Living this lifestyle I get asked a lot about safety. Especially as a solo female traveler. Sadly, most of the questions I get are with regards to my safety from other humans. I do take precautions there, but that’s not what I’m going to focus on with this post.
The other day I was on a work call and mid-sentence the emergency broadcast notification started blaring on my phone. “Is that you or me?” I asked, as the person I was talking to had just mentioned there were thunderstorms in their area. “Um, not me!” they replied. As I was scrolling through my phone trying to turn off the alarm, up popped the notification warning me of severe thunderstorms and high wind gusts up to 80mph, advising me to “take shelter in a sturdy building”… this was a first. I’ve been in some pretty crazy storms, but never had something come up with this type of notification. A few seconds later I received a notification from another app, NOAA, that included an evacuation notice and affirming that “Mobile homes will be damaged”… well shit.
After convincing myself that my van probably wouldn’t blow over because I was luckily parked nose facing the wind and I have driven 80mph, I started a mental checklist of what I should do. First was texting a friend my coordinates and asking her to check in with me in a few hours. I certainly wasn’t going to drive in this storm. Evacuation wasn’t an option. I was parked on a hill with rocky ground and only a few scattered solid-looking trees nearby. I wasn’t concerned with a tree falling on me or getting stuck in a flash flood, but who knows what the wind would bring my way. My van has windows. Lots of them. I have curtains and insulated inserts for my windows, so I decided to put them up in case something did hit my van. Hopefully the covering would help with slowing any glass shards if worse came to worst.
The van was rocking quite a bit, and this is probably extreme but what if I DID blow over? I cleaned up a bit, making sure everything was put away and not loose in the van. I made sure my phone was charged up. The wind was howling around the van and waves of rain were beating down on us. Snow wasn’t thrilled with the noise and was already on the floor under the table, which was probably the safest place in the van. I decided to prep in case we had to make a fast exit. Again, probably excessive but I’m always an advocate of “better safe than sorry”. I put Snow’s harness on and attached a leash. I put on shoes and socks (which I never wear unless I’m running!) and got my coat accessible.
I had a 5 minute window when I was actually nervous about the wind as I sat crosslegged on the floor, distracting my scared pup with toys and treats. This entire account probably only lasted an hour before the wind died down and I spotted a rainbow on the hill next to me. Thunder was still rumbling in the distance, but the storm was moving quickly along (at 45mph, per the weather app I use) and I wasn’t concerned about a 2nd wave. Everything was fine. We were safe, and no damage was done to my van.
The moral of this story is that I’m proud of myself for being as prepared as I think I could have been in a situation like this. If things had gotten worse, or a branch did get blown through a window of my van, I feel like we still would have been safe, albeit a little shaken up.
There’s a lot more to van life than just checking the weather forecast to determine if it’s going to be too hot out for a run or if you should find your raincoat that’s strategically packed somewhere safe in your van.
Below are some steps I take on a daily basis to ensure my own safety, as well as Snow’s. I stay on public land 99% of the time, so this all relates to that aspect of van life and would be quite different if I was a city-dweller. or stayed at established campgrounds more often. I trail run a lot in areas with no cell service, so some of these precautions are for those adventures as well.
- I share my Google Maps location 24/7 with two emergency contacts. If I end up somewhere without cell service, they will at least have a “last known location” for me and a direction I was headed.
- I have a Garmin InReach Mini that I keep 100% charged at all times. This is expensive and I understand that not everyone can afford one. On that note, I highly recommend you look into this and realign expenses so you can afford one, especially if you are traveling solo. Whenever I am somewhere that doesn’t have cell service, I use this to text my emergency contacts to tell them where I am, what my plans are, and when to expect me to check in again. There are other versions of devices like this that are strictly for emergency use (push a button and SAR comes looking for you) so if that’s what you can afford, get one. It literally means the difference between life and death.
- I check the weather. And not just the daily “what’s the temperature and is it going to rain” check, but I even Google weather patterns for the areas I’m in. You’d be surprised what areas are known for flash flooding, or how quickly what appears to be solid ground can turn into an impassable sloppy mess.
- I observe my surroundings when I’m looking for a place to park. Are trees/bushes all leaning the same way? I bet it gets windy and that’s the direction the wind blows. Did I pass some bad ruts on the road, but the soil is dry and compact now? I bet it gets really muddy here. Are there odd piles of branches and debris with rocks and dirt mixed in them? This area must get flash floods.
- I review my exit plan once I’ve settled on a place to park. I look at maps to see if there are additional access roads. I’ve found Gaia and CalTopo to be the two best apps for this. How far am I from a place that is more populated in case I need help? Do I only have one way out? I always park with my nose towards an exit so that if something happens and I have to leave quickly, I don’t have to jockey around to leave.
- I call the forest service if I have questions. They are always kind and helpful! I’ve called to ask about dispersed camping options, weather conditions, fire danger, and wildlife awareness. I’ve even asked if there are any precautions I should take due to my dog, such as poisonous plants or animals. (did you now Arizona has a type of toad that comes out with monsoon season that is poisonous and if your dog bits it, he could kill your dog? I didn’t, but now I do!)
- I have a backup plan, even if it means an hour drive to a pullout I saw on a highway the opposite direction that I’m planning on going. To date I’ve only had to use my backup plan once when I arrived somewhere that didn’t have cell service and I had to work.
- I keep emergency food for myself and my dog in the van just in case I end up stranded somewhere for a few extra days. This is literally just my dehydrated backpacking food (and a small package of dehydrated dog food) that I rotate/replenish as I use it, but it’s there, and it will stay good for a decade.
- I keep a very well stocked first aid kit in my van that can treat multiple people and also has items that are safe to use on animals. I always carry a full first aid kit when our on trail runs/hikes that includes an emergency sling that I can carry Snow with if he ever got injured on the trail.
- I sent a document to my emergency contacts and a few select friends on “what to do if Sierra hasn’t checked in”. This includes links to an online map that will show a last check-in from my InReach Mini, the password to my phone in case that is found but I am not, and very strict instructions on how to go about finding Snow, my dog, if lord forbid we are separated and he is also missing.
- And last but not least, I always check in. Even if it’s just a text to my emergency contact of “here for the night” or “plans changed, heading to Wyoming”.
You can still be independent, make your own choices, and be self sufficient but don’t be reckless. If you have questions about safety precautions for you and/or your pet, please don’t hesitate to reach out! I love sharing the resources I’ve found to be helpful, and am happy to share tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way.