Growing up in the Western United States, rattlesnakes are a reality. If you spend any time in the outdoors, eventually you’ll run into one. I remember my parents telling me about a trip we took out to the desert once when I was very young. We were riding our bikes along a dirt road & came across a rattlesnake that had clearly been run over by a car. I’m not entirely sure of my Dad’s motivations, perhaps he just wanted to give us kids a closer look at it, but he pulled over and went to pick up the squished snake by the tail. The snake must not have been dead very long, because when he picked it up, it still had it’s biting reflex and twitched. My dad screamed & flung that snake as far as he could. Fortunately, no one was hurt and now we can laugh about it, but it could have been so much worse.
I believe it was in my college years when I was first introduced to the concept of “Don’t pet rattlesnakes.” It seems like such a silly thing to say. Why would I ever pet a rattlesnake? The idea of putting myself in a position that I know is dangerous is ridiculous, right? However, much like my dad thinking it was safe to pick up a dead rattlesnake, we sometimes fool ourselves into a false sense of security & do really dumb things. This seems to be especially true when people are on vacation.
I recently wrote a blog post on “How to NOT be an Obnoxious Tourist,” where I outlined some of the more common obnoxious things tourists do, most of which can turn pretty dangerous if you’re not paying attention. However, today I want to focus specifically on consciously thinking about your safety. There are several things you can do in advance & while on your trip to make sure your adventures are as safe as possible.
Consciously Think About Risks vs. Rewards
As humans, we spend every day making decisions based on the risk verses reward. It could be as simple as putting on your seatbelt when you get into the car. I want the reward of increased chance of survival in the case of an accident, so I minimize the risk by putting on my seat belt. It may seem mundane at this point because it’s a habit, but it is a conscious choice every time I do it. Unfortunately, when we travel, our normal everyday decisions change because our environment changes, and our thinking has to change with it.
As you make plans for vacation, or are in the moment & need to make a decision, it is worth taking a minute to stop and weigh the risks & rewards. I could sign up for horseback riding, but this company doesn’t have helmets for their guests. Is the reward for going riding worth the risk that I could be bucked off and injured? Maybe. I could take the dark alleyway as a shortcut back to the hotel, but is the time saved worth not being able to see my surroundings? Maybe. Only you can decide if the reward is worth the risk. No one can tell you what to do in every situation, but I will suggest that if you’re not making conscious choices, you’re almost always making questionable choices. Know what you’re doing & why & recognize the risks involved. If you do, the chance of getting bit by those metaphorical rattlesnakes significantly goes down.
Don’t Travel (or Wander Off) Alone
I get it. Some people just want to see the world on their own terms. There are more people now than ever traveling alone. In fact, there’s a whole culture around it touting how fantastic it is. In my personal opinion, it is a pretty risky endeavor. Just yesterday, there were two stories in our local news where people went hiking alone & one fell off a cliff & died & the other survived, but had to spend a night alone on a mountain. Think about that: two in one day with a 50% mortality rate. I don’t like those odds. Earlier this summer, a woman went hiking alone & was randomly attacked by a man in the woods. She only survived because two other hikers came upon her being attacked. I believe that there is safety in numbers. You’ve heard the saying, “two heads are better than one,” but I would also add that two intuitions are better than one as well. When you’re traveling in an unfamiliar place, you need your head & sometimes that gut feeling to help keep you safe. If two (or more) of you are actively observing your surroundings, you’re much more likely to make sound choices & recognize danger. If something does go wrong, then there is another person there to get help if need be. That takes response time in an emergency from hours or days, to mere minutes.
If you do choose to travel or simply wander off alone, don’t do dumb things. Don’t wander down that dark alley alone, don’t take the trail you’re unfamiliar with, don’t go home with that stranger you met at the bar, don’t forget to charge your phone before you leave, etc. When no one is there watching your back, it is your responsibility to make sure that you don’t pet the rattlesnakes disguised as “harmless” adventure.
Tell Someone Where You Will Be & When
As a general rule, whether you’re traveling alone or with a group, it is good to make sure someone not traveling with you knows where you will be and when. I would recommend leaving your hotel name, address & phone number with that individual as well as the dates you’ll be there. If you’re going to be traveling between locations, let them know the dates you’re supposed to be in each area. Ask them to check on you if they haven’t heard from you in a few days. It’s always good to have someone consciously thinking about you when you’re not at home. You never know when that person could save your life.
For example, my brother is an avid mountain climber. He left early one morning with some friends to climb a peak. These were the days prior to cell phones, so my mom ALWAYS made us leave her note telling her where we were & who we were with, which he did. Later that night when he hadn’t returned, my mom started calling the parents of those he was supposed to be with and they hadn’t seen them either. She called the authorities & because she knew where he was supposed to be, they were able to start looking at the right place & found him soon after. Turns out, he got separated from half of his group & the guy he was left with ended up leaving him on the mountain by himself. He had done everything right, but things still went wrong. If my mom hadn’t known where he was & with whom, he could have easily died from exposure that night. Point being, it’s always good to have someone NOT in your group also looking out for you. You just never know what is going to happen.
Seriously Consider Travel Insurance
Travel insurance is one of those things that you hope you never have to use, but you’re grateful to have when you do need it. We work with a lot of travelers & we’ve noticed there are two kinds of people: those who HAVE to have travel insurance for every trip no matter what, and those who try to AVOID taking travel insurance. As with most things, we’ve found that there are good compromises that lie somewhere in the middle. For example, our personal medical insurance will cover things domestically, so we’re not as concerned about having travel insurance, but we ALWAYS get travel insurance when we travel internationally. We know of too many people who have had major medical emergencies overseas who have had to be medevac’d out, or have ended up needing emergency surgery, etc. My mom’s doctor was riding a bike through the tulip fields of Holland & had a heart attack & died. Anything can happen. A good rule of thumb is, if your personal medical insurance won’t be accepted where you are traveling, you should definitely invest in travel insurance.
Most people don’t realize that there are many types of travel insurance as well. Typical plans will usually cover things like lost bags, delayed flights & medical emergencies. But you can also buy customized plans for what you think you will need including things like overseas funeral expenses. My impression is that most people who don’t buy travel insurance just don’t want to think about what could go wrong, but by choosing not to think about it, they are unwittingly petting rattlesnakes that could very easily come back to bite them in a big way.
Know Where Your Nearest Embassy/Consulate Is & Register with Them
For one more added layer of protection when you’re traveling abroad, I highly recommend taking the address & phone number for your nearest embassy/consulate in the location you’re traveling to. You never know when you’re going to need help & having that phone number & address handy could save you a lot of stress. Some countries also have traveler registration programs & we highly recommend taking advantage of them. In the U.S., it is called the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). This free program allows U.S. citizens traveling or living abroad to receive security updates from the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate in the country you’re in. They can provide you with assistance in emergency situations & if your family back in the states is having a hard time reaching you with urgent news, they can use the information you provide to them to try & reach you. It’s another one of those things you hope you never have to use, but you’ll be glad for it when you do need it.
I hope these suggestions have given you something to think about. My intention is not to scare anyone, but instead, to help people become more aware of the choices they’re making. We can’t control everything, but we can control how we prepare & react to the situations placed before us. Doing a few simple things like taking a buddy, telling someone where you are, and stopping to think before you do something dumb can literally save your life. Remember, don’t pet rattlesnakes!