WARNING: No one should visit a country in this category without seriously considering the risks and how to mitigate them.

War zones or former war zones, often called hostile environments, are not the most obvious places for non-essential travel, but with the right preparation and a bit of luck they can provide the intrepid traveler with a unique experience.

Keep in mind that it is very unusual for non-combatants to be wandering around war zones. Even if you have no hostile intentions, your very presence may result in heated reactions; among other things, you may be mistaken for a spy. Tourists can be just as much a target of hostility as any military force. Indeed, tourists could be regarded as a soft target since they do not have the backup of a large organization. In recent times, tourists have been targeted in Afghanistan, Egypt and Kenya.

A tourist or independent traveler will probably not have the same backup as someone working for an organization. Usually, those people will have a security team to provide advice and support. Without this, there may be limited backup if things go wrong.

Safety advice
A little research into your chosen destination can turn up a lot of useful advice. Some, such as government issued travel advice can be over cautious, but there are often organizations specializing in safety information for the UN for example. There will be NGO’s (Non Governmental Organizations) operating in most of these places.

  • British Foreign & Commonwealth Office provides travel advice
  • Afghanistan NGO Security Office exists to provide information and assistance to enable safer circumstances for NGO’s and to increase aid access to all people in need in Afghanistan.

Training courses
Anyone considering a visit to a country that could be considered a war zone should consider some professional training, . Such courses are becoming increasingly easy to find. A search of the Internet for ‘Hostile environment course’ will probably provide the address of a local company. A course will normally cover all the issues discussed here in far greater detail, usually with practical experience. They can be a lot of fun too. A course will normally be from 2-5 days and will involve role play, a lot of first aid and sometimes weapons training. Most NGO staff, journalists, diplomats etc. will have taken these courses.

  • Pilgrims Group offer training in the UK.

Books and magazines dealing with wilderness survival are common, but publications dealing with war zones are few.

  • The World’s Most Dangerous Places Provides travel anecdotes that may be of help.
  • Survive! Provides brief, direct coverage of staying alive in active war zones, kidnapping situations, etc.

Mines and UXO
Most places that have seen armed conflict can be affected by mines or UXO (Unexploded Ordnance).

In some cases, these may remain dangerous for decades after the conflict ends — for example, China had some deaths in the 21st century from left over World War II munitions. After a few years heavily populated or heavily touristed areas will generally have been cleaned up, but out-of-the-way places may remain dangerous.

Mines fall into two categories: anti-personnel and anti-tank. Anti-personnel mines generally are not designed to kill. Maiming an enemy combatant is more effective than killing since resources are needed to evacuate. Anti-tank mines will not normally be triggered if you stand on one. They are designed to be triggered by a vehicle. One other point, if you step on an anti-personnel mine, it explodes immediately. No click or any other warning like you see in the movies.

The best advice for any of these devices is to stay well clear. There are often warning signs of their presence. This can be as subtle as an untouched field in the midst of heavily farmed area, an abandoned house in a busy district etc. Packing crates for mines or ammunition may be present, where they have been discarded. A convenient path may be disused. Where mines/UXO have been found, the affected area should be marked. Red paint on rocks is a sure sign. Pieces of cloth or cans hanging from a fence is another. Dead cattle or a pattern of craters are also possible. The best source of advice may be from local people.

Even if minefields are marked, in time rain and rivers can move devices into other areas. This has been a problem in the Balkans, where death and injury from mines on river banks are common.

When in an area that is known or suspected to be mined, stay on paved road when possible. If not possible, follow car tracks or well-trod foot paths. Should you, despite your best efforts, find yourself in a mined area, STOP. Stay where you are and call for assistance from someone who knows what they are doing. If this is not possible, retrace your exact steps back to safety (this is very dangerous). If you have a long rod (even a pen might work), you may be able to check for mines and escape the area. Insert the rod into the ground at a very shallow angle. Mines will not normally be triggered when they are hit from the side. You need to check an area just big enough for your foot. Keep doing this for every step. It could take a couple of days to get out of the danger area, but you should be alive.

Road blocks
Road blocks are common, not just in war zones. They will usually be hidden round a corner in the road (especially if they are not official). Road blocks are most commonly an opportunity for the people manning them to extort money from passers by. There are a few useful rules for dealing with road blocks. First, keep your hands in sight. That way, no one will think you may have a weapon ready. Look pleased to see the people who have stopped you, even if you feel contempt for them. Be polite. Try to stay in the vehicle. If this is not possible, try to stay together, especially if you or others in your group are female. Keep all doors locked and if possible windows closed.

Do not photograph any military checkpoints, roadblocks or facilities. Also do not photograph sensitive areas like bridges, border checkpoints, communications facilities and airports. When in doubt, ask for permission beforehand. In many nations it is an offense to photograph these items – the military may suspect you are gathering information for hostile forces to use in an attack.

To avoid the danger of kidnapping it may be wise to look into hiring a professional bodyguard and a camouflage passport, which is a faux passport “issued” by a non-existent country. Camouflage passports are used to throw off terrorists and abductors, who may be looking to single out a person from a specific nation. Camouflage passports cannot be used for official business, because anyone can purchase these passports with minimal identity verification.

In any kidnapping/abduction, the kidnappers have the least control right at the start. As time passes, their control over the situation increases and the opportunity for the victim to act reduces. Many kidnap attempts are foiled because the intended victim reacts to the attempt in a way that the kidnappers did not expect. If driving a vehicle, reversing away from danger or changing direction may help. Specialist courses are available for drivers.

If you are unfamiliar with firearms and what they can do, get training before you enter a hostile environment. As an unarmed civilian, your best bet is to avoid active conflict areas.

If you are shot at, move and move fast. If you can, move across the line of fire and not directly away from the shooting. If you are part of a group, scatter in different directions. This will confuse the person with the firearm, long enough to find cover.

Do not take cover behind vehicles. Pistol bullets easily pass through both doors of a car; rifle bullets can pass through a vehicle lengthwise. Stopped or disabled vehicles are “bullet magnets” that draw fire. The best protection provided by a car or truck is its ability to move away at high speed.

Walls, trees, and structures provide concealment, but may not provide cover. The 7.62mm round used by the AK-47, a common assault rifle in war zones, can pass through a concrete block. The less powerful 9mm pistol round can go through a dozen layers of sheetrock.[1]

A rule of thumb to keep in mind is the ‘three-second rule’ which basically states if you need to move to another place of cover, it should not be more than a three second sprint away.

The chances of being caught up in an explosion are pretty remote. Avoiding high risk locations, such as restaurants or bars frequented by people that could be targets is an option. If you are unlucky enough to be in the area of an explosion, leave as quickly as possible. This is because an increasingly common tactic by terrorists is to trigger a small explosion, followed by a large one to catch crowds and rescuers.

Bulletproof vests
A bulletproof vest might save your life in some circumstances, but there are problems. No vest can protect body parts that it does not cover. Vests that are reasonably light and comfortable will stop most pistol bullets and some shrapnel, but not anything heavier. They might stop a slashing attack with a knife, but not a thrust; for that, you need a different knife-proof vest.

Armour strong enough to stop most rifle bullets exists, but it is heavy, bulky, uncomfortable, and conspicuous. No form of body armour will stop a heavy round such as 50 caliber.

A few vendors are now offering clothing that looks fairly normal, even stylish, but is actually bulletproof. This may be a good option because it is less conspicuous, easier to wear all the time.

Independent travelers and tourists should not carry weapons. If you carry a weapon, you are not a civilian. You will be designated as a intelligence officer or soldier, and treated as such by armed groups.

Travelling with armed guards may be a better alternative and is necessary in some situations.

First aid
A full first aid course is beyond the scope of this article.

Basic first aid, as taught by a local Red Cross will show you how to treat minor injuries and perform CPR. These and similar courses are often inexpensive or free.

Hostile environment, combat medic, or “defensive medical” courses focus on control of bleeding, shock, airway management, and trauma care. They usually include training in the use of tourniquets, H-bandages, nasal airways, and hemostatic agents like QuikClot or CELOX. * LMS Defense and GOR Group provide combat medical training in the USA.