Staying Safe While Van Living

Not a fan of armed robbery? Me neither.

Before moving into a van full time, I had a big problem with the thought of us being robbed in the night. The city we live in is known for rampant car theft, so naturally, I was concerned. We did our best to prepare ourselves before moving in and even went so far as to install a fancy alarm system complete with panic buttons in case of an emergency. Thankfully, we haven’t had to use it yet, but something about just having it helps me sleep at night.

Truth is, there are several ways to protect yourself and your things. It takes a little bit of extra effort, but if you follow these tips for staying safe while van living, you’ll be in much better shape.

The Look of the Van

Sometimes, just the look of the vehicle we are driving is enough to keep thieves at bay. A Westfalia with surfboards on top, covered in stickers from all over the country, and a $2,000 bike strapped to the back says “I have fancy stuff, come take it!”

drugs in a van
This Van Definitely Contains Drugs

A nicely painted black van, on the other hand, looks less appealing. The fun traveling Westie is sure to have laptops and cell phones, and generators inside. With the black van, its harder to tell. Maybe it has those things, but most likely it’s just a cargo van for someone’s air conditioning business.

Most thieves are opportunistic and won’t put in the effort for something if they’re not sure it’ll pay off. So make sure you have your window coverings up and don’t leave anything that looks like it’s of any value on your front seats.

Be Ready to Drive Away if You Need To

While we are clearing our front seats of anything of value, let’s clear them of everything not of value too. In case of an emergency, you want to be able to get out of bed and drive away asap. Don’t stack things on your seat, and always know where your keys are. If a giant fight breaks out on the street you’ve chosen to sleep on, Big Trouble in Little China style, you’ll want to get out of there quick before Lopan shows up and kills everyone.

Did you start a big cooking project and make a big mess? Well, clean it up! You don’t want dirty dishes everywhere if you need to start driving on the fly. It also looks really bad if for some reason the police do decide to investigate your van in the middle of the night. A nice clean van with respectful people inside usually isn’t a problem, but if your van looks like a nightmare, they aren’t going to let you off so easy.

Situational Awareness

littered cans
If you see this, leave.

Ideally, your sleep spot should be an area you’ve scoped out in advance and feel confident about. Few people like surprises, especially when they happen while you’re supposed to be sleeping. During daylight hours, drive through the streets and see what kind of people are hanging around. Is there trash in the street? Are there broken down RVs with tarps covering them? If the answer is yes, then you probably don’t want to sleep there.

When it comes to dispersed camping in the woods, be on the lookout for beer cans, or shotgun shells, or litter. These are big signs that the destination you’ve chosen is being used as a party spot.

I remember the one time I did not heed this advice, I woke up in the middle of the night surrounded by a rave.

It came out of nowhere.

We fell asleep around 11 or so in what we thought was a deserted camp area in the woods. At 3 am we woke up to music blasting and people partying everywhere. We got out of there fast, and after returning, later on, we realized that the place was a dump. So much trash and graffiti everywhere.

Had we scoped the place out in daylight before parking, we would never have tried to stay the night.

Have Some Self Defense Items Ready

Horror movies have shown us that no matter how prepared we are, bad things can still happen. Our van is tame enough until you really take a look at the items lurking in the corners. For example, we have a huge machete, an ax, several cans of pepper spray, and more knives that I even know what to do with.

machete home defense
Not THAT Machete

We have these things not only to gut fish or chop firewood but also to protect ourselves. Honestly, I pity the person that tries to break into our van when we’re in it. They are going to be in for a rude awakening.

I’m not going to lie, if I were doing this as a solo woman van traveler, I might invest in a concealed carry license and purchase a gun or at the very least a taser. Most locations are perfectly fine, but I would rather be safe than sorry.

It’s also a good idea when looking at self-defense items to consider the legality of the items and where you plan on taking them. When we took the van on a road trip a year ago, we decided to go up through Canada and see Niagra Falls. At the border, they pulled us out to search the van and left everything as it was, except for our cans of pepper spray. My two-foot long machete was no problem, but my tiny can of pepper spray was. Go figure!

Home Security for Vans

In addition to the very obvious car alarm system, there are a few other items you can install in your van for safety. This door divider starts to get a little pricey, but you can see the logic behind it. If you are snug sleeping in the back and someone breaks in up front, they are going to have to go through another heavy locked door to get to you.

This heavy-duty padlock goes on the outside of your doors and makes sure they stay shut. They are designed to withstand the force of someone hitting them with a hammer repeatedly…let’s hope it never comes to that.

Last but not least is for when you’re away from your van and someone steals it. Having a little GPS unit like this mounted inside your van will make sure you know where it is at all times. This is something I hadn’t even considered purchasing until just recently.

Someone posted on Reddit a few weeks ago about his van being stolen. He had lived in it for years, popped into a store for a minute and when he came out, it was gone. He was pleading with people to keep an eye out for it, but I have a feeling he is never going to see it again.

My heart sunk, I felt so bad for him. For normal people that live in houses, you can get robbed, but they can’t physically take your entire house. For us vandwellers, that could very easily end up becoming reality.

Most of these security measures can get pretty expensive for the regular Joe. It’s all very useful stuff, but it’s stuff you can get away with not having if you just pay attention to your surroundings and listen to your gut. Better to find a new parking spot than risk getting robbed.

Hidden Compartments

hidden compartment in van
Hiding Your Millions

If you just have to bring grandma’s diamond ring collection with you, you’ll want a hidden compartment to put it in. I don’t know one other vandweller that doesn’t have a hiding spot somewhere. If you live in a van full time and you don’t have a separate storage unit, there’s going to be some precious items you’ll want to hide. You could get a simple lockbox, but those can be stolen unless they’re bolted down. You’re much better having a spot in the wall, or under the floorboards to ensure it stays put. If nothing else, you could also consider attaching a small box on the undercarriage of the van in a difficult to get to location.

Keep Up With Maintenance

Knowing how to change a tire when you’re stuck on the side of the road can make a huge difference, and make sure you always keep up with regularly scheduled maintenance like oil changes and tire rotations. If you make it a habit to poke around under the hood and familiarize yourself with what’s under there and what it should look like, you’ll be able to tell right away if something is wrong before you get on the road.

As a rule, you should always carry the following items in case of an emergency:

  • Jumper Cables and a Battery Starter
  • Spare Tire
  • Power Steering Fluid
  • Coolant
  • Engine Oil
  • Fix-a-Flat

…and kitty litter. My boyfriend makes fun of me all the time for insisting on carrying around kitty litter everywhere we go, but I grew up in the Northeast where sometimes snowstorms just happen. Better to have it and not need it than to not have it.

Tell a Buddy Where You Are

Not all cell phones work everywhere. Occasionally when you’re traveling, you WILL lose reception. It’s a fact of life. Make sure if you’re driving from point A to point B that someone knows where you are headed and what your route is.

I think we have all seen The Hills Have Eyes. No further explanation needed.


Lock Your Doors

The most important thing on this list is to lock your doors! It’s simple, it’s easy, and best of all it’s free. It’s the number one solution to staying safe while van living. Like I said above, most thieves are opportunistic. In my city, they walk up and down rows of cars at night just trying door handles. You can deter 99% of these guys by simply locking your door. Just get into the habit so it becomes second nature.

Also, continue to lock your doors even when you are out in the woods. Have you ever seen the video of the bear opening the car door for food? I have. It’s terrifying. They absolutely know how to use your handle. Just lock the door so you don’t die.

bears opening doors
Bears Will Let Themselves In

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1 thought on “Staying Safe While Van Living”

  1. Vanlife isn’t just sunshine and rainbow. Having a home on wheels is also a burden. Now too many vandwellers display their vans and life on Instagram and YouTube, I have a feeling that the thieves and robbers are watching, too, to steal the valuable when the owners are away.

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