Van life is well and truly back on the map as a popular lifestyle choice for adventurous spirits seeking freedom, flexibility, and a connection with nature.
Living and traveling in a van allows people to travel, explore, and experience new places in a different way while embracing a minimalist lifestyle. However, like any lifestyle, van life comes with its unique challenges, and one of those challenges is security.
In this guide, we will dive into van life security, exposing some of the potential risks that come with living in a van and shining a light on effective measures to mitigate that risk to ensure a safe and secure van life adventure.
Understanding the Risks of Van Life Security
Theft and Break-ins
Converted vans can be an obvious target for thieves. The vehicles themselves can be more conspicuous and valuable than other vehicles but more than that they contain within them a lot of valuable items, as van lifers are often traveling with, if not all their worldly possessions, then at least their most prized.
Another risk for vans is that they often are used to travel to areas where they become more conspicuous. A freshly converted Mercedes Sprinter with a bright paint job will certainly be noticed if you drive it through Peru for example.
What’s more, thieves can systematically target vans by focusing on locations where campers congregate such as campgrounds or national parks.
We have ourselves been subject to one van life break-in and it was terrifying. We awoke one night to a man rustling around in our front seat while we were asleep in the back. I don’t think the thief had realized anyone was in the car because when Kelli started screaming he took off running, leaving only with a camera lens. Nevertheless, the incident left us shaken for a few days.
Van Life Personal Safety
As travelers who are usually solo, couples, or smaller groups, van life can also pose a risk to personal safety when we travel and camp in remote or unfamiliar areas.
Camping overnight in your van can sometimes be an unnerving experience. New places, new sounds, your camp might be too dark, or perhaps too light and exposed, the unfamiliarity can be unsettling.
While the real risks are more often than not less obvious or dramatic than some of the perceived risks, it is worth being on alert for some of the threats. Namely, if the wrong people realize you are alone and in a vulnerable position you may make yourself a target, if something does happen you are far from assistance and sometimes cut off from communication like mobile and internet.
Making people in the area aware of your presence when you arrive at a new campsite in the daytime, using proper security products and procedures, and trusting your instincts are three ways to mitigate the risks of camping alone.
Talking to people in the area (if there are any) is an invaluable step when setting up camp in an unfamiliar place. It will let the local people you mean no harm and prevent any confusion about your intent in the area, it will give you the opportunity to learn about any known safety risks in the area and finally, it will put you more at ease.
Having proper security features, products, and procedures will also help keep you safe and make you feel more secure. Security features and products should prevent and deter intruders and help attract assistance. Security procedures should include site selection, having an exit strategy, and securing the van.
Finally, trust your instincts. If you feel you might be in an unsafe situation, don’t wait for it to escalate before taking action. Initiate your exit strategy and get out of there.
One night parked on the side of the road in Jardin in Colombia’s coffee region, we were woken by locals talking outside the van. It was the dead of night, and there was no reason for anyone to be walking on this remote road. We crawled into the front started the van and drove off. As we did, the group started to yell, run, and chase the van, throwing bottles behind us. While we don’t know their exact intentions, it was clear they were hostile.
Creating Van Life Security
Van life security comes with planning and preparation. How you design and equip your van can have a major impact on the level of security. By focusing on van life security during the design phase you help create a safe, secure environment and give yourself peace of mind in your van.
Van Selection and Modification
If safety and security are a priority, choose modern secure van models and features that deter theft and break-ins. Modern vans have a range of effective security features. Additionally, many van designs, specifically cargo vans, have limited points of entry which can be more secure and less conspicuous.
Many newer vans come with security systems but these can also be added after market. When choosing and designing your van, consider alarm systems, GPS tracking devices, and immobilizers to enhance security.
Insurance and Legal Considerations
Van life security is also an administrative issue, and as a van owner, you need to make sure you have the proper insurance. This is for two reasons. One, you can feel secure knowing that in an emergency you can walk away from the van without incurring a devastating financial loss. Secondly, so that you can meet your legal obligations.
Camper van insurance often differs from regular vehicle insurance as underwriters take into consideration the specific use of camper vans. Be aware of what different policies will and will not cover and select a policy that is right for you and the area where you will be traveling.
Additionally, make sure you are aware of the legal requirements for van life in all of the different regions and countries you plan to travel to avoid running foul of the law.
Security Procedures and Practices
Security procedures and practices may seem like common sense, but making a basic checklist and following it when camping in unfamiliar territory will ensure nothing is missed and provide not only security but peace of mind.
Safe Parking and Camping Practices
Selecting a safe parking and camping spot when traveling in a van in an unfamiliar place is crucial for your security and peace of mind. Here are some tips to help you find a safe spot:
- Research the Area: Before arriving at your destination, do some research online about the area you plan to visit. If you have serious concerns about the safety of wild camping look for campgrounds, RV parks, or designated parking areas for campervans, at least until you get the lay of the land. Apps, like iOverlander in the Americas, online forums like Wikioverlander, and travel websites like this one often have valuable information and reviews from other travelers.
- Check Local Regulations: Make sure to familiarize yourself with the local camping and parking regulations. Many places have restrictions on overnight camping and being moved on in the middle of the night can be not only expensive if you are issued a fine but also create an unsafe situation of finding another suitable camp late at night.
- Avoid Isolated Areas: While it may be tempting to park in a quiet, secluded area, it’s safer to stay closer to populated places. Urban areas or well-frequented spots tend to be safer and may offer better access to emergency services if needed.
- Use Mobile Apps and Websites: There are several apps and websites specifically designed for van travelers that offer information about safe camping spots, parking areas, and other relevant details from fellow travelers. Throughout the Americas, iOverlander is the most popular app. In Europe, Park4Night provides helpful information on the best camping sites. In Australia and New Zealand, WikiCamps is the app of choice.
- Talk to Locals: If you have the opportunity, ask locals for recommendations on safe places to park or camp. They can provide valuable insights and suggestions about the best spots in the area. Striking up a conversation with locals will put them at ease about the presence of a strange van in the area.
- Arrive During Daylight: Whenever possible, arrive at your destination during daylight hours. This allows you to get a better feel for the area and find a suitable spot without feeling rushed.
- Be Discreet: When camping in an unfamiliar place, try to be discreet and avoid drawing attention to yourself. Keep noise to a minimum, avoid leaving valuable items visible through windows, and follow campground rules or common sense if free camping to maintain a low profile.
- Trust Your Instincts: If something feels off or uncomfortable about a location, trust your instincts and find a different spot. Your safety is the top priority, so don’t hesitate to move to a new location if needed.
- Prepare for Emergencies: Always have an emergency exit strategy and a communication device on hand. Inform a friend or a family member about your travel plans, including your intended parking and camping spots.
By following these tips and using common sense, you can increase the likelihood of finding a safe and enjoyable parking and camping spot during your van travels in unfamiliar places.
Securing Personal Belongings
Organizing and securing items within the van can minimize theft risks. Hidden lockable compartments should be used to store valuables and important documents. In general, items of any material value and any cash should be stored out of view.
Traveling with a fake wallet can be an effective tip when traveling in an area where you might be subjected to shakedowns by locals or police.
In Southern Mexico, we were often stopped by locals soliciting a contribution to the community, sometimes at the threat of violence or with the help of homemade tire spikes. We were also routinely stopped by police who were clearly soliciting bribes from foreigners. A fake wallet allowed us to show that we had little cash with us allowing us to pay a smaller bribe or contribution while keeping enough cash on hand (in the safe).
Staying Connected and Aware
A large part of staying safe in a modern world is staying connected.
Maintaining connection with family and friends is an easy way to be safer and more secure when traveling by van. Making sure someone knows where you are and checking in regularly will allow them to sound the alarm should anything happen to you and give you peace of mind.
Another way to leverage the community to help keep you safe is to connect with the van life community. Meet-ups, gatherings, events, Facebook groups, and community-based apps like iOverlander allow members of the van life community to connect with one another so they can swap and share information building collective knowledge about van life safety and security.
Being part of a wider community also gives you a safety net that you can lean on. Need a spare part that you can’t get in the country you are traveling to? Maybe someone who is traveling to that region can bring it for you. Stranded without cash? Perhaps a fellow van lifer can accept a bank transfer in return for cash. Need a jump start or a ride to the mechanic, a van lifer in the area probably will have your back. All of these scenarios have happened to us, and we have witnessed many more similar instances go down in the wider van life community.
Another equally large part of van life safety and security comes down to staying aware of what’s happening around you. That can mean staying on top of your social unrest and political upheaval, monitoring the weather, or just taking note of the new van that just pulled into camp.
Be Aware of Your Immediate Surroundings
Take note of where you’ve parked. Are you under large branches that could fall in strong winds? Are you near a ledge someone could fall from in the night? Are you far enough off the road that no one will collect you speeding around a corner? How many other campers are around? Being aware of your surroundings is an obvious way to note any potential threats and notice any changes. Make a mental checklist of your campsite when you arrive.
Be Aware and Prepared for Weather and Natural Disaster
Being aware of what the weather is doing is basic common sense when you live in a van. Especially if you are traveling into unfamiliar areas or camping away from cities.
Heavy rain can cause flash flooding, cause riverways to rise, and cut off roads. Even small amounts of rain can render unsealed roads unusable. Wind can create a risk for camping under large trees where branches could fall. Snow can make roads unusable, and hail can damage delicate equipment like solar panels, rooftop fans, or satellite dishes.
Knowing what the weather is doing, what it will do, and having a plan to deal with it is essential when living in a van.
You can use online resources like the Meteoblue website or app for forecasting and monitoring weather radars. Van lifers should also be aware of how different weather events might affect the specific environment they are traveling in and have a plan for dealing with forecasted weather events.
Be Aware of the Broader Social and Political Environment
If you are traveling far from home in unfamiliar areas, it pays to be aware of the social and political landscape.
Are you traveling to an area where petty crime is prevalent? Is there social unrest or political upheaval that could make disruptive protest or demonstration more likely? Does the area have any instances of violent crime? All three of these scenarios have happened to us and led to long detours, abandoning our vehicle, and being extorted for money by local communities. Knowing the broader context of the area you are traveling through will allow you to be better prepared.
Another thing that would fall under this category would be understanding the local laws as they pertain to driving and camping, as well as the methods used by law enforcement and whether corruption is a factor in the area you are traveling. Learning how to deal with cops in South America for example was an important step in staying safe in this part of the world.
To discover information about the wider social environment of a new area, you will be in, there are a variety of sources.
- Government Agencies – foreign affairs agencies offer travel resources, up-to-date information, and travel warnings. We use the US Bureau of Consular Affairs site and the Australian DFAT website.
- Online forums – Websites such as Facebook groups or Reddit forums dedicated to ‘van life’ or ‘overlanding’ in a specific part of the world are great forums to seek advice on particular areas from experienced travelers for localized and current information.
- Community-driven camping apps – Apps like iOverlander use community contributions to provide up-to-date travel information, including warnings from other overlanders. This resource is helpful for issues at a local level that might escape the attention of government websites.
- Local News and Local Government Agencies – If you do find yourself in a localized emergency situation, local online news is the best place to get information. You can also get in touch with governmental tourism agencies, such as the tourist police, for the region you are traveling in.
- Consular Services – Your country’s consular service in the region can help you stay up-to-date with situations as they unfold in real time.
By staying informed of the social, political, and legal landscape and avoiding areas with increased risk, you are doing the best thing you can to ensure a safe and secure van life trip.
Van Life Safety and Security Products
While much of van life safety and security comes down to our preparedness, there are some products that can help us stay safe while living in a van.
Van Life Security Camera
Security cameras provide information about what is happening outside your van. They offer a visual deterrent to would-be criminals, and of course, they provide evidence and recourse if something does go wrong.
With motion sensors, online connectivity, and long-lasting batteries or in-built solar chargers, modern camper van security cameras provide a simple way to monitor and record your surroundings.
GPS trackers are a modern-day tool that can be leveraged by van lifers to stay connected with their vehicles. With a low upfront cost for a tracking device, usually less than $100, and a modest ongoing subscription, you can be secure that you will always be able to locate your home on wheels.
Van Life Safe
A safe box that can be secured to the van is a great solution for securing IDs, passports, vehicle documents, cash, and other valuables on the road.
A fire extinguisher is an absolutely essential piece of van life safety equipment. The combination of close living quarters with electronic and cooking components creates a fire risk. A fire extinguisher is a must-have piece of van life safety equipment.
Motion Sensor Lights
Motion sensor lights can be an economical addition to your van’s life security arsenal. They are extremely affordable, easy to install, and provide a strong visual deterrent to anyone who might try to access your car in the dark.
Spare Key Box
For forgetful and accident-prone people (like me), a small, magnetic spare key box mounted in a secret place under your car is the ultimate peace of mind and has saved us more than once. Cheap and effective, it’s hard to argue against the usefulness of this one.
EPIRB / PLB
A PLB is a small, lightweight beacon that, when activated will send an SOS signal via satellite to local search and rescue, who will deploy to your exact GPS location. For those traveling far and wide away from telephone reception and especially those who like to hike, this is a no-brainer.
Given the confined space that van lifers occupy, as well as the proximity to heating and cooking gasses a CO2 Detector is an essential piece of safety equipment. Coming in under $20, it’s senseless to travel without one.
Sliding Door Lock
If you have a sliding door on your van, keep your valuables extra secure with a lock on the sliding door, making the thief unable to get inside! While it may be overkill, you are likely traveling with all of your most prized possessions, which you want to keep safe.
Final Thoughts on Van Life Safety and Security
Living life on the road in a van offers a sense of adventure and freedom that’s difficult to match. However, with that freedom comes safety and security risks that don’t necessarily apply to other lifestyles. By understanding the potential risks and taking appropriate measures to mitigate them, van lifers can embark on their adventures with confidence. With the right knowledge, tools, and mindset, van life enthusiasts can embrace the freedom of the open road while ensuring not only a memorable journey but a safe and secure one too.
If we haven’t yet talked you out of van life, you might be interested in more van life content.
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