Basic Survival in Another Country: Prepping For an Emergency

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Survival in Another Country - Prepping for an EmergencyBasic survival in another country means being prepared for an emergency long before you board an airplane for your travel destination.

As an outdoor guide, I’ve been asked to go to many different parts of the world, and I lived in Japan for 3 years.

Before boarding the airplane, heading up the gangway to a ship, or getting  in my car to go visit, work, or live in a foreign land, there are a few preps I’ve learned to undertake.

What do I mean by survival preps?

After all, don’t I just buy the latest travel guide like Fodor’s, Frommer’s, DK Eyewitness Travel or Rick Steves‘; make sure my passport is current, get vaccinations needed for the region, obtain an entry visa, and book my trip? Well, actually, yes that is where you start, but there is more. Do you want to be prepared if an emergency arises while enjoying your trip abroad? Take a little extra time to prepare before heading out. Here is what I do.

The Basics

I start by covering the basics most international travelers do when preparing to venture to a foreign country:

  1. Make sure my passport is current, renew if need be or apply for one.
  2. Check for visa requirements and obtain them.
  3. Look for travel alerts and warnings.
  4. Get any recommended vaccinations or boosters for the region.
  5. Purchase a travel guide or two (see the links above) and maps to learn about the lay of the land, people, culture, customs, language and currency.

But that is just the start to my travel preps. Please read on….

Dig a Little Deeper

Along with the basics, my travel prepping involves a little intelligence gathering. It’s great to know some key basic information about the country and not just from the latest travel guides or internet sites.

Gathering a snap shot of the country and its people is important, so I go to the CIA. Yes, you heard me correctly, the Central Intelligence Agency.

The CIA puts out an annual publication called The World Factbook that is chalk-full of data about every country in the world. It provides great baseline information for a trip. You can research topics including history, geography, culture, government, economy, communications and transportation.


Next on the list of preps are my personal, financial and travel documents. Nothing can ruin travel plans faster than missing documents, especially after you have left your home country.

I make a copy of my passport, driver’s license, birth certificate (proof of your country of origin and usually citizenship beyond just your passport), travel itinerary, and any other important records for the trip. I keep one hard copy as a backup set with me, folded and stored in a waterproof pouch.

The records are also turned into images or a PDF and placed on a password protected memory stick on my key chain, especially if I’m going to a country with a poor internet infrastructure. The electronic version is also uploaded to either my Dropbox or Evernote account which can be accessed from the internet anytime anywhere via computer, smart phone or tablet.

Lastly, I give a set to a person in the U.S. who knows my travel plans and can help me from afar if trouble arises.

Emergency Contacts and Safe Places

If a natural disaster, difficult medical situation, or other major emergency occurs in the country I am traveling in, there are places to go that can offer help. Before heading out on my journey, I gather the address and phone numbers for the U.S. Embassy and  consulate office, as well as any U.S. military bases in the area.

In addition and as a backup, I find the same information for any country which uses English as a primary language, such as the UK or Australia. This information is added to my travel documents as well.

Medical Issues

Knowing where medical help can be obtained before departing on my excursion is particularly important. This is not information I want to be trying to find during a emergency.

Locate the address and phone number for hospitals and medical clinics in the area of travel and find out if any of these facilities are designated for English-speaking or tourist care. There will usually be someone on staff who speaks English. This information is also incorporated with my other travel documents.

Communication Plan

Before heading out for a trip , someone I trust knows my plans. That person gets a complete set of my trip documents and in-country contact information. I also list this person in my passport.

In general, depending on the country and type of trip, I check in with my emergency contact person via email, text or phone every couple of days. If an issue arises and I cannot make contact, they will start making inquires and looking for me.

Currency and Banking

When you are in the midst of an emergency, you will most likely need money. It is one of the best ways to insure help and communicate your appreciation even if you don’t speak the local language. That being said, I carry a minimal amount of cash and try to use a designated credit card for most of my financial transactions when I am overseas.

Part of my prep includes finding out what the local currency and the exchange rate are. I also check to see if good old greenbacks are accepted or preferred. Like emergency (embassy, consulate) and medical institutions, I try to locate where the local banks and ATM machines are along my travel rout. That way I can quickly get more cash if needed, minimizing what I need to keep on my person.


It is so much easier to get around in a new place when you have a map. My map, one you typically find for sale with travel books and guides, is carefully marked with the locations I am staying at during my travels as well as the U.S. Embassy or consulate, hospitals, medical clinics, banks, and ATMs.


Understanding a few key words and phrases will never be more critical than if a personal emergency or larger event happens while you are traveling in another country. But those phrases will be utterly useless, unless you’ve practice before you travel. Don’t expect the locals to speak your native language, especially if you plan to travel off the beaten path.

You can find all kinds of crash courses on the internet to help you learn basic phrases like greetings, how to order food, and asking for help. You may also want to carry a pocket dictionary. I don’t count on electronic translators, Google, or any language app I can put on my smart phone. These gadgets work most of the time, but a lot can go wrong  which could render them useless. That’s not what you want during a crisis.

I practice and memorize key words and phrases such as hello, thank you, how much does…cost?, how do I get to…?, where can I find…?, I need help!, hospital, police, fire, emergency. A few key words and phrases, well spoken by you, may make the difference between success and something less if an emergency arises.

This one part of my travel preps takes the longest, but is also the most fun! The key is that I practice, practice and practice some more before departing on my trip.  I’ve found learning a little of the native language can go a long way to ingratiating myself to the local populace.

Local Customs, Manors and Dress

I think it is important to understand the basic customs and manors of the people in the country I am visiting. Doing so can save you much difficulties and keep you out of potentially serious trouble.

For example, did you realize in Greece, using the hand sign for stop is a nasty hand gesture and can land you in trouble without even realizing what you did? In Thailand, propping your feet up and talking a load off your legs must be done with discretion. Showing the bottom of your feet is considered so abhorrent, people have been killed for doing it (yes, including tourists).

Another important thing I research is what is appropriate as far as personal space and touching: Hugging, hand shake, facial expressions. If you aren’t aware of these nuances, you can unknowingly offend a local.

In addition to customs and manors, I also take note of how people dress where I am headed and plan my travel wardrobe accordingly, within reason. I clothe myself modestly to blend in, not stand out. I avoid dressing like a “tourist”, including excessive clothes and jewelry.  Nothing speaks “easy target” to a thief, robber, or panhandler like lavish clothes and expensive or excessive jewelry.

I found the phrase “When in Rome do as the Romans do” never more applicable than when learning and understanding the customs, manors, and dress of the people in the country I am going to visit.

Two is One and One is None!

I’m sure you’ve noted how redundant I am with certain aspects of my travel survival preps when going to a foreign country. This is on purpose.

As an outdoor  guide, I am responsible not only for myself but also for the safety of my clients. Helping them have the adventure of a life time is the goal, while ensuring their safety is my top priority. That is why my travel preps are so extensive and probably a little unique compared to what most travelers need to do.

I truly believe in the prepping and survival adage “two is one and one is none.”  You might feel like some of these preps are just too excessive. For you, they may be.  After all, your just going on vacation, right? Please adapt, modify, and tailor them to fit you and your families needs as you plan and prepare for your travels.

To help ensure a great experience and be prepared if an emergency arises while traveling abroad, you may want to take a little extra time, do a bit more homework, and prep. Who knows, you may even find yourself helping  a fellow traveler who didn’t plan or prep for an emergency. It’s a small world after all….

Safe travels!

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Robert Camp

Robert Camp turned his love of the outdoors into over 35 years of professional guiding and outdoor leadership. He has helped develop programs, lead trips, and taught for juvenile diversion programs, the U.S. military, The Sierra Club and many others.

9 thoughts on “Basic Survival in Another Country: Prepping For an Emergency”

  1. One other recommendation, particularly if traveling to Asian countries, is to visit a restaurant of that culture in the U.S. and get a takeout menu, best if with pictures, but at the least with the local language descriptions of the dishes next to an English translation. If the local language is in glyphs (Chinese, Japanese, Korean) even better, as many locals cannot read Roman alphabets. Then, if you are in a restaurant whose menu you can’t translate, you can refer to your menu, or at the least, point to the picture of a dish and ask “Yes?” in the local language with a smile – this will usually get you something recognizable to eat.

    Similarly, even if you are in the most developed cities of the Asian world, ALWAYS get a business card of your hotel with the name and address of the hotel in the local language glyphs, as many taxi drivers cannot read anything else and this may help get you home.

    Finally, even in establishments that openly display the credit card logos, do NOT expect them all to honor them, as at a whim they will simply start emphatically shaking their heads no at bill time demanding cash. So always have at least the price of meals and transportation in local currency on your person.

  2. What about a list of some things that you take with you on every trips? Freeze dried food, lifestraw, etc. That would be super helpful.

  3. I took a trip to Kenya last spring. I wish I had seen this article first. However, I did most of the stuff on this list anyway.

  4. Hi Jess,

    I would have in this article, but it was getting a bit long. I will be getting into the equipment I use in future posts. If you want to know about a particular piece of gear, let me know…

  5. Bob,

    Thank you for the compliment. Was there anything new or different from the preps in my article that you did getting ready to travel in Kenya?

  6. Most of the other preps I made were common sense medical. This was a missions trip. We spent some time in bush churches. My favorite was among the Massai tribe. The biggest fear was getting sick. We ate goat meat boiled in water that they found who knows where a dozen miles from anything resembling civilization. I had the immunizations, etc. and my doctor gave me an antibiotic to take with me. I also took with me everything over the counter I could think of–Tylenol, ibuprophen, Benadryl, Pepto Bismol, Immodium, etc.

    We stayed in a motel on the outskirts on Nairobi. This was an area that would resemble slums to us, but was nice compared to the Mathare slum where we spent the bulk of our time. Our room was on the top floor which had a security benefit.

    While normal EDC for me, the other prep I took was a tactical grade flashlight. On a few occasions it came in extremely handy. A couple of evenings we had church services in the slum. The stairs in the building were not well lit. The Kenyans used their phones to light the stairs. I pulled out the Jetbeam flashlight which provided safer walking conditions. Additionally a couple motels were not well lit in the corridors. The flashlight came in handy. The final morning we left the motel before dawn. We saw someone in the parking lot. The light identified him as the nightwatchman and likely ruined his night vision for awhile.

    We took plenty of cash as well. We took $1,000 of our church’s money and I took $300 cash on my own, not to mention major credit cards (call them in advance so they don’t reject a legitimate charge). While we never used American cash to get out of trouble, our hosts used Kenyan currency to get us out of a pretty frightening situation.

    One of my biggest prep items was taking my iPad. I got a Kenyan SIM card and amazingly had cell service literally everywhere. Think Massai tribesmen in the shadow of Mt. Kilimanjaro on a dirt walking path yet with a strong cell signal. I have the pictures to prove it! FaceTime was a lifeline to the family back home.

  7. Pingback: SHTF While You're in Another Country: What Do You Do?

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