By Sue Bedford
I was an ideologically absorbent preteen at the zenith of the Girl Power movement in the mid-nineties. This elicited the beliefs that a) girls can do anything boys can do and b) platform sneakers are a wholly appropriate style of footwear for every occasion. Fortunately, I’ve come to reconsider b). However, a) bequeathed me with the pluck and gumption to aim for any goal despite potentially associated gender-based disadvantages.
Henceforth, whenever I am asked where I found the nerve to become an SFT (solo female traveller), I explain that I have five special friends to thank: Scary, Baby, Sporty, Ginger and Posh. Okay, I don’t actually say that—who’s going to admit to being a 28-year-old Spice Girls fan?—but I do think it. (On that note, Ginger rules!)
Backpacking alone is a provocative and transformational experience for any wanderer.
It can be exhausting to maintain an enthusiastic spirit without somebody else’s energy to feed off of; frightening to get off a train or bus in a new place at night by yourself; and awkward to drag your ginormous backpack into the bathroom stall because you lack a friend to watch it. You don’t have anyone to consult when making decisions nor blame when you get lost.
Contrarily, you are at complete liberty to live however you want without compromise or justification. Your successes and failures are unexcused reflections of yourself. You can bask in moments that are exclusively yours and relish in the notion that nobody knows what you’re up to. Plus, you develop laudable selfie skills.
SFTs face greater challenges than their masculine counterparts.
Regardless, there is a vast quantity of bold, curious women who not only refuse to miss out on the adventure but who genuinely love exploring the world on their own terms—65 percent of women polled by Booking.com last year say they feel more confident travelling alone. Furthermore, it is frequently and inaccurately assumed that all SFTs are hardboiled Krav Maga experts who can bench-press a dishwasher and construct a lethal weapon out of a paperclip and an apple core.
In actual fact, some of us struggle just to wrangle all four corners of the fitted sheet onto the hostel mattress. While certain SFTs are gregarious and assertive, others are introverted and thoughtful—much in the same manner as male backpackers. Furthermore, practically all of us are afraid when we first leave home—again, just like the guys.
One defining characteristic of an SFT is her acute awareness of her environment.
Primarily, it is crucial to be conscious of the status and expectations of women in whatever country you are visiting. Irrespective of what you feel the rules of decorum should be, the fact remains that you are a guest in another nation and it is unwise to assume you will be viewed and treated in the same way as you are back home. Likewise, it is exceedingly discourteous to “educate” locals on what you believe is wrong with their culture—though yes, a respectful debate between two receptive parties can be informative and engaging. Ensure you are cognizant of and abiding by regional customs, and prepare yourself for the type of questions and attention you may receive.
That said, not all SFTs feel at ease in all countries. There is no shame in acknowledging your personal limits; it is far more prudent to be realistic about what makes you uncomfortable before you leave than to spend your entire trip holed up in your guesthouse. Do your research prior to going abroad and be honest with yourself.
It is likewise vital to be alert regarding your immediate surroundings. Anybody who is unfamiliar with their environment and carrying everything they own is vulnerable. It needn’t be said (because it’s just so obvious) that women experience an added constituent of sexual threat (though occasionally men do as well). For this reason, it is essential to be vigilant in terms of who is around you and how exposed you are. This doesn’t mean you have to carry mace (or a mace, for that matter). However, it is worth knowing if anyone is watching you in a manner that extends beyond innocent curiosity, and whether you could easily and non-consensually be relieved of your valuables.
Tips for Newbie Solo Female Travellers
– Behave as though you’re tough, even if you secretly cry every time another driver honks at you. Most attackers choose specific victims because they seem like easy prey. Stand confidently, speak assertively and look as though you won’t go without a fight.
– Wear conservative clothing. For instance, in India, tailor-made salwar kameez are inexpensive and widely available. Dressing like a local will curb a significant amount of attention.
– Don a wedding ring. This is definitely not necessary, but if you are nervous then it will dissuade many moony-eyed hopefuls.
– If you are concerned about people entering your room at night, carry a doorstop to wedge under the door.
– Avoid going out at night alone. If you decide to hit a club, make sure you are with a group of people and confirm with at least one other person that you two will leave together.
– Always keep an eye on your drink. If someone purchases you a beverage you’re not confident imbibing, excuse yourself to the bathroom and dump it.
– Stay in a female dorm on occasion. This is not a precautionary measure but rather an opportunity to encounter other SFTs. Theoretically, you’ll have less snoring to endure as well—but no guarantees!
– Don’t take offense if locals inquire as to your marital status. This is a common getting-to-know-you question in many cultures.
– Instead of sitting down beside an empty seat on a train or bus, alight near somebody that you feel relaxed being next to. That way, you don’t have to worry about who will eventually fill that vacant chair.
– Do not share information regarding where you are staying with anyone you do not feel comfortable with.
– Understand whether going for coffee (or lunch or drinks) with a guy is as casual in your host country as it is back home. This will help you to avoid potentially awkward situations.
– Don’t be afraid to say no. If you are invited to partake in an activity that renders you wary, it’s okay to politely decline. “I have travellers’ diarrhea,” typically discourages any attempts at persuasion.
– Trust your gut. If you have an ominous feeling about a situation, don’t second-guess yourself—leave immediately.
– Enjoy yourself! Being an SFT is a fantastic method of honing your skills, developing your confidence and having a blast. Remember, every SFT was green once; if we can do it, so can you.
– Consult the Government of Canada’s Her Own Way: A Woman’s Safe-Travel Guide for more information.
– Don’t let the boys have all the fun. While Union Jack mini-dresses may no longer be in fashion, Girl Power will never go out of style.
Feeling inspired to get up and go? Here are a few (of many) great female travel blogs to help light the spark:
Evelyn Hannon has spent the last three decades travelling and believes solo travel is good for the soul. Her woman’s travel tip enewsletter is free and fun.
This Battered Suitcase
Brenna Holeman, originally from Winnipeg, left home in 2006 and has so far visited almost 90 countries.
Wanderlust and Lipstick
Founded by Beth Whitman, a great site to read many stories both by and about female travellers, and to learn more about starting your own trip.