During my almost 6 years of intense travel as a digital nomad ghostwriter I have lost over $4,000 US worth of equipment due to a most colorful rainbow of criminal activity directed at my belongings, plus perhaps another thousand of financial damage in various scams and overpricing.
One might say that I'm a particularly good target because as a lone wolf tech dude traveler I always carry a lot of valuable stuff, am easy to approach and also I'm sometimes maybe a little bit too inclined to buy certain commodities on the black market. Over 2m tall and blond, I look super gringo and most of the time I'm bouncing around in crime-heavy South America which might have contributed to the above stated, sour record.
It's a funny fact that through it all I never suffered truly critical damage, such as loss of my document pouch or laptop, which for my business would have had the potential of serious disruption. My luck was in two instances due to a strange brand of random benevolence of the thieves and in other cases preparation. During one particularly devious assault, an under closer inspection incredibly stupid yet successful desperate resistance saved my backpack, stuffed with a good 6 KG of cutting edge electronics of different sorts inside. Man was my heart beating afterwards.
In this article, I will share with you a good amount of my learnings and I thereby try to add to the information already available in the Internet. Having been a victim so many times, I feel the urgent desire to express here that I with all my heart detest the manifold types of traveler-targeting highwaymen and I wish upon them only the direst of misfortune. Yet I know, as the world is spinning out of control and inequality reigns supreme, there will only be more fortune-seeking bandits- brace yerselves therefore and walk forth wary.
Travel Safety Advice Number One: Well hidden is Half Saved
No matter if we are talking about generally dressing down, or the almost obligatory slim document pouch which is worn beneath the shirt or keeping emergency cash and cards stowed in slicks and decoy stash vaults- if you manage to keep your valuables out of sight, you are well on your way to return home unscathed.
A quick word perhaps for the lesser veteran travelers about what are slicks and decoy vaults:
A) Slicks are intelligent hiding places, either natural, such as for instance the hollow hanger bar inside the closet of your hotel room, or engineered, such as the cardboard wrapping of cookies tampered to allow for a double bottom. Some suggestions for good hiding places can be drawn from resources on the Internet.
A quick recommendation on the topic inserted: The Mossad, the Israeli Secret Service is famous for coming up with amazingly intelligent hiding places, and if you ever pass by Tel Aviv, be sure to visit their museum.
B) Now elaborate decoy vaults also known as stash vaults you can buy on the Internet or make yourself. Me personally, I'm a huge fan of hollow DD batteries, because they are small, even hollowed are naturally heavy and do not so easily cause raised eyebrows as if you're traveling with a can of vegetable soup. At the beach, you can use suntan lotion bottle vaults (which I would still put under my towel and cover with some sand, be sure to mark the spot with a twig or other mark). Caution: When using stash vaults, make sure that no sound or weird haptic feeling is created through your packing or the thief might notice.
But usually the thief will be in a hurry and they only take what is necessary, even leaving camera bags and other items which might lead to easier identification through the owner lest he should be apprehended through some coincidence. The more unmarked the loot, the easier for him to try and wriggle out of the grasp of our imperfect vigilance and justice systems. If you are in a country with a functioning law enforcement, artificial DNA markers might be an option.
Travel Safety Advice Number Two: If You Can't Hide It, Chain It
For most of us who are veteran travelers it is a complete no-brainer to always chain down your laptop with a number padlock, lock and chain down bags and suitcases or even invest in a cut-proof mesh wire travel safe for smaller items such as cameras, podcast microphones and the like.
But even me, I get sloppy, such as when I forgot to lock my suitcase and it was pilfered during a layover in Madrid, netting 700 Euro losses in important electronics and perhaps another 3.000 Euro in lost business due to not having my stuff with me in 6 months of travel in LAT-AM (I did not count in lost opportunity costs due to missing equipment by the way when I mentioned my grand total in the first sentence- those roughly $4,000 US was really the actual purchase value of the things that were stolen from me over the years).
I totally encourage you to push it to the limit when it comes to chaining down things. If I had myself sorted out a little better, I would chain down my wallet, my smart phone and even my key and lighter to my belt, as I used to when I first set forth on the great travels and didn't know if I'd be able to cut out a living as a digital nomad.
Travel Safety Advice Number Three: Emergency Loss Minimization
Sometimes, when it gets really rough, what you want to do is be able to give your assailant something in his hand so that he'll think he got your goods and will bug off. Therefore I recommend that in travel regions where violence and assaults are not unheard of such as South American, Central American, African, East European and Balkan nations that you should have two wallets and two cell phones with you. You have a decoy set and a "crown jewels"-set.
The crown jewels you keep in hidden pouches or hide on your body (Socks for instance are great for bills, girls will find their bra to be a good hiding spot even for larger items). The decoy, maybe fattened with fake bills/bills of brass currencies or a fancy phone case, this you hand over. The thief won't check, they'll be happy and run off, hopefully later to crack their skull open on the nearest wall out of fury when they notice they were beaten at their own game.
Ladies: Slash-Proof handbags are a SERIOUS risk to your physical well-being. What will happen is that you will get hurt, either knocked of your feet and dragged behind in case of a motorcycle "snatch and run" or stabbed/cut or kicked in the stomach in case of a "slash and run". Losing valuables is bitter, being physically harmed is, apart from the damage to your body, traumatic. Therefore, go for the decoy option and remember always that handbags are among a thief's favorite targets, be it pickpockets, mugging or snatching.
It should not be necessary to mention that you never should go out with your bank and credit cards or real IDs but always use copies and small cash. Also of course, make sure that your most important documents are somewhere uploaded on the Internet for easy access. I usually also keep a backup of my most important files on a small USB I keep in my first-aid kit.
Please note also, that in places such as Sao Paulo, Brazil or Medellin, Colombia and as I hear also Mexico and parts of Ecuador it is an appallingly common practice to kidnap and, under threat of death, extort your PIN and drive around with you withdrawing cash from every ATM on the way. Therefore, talk with your bank about a hidden account and a daily withdrawal limit. Because once kidnapped, you are at the complete mercy of your assailants.
Almost needless to say in regard to kidnapping, always keep an eye on your drink no matter where you are and if you have the discipline, steer clear of shady girls and substances- after all, there are things in the world such as Burundaga, and the long-term effects of these date-rape type drugs on your memory and central nervous system are no laughing matter.
Travel Safety Advice Number Four: Keeping Large and Visible Electronics Safe
When I was doing my drone videos in South America (for real, my video of Cordoba, Argentina even got mentioned in the national "La Voz Del Interior" newspaper), I really didn't feel like losing my drone. What I did was to look seriously hippy, keep the equipment out of sight using a super light microfiber towel as cover and to top it off I carried a very strong laser pointer and a switchblade. While I would absolutely warn against carrying weapons if you are not trained or willing to use them if bad comes to worse, the feeling of added safety calmed me a lot when I was running around the Favelas. It always helps to execute such operations during the daytime and have at least one other likewise armed and trained person as an escort (ideally a no-bullshit fighter spirit, just like you).
A quick word on the combination of the ultra strong laser pointer such as for instance the Arctic (if you have second thoughts about taking your assailant's eyesight or about 1000+ Mw lasers being illegal in your country, alternatively use a stroboscope LED flashlight Kubaton) and a blade or blunt weapon: If you are quick enough to pull them out before it gets ugly, you will be able to defend against multiple aggressors, absolutely fuck up their day as well as set yourself up for a quick exit. Also, having a blade on you is great for eating honey melon wherever you go.
A last reminder on the topic of firearms: Nothing beats them. Plus you'll know if your opponent pulls a real one or a dummy when it's too later. If you're the Chuck Norris kinda dude, I salute you and hope the odds may be forever in your favor. All others please - very slowly - hand over hopefully just your decoy valuables and get your asses home in one piece, alive to fight another day.
Conclusion: Don't let worry eat your optimism, faith in humanity and love for adventure. Prepare, and let the weight of danger make your senses keen and sharp. Be knowledgeable of all the hundreds of different crime schemes, be it by way of violence or by way of deceit. Develop your street smartness, sometimes it will be through pain of loss. Know that it will only get rougher in the future, so keep your head up.
We're in this together. By educating each other, training hard and giving 'em hell in moments where it's feasible, we will contribute our share to discourage crooks of all colors from continuing their trade.
Protection be yours.
More ideas on safety or want to share your story? Write it in the comments.
Joe Goerbert is a business plan writer and marketing consultant. Born in Germany, he is living as a digital nomad since 2010 2010 and has been using travel safety techniques extensively since 2013. His favorite regions are South America and the Balkan countries. PS: A good amount of rather badass photography can be viewed at www.solreign.com, the author's passion project site.