.
6. You don’t have to become best friends with everyone you meet. You hear lots of talk about how many people you’ll meet when you go backpacking solo. This doesn’t mean you’ll actually become friends with them all. For the first six weeks of my trip, I didn’t find anyone who I really connected with, and I was starting to worry that I was going wrong somewhere. Over time, however, I started to make genuine friends. I still only have a handful, out of the hundreds of people I’ve met this year; but that’s OK. Just like you won’t become close with everyone you meet at work or through your wider circle of friends at home, even if you have pleasant conversations or fun times with them, you won’t stay in touch with everyone you meet on your trip. The small collection of friends that I have made, however, are keepers.
7. Party and have lots of sex if you want to. Don’t if you don’t feel like it. Again, people talk about all of the drinking and hooking up that goes on when you’re out backpacking. Depending on where you’re going, you may or not may not encounter this kind of thing going on. It’s your life; no one else cares. Do what you want, don’t worry about what others think, and play safe.
8. Female-only dorms are actually really annoying! I started off choosing female dorms because I thought they’d be more pleasant. Nope. Girls unpack their whole bags and spread their shit all over the floor. They leave used tissues and cotton buds lying around the sink (I didn’t realise until I began this trip how gross women are!). They tiptoe around each other and have long polite discussions about what temperature everyone would like the aircon to be at, and then bitch about that girl who made too much noise when she got up early this morning. Mixed dorms are more likely to smell bad (sorry boys, but in my experience it’s true!), but at least there’s no drama or tension. By all means, if you feel more secure sleeping around women, go for the ladies’ dorms, but I’d urge you to give mixed a try – I’ve never felt unsafe or had any issues with the men in my room.
9. It’s OK to take some alone time. Even if you’re a naturally social person, you’ll probably need some time to yourself every so often, especially when you’re in an unfamiliar environment. We all need space to think, plan, reflect, or just wind down a little. Don’t feel you have to talk to absolutely everyone, accept every invitation to do something, or spend every evening in the common area if you’re feeling like you need a bit of a break. You’re not wasting valuable trip time if you spend a few hours just reading a book or taking some time out; you don’t spend all day every day at home on the go, so don’t try to make yourself do it out here.
10. Be yourself, whatever anyone else thinks. I wear the elephant-print pants that all of the tourists out here do. I’m a travel blogger. I turned vegetarian on this trip. I practise yoga and meditation and tell people about how life-changing Vipassana was. I love Ubud. All of this makes me a set of walking stereotypes, but do you know what? I don’t care. This is me. There’s also a lot more to me than someone is going to glean from how I look or from the brief conversation we have in the hostel social space one afternoon. Travelling solo gives you opportunities to try new things and to learn more about yourself; take these chances and be open about who you are. I firmly believe that when we are truly ourselves, we attract the people and things that we want to be attracting, and we feel most comfortable and at peace.