I want to start off by saying I am not an expert on any of this, in fact, I’m not sure there are experts on any of this. I’m just going to share things that have worked for me. Maybe they will work for you, maybe they won’t, because we are different people.
If you’d prefer to listen or watch a video including all of this information, here’s a link to a live stream of this workshop from the Open Roads Festival, here.
As I am sure many of you can relate, safety was the number one concern for my friends and family before I moved into the van, especially as a solo traveler. So well before I embarked on the trip full time, I made sure I had a plan in place. At least for peace of mind, both for them and myself.
First and foremost; I stay connected. No matter where I am going to be parked, I share my location with my “emergency contact”. For me, that person is my sister. You want that person to be someone who has regular access to internet and can get you the help you need, should you need it. I share my location coordinates with her via copy/paste rather than the “share location” feature. If you choose to use the share location, you can choose whether you’d like to share it for one hour or all the time.
I also let her know when she should hear from me again and if I am with anyone else, I have passed along their contact information, should she need to reach out to them for any reason.
The biggest question: Weapons. that is up to you completely. I’m not here to tell you what is right or wrong, there is only what is right for you and for your van. However, I will tell you that the most important weapon I carry with me at all times is my brain. I definitely think about where I’m parking, not talking to strangers. Especially in pubs in small towns where I like to get a taste of the “local flavor” and cool my heels with a good bourbon sometimes. I don’t tell people I’m traveling alone until they have my trust. In fact, I’ve started using the term “we” when referring to my travels. “We just came from Colorado”, or “We’re thinking about going to Glacier next week.” The assumption on the other end of that is that I have a man with me.
If you do carry weapons, I suggest you keep that information private and to yourself. No one needs to know where you store your guns or knives, the element of surprise will work in your favor should you ever need to employ the weapon. Your safety is first and foremost, so do what makes you comfortable above all else.
I will tell you, I do not carry a firearm, this does not make me feel safer on board. I went out and tested many types of guns with people who cared about me and were deeply concerned that I wouldn’t be safe without one. At the end of the day, a firearm is not my weapon of choice. I have other weapons on board and they are to remain a secret, unless you cross me.
Parking; I park before dark, and get to know my surroundings in case I need to flee in the dark on foot or my van. This should help avoid any accidents like running into a creek or cliffside. Also, figure out where the closest location is to find a human 24 hours a day. That may be a fire station, a ranger station, a bar that is open late or even a motel with a front desk agent there all night.
The direction I park is also important, I back into my spots so that I can pull right out should I need to quickly in the middle of the night.
A quick reminder, most of the fears that are put on you before, and possibly while, you’re on the road are someone else’s fears! Be sure to identify which ones are theirs and which ones are YOURS, then address YOUR FEARS. To appease a lot of my friends and family, I let them walk through their scariest scenario for me in the van. This is good practice to make sure I have a plan in place and helped their fears.
One of the biggest concerns was that I would be a sitting duck in my van but I’ll tell you the summer I was building my van, I caught someone trying to breaking into my house and it turned into an altercation in the middle of the night where he was trying to get back the stuff he dropped on my porch, after destroying many of my things out there and then getting caught red handed with a crowbar in my door jam. The one thing I couldn’t do that night was drive away. My answer to most fictional dangerous scenarios given to me was to drive away. You are in control of your safety and your position in a van, not the other way around.
Another tip, I basically don’t drink while I’m parked alone. Even if I’m in a camp spot for a night, I won’t have more than a glass of wine or a beer with dinner. It is no ones job to babysit me on the road, I need to be alert and ready to get behind the wheel at any moment and alcohol is only putting me at risk.
The dreaded knock; first, window covers are everything!! Not only do they help with temperature control, they will help you stay stealthy. When your lights are on at night and your windows are open, you are like an animal on display at the zoo. Cover them up! And once you do, its so nice to have privacy! I like to turn on the twinkle lights, light a candle and get down on a face mask/ nails/ spa night. You can be anywhere and be home when you’ve got window covers. If you are in the market, check outor
If someone knocks on my door, insist they identify themselves before opening a shade, window or door. If it is some kind of official, like a park ranger or police officer I require them to show me their badge on my passenger window. Should we get this far and I haven’t driven away (no, thats never happened) then I let them know that I will be opening my door and that a light will be on in their face. This is a battery operated flood light that I have mounted to the inside ceiling panelling so once the door is open I can see their face before they can see mine. This light also serves as a great “porch light” at night if the door is open as well.
One last piece of advice, this may seem silly but, lock your doors. Always. Even with van circles and gathering and friends. Sometimes alcohol and drugs come into play in the evenings and that can confuse some people. It could be as harmless as they may think your van is their van but you will be glad your doors are locked when they go to pull it open.
Connection– not wifi or other vanners on the road, but to family and friends back at “home”.
This is a tough subject because in all the preparations I did before, all the vlogs I watched and #vanlifers I talked to, no one was really talking about how difficult it would be to maintain relationships you had before you hit the road. Its been a tough transition and to be honest, some people have sunk to the bottom and some have risen to the top.
I didn’t realize that by following my dream and living an unconventional life meant that I was going to lose a lot of “friends” in my life.
I’m not exactly sure why, but this seems to be universal across the board for travelers, it’s somehow our responsibility to nurture and maintain these now long-distance relationships. It’s on us, to keep those relationships alive.
I’ll be honest, some relationships didn’t survive. I am okay with that and I would encourage you to be as well! I could spend my time being sad that we didn’t “try harder” or I can choose to be grateful for the time we had. And now, be excited for the room in my heart for those who really want to be in my life today.
I’m just going to share a few ways that I connect with my friends, my sister and my niece.
Just before I was about to hit the road, it was Christmas, the time for giving, and I had three girlfriends and sister to buy something for. I was rapidly trying to downsize my life and encourage those around me to do so as well.
So to connect with each of them individually I got matching pieces of jewelry for that person and myself. My dear friend Kathy and I share a necklace that promises to love each other, no matter the distance or time, in our own quirky way. My friend Amanda and I share a bracelet with an inscription as well.
These small, “van-worthy”, thoughtful trinkets did not only serve as a gift for them to open but something that we can wear and connect together from any distance. It will never cost us another penny to put that piece on and carry a friend with me for the day.
With my sister, we have an unconventional way of connecting long distance. Wow are incredibly close so talking each week about work or the commute just doesn’t really cut it anymore. Through a series of inside jokes we created “sister mustard”.
When we see the color mustard anywhere in our daily lives, its like a reminder that she is there with me and she’s got my back. Lucky for us, mustard really comes in all shades of yellow so it happens frequently.
Maybe its a form of placebo to trick my mind into thinking she is there with me, but whatever you call it, it works. This could be anything you two share a laugh or sentimental moment about. Find your own sister mustard.
Leaving adults is one thing, whether or not they agree with it, they at least have an understanding of what you’re doing and maybe why. This is often too large of a concept for children, especially those who you have spent significant time being around for.
Saying goodbye to my niece was the hardest on my heart and whenever I’m truly homesick, its for that crazy laugh of hers. Before I left, we set up a few systems to keep in touch. First, I bought a poster size US map, a frame for it, lightweight sheetmetal the same size as the map, a miniature model of my Sprinter van on eBay, and some magnets. Once layered together in the frame, the mini sprinter, with a magnet glued to its drivers’ side, is now free to roam the country and park wherever she pleases. Hung in her room, this gives her a good geographical idea of where I am at any given time.
Postcards truly are still exciting! Who doesn’t like getting a postcard? Especially a child! Before leaving, I found a photo album with sleeves large enough for a standard postcard to slide in and while on the road I’ve sent dozens of them back home.
In part, this is also a great way to document your adventures. I’m not even so sure she appreciates this book now as much as she and I both will in the future. Having the book available make its so the cards stay safe, in one place, and generally in chronological order. These types of photo albums can be found on Amazon.
One of our other unique ways of connecting is also including some of what she is learning back at home. For instance, right now, it’s the internet. While it can be a wild and scary place, it can also be full of useful resources and information if used properly. So in an attempt to teach more about this, we are doing road scavenger hunts.
For each location that I am headed to, she will receive the location, for instance Morro Bay, California. She will then do her research on what kinds of plants, animals, food and other funky things are found in Morro Bay. She will send me to find things like fleshy jaumea which only grow in this unique saltwater marsh environment or spot long billed curlews in the large mud flats where their long bills are used to plunge into the mud for shrimp and crab breakfast.
After completing the scavenger hunt to the best of my ability, preferably with photo evidence, we will schedule a FaceTime meeting to talk all about the stuff she sent me to find and all the other things that path had me cross. Also, FaceTiming is amazing!! If you are feeling lonely, face call someone and you will feel better so fast! Bring them into your van while you’re cooking dinner and suddenly you have company without them getting in the way! Its a great way to revitalize your energy and for me, it helps remind me that they’ve got my back even still, at great distance.
The first year I came home for Christmas, I found myself online trying to buy crap for my family just to give them stuff on the holiday. This stuff had little to no personal meaning and I was more concerned with price tags and delivery dates.
I had been traveling all year and passing up amazing items at gift shops and small businesses because it seemed more important at the time to “be minimal”. This year I’ve decided to switch that game up completely and now I Christmas shop all year round. In fact, I am almost done in August! Hell yeah! Plus these are meaningful gifts with stories behind each of them. While I’m out on the road, they are constantly on my mind while shopping which also makes me feel more connected to them, as if they are with me in all those small moments.
So I carry a duffle bag in the garage and it’s my Santa sack, filled with gifts tagged with post-it notes identifying when and where it was purchased. To say I’m anxious to gift them out would be an understatement! I am so eager for the holidays, but this year will be without the stress of budgets, delivery dates, or last minute shopping!
Maintaining your sanity on the road is right up there with safety. If fact, one may argue that without mental clarity, you are not safe. I’m guessing that most of us on the road have an adoration for alone time. And the more I get to know people on personal levels, I find that a lot of us out here on the road also deal with many forms of anxiety and depression.
I think our lifestyles in large part are our ways of trying to combat those feelings. To break free and create our own routines. Live happier lives with less stress.. However, a van and a van by yourself specifically, can be a paradise for those who love to isolate themselves, so it can be a dangerous place.
In order to combat my own social anxiety and depression on the road, in moments of clarity, I have set up systems to help in tougher times. Most of these systems only require a small amount of effort to put them in motion. This is deliberate, knowing that I don’t like to help myself out of my ruts, I need to enact help with little effort.
The first system I use is online therapy through BetterHelp.com. This allows me access to my therapist from anywhere, even an app on my phone. My therapist’s response time is incredibly impressive!! We have spent a few months building our trust and relationship through a series of emails/messages and video chats scheduled through the website. This way when things do get tough, we will already have our “emergency plans” in place, ready to put into action.
Subscriptions can run weekly, monthly, or annually. At any time you may end/suspend your subscription and when you are ready to return, your transcripts and your therapist are there for you. The cost of this subscription can be lowered through applying for their “low income” sliding scale, or searching for discount codes online.
Another awesome feature of online therapy is having access to all your transcripts. I’ve found this to be eye opening in rereading my own words after the clouds have passed and rereading her advice to me when I start to struggle.
In my personal opinion, every body should have a therapist. Every living, breathing, human, should have someone outside their boat to call on if they need to. If you don’t think you have issues, you are crazy! Everyone has issues!! And it is not the job of our partners, our friends, our family, our coworkers, or your hair stylist to help you through those tough mental battles. Its great to have people in your boat but its not their job to help you professionally. It is someone else’s job, it is what they studied to do PROFESSIONALLY.
Reach out, get one. Having someone outside your boat, a life raft, is such a great resource. If it’s never needed, no big deal. But, if you start to sink one day, you’re going to be so glad you have that a dinghy behind your boat. To set it up and have it back there for little to no cost, wouldn’t you rather have that reliability?
When it comes to anxiety and panic I deal with, my sister helps pull me back to reality through memes. Yep, you read that right, memes. She knows that if I send a message to her that simply says “send meme”, that is code for “I am having an anxiety attack right now, ground me.” After a few I usually start to laugh and my breathing comes back to normal, my heart rate slows down, and I can choose to share with her what it was about or not.
The interaction doesn’t need to be any bigger and never requires an explanation. Its consistently there for me and thats all that matters. I encourage you to find some kind of refuge like this to ground you when you need it.
Staying safe and connected and following all of the advice above is a huge key to my sanity. Knowing I’ve got people watching out for me, and that I’ve done everything in my power to stay safe will ultimately reduce my anxiety.
Another large support system is the internet!! Facebook groups have been a huge resource for me in connecting with locals, asking for advice, finding mechanics, a safe place to park, a hiking partner, or even a place to have a package sent. Before hitting the road I joined a lot of Facebook groups focused on my own interests. A few that have been particularly supportive and amazing for me are:
I encourage you to search for facebook groups based on your interests, ie; birdwatching, rock climbing, photography, etc. Then once you are in the group, participate! That way you get to know others quickly and you will surely find new friends + people to call on while on the road.
Overall, with the right tools anyone can travel alone, they can do so safely and they can do it without feeling alone!
I know this article was long (Thanks for sticking with me!!) but I hope you got some good things out of it, please feel free to leave any questions or comments below. I’d love to hear your input to this article. All community help is beautiful and welcome! Hell, thats how we succeed!! Thank you again and as always, eat dessert first! SJ