I used to think I was invincible. I would take risks I didn’t need to simply because I had the track record and the naivety to think that everything would always be okay. But last month, Nepal was rocked by a massive earthquake, and thousands of people died. Thousands more are missing. Many of them are foreigners, backpackers, travelers on their gap year abroad. People who probably thought they were invincible too.
Budgeting your money should be the first thing you do when preparing for your gap year, and including a solid travel insurance policy should be one of the first things you include.
Though it's unlikely that you'll encounter a natural disaster while on your gap year, expect the best, but plan for the worst. It’s going to be preparation and a clear sense of action that gets you home safe. Today, we'll cover how to prepare yourself in case of a natural disaster on your gap year, best practices in a few common scenarios, and what to do if something does happen abroad:
Budgeting your money should be the first thing you do when preparing for your gap year, and including a solid travel insurance policy should be one of the first things you include. I mean, it definitely takes precedent over your entertainment budget. Insurance can feel like a waste of money, since you don't get anything physical for the spend, but nothing hurts worse than the pit in your stomach when you realize you needed it all along.
There are possible policies than I could possibly list, and that’s where it really gets tricky. It’s all about the coverage. Generally speaking, there are a few different levels to buy.
1. Basic Insurance
This may look the most enticing, as it’s cheap and easy to find. It may bill itself as “perfect for the budget backpacker!” But take a close look at what it actually covers, because these basic policies often assume you’re going to be living in a bubble, where the only thing that could go wrong is missing a connecting flight or losing a bag. There may be little -- if any -- medical coverage. Many travel-oriented credit cards will come with basic protections like this when booking flights through their programs anyway.
2. Mid-Level Insurance
Your next step up, mid-level insurance, takes things a bit further and offers good coverage for medical emergencies. This is also where you may start seeing coverage for things like emergency evacuations or, God forbid, repatriation of your body should the worst happen. However, even these plans may not be comprehensive (especially if you’re going into high-risk areas), and are best considered in context to where you’re going and what you’ll need.
3. High-Level Insurance
This type of insurance is for the truly paranoid, or those going into high risk zones (like, say, Somalia -- which we doubt is on your gap year itinerary). Whether the zombie apocalypse breaks out and society crumbles around your ears, or a tsunami swallows your neighborhood whole, a high-level insurance plan will have you covered. Some of these may include such perks up to and including personal helicopter evacuation from disaster zones.
What's right for you?
Now for you, the gap year backpacker, the mid-level insurance coverage is probably the best bet. It’ll pull your bacon out of the grease should the stovetop get too hot, without breaking your bank and your soul.
There are many different vendors of travel insurance, but consider insurance providers like World Nomads when tailoring a specific policy to your needs. You’ll need to examine multiple options and see which will be the best for wherever you’re going. And that leads us into item two.
Part of choosing a travel insurance policy should be having an idea of what could possibly go wrong. You may not plan for volcanic eruptions if you’re WWOOFing on a vineyard in France, but if you’re doing the same in Reunion, Chile, or Argentina, you may want to have a basic understanding of pyroclastic flows and evacuation strategies. And when you have an idea of what could happen, you’ll have a better idea of what you can do to keep yourself safe.
The Ring of Fire is so named for the line of volcanoes that dot the Pacific Rim. It’s a hotbed of seismic activity, so if you’re visiting New Zealand, Southeast Asia (especially the Philippines and Indonesia), Japan, Alaska, California, Peru, or Chile, then study up on the major active cones around you. Iceland, Italy, Guatemala, Colombia, Papua New Guinea, and Reunion also have incredibly active volcanos.
Volcanic eruptions sound like an act of God you could never actually experience, but it does happen -- just check the news in Chile recently.
I was due to climb Mount Mayon in the Philippines a few years ago, but found in my research that it was showing signs of activity. Three days before I was set to go, it erupted. Several people died. By checking reports, however, you can avoid being on or near the volcano during an eruption. Most are well monitored and this disaster is one of the easier ones to prevent getting caught in.
Earthquakes can happen all over the world, though they occur more frequently on tectonic fault lines and the Ring of Fire. New Guinea, Nepal, Indonesia, and Japan are all very popular gap year locations, and all have been the victims of absolute monsters of quakes over the past few years. Earthquakes are impossible to predict, so the best you can hope is to know where to go at any given time.
It's worth noting here that many tips on earthquake survival depend entirely on the structure you’re in. The common thought process is that doorways and stairwells are the safest place to be. And this is true, if the building is old.
If it follows more modern earthquake construction codes, then under a table in the middle of the room is the safest place to be. And if the structures are extraordinarily old, rigid, or of poor quality, as in Nepal, then leaving them entirely is the best course of action.
Often, Tsunamis come part-and-parcel with earthquakes along the coast, and can be far more devastating (several towns on the Indian ocean that survived the Boxing Day quake were wiped off the map by the subsequent tsunami. However, they’re easier to predict by the drawback of water that occurs on the shore just before the tsunami hits.
Note, however, that this does not always occur. And while your best chance of getting away from one is getting to high ground, you'll need to evaluate what structures, if any, can actually survive the onslaught of water.
To be honest, you're not too likely to bump into major tsunamis or volcanic eruptions on your gap year. But one thing you need to be prepared for: typhoons. With global warming, it seems like the Storm of the Century comes about twice a year nowadays, and hail stones and flash floods kill people every single year. They can happen just about anywhere, and America, Australia, parts of East Africa, and Southeast Asia tend to get the worst of them.
While staying inside is generally your best bet against these things, you can't always avoid them. Most flash flood deaths occur on traffic-stopped roads that drivers can't escape from. The best thing to do is be prepared -- try installing a storm tracking app on your phone that will give you notifications if extreme weather is headed your way.
If you're on a small island, try to get off and back to the mainland, as soon as a warning is put in place. Evacuate elsewhere if at all possible. If not, identify where you should go to if the Hurricane / Typhoon gets particularly bad (usually a school or community center).
Brush up on the additional local risks
There are, of course, other risks, no matter where you go. Australia, for example is often battered by wildfires or swamped by flash floods. Mountainous locales can be at risk of avalanches.
Each kind of disaster, and indeed each place where those disasters occur, will have their own procedures in place. Know what could happen, and you’ll know what could help you survive.
When the Earth stops shaking and the waters go down and you think you’ve made it through, don’t lose your head. Don’t relax. The period after a disaster is just as dangerous as the period during it. Panicking citizens can cause riots or worse. Aftershocks and auxiliary disasters occur often. And damaged infrastructure leads to a massive outbreak of disease and malnutrition.
Simply put, there's really only one option you should consider taking after a disaster strikes. Leave.
Regardless of how long you've been in the country, or how much more you wish you could see, a natural disaster should spell the end of your time there. The people living there will need to rebuild and put their life back together. You, with no deep roots in the country, have the benefit being able to escape such a tragic situation, and you shouldn’t take that ability for granted.
Friends and family abroad will be worried sick about you, and while social media will allow you to tell them you’re okay in record time, they will want to see you in person.
You may be tempted to stay, to try and help put the pieces back together. Unless you're an expert in disaster relief, this may not be the most responsible choice. You have to think about logistics.
This isn't meant to frighten you. You're a tough cookie. You wouldn't be trying to take a gap year unless you had at least some kind of head on your shoulders.
With a damaged infrastructure, every resource counts. Aid will be flowing in, but as we learned with Nepal, that’s not always a perfect solution due to damage to ports and distribution routes. That means that you’ll be taking up sleeping space, food, and water, of which there may be a very limited supply, when it’s completely unnecessary to do so.
Now, if you have the qualifications to help (and really, there’s no reason not to get at least some basic ones while you’re abroad), then you should contact whatever relief agency has made landfall and see if they require assistance. They’ll be able to better place you according to where you can do the most good.
However, in all likelihood, you’ll merely be taking up room. In that case, you should take advantage of that emergency evacuation you secured with your travel insurance. I’m sure your parents would appreciate it.
Do You Feel Ready?
This isn’t meant to frighten you. You’re a tough cookie. You wouldn’t be trying to take a gap year unless you had at least some kind of head on your shoulders.
But while you shake your head and laugh at your parents every time they comment on human trafficking statistics and the possibility of the Plague coming back, you should keep the possibilities in the back of your head. Nobody likes being sucker punched. But if you take the time to put together some contingencies, then you’ll never be caught off guard.
Photo Credits: FlatIcon.