This post is all about how to stay safe (both you and your van) on the road. There have been a couple of high-profile stories regarding vanlife and van safety in the news just as vanlife was becoming mainstream. As a percentage of actual vanlifers, I tend to think that vanlife-related crime is a very minor, barely existent issue. However, I acknowledge that I am writing this from the perspective of a larger-than-average athletic male, trained in self-defense. I do subscribe to the motto, “better safe than sorry”, so I thought it would be good to talk about things that you can do to keep your van (and most importantly yourself) safe on the road. First I will talk about ways to keep your physical van and property safe and then, more importantly, I will talk about keeping yourself safe.
Protecting your van and valuables:
Take Photos for Security & Insurance
Take detailed photos all around your van including the exterior, interior, and your personal property in the event your van gets broken into. Most insurance companies will want to see these photos before binding your policy. Keep these photos stored somewhere you can access such as Dropbox or Google Drive just in case if you wind up needing them to submit a claim.
Keep valuables secure
It’s a good idea to keep your valuables safe by installing a safe, locking drawer or hidden compartment into your van build. In the unlikely event that someone breaks into your van, they probably won’t have the time to get into your safe and if you have a hidden compartment, they might not even find it.
Invest in an anti-theft system
I have an aftermarket anti-theft system installed in my van for multiple reasons. First, it’s obviously a protection against your van being stolen. Second, it’s nice to have a “panic button” next to you in bed, in case you hear someone lurking outside your van. Lastly, it will most likely be an item that could reduce your insurance if you have one and thus essentially pay for itself. You can purchase one on Amazon, I recommend the Viper security system without remote start because it’s less expensive and less complicated to install. If you want a security system with a remote start or don’t want to install the system yourself, it might be a good idea to get it done at a local shop or Best Buy.
You could even buy “The Club” steering wheel lock (yes that thing from the infomercials in the 90’s). Anything you can add to deter a thief is a good investment.
Use a GPS tracker
Having a GPS tracker hidden in your van and paying a monthly subscription might seem like overkill, but once you have one you’ll wonder how you ever lived without it. If you have a Cerbo GX in your van then you don’t even need to pay for tracking since it’s included in victron’s VRM (Victron Remote Management) portal (you’ll need a GPS antenna). Not only can you monitor your entire system with VRM, but you can also set up a “Geo Fence” and set up notifications to alert you if your van leaves the “Geo-Fence” you created. You’ve invested thousands of dollars in your home on wheels, so why not have something that lets you know where it is at all times? Imagine coming back to your van after a few days away and it’s not where you left it. How would you feel? Now imagine being able to look on your phone to locate it and letting the police know exactly where it is…sounds like a much better outcome.
I do a lot of backpacking and travel a lot away from the van and it gives me a warm fuzzy feeling to be able to look at my phone and know where my van is. I personally use the Cerbo GX since it’s already in my system and it’s free. If you don’t have a Cerbo GX then you can check out the Tracki. It’s inexpensive and has great reviews. The monthly subscription is pretty competitively priced as well at around $12/month and it may pay for itself if your insurance carrier offers a discount on your premium for having it.
*side note: if you are going backpacking or doing a lot of long-distance hiking, you should also invest in a Garmin In-Reach. It’s different than a GPS tracker that you would hide in your car. It has an SOS beacon for search and rescue and syncs with your phone so you can stay on the trail, receive weather alerts, and a ton of other features.
Buy a fire extinguisher
You’re probably going to be cooking in your van and maybe you have candles. Maybe your engine catches on fire. It would really suck if your van caught on fire and you didn’t have something as basic as a fire extinguisher to take care of it quickly. You’ve invested thousands of dollars into your van build, invest a few more dollars on a fire extinguisher. When the first question everyone asks is “why didn’t you have a fire-extinguisher?” you’ll feel pretty silly if you don’t.
Lock your door each night
This one is pretty basic, but sometimes I forget too. Get in the habit of checking and double-checking. I keep my key on the countertop next to my bed every night.
Putting something masculine that suggests police or military in your dash or outside your van.
If you’re a solo female traveler it can’t hurt to display something that would make a would-be, shady creeper think there is a 6’4” 250-pound Navy Seal in the van with you.
Get a dog (Adopt don’t shop!)
Dogs have far better hearing, smell and instincts than humans. If a dog senses danger the will most likely alert you. If it’s a big enough dog, it will even be able to protect you. Even if it’s a seven-pound Yorkie, it will probably make enough noise to alert you that someone is outside and make a shady creeper think twice about breaking in. If you do get a dog, please consider investing in a Ruuvi which allows you to monitor conditions inside your van remotely through Victron’s VRM portal. The Ruuvi also has a motion sensor which might come in handy as well.
I purchased a “Support Law Enforcement” license plate from my state (Florida). It has a little badge on the plate and I can’t be sure that a thief has ever seen my plate and decided to pass on breaking into my van, but I don’t think it hurts. I also think this plate goes a long way toward interactions with the police whether it be violating obscure city ordinances or getting out of traffic infractions.
Keep self-defense items close to your bed
It’s a good idea to keep self-defense items near your bed. I do this in the unlikely event that someone actually gets into my van when I’m asleep. Maybe I forgot to lock my doors or maybe they used a slim jim, regardless of how someone could get in, I like to be prepared. A taser, butcher’s knife, large machete, or bear spray in a drawer next to your bed would be perfectly reasonable. Some people might want to have a handgun and that’s fine too. Whatever you feel comfortable with is perfectly fine as long as you’re prepared to use it.
Take a self-defense course
Speaking of being prepared to use your designated self-defense items, it’s a good idea to take a self-defense course. I like to learn a couple of new skills every year and a self-defense course would be a great way to get started with this annual practice. If you are a female, having self-defense skills is an excellent way to neutralize the size advantage a male attacker might have on you.
Keep alert items close to your bed
In addition to self-defense items, you should keep your cell phone, a pocket alarm, your keys, and a strong flashlight close to your bed. Obviously, you’ll want your phone close to you in case you need to call 9-1-1.
A pocket alarm is a device that makes a loud alarm noise when triggered. If you don’t have a panic button on your anti-theft system I recommended above then I recommend this as the next best option.
It’s a good practice to keep your keys next to your bed for a few reasons. First, it’s good to know where your keys are in case of an emergency, and keeping them in the same place each night is good practice. Second, if you need to move your van in a hurry or in an emergency you can grab them quickly and go. Lastly, if you bought the anti-theft system I recommended above, you can hold down the star button to activate panic mode if there is suspicious activity outside.
A powerful flashlight is always a good, inexpensive thing to have if you want to shine it outside to get a look at what’s going on outside. If you can afford floodlights outside your van, then I recommend those too. At the very least you should get a powerful flashlight. Many times it’s darker outside than it is inside and it can be difficult to see outside without a flashlight.
Updating family or friends
You should make it a habit of letting someone you trust know where you are on a daily basis via call or text. You can call them your Guardian Angel and it will make them feel special. Let them know that if they don’t hear from you for a couple of consecutive days to check in on you. Hopefully, you have a friend or family member you trust who cares about you and will probably be doing this anyways without asking. It’s also very smart to give that person or multiple people your location via your phone or via that GPS tracker you bought from my suggestion above. The GPS tracker doesn’t necessarily let the person know you’re ok, but in a worst-case scenario, they will at least know where you are and can let the authorities know to check on you.
Have a lockable wall/door to separate your cockpit from your living cabin
The extra benefit is that it will provide additional climate and sound control as most of the temperature fluctuations and noise in a van are let in by the windows and windshield in the cockpit area.
Park smart (especially when urban/city vanlifing)
Park in a way that allows you to drive away quickly (don’t forget to close all your cabinets before you go to bed or the items inside will fall out when you’re making your escape). To ensure a quick exit, you don’t want to leave anything on your driver’s seat either. You don’t really want to leave anything of value on your seats, dashboard or in plain view from the windows for that matter. If you’re parking in the city, choose a well-lit area in a decent part of the city. Don’t park in an industrial area, you know like the area the villain in a Batman movie would have his headquarters? Don’t park in the hood either…if you see drug addicts, non-artistic graffiti, abandoned houses, or stray dogs…you’re in the hood. See if there are any designated areas or Harvest Host locations around.
Come back later (especially when urban/city vanlifing)
I like to scout out a few areas during the daytime to get my bearings, know my surroundings and make sure it’s going to be a decent area. I will then come back, later in the night after I’ve done my nightly routine. I like to do my nightly routine somewhere other than where I’m sleeping so that I don’t attract attention to myself or my van unnecessarily.
This is a must-have for anyone doing vanlife. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a propane tank or a heater. Don’t mess with fate. Something like an inexpensive smoke and carbon monoxide detector could literally save your life.
Invest in an exterior camera / light system
As mentioned above, if you can afford an exterior camera or floodlight system, then by all means go for it. I know that this is beyond most people’s budget and it might be a tad bit overkill, but as the saying goes…whatever helps you sleep at night (literally).
Make a nightly routine using all the above information (mainly for urban/city vanlifing):
- Scout a safe, well-lit location (to come back to later).
- Go somewhere else to get ready for bed (don’t attract attention).
- Make sure you don’t leave valuables sitting in view.
- Display something like a “Navy Seal Hat” or “Police Decal”
- Return and park in a manner that allows you to pull away quickly.
- Double-check the area. Visually inspect to make sure it’s safe.
- Let your Guardian Angel know your location.
- Make sure you set your alarm, lock your doors, have a weapon near your bed, and leave your key in a convenient location.
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