Don’t get me wrong, I understand the benefits of group travel and the many reasons solo travel can be dangerous, especially for women. Those concerns are inherent in daily life for us and need not be rehashed, and when we’re feeling vulnerable there are thankfully a million articles about how we can better prepare ourselves to face the world while female. What I’m interested in exploring is the idea that there are circumstances in which solo travel can be advantageous to one’s safety. I’ve often had plans in mind that, upon a friend floating the idea of joining me, suddenly seemed rife with caveats. The following scenarios are food for thought:
When you’re with a friend, you’re much more fearless. I know I’m not observing my surroundings as closely when I feel comfortable, especially if I’m enraptured by good conversation. I could much more easily picture myself absentmindedly wandering into a bad scene while I’m with friends than I could while I’m alone and hyper cognizant of my environment. Meanwhile, I don’t think that feeling of “safety in numbers” is necessarily always warranted, especially in comparison to the impediment of distraction. If someone wanted to rob or hurt me and it was already clear we weren’t paying attention, is my friend’s presence really going to be a massive deterrent (it depends on the friend, I guess), or does having them there just turn it from being a bad situation for “me” alone to being a bad situation for “us”? Or, say we’re hiking - is two heads really better than one, or are we going to be more carefree than we ought to be? Have you ever seen Backcountry? She just trusts that her boyfriend knows the way and of course he doesn’t and they get attacked by that bear, like, 10 times. I don’t necessarily trust some of my dumbass friends to help me avoid situations like that, no offense. Ya’ll know who you are.
Similarly, when I hike alone, I am listening to every twig snap and looking over my shoulder pretty often. I’m taking note of upcoming bends in the trail where visibility will be low, or looking for paw prints, or assessing how I could use the terrain around me to my advantage should a threat suddenly present itself. When I’m chatting with a friend there are pros and cons; on one hand it’s helpful mentally in terms of paranoia, and we’re making enough noise to warn animals of our approach (plus if you’re camping, you can split gear and lower your pack weight, and of course there’s someone to help if you’re injured). On the other, the false sense of security when hiking with a friend may discourage some people from carrying as many forms of protection along with them as they would when solo (or from making sure they have it in reachable distance at all times, rather than at the bottom of their backpack), and it’s not like the addition of another person is particularly comforting to bears or mountain lions. I know that animals are more emboldened to attack someone who’s alone than a group, but there are still countless stories of multiple people being attacked at once, especially when an animal is guarding cubs, and mountain lions are notoriously stealthy - surviving victims say they never even heard the animal coming. I don’t want to be surprised and therefore don’t want to be distracted from being able to listen to the woods as closely as I can. I also want to be paying attention if the wind suddenly changes direction or the snowpack shifts. I suppose if you have like-minded hiker friends who are observant and enjoy some mutual quiet time on the trail, then that’s a good tag-team, but I haven’t been on too many silent group hikes.
Broadcasting That You’re a Tourist
If you’re with a tour group, it’s like a giant neon sign pointing at you saying “TOURIST HERE” - anyone who catches sight of you at that moment can automatically assume a few things about you, for example, 1) you probably have money on you, 2) you don’t know where you are or how to get anywhere by yourself, 3) you may not speak the language and be able to quickly file a police report, and 4) it’s likely you don’t have a great international cell data plan or know the right local numbers to call for help. Unless you’re tethered to the group like children on a leash for the entire trip, there will come a time when you wander off alone (to go to the bathroom maybe?), and you should be concerned about the vibe you’ve been projecting. I think the advice a lot of articles give about trying to “look like you belong” is solid, and it’s nearly impossible to do in a typical tour group. You can present yourself to be as assimilated and confident as possible, but you can’t control how the other members of the group are acting and you definitely can’t hide the obvious signifier of the guide preaching to the choir.
Lack of Flexibility / Peer Pressure
When you’ve made a plan with multiple people, that plan is much more rigid than when you’re traveling alone. As a solo traveler, when I suddenly don’t feel like doing something anymore, I just don’t. I change my intentions, which were probably only held in place by gum and paper clips anyway. With a group, The Plan takes longer to evolve as everyone’s preferences and timeframes are considered and compromised on to get to a mutually agreeable itinerary. Any change to that elaborate diorama is like pulling a piece out in a game of Jenga, threatening to topple the entire infrastructure. I’m not against compromise (I’m an adult!), but I do think rigidity can be unsafe. You need to be able to shift your priorities if an unexpected wrench is thrown into the mix. Changes in weather, local social or political unrest, flight cancellations, or road closures could all affect your arrangement. If someone in your group refuses to deviate, they put everyone at risk. Sometimes the red flag can be more subtle (say, a pink flag); you head to a scheduled activity that looked great on the internet, only to arrive and feel uncomfortable about some aspect of the location, the company, or the equipment on hand. If I was with a group of friends who wanted to continue and get their money’s worth, I might feel peer pressured to comply when my gut is telling me the situation is dangerous.
I know for damn sure if I was traveling with my brother, he’d dare me to eat every fiery hot ghost pepper in every restaurant or food stand splayed across the entire length of whatever country we were in, and I’d do it because I don’t want to be taunted and then I’d spend the rest of the trip in a hospital.
Some of these scenarios can be prevented by making sure that if you do decide to travel with other people, you pick friends you know well and whose capabilities and preferences are in line with yours, especially if agreeing to go on an adventure that requires you to rely on them in some way. Some people make great travel partners; travel couples are out there killing the Instagram game left and right, and sports adventurers find their preferred teams through trial and error. But, there are a ton of oft-cited reasons why solo travel can help you milk the greatest experience out of your trip (it makes you more sociable with locals and other travelers, it allows you to move at your own pace, etc), and I think it’s perfectly reasonable and potentially even a safer choice to go solo, especially if your crew is not quite the Conrad Anker to your Jimmy Chin.
I’m curious of others’ thoughts and experiences on the matter - can you think of additional scenarios when solo travel can be a safer option than traveling with a group? Do you take more precautions when solo than you otherwise would, or are you always equally cautious?