Four wheels, the open road and a place to crash every single night beneath the stars—that’s the dream of vanlife. Though adventurous pavement pounders have been camping in vans for decades, an explosion of ultra-modern vans equipped with everything needed to live and work remotely has made vanlife more popular than ever.
Outdoor adventure photographer Christian Schaffer should know. For more than two years, she’s been traveling the country in a customized Dodge Ram ProMaster van in order to be closer to her work. But life as a solo, female traveler has more obstacles than flat tires and frugal storage space. To find out how female travelers can handle the dangers associated with solo travel and living out of a vehicle, I sat down with Schaffer to discuss the reality of #vanlife and the systems she’s developed to stay safe in the wild.
Joe Sills: How long have you been living on the road?
Christian Schaffer: I’ve been living on the road since May 2018.
Joe Sills: Vanlife isn’t a vacation for you, it’s a permanent lifestyle. What went into your decision to live vanlife full-time?
Christian Schaffer: My road to vanlife began as an experiment. I spent the summer of 2018 living out of my Nissan Xterra SUV—just to see if I could handle living on the road. Summer turned into a full year, and that’s when I decided to invest in a vehicle that would allow me to continue living on the road, but with a few more creature comforts.
I’m a minimalist in a lot of ways, and one thing I really appreciate about this lifestyle is the simplicity of owning less, and making space for new experiences. I also make a full-time income as an outdoor adventure photographer, and living on the road allows me the freedom to base around the parks and beautiful places I need to be for photo assignments.
Joe Sills: Are there any areas that you specifically find yourself camping in more often than others?
Christian Schaffer: I tend to camp on Bureau of Land Management & National Forest land most often—mainly so I am near trailheads and can get an early start on sunrise hikes. I avoid cities whenever possible—but there are times when I need to do laundry, shop for groceries, have a steady stream of WiFi, etc. In those cases, a few options are Wal-Mart parking lots, rest areas, paid campgrounds, or residential neighborhoods. I think wherever you park, it’s important to be respectful and mindful of the people in that community and how your presence affects them. Especially now that we’re in pandemic times.
Joe Sills: What resources can people use to find campsites?
Joe Sills: What are some signs that solo, female travelers should watch out for to spot possible trouble?
Christian Schaffer: Great question. I think a level of awareness at all times is your biggest asset as a solo female traveler. Situations can change quickly—and like most things in life—anything is possible. That said, there are a few red flags I’ve learned to look out for.
First, any sign of illegal drug use/commerce or extreme intoxication. This is unfortunately pretty common in urban areas, and I’ve had to relocate more than once because of it. Second, avoid high theft areas when possible. Some places will have signs to alert you, and in other instances it will be clear enough. I recently had to relocate from a campsite because I showed up and there were piles of glass from smashed car windows in three different spots. Finally, have a healthy suspicion of anyone who approaches you and asks intrusive questions that could potentially make you a target. Most people have good intentions, but not always.
Joe Sills: How do you react when you see one of those signs?
Christian Schaffer: For the most part, I just remove myself from those situations. That’s one major benefit of living in a vehicle—if you have creepy neighbors you can just drive away!
Learn more Vanlife safety tips in Schaffer’s video, below:
Joe Sills: You talk pretty seriously about weapons and scenario visualizations in your YouTube video. Why is it important to have a plan?
Christian Schaffer: For me personally, it really helps to visualize and think through those scenarios. Not only does it prepare me for that particular circumstance, it also gets me thinking of potential outcomes in real time whenever I do feel threatened or unsafe. I like to think of personal defense the same way I think of avalanche safety — you can carry all the fancy gear with you into the mountains but if an avalanche hits — do you know how to use that gear? Because someone’s life might depend on it.
Joe Sills: In general, do you feel safe living life on the road?
Christian Schaffer: Yes, absolutely. There are risks and uncertainties for sure, but at this point in my journey, I don’t feel any less safe living in a vehicle than I would in an apartment or cabin in the woods. It’s been an overwhelmingly positive experience and I would recommend it to anyone interested in pursuing (or even just trying out) this way of life.