When I was a kid, I was a boy scout. I made it pretty far too but then I became a teenager, decided it was "lame" and quit. As a boy scout, I learned how to tie knots, camp outdoors, be a good citizen, play with knives and got to have cool sleepovers. One of the most important things you learn as a Boy Scout is their motto to always "be prepared," and as I've grown up and traveled the world, I've found this to also be a travel truism.
You never know what might happen on the road. Stepping out your door into the unknown is what makes travel so exciting. Each day brings endless possibility, but that possibility is for both good and bad. You may end up enjoying a day sightseeing in Paris -- or getting robbed in Berlin. You may spend an amazing day on the beaches of Thailand or suffer food poisoning in Costa Rica.
But if you're prepared, you'll be able to face whatever happens to you on the road:
Take Multi-Purpose Gear: Packing multi-use travel gear ensures you can easily adjust to changing conditions and helps reduce the amount of clothing you need to take. I like pants that zip off into shorts, walking shoes that look nice enough for an evening out and using my swim trunks as a pair of shorts. It saves room and I'm prepared for any dress situation.
Carry a Small First-Aid Kit: While we live in 2012, not 1912, and you can find modern medicine anywhere in the world, I always carry a small first air kit with me with a few essential items to be safe. I take Tylenol, stomach illness medicine, eye drops, Band-Aids, scissors, hydrocortisone cream, anti-bacterial ointment and a small supply of doctor-approved antibiotics. I'm usually able to find a pharmacy when I need one, but in case of an emergency it's good to have these items handy.
Pack a Small Flashlight: You'd be surprised how many travelers don't carry one, but a flashlight will prove to be invaluable when you suddenly decide to go caving in Panama, when your hike lasts longer than expected and nightfall sets in or when the electricity goes out unexpectedly, which is not uncommon in a lot of places. I carry a small, waterproof pen flashlight when I travel.
Bring an Umbrella: Many travelers don't pack an umbrella because it adds weight to their bag, and they figure they can just buy one if they ever need it. However, while it does add a small amount of weight, I've found myself thankful for taking it more times than I can count. You never know when you might be exiting an airport or walking down the street and find yourself in a sudden storm. While others run for cover, I simply take out my umbrella and continue to my destination.
Learn Basic Phrases: Locals don't expect you to be an expert in their language, but knowing how to say "hello," "goodbye" and "thank you" go a long way in endearing yourself to locals. After all, wouldn't you be annoyed if someone came to your home and expected you to know their language? Knowing a few key phrases will not only make interactions easier, it will also help you when you bargain for goods, order food, get lost or need help. I download the latest language app for my iPhone when I travel, but for those not using a smartphone, Lonely Planet Guidebooks makes excellent pocket language guides for just about every language spoken, and Benny Lewis wrote this excellent guide on learning languages.
Study Non-Verbal Communication: Most people interact using both verbal and non-verbal communication, so paying attention to facial expressions can help you appropriately read a situation, even if you don't understand the verbal part. When you don't know the language or might take words out of context, keep calm and take a moment to read the feelings of the person. This has helped me defuse tense situations with taxi drivers, vendors and hotel owners. Understanding non-verbal communication doesn't happen overnight. It takes practice, but these websites offer good guides on how to understand non-verbal cues.
Keep Emergency Cash with You: While there is almost always an ATM around these days, you never know when emergency cash might come in handy. You could end up in an airport (like I recently did) and find that none of your ATM cards work and you are stuck without any money. I recommend having a stash of $200 for emergency situations. I don't carry this money around but leave it in my hotel room safe in case something happens.
Have Back Up Cards: I always keep one back-up credit card and bank card with me in case of emergencies. You never know when one bank might decide to lock your account for suspicious activity without telling you -- yes, that has also happened to me -- or when you might get robbed. I recently had my bank account information stolen while I was traveling in Europe. My bank had to deactivate my card, and if I hadn't had a second one with me, I wouldn't have had access to any money.
Make Extra Copies: Keeping copies of your documents can come in handy during an emergency, especially if you lose your originals. If you get robbed or lose your passport, having copies ready for officials can make filing police reports and obtaining new documents much easier. When I lost my passport, my back-up copies helped with my police report and served as my proof of identity at the American embassy. Copy your passport, your health/travel insurance paperwork and your credit cards.
Know What to do When You Lose Your Passport: What do you do when you lose your passport? Losing your passport can be scary, especially if you are planning on traveling soon. I didn't know how to handle it, and trying to figure it out on my own was very confusing. Luckily, I took notes on the entire process for obtaining a new passport overseas -- you can read the full text here, but the main points are as follows:
Carry a List of Emergency Contacts: If something happens to you, having a list of emergency numbers on you will help medical professionals know who to contact. I also keep a list of my allergies with me so if I need treatment and can't answer questions, doctors know what I'm allergic to. I keep two copies: one with me and one in my bag in my hotel room. Because having back ups are important!
Have Travel Insurance: The ultimate form of preparedness, having good travel insurance, will be a blessing when you have to go to the hospital because you popped an ear drum scuba diving or you get sick on the road or break a leg. Chances are nothing is going to happen to you while traveling, but for when it does you are going to want to have insurance. Only a fool travels without it.
Read Before You Go: There's nothing more important than knowing about the place you're visiting. Head to a library or bookstore and get a few books on what life is like where you're going. If someone came into your home and ignored all your rules, you would get upset; the same guidelines are applicable when you travel overseas. Knowing basic rules and etiquette can help you avoid any misunderstandings and leave a favorable impression in your host's minds. Otherwise, you could end up like this British couple who were jailed for kissing in public in Dubai.
You never know when you might face the unexpected, and if there's one thing I've learned from my years of traveling, it's that even the best-laid plans can go awry. You may not use these items all the time, and hopefully you won't ever need some of them, but the point is to be ready when you do. After all, a scout is always prepared.
Follow Matt Kepnes on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nomadicmatt