An Introduction to Contingency Planning

Approaches to planning for contingencies when travelling to higher-risk locations.

First published by Grant Rayner on 17 Jul 2023

4 min read

Travel Security

This essay was originally published in Dangerous Travels on 17 Jul 2023 and was updated on 30 Jan 2024

Contingency planning is a fundamental requirement for travelling to higher-risk destinations. While you may be doing a significant amount of general planning to ensure you’re able to mitigate known risks, contingency planning provides an important safety net to ensure you’re fully prepared for, well, contingencies.

In this article, I’ll introduce some of the approaches I use and advocate for contingency planning. Let’s start by looking at two levels of contingency planning.

Two Levels of Contingency Planning

When you start to approach contingency planning, it’s useful to plan at two levels:

  1. Trip-based contingency planning
  2. Activity-based contingency planning

Let’s explore these two approaches in more detail.

Trip-based contingency planning

Trip-based contingency planning applies to your overall trip. The types of incidents you might consider in trip-based contingency planning include:

  • Flight delays, cancellations, and missed connections
  • Meet and greet not waiting at the airport on arrival
  • Accommodation unavailable
  • Incident at your accommodation
  • Medical emergency
  • Communications failure
  • Power failure

As you can see, some of these contingencies are related to the process of getting to your destination (flight delays, missed connections, etc). Others are based on other incidents that might occur once on the ground. You’ll get a good sense of some of these risks, for example communications and power failure, during your planning.

Activity-based contingency planning

Activity-based contingency planning applies to specific activities you’ll undertake once at your destination. As such, it builds on trip-based contingency planning and focuses on local requirements. As an example, you might develop specific contingency plans for the following activities:

  • A visit to a particular part of town
  • A long drive between two locations
  • A meeting with a local contact

Activity-based contingency planning should be informed by your assessment of the risks. Spend the most time planning for those activities that expose you to the most risk.

The Organisation and the Individual

Contingency planning should occur at the individual level and at the organisational level.

This is a key point, because the individual and the organisation will execute different actions when responding to a contingency. Both have a key part to play. Some organisations may have contingency plans in place for travellers but may not train and empower individuals to respond to contingencies themselves. In other cases, individuals may come up with their own plans, but these plans will always be sub-optimal without the capabilities of their organisation behind them. The best approach is to plan at both levels.

Planning for Contingencies

Contingency plans should be developed in advance and documented. Documenting contingency plans is particularly important if there are actions for individuals and organisations. Making the roles and responsibilities explicit will ensure that the organisation and the individual don’t trip over each other as they respond to the contingency.

Once the traveller gets on the ground, they should review the contingency plans and provide feedback to their organisation on potential issues with the plan and any improvements that should be made to ensure the plans are viable.

In addition to planning, some degree of preparation is typically required.

Preparing for Contingencies

Contingency plans will typically require resources to successfully execute. You’ll need to identify these resources in advance of your trip during your planning. In some cases, you may need to vet resources or even establish commercial relationships. As an example, you would typically identify alternate accommodation options in advance of your departure. You would also identify appropriate hospitals and medical clinics. If you’re planning for some form of local support or response, you’ll need to make these arrangements in advance and confirm them as soon as you get on the ground.

A key aspect of contingency planning is to not just focus on response but to also focus on avoidance. It’s relatively easy to focus on the response side. However, it’s more effective to establish protocols to avoid contingencies altogether. Simple actions such as driving at an appropriate speed and wearing a seat belt might seem obvious, but you’d be amazed at the number of people who disregard these basic measures when travelling in higher-risk environments. What they may not be considering is how they’re going to get to a hospital in the event of an accident, whether that hospital will be able to effectively treat their injuries, and how long it might take to coordinate a medical evacuation. In most higher-risk locations, if you’re involved in a serious accident, you’ll be in serious trouble.

Basic Contingencies

In the sections below, I’ll outline some very basic contingencies that will be relevant for most travellers. For each of these contingencies, I’ll focus on some key factors you should consider as you develop your own contingency plans.

Medical emergency

Contingency planning for medical incidents should be a baseline requirement for all trips. If you’re travelling to a location where there are active threats and low standards of medical care, you’ll need to be especially diligent.

Your contingency plans for a medical emergency will differ slightly if you’re travelling alone or with a small team. If you’re travelling alone, a key aspect to include in your plans is to communicate as soon as you feel unwell or are injured. As part of this communication process, plan regular check-ins. The shorter the check-in interval, the faster your Emergency Contact will know something is wrong and activate support.

As a solo traveller, one approach to consider in your contingency planning is to consider moving to a larger city or even leaving the country if you think you’re going to get really sick. Get going while you still can and head to a location where you’re confident you can get adequate medical care.

If communications are unreliable or unavailable, you’ll be highly vulnerable to the impacts of a medical emergency and will need to be additionally careful.

As part of the planning process, identify appropriate clinics and hospitals. Consider how you’d get from your accommodation to the hospital in an emergency. Pack an appropriate first aid kit and take a first aid course. Prevention is also fundamentally important. Be careful what you eat and drink and be conservative with your physical activities to reduce the likelihood of injury.

Incidents at your accommodation

Your accommodation will be your safe haven while you’re away. When you develop contingency plans, spend time considering the different types of incidents that could impact you at your accommodation. Depending on the threats and risks at your destination, consider the following contingencies:

  • Room search or harassment
  • Explosion or attack
  • Earthquake
  • Protests in immediate vicinity

As part of your contingency planning, consider rally points and alternate accommodation options.

Vehicle accidents

Of all the risks you face in a location, vehicle breakdowns and accidents are some of the most likely. As noted above, if you’re alone, you’ll need to be additionally careful. If you are injured in a vehicle accident, who will be able to provide first aid? Who will assist you to a hospital? Which hospital will they take you to?

If you’re operating in more remote areas, the potential consequences of a breakdown or accident are even more significant and will require additional contingency planning.

Civil and political unrest

Civil unrest can affect many locations. There’s also the possibility of the occasional coup. When you develop your contingency plans, consider the likely impacts of these events. What if curfews are imposed? What if control points are set up or traffic to certain areas restricted? Will you be able to access the airport or border? As part of your planning, you may need to consider how you might extract yourself from the city or country.

Natural disasters

If you’re travelling during monsoon season, consider the possibility that areas may flood. Be selective with your accommodation. If you’re travelling during typhoon season, be prepared for flight delays and movement constraints during the typhoon itself.

In mountainous areas, consider the risk from rockfall and landslides. In some locations, rockfall and landslides could cut routes and it could take days (or weeks) for the debris to be cleared and the route to be reopened. You’ll need to carefully plan your route to ensure you’re not isolated.

This is just a short list of the key contingencies you should consider. You might also have a contingency plan for situations where you identify surveillance or receive threats.

Wrap Up

Contingency planning is an essential activity when travelling to higher-risk environments. Consider different contingencies during your planning and develop response options. Don’t forget to focus on preparation and prevention. It’s always best to avoid situations through proactive risk mitigation, particularly when the outcome can’t be fully determined.

Thanks for reading, and safe travels!

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