Whether you’re on a road trip or are permanently living in a vehicle — you’re more vulnerable on the road. You’re exposed to countless new people, unfamiliar places, and changing conditions. Maintaining safety is paramount in making sure nothing happens.
Too many people think the solution to safety is to carry a weapon or self-defense item at all times. That’s the wrong way to go about it. If there’s ever a situation where you have to use a weapon, you’ve missed countless warning signs. If you’d listened to those warning signs, you could’ve escaped the situation risk-free. When you’re forced to add a weapon to the mix, you’re taking on an undue amount of risk, which will backfire in most cases.
I’m not saying it’s a bad idea to learn self-defense or carry something to defend you — it’s actually a good idea. I’m saying that relying on it is a bad idea when there are countless other tactics you should rely on first. It’s all a balance of probability. Leaving a situation before it goes bad will have no risk, whereas waiting until it necessitates a weapon will have substantial risk. The most important tools to keep you safe are maintaining awareness, being prepared, clever avoidance, and foresight.
The first section of this article will cover safety practices relevant to traveling and life in general. The second section will cover specific vehicle-travel safety techniques.
General Safety Practices
Be Aware of Your Surroundings
Yeah, this sounds like the most cliché advice ever, but it goes deeper than that. Think about it this way: In daily life, how many people are monitoring their surroundings? Not many. This makes it easier for thieves or attackers to go after their targets. If your belongings or your person are someone’s target, whether pre-planned or opportunistic, you’d better believe they will focus every ounce of their mental awareness on you. Do you devote anywhere near the same amount of awareness to protecting your own safety? Likely not.
Thieves and attackers expend a lot of mental effort to commit their crimes and get away with them. This is pretty easy for them because the vast majority of the population is unaware of their surroundings. Fortunately, playing defense is much easier than offense. All it takes is a moderate level of awareness of what is happening around you to be aware of everything going on.
As for how to put this into practice: the phrase “Keep your head on a swivel.” describes it perfectly. You should always be observant of your surroundings, especially of the people around you. Keep an eye on what people are doing, who’s entering, who’s leaving, and where they’re looking at. If something seems off, pay more attention.
If someone is stealing glances at you or your stuff, you should know that. If the same vehicle drives by a couple of times, be aware. If someone sits behind you at a coffee shop but doesn’t seem to be doing typical “coffee-shop stuff”, that’s suspicious. If someone at your local Starbucks is high on meth, you should pay attention. All of these are potential warning signs that you’d miss if you weren’t paying attention.
As for whether those warning signs are cancerous or benign, that’s up for you to decide. If someone is stealing glances at you or your belongings, it could be because they want to rob you, or because you have a cool outfit or backpack. If the same vehicle drives by a couple of times, they could be scouting you, or they’re just lost. If someone sits behind you at a coffee shop and does nothing, they could be waiting to attack you or they could be waiting for a friend.
In all those situations, how do you solve them? Leave. If you see something suspicious, nothing is stopping you from going somewhere else and reducing the chances of a situation to 0%. By maintaining awareness, you can escape situations before they become situations.
Be Paranoid and Prepared
This doesn’t mean you should have 20 rifles, 1,000 rounds of ammo, and a bug-out bag in the trunk of your car. But it’s America, so hey, why not?
No, what it means is this: If you expect everything to go wrong, nothing can catch you off-guard.
To take this to the extreme: When you’re out and about, if you expect every person you see to rob or attack you, you’ll avoid any situation accordingly. Now, to go that far would be ridiculous. But when put into practice, it can be interpreted as such: “When you see a warning sign or are in a vulnerable spot, assume it as so and act accordingly.”
It would be easiest to describe this through examples:
When I go to a coffee shop, I assume someone there is after my stuff. So, I always have my backpack next to me with a strap through my chair legs. When I go to the bathroom, I bring my backpack with me as well.
When driving, I assume every driver on the road is a 12-year-old behind the wheel for the first time. That way, when someone drives erratically, merges into me, slams on the brakes, or cuts me off — I’m ready well in advance to avoid an accident.
If a stranger approaches me in a weird context, I assume the worst. I keep my hands on my pockets covering my phone and wallet, scan around to see if he has friends, and maintain that heightened sense of awareness until confirmed otherwise. If necessary, I would leave or go away as well.
Even when ducking into the gas station, I always lock my truck and I never leave my car keys, wallet, or phone in the vehicle. I assume that other people there will see me leave, and then check if I’ve left my vehicle unlocked or have valuables visible.
One time at a Starbucks in Eugene, Ore., there were two people, clearly psychotic on meth, sitting at a table with their paraphernalia visible. I needed the wifi and was worried about the uncomfortable baristas. And, the Eugene police don’t do anything when it comes to situations like this. So, I went to my truck and put a can of bear spray in my backpack, just in case the situation devolved.
At a climbing store in — you guessed it — Eugene, Ore., an adult riding a children’s BMX bicycle rode up. He then walked in with a huge knife holstered on his hip and asked if anyone had a bike pump. The store said no, and he went away. Of course, my guard was already up, and my eyes were on the collection of ice tools on the wall — a potential weapon. And when I left to return to my vehicle, I looked around the building and the parking lot before returning to my car — in case he was waiting to mug someone.
Also, being “paranoid” doesn’t mean being hostile. Context matters in whether these situations deserve a level of paranoia. If a stranger approached me in downtown Seattle, I would be suspicious. If a stranger approached me in a small mountain town coffee shop, I’d have no suspicion. If there were two people psychotic on meth in a city Starbucks, that would be suspicious; but if those two people were in a hippie commune, then it would be fine. It’s all about the context.
Listen to Your Gut
The “gut feeling” we get is a product of millions of years of evolution. When it comes up, your mind is trying to tell you something it has learned subconsciously. Something that your brain isn’t fully aware of. So listen to it.
We each have a direct line of ancestors stretching to the beginning of humankind. Most of those ancestors listened to their gut and maintained awareness to avoid an early death. It’s because of that that you’re alive and reading this. It’s human nature. Why would you betray it?
Every time I’ve listened to my gut feeling, nothing happened, because I left the situation. When I’ve ignored the gut feeling, usually nothing happens as well — but sometimes something terrible does occur. So terrible, that it makes the potential missed experiences from always listening to the gut pale in comparison.
Of course, the gut is a primal instinct. Sometimes, you need to use logic to trump it. If you’re a caveman and you find an iPhone, your gut feeling may tell you that it’s a curse from the Gods. But no, it’s modern technology. If you’re scared of heights and you’re about to go rock climbing on a top rope, you might get that gut feeling as well. Is it because of fear, in which case you should push through since it’s perfectly safe? Or, is it because your belayer has forgotten to put the rope through their belay device?
The best way to evaluate a gut feeling with logic in mind is to go through the below steps. First, when you get that feeling, stop what you’re doing and listen to it. Try to figure out why it’s activating then and there, focusing on your surroundings as you do so. Then, think of the stakes involved in ignoring or listening to the gut feeling.
Are you at an alpine high camp with funky-looking clouds on the horizon? Your gut might be telling you a killer storm’s about to hit. Did your gut trigger while driving on a peaceful highway? It might be telling you something’s wrong with the vehicle, or just that it’s hungry.
You Don’t Need to Be Polite
Being “polite” has gotten many people into situations that killed them. While it seems absurd, it’s understandable. Most of us are taught from a young age to be polite, to be kind, and not to offend anyone. That fear of not being polite is what makes it difficult for us to leave or push against a dangerous situation.
When the warning signs, the gut feeling, or the paranoia is there — don’t remain in a situation for the sake of politeness. If you offend someone, so what? Why put a threat to your life or your belongings above someone’s feelings? It doesn’t make sense.
If someone truly takes offense to you avoiding a potentially dangerous situation, they deserve to be offended anyway. It’s for the best. Think of it as so, and be more assertive in response.
Vehicle-Specific Safety Practices
When you’re actively driving, aside from car crashes, the main danger you’re exposed to is road rage.
If you get in a road rage incident, for the love of God, don’t engage. No matter how wrong the other person is. No matter how right you are. Stopping or communicating to teach the other party a lesson and dampen their ego will only end badly.
If a baboon is flinging their feces at you, would you stump to their level and fling your feces back? No, right? That’s exactly how you should view road rage. Whether it’s a wild animal or a road-rager, the solution is avoidance.
If you’ve successfully avoided a road rage incident, such as by apologizing or driving away, the other party is going to think they’re right. That might make you angry, but remember, in this situation they’re the baboon flinging feces at you. In what world is that winning? In fact, you’ve “won” by not escalating the situation or encouraging them at all.
If you are unable to avoid an incident, and they’re following you as you drive, it’s time to do more. Remember, you’re in a several thousand-pound metal box that can move at 100 mph. In no situation should you leave the protection of that box. If they’re following you, drive at a high speed to a police station or to a crowded area. If they meet you at that area, erratically lay on the horn to attract attention. If you have signal, call the police as well.
If you’re in the middle of nowhere; and there are no safe, nearby areas to drive to; start performing evasive, or if necessary, violent maneuvers. If it’s dark, turn off your lights when they can’t see you and then duck your vehicle somewhere. If you’re in a 4×4 and they’re in a van, go off-road. Try changing lanes and slamming on the brakes, letting them pass, and then turn or U-turn. If they’re tailgating you, slam on the brakes until they rear-end you — which will render their vehicle inoperable but yours drivable. If they try to run you off the road, ram into them or slam the brakes. If they’re in front of you and brake to stop you from moving, slam the brakes well in advance, then turn away or U-turn.
If you’re boxed in and you can’t drive away, still don’t leave the vehicle. Remember, you’re in a several thousand-pound box powered by explosions. Ram their vehicle or person if necessary, but don’t leave its protection.
Only as a last resort, and if all the above options fail, should you resort to self-defense. And when doing so, fight for your life. Because if you’ve truly exhausted all the above options, including ramming their vehicle, then the other party won’t hold back — and wouldn’t have held back from the beginning.
Parking Your Vehicle
A parked vehicle with no owner is most vulnerable to theft of belongings, or even the vehicle itself. Clever planning and foresight can help prevent anything from happening.
The first thing to do is evaluate the risk of where you’ve parked the vehicle. It’s a function of the length of time it’s left, and the risk of the area. For example, I’d be comfortable leaving my vehicle for a week in a remote Nevada mountain trailhead, because there’s almost no risk. But I’d never be comfortable leaving it for an hour in the Bay Area, where windows are smashed left and right.
After evaluating the risk, decide whether you’re willing to accept it. If so, plan your counter-measures accordingly. But remember, it’s okay not to accept it. I would never in a million years park my vehicle on the street in Seattle or San Francisco.
In order to prevent your vehicle from having its contents stolen, you need to make it look as unappealing, boring, or difficult to steal as possible. These methods are explained below.
Empty and Unlocked
At the extreme end, many locals in dangerous areas leave their vehicles empty and unlocked! That way, their windows won’t be smashed, and thieves will be content opening the doors and ruffling through rather than smashing a window. This isn’t feasible if you’re living in your vehicle with your belongings. It’s reserved for the most extreme areas.
No Visible Valuables
If you’re living in a vehicle, this is easier said than done. But, in moderate-risk areas, having nothing of value visible can prevent a break-in. If the drunk isn’t visible, you can move items there. You can also hide valuables underneath or between the seats. If all it looks like you have in your vehicle are non-valuables, it will be left alone.
If hiding valuables in your vehicle isn’t an option, it’s time to do as the chameleon, and camouflage. You need to make your vehicle look as unappealing and disgusting as possible. So much so, that a potential thief will think you’re crazy and that the vehicle isn’t worth it.
If you come across a hoarder vehicle stuffed to the brim with trash, would you break into that? No, not if you want the likely cockroach infestation to cover you. The same principle applies.
Depending on how far you go, this would work in any risk-level area, so long as you scale proportionately. A few methods I’ve used to prevent break-ins are below.
At the light end, tossing a bunch of trash on the dash and around the seats will make you look like a slob. Your vehicle will be less appealing. Keep a stockpile of candy and food wrappers. When parked in a sketchy area, spread the trash all over the car. Bonus points if the trash covers valuables as well.
At the extreme end, take some dog poop bags and fill it with something that looks like poop; Crushed brown wrapping paper for example. When parked in a sketchy area, spread those bags around your vehicle, especially on the dash. Sure, passersby may vomit from the sight, but no one will break into a literal shit-filled vehicle. You can take this further too. Add in Gatorade bottles filled with yellow liquid to raise the insanity factor. To top it off, toss some mouse traps and glue traps on the dash. And finally, have cardboard signs filled with psychotic graffiti taped to your vehicle. Whether all or a combination of these tactics, I can guarantee that no one will mess with a vehicle that looks like that.
Covering Your Belongings
This will work in light to moderate-risk areas. Covering valuables with a tarp, or covering the windows with Reflectix, will ensure no thief can see inside. But in higher-risk areas, thieves will break in anyway, rightfully suspecting that you’re disguising something valuable.
Running From a Bear
Take this quote from Jim Butcher: “You don’t have to run faster than the bear to get away. You just have to run faster than the guy next to you.”
If another vehicle near yours looks more appealing, your vehicle is better protected as a result. That factor will raise the effectiveness of any of the above techniques. If you park your janky 1998 Toyota Corrola with a ratty backpack next to a Mercedes with a Louis Vuitton Handbag visible, which one do you think a thief will break into? The Mercedes.
So, park next to easier or more appealing targets than your vehicle. Employ some methods above as well, and you’ll be protected several magnitudes more as a result.
Most modern vehicles with an engine immobilizer are adequately protected from theft. That is unless a thief targets you in particular with special devices or gets their hands on your key.
Older vehicles are vulnerable to theft and are targets because of their age. Don’t bother with steering wheel locks, it takes a minute to cut through a steering wheel. But a steering wheel lock in conjunction with the “running from a bear” technique can work. If your 1998 Corolla is parked to another 1998 Corolla, but yours has a steering wheel lock, the thief will go after the other vehicle.
The absolute best way to prevent vehicle theft is to install a fuel pump kill switch. It only requires some easy electrical work and will make a vehicle near-impossible to steal. This article covers the method well.
Another easy way to prevent theft from amateur thieves is to pull the ignition fuse from your fuse box. It’s usually under the dash above the brake pedal. It takes a few seconds to pull, and a few seconds to install. You can pull other critical fuses too.
In terms of deterring the possibility of theft, you need to make your vehicle look disgusting per the camouflage techniques above, or make it look not drivable. For example, you can give yourself a flat tire on the driver’s side by deflating the valve. Just make sure you have a method to inflate it when you return!
Sleeping in Your Vehicle
New-comers to vehicle camping think that they’re most vulnerable when they’re sleeping in their vehicle. In reality, you’re most likely to be a victim of a crime elsewhere in your vehicle travels. Most criminals don’t want to deal with an unknown person — or persons — sleeping in a vehicle. Even so, it’s important to keep yourself safe regardless.
The first thing to do is pick a good spot to sleep. This article I wrote covers it.
After going to your sleeping spot, evaluate the risk of the area. Urban areas will have more risk, remote areas will have minimal risk. Depending on the risk, decide if you’re willing to accept it. If you accept it, implement safety measures accordingly. If you don’t accept it, remember that you have wheels — drive someplace safer.
Crimes of Theft
If you travel in a nondescript cargo van, you’re going to look like a contractor, and thieves will break in trying to score tools. They won’t be expecting a person. To prevent crimes of this nature, make it obvious that your vehicle is lived in. As covered at the end of my sleeping spots article, stealth doesn’t matter much. This would have more advantages in terms of safety, than disadvantages in terms of missed spots. If your vehicle is broken in by someone only looking for valuables, your mere presence is enough to deter them.
Crimes of Attack
The next scenario is when someone breaks in looking to target you in particular. This is extraordinarily rare, but it’s important to be prepared. Criminals that do this are either on drugs or not thinking rationally, or they are prepared to fight or kill you.
The criminals who do this rationally won’t want to break in without knowing who’s inside. It could happen either as a planned crime or as one of opportunity — depending on their perception of you.
If a criminal sees your vehicle and your non-threatening stature around town, they will know that you’re an easy target and may do it as a planned crime. To prevent this, rotate sleeping spots often if staying in a single area. And of course, be aware of your surroundings as covered earlier in the article.
If a criminal sees you pull into a lot — and you look non-threatening — they may target you as a crime of opportunity. If you’re non-threatening in stature, you can prevent this by only pulling in and sleeping where you’re not visible to anyone. But if you’re threatening in stature, then you should make sure that you’re clearly visible, so people understand you’re not an easy target.
There are a few other strategies to deter this as well. Put some NRA and gun stickers around your vehicle. If you’re solo, make it look like you’re with a partner — have two rather than one bikes on your rack for example. You can make yourself look insane too. Put cardboard signs with psychotic graffiti around your vehicle. Other camouflage techniques as covered in the prior section can work as well.
Now let’s say the unthinkable happens — someone does target you? How do you respond?
First and foremost, you’re in a metal box that can travel at 100 mph. Drive away. If you’re blocked in, ram their vehicle. Even better, ram their person.
If you need to defend yourself, fight for your life. If someone is breaking in knowing you’re in there, their goal is to kill or hurt you. Don’t hold back.
If you’re in a camper separate from your vehicle, don’t leave its protection. That’s what they want, to get you while you’re outside and unprotected. Wait for them to break in and then play defense. You’ll have better chances that way. And of course, call the police as early as possible.
Scenarios like these, especially from strangers, are unlikely. If you focus on picking good sleeping spots, this should never happen.
All these safety tips make it seem like it’s a lot of work to stay safe. In reality, it’s not. Safety and awareness are hardwired into our blood. It’s human instinct. To jumpstart that instinct, it will take a conscious effort on your part to focus on these tactics. Then, before you know it, it’ll become subconscious and second nature — a permanent state of mind.