Effective habits for safe van dwelling

Low key is the key

Living in a vehicle poses a number of challenges with respect to safety and security.

Police encounters

Stories abound about police harassing people who live in their vehicles, sometimes due to actual violations of the law and sometimes due to misunderstandings. This “harassment” is usually just the police trying to determine if you’re up to no good.

Most police really don’t want to punish anyone for living in their vehicle, specifically. However, they do want you to be insured. They do want your vehicle to be up to code. They do want to stumble upon drugs or contraband or money. They will investigate if someone reports you for unruly behavior, trespassing, littering, and so on. So be a good citizen.

If you’re not causing mischief and you pay attention to parking restrictions, police are the least of your worries. The people you really need to watch out for are of two types: 1. Criminals who want to steal your stuff or violate your person, and 2. Closed-minded people who want to make you miserable because you’ve adopted a lifestyle that they don’t understand. When it comes to “stealth” camping and living, these are the people you are primarily trying to avoid.

Low key is the key

Don’t draw attention to your vehicle. Yes, everyone loves to express themselves. Express yourself inside your vehicle. How best to present the exterior of the vehicle really depends on the types of places where you plan to park. A nondescript work van blends in well in city industrial zones, while a typical family van will blend in better in residential areas. (Note: Residents may be concerned about an unfamiliar van parking in their neighborhood even if there is nothing suspicious about it other than being a van.) A true RV is going to stick out like a sore thumb just about anywhere. A pickup truck with a camping topper, however, is less likely to draw attention. In any case, keep the exterior of the vehicle clean and well maintained.

Protecting valuables

Depending on your circumstances, you might need to store relatively large amounts of cash somewhere. Even $50 or $100 is a “relatively large” amount to many thieves. One strategy is to leave a small amount of cash in a very poor hiding spot, while hiding the rest of your valuables in a much more secure place. The idea is that if someone does break into the vehicle, they will find the small stash and will be less likely to keep searching and find your better hiding spot. Be creative.

Weapons for self-defense

Even if you are the most ardent pacifist in the world, having some type of weapon available can stop conflict in its tracks, even if if you would never use it. But think twice about keeping guns or other obvious weapons in your vehicle, especially if you have to leave it unattended for work or other reasons. Weapons are always a target for thieves, and they can make otherwise reasonable encounters with police much less pleasant.

Keeping a length of pipe may be better than a baseball bat because it’s harder for someone to characterize it as a “weapon” when it’s not being used for defense. Stun guns and pepper spray can also be effective defenses in certain situations. Pepper spray may not be so useful on a windy day, however, as you might end up disabling yourself instead of the attacker.

Vehicle theft

One truly nightmarish scenario is having your entire vehicle stolen. An alarm can be a deterrent, but not always. Today there are more sophisticated devices such as GPS tracking and remote immobilization, which can help you recover a stolen vehicle. Fortunately, the incidence of vehicle theft is generally falling across the country.


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