Exploring the world can be a wonderful, exhilarating experience. But when things go wrong, most of us would do anything to get home to familiar territory. Sometimes disasters do strike no matter what precautions have been taken, but there are a few simple things you can do both to reduce the chances of something nasty happening, and to ensure you won't be in an unpleasant predicament for long.

Know before you go

Before you make a final decision about your destination, seek advice from your tour operator or travel agent about the safety and security situation in the region you are planning to visit. For independent travellers, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is a good source of information. The FCO produces regularly updated Travel Advice Notices and on a longer trip, it's worth logging on to check the current advice, especially if the countries you will be travelling to have a history of instability. Take a look at our Know Before You Go guide for more information.

Insurance

Getting adequate insurance cover is essential, especially for gap-year and longer trips (6 months or over). Specialist insurance companies usually offer better value and cover than the average high-street agent. Any policy for gap year travel should certainly include:

Look for insurers recommended by other travellers who have done a similar trip and have actually made a claim. All insurance policies require you to take as much care as possible to avoid personal injury.

Note that your cover may be invalidated if you choose to visit areas where the FCO advises against travel. Some insurers will cover you in these areas, but only for incidents unrelated to the reason for the advisory notice. For example, the FCO in February 2008 was advising against all travel to to the north and west of Timbuktu in Mali. Had you decided to travel there and had broken your leg falling off a camel, your policy might still have covered you. But if you had been kidnapped by a rebel group, it probably wouldn't have, because the risk of kidnap and banditry was the reason the FCO was advising against travel. It's very important to check these details with your insurer before you go.

Medical issues

Failure to declare an existing medical condition may also invalidate your policy. It's better to be up-front with your insurer. Paying a higher premium is preferable to being stuck in Azerbaijan recovering from a serious asthma attack. The FCO provides a special advice section on existing medical conditions on its website.

You should also make sure that your vaccinations are up to date, and that you have sought advice about prevention of malaria and other diseases that you may be exposed to in your destination country.

Be prepared for the worst

In all probability, your trip will be hassle-free, but it's worth considering how to lessen your chances of running into trouble. Robbery is the motivation for most attacks on individuals, so try to minimise the risks by making yourself less of a target:

Beware of scams, which vary around the world but often involve distraction and insistent offers to help or guide you. Lonely Planet's Thorntree forum is an excellent source of up-to-date advice about the latest scams. Most scammers will be petty thieves or con artists who want to swindle you but would stop short of actually using violence to achieve their goal. More serious intimidation and scams involving drink and drugs may well put you in serious personal danger. The golden rules are:

What to do in an emergency

Once again, it pays to do your research. Find out from guidebooks, fellow travellers and local people what the best response is in the face of an attack or robbery. In some regions and situations it's safest to be passive but in others it pays to fight back, or at least to draw attention to yourself. Most guidebooks include a warning phrase in the local language - “help!”, “thief!” or “fire!” are all useful words to know. Even if you don't know the right words to use, drawing attention to yourself will usually bring people to your aid. Carrying a personal attack alarm is also an option.

What to in the event of injury/attack

Looking after your possessions

You are probably more likely to lose your luggage on a weekend break in Barcelona than a boat trip down the Congo. Nevertheless, backpacking often involves sharing dorms, travelling on overnight buses and wandering through the less salubrious parts of town to save a few quid on the taxi fare. That presents its own particular challenges. If you want to know how to keep hold of your belongings, read on.

Passports and Paperwork

Your passport is probably the most valuable thing you will take with you on your travels. Keep it safe and on your person at all times when travelling. Waterproof pouches such as those produced by Aquapac are an excellent way to protect documents, especially if you will be in/around water a lot.

It's also advisable to:

It's advisable to do the same thing for:

If you lose your passport while abroad, you should immediately contact the nearest British Embassy or High Commission. Contact details are available on the Find and Embassy pages of the Foreign & Commonweath Office (FCO) website.

Standard replacement passports can be issued to British nationals in most parts of the world, but the time and the type of replacement will depend on the location and your particular circumstances. Emergency passports can be issued immediately but these are only valid for a single journey back to the UK. You can find out more on the Passport information pages from the FCO.

Valuables and Cash

The best advice is not to take anything of monetary or sentimental value that is not absolutely essential, and if you do take it, not to show it off or leave it unattended.

Cash is particularly vulnerable, firstly because it's easy to steal and, secondly, because many insurers will not include cash in your personal belongings cover. View our Comparison of the best cover for Backpacker Insurance to find out who will cover your personal money. To minimise the risk of loss or theft, take note of these tips:

Luggage on long journeys

On long journeys, especially overnight rail and bus journeys, you will often be separated from your luggage. To minimise the risk of theft:

Out of sight, out of mind

Don't forget that you could have a financial problem at home, such as exceeding an overdraft limit or having your credit card cloned, while you are away. Tell your bank you will be going abroad and obtain an international number you can call in case of problems. If possible, provide a contact number and an email address so that you can be notified of any problems. If you are embarking on a lengthy trip, consider giving power of attorney to a family member or trusted friend. Find out more about this option here.

Shared Accommodation and Camping

Few people consider that fellow travellers are in fact often more likely to steal your belongings than local people. Don't assume that somebody in a similar situation or any Westerner is necessarily honest! Lockers are often provided in dormitories and shared rooms. Use them to store your valuables but don't assume they provide a high level of security, and always keep your passport with you. A padlock and lightweight adjustable cable lock can also be useful. As with trains and buses, often this simple deterrent is enough.

And if the worst happens?

If you lose or have belongings stolen while you are abroad, you should:

Making an insurance claim while abroad

If you are on a long trip, you may need to make a claim before you return to the UK. You can do several things before you go which will prove invaluable in this situation, should it arise:

Finally...

Remember that the vast majority of foreign travellers return unharmed, so be well informed and try to make sensible decisions but don't be paranoid!