van shown at night, a time when safety is crucial while living the van life

Van Life Safety and Crime, Guide for Vandwellers

We’re here to address safety and crime in the scope of van life and vandwelling. There are a number of things we will go over in this article that will improve your safety. If you’re in a first world country, it’s likely the world in your immediately vicinity is not as dangerous or as violent as you think it is. That said, the following advice will improve your safety while living the van life no matter where you are.

Crime Maps to Stay Safe

picture of crime map used to find crime and stay safe while living the van life

Nearly every major city or municipality has crime mapping available online these days. Searching for the name of a city along with the terms “crime map” will usually give you the website you need to do additional research. Most maps will allow you to look into a date range and specify crimes such as vehicle theft, break-ins and more.

The most popular solution for crime mapping in the United States and Canada is by Crime Reports. This map is opt-in only for police departments so you may still need to check for city specific maps. That said, their coverage is pretty good for most major municipalities. I tend to look for vehicle break-ins and vehicle theft hot-spots before parking.

Back Your Van In for Safety

picture of yellow van backing into a spot, a good method to increase safety in the van life

Backing a vehicle in allows you to quickly leave if you find yourself in danger or uncomfortable with your surroundings. If someone intends to harm you they may block you in, if this happens being able to push your way out of the space will be much easier if you’re backed in. For additional safety you may want to consider parking in areas where you have two points of exit, where both the front and rear of the vehicle have an exit path.

Exit route planning is something that should become second nature to you over time. You can practice as you find new places to park. You also will need to have an exit route to your front seat, so be sure you can get there quickly if needed. Your level of exit planning should be based on the level of threat assessment you have made based on situational awareness.

Situational Awareness for Vandwelling

a man observing his surroundings, practicing situational awareness, a good way to increase safety while living the van life

Situational awareness includes crime mapping but it also includes general mindfulness of your surroundings. Be aware of the people around you and what they’re up to. Sometimes we can pick up on things subconsciously but not consciously, so if you feel uneasy or unsure about an area it’s best to trust your instincts and move on. 

One of the best things about living the van life is that you can move your van to a new location with ease. Remember, your home is on wheels and you’re not beholden to stay anywhere you’re uncomfortable with. Depending on the area you may want to minimize attracting attention from others. 

If you’re in a suburban or urban area I advise choosing parking that is well lit and even under surveillance by cameras. This will deter theft and lower your chances for an unsafe encounter with a thief. Practicing situational awareness is a great way to boost your safety.

Keep Your Phone With You

a woman holding her phone to signify that it is important to keep your phone close for safety

Most people know they need to keep their phone charged, but how long do you have to call emergency services if you need it? In some cases this may not be long. I advise keeping your phone within reach at all times, even when you’re sleeping at night. You may not have time to dig through belongings to grab a line out when you need it most.

Key Fob & Locking Doors on the Van

a man holding a key fob for a Mercedes sprinter

Keep the doors locked as if you’re locking your house because this is now your house even if it happens to be on wheels. Assuming your vehicle has an alarm you may want to activate it before sleeping or lingering for a while. If you hear someone try to open your doors or you sense someone is getting too close for comfort you can re-activate the locks on your vehicle and chirp the horn a few times with a key fob.

In the case that you’ve optioned your vehicle with an alarm but have chosen not to set it, use the key fob to initiate the alarm in an effort to alert others in the area and potentially scare off criminals during an encounter.

Valuables & Tinting for Van Life

a picture of spare change, something you want to keep out of the sight of thieves

Most thieves that case vehicles typically peer in through windows and look for easy targets and valuables. Depending on how desperate they are this could even mean something as small as a pile of change you’ve gathered for tolls. Most that do this use a smash and grab technique which allows them to quickly smash a window in just a few seconds.

I like to keep the front seats and all easily visible areas through the windows as clean as possible. This helps deter people that might be looking for an easy buck or two and decreases the chances for an unsafe encounter. Most of the people doing this kind of thing prefer an empty vehicle. If you use your key fob they will be aware that you are around, though they may not know you’re inside.

You will want to tint or put in black out inserts for windows that are not required to be clear in your location. If possible use a partition wall or curtain between the front and rear of the vehicle to prevent people from peering in at the valuables you have in your living space. 

In my City Parking and Sleeping Guide I covered 3M Security Window Film. This film does not entirely stop windows from being broken but substantially increases the time it takes to break through a window, giving you additional time to react. Most vehicle windows can be shattered in a matter of seconds.

Self Defense

a woman shown punching, practicing self defense.

Depending on your locality you may be able to carry a knife or even a gun for self defense. Remember, whatever weapon you have for self defense can be turned against you. In order to maximize safety please consider taking a few classes on how to use your weapon if you have one. Not being adequately trained will introduce items into the situation that decrease your safety.

Typical tools such as tire irons and wrenches used for roadside repair can be utilized for self defense if knives and guns are banned in your locality. I recommend being trained in self defense before attempting to use any weapon.

Non-lethal options may be available depending on laws in your area such as taser or pepper spray. Be aware pepper spray in an enclosed space can be a danger to you as well due to the strength.

Closing Thoughts

yellow van in the sunset, signifying closure of article on van life and safety

Living the van life can offer us much freedom but it’s important to enter the lifestyle in a sober way. You can dramatically increase your safety by following the above steps. Keep in mind your chances of being violently attacked by a serial killer or something like that are probably vastly lower than you anticipate. The world is not as dangerous as you may have been made to believe.

While I have implemented everything I’ve suggested above on my own I can not take all credit as other sources such as reddit’s vandwelling community and cheaprvliving have helped me personally prepare for risk factors as I headed for the open road. I feel safety is important so we’re paying it forward here. If you know anyone that is also getting into this life, please pay it forward and share these tips as they could end up saving their lives. 

In life, there are risks with everything. Without some risk there is no living, no adventure and no life. I hope this has helped you in your adventures. Safe travels!

Written by

Brian Wilson

35 Posts

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