My Safety Whistle: Worth its Weight in Gold

why you should bring a safety whistle on your travels

In the course of many months of travel, I have switched up my travel gear several times. But one of the most important things I brought turned out to be one of the smallest: my safety whistle.

I managed to go through several daypacks on this trip so far. I was looking for something big enough for multi-day treks, but small enough to traipse around with when exploring a new city. Also, I had to dispose of one after a goat peed on it; the smell would not wash out, no matter what I did. Hazards of long-term travel, no doubt.

In Australia, I settled upon a daybag backpack that came with a nice mesh backpanel (so a sweaty back didn’t automatically translate to a sweaty pack), and a bonus safety whistle on the chest strap.

While not a factor in my purchase, that whistle proved invaluable in the coming months.

Why My Safety Whistle Was Indispensable on my Travels

safety whistle packing travel
Enjoying the sun, unaware we’d be in the boat for a long, long time.

Safety Whistle Save 1 – Middle of the Irawaddy River, 2009

When our boat died in the middle of the Irrawaddy river, sputtering its last, diesel-fueled breath somewhere between Sinbo and Bhamo, we were (so to speak) up a creek without a paddle. As in, the boat had no oars, no lifejackets and dusk was upon us.

Oh, and we were smack in the middle of the largest river in Burma. Time trickled by. Our group was mostly Burmese people, with a few of us tourists. The mood started out optimistic once the engine croaked, but as the last rays of sun disappeared behind the banks of the river, so did any positive thoughts.

Through the English-speaking guide of a photojournalist, we tried to figure out what our options were.

It turns out, we didn’t really have any.

For hours, we drifted in inky silence without a clue about what to do next, the captain sitting and glaring at the motor in disgust.

Eventually, I heard the motor of a boat in the distance and warned everyone to cover their ears.

Inhaling deeply, I sounded the whistle like there was no tomorrow.

Why you should travel with a safety whistle
Dusk on the Irrawaddy in Burma: pretty – until you realize you’re never getting home.

It worked.

The boat came toward us, the two captains conversed, and we were towed to shore. Carrying our packs, exhausted and waterlogged, we trekked to the other side of the island, then over a hill and then down to the bay facing Bhamo.

Another boat picked us up and took us to Bhamo itself, where we checked into the one hotel licensed to house foreigners and fell into a deep sleep.

[Note: You might be asking yourselves why we didn’t call anyone for help using a mobile. This is Burma before the 2015 elections: permanent SIM cards were $1000 and required a permit. None of the passengers had one, and none of the tourists had invested in a $25 temporary SIM.]

Safety Whistle Save 2 – Climbing Mount Zwegabin, Mon State, 2009

In my post about climbing Mount Zwegabin, I mentioned that I was chased by a pack of wild monkeys.

After a wrestling match over my rolled up blanket — terrifying at the time, but with a vague understanding that one day soon it would make for a ridiculous story if they didn’t push me off the mountain — I frantically ran up several more stairs before realizing that resistance was futile.

A short person with short legs cannot outrun a pack of monkeys up innumerable crumbling stairs on a Burmese mountain. It was as simple as that.

Gasping for breath and watching several of the bolder monkeys creep toward me, teeth bared, my eye caught the bright orange whistle of my safety whistle.

Figuring I had nothing to lose, I inhaled deeply and pushed out the air as hard as I could, scaring those monkeys with a sound they’d likely never heard before.

They yelped, they scattered. I kept moving as quickly as possible, looking behind me in a bit of a panic. But the monkeys had all disappeared.

Safety Whistle 1, Monkeys 0.

Climbing Mount Zwegabin, Burma

Not pictured: the monkeys. Or me running awkwardly up these stairs.

Safety Whistle Save 3 – Train to Chiang Mai, Thailand, 2010

One of the many great things about Thailand is its seemingly innumerable transportation options to get from A to B.

I opted to take a night train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, thinking it would be a new experiences from my customary overnight bus ride.

What I didn’t think was that I would get stuck in the bathroom in the middle of the night, with nothing but my daypack to keep me company.

After a good amount of time dedicated to tugging on the door, banging on the door, and sitting and staring at the door, I realized that my safety whistle could make far more of a ruckus.

Sure enough, it did.

Within no time, someone came to open the door, already unlocked but completely wedged on the wrong sliding track.

Humiliating? Definitely. But not as much as it would have been to spend the night in the toilet.

My lifesaver, the safety whistle on my backpack.

Oh HAI safety whistle! Thanks for being there for me.

What’s the lesson in all this? You can agonize about what to pack and what gear to bring, but don’t forget to add one tiny but powerful whistle to your list. If you want one with a keychain ring, opt for Whistle for Life’s marine whistle. Each are worth their weight in gold.

For further packing, planning, and solo travel tips, please see my World Travel Resources Page.


65 thoughts on “My Safety Whistle: Worth its Weight in Gold”

  1. Funny story with the monkeys, but you’ve convinced me. I’m investing on a safety whistle the next time I travel. It doesn’t hurt to be prepared.

    1. Thanks for the comment Sheila. A lot of daypacks now sell them already attached to the chest strap, so that’s an easy way to have it on you at all times. Safe travels!

  2. Something i learned early on when treking in places with monkeys, is to always carry a trusty anti-monkey stick. What’s an anti-monkey stick you ask? Well its anything that you could use as a walking stick and/or to beat the snot out of a monkey with.

    Picked that tip up from a thai guy defending his picnic.

  3. Great story! I can’t believe it saved you on three different occasions. I’m going to have to go buy one now! :)

  4. Jodi-this is a great post, and should be traveler’s 101 for ANYONE, but especially a woman traveling. I have a whistle on my purse, one on my keychain and have had for years even in the states.

    A note for “whistle blowers” 3 short blasts= I need help. 2 short blasts= I hear you and ma on the way. Universal short hand for SAR.

    1. Thanks Sharon – I will file the whistle tips away, hopefully not needing them in the future! I agree that it’s a great item to carry at all times, travel or otherwise. Thanks for reading!

  5. I always have one of these when hiking (and on my lifejacket when I used to boat), but don’t carry one for urban/RTW travel. Great to see how often it’s helped you.

    1. I carry one when hiking and in general when walking around New York (it’s small and usually in my purse), but hadn’t kept one during my RTW until I bought this daypack. Won’t be leaving it at home anymore, that’s for sure!

  6. I’m buying a whistle tomorrow!

    I cannot imagine getting stuck in a train bathroom in SEA………ewwww!

  7. This is the most valuable travel tip I think I’ve read in awhile, I’m buying one tomorrow too!!

  8. Great Stories Jodi! Maybe I should get a whistle too and scare everyone, anyone or anything that screw with my trip! hehehe Hope all else if well with you! :)

    1. Oh Lalaine, imagine if we had these in El Nido? We’d have messed with everyone, those houses are so close together! Next time. I hope to go back in 2011 if you’re looking to head over – would be great to see you again!

      Andrea: Glad the post inspired you! It’s not expensive at all, and certainly came in handy :)

  9. Gosh. I’m seriously thinking of getting one now… Talking of travel gear, did no one on the boat in Burma have a torch to signal with?! Headtorches, I think, make life invaluable…

  10. Actually, the tourists on board all had headlamps. Problem was that land was barren on the banks of the river – no one there to signal at. When I heard the motor of the boat in the distance, the first thought was ‘make noise’. But you’re right, a strong torch from the boat would have been a good idea! The captain didn’t have any, from what we could see.

  11. Well I’ll be damned. I never seriously considered a safety whistle. Who knew it had so many uses? Where do you buy these?

    1. Gray: I can just see you saying this to me. Haha. You can find them on almost all day packs these days from REI or Eastern Mountain Sports. Alternatively any sports store or outdoor store ought to carry them. Plenty of different options and sizes for the buying.

      Brian: I’m a little worried about what will happen next.

  12. Wow, who would have thunk it? Don’t think I’ll buy one, as I can’t think of one instance in 5 years of non-stop travel that it would have come in handy for our family, but fun stories!

    1. Jeanne, I didn’t buy one either – it came on my pack! But it was a definite bonus even more times than I’ve listed here. Not heavy at all, might be worth the few $ it costs to buy one.

  13. Omg, the monkeys! You have the best stories. I would never have considered carrying a whistle, but that’s a fantastic idea.

  14. If you are looking for a whistle, why not check out your local county Search & Rescue–every county has one, and some even use whistle drives as fund raisers. Search & Rescue units are ALL volunteer, and can survive only by donations.

    1. Sharon, thanks for the advice. I’m not sure we have local SaR organisations in Eastern Canada but I’ll definitely look into it. Appreciate your comment.

      Candice: I don’t know what it is but so long as this stuff keeps happening, I’m going to keep sharing. :)

  15. I never thought a safety whistle could be that valuable. You have me convinced and I will purchase on before I head out again in July! (P.S. I got stuck inside a bathroom on a bus in Egypt, I feel your pain, and a whistle would have been super handy!)

  16. Hi Jodi,

    I’m a friend of Cale’s who happened to come across your great story here through a tweet from the Everywhere Trip guy, Gary Arndt. Thanks for sharing – I realize how wholly unprepared I’ve been on my travels (luckily, nothing went seriously wrong like in your stories).

    Have a good one!

    1. Adrian, you found my site via Gary and not my brother? I love how this world works sometimes. I’ve when things to go awry, I’ve learned that it’s best not to panic as they often work their way out, even if it’s via a very long, tiring detour. Thanks for reading!

      Amanda: How did you get out of the bus bathroom in Egypt? I was actually quite lucky; the bathroom on the night train was quite new, and more importantly it was clean!

  17. Great post! I’ve always heard of people recommending safety whistles for travel but never considered bringing one along…until now. :)

    1. Stella, Barbara: Glad you enjoyed. I was going to just write a short post about how it was a great piece of plastic to own, but then I figured ‘why not embarrass myself with stories of my running up a mountain, scared out of my mind – you know, for illustration purposes.’ I actually have a 2nd whistle, attached to my camera lens cleaner, but having it on the daypack itself is much more useful. Thanks for reading!

  18. Soooooooo true, Jodi! Such an easy thing to forget but so helpful. My mom also recently bought me a tiny but powerful travel flashlight. For now, I just use it when I’m taking out the trash in the dark, but I know it’ll serve me well some time when I’m back in a jungle…

    1. Liv: Yes, travel flashlight or headlamp, both very useful! My headlamp is something I never leave home without now – from power cut outs to caves to big, yawning holes in the sidewalk, it’s really been a worthwhile purchase.

  19. The whistle does sound like a great idea for solo travelers, but probably less so for family travel. I think we have a whistle around some where & we have had a few thrills in our 5 years of travel..including wild monkeys, funky bathrooms & hopeless transportation…but never had the need yet. I imagine my kid can yell louder than any whistle. ;)

    Now the headlamp, THAT has been very handy for us. ;) Really glad that both have been handy for you and that you shared this!

  20. Aside from convincing me to buy a whistle, you have also more than convinced me that Burma must be really special. Craps 7, 8 and 9, being pursued by monkeys, inadvertent longyi mooning, being stranded on a river and you STILL sing its praises as one of your most profound experiences…

  21. Thanks Leslie!

    Casey, it’s true: when we met I talked quite a bit about Burma, didn’t I? I suppose all of the craziness it inspired – food, monkey, bird and boat-related – all made for a more interesting trip. Burma’s intensity is what makes it so compelling; in just over a month I had more varied experiences than several other countries put together. Thanks for the comment & hope we cross paths again someday soon.

  22. Jodi, your piece got picked up by Josephine County Oregon SAR, and you can find it here A permanent link to this post is at the top under “source”.
    You may get other SAR’s around the country that will pick it up too–many of them visit this site and repeat its posts. As you can see from the response here, it is an important post. Most of us do not go out prepared, but this little piece of plastic can save lives–or at least scare monkeys!
    My brother is the head of the Mountain Rescue Unit for this SAR and was very happy to see some emphasis on whistles for safety.

  23. What a terrific story about the monkeys!
    Carrying a whistle has never occurred to me. Can’t think why not. Good idea for travelling kids, as well.

  24. @Jeanne: maybe I should swap the whistle out for a small child? :)

    @Sharon: happy to get the message out, especially with some humour. Glad to hear that the post was well received and thanks for linking back to the site.

    @Sophie: Agreed that it’s a small but important thing to add. Don’t forget the duct tape – incredibly useful too, especially when there are holes in your screen. Mozzies 0, You 1.

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  26. Wow – I never realised a whistle could be so handy! I thought your stories would be about using your whistle to ward of over-amorous men, but no. What a practical little thing! Gotta get me one.

  27. Days ago, I’ve just penned a travel tip post – on having a whistle as an essential travel tool in an “Ultra Travel Kit”.

    Refining it today, I did a quick Google on travel whistle tip and got your post!

    I’ve linked your post to my travel tip here:

    Good blog – and fun reads, Jodi!
    Dave :-)

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    1. Thanks Bharat. Depending on where you travel to, you often can buy your mosquito repellant there. The 12% DEET stuff here in Thailand is well cheaper than at home (and it smells better too) and I bought the same (22.5% though) in Burma during my travels to the country. I’m not sure why we make sure our DEET-filled mozzie repellant smells so terrible in Canada, but I think I’ll be bringing some of the Thai version home with me in June to compensate :)

  29. Jodi, I’m no expert. But I suppose DEET has its smell.
    The military repellant I use smells really bad. But it gets the bugs off. Now the lotion repellant in supermarket even has fragrance – but much less DEET in its ingredients.
    I tried: Using insecticide that stinks and one that has fragrance added. The results? Your guess is as good as mine: The stinky one kills the hard-to-die cockroaches. :-)

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  31. Jodi, Great tip about the whistle. (I really got a kick as to how you spooked the monkeys, as they are deceptively strong.) As other readers have noted, a small flash light can come in handy too. Was a “life saver” for me in Bagan, when electric lights shut off at night at different hours, and there are no street lights to help one get to a sunrise spot in morning…. Thanks John R.

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