Staying Safe as a Vandweller
The problem is that for millions of years of we were surrounded by real, physical danger so we evolved the sympathetic nervous system which mobilizes the body’s fight or flight response in reaction to any kind of stressors in our life. For example, if a tiger appears on the path ahead of you, a whole cascade of chemicals (including the hormones adrenaline and cortisol) are released into your body to make you more physically able to handle the threat—either fight the tiger or run away from it. But in those days there were no imaginary dangers, just a few real ones so we were rarely stressed.
Today, it’s just the opposite, you and I are rarely in any real danger, but we have filled our mind with imaginary dangers so we are constantly stressed. That stress is killing us!
The tigers are gone! You and I face virtually no physical threats but the chemicals are still there ready to be dumped into our body. Maybe you think I’m underestimating the risk we are in, after all, we see crime on the TV and in the news all the time, we feel like we truly are surrounded by violent, dangerous crime!
Here are the facts: in 2012 there were 313.9 million Americans and 1.2 million of us were victims of a violent crime so 312.7 million of us were not victims of a violent crime but live like we will be at any moment!
We are quite safe but too many of us go around in constant fear that we are going to be attacked and killed. You’re not, you are safe. (see all US crime statistics since 1960 here: http://www.disastercenter.com/crime/uscrime.htm).
Because we are such visual creatures that evolved to be constantly scanning for danger, when we see horrible things on the TV news (“if it bleeds it leads”), movies and the media, our mind takes them in and internalizes them. Before long we become mentally and emotionally convinced that we are in nearly constant danger. The result is that the media hype causes us to be in a constant state of hyper-vigilance and since it’s only imaginary we greatly exaggerate the little threats around us. There may not be any more tigers, but there are impossible deadlines at work, the jerk who makes your life miserable and the idiot who cuts you off in traffic. When you get home your spouse or kids appear to be against you so they become a danger point. Our bodies react by constantly pouring out stress chemicals and we end up with road rage, domestic violence, and aggressive, unreasonable people. The main thing I want to accomplish in this post is not to make you safe—because I believe you already are safe—it’s to make you feel like you are safe and help you overcome your imaginary fears and prepare for the real ones. Until you relax and overcome your fears, you’ll hate vandwelling.
The odds of you being a victim of a violent crime in a city are very low, and if you will follow the advice I give you, you will be even safer. As safe as you are in a city, you are much safer in the country as a boondocker. Violent crime on National Forest and BLM land is so rare that no one even bothers to keep track of the statistics. It’s true that every so often you hear about a murder on Public Land but the fact that the media makes such a big deal of it tells us that it is exceedingly uncommon and out of the ordinary. While you are very safe on public land, I still recommend you follow these common-sense suggestions I’m giving you here.
In this post we are looking at general, common-sense ideas, in the next post we will get into the debate of whether you should carry a weapon, and if so which one.
- Be Confident: Criminals are predators and all predators are looking for the weakest to victimize. If you come across as timid, fearful and submissive, you make yourself a target. The solution is to confront, embrace, and overcome your fear and carry yourself with confidence. You will be healthier, happier and less likely to be a victim of a crime.
- Be Vigilant for Things That Don’t Look Right: You don’t want to live in fear because that is a terribly unhealthy way to live, but neither do you want to be blissfully ignorant. Find a healthy balance, for you, of awareness of what’s going on around you, and confidence in yourself and your safety.
- Intuition: We all have a “gut-feeling” that warns us against danger. Trust it! That’s a million years’ worth of evolution working to help you and keep you safe. Modern times have conspired to reduce our intuition so I suggest you research and learn how you can strengthen it.
- Martial Arts-Self Defense Classes: Nothing will increase your self-confidence like taking classes in self-defense. I think all of us should take them!
- Blend in: Anything that brings attention to you is a bad thing. If you look rich someone will want to steal your stuff, if you look poor a predator may think you are a helpless victim. Be average and unnoticeable.
- Hide Your Valuables: Criminals are looking for easy opportunities and if you have valuable items out where they can be seen you make yourself a victim. Always keep anything that would tempt a thief out of sight.
- Keep Good Company: First, you are generally safer in a group than alone so cultivate friendships and travel with them. But be sure they are trustworthy. If you’re not confident in them, politely bow out.
- Get a Dog: A big one will scare a 2 or 4-legged predator away and a small one will at least alert you to danger. If at all possible, have a dog! You will be healthier, happier and safer.
- Van Alarm: Since we sleep in our vans and sometimes also have to leave them unattended, having an alarm is a great idea. I don’t know enough about it to advise you on specifics, so I’ll let you do your own research.
- Kill Switch: You can have a shop install a switch somewhere in the cab of the van that makes the van unable to run or be stolen. To use it, as soon as you park you reach over and flip the switch and the van is disabled, it can’t run or be started. When you are ready to go, you flip the switch back on and start the engine as normal. It won’t cost much but it might save you thousands of dollars.
- Carry a Whistle: Whether you are in the city or country a whistle is a great thing to use against 2 or 4-legged predators. It might scare the danger away and if not it will call others to help you. You should always have one.
- Flashlight: Carry a small but powerful flashlight with you. Try to get one that will flash as that is very blinding.
- Air Horn: Again, it will scare away every kind of predator and alert others that you need help.
- Cell Phone: Having a cell phone to call for help is critical.
- Fire Extinguisher: Obviously you want one for fires, but they also make a great weapon to shoot someone in the face or as a club. And no one will ever ask you why you have a fire extinguisher in your van.
- Spare Tire, Tools to Change it, Air Compressor: Being broke down in the middle of nowhere puts you in far greater risk to all kinds of danger, so have the tools and knowledge to change a tire.
- Install a remote start. If you’re sleeping in your van being able to use the remote to start the engine at the first hint of trouble will startle the intruder and give you a few seconds head-start.
- If your gut warns you of danger, jump in the front seat and drive away before it fully materializes.
- Be able to go the bathroom in the van at night. Getting out and walking to the bathroom exposes you to a great deal more danger.
- Park under bright lights: Criminals don’t want to be seen.
- Try to park so you can drive forward or backward. Being pinned in makes you an easy mark.
- Stay out of bad neighborhoods: Why put yourself needlessly in greater risk?
- Park in high-traffic areas: The more eyeballs on you, the less risk of crime.
That’s all I can think of right now, but if you have something I’ve missed post them as comments and I will add them to the list!!
The best advice that I can give to newcomers is – Stop watching TV. Don’t watch the news. Don’t watch CSI. Read the national news on the internet or an actual newspaper if you want to keep up with what’s going on in the world. Any anxiety and fear will drop to to almost nonexistent. 🙂
The advice that you’ve given is very good. Basically it comes down to don’t do stupid things and be aware of your surroundings. Our experiences have been similar to yours. We’ve never been in real danger in all of our years of fulltiming which includes camping in a wide variety of places.
That’s good advice Karen! Thanks.
May I suggest before retiring for the night that every individual know EXACTLY where they are. Information needed may include the street address, or legal land description if in a rural area. When written down and easily accessible you may tell a 911 operator where to dispatch help if needed, avoiding any confusion in a potentially life threatening situation.
Thankyou for all you do Mr. Wells!
That’s a good idea Just a Dude! I remember waking up many times in the city wondering where I was. Having it written down would have been a big help in an emergency when seconds counted.
In this reference you are using safe to mean safe from animal attacks whether human or critter. In my years of life, I find safe needs to include the much greater potential for personal accidents than being attacked. My record for personal accidents, especially falls and cuts, far over whelms the number of times I have had a feeling of danger from critters or humans.
Old Fat Man, my experience has been just like yours, but I’ve found fear of critters and humans to be so rampant in our country that I specifically wanted to address it. Every week I get at least one email asking me if they will be safe as a vandweller. I’m trying to answer that for everybody at once.
I had the advantage of beginning my travels with my older brothers, and I believed they could deal with anything. They never needed to prove it though; nothing happened. We got moved along a few times by the police and things like that but nothing seriously threatened us.
The threat was higher when we took “shelter” in missions or labor camps. I had a car vandalized in a labor camp by a co-worker, not on the street, and got defrauded of the same car in the same place, but that was not on the road.
Very few threats have arisen since then in my travels except for times I have failed to maintain vehicles or otherwise caused my own troubles. Even then, bystanders have been helpful, not predatory.
Remember that fear is used to sell products. It’s not only news shows that add to the needless fears. It’s almost all advertising and the bulk of TV and movies. Nobody’s making money by reminding you that most people had a nice day, but most of us did.
You’re so right Calvin, for every bad experience most of us have another person we probably had a dozen good ones. And yet we are constantly flooded with messages that we are in constant danger. We simply are not.
I have a small, but very bright, battery operated motion detector light attached above my door, works great for coming home after dark plus a bit of a safety feature.
Chris, that is a very good safety tip! I’ll add it to the list.
Confidence when facing a two or four legged animal is very important. I saw a large dog go after a woman last week. She turned and faced him talking the whole time. The dog backed away, but as she turned to get in her car he came again. She used the same method and backed him down a second time. Several years ago I used this against a mugger on the Washington Mall of all places. My confidence probably made him think I was carrying(which I wasn’t) and he left when I said ‘I can not help you!’. In both cases a show of fear would have made the situation much more dangerous.
David, it’s in the nature of all predators, 2 or 4-legged, to go after the weak. If the risk is too high they’ll find someone easier. Those are great examples of that!
For ladies traveling alone: Go to a thrift store and find 1 or 2 very large pair of men’s boots/shoes. Place outside your tent or van to give the impression you are not alone.
TravelingFirefighter, that’s a good tip, thanks!
Great article Bob, I look forward to the next one!
I’ve found that the further you go into “the middle of nowhere” the nicer people get. I’ve struggled with PTSD and hyper-vigilance for quite some time. In day to day city life I have to tell myself to take it down a notch when I get worked up over a threat, whether perceived or real.
Whenever I head off and away from society I can feel myself getting a sense of peace. The few people I do run into are generally nice, happy, and helpful. They are usually out there for the same reasons I am, to enjoy nature.
But… I still carry firearms as insurance.
Conversely, I get more anxious when I’m the only one around. An advantage for herd animals is that the predators have many choices. The bigger the heard, the better the chances that some other herd member is going to be caught instead of yourself. But if I’m the only meal the predator sees, I’m the one in trouble. Most people won’t cause any trouble, but if there happens to be a predatory person around, I don’t want to be the only target.
Besides, I saw “Deliverance.” 😉
Maybe it’s good that I avoid movies. I spent the best parts of my childhood alone in the woods and fields near the rural places we lived. Most likely personal background shapes our fears and joys.
Calvin, I think you are right, it has a lot to do with our childhood. If you grow up in front of a TV seeing the crime of the week over and over again it’s easy to see how fear could be crippling.
Al, that’s why I’m looking forward to you camping with us again! You’re right, there is safety and comfort in numbers.
Joe, that has been exactly my experience. The closer you are to town the more you get partiers out to act as stupid as they can. But they are too lazy to go very far so the further out we go you’ll only find people who are there to enjoy nature.
Often, the alone-ness of it will scare of us, but like you, slowly we relax and finally come to be totally at peace.
But, I to keep a firearm, to me it’s just common sense.
When I started a year and a half ago I had lots of fears, but in a short time they went away! My dog, Mr. Pico loves this life, as do all the other dogs we have met. He will alert me of anyone or anything coming near where we are camping or parking for the night. I think a Dog is a great idea. They are great companions too. This is a great post!
Cottonwood, AZ…thawing out!
Thanks Sammer! I know Mr. Pico scares me! Just kidding, he’s a great little dog ho thinks he’s a giant dog.
It’s finally warming up here in Flagg!
Nature I can handle…people scare me.
Amen, people are, in some cases, worse than animals. At least animals don’t seem to take joy in the killing of their own species. Even though I have watched movies and the news, etc, I still go out into the world.
Me too Cae! That must be why I find myself further and further away from them.
Hey Bob, nice handgun. I have a Ruger speedsix lookslike yours. Nothing makes me feel more safe then that 357 magnum. Good post. Getting old and disabled so i need the feeling of extra pertection. I pray i have to never use it. Finally got a new ride. Will send you some pics. Hope to use it here in upstate NY this summer to see if i can do this life.
Brian, when something goes bump in the night and I reach over and wrap my hands around the grip of my .357, I feel safer. If that’s all it ever does for me, that’s enough!!
I hope you love your experiment with mobile living as much as I have. If you do, you are heading toward the best times of your life!
People have a terribly difficult time understanding risk management. I currently live in a big city. I’ve had a few run-ins during my 20 years here. Nothing major, but they could’ve been. I grew up outside of a remote town at the base of the Rocky Mountains. I literally grew up in the woods filled with grizzlies, mountain lions, wolverines, wolves, and all the large critters that sound scary. From birth to about 22-years-old I never, ever had even the remotest of problems with wild animals. (Except for that time I was being a punk and throwing rocks at a badger. Being chased by a badger is surprisingly scary.) I spent A LOT of time 10 miles from the Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. But when I bring my city-born friends to the woods, most are scared of getting hurt. That is weird because danger is far and away worse in the city. Yet, they feel safer in the city. No matter what I say or do or how many years they camp out in the woods, the fear of the dreaded wilderness never leaves them.
A book I like to recommend is “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin DeBecker. It is probably the most helpful book I’ve ever read. The book talks about allowing fear to be an asset. (Why would we be born with fear if it is such a bad thing? Fear is a good thing.) Most of us are taught to stop being afraid, but DeBecker says to welcome being afraid. I’m not saying to live in fear, but to embrace fear when real danger may exist- true fear not perpetual anxiety. It also specifically describes how predators discount the word “no”, loan sharking, forced teaming, etc. in order to manipulate their victims. If you want to stop being afraid, this book is not for you. If, however, you would like to consider embracing one of the greatest gifts we are born with, this book is highly recommended.
My dog is hyper vigilant like many dogs are. Her watchdog ability is a tremendous asset. Her protection ability is above average as well. She is only 45 pounds (20kg), but you would be amazed how people won’t mess with her. You don’t need a large dog to make a predator have serious second thoughts. Some will argue that you need a large dog to have a protection dog. I disagree. The thought of 45 pounds of writhing terror hanging off your tushy is enough to scare off the VAST majority of criminals. Most people could fight off a 45 pound dog, but at serious cost. A bite from a medium sized dog is a serious injury. Predators understand this risk better than most and will avoid prey with a dog. Even desperate druggies have enough instinct to avoid that level of conflict. A medium dog is much, much easier to travel with than a large dog. Cheaper to feed and smaller “presents” to pick up. They fit well in smaller spaces. Much easier to lift, too. Smaller dogs usually drool less, but you could use a large dog’s drool to make a predator slip. Kind of a toss-up there! Ha ha.
Canine, I couldn’t agree with you more! In fact half of the home page of this website is dedicated to the message to embrace and accept your fear. I’ve always thought it was that important!
I also totally agree about dogs. We are genetically afraid of snarling dogs, so he doesn’t have to be big. I have a big dog because he was the perfect dog for me, but I would have preferred a medium sized dog.
People are surprised that I am comfortable traveling alone in my van. Why? Am I less safe than being in a house alone? Other than the fact that driving is inherently a somewhat risky business why should I be more worried about my safety living in my van? I can escape scary situations a lot easier when I am already in a moveable vehicle.
linda, driving is one of the most dangerous things any of us will ever do, but we don’t give a thought to jump in a car and go for a drive. but tell someone that you are going to live in a van and they are terrified for your safety. Our society is very messed up!
We have a small 12 pound friend and she couldn’t stop someone but she would complicate things for a criminal. She would make quite the racket if someone tried something while walking and wouldn’t stop until it was over. You would never be able to catch her. She’s always on the lookout.
I always carry a bright LED flashlight at night but never thought of shining it in someone’s eyes, great idea. I have thought of tossing it in the street to get drivers attention if I was having trouble. Likewise I have a small, red bicycle taillight on my cane that can be set to flash.
Tom, since we domesticated wolves, their main purpose has been as watchdogs and they are great at it!!
If at all possible you want a very bright LED that blinks at a very fast rate. It is very disorienting! Much more so than just a bright light.
I don’t live in my van but I do a lot of walking in the woods, either alone or when walking my two dogs. I always have a whistle around my neck just in case but I’ve never used it. I come across black bears quite often, and have seen wolves and bobcats. The first time I saw a bear I was terrified, but one year I saw one or two per day so I got pretty used to it! Both of my dogs are about 50 pounds each and one is a real barker so she sometimes scares off wildlife but my other dog, a Staffordshire terrier, has never barked in her life…her looks intimidate people but wouldn’t make any difference to an animal, I’m sure.
Anyway, when I’m out walking alone I must admit that I get creeped out when I run across a hunter. I’m not too thrilled about running into a man with a gun in the middle of nowhere. Blame it on watching too much TV, but unless you’re a woman, you might not understand that.
Peggy, I’m sure it’s worse for women, but men are creeped out by it too. Fortunately, most places I go mostly they “road hunt” They’re too lazy to walk around.
I just wanted to add that some of the tips in the comments are quite good too!
Hi Bob, Greetings from Guymon, OK, finally left AZ after 5 delightful months. Great post!! Fear is good in the right moment, being faithful and not fearful is my motto. Since I’m traveling alone I leave out several lounge chairs – like the boot idea too:) Don’t watch TV, negativity day-after-day, if I need to know anything important someone lets me know, the 2 times I’ve been visited by police officers they’ve been respectful, helpful and kind. I listen to my instincts, if the voice says don’t park here I move, several times after I’ve gone to bed I heard that voice and I got up and moved. Biscotti is going deaf so he’s not much help but seeing the dog carrier on the passenger seat probably gives people the knowledge they need to stay away. My hatchet and fire extinguisher is on the floor behind my front seat. I am forever grateful for all the help I’ve received from total strangers this past year and a half traveling, then they become new friends:) Vandwelling is AWESOME recommended it for anyone.
Grethchen, it sounds like you have everything figured out and are having a great time! I’m very glad for you!
If you act like a victim, you are at a higher risk of being a victim. A few years a go and teenage kid shot at me after stealing my laptop, and I was was able to stand my ground. Thank God that I wasn’t shot and my training was able to kick it and be muscle memory.
Wow, that’s terrifying Douglas. I’m glad you made it safely through that.
Bear spray works on humans, bears xdogs etc.. but it expensive. A good replacement is Wasp spray . For about $4.00 as opposed to $40.00
good blog post and good tips in the comments! I agree, I have not often found danger in my life from humans or animals, accidents and medical events are a more frequent concern.
A good dog and self-defense course have occasionally been useful for humans (there was one day where the dobie really earned her dinner, and she did it just by appearing on the scene and making the bad guy vanish!).
For the animals, I like to have the bear spray around, which I find kind of necessary if you camp in the BC backcountry. I’ve now added a slingshot if I return to a certain raccoon infested campsite, those raccoons were a lot more aggressive than any of the bears that I have encountered.
First aid wise, I have found a good kit with good remedies (I’m a homeopath and travel with an arsenal of very useful remedies for anything from injuries to poisonings and infections) and the knowledge of how to use it to be a godsend for all sorts of situations one can get into when out and about. Take courses, you feel a lot less helpless and you are a lot safer when you have good tools and know how to use them!
It can also be helpful to play “what would I do if . . .” Most people end up in dangerous situations unnecessarily because of a lack of knowledge/understanding or just plain stupidity. Then when the danger becomes critical–they freeze. Police, firefighters, military are able to perform their jobs expertly because they have trained for the “what if” scenario. Those of us who live fairly uneventful lives don’t really have that opportunity. However, simply thinking through a potentially dangerous situation can provide at least a small amount of “virtual training.” For example, it’s amazing to me how many people have never changed a tire on the vehicle they drive every day. If they got a flat, they would not even know where to begin.
Steve, that is a very good idea. Every good idea begins as an idea in the imagination and pre-visualizing a situation can go a long ways to preparing you for it.
Two nights ago, less than 2 weeks into my new full-time vandwelling adventure, I had a late night unexpected visitor. I was at a dispersed camp site on BLM land near Fort Stanton, NM. First night at that site and I wake up to my van being gently bumped. Then I hear “rubbing.”
Having camped a good deal during my years in Montana, I was pretty sure I knew my visitor. It was pitch black outside the van and I had every window covered for insulation against the still-very cold nights. A peek out the front of the van showed me the faintest form of what I am sure was a deer. I turned on a high beam flashlight and when I turned back with my camera in hand, he was gone. But not for long. Settled in and almost asleep again, I hear noises like non-aggressive bumping coming down the other side of my van. Then I hear rubbing on the spare tire mounted on the back door just to the side of my head on my rear bed.
Oh, boy — this guy’s found something to rub those growing velvet antlers on that is not nearly as prickly as most everything else in this high-desert sort of landscape. My moving around and turning on a light made him flee again. But then I got prepared.
I carry a manually powered air-horn just for critter encounters or to signal an alarm if the need ever arises. With the deer’s third visit minutes later, I gave out about 4 terrifically loud burst’s of “honk.” He took off fast!
I also have a couple of solar pathway lights that I keep unattached from their stakes. They give me light inside for most things other than reading (not bright enough). I took one of the LED discs and taped it to that back window above the mounted spare tire. Instant “back porch light” to keep him away. The light worked for the next two nights as well.
Carla that sounds like both a very scary and very wonderful experience! I’m sure that will go into the memory banks that makes you smile often in the future!
Are you glad you’re a vandweller or have there been some hard adjustments?
Are you sure it wasn’t Bigfoot? I hear he’s everywhere!
Steve – If it had been Bigfoot, I’d have tried to interview him. LOL
Only the being startled at first was scary, so it goes down as a funny story. (And some work to get the bloody smears off my van.)
I used to tent camp a lot in younger years, so I was quite sure I’d like this vandwelling just fine. So far, so good. I’m finding a wonderful array of places to “sample” camp around the little NM town of Capitan. Since I don’t yet have my own hotspot, I’ve only stayed put for one 3-day period so far. I’ll absolutely love living this way once I can get my own hotspot — all but one campsite so far has had excellent cell service (I use GreatCall which uses the Verizon network.)
I’ll keep you posted, of course, since I’ve been reading your blog (and bought your book) for nearly a year now.
Thanks for asking!
Hi there! Glad I stopped by your blog!
Thanks for posting this!