Last Update: 12/08/2017

Van Life Travel Safety 101

funny illustration with van surrounded in chains, police tape, with a mounted video camera and a mean guard dog

“Ain’t many guys travel around together,” he mused. “I don’t know why. Maybe ever’body in the whole damn world is scared of each other.” – John Steinbeck, Of Mice And Men

I assume that if you’re reading this article, you’re not a big scary MMA fighter driving a military fort on wheels with an arsenal under your bed. Then again, even if you meet that description, you might find a valuable point or two for van life here (and at my blog,

First and foremost, I want you to know this is not a fear-mongering article. The official van life travel plan is to enjoy your journey, be social, meet cool people and have adventures.

You never want to let fear rule your life. However, I am a firm believer in the Vietnam war era slogan, “stay alert, stay alive.” I have learned that an ounce of prevention is worth…possibly my life.

7 Tips for Van Life Travel Safety – for Women and Men

#1 – On the Road

Of course crime can happen anywhere, but some locations are worse than others.

For example, I’ve seen some sketchy things at rest stops, and this prompted me to execute a Google search, something like “Rest stop crime, US”.  The results left me a bit stunned. So many crimes, so much violence.

The same goes for convenience stores, which turn out to be among the most likely places to get shot, robbed or mugged in the US.

Of course, stopping for gas, groceries, bathroom breaks, and sleep are realities of van life. However, there are some general rules to follow when it comes to executing these activities safely.

Instead of stopping last minute, plan ahead. Do some research and find the best places to rest, sleep and shop.

Here are some of the safer options:

  • Along main streets
  • Grocery stores
  • Libraries
  • Hospitals
  • Municipal lots and buildings
  • Restaurants

I know what you’re thinking: “Nearly every gas station is also a convenience store”. True that, but it doesn’t mean you have to go in. Plan to use your card at the pump (vs walking in with a handful of cash), and remember to “Stay alert...”. Also, grocery store gas stations tend to be safer options.

#2 – At the Campsite

This is one place I have run into trouble more than a couple of times.

It’s important to be aware of your neighbors. Sometimes they’re just annoying. However, there are times when you’ll find yourself next to a neighbor who’s sketchy, lewd, intoxicated...

Know where your campground ranger or host is located and consider camping near them if you’re alone. Also, pay attention to their behavior. Not everyone in a uniform is safe and sane.

Most people I have encountered at campgrounds are harmless, but it pays to be conscious of your neighbors and take action early if you see something that looks off.

In fact, if your gut is telling you to move to a new site, or leave all together, listen!

#3 - Stealth Camping

Not every neighborhood allows van camping. In fact, some places such as Flagstaff, Arizona actually have laws against it. While I don’t recommend it as a nightly habit, it can be useful to learn to stealth camp.

Avoid remote areas with no people. It’s tempting to find a warehouse district or wooded area on the edge of town, but guess who else hides out there (I’ll let your imagination run with that one)? A nice clean housing area with a few cars parked on the streets is a better bet.

If you’ll be doing any stealth camping, keep the van clean inside and out and keep your behavior low key. No loud music, kill the lights for an early bedtime and get up early to move on.

Finally, never stay twice in the same location. That’s called overstaying your welcome, not stealth camping.

I’ve heard it said by some veteran vanners that no matter how stealthy you are, the cops always know when you’re sleeping in your van. Most of them don’t care as long as you’re clean and respectful.

All this relates to safety because homeowners can get testy when a garbage scow rolls up spewing death metal and dumping bottles of urine. I’ve heard more than one story of 3 am pounding on the side of the van, not by cops, but local permanent residents.

Don’t be that vanner. The best way to be treated with respect and decency is to be the first to offer it.

Tip #4 – Weapons

If you choose to arm yourself, please keep the following in mind: Every weapon requires some level of training and practice. No matter how simple or powerful, there will be a learning curve and a physical element. Take some time to learn how to not shoot (stab, spray, bludgeon, poison, electrocute, inflame…) yourself or your loved ones.

The most minimal and potentially valuable weapon is your own body. If you’re able bodied and want to feel a higher level of safety at all times, take some self-defense classes or at least read up on the subject. A good self defense instructor will have tips and tricks for staying safe that most people never think of.

I carry a personal pepper spray in my bag. It goes with me on walks to the bathroom at the campground, and pretty much everywhere else. I keep wasp or bear spray inside the van because they are both more powerful than regular pepper spray and travel further.

A fellow van traveler, and our gracious host for this article, Vanholio, won’t even keep a gun in his van. I tend to agree with pretty much every point he makes in that article.

If you feel the same way but want a bit more protection, you can carry a pellet gun for a last resort situation.

Tip #5 – Alarms

The cheapest alarm is a whistle. You can carry this on your keychain at all times. Additionally, you should arm your vehicle with a car alarm and make sure it’s set while you sleep. Any breach of your home will be met with a loud awakening! Get a lock fob with a panic button.

Tip #6 – Locks

Before you go to bed, check and double check the locks. You should also try to sleep with the windows mostly closed. If you have a roof fan, go ahead and close the windows. This also applies if you are rolling through a sketchy area. But again with the ounce of prevention; plan to avoid sketchy areas altogether.

Keep your valuables locked up in your van, cartop carrier, bike rack… I look at it like this: Valuable objects represent money to people in need. So by not flaunting my cool bike, camping gear or other valuables, I won’t have to defend it against someone with less to lose than I.

Tip #7 – Cell Service

Make sure you have enough service to make 911 calls. Although most cell phones will dial out in an emergency, it is another ounce of prevention.

Again, preparation is king: In planning ahead for where you want to sleep, look for areas with good cell coverage.

Of course you can go much deeper than these tips for safety and security. For example, I’m designing a small, fireproof safe to be installed in my van for storing cameras, laptop, passport… More on this topic coming soon at ‘How to leave your van unattended without worry’.

Enjoy your journey. Take the fork in the road that leads to possible adventure. Relax and breathe easy and take in the sights. Just don’t be naive. Do it with at least a modicum of preparation for the worst.

When she's not writing guest posts about van life, Veronica Cavanaugh is camping, backpacking, or planning her next outdoor adventure. She also enjoys watching old movies and writing poetry. See more of her work and a whole world of valuable van travel goodness at

Cover of "All the Whores I Knowed Before" a book by Vanholio! For sale on Click through.

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  1. Anonymous8.12.17

    added Vansage to my bookmarks. thanks meester vanholio.

    annapplis md.

    1. Good call! Glad you appreciate what she says.