How can you stay safe whilst on the road? Living in your van does come with dangers but then again, so does living in a house. I’ll break it to you now, there is no way of guarantying your never have any trouble whilst you’re on the road. But there are steps you can take to keep your van and its contents safe.
This article is mainly going to deal with ways in which you can keep your vehicle and your worldly possessions safe, not with how to keep you as a person safe. That is a whole other article and one that will be appearing on the website in the coming weeks.
Now before we get too deep into this and to combat that rather bleak intro I’d like to start by stating a little fact. In five years of constantly living in my van I have never, not once, had any trouble but I believe that’s probably a combination of luck and good judgement.
Thieves have a vast array of tactics to achieve their goals.
In saying that I have been witness to many incidents and heard plenty of stories. Now I don’t want this article to descend into a horror tale though and put you off the idea of moving into your camper so I’ll lay off retelling them (okay, maybe just one) but instead I want to share the advice and tactics I’ve learnt that will keep you as safe as possible. Some are pretty obvious but I guarantee one or two you may never of thought of.
WHATS THE DANAGER
So what are you protecting yourself from? Your main concern unfortunately is going to be for those less than scrupulous people we call thieves. They are either going to be targeting your van itself or the possessions inside. In any case, it wont be a pleasant experience. Thieves have a vast array of tactics to achieve their goals and far too often people make it too easy for them to succeed. They will tend to seek out vans that have been left in such a way as to make them either an easy or a lucrative target. Most break-ins are what are classed as ‘smash and grab’ affairs and occur when something of value is seen from the outside. Rarely does a thief spend huge amounts of time rummaging around unless you’re parked up in the middle of nowhere and they think they can afford to. They see something, smash the window, grab it and are gone. So what can you do to give yourself the best chance of keeping your campervan off of their radar?
LETS START WITH THE BASICS
Did you lock the car? You sure? There is nothing worse than arriving at the beach just in time to catch the best surf of the day, completing the arduous scramble over the rocks and diving in only to be sat on your board five minutes later wondering if you locked the van. That very van that has all your worldly possessions in. If your away from your camper for any length of time make sure you’ve locked it. Double check and then check it again. That goes for windows too, ensure they are all shut and locked up. If your campervan doesn’t have central locking then take the time to check all the doors. I know it sounds obvious but on more than one occasion in my early days on the road I came back to discover id left a door unlocked.
If you campervan has window blinds then roll them up. Thieves are after successful hits, which means a campervan they can look into and see what’s inside is more appealing than one that they cant, they want to know there’s a good chance of getting something if they decide to break in.
Again, obvious I’m sure, but don’t go leaving any valuables like cameras, phones, wallets or laptops on view whilst you’re out of the van. Passports are also a prized find for any would be thief as they can be quickly sold on the black market for large sums of money. Even small amounts of loose change that you keep for toll roads in that compartment in your dash could be enough for a desperate thief to smash your window. Its also a good idea to leave your glove box open and empty (if not empty then with nothing whatsoever of value inside) as a way of showing anyone that might look inside that your van just isn’t worth the effort. If your able to charge electrical items and the plugs are visible from the outside then don’t charge anything whilst your away from the van, even if you’ve hid the item away. Thieves will look for power cords coming out of sockets because they know that chances are, there’s something expensive lurking on the end.
PICK YOUR PARKING
This is not always going to be possible but as much as you can, make sure you park alongside other vehicles. Sure, it was nice having lunch in that quite corner of the forest carpark away from everyone but if you go off afterwards for a hike, move the campervan to where others have parked. As the saying goes, ‘there is safety in numbers’. A campervan parked alongside other cars and vans is going to be less of a target than one parked all by itself. Thieves will know that the chance of being caught is multiplied as there is a greater risk of being discovered by another park user returning to there car. They can watch and monitor your movements and know when you leave but its a lot harder for them to watch 30 other people and be sure they wont come back as there jamming a screwdriver into your lock.
But what if no ones around when you turn up? Well, try and make it as hard as possible to access your van. I don’t just mean ensuring all your doors are locked but think about where you park. If you have a campervan with doors at the back like most panel vans will then reverse up close to dense bushing or trees. A single tree, positioned directly behind the back door as close as possible will mean there is no way of opening the doors. I once gave this advise to a young lad I met in Fontainebleau, France. He out right refused to back his van into the bush on the account that it might scratch it. I was amazed, personally ill take a scratch that would probably come out with a polish up over coming back to finding my laptop gone, but hey, call me crazy.
Same goes for any side doors and front doors, look for parking opportunities that mean you can block them. Sure, your not going to be able to block all doors, after all you got to get out right, and it might mean you have to clamber over to the passenger door to do so but that’s really not too much hassle now is it.
PICKING YOUR CAMPSPOT
Nine times out of ten a designated and manned campsites are always going to be your safest bet but still be sensible about leaving doors unlocked whilst your away. A lot of campsites will operate a lock out time. This means for instance that gates are locked between a certain time, usually something like 10pm – 6am to help increase security. Campsites are usually also going to offer additional security measures like CCTV and I’ve even stayed on sites that have security personnel. Again, staying with the pack will bolster your safety further but its less important here. After all, there is nothing worse than paying your €20 fee and have old Joe strum an out of tuned guitar all night right next door. Sometimes a quite corner is just what you need and it’ll be far safer on a campsite than in a dimly lit carpark.
If, like me, you spend the majority of your time away from fee paying campsites and prefer either free sites or like to partake in a spot of stealth camping then I cant under estimate one simple rule. Always follow your gut feeling. This, as advise in itself sounds pretty useless, but trust me, after time you will just get a feeling if that dark forest carpark isn’t right for you. In saying that, as I mentioned at the start, I have never had a single problem when stealth camping or staying in those free sites and I spend probably on average 300 nights a year in such spots. But there are other things you can do before you develop that natural instinct.
Free campsites are nearly always populated. Okay, it does depend on where you are and what time of year it is but rarely do I find myself alone in such spots. Again, its the ‘safety in numbers’ thing. Generally, there where-abouts are published all over the internet and penny pinching travellers are drawn to them like moths to a light. I spent over a month climbing in the mountains in Albarracin, Spain, in the middle of winter where it snowed almost everyday to the point roads became impassable back to the town below. Temperatures rarely went above freezing yet I had three other vans within twenty meters of mine. Like I said, moths to a light.
But what happens if you turn up and no one is there? Well, again, gut feeling my friend. Take a look around. If its a carpark, are there any lights around, does the area look as if its used regularly? Can you see fresh tire tracks or does it appear no ones been this way for ages. Is there any signs – washing line in the tree, chopped wood, maybe a table or chair – that someone might be back? You’re going to have to access the situation and think, am I actually going to be able to get a good nights sleep here or am I going to interpret every snapping branch as the slow but methodical approach of an axe murder. If you know you wont sleep, drive on. By searching the internet for free camping spots in your area then your not only find their location but generally your see comments on what they are like and other peoples experiences of staying there.
One of my top tips for accessing any free spot is to look on the ground. Broken glass from a car window is both very distinctive in appearance (it shatters finely and tends to clump together) and also a definitive sign to me that I’m not staying. Broken car window glass should tell you that recently, by all probability, someone’s been broken into in the recent past. Yeah sure, someone might of locked themselves out of the car and had no option but to break their way in but for me, its a massive red flag. When it comes to stealth camping (that is camping at places not designated for it – easy in the Australian outback, much harder in central Paris) then much of the same applies, although stealth camping requires a larger range of skills to pull off consistently well. Lucky for you, your find an article about that on this website soon.
So far, I’ve never met anyone that wants to show me his collection of knives and little finger trophies though.
In the end, like I said, free camping spots such as forest carparks etc. come with more dangers than most paid for sites. Only you can make the call. I travel mainly by myself and some people aren’t going to be as comfortable camping in this way on their own. Traveling with friends or in a convoy of vans can make decisions both easier and safer. So far, I’ve never met anyone that wants to show me his collection of knives and little finger trophies though.
SO WHAT ABOUT THE NOT SO OBVIOUS?
I once met a man who had all the signs of owning a dog. There was dog bowl, lead and even food outside his van. But after a few days I realised I had never actually seen it. Curiosity got the better of me so I went over to strike up a conversation. Eventually I asked what kind of dog he had to which he just smiled for a second and let out a little chuckle to himself. Turns out he didn’t even have one. I thought he was mad and wondered if I should just back away slowly and leave him to it, but before I could he explained his amusement. He told me he used the dog bowl and lead etc. to give the impression he had a dog. He even had a tape recording set ready to go of an aggressive sounding dog barking and snarling. He told me that, if he was in bed one night and someone approached the van, he’d press play and rock the van from side to side giving the impression that this is one van you don’t want to stick your head inside. See, told ya there’d be something in here you wouldn’t of thought of. But apart from having a fake Alsatian in your van, what are the other less obvious things you can do.
Back in 2013, whilst cruising the climbing hotspots of Europe I came across a method of breaking into a campervan I hadn’t heard of before. I know I kinda promised no horror stories but….. Apparently it was the ‘in thing’ to gas the occupants of a van, thereby knocking them out and enabling the thief to take as much time as he wanted to rummage around the van. I thought little of it until I met a Swedish climber who’d, just the week before, had the very thing done to him, waking up 17 hours after going to bed to find all his possessions gone. Apparently they used the waste pipe to the kitchen sink that fed out of the van to pump the gas in. He spent half an hour making me promise to always put the plug in any sink holes and leave any vents in the roof open. I never heard of it being done again but it became a habit throughout the rest of my stay.
If you have read my guide to self builds then you will know I am a massive fan of secret compartments. Building your own van allows you to incorporate any number of hidey holes throughout your camper. In my last camper I had three, arranging in size just big enough to hold some cash to one that securely kept my laptop well and truly hidden. After I completed the build, I invited a friend to go through the van and find any cash he could along with my laptop and camera. Granted, he was no experienced thief (or inexperienced for that matter) but after half hour he gave up, my possessions remained safe. Having somewhere to stash away your most precious belongings apart from that cupboard above your bed can be very useful.
If you didn’t pre build and instead brought a ready to go campervan or motorhome and it didn’t already come with one, then I’d recommend getting a safe or strong box fitted. Ideally this should be securing anchored to the chassis of the vehicle, not just placed under the sink or screwed into your wooden floor. As I mentioned, most thieves aim for a smash and grab tactic and finding secret compartments that are well designed or trying to crack a securely fixed safe wont be top of their agenda.
Tracking devises are also becoming both pretty common and less expensive
Chances are good that your campervan already has an alarm system and immobiliser, if not then its a good idea to get one fitted before you go. But how about fitting extra locks yourself? On my second campervan I installed sliding bolts on the inside of all the doors as I knew id be staying in some pretty remote areas whilst climbing. These where positioned at the bottom of the door, even if someone smashed the window they wouldn’t reach them unless they climbed straight in over the broken glass. Only one door didn’t have one as there was no way of setting it after I got out but if you park sensibly (see above) then adding bolts means the vans extra secure. They where cheap and quick to install. Breaking the glass and reaching in to ping the lock is easy but would-be thieves are going to get frustrated pretty quick if the door still wont open. A broken window is cheaper to fix than replacing that expensive camera you have.
On a similar note consider things like wheel clamps, steering and gear locks. You can also install simple switches hidden in the dash that cut the supply of fuel or prevent the ignition process if activated. Your local garage should be able to do this for you if your not up to it and can be huge deterrent if someone tries to take the campervan.
Tracking devises are also becoming both pretty common and less expensive. Having said this, it may be one area you don’t wont to skimp on. Being able to track your campervan if its gets stolen will mean following it and finding it is far easier for the police.
For most people, including myself and the police, campervans all look the same, especially motorhomes. They are all big white boxes. Of course, panel van campers come in all shapes and size so this first trick isn’t as important but id still consider it.
Being able to easily identify your van can be really useful if its stolen. One trick is too apply a set of stickers to the roof, ideally part of or all of the number plate. Make them as big as you can. This can really help police identify your motorhome from a helicopter.
Regardless of what type of campervan you have always take multi photos from every angle. At least one should clearly show the registration plate. Pay special attention to any unique features of your van, even dents etc. Its the little unique things that can prove you own the camper. On a similar note always take an inventory of what is inside the van and include photos of expensive items such as laptops, TV’s or cameras, ideally with the receipts. Make sure a copy of this inventory is kept outside the van, either online somewhere or a paper copy at a friends house. This can prove invaluable if you have to make a claim.
IS THERE ANYTHING I CANT DO?
There are some things that are out of your control. Thieves tend to target those vans that look expensive on the outside. A £50,000 motorhome will be more appealing than that 20 year old van with different colour doors. Their train of thought runs along the lines of if it looks expensive on the outside then chances are it will be filled with expensive items on the inside. But just because you can afford such a campervan doesn’t have to mean your be the number one target whilst your off at the beach. By taking time to follow the steps above, your dramatically increase your chances of them walking by.
I realise reading through this lot it can seem rather scary at times but like I said at the start, thieves target bricks and mortar homes too. Don’t let fear put you off, be prepared, be sensible in your judgement and above all, don’t forget the simple things.
You did lock that door though right?