Being a solo female vanlifer, there comes a lot of questions and concerns about safety, but I didn't want to let the fact that I was single prevent me from traveling. To me, that would be even scarier. Sure, I had fears when I first moved into the van, but overtime I developed habits to keep me safe and learned ways avoid unsafe scenarios. After two years of living in a van, I've realized it's not really that scary traveling alone, but I do need to have a safety plan and stay alert.
This post could be for males or people traveling with a friend or partner too, but there is a bigger concern for solo females so that is my main focus in this article.
Night is usually when I feel the most vulnerable since it's dark out and if I'm in deep sleep, I might not hear someone approaching. These are the steps I use to make sure I'm sleeping in a safe place and allow peace of mind so I can get some Zzz's.
Overnight Parking: My first rule for picking out a campsite is I must feel safe. If I get a bad vibe from a location, I move on to the next spot. Trust your gut on this one! My Guide to Sleeping and Overnight Parking covers all the different types of camping options and the places I feel most safe. Check that out if you need help finding places to sleep!
Research the Town: I use a niche.com to make sure a neighborhood is safe before I go. Type in the town you want to sleep in and it will give you a Crime/Safety rating. I will only stay in a town that has a B- or above rating.
Cell Phone Coverage: Personally, when I'm traveling solo, I like to sleep in places I have cell phone coverage. Being able to contact someone if something goes wrong is very important to me. I have a WeBoost Drive installed in my van. It doesn't create cell phone coverage, but if there is a signal, it will boost it allowing me to get in touch with someone. This expands the locations I feel comfortable sleeping in. If I'm completely off the grid and there are other Vanlifers or RV's nearby, I feel comfortable enough staying. If I was the only person in a completely remote place, or out there with only one other vehicle and I hadn't met the owners, I probably wouldn't stay.
Sleeping in Parking Lots: When sleeping in a parking lot, choose a spot that is well lit and in view of a security camera. Try to pick lots that have multiple other vehicles in them so your van isn't standing out. Back into parking spots so you can drive out quickly if you need to.
Privacy: When pulling up to places you're going to sleep, especially very public places, like a Walmart parking lot, try to avoid letting anyone see that you're in the van by yourself. When I'm sleeping in a parking lot, I go right before bedtime and put up my curtains up immediately.
Keys: Sleep with your keys in same location every night. If something happens in the middle of the night, you'll know exactly where they are and can grab them and hop in the driver's seat. Keep the driver's seat clear so if you do need to make a quick get away, you're not fumbling to move stuff out of the way. Make sure to lock your doors every night too!
Middle of the Night Knock: Getting the middle of the night knock can be terrifying, so I try to always park in locations where I think the risk of a knock is minimal. If I do get a knock, this is how I handle the situation. First, I peak out the windows to see if I can see a cop car. If it is not a cop car, I’d be ready to call 911 and jump in the driver seat and take off (that’s never happened to me though). After verifying it’s a cop, I take the curtain off the sliding door window and crank open the window. As a female that is traveling solo, I wouldn't unlock or open the door. If the cop were to ask me to open the door, I would ask to see his/her police badge and then call into the station to verify that person is actually a cop before opening the door. Once I crank open the window, the cop usually asks a few questions and tells me to move on. Depending on the mood of the cop, I will ask if he recommends a place for me to go. Never argue with the cop. If they tell you to move on, move on. During my two years on the road, I've had three middle of the night knocks and no cop has asked me to open my door.
Exiting your Van: When leaving your van, use the driver's door not the sliding door. If anyone is looking, they will be able to see a home inside your van. Using the sliding door draws more attention to you.
Sharing Your Location: I know everyone loves to update their social media feeds with their latest adventures, but don't share your location on social media while you're still there. Take the stories and pictures you want to post, and share them after you've left that area. I have heard unsettling stories from fellow vanlifers that shared their location on Instagram and a creepy follower showed up. Do share your location with trusted friends or family. There are many apps that allow selected family or friends see your location as long as you have cell phone service.
Traveling Off the Grid: If you're heading to an area without cell phone reception, let someone know where you're going and how long you expect to be there. When traveling off the grid, make sure to stock up on extra food and water in case your vehicle were to get stuck or break down.
Satellite GPS Messenger: I actually purchased a SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger when I started hiking solo, years before Vanlife. Now it's a useful thing to have in the van when I'm in an area without cell phone service. It just adds peace of mind to know that I can contact a family member or emergency services if I needed too. I still carry it on all hikes when I'm by myself.
Home Security: Adding motion sensor lights or a surveillance camera to the outside of your van adds another layer of protection. For the surveillance camera, look for something cloud based so if the camera is stolen, you still have access to the video. You will need WiFi for this to work. If you are going to be away from your van, you could consider installing motion sensors for your doors. If they are opened you will get an alert to your phone.
Stay Alert and be Prepared: Always pay attention to your surroundings and look for anything/anyone that seems unusual. If you get a bad vibe, move on. After being on the road for a while you can get comfortable with your surroundings and let your guard down. Maybe one night you don't clear off your passenger seat or take out your weapon. That's when something is most likely to go wrong. Even if you feel like you're in a safe place, make sure to stick to your safety plan.
Roadside Assistance: To me, part of a safety plan is having a plan if my vehicle were to get stuck or break down. I have the platinum complete membership with Good Sam, which is very similar to AAA, but intended for larger vehicles and RVs. I went with Good Sam because I wanted to make sure that if a tow truck showed up, it would be able to tow my cargo van. The membership features many things beyond towing, including tire/wheel repair or replacement, travel expenses to return home after a medical emergency, and expenses to return your vehicle home after a medical emergency. In addition to roadside assistance, there is some stuff you can be prepared for yourself by having a portable air compressor, jumper cables and traction mats.
Hopefully the advice above, prevents you from getting in a situation where you'll need to defend yourself, but if you are ever attacked, you need to be prepared.
Self-Defense Class: Every female should take a self-defense class and follow up with refreshers. Self-defense classes are offered in pretty much every major city and sometimes you can even find free classes. There are many different types of classes, so pick one that you feel most comfortable with.
Weapons: Hide multiple weapons throughout your van that will be easily accessible if an intruder were to gain access to the van. I'm not going to specifically say what I have in my van or where they are hidden, but some examples of weapons could be pepper spray, taser, knife, bat, hammer, and gun. The laws for these weapons will be different from state to state, so make sure to look it up before you go. Whatever weapons you choose, the most important thing is knowing how to properly use it!
In a lot of safety articles I've read, bear spray is recommended as a form of self-defense against humans. It's assumed that since it's meant for protection against bears that it will be stronger than pepper spray. That is false information. Oleoresin capsicum is the active ingredient in both sprays, which causes a burning sensation, but it is at a much lower concentration in bear spray than it is in pepper spray. If bear spray is the only thing you have and you're being attacked, definitely use it, but I'd recommend getting pepper spray. Alternatively, if you are going to be hiking or hanging out in bear country, I definitely recommend getting some bear spray as pepper spray is not very effective on bears. I've also seen hornet spray being recommended as a self-defense weapon, but from what I can find, it is illegal to carry with the intent on using it on humans and you could be held reliable if it were to cause death or blindness, even if the person was attacking you.
Pepper Spray: Pepper spray is the often the most common weapon females choose. There are many types and concentrations out there and not all of them are as effective as you'd think. When purchasing a pepper spray look for one with Oleoresin capsicum (OC) as the active ingredient, an SHU value between 3 to 5 million, and a fogger/cone spray. Check out this article for more information on choosing a pepper spray. After purchasing your pepper spray, make sure to know how to properly use it by either taking a class or watching Youtube videos. When using your pepper spray, make sure the wind isn't blowing in your direction or the spray will come back on you. While I do recommend carrying pepper spray, I would recommend carrying a different weapon for using inside your van. Since the van is such a tiny space, spraying it inside would probably result in getting it in your eyes too and you wouldn't be able to drive away. This pepper spray meets the above recommendations.
Make Noise and Fight Back: If an intruder does get into your van or you are being attacked, make lots of noise and fight back. Most attackers are looking for an easy victim. They are more likely to flee if you are fighting back or drawing attention to the scene. You could keep a bull horn in your van to make lots of noise!
Most importantly, have a safety plan and be prepared, but then get out there and have fun! Don't let a fear of being solo prevent you from traveling or moving into a van. You only have one life, so live it!
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