In light of the avoidable deaths of travellers such as Henry Miller, who died of side-effects from the powerful hallucinogenic drug ayahuasca, or Matt Lawlor, who died from falling off a moving train whilst having a sneaky cigarette, we need a new approach to safety advice for travellers. Roughly 25,000 students every year opt to take a year out before starting university, and countless others choose to take some time out after university, or even as a sabbatical from work. Many people will travel and age does not provide immunity from getting into sticky situations, as the death of 34-year-old Gareth Huntley from a supposed fight, proves.

There are numerous websites with advice on safety for travellers. From the government’s FCO advice to the Year Out Group’s guidelines, you can find information on everything from insurance to vaccinations to the importance of not making drunken mistakes. This is all good advice, but from travelling to over forty countries and from currently living in Ecuador, I want to provide some additional insights and points to remember whilst travelling to avoid unnecessary danger.

Let’s talk about drugs and alcohol. When I first travelled to Sub-Saharan Africa at 18 years of age I thought I was invincible. Yes, I swam drunk, in the dark, in bilharzia-infested water. I still can’t smell gin without making my stomach churn as I am taken back to the time I drank too much Ugandan gin. Cheap alcohol is ubiquitous and synonymous with the backpacker experience. In addition to the standard advice of protecting your drink from potential spiking when in public places, I would add the advice to stick with brand name alcohol. Local beer is usually fine, but stay away from the unlabeled bottles being sold at the side of the road. It is not a ‘when in Rome’ situation; homebrew alcohol kills. In 2011, 21 people died from methanol in a homemade concoction in Ecuador, and at least 80 people have died this year in Kenya.

On the subject of drugs, the advice is stricter. The majority of recreational drugs are illegal in most countries, meaning that there is no regulated and safe source as there is with alcohol. You simply do not know what you are taking. This goes for the UK too, but it is more likely to be a more trusted associate that supplies you on home ground. Even where drugs are legal, such as in Colombia where ayahuasca is technically legal, using your smart phone (if you were brave enough to take it with you) or an internet café that is bound to be nearby, do your research into the substances before even considering taking anything. What is its legal status? What are the effects? How might it interact with any other drugs you are taking? Always make sure you are supervised by someone (sober) who you trust, the risk of falling into a canal in Amsterdam is as real as being left by the side of the road. Believe me, I lived in Holland for a year. Better yet, enjoy the natural rush from meeting new people, trying different foods and experiencing spectacular sights.

How to avoid accidents like the one Matt Lawlor had? The often lax health and safety rules of many countries can be a welcome break from the red tape of regulation in the UK. Whilst volunteering in Kenya a group of  us wide-eyed Brits loved being rescued in the open air of the back pick-up truck next to too many chickens and the Masai, it gave us a great story to tell and retell when we got home. However, just because there isn’t a rule, it does not mean it is not dangerous. Where rules and regulations do not exist, do your own mental risk assessment and judge the situation from there. When travelling on a night train in India and the police marched a guy in handcuffs through my open carriage, my mental risk assessment said to lock up all my items and make sure I trusted who I was sharing a carriage with. Some call it common sense, but it has to be more of a conscious process when you’re in an uncommon situation. Where there are rules, such as the smoking prohibition on the train that Lawlor was travelling on, make sure you follow them. Attempts to subvert the rules in an unknown situation can lead to accidents.

If you take away one thing from this let it be the question: would I do this at home? It is unlikely that you would trust your local hostel to put you in touch with a shaman for a guided hallucinogenic experience, so don’t do it abroad. It is unlikely that you would sneak outside on a high-speed train in the UK, so don’t do it abroad. It is unlikely you would get into a stranger’s car just because they called themselves a taxi, so don’t do it abroad. There will always be unavoidable, tragic accidents, but with a reduced sense of invincibility and more research, travelling can be a positive life-changing event.