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If you’ve read our van life horror stories, then it’s natural that you may be wondering, is van life dangerous? We set out to comprehensively answer that question and to highlight the biggest risks and dangers of van life to watch out for.
Is Van Life Dangerous?
No, van life is not necessarily more dangerous than any other lifestyle or form of travel. That being said, van life poses different threats and dangers that you need to be aware of and take precautions against. If you are aware of the risks and are sensible, then van life can be very safe.
The real dangers of van life are, more often than not, a little more mundane than the ones we might initially imagine. Getting stung by a bee, hitting a speedbump driving at night, or getting food poisoning might not loom as large in our imaginations as kidnap, violent crime, or grand theft auto, but they are the everyday dangers that we really need to watch out for. Fortunately, these everyday dangers are also the ones we can best prepare for and ideally avoid while living on the road.
The Varied Dangers of Van Life
The things you need to watch out for when traveling by van can vary depending not only on the country you are in but the area or environment within that country. For example, driving at night in Mexico is unsafe (mostly because of f$%#ing topes and a little bit because of crime) while in Australia driving at night is dangerous in the outback (100% because of the f$%#ing kangaroos).
This broad list tries to capture the general dangers you might face on the road, but you should also be conscious of the specific threats in a particular area by researching, talking to locals and other van lifers, and generally being aware.
#1 Driving at Night
Van life isn’t all about being parked up at a beach or national park. A lot of it is getting from point A to point B. And really, being on the road is the biggest danger of all when it comes to van life. One thing you can do to reduce this danger a little is by not driving at night.
The rate of fatal car accidents is far greater at night. While there are generally far fewer drivers on the road at night, studies show that the percentage of those vehicles involved in fatal accidents increases after dark.
Anecdotally, people are tired, more likely to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs, many nocturnal animals come out and, of course, visibility is a major issue too.
Additionally, in certain regions, driving at night is not recommended because after dark there is an increase in the crime rate.
From personal experience, potholes, people driving erratically, tiredness, getting lost, kangaroos (and other animals), and semi-trailers with blinding headlights, all create unpleasant and potentially unsafe driving situations at night. These days we make it a fairly serious point to stay off the roads at night when it can be avoided.
#2 Van Life Crime
One van life safety concern frequently mentioned is the risk of becoming a victim of a crime while traveling or living in a van. No neighbors, unfamiliar places, sketchy campgrounds (or truck stops), it’s little wonder that people start to worry about sounds at night.
We have had brushes with crime including, a late-night break-in while we were asleep in the van, as well as being extorted by locals under threat of violence (rare) and being extorted by corrupt police under threat of locking up us or our vehicle (more common but still rare). However, on the whole, our experience has been that it has been our own mistakes, carelessness, and bad luck that led us into trouble more often than not.
Crime although the ‘scariest’ danger of van life to think about, is actually quite far down the list of things likely to happen to you on the road, and you are probably not at much more risk of being a victim of crime in a van than living in more traditional accommodation.
When it comes to crimes we think there are three main things people talk about.
Theft and Petty Crime
Of course, it is true that vans can be targets for criminals, especially in foreign countries. Driving around in a tricked-out $100,000+ Sprinter in a country with a developing economy may turn heads for the wrong reasons. Even having a foreign-made vehicle or foreign plated vehicle can sometimes be enough to pique people’s interest. Nevertheless, when it comes to theft, an empty car without people sleeping in it is a much easier target for criminals looking to steal vehicles or belongings.
Theft and petty crime are often opportunistic in nature. Unscrupulous individuals see a glaring opportunity and take it. A camera is left on a passenger seat in an unlocked car, an oblivious tourist not minding their belongings, or belongings being left unattended at a campsite.
By taking basic precautions you can reduce the risk of being the victim of theft. Park in well-lit areas, lock your van, put away your belongings, use a safe for valuables and important documents, try not to make your ride too ostentatious, and use motion sensor lights to deter people from approaching at night.
More prevalent in poorer countries where the pay for public servants is low, this kind of low-impact crime is designed to lighten your wallet with delicate coercion. Although, if you test a corrupt authority figure or make them feel threatened, then you may find out just how real their ability to make your life miserable can be.
We found that traveling through South America, police would take just one look at us gringos driving down the road before pulling us up. They would usually cite some pretty obscure laws about dashcam mounts, proper tire inflation, and other fairly dubious violations. Invariably they would reveal the extremely severe punishments that awaited us for our alleged transgressions, thousands of dollars, having our car impounded for months, once, even jail time. The next stage in the dance, salvation. After a while, our sympathetic amigos, the police would always offer to help us out. Taking care of the ticket and paperwork in return for a small donation.
Tactics to avoid this sort of shakedown include wilfully making the language barrier impossible to overcome, asking for a written ticket so you can come down to the station to contest it, and bursting into tears (actually the most effective). Basically, anything to make the extortion seem like more trouble than it’s worth. That being said, we have come across police that really made us feel threatened, where a small bribe of $10 (negotiated down from $100+) seemed a small price to be on our way.
Major Crime and Violent Crime
This is the one Kelli lays in bed thinking about late at night, as the branches creak outside the van.
Statistically, it’s also the type of crime you are least likely to experience. Yes, some places are more dangerous than others, but even in countries with the highest crime rates, the actual statistical chance of being affected remains extremely low, especially if you exercise caution and awareness.
Care should be taken whenever you are traveling, and particularly when you are traveling by van. Understand the local social, economic, and political situation in every region you visit and be up to date with general news and travel warnings.
When our van was trapped in rural Peru by a blockade of protestors, we were lucky to escape with no more than a couple of punctured tires. Had we understood more about the local protests and how they are carried out, we may have been able to recognize the problem unfolding around us and avoided the situation entirely.
Similarly, when we drive in regions like Mexico or Colombia we are careful to make ourselves aware of the areas associated with criminal activity, and avoid or take certain precautions in these places.
All of this to say that crime is likely not going to be your biggest safety concern on the road, and you shouldn’t let it draw all your focus from other dangers. At the same time, you should take steps to prevent being the victim of crime, like being familiar with the specific crime risks in the area you are traveling, using equipment like safes and lockboxes, and having safety equipment like motion sensors lights and a GPS tracker.
Setting fire to yourself, your van, or the area you are staying in is another serious risk to consider and an eventuality that I frequently imagine as I am dosing off.
Van life means living in a small enclosed space made partially of flammable materials and surrounded by batteries, generators, gas cookers, petrol tanks, heaters, and other devices, apparatus, and fuels that present a significant fire risk.
We have had to put out fires in our own car when a gas connection ruptured on our cooker, and we have put out fires for other van lifers when their ancient kerosene stove went up in flames. We have also needed to tend to campfires that have threatened to escape their confines.
In our experience fire is a very real danger to van life, but you can mitigate this risk in three ways.
- Make sure that parts of your build that present a fire hazard are carried out by a professional or at the very least checked and approved by a professional.
- Always carry and use proper safety equipment such as fire extinguishers, fire blankets, and fire alarms.
- Be prepared and organized when it comes to fire, manage your fires and be responsible and diligent when it comes to looking after and extinguishing your fire.
#4 Becoming Stranded
If your van life adventure will take you far off the beaten path then becoming stranded is a danger you should be aware of and prepare for properly.
Breaking down, becoming lost, getting your vehicle stuck, or running out of fuel are just some of the ways that you could become stranded when traveling by van. Once you are stranded the real dangers come from exposure to weather and temperature and from running out of food and water.
Be conscious of the danger of becoming stranded and think about what equipment and supplies you can take with you to avoid becoming stranded in the first place.
For example, if you are traveling somewhere very remote, like Cape York in far north Queensland, you need to be fully self-sufficient. Supplies and equipment like spare parts, repair kits, vehicle recovery equipment, paper maps, spare spare tires, emergency locator beacons, and plenty of extra fuel are just some of the things you might need when traveling to particularly remote destinations. Beyond having the necessary equipment, having a basic knowledge of engine maintenance, vehicle recovery, and map reading will go a long way toward getting you back on the road when things go wrong.
Beyond the equipment and know-how to avoid getting started, you also need to have the necessary equipment and supplies to keep you safe if you do become stranded. That means having proper clothing for any and all-weather you might encounter, spare food, and most importantly spare water on board.
#5 Getting Sick or Injured
Getting sick or injured is an experience not exclusive to van life but, without a home with a hot shower, a toilet, a stationary bed, and Netflix, getting sick in the van can be anything from miserable right through to downright dangerous.
The rigors of van life can be challenging on a good day, getting sick can make life just too difficult to manage. Additionally, van life often means you are far from medical aid when the need arises.
While you can’t reduce the risk of falling ill to zero, begin a careful and conscientious traveler will go a long way.
Know your destination. Is the water safe to drink? What are the diseases endemic to the region, and are treatments or vaccinations available prior to travel? What is the state of medical care in the region? How can you contact emergency services if necessary?
Always carry a first aid kit specifically designed for van life and your specific destination in mind. At a minimum you need:
- Acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or aspirin
Additionally, you should have any medication you regularly take or may need such as EpiPens in the case of people with severe allergies.
Also consider the risks of the area you are traveling, going somewhere hot? Pack the aloe vera and spare sunscreen in the medical kit. Pack spare water purification tablets if you will be away from clean water sources. Heading somewhere with a mosquito problem? Don’t forget the DEET and anti-malarial.
Finally, know when to throw in the towel. Sometimes it can feel like seeking medical help or checking into accommodation without wheels is somehow failing to van life properly like you weren’t able to hack it. But, using a hotel or crashing with family or friends when you get sick is not a loss. There’s no one keeping score and no prizes for suffering through it.
#6 Dangerous Animals
Van life can often mean getting a little closer to nature than your home-dwelling friends and families. Van life can take you from the concrete jungle to wild spots where nature still rules. The van also doesn’t afford the same separation of outdoors and indoors as a solid brick home might. What’s more, getting attacked by an animal can have more serious consequences if you are camping in remote locations far from medical assistance.
Dependent on where you are, dangerous animals could mean anything. Large aggressive animals, venomous snakes, or relentless biting insects that can transmit disease or cause infection.
Personally, we have camped next to crocodiles, followed bear prints, snorkeled with stingrays, walked over snakes, and had plenty more encounters with wild animals while traveling by van. Being aware of the danger and learning how to behave when you are in the habitat of a wild animal is key to traveling safely through wild and remote places.
So Then…How Dangerous is Van Life Really?
Van life isn’t very dangerous.
At least it isn’t any more dangerous than any other lifestyle or travel style. Are there dangers inherent to van life? Absolutely! But by being aware of the dangers and making a conscious effort to address these dangers, van life can be safe and stress-free.
Hopefully, you have found this information on the dangers of van life helpful and we have helped you put to bed the question “is van life dangerous”. If you have a question or a comment or if you think we’ve missed something, please let us know below!
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