Self-Defense Tips and Techniques for Female Travelers

Could you defend yourself from an attacker while on vacation? Are you confident that you could effectively use your mace, pepper spray, pocket knife, or gun if a stranger threatened you at home or in your vehicle? Do you naively think that your martial arts or CrossFit training is enough to save your life? Regardless of your answer, read on. You may not be as safe as you think you are.

At Nomads4Life, we encourage solo travel, especially for females. Many are afraid to travel alone or limit their destinations for safety reasons. This post will help better prepare you, but the tips here are just a start. As I’ll explain, I recommend that every one, and especially women, take an extensive self-defense course.

I’m currently enrolled in a 10-week course with C.O.B.R.A Self Defense in Miami, Florida. They operate in 30 countries and 100 cities (and no, I’m not getting paid to mention them). First, I did a 10-hour immersion course over two days, which cost the amount of nice vacation, but I didn’t hesitate to pay. I’ve traveled to some of the most dangerous parts of the world for research and work -Pakistan, Guatemala, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other places where we have had to have guards and unmarked cars because we would be targets for kidnapping or rape. I’m also petite and love to travel for vacations when I’m not working. In addition, I’m a professor, and unfortunately, here in the United States, there has been an epidemic of school shootings. I need more substantial active shooter training than the typical run, hide, fight program provided by universities. I also live in Miami, Florida, the road rage capital.Finally, I’m a survivor of domestic violence and have been choked and threatened repeatedly. I’ve spent many days and nights thinking of what I wished I had done to protect myself. Plus I had just seen John Wick 3 and Halle Berry played a bad ass assassin. I wanted to be just like her. Later, I learned that she trained for months. Having taken my course, I can see why. FYI, the instructors indicated that the fighting in John Wick, Atomic Blonde, and The Equalizer had the most correct form.

Even with a shoulder injury, a sore hip, and bad knees, I was able to take down my instructor.

The course was expensive but a no brainer for me, even though I have some extra padding on me, I have bursitis in my shoulder and right hip from an accident, and osteoarthritis in my knees. After conferring with my doctor and the instructors, I dove right in. Below are some of the tips I have learned so far.

It takes 7 seconds for a criminal to size you up to determine whether you’re a target.  Criminals are always watching you and we are always watching our phones. We look like tourists when we travel. Whether we are abroad or in the shopping mall, we walk around with our headphones on and/or texting, oblivious to our surroundings. Criminals watch our comings and goings from AirBnBs, hotels, and hostels, and they notice when we take the same jogging route every day, even by our homes and jobs. They are vigilant, and we are not. 

 No matter how strong or fit you are, your normal workout regimen won’t be enough to help you. As our instructor joked, you can’t burpee your way out of an attack.

Figure out the “don’ts” in Mixed Martial Arts, and do them when attacked (after you’ve been trained).  I’m not a fan, but MMA has a lot of rules to protect the combatants. The don’ts become do’s when you’re trying to survive an attack. I’ve listed some of them below and then added what I understood from the C.O.B.R.A. training.

  • MMA- No groin attacks.- In our class we learned to do groin attacks, but not the typical kick them in groin move that women believe are so effective. Male criminals expect that. Instead, we were taught to grab the groin and pull. The groin pull can disable an attacker long enough for you to escape. You can also pinch and grab the fleshy part of the inner thigh. 
  • MMA- No knees to the head on a grounded opponent.- We were taught to use our knees on the head or any body part. In the picture below, I’m grabbing the instructor’s head and pulling it into my knee.


  • MMA- No strikes to the back of the head or the spine- Again, we were told that there should be no limits.
  • MMA- No head butts.- We haven’t learned about head butts yet, but if it works, we should probably go for it.
  • MMA- No eye gouging- Not only were we taught to gouge the eyes, but we were taught to rake them. It makes us cringe to think about it, but someone is attacking you. Gouge the eyes until it feels like jelly.  If you have long fingernails, those are powerful weapons, and you can get the attackers DNA. As our instructor reminded us, think of how much we hate a speck of dust in our eyes. Now imagine a sharp fingernail scratching the cornea.
  • MMA-No fingers in an opponent’s orifices.- We were told to use our fingers to jab an opponent in the ears, the eyes, and especially the throat. You can use two fingers. 
  • MMA- No biting.- Why not? If it will catch the attacker off guard, go for it.
  • MMA- No strikes or grabbing of the throat.- As I stated above, this is key. Use two fingers and jab the attacker in the throat.Do sharp, quick strikes. It makes it hard to breathe for the attacker, and those few seconds could help you escape.

A knife may be worse than a gun in an attack– Although we are all afraid of guns, at least when the person is close to you, there are ways to disarm the attacker, and we learned them all. When a person has a knife, it’s much more difficult to defend yourself. Everyone can grab a knife, and a kitchen knife can kill you. The key is to keep distance when the attacker has a knife, and get close (if you’re trained) to disarm the criminal with a gun. If you can grab the attacker’s knife or have your own, run. Don’t shoot or stab in revenge.  If you can’t run because you’re pinned down or trapped, then stab the person in the throat, the femoral artery, or the kidneys with the knife. It’s very tricky to disarm someone with a weapon, so make sure to get trained and not just by watching movies or YouTube videos.


Coffee is your friend– If you’re walking into a gas station or convenience store and you  feel unsafe with the unsavory characters in the parking lot, buy hot coffee and throw it in an attacker’s eyes if he approaches you in a menacing way.

A cane can be a weapon too.- Unlike pocket knives, guns, pepper spray, or mace, you can carry a cane through airport security, and after you’re trained properly, you can use it to fend off attackers and put distance between you and them. Most important, it has the element of surprise. If you’re not traveling, you can keep it in your car.

Find a use for your old CDs.- I stream music now and rarely listen to CDs. If you break them in half, you can use the jagged edges as a makeshift weapon. Try not to have the edges as even as mine are below and keep it in your car in an easily accessible place.

Use the longest part of  your key as a weapon. When walking to your car or hotel room, hold your keys in between your fingers and make a fist. If someone attacks, jab them in the eyes or the throat. 


Passive fighting stance. Stand straight and tall and maintain eye contact.

Have a passive fighting stance– Follow your intuition. If you see someone approach you, even to ask directions or beg for money, but something doesn’t feel right, hold your hands up and say something like “I don’t want any trouble.” Maintain eye contact and don’t turn your back to walk away. Try to keep one foot slightly in front of the other. That will help with your balance. It’s easier for someone to push you and topple you when your feet are in the same position. Then start screaming as loud as you can “back off,” “get away,” help,” “fire,” or anything that will cause a commotion. Don’t worry if you look stupid and the person was really just another lost tourist trying to find the museum. Repeat it as loudly as you can. That will get people’s attention and may make the person run to avoid a scene. Keep as much distance as you can from the person. Once you learn the self-defense techniques from a qualified instructor, there are additional steps you will take once the attacker gets closer, and phrases you will say after you have disarmed the attacker to make sure the person stays on the ground.

Always protect two areas- your head and your center mass.- In the same way that you want to gouge out someone’s eyes, you need to protect yours. More important, you need to protect your head because it houses your “computer”- your brain. You also want to protect your center mass, which houses your vital organs. You never want to get stabbed or shot, but if you get wounded in the leg or arm, it’s much easier to survive than getting hit in the chest.

Don’t advertise what you’re doing on social media– This one will be hard for me. I don’t advertise I’m alone when I post, but I typically share my location either for the blog, Instagram, or our Nomads4Life Facebook group. If you use certain hashtags on social media, criminals will know where you are. If you go online to describe your “amazing solo trip,” you could be making yourself a target. The safest thing is to post when you get back home.

Get the right kind of training and keep practicing. You can be attacked anywhere and need to be prepared for anything. Your training should cover (at a minimum): situational awareness, chokeholds from all positions, bear hugs from all positions, dealing with knives, disarming someone with a gun, escaping multiple attackers, dealing with a home invasion, how to survive when the attacker has you on the floor, how to bring the attacker to the floor, appropriate verbalization, assertiveness, command presence, and more. Even after I finish the 10-week course, I will need to keep practicing until it becomes second nature. There are specific methods for where to place your hands, wrists, and legs, and it would be easy to forget them. Get hands-on training and make sure that the instructor knows if you have any injuries or limitations. My instructors were fantastic and would not let me do some of the scenarios so that I would not aggravate my injuries. In many countries, active shooters aren’t an everyday hazard. In the United States, they have tragically become commonplace. Make sure your training addresses this. Weeks after I returned from Pakistan, there was a terrorist attack in the same hotel chain I stayed in. There is no guarantee that the active shooter training would have saved my life in that situation, but it’s better to have the training to have a fighting chance. 

Don’t forget the “equalizers.” I’ve said it before, but it’s so important that I’m going to say it again to end this post. When you attack certain areas, you will get an immediate reaction and it will help disable your attacker. If you can, try to strike the eyes, throat, groin, pressure points, or anywhere that you can bite.

Women tend to feel uncomfortable with violence, but we are the most likely targets. The self-defense course taught me valuable skills and left me feeling empowered to survive by any means necessary. It’s time for you to sign up for one, even if it means that you use the money you’ve saved up for your next vacation. You’re worth it.

I spent 10 hours with these people and we were definitely ready to get silly by the end of the day.

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  1. Thanks for sharing these important techniques for personal safety. I hate to even think that I would be at risk while traveling…but always better to be forewarned and prepared. You’ve given me some simple but very powerful defensive moves. Let’s hope I never have to use them.

  2. I must admit that this is one of the most unique posts I have come across and one which is very helpful to any solo traveller whether female or male I must admit. Some great tactics to protect yourself from the nasty who pray on travellers. Some very basic everyday items can really be used as defence like the cane or a key even . Very useful tips and thanks for sharing I must say and I have taken some tips too.

  3. You go girl! Important skills and a small price if it someday safes your life. Everyone of course hopes, that they are save on their travels, but you never know. And sometimes things happen even in your safest place. It is good to be prepared.

  4. Very helpful tips for self defense and I think all females should know these basic techniques whether they are traveler or not. Keeping broken CD’s is a great idea. Also not advertising on social media is highly essential as there are many stalkers who take advantage.

  5. What amazing tips! I immediately started reading the parts about what MMA fighters can’t do (but you should in defending yourself) to my boyfriend. He agreed and told me to read it all again and use it if needed haha Brilliant article.

  6. I wish I never need to defend myself when I travel. I practiced Kick Boxing for more than 10 years and it is really helpful!

  7. Wow this information is so helpful. This is one of those things you don’t want to think about, but know you have to. It really is smart to prepare yourself. I am going to continue to review these techniques and hope to pass along some tips to my kids as well. Those tips using our keys, or a CD, or carrying a cane are so smart – simple things that anyone can have prepared.

  8. This is such a useful post! I travel solo all the time, and at 5’2″ I’m a pretty small person, so I’ve been wanting to take a self defense class for a while… just haven’t gotten around to it yet. You’re right that gouging the eyes sounds so gruesome but I agree that’s probably the best way to immediately disarm your attacker, and you don’t have to be a big and strong person to do it! Kudos to you for completing this course!

  9. I agree with everything you said. The most important self defense is avoidance. Don’t put yourself in a vulnerable situation. Stay in lit areas. Blend in. STAY OFF YOUR CELLPHONE and always be aware. Look confident.

    I’m a middle age solo traveller and also a 2nd degree black belt and I ALWAYS follow your suggestions as well as the ones I wrote.

    The post is fantastic and something all people should know

  10. Personal safety is no joke. I also love to travel solo and took a krav maga course at my university with another solo traveler, figuring out how to defend ourselves using nothing but our hands, elbows, and knees. I also started to carry around pens to use if needed, kind of like in the Bourne series. Never thought about buying a hot drink…need to try that out.

  11. Great article and good advice. I am sure the knowledge will help solo travelers feel more comfortable.

  12. I’ve never read anything on this topic and I loved reading this. It’s a topic few people talk about. This is a practical article all women should read.