Vanlife Safety 101: Road Safety and Van Security Essentials
As many vanlifers will probably agree, one of the most common questions we get asked is, “Is it scary living in your van?” To that I say, far less scary than the prospect of a thirty year mortgage.
Many people associate vanlife with danger because they also still associate vanlife with homelessness and criminal activity. You know who else lives in their van? Drug dealers and addicts. Or so my mother strongly implied when I told her I was moving into a van.
But enough about the social stigma of vanlife. We’re here to honestly answer a question that, while often misplaced in its intent, is still legitimate: Is vanlife safe?
Aside from a few weird encounters we’ve had with tweakers in Anchorage (read the story here), we find it’s far safer than many of our past apartments. The key to vanlife safety is to just be smart. Listen to your gut; if a parking place feels off, go somewhere else. A little bit of common sense is all you really need.
Even so, sometimes sh*t happens, though that’s hardly specific to vanlife. Vanlifers, however, are often in places where they can’t rely on others when it does. That’s why it’s crucial to be prepared in both matters of road safety and vehicle security.
ROAD TRAVEL SAFETY ESSENTIALS
The scariest prospect of living in a van isn’t the kinds of characters you run into. Rather, it’s a very boring. In fact it’s so boring is the number one accidental form death in the U.S. (so excluding illness and medical conditions).
Car accidents kill more people than most weird ways to die, and they certainly kill far more people than drug addicts, hitchhikers, and Canadian teenagers. Let’s tell that a little louder for our concerned moms in the back.
When your car is also your house and simultaneously everything you own and value, these daunting statistics can be enough to make you slam on the brakes.
The truth is, even if you manage to a void becoming part of the statistics, sh*t happens out there on the road. It may not always be as catastrophic as a full car accident, but even a blown tire can feel just as tragic to the woefully unprepared.
One thing you can do to prepare for these instances is get some sort of roadside assistance. Our van insurance company offers 24-hour roadside assistance, but we’re also members of AAA. AAA is great because there are fewer strings attached and we get lots of discounts at businesses worldwide for being members. The only downside is that AAA services do not include off-road repairs (you need to get towed to a paved road first) so that’s not ideal considering we spend probably almost half our time on unpaved roads.
So if you want to be prepare for these cases, or just be self sufficient on the road (which every vanlifer should be anyway) here are some tools to help you. We consider these to be absolutely essential for road safety and DIY van fixing proficiency.
Unless you’re exclusively spending your vanlife journey chasing the sun and surf in Mexico or Central America, you need some way to deal with bad winter weather. Even though we chase fringe seasons as climbers and generally try to leave a place before the snow flies, our mountain travels still sometimes put us in the middle of a snowstorm.
While actual tire chains might be a bit excessive for weight class of a standard camper van, they’re a lot easier to tote around and change as needed than snow tires.
Chains are easy enough to install and remove and thankfully don’t cost an arm and a leg. Definitely far cheaper than the cost of repairing your van if you put it in a ditch!
In case you do get stuck in the snow (or mud or whatever crazy mess the backroads have in store for you), every camper van should have at least one shovel on board.
We carry two:
Coghlans folding camp shovel: This one is great for dirt, rocks, and tough ground. We use it most often to dig out tires and make leveling mounds. It also serves the dual function of being our campfire safety shovel, to dig fire pits and properly snuff them.
Collapsible snow spade: This was actually my avalanche safety shovel from the hopeful Alaskan days where I said I was going to get into backcountry skiing. Lucky for me, the shovel has at least proven mighty useful for snow.
This was something we bought on a whim because it was on sale at Lowe’s but boy have we been happy to have it. Tires are probably the things on camper vans that receive the most wear and tear. Potholes, unexpected rocks, even careless nails! The road is a giant tire trap.
Even if you aren’t getting flats, your tire pressure is always fluctuating based on weather, temperature, elevation, and more. Tire pressure not only dictates how resistant your tires are to terrain, but it can have a huge effect on your gas mileage. Keep your tires properly inflated for better gas mileage.
The trouble is, finding gas stations with free air can be tricky and paying for air is just something I’m not willing to do. The website freeair.com is somewhat useful but still, better to be totally self sufficient and able to air your tires as you need and please.
We bought a Kobalt 120V/12V portable air compressor, which can run off either AC or DC power. The digital reader tells us exactly what the PSI of the tires is at (so no more giving a little air then checking with a pressure gauge) and we can eve pre-set the desired to PSI. The compressor just runs until it gets there. It also comes with a set of different nozzles so it can inflate things like sports balls, rafts, inflatable SUPs, and more.
And at only 12” x7” it hardly takes up any space, and the cords all such nicely into built-in compartments.
You can buy smaller portable compressors, too, but they often only go up to 150 psi. That’s sufficient for smaller camper vans, like Westfalias and VWs, but for a heavy duty cargo van, we needed a 200 psi capacity.
Hopefully obvious for vehicle owners but just in case it’s not, we thought we’d throw it on here as an essential van safety tool. Even if you have a dependable battery, sometimes stuff happens. We forget the lights on, or the starter goes bad. Don’t get stuck out in the cold without a way to get moving again.
The hardcore version of this is a full-on battery jumper starter, which actually replace the need for another car battery in the jumping process. Just connect to your battery, turn on, and boom! Battery started. Based on great reviews, this TackLife car jump starter is a great balance for size, affordability, and vehicle versatility.
Those are, however, pretty expensive. Might be worth it if you drive an older van that’s a little prone to stalling, but if your van is reliable and newer, just plain jumper cables “just in case” are sufficient.
For the most part, you won’t really need road flares, but they are excellent if something happens at night, especially on unlit curvy backroads where your hazards might not provide enough warning for someone barreling around a blind curve. They’re small and cheap enough that they really hurt to have a couple on hand for these unique scenarios.
Flares are also really good “I need help” beacons. It’s easy to just pass someone by pulled over on the side of the road without giving a second thought; if that person has flares out, however, you definitely know something is wrong.
You can find all kinds of flares on Amazon.
CAMPERVAN SECURITY ESSENTIALS
Whereas our previous section talked about items to help keep you safe while actually on the road, these items are those that will help keep your van itself (along with all your possessions) safe and secure. For the full time vanlifer, one’s van is often synonymous with everything one owns. There’s a lot lose.
While security threats and theft are most prevalent in urban areas, urban vanlifers are not the only ones that should take a few extra measures to protect their vans. Even vanlifers who spend most their time in rural areas and wilderness should consider what’s at stake. As a sign we recently saw at a national park parking lot said, “Thieves visit national parks, too.”
For the aquatically inclined (or those inclined to misplace their car keys), get a lockable hideaway key box to stick a spare key on the outside of your van. That way, you can swimming or partying without fear of losing the keys to your house.
Then just magnetically stick that bad boy in the wheel well, on the roof, on the undercarriage, or some other super secret spot on your van.
These kinds have number code locks so that even if someone finds the box, they have no way to access the key or your van.
If you have an old school fob free car key, you can get a cheap small one. If you have large fob key, make sure the box you order is large enough to fit it!
To keep your actual vehicle safe from theft, make it so anyone that breaks in couldn’t physically drive it if they wanted. Steering wheel locks are effortless to snap into place and prevents any unwanted company from turning the wheel at all. Not very useful to steal a vehicle that can only go in a straight line.
Plus, the presence of a steering wheel lock alone acts as a major theft attempt deterrent. People may still try to break in and steal your stuff, but they certainly won’t break in with the intention of stealing your whole van if they plain as day it’ll be impossible.
Amazon carries tons of options but The Club 3000 twin hook lock is highly well reviewed and seems to be the most reliable.
It may surprise you to learn this, but by far the weakest point of entry for a van is its rear doors. While windows can be broken, it actually even easier to pry open the weak latch on the rear doors. Fortunately, it’s also really easy to prevent this.
Oklead makes several heavy duty cargo van door locks that install pretty easily between your two rear doors. This is what we have on our rear doors. War-lok and 321 are other reputable and well-reviewed brand.
If you’re paranoid about other doors or have an older van with less secure doors than newer cargo vans, Thule makes a very slick van door lock that’s designed to blend in with the black numbers. It’s super versatile and can be installed on any door on your van. They make two versions: a key lock one piece (less secure) and a bolt locked two-piece (more secure).
The hasp-style locks mentioned above also work for side doors. Check out this video of how to install a hasp lock on a Promaster sliding door.
If someone does manage to get into your van, make sure your valuables are secure. Sure, when you live with a finite amount of stuff, everything is sort of valuable, but we’re talking the really important things: passports, important documents, spare keys, money, credit cards, jewelry, and the like.
A small, compact safe is perfect for this, and they don’t even have to take up much space. Make sure you get one with an exterior steel cable (like this Sentry Safe) so you can lock it to something secure in the van. A safe wouldn’t do you much good if a thief can walk away with the whole thing!
We bought this affordable Amazon Basics safe and it’s been great. It doesn’t take up much space and hides away easily.
Full disclosure, we don’t store anything on our roof, save our solar panels (obviously). It messes with gas mileage, is expensive to buy/mount roof racks, and frankly, we just didn’t need that much extra storage space while starting out. Maybe some day we will.
However, tons of vanlifers do utilize rooftop storage and it’s pretty clutch if you drive a smaller type van (our high roof was already high enough). If you’re planning on storing stuff on your roof, keep it secure. If you think thieves won’t want to climb up there, they will (especially if you’ve given them a handy dandy external ladder.
If you don’t believe us, believe our buddy who had a very nice bike stolen from the top of his van right in the middle of a Fred Meyer parking lot in broad daylight. Prior to that, he interrupted two guys attempting to steal it off his roof in the middle of the night... while he was sleeping in it! You really can’t be too careful these days.
His bike finally fell into foul fingers because he didn’t have it tied down with a secure enough lock. Don’t bother with those basic vinyl coated cable locks that are essentially theft deterrents rather than actual locks.
Instead, if you have a bike on your roof, invest in a Kryptonite U-Lock bike lock or a set of Yakima or Thule steel cable straps (or similar off-brand lockable steel cable tie-downs) which are also more versatile for things like surfboards, kayaks, and other large or oddly shaped gear.
If you have a cargo box, make sure it’s locked with a heavy duty padlock.
In technical terms, this is an electromagnetic battery disconnect switch or sometimes a battery isolator. It’s just a small device you can attach your battery, and when the switch is flipped, it disrupts electrical systems of your van so it can’t actually be started. A pretty bit downer if you’re a thief and you go to start the car only to get a struggle and sputter.
However, they’re not 100% fool proof. Because the switch must be operated manually (you flip it before you leave the car), a thief can operate it manually, too. A savvy thief will pop the hood, find the switch, flip it, and be on their merry way. But for the casual, ignorant thief in a panicked rush (most of them), the stalling starter is a huge deterrent.
These are also great is you have a van like ours with a battery is hidden away beneath the driver’s seat (which is pretty common for snub nose cargo vans). Seriously, it took a licenses mechanic awhile to find it, so we’re pretty confident most thieves won’t have that savvy.
Best of all, you can buy one super cheap! It’s pretty much the most cost effective car theft deterrent on the market and there are tons of options on Amazon.
If the worst does happen and your van gets hijacked, a LoJack can help you get it back. LoJacks are essentially just tracking devices so you can find where your stolen vehicle ends up. We haven’t invested in one of these yet, but we really would like to if we can find the budget for it.
Like many GPS systems, they typically require a monthly or yearly subscription for the actual tracking service outside the startup costs of procuring the device itself. If not subscription based, you can buy a certain amount of data for the device. This Vyncs car GPS Tracker is a good example, and it comes with a year of free data/
If you’re not sure what system is best for you, this page on Your Mechanic can help you choose the right LoJack for your van.
SAFE HABITS AND PRACTICES FOR VAN DWELLERS.
Of course, all these gadgets aren’t worth much if you don’t also exercise a bit of common sense and safe-minded habits in your day to day life. The reality of van life is that you end up exploring a lot of unknown territories, and to be safe in the unknown requires a bit of general caution.
Don’t pick up hitchhikers unless you know it’s safe.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fan of hitchhiking. I have a pretty extensive history of doing it myself in both Europe and Latin America. We’ve also picked up hitchhikers living in the van, but we are VERY selective about the scenario in which we do it. In the climbing scene, it’s not unusual to see fellow dirtbags hitchhiking to and from crags. If we see a hitchhiker on the way to the crag, we know they’re just a climber and are safe. We’ll happily give rides in those instances. However, we never pick up hitchhikers along the highway or interstate and we never do it at night.
Lock your van at night.
It’s little strange to imagine someone breaking into your van while you’re in it, and until it happened to us (well, less breaking in and more crazy dude thought he was invited in) we never really thought about locking out doors at night. Again, read the full story here.
The point is, after we had someone invade our private space, we realized how easy it is to do. We were just lucky we weren’t asleep and that the guy didn’t seem to be malicious. The whole situation could have gone very differently. Imagine waking up to your doors just opening to a thug with a knife, giving you no time to prepare or react.
That’s why we ALWAYS lock our doors at night now, even if we’re in the middle of nowhere. It’s a simple push of a button that gives us a lot of extra security and peace of mind.
Carry bear spray.
Pepper spray is illegal in a lot of states (and Canada!). Bear spray, funnily enough, is not. Despite the fact that it is much stronger than traditional human targeted pepper spray, it’s widely legal. As a disclaimer, that is not an open endorsement to use it on people in anything less than an emergency where you feel personally threatened.
People aside, bear spray is crucial to have on hand for wild animal encounters. Living in a van and tending toward wilderness areas, we’ve encountered animals like bears at our campsite before. While typically wild animals pose no threat unless you threaten them, you need to be prepared just in case something triggers them.
Stay as incognito as possible, especially in urban areas.
The single biggest thing you can do to protect your camper van is to hide the fact that it is a camper van. We call this stealth vanlife. Having a stealth campervan means keeping the outside subtle and demure. Don’t clutter it with stickers, decals, or wacky paint. Even a ladder to the roof can give you away.
The only camper van “tells” we have on our van are the solar panel (which is all but invisible on the high roof) and the vent fan, which is also pretty subtle when the hood is collapsed down. There’s only so much you can do to hide those necessary van components, but minimize your presence as much as possible.
If you’re in the city, don’t throw open the sliding doors when you get out and give everyone around a nice image of the interior. Go out the front cab doors instead.
Keep your van interior out of sight.
Stealth van life, again, is one of the safety van practices to get into. If people don’t know you’re a camper van, they’ll have much less reason to be interested in the interior. That means you have to block all visuals between the living space and the outside. This is much easier to do if you have a windowless cargo van, like ourselves.
We have floor length blackout curtains hanging between the rear cargo space and the front chassis. These serve the dual purpose of blocking out light while we’re sleeping and blocking any sort of visual from the windows to the living area. If those curtains are closed, you can only see the front seats.
If you have a fully windowed van (like an Westy) it becomes much harder to be stealth. No matter how many curtains you hang, it’s pretty obvious someone lives there.
Don’t leave things of value visible in the front seat.
Because we don’t really hide the front cab (which you can, if desired, with window shades or reflective light blockers), we make sure to hide our valuables. We’re known to drive with our wallets on the dash or my purse in the front seat, but we never leave the van with those things in sight. Pull all valuables into a hidden place so you’re not enticing anyone to break in.
Follow your gut.
Unlike our hearts and minds, the gut is pretty on-point. If something feels off, it probably is. Learn to trust your intuition and stay safe out on the road!
Did we miss any vanlife safety tips?
Please reach out to us and let us know! We’re still relatively new to this vanlife game so we’re all ears for your best tips on how to make vanlife safer and even more fun!
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