5 skills to learn before you go backpacking

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4. Learn improvised sign language

Let’s face it: few travellers have a grasp of Tamil and those Mandarin lessons at school just didn’t stick. Learning sign and body language can overcome these barriers, and even if you do speak a few helpful phrases, sometimes it’s quicker to save your breath and use your hands.

For starters, everyone knows the universal sign for “OK” (thumb and index make a circle while the remaining fingers point up) and “let’s rock!” (index finger and pinkie raised into a horn-like fist), but what about the less obvious ones? For budding surfers the Hawaiian ‘shaka’ sign is a must; it can be used to say anything from “take it easy” to “hang loose” (make a fist, extend your pinky and thumb, then shake your hand).

For swimmers, paddle boarders, or scuba divers, placing crossed arms over your head while in the water could save your life; it means “I need some help”.

In Italy, meanwhile, hand signals become a little harder, especially because the country is the king of the symbolic gesture. A mere flap of the wrist could meaning anything from “go away” or “I’m not interested” to “look at that asshole”. Make sure you know the difference to avoid a punch in the face.

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