Fall 2014, updated Spring 2015


Safety and Security Questions


This article will attempt to share information on two topics of great importance to those contemplating overland travel in foreign countries: personal safety and the protection and security of your vehicle and your belongings.  I will discuss each of these topics separately, including not only our own personal experience, but also input shared with us by other travelers.


Personal Safety:

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We’ve taken our motorhome into fifty-six countries on five continents over the past nine years.  In doing this we have spent very little time in formal campgrounds, but have preferred to park at night in quiet places, by ourselves.  People ask us if we are ever afraid.  The answer is no, we are not.  This is certainly not because we are extraordinarily brave or adventurous, because we aren’t.  It is simply that we have learned that for the most part people everywhere are much more likely to welcome a stranger with kindness and acceptance than the opposite.  We started out with this approach and we’ve had it reinforced everywhere we’ve gone.

This is not to say that bad things never happen, but we have almost never heard of overland travelers being attacked or threatened.  Property crimes yes, as I will discuss below, but physical threats are uncommon.  To qualify our remarks a bit, our travels have been in the Americas and Europe.  Our one visit to Africa was to Morocco, so we cannot speak from our own experience in other parts of Africa.  The same is true of Middle Eastern countries, Asia or India.  However, we are in touch with many others who have traveled extensively in each of these areas, and we have seldom heard of anyone feeling afraid or being actively threatened or attacked.  

Finding Safe Wild Camping Spots for Overnight Stays

  1. If we’ve been where you are going, download our Camping Logs; we give descriptions and coordinates for places we’ve stayed that we think others might like.
  2. Research online to find other travelers who have gone before you and download their information on places they have parked for the night. This information may be printable or available as GPS downloads.
  3. When available, get published information on approved overnight stay locations for the country you are traveling in. In some countries there is a lot of information available while in others there is none.
  4. In Western Europe there are many locations set aside for motorhomes. These are called Aires or Sostas or Stellplatzë, depending on the country, and they make wonderful spots to spend the night.
  5. Avoid overnighting in laybys or rest areas along busy highways; these are often notorious trouble spots. Doing this on a toll highway is considered to be safer than on a free road.
  6. Actual truck stops can often be ok as they will have some staff on duty all night, but ask other travelers first to see if they think they are safe.
  7. In cities, ask to stay at secured parking lots. Many of them are manned overnight and provide good security.  
  8. Look for places out in the country and on quiet roads.  We feel much better in a quiet place with little traffic than in a busy area.
  9. If possible, get information on trailheads, bird watching areas and other public use locations; they will usually have parking areas that may be suitable.
  10. If you find yourself in a town or city with no apparent overnight options, find a Police Station and ask them.
  11. If you don’t feel comfortable in a spot, move on.  Kathy and I have a rule that both of us must feel ok about a spot or we don’t stay there.
  12. When in doubt, ask.  I can ask “Where can we park for the night” in several languages.

The only area where we have heard of overlanders being occasionally attacked and even killed is in areas of Central Africa.  Southern Africa is considered to be safe for tourists and, until recently, the same could be said for Northern Africa.  The broad swath across the middle is where problems have occurred, and conditions change continually in this region.  We know people who have traveled safely here but have also heard stories about others who have not been safe.  We have no plans to venture into this part of the world, though we would like to get to Southern Africa some day.

On the other side of the coin however, we could spend hours telling you about just some of the many wonderful encounters we have enjoyed when meeting people in foreign countries.  Perhaps the single most positive development to come from our years of travel has been this sense that people are people the world ‘round.  In every country there are far more good people than bad, just as there are in the country you call home.  There are certainly parts of every city in America where we would not venture, in a motorhome or otherwise.  In fact, America is statistically the most dangerous of all the developed countries of the world.  So why should I, as an American, suddenly be fearful of the people I meet in other countries?  The only reason is that all of us, to some degree, fear the unknown, in whatever form it presents itself.  When it comes to travel we instinctively feel safer when we are close to home and threatened when we go somewhere else.  I am happy to say that the more we’ve traveled the more we have learned that this instinctive fear does not have to remain a part of our reality.

I’ll share just one story to illustrate.  It happened when we were in Central America, very early in our international travel.  One thing you immediately notice about Central America is the presence of guns.  They are everywhere.  Every bank has guards armed with AK-47s or M-16s.  Store owners wear pistols on their hips.  It is simply a part of the culture, or at least it was when we were there in 2008.  Anyway, we were new to this ‘different country’ thing and were no doubt incredibly naive.  We’d gotten as far as Honduras and had driven up in the hills on a rutted dirt road back into a National Park.  We were heading for a visitor center where we had a report that we would be able to park for the night.  We arrived at the end of the road and indeed there was a building there but all was quiet and no one seemed to be around.  Kathy did finally find someone inside, who welcomed us and then left, locking the door behind him.  

We felt a bit uncertain and alone, but decided what the heck, we’d stay anyway, and found a level place to park the Tiger.  An hour or so later two vehicles pulled into the area and a number of people piled out, several of the men armed with semi-automatic rifles or shotguns.  Whoa!  We were miles from anywhere and had no idea what was happening or what we should do about it.  The men wandered off, leaving a couple of women and children near the vehicles while we watched and waited.  After the men returned, one of the women called out “Hola” to us so we opened our door and stuck our heads out a bit.  It turned out that this was an extended family who managed a coffee plantation back down the road we’d come up on and they were out checking their property for signs of poachers.  In just a few minutes we went from thinking we might be in some danger to having a chat in broken Spanish and English with these nice people.  Before they left they insisted we stop to visit on our way down the hill the next day.  We did and ended up having a great time with them.  After they all took turns looking in the Tiger, they made us take some coffee with us and waved happily as we drove on.  These are the folks shown in the photo at the top of this page.

This early experience has stood us in good stead during other encounters along the roads we’ve traveled, from South America to Morocco to Eastern Europe, Turkey and beyond.  In all of these countries we’ve learned that while the cultures are certainly different from our own, the people are not so different at all.  

Certainly we are not saying that anyone should just wander about with no thought to where they are going or whether or not they should go there.  When considering travel to a country or region, you have to do some research before committing yourself.  We always try to find other travelers who have gone there and see what they have to report before we go.  As much as we may wish that we could travel to any country we wish, unfortunately the world is not that simple and there are regions at any given time where traveling alone is not advised.  These regions change from year to year and a place we have visited may no longer be as safe now; certainly the reverse is true as well.  

We have been to countries like Colombia where we had a wonderful time and were amazed by the friendliness of the locals.  But they were the first to tell us that even five years before we would not have been safe in some parts of their country.  We know other travelers who loved their experiences in Syria or Egypt, countries that now are unfortunately not as stable and open as they once were.  This is the way of the world and the world is ever changing.  We very nearly visited Ukraine in 2013, finally deciding to skip it and come back another time.  Six months later Ukraine was in the news and serious problems had surfaced.  Perhaps we’ll get another chance, but who knows.  Syria seems basically lost forever with so much damage done to historic sites and so much of society torn apart during their ongoing civil war.  On the other hand we enjoyed our time in the Balkan countries of the former Yugoslavia very much in spite of some lingering after effects of their terrible civil wars fifteen years earlier.

Nonetheless, we believe that with just normal caution, common sense, basic internet research and a positive attitude, you really can go almost anywhere you want to go, on your own and not feeling like you must always travel with a group tour or only touching in at cruise ship ports around the edges of the world.  We would encourage you to just do what you are comfortable with and allow yourself the freedom to expand your horizons as your comfort level increases with experience.


Security:

Unfortunately, the issue of property theft and security is something of a different story.  We have experienced our own problems and we have heard from and about others who have as well.  Everything from pickpocketing to vehicle theft happens to travelers all too frequently and if pressed I’d have to say that I think it is becoming more common, not less.  

I’ll share our own experiences first.

Choosing Secure Parking Spots During the Day

  1. Always remember that most theft occurs in large cities and popular tourist destinations such as beaches and resorts.
  2. When planning a visit to one of these locations try to research locations where other travellers have parked safely.
  3. When visiting a city, consider staying in a campsite and using public transportation rather than taking your own vehicle into the city.
  4. If not a campsite, try to park in a location with security on site; i.e. a manned and fenced parking lot.
  5. Avoid using on-street parking in a city whenever possible.  This is completely the opposite of our practice in small towns.
  6. Park & Ride locations on the outskirts of cities can be a valuable resource, though some of these rely on parking structures with their inherent height limitations.
  7. Be open to simply abandoning a plan to visit a particular city if you cannot locate secure parking.

In our eight years of international travel, I’ve had my pocket picked twice, once in Ecuador and once in Morocco.  Both times I was in a crowd and felt pressured from all sides; in other words, it was an organized group effort.  Once was in a crowded market while the other was on a local bus.  The first time I was more concerned about losing my camera than my wallet; the second time I was busy trying to be friendly because the young people around me were being very friendly.  I’ve learned from these two experiences and am hopeful that the same thing won’t happen again.  

The first time I was totally unprepared and trusting.  I had a long wallet in my rear pocket where it stuck out the top and was clearly visible.  After that I switched to a smaller wallet carried in my front pocket and thought I had the problem under control.  When it happened a second time despite my precautions, I realized that a wallet can be vulnerable even if it is in a front pocket.  Now, if I feel any sense of concern, basically whenever I begin to feel that others are too close to me, I will put my hand in my pocket so that it is right on my wallet while I keep the other hand on my camera.  Some folks will attach their wallet to their belt with a chain.  I have also learned not to carry more cash than I think I may actually need and never carry credit or debit cards in my wallet unless I have specific plans to use them at that time. 

More serious, and much more costly, we have also had our vehicle broken into twice; once in Argentina and once in Italy.  On each occasion the thieves forced a door lock; once the driver’s door in our truck’s cab and once the entry door into the living area of our Tiger.  Both locks are simple flat key type locks and are easy to force with a screwdriver.  In both cases we had the impression afterwards that the bad guys had only been inside for a few minutes.  They took a quick look around the coach and grabbed anything that looked like it was worth something.  In modern society that means electronics, in addition of course to cash and credit cards.  In each of our break-ins we lost cameras and back up drives, as well as cash and credit/debit cards; during the second instance we also lost our two laptop computers.  In neither case were the police of any use whatsoever and in neither case did we have insurance to cover the loss.  This is not because we are foolish or careless, but insurance to cover your belongings is simply not available for long term travel.  Vacations, yes; year in and year out, no.

Not surprisingly, we are not alone in experiencing these kinds of losses.  Rather the opposite is actually the case.  From what we have heard from other travelers, it seems likely that if you travel a lot you will almost certainly, sooner or later, experience some loss of property yourself.  This is not because people in foreign countries are less honest than those at home, but simply that travelers make attractive targets.  It is logical for a thief to assume that you probably have with you more money and more articles of value than the average local person.  If you are traveling in a motorhome it is even more apparent that this is likely to be the case.

When we sent out a note to all our friends explaining our break-in this spring near Rome, we received many kind and thoughtful responses.  A large number of them included stories about losses experienced by them or by friends of theirs in locations around the world, including the US.  As a side note, the most common place mentioned for such losses was Italy and specifically Rome; Barcelona seems to take pride of second place.  We know of two other travelers who have had their vehicles stolen in Europe in the past year; one each in Rome and in Barcelona.  Their stories are not pleasant to hear.  Update:  We have now heard of yet another traveler’s van that was stolen in the Fiumicino area west of Rome.  This is near the area where our truck was broken into.  It is becoming more apparent with each report that we were fortunate to only lose our computers and cameras and not the entire vehicle.

What to do?

So, how can you protect yourself against these losses.  First, you must accept the fact that you cannot guarantee that you will not experience theft of your valuables.  Nothing you do can ensure that you will never be robbed, and this is no different whether you are traveling or you stay at home.  Risk is inherent to life and cannot be eliminated.  However, I believe there are several areas you can work on to maximize your security.  Let’s talk about them.

  1. Avoid known dangerous areas:  There is no question in my mind that you are more at risk in a city or a known tourist destination than if you are parked all alone in a quiet spot in the country or wandering about in a small town.  I believe that thieves are inherently lazy people and they will prefer to operate in an environment that offers maximum opportunities.  They also will prefer to operate where they have an established infrastructure that allows them to move the merchandise along as quickly as possible.  Kathy and I have bypassed several cities that we had hoped to visit because we could not find a secure place to park.  We also choose to avoid most recognized major tourist attractions, including special events such as music festivals or religious celebrations.  There are many reasons for this, such as preferring to avoid large crowds, high costs, etc.  But realistically, any place or time where large numbers of tourists are likely to appear becomes a very attractive target area for any sort of thief.  It simply is the way it is.  Charles Bridge in Prague, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, anywhere in Rome -- these are known areas where pickpockets and thieves operate.  For security as well as other reasons, we have found that we enjoy smaller, quieter, lesser known spots much more than places that appear on most people’s must-visit lists.  Update: With now three reports that we have heard of travelers experiencing vehicle theft or breakin in the Rome area within the past year (one of them our own experience), I’m afraid I feel compelled to recommend that under no circumstances should you take your personal vehicle anywhere near Rome without a specific plan for dealing with the risk.  Either drive directly to a known secure campground or find other ways to visit the city if you choose to do so; do not park your vehicle on city streets.

  2. Park Defensively:  Read and consider the items in the sidebar.  The more we’ve experienced, and everything we’ve heard from others about vehicle break-ins, the more important these basic steps have become.  This is your first line of defense and probably the most important.

  3. Improve the Security of your vehicle:  This is a difficult area to discuss in detail because every vehicle is different and what works on one may not apply to another.  Most American RVs have extremely rudimentary door locks.  Some European models seem better in the area of door locks, but many have very weak windows.  Basically, what you want to do is look at every possible entry to your vehicle and see if there is something you can do to lessen the chance of a thief coming in that way.  There are aftermarket add-on door locks that will fit in some situations.  We know folks who rely on a chain and padlock linking the two cab doors together.  Windows can have bars bolted in place over them.  Car alarms may or may not be helpful, but think about whether you want one.  There are plenty of possibilities to explore.  In the end, you may not find anything you feel you can improve in this area, but you should at least give it serious thought.  The other side of this argument is that you may not want to make any of these changes; I mean who really wants to look through bars every day or lock and unlock chains when entering or leaving the vehicle?  Like everything else, you must seek options that will work for you in all ways, not just provide marginally better protection for your vehicle at a social cost you are unwilling to tolerate.  Also you must bear in mind that all windows are subject to simply having a brick tossed through them.  No matter what you may be able to improve in the way of lock security, a determined thief may still be able to gain entry by breaking a window.
      
  4. Hide your valuables:  We think this is a biggie.  As mentioned above, after both of our break-ins, we had the very strong feeling that the thieves had been in and out of our vehicle in just a minute or two.  Easy to get to places were looked at but harder to access areas were undisturbed.  Anything you can hide from view in a less than obvious place has a much better chance of being missed during the short time the bad guys are likely to spend in your vehicle.  Once again every vehicle will provide different opportunities; be creative.  When we leave our vehicle, the only things that can be easily seen by an intruder are clothes and kitchen items.  Everything of significant value is out of sight and not in a logical spot.  Naturally, given sufficient time any of these hidden items can be found, but in a quick search some or all of them will be missed and that will be a big help.  Unfortunately, one thing that will likely defeat this strategy is the actual theft of your vehicle.  Scary as this is, it does happen.  We know of three instances in the last year, where traveler's vehicles were stolen.  In two cases the vehicle was recovered several days or even a week later, while in the third it was not.  Naturally, given that much time to work, anything you have hidden will likely be discovered and taken.  Two were stolen in Rome while the other theft occurred in Barcelona; in all cases the local police were of no assistance whatsoever in the recovery of the vehicle.  At the time of our first break in experience we had not yet learned this lesson of keeping valuables out of sight.  Sadly, when our second theft occurred it happened just hours after our arrival back in the Tiger and we had not yet had time to put things away.

  5. Limit your exposure:  This is difficult and depends to some degree on your traveling style.  Kathy and I are full time travelers who are wandering around Europe for eight or more months at a time.  It is not possible for us to leave the good computer or the good camera at home while we’re on the road.  Our Tiger is our home.  Photography is our hobby and we take it seriously.  This means we carry two expensive SLR cameras with at least one additional lens.  It also means we need two real laptop computers, not just a less expensive tablet or other device for communication and internet activity.  This is our choice and it means that we have more to lose than some other travelers.  If you can, by all means explore ways of lessening your exposure by carrying fewer or less costly items.  If you are abroad for shorter periods at a time, you may be able to adopt this as a way of lessening your loss should a break-in occur.

  6. Insure your valuables if you can:  This is another toughie for us, but may be something you can explore to good advantage.  As we do not own a home, we do not have homeowner’s insurance that might cover our personal belongings when we are traveling.  We have looked into finding separate travelers insurance for this purpose but have been defeated because of the length of time we are ‘away from home.’  It is possible to secure vacation insurance for short periods of traveling, but we have been unable to find anything that would cover us for the time periods we spend overseas.  Examine your own situation and see what might be available to you.    

Conclusions:

So there you are, bad things can happen to us wherever we happen to be, but we believe the risks are more than balanced out by the enjoyment and satisfaction of the travel experience.  We’ve lived our life on the road for thirteen years now (through 2014).  That’s 4,745 days and nights traveling and seeing the world.  We’ve had our difficulties from time to time just as we might have if we’d stayed in one place all that time.  But we’ve never been threatened with violence or harm and have only had four bad days due to an instance of theft.  Four days in thirteen years… that isn’t 1% of our time on the road, it isn’t even one-tenth of one percent.  It’s .08%.  One day for every 1,186 days of wonderful, exhilarating, exciting travel.  Not a bad record and certainly a price we are willing to continue to pay for the freedom and stimulation of this life we love.

In closing, I’ll just say that if a person is so inclined, it’s pretty easy to think up reasons why it’s better to just stay home or to limit one’s travel to group excursions in the belief that these provide greater safety.  In this article I’ve tried to present information that I hope will help you to make the opposite decision.  An Australian couple we met in Ecuador years ago came up with a name for their website that I have always admired, Dare2Go, and it really is that simple.  Whether you want to ride your bicycle through India or sail your sloop around the world or drive your motorhome to China or across Siberia, or tour Europe or the Americas...   If you want to go to different places on your own schedule and with your own transportation, our advice to you is to just go for it and enjoy every minute of the experience.

Safe travels.


For additional input on these topics, you might enjoy these recent articles at MagBaz Travels.

© Rick & Kathy Howe 2001-2017