Safety Protocols for Travelers & Digital Nomads: Top Tips from Experts

While the world continues in its’ struggle against a deadly pandemic and we find ourselves scaling back our day-to-day movements in an effort to reduce contact with the contagion; you’d be forgiven for thinking travel had gone the way of the dodo.  

But in reality, while we exercise caution and social distancing; it is impossible not to engage with travel to some degree. Whether it’s commuting for essential work, taking a necessary domestic or international flight, picking up vital supplies or simply going to help loved ones in need – travel remains necessary. 

Before Covid-19’s arrival, our busy lives often saw us trying to squeeze as much productivity out of every moment that we spent on the move. We sought to use the dead time between leaving our homes and reaching our destination to get a bit more work in, research something we needed to buy, learn something new listening to a podcast as we drive, or facetime with distant family.

Taking this one step further, many of us (myself included) were able to carve out a living by being digital nomads, working from a variety of locations, on-the-fly as we connected both in person and virtually with others. 

Having spent a large portion of my life travelling and working overseas, I have noticed a two-way link between being a productive digital nomad and maintaining good travel safety. In this sense and for the purpose of this article the term ‘digital nomad’, or someone who operates without geographical ties to a specific location is interchangeable with someone whom travels and whose goal is to safely reach his/her destination.   

With this in mind, I’d like to share the methods, or as I have come to term the protocols for travel safety.

Core Protocol Essential For Travel Safety: Travel-Orientated Mindset

I have found that there are two critical aspects for maintaining good travel safety.

The first is to embrace a travel-orientated mindset. If you’ve had the good fortune as I have to travel, work and live in different countries, it’s more than likely that you have at least a basic grasp of this.

However, even if you haven’t ventured any further than the place of your birth you can still acquire this outlook and develop the valuable skillsets that it encourages. 

Now, you may be asking: ‘But isn’t having the right travel-orientated mindset just common sense?’ Well, it’s less about the difficulty to acquire this perspective and method and more about the challenge of not overlooking it. Specifically, it’s quite taxing to find good, solid, reliable sources of relevant information. One of the reasons for the latter might be that it requires further awareness and planning.

Indeed, I have practically lost count of how many times a new item of ‘travel-orientated gear’, such as a backpack, fails to address even the basic requirements for travel safety. You have probably noticed how brands go to great lengths to tell you that convenience and peace of mind go hand-in-hand. Sadly, that’s just not the case. 

In fact, as I write this, I have just watched a marketing video for a popular commuting backpack. The video instructs prospective buyers that they can store their valuables in the pack’s dedicated ‘outer zip pouch’, situated in arguably the most exposed location.

Said pouch is constructed of stretchy fabric that literally traces an outline of whatever contents the pouch contains. Presumably to broadcast to would-be thieves where they should focus their energies to ‘help’ lighten the owner’s load.

When it comes to learning, our default method is through personal experience. Too often the advice we receive comes from a place where experience is either lacking, or there is a hidden agenda to sell you something that isn’t a solution to the most pressing problem.

I can’t imagine the example I gave of the commuting backpack having ever been designed by someone who was the victim of pickpocketing. 

As we all know, preparedness is the culmination of knowledge drawn from the net experience of others. The beauty of this is that like studying history – we can avoid repeating the same mistakes and instead share in the tried and tested successes of others.  

What You Can Do Now To Get A Quick Traveler-Orientated Mindset.

Shy of going out into the world and putting yourself in harm’s way to discover the plethora of travel-related pitfalls for yourself, I would instead recommend you read the three following books which I think do a great job of laying the groundwork for developing your own travel-orientated mindset.

These suggestions take slightly different approaches tackling different areas. I won’t bore you with in-depth reviews, but I will briefly explain why I think they (especially) when combined) will help you zero-in on the important factors to consider when you’re out and about. 

3 Traveler-Orientated Mindset Must-Reads:

“Escape The Wolf” by Clint Emerson.

You’ve probably heard of Clint Emerson. As coincidence would have it, we both spent our early childhoods in Saudi Arabia around the same time and I can personally relate to his earliest memories of experiencing a culture and world very different to our own.

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Clint’s trajectory took a very different turn to mine, as he would go on to become a highly skilled Navy Seal with over 20 years’ military service in multiple locations all over the world. When he retired, he made his literary debut with Escape the Wolf – a book which set out to better inform and prepare fellow Americans when travelling overseas.

Aside from a fascinating read – I’m recommending this book as a form of preparation for increasing your situational awareness, and in particular, understanding how to shake off cultural biases that actually make you an easier target for criminals. 

Overseas, many of the most successful scams are engineered to take advantage of the collective, inherent values and typical social behaviors of Westerners.

An example that is explained in more detail within the book is how, by not wishing to cause a scene or challenge what is happening around them, Americans can find themselves more prone to kidnapping and being duped by individuals posing government officials.  

The Gift of Fear by Gavin De Becker

If Escape the Wolf was about shedding what you have grown accustomed to from living in modern American society, then ‘The Gift of Fear’ is about trusting your gut instincts. 

The Gift of Fear: And Other Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence
  • The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us from Violence
  • de Becker, Gavin (Author)

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This book examines how virtually all warning signs leading up to a dangerous event, that we subconsciously detect with the primitive part of our brain are ‘felt’ but in many cases are talked down – by the part of our brain that determines logic. The problem is that the logic side is in a state of constant catch-up and in itself is not the part of the brain that our survival instincts are linked to. 

The book gives the accounts of those who managed to narrowly escape death or serious injury by acting upon their fear. The author who is an American security specialist reveals to those survivors the signs that were there, hiding in plain sight but which the significance, presence and meaning of (even years since the incidents) have continued to elude them. 

As digital nomads/travelers we rarely have the luxury to unpack and disseminate why we experience strong positive/negative feelings about situations/people that we encounter and still be able to act upon these immediately. 

But as someone who has faced and escaped their fair share of harm on a multitude of occasions in scenarios that were far from normal, I have come to accept that ‘my gut feeling’ should not be automatically dismissed by the rational part of my brain.

In most cases it’s better to learn to trust this gut instinct, which is often in itself the culmination of tens or even hundreds of micro expressions and observations leading up to that moment and instead choose to explore and analyze these at a later date. As the saying goes: hindsight is 20:20. 

What the teachings of The Gift of Fear can give the modern-day digital nomad or traveler is a much higher state of awareness. And through a mixture of your own gut-inspired decisions, it can help to equip you with the right ears, eyes and judgement to safely navigate a sea of moving parts which when dealing in and around any environment beyond your direct control, is exactly what travelling requires. 

Travelling of any kind always pits you against an environment that is beyond your direct control. Being able to adapt and do so well within a setting that is in constant flux, always spells success.

Left of Bang by Patrick Van Horne and Jason Riley

The last book I suggest to round-off your traveler-orientated mindset, is ‘Left of Bang: How The Marine Corps Combat Hunter Program Can Save Your Life’. The premise of this book is to ditch a reactionary mindset in response to threats in favor of a proactive one that engages potential threats before they develop into an incident.  

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The title: Left of Bang, refers to the moments leading up to an aggressive or dangerous event. It is what you do proactively that has the greatest chance of success, rather than being ‘right of bang’, which denotes your response after an event has transpired. 

The latter will always see you constrained by the parameters set in place as the violent or dangerous act unfolds. In short, the options available to you will always diminish as you play catch-up to the threat. 

Taken as an extension my second reading recommendation The Gift of Fear, Left of Bang not only promotes decisive decision making on your part as a traveler, but it also shows using US military examples how you passively and actively broadcasting both your presence and intentions to others around you.  

This broadcasting can be a lifeline for deterring would-be aggressors. However by the same token, failure to use this well can actually result in inciting or catalyzing potential dangers to occur. 


Core Protocol Essential For Travel Safety: Staging

The second component is what I’ve come to term staging. Essentially, it’s the practical preparation of your traveler-orientated mindset.

Now that you have come to terms with the fact that the nature of travel is operating within an environment that is beyond your direct control it’s time to manifest and proactively guard against potential negative scenarios. This will help ensure that your movements from A-B can be as safe and as fluid as possible.

The traveler-orientated mindset should inform the skills that you feel you need to practice and build upon. These could include taking self-defense classes, CPR or first responder training, as well as heightening your threat awareness abilities.

Just as you may have heard military operators refer to their ‘staging room’ as a place where they can lay out their gear, visualizing what they have on hand and matching these to the requirements of their mission, ‘staging’ should be thought of in a similar way. 

Here it can be used to contrast and compare your skills, gear and your travel goals to one another, to see how they stack up and help determine where you are and where you aren’t running at optimum levels. 

By bringing travel-orientated mindset and staging together, you will be better informed as to the items and gear that you can take with you which will act as a survival multiplier, negating potential pitfalls and difficulties that you may encounter. 

During a SHTF scenario, being able to adapt and overcome challenges on-the-fly is the foundation to walking away unscathed from hazards and dangers that rear their ugly heads. 

Before we finish with my gear recommendations, I want to discuss a universal vulnerability that is just as relevant to us whether we are on the move in the domestically or travelling further afield.

Recognizing & Securing Your Most Valuable Commodity

In 2017 The Economist led with a startling finding. It proposed that: “The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data”. Of course, unlike the ‘black gold’, data is not a resource that is in short supply, quite the contrary. 

Before digitalization was commonplace, a person’s most valuable data was held physically. Insurance policies, bank account registrations, identification, passports, birth certificates etc. were all located in actual real-world locations. Fast-forward to the present and the amount of data that we each generate, store and allow other parties to access is staggering.

Historically from a travel perspective, holding onto your cash was one, if not your main, concern. If you were travelling further afield, then passports and possibly visas were the only real documents that you absolutely had to keep hold of. 

While today, the cash in your pocket has an obvious face value, it’s not nearly as an attractive prospect to thieves than your personal data. 

Cash and plastic only really provide thieves with a one-time use opportunity. Have your cash stolen and you can only lose the amount that was taken. If you have your credit card taken (depending on how quickly you notice) the card can be cancelled almost immediately, rendering further unsolicited payments, or cash withdraws useless.

However, with that said since nearly all forms of credit/debit cards have been fitted with chips, to allow for contactless payment – it has given thieves the means to remotely steal the data attached to these cards. Known as RFID (radio frequency identification), thieves often employ a portable scanner, no larger than a small handheld radio to read the information on your card. 

Smartphones can also be adapted to do this, making use of the NFC (near field communication) feature which so many come with these days.  

To do this, the thief needs to be physically close to you, but in a busy street, mall, airport, check-out queue it’s surprisingly easy for such criminals to get within range and remain there undetected, until they have the information they need.   

Your personal data has a near limitless potential for fraud. With your identity, skilled fraudsters can set up fake accounts in your name, take policies for credit, sell those details on the dark web and provide other bad actors with the means to commit further crimes in your name. 

Suffice to say the toll that all of these activities can take on your credit rating and overall financial health can be devastating, leaving you to feel the effect of this theft for months, even years afterward. 

Limit Your Daily Data Payload

You should also recognize and question the need to physically transport the volume of data that is stored on your smartphone. When you are traveling, you need to start thinking about how this information could be used against you. 

Losing your phone use to mean you lost only business contacts and the numbers of loved ones, nowadays it could mean becoming the subject of blackmail, losing your business, your home, finances and even putting you at the center of police investigations for crimes you never committed.  

Therefore, periodic checks and the transferring/backing up of important data files not necessary for day-to-day use should be scheduled regularly. 

Just as you would inspect and clean your survival kit, you should try and get into the habit of auditing your data. Apps like ‘unroll me’ are great for stemming the tide of email subscriptions that you no longer want to receive. 

Doing this will limit the success of bogus, fake phishing emails designed to emulate sites that you have since unregistered from. Meaning if you see one of these – you’ll be looking (and not opening them) with the right kind of skepticism. 

You should also avoid filling in pointless online forms – which usually feature when you first register to use free Wi-Fi from a public hot spot. 

If it’s not possible to skip these in order to use the service, then you should prepare a fake account – an email you seldom use that contains nothing relating to your true identity and provide this to complete only the required fields. Most of the sites that ask for an email – never actually send anything to this address and are just for marketing purposes.

Never give out your real date of birth or passwords that you use for sensitive sites. That way you can control your digital crumb trail, making it harder for thieves to target you.  

Just as with your emails, you should remove and uninstall smartphone apps that you no longer use, it’s possible that many of these are now obsolete – meaning that the third-party developers no longer maintain the security for them. Such apps can provide an easy entry point for cybercriminals. 

You Need To Treat Your Data Like a Family Heirloom

It’s a change in mindset, try getting into the way of thinking about your data as if it was something valuable that had been in your family for generations. Doing so will help ensure you are doing everything to guard against thieves. 

In addition to the above you should look at maximizing the digital security systems available to you. Many of these actually require you to turn these features on and are usually switched off by default. Two-way factor authentication for websites and apps adds a layer your existing login and password security by sending you a one-time code – usually to your phone to enable access.

Having active security measures like these allows you to track and take note of unauthorized attempts to gain access, which can signal that your email or password may have already been compromised and spur you to take action and change these before it’s too late.

The sheer wealth of passwords that we use on a day-to-day basis is staggering. Make it easier and more secure by employing a password generator which can be backed up in the cloud.

Apple already offer their keychain feature by default. The passwords that features like keychain suggest are far harder for thieves to guess and you can revise them at any time.    

Know Your Enemy

Lastly, I’d recommend you start looking at your data defenses the way a criminal views them. YouTube is a fantastic resource to gen up on the methods that hackers and cyber security experts employ to steal/ward off data theft respectively.

Look at your known weak points like bluetooth devices and consider disabling these when operating your laptop, tablet, phone in public. By staying ahead of the current tactics employed by hackers, you can better insulate yourself from attack. 

An example that many of you have no doubt have heard of are the USB drops.  These are where hackers deliberately discard USB thumb-drives in the car parks of businesses or residential homes in the hopes that either do-gooders or simply curious individuals would insert these USB drives into their work or home computers.

When they did so, it granted the pre-installed virus inside the USB thumb-drive access to their data.    

A Quick Word About The Following Gear Recommendations  

So, to recap, we’ve talked about the importance of the traveler-orientated mindset, explored some highly relevant sources that can help to quickly scale a decent foundation for this protocol – and have covered the most lucrative commodity and the ways to bolster your digital security. 

Which means it’s time to have a quick look at the staging protocol – to go over the potential gear that could assist you when you are out and about on your journey. 

Just before we delve into this, I wanted to briefly explain the types of gear that has been omitted from the staging list and the reasons for doing so.

As this article is aimed at both the international and domestic traveler, I’m going to resist the temptation to focus on self-defense weaponry. In certain parts of the US you may be able to freely carry a concealed firearm (with the necessary legal permit/license to do so) but it gets complicated when your route of travel involves crossing states where this is not permitted.

The same is true with knives, bladed weapons, mace etc. which wouldn’t be viable if you were travelling by plane and again may be prohibited within areas of the US. So, I’m going to leave those items to your best judgement. 


Staging Protocol: Gear Travel/Digital Nomad Survival Multipliers:

Pacsafe backpack/bag.

OK, so this is probably karma for the mean things I said about an ‘unnamed’ brand’s lack of security at the start of this article. But I wasn’t downplaying the very real threat of pickpockets. 

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In Europe, some of the world’s best pickpockets operate on a loop between major cities including London, Barcelona, Rome and Paris to name a few. These guys and gals are as skilled with a razor blade as they are with pulling distractions and stealthy pocket dipping.  Sadly, many of my friends haven’t realized until it’s too late that their bag has been slashed and contents removed – leaving them in a serious jam while far from home.

Thankfully another nation famous for international travel decided to do something about this. Pacsafe, an Australian outfit makes some of the most bombproof anti-theft gear around. From slash-proof backpack material that contains wire mesh sewn inside, to RFID blocking technologies, fully lockable zips and backpacks that have to be removed in order to allow the main compartment to become. 

They stock lots of different models from slings, to commuting backpacks to more specialized transport solutions for camera gear etc. What’s more the designs are nice without being particularly attention grabbing, so if you want to be the gray man, you shouldn’t have any problems there.

Zero Grid Travel Security belt.

I know I said that money isn’t your most valuable commodity, but its uses as a backup for when a SHTF situation arises are plentiful. If you’re close to where you live and it’s not possible to use your cards it’s there, if you’re overseas and not dialled into the ways things are done over there, cash has a way of making what you need being universally understood, no translation required.

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This low-profile nylon belt measuring just shy of 1.5” width fits the belt loops of both smart dress trousers and combats alike. It’s also incredibly light with a low-profile hardened plastic buckle that won’t set off metal detectors. When overseas I carry a range of high and low denomination bills in the local and US currency and a photocopy of my passport within the hidden generous zippered compartment.   

A belt is also good if you need to tie off a door in an emergency. Especially those public doors that have the self-closing arm, just wrap it and tie around this. You can thank Clint Emerson’s 100 Deadly Skills book for that tip.  

Decoy Wallet.

Whether on your way to the shops or touching down in a foreign city, carrying a cheap bifold dummy wallet that contains a few low denomination bills and blank store loyalty cards makes for a good decoy that you can offer up if things go sideways and not really be any worse off. 

Your rear pants pocket that you keep this in (so pickpockets don’t need to look elsewhere) may even be thankful to the criminal who relieves you of this! 

Anti-RFID wallet. Secrid Card Protector

If you’re going down the route of not carrying cash or have already opted for wearing a money belt as I suggested above, you can really better protect your credit cards from thieves by going small-scale when selecting a wallet. 

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This specific wallet is metal cased, blocks RFID signals and comes with a fast ejection mechanism for getting access to your cards. It can hold 5-6 cards no problems and you can always fold a couple of bills inside too.

The best bit, aside from blocking the RFID scanning efforts of thieves, is you can ensure this is worn on your person in a location that gives you better security, such as a front trouser pocket or a secure shirt/jacket chest pocket. It’s also upgradeable – should you require more real estate to store plastic and cash.  

RFID blocking passport protectors

Passport chips contain the same info as on the passport’s picture page. Since 2007 US passports issued contain an RFID chip. As with your credit cards, there’s a greater danger that your personal data is stolen. Airports and bus/train stations the world over are the ideal locations for data thieves to find their next victim. 

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There are a lot of RFID blocking passport holders out there. However, as someone who tries to steer clear from carrying unnecessary bulk – I prefer the slimmest option, which give the stealthiest profile. 

These come as a set including credit card as well as passport protectors and are incredibly thin while also offering good durability. By not going for a bulky padded equivalent I am able to stow my passport in thinner inner jacket pockets with ease, something that’s worth considering when travelling that have warmer climates.   

TOR

Is an alternative to your usual web browser. It behaves the same way, except it offers users much better anonymity.  By disguising your point of origin, where you are connecting to the internet and through the use of deflecting the connection to different nodes that are physically located in different random spots around the globe – your true location is undetectable. 

It also does a great job of removing certain websites from tracking you before, during and after you visit them. Freely available for all computer and smartphone operating systems – I use this on all devices for peace of mind.

VPN

But you’re thinking if I’m using TOR why should I use a VPN (virtual private network)? Well, it’s different horses for different courses. While TOR gives you great anonymity a good VPN will help provide privacy. 

If you need to access region locked material, wish to secure your laptop from hackers while using public Wi-Fi in a café or just need to get a message out to someone either from or to a place that enforces digital censorship like Russia or China, then a VPN is required. 

There’s plenty of choice out there and for lots of different budgets. One way to decide besides budget – (the free VPNs tend to either not work or are so light on essential features that you’ll end up eventually switching to the paid version anyway) is where you’ll be when you use this. Consider if you need something that has better coverage at home or whether you need it to work better overseas.

Retractable wire combination lock

This has been one of the most useful pieces of gear that I have taken anywhere. Its’ strength isn’t that it would deter a hardened criminal from stealing the gear that you secured using its low visibility wire and simple four-digit combination lock. 

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Its’ true value comes from being a quick means to anchor your gear temporarily while your attention is focused on paying for goods, or checking in at your hotel.

Hero Clip

In addition to the wire lock – this carabiner has also proved its worth over the last few years. Essentially two non-locking carabiners fixed together which can open and extend and pivot – it becomes the ultimate means to temporarily hook an item to. 

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The medium size, clip made of two solid pieces of aluminum will suspend a piece of gear that weighs up to 60 pounds – which makes it ideal for holding most carry-on hand luggage. In a pinch it could also be wrapped around the hand and used for self-defense in a pinch.  

Stackable rubber door wedges.

It may sound strange, but I never leave home without these if I’m expecting to stay the night in a hotel. An easy and cheap means to harden the security around your hotel room door. They can be wedged not only under the door but also at the top and sides. 

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The stackable variety are particularly useful as they can be combined to wedge where there is more clearance between the door and the floor/frame. Weighing close to nothing and being TSA friendly if you’re flying, you can throw these in your day bag and forget about them until you reach where you are staying.

Anker Powercore II 20000 rechargeable power bank.

You can’t afford to be caught out at the best of times, never mind in a SHTF scenario. Keep your gadgets powered (especially your phone) with this. 

Local sim cell phone.

When going abroad it’s best to quickly buy a burner phone or cheap cell phone that can accept a pre-paid sim with enough credit to allow you to call local and overseas numbers. 

When you land as an American in a foreign country your phone can be used to immediately identify you as a foreigner, which in certain regions can make you more of a target. For that reason, it’s worth investing in a cheap disposable phone and keeping your US cell switched off for the duration of your visit.

Nitecore MT10A flashlight.

I can’t say enough good things about this flashlight – it has accompanied me overseas many times. Accepting all various types of AA battery means it’s never hard to source a suitable battery – which is essential as you have to ditch your AA batteries before boarding most international flights. 

NiteCore MT10A CREE XM-L2 LED Flashlight 920 Lumen
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With a red light for map reading, strobe and adjustable brightness controls that are easy to use in the dark. Plus, if you switch away from AA to a 14500 battery you just upped the lumen to 920! 

A compact 6×18 monocular.

The applications of a tiny monocular with decent magnification are almost limitless. When you find yourself in an urban setting that you’re not familiar with, having some form of inconspicuous means to see a decent distance is seriously underrated. 

In a SHTF scenario spotting danger on the horizon is so much easier. Also, with a monocular this small – the body of the optics are almost entirely swallowed by your hand, meaning there is virtually nothing for passers-by to notice.

Field Craft Survival’s BHRK (Basic Hemorrhage Response Kit). 

What kind of first aid kit you take with you will greatly depend on your level of medical expertise. 

I’d recommend this one from Field Craft Survival which contains basic QuickClot EMS dressings, gauze, gloves and surgical tape. I’d also suggest adding a North American Rescue Combat CAT (combat application tourniquet) Tourniquet and ensuring you are proficient in its use.  Plus all of these supplies are made in the US.

You can add medical shears if you are not planning on flying. 


Summary

Hopefully this information article has given some welcomed food for thought and will act as a solid reference point as you go on to assess and develop your own travel safety protocols that best cater to your needs. 

Take care when travelling anywhere and remember the phrase “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast”. 




Written by Jordan Copplestone

Looking back, I think it’s fair to say that my interest in preparedness and survival skills were seeds that were sown from an early age. Growing up in overseas countries across Europe, Africa, The Middle East, and The Far East gave me an appreciation for life’s challenges. Skills like situational awareness, bushcraft, and survival training which I accrued in my youth have proven to be invaluable as a writer, researcher, and digital nomad in my professional life. I see the relevance of these and other self-sufficiency skills being applicable to everyone, regardless of whether you’re living in urban or rural locations, within the first world or developing nations. Read more of Jordan's articles.