Saturday, February 2, 2013

A Girl’s Guide to RVing: Self-Defense

My camp at LBL

About 10 years ago, when I was still new to RV camping, I found this awesome campsite right on the waterfront at Land Between the Lakes in Kentucky.  It was a gorgeous autumn weekend, and I couldn’t believe my luck.  I was not only able to get this site, but had the entire campground completely to myself!
I went about setting up my popup camper and parked my "girly" Lexus SUV in front of it.   No dog with me back then-- just me, myself, and I all alone...30 miles from the nearest town…in the backwoods of rural Kentucky.  (cue up the banjo and guitar… do you hear them playing Deliverance yet?!!)

After enjoying a nice dinner and campfire, I gazed at the stars and couldn’t believe how bright they were.  It was a moonless night and absolutely pitch-black. I headed off to bed enjoying the final whiffs of campfire smoke drifting thru the canvas tent walls, and hearing the crickets lull me to sleep.  It didn’t take long as I was completely exhausted from the long day’s drive to get there.

Around midnight, I thought I was dreaming of distant lights in the woods.  As I began to awake, I realized that was no dream—there WERE flashlights approaching my camper from the woods behind…and the sounds of mens' voices.  They were still a ways off, but closing in fast and heading straight towards my camper! 

In an instant, my idyllic camp site had suddenly become terrifying.  And, it was only then that I realized how incredibly naïve I had been to put myself into such a vulnerable position...only camper in a very remote campground?  DUMB.   Camping in an RV without hard-walls or a locking door?  DUMB.  Tow car that screams "Girl camping here!" DUMB.  No self-defense weapons onboard of any kind (other than a couple of dull, cheapo steak knives)?  DUMB, DUMB, DUMB! 

As the men and flashlights continued to approach, I could tell by their shadows that they also had shotguns… “oh shit, this is it!”  I rolled out of bed onto the floor and reached into the drawer for a dull steak knife, preparing myself for the inevitable violence to come.

Just as the men got within10 feet of my camper (and could now clearly see it), they suddenly turned and continued walking to the parking lot of the campground.  I had failed to notice previously that there were a couple of pickup trucks parked there.  Nor had I realized there was trail behind my camper into the woods.  Nor was I aware that It was hunting season, and these would-be armed assailants were simply a couple of good ‘ol boys returning from a long evening of hunting. 

Much to my relief, they were not the least bit interested in terrorizing a single girl all alone in her pop-up camper!

The topic of self-defense has come up recently in a few RV forums I follow.  It seems that some women are absolutely TERRIFIED to camp in an RV and feel the need to carry all sorts of protection—mace, baseball bats, a tire iron, and of course the most controversial….guns.

After my terrifying experience, you’d assume I’d now be armed to the hilt, right?  Well, I honestly thought about it, for sure.  But then I started thinking about it rationally:

  • Would it have helped to carry mace, bear spray, or even hair spray (yes, some lady RVers consider this a weapon!)?  Probably not.  There was a breeze that night, and there were multiple men with guns.  I would have never been able to spray them all, so more likely would have just disabled myself.
  • How about a tire iron, baseball bat, or fire extinguisher?  Again, not a great idea.  They outnumbered and would easily have over-powered me (and likely would have used that weapon against me).
  • Ok, then you should have had a gun! Well, I will admit, that would have been the most effective option here.  Trouble is, it would have been too irreversibly effective.  I was scared out of my wits seeing shadows of armed men right outside my camper.  So scared that I honestly might have shot right through the canvas to stop them that night.  And what would that have accomplished?  My shots likely missing them?  Them shooting back at me? Or me getting “lucky” enough to shoot one or two of them? And what if I had killed them, only to then learn they were just innocently hiking back to their car?

Americans have always been a gun-loving (and overly fearful) society.  Thirty beautiful little 1st graders get shot just before Christmas by an apocalyptic lunatic, and we jump to the conclusion that the only effective prevention must now be to put a loaded pistol in ever kid’s book bag next to their sippy cup!

Washington Post, Dec, 2012: What Makes America's Gun Culture Unique in the World
The U.S. far, far exceeds every other nation on earth in it’s number guns per capita (at 88.8 guns per 100 people, we have almost twice as many guns as violence-riddled Yemen in 2nd place).  We get shot going to the movie theater, get shot at the supermarket, get shot going to school, even get shot just playing in the front yard outside our homes.   So, good heavens, maybe the NRA is finally right….maybe those of us who have yet to take up arms, should now finally do so!

One lady RV blogger recently excitedly announced that she was preparing to head out on her first extended solo RVing trip.  She then casually mentioned some of the items she’ll be bringing along with her (and sadly, I’m not making this up):  she will keep a gun in her camper, another gun in her truck, and conceal-carry yet another loaded gun on her body at all times.

What is it about camping that terrifies women (and men) so much?  Have we, as a society, really devolved to such levels of fear that we must arm ourselves to the hilt just to enjoy a simple evening beneath the stars?   The statistics would certainly seem to suggest that.

If anyone would have had justification to arm themselves up the wazoo, after my Kentucky backwoods experience, it would have been me.

But I didn’t.

I decided that if I were to ever get shot to death by some crazed idiot one night while out camping and enjoying beauty of nature, so be it.   If a mama bear were so starved that she felt the need to attack me to feed herself and her cubs, so be it.

All I could would do is to try and reduce the odds of that happening to me.  I refused to cave in to the “culture of fear.”

So, how did I improve my self-defense?  What were my “lessons learned” from that night? 
  • I traded the popup and vowed to now only camp in hard-walled vehicles (with locking doors). 
    • A motorhome or van are exceptionally safe choices for solo female RVers—if necessary, you never need to leave your locked vehicle when you park for the night (so onlookers are unlikely to notice that you’re alone).  And, if anything starts to make you fearful, you can easily drive away, again without leaving your locked vehicle.
  • I got a dog.  Burglars would rather target that quiet RV out at the edge of the campground, rather than mess with my stern-barking Millie (of course, if they ever reached to pet her, she’d lick them and wag her tail!).
  • I avoid camping spots where I’m completely alone.  Even if I’m boondocking out in the desert, I’ll still try to park where there’s at least one or two other RVs in the distance.  If I do happen to break this rule, I’ll at least be sure to have good cell phone coverage and have good familiarity with the area.
  • For overnight spots, I stick to well-lit, well-patrolled businesses (preferably open 24 hours) such as Flying J or WalMart, and avoid spending the night at dark, isolated highway rest stops.
  • I try to blend in with the crowd.  As much as I loved my Lexus SUV, or little, cute T@B trailer, neither were very common sights in a campground.  I now stick with more common RVs and vehicles (even though I do sometimes wish my bright yellow Tracker was boring green or blue, it’s still an aging cheapo SUV compared to a newer luxury model).
  • Now that I’m a vegan, I no longer bring along the dull steak knives.  But we plant-eaters do tend to brandish sets of really sharp cutlery…so watch out for the vegan girl with the Ginsu knives!  You’ve been warned!!!
Seriously though, the best self-defense I’ve found (in addition to the above changes)  is to simply stay more aware of my surroundings at all times, and not put myself into places where fear would ever limit my ability to enjoy and be part of nature.  It’s as simple as that!

Maybe one day, I’ll no longer find relatively safety in my surroundings and my comfort level will now require more potent weapons to defend myself.  But I hope for my sake, the sake of those around me, and the general sake of our nation, that it never has to come to that. 

I’d hope that there would always be one or two RVers nearby who were much more skilled and capable than me to protect us all (an armed off-duty police officer, ex-military, or skilled marksman would give me much more comfort than being surrounded by 100 other pistol-toting grannies with equally failing eyesight!).

A few years ago, I returned to this very same campground at LBL.  It was still pretty deserted, but I now had my hard-walled locking RV, my dog, my less-fancy SUV, my cell phone, and my sharp cutlery.  And I now felt perfectly safe. 

So, I’m hopeful that my fears (and yours) related to personal safety continue to stay manageable. That we take a few sensible precautions to prevent dangerous situations, but don’t let fear ruin the magic of experiencing the natural world around us. 

For now, the odds of being harmed out in the woods are far less than even the local shopping mall, so just relax, take a deep breath…and enjoy the view!


  1. Touche′. Gut feeling has cautioned me a couple of times.
    Thanks for the comments for newbies.

  2. Outstanding post. Am doing everything you recommend and even have the boring blue Tracker :) Just have to get some of those fancy knives. Hmmm, wonder if I should remove the girly tulips from the View.

    1. Never!!! I love Tulip's "tulips" and all the flag decals of where she's traveled! But if you ever wonder one night who stole your blue tracker and left you with a yellow one.... :-)

    2. How much would a paint job for that yellow tracker cost?

  3. Well-said. Good advice! BTW, I tent-camped at LBL once - it's a beautiful spot. (Unlike you, I had plenty of campers around. Otherwise, I would have gotten spooked by all that darkness).

    1. Now with your GDB, you'll enjoy it even more! I really love all the wildlife there--- I remember canoeing into a cove with literally hundreds of white pelicans all around me. Such a wonderful place!

  4. We, like you, changed from a pop-up to a hard side trailer after feeling afraid on one camping adventure in the Adirondaks. Not of people, but of bears. Camping with our four children in there and no weapon other than an ax didn't feel right. Have never felt afraid since we upgraded. Even when I've camped all by myself. I have achieved a brown belt in judo / jujitsu and I still agree with you that the best advice is to be street smart, have eyes in the back of your head, and don't put yourself in unreasonably dangerous situations.

    1. Yes, being able to camp in bear country was another reason I traded the pop-up. Loved how spacious it was, but could not take it to Yellowstone or any of the parks out West.

      Judo sounds interesting. Maybe after I get a little more flexible from yoga, I'll give it a try!

  5. Really enjoyed this post and your thoughts on solo rving.

  6. Right on Lynn... it has really been a touchy subject. It was one that we as solo women travelers really need to discuss without someone getting bent outta shape.

    I have written a couple of posts on this. I pay attention to that innate women's intuition .. we all got it

    goooood post ;)

    1. thanks Carolyn. You have well-demonstrated this past year that a solo woman can do just fine out in the big scary world by just blending into the surroundings and moving on if anything ever doesn't feel right. Wouldn't it be a shame if fear had prevented you from seeing all those beautiful places?

  7. Enjoyed reading your interesting post. We're not set up for boondocking, so always stay on campsites. Even so, we always try to arrive before dark to give us chance to get set up in daylight. Although there are two of us, like you if it doesn't feel right, we move.

  8. Hi Lynne. Great post.

    Don't underestimate Millie just because she's friendly. Dogs don't so much act as react. Good people give off good vibes and dogs respond. Bad guys give off bad vibes and dogs respond. I truly hope you never have to find out but I bet Millie's genes are trustworthy.

    It may just be human nature. We're addicted to drama. Fears follows naturally. (shrug)

    1. yeah, Millie's a good protector with plenty of stern sounding barks to any strangers that approach, but thankfully, no inappropriate bites.

  9. I had already decided that for safety, I'll be finding a van for my full-time journey (hopefully within 6 months) for exactly that reason of security. When I lived in Montana, I used a Chevy Lumina van for solo weekend trips boondocking. But I have to highly commend you for your logical reasoning on the pros and cons of alternative security. And for recognizing that it is exactly when you are scared out of your wits that you probably do NOT want to have a gun in your hand. I will say that I always carried pepper spray -- not for defense against a group of armed men but for lesser possiblities. I have also read that using a can of wasp spray is effective because it is made to produce a visible stream of repellant at range of more than 10 feet. Thanks for all the valuable information you share!

  10. I just stumbled across your blog and you discuss several things I do or am contemplating. I am currently looking at the T@b trailers with the hopes of working on the road (I work from home already.) Safety was a mild concern when another friend and I were at the very remote Cathedral Valley campground in Capitol Reef National Park last summer. there was one other camper there and he was friendly, but kept his distance, I believe out of respect for us. However, there is a mountain man on the lam and I found out he was in that general region last summer. You can never be too cautious.

  11. Excellent article. My husband and I have been full-time since 1999. We also made some mistakes in choosing a parking stop in the beginning. You best point is well made: " Seriously though, the best self-defense I’ve found (in addition to the above changes) is to simply stay more aware of my surroundings at all times, and not put myself into places where fear would ever limit my ability to enjoy and be part of nature. It’s as simple as that! ".

  12. Thank you Lynn, this is fabulous advice. I'm the one whose husband (Jim Nelson) asked for solo RVing tips in the NuRVers Facebook group. Thanks for the offer to quote you here. When the article goes live I'll send you a link.

  13. Great article! I understand your terror that night - several years ago I had one of those nights as well. In an attempt to thru hike the appalachian trail, I spent one of many solo nights camped on a southern bald to enjoy the view. That night I awoke to the sound of someone hiking up the trail. The footsteps stopped and their headlamp lit up my tent and I lay there in total fear. The man took a few steps in my direction and just stood there forever with my tent illuminated and me panic filled and wondering what to do when suddenly he turned and hiked onward. I didn't sleep a wink until morning. later that day at a shelter I was chatting with a male trail friend when he told me about the great night hike he had last night and the amazing lightning show on a distant ridge he got to watch from the top of that very same bald! I had spent all night afraid of what was actually a very nice guy and good friend who wouldn't hurt a fly and didn't say anything then because he didn't want to wake me up and bother me!! i didn't speak because I kept telling myself that the stranger didn't know who was in the tent until I spoke, if I stayed silent they could imagine I was a 200 lb man with an attitude problem ;-) never occured to me it could be someone I knew who was trying to not wake me up and didn't realize their headlamp effects.

    I was reminded of the oft repeated phrase that crazy folks aren't likely to put in the effort to go far out of the way to find a victim when there are easy to get victims all around their current location -- like the grocery store parking lot.... much easier than hiking for hours uphill a couple thousand feet on the off chance that there may be a lone female.

    Sim to a boondocking spot out in the middle of nowhere, if it's hard for you to get there, then its hard for the crazy guy and he won't put in the effort on the 1 in 10,000 chance a single female will be there at the same time. go where you want, stay where you want but just listen to your gut and be ready to move on if the situation doesn't feel right and never tell a stranger your plans or that your solo. It worked for 1000 miles of backpacking and many trips in Europe. There were times I hiked into where I planned to camp for the night only to move on because after chatting w/ those there, I decided I didn't like the vibe.
    I agree with you about the weapons, there isn't one that couldn't easily be taken from me and used against me; so I just won't bother.

  14. Just starting my solo camping adventures, buying a pop up this weekend and am so excited. Thanks for sharing this. I got my dog a couple of years ago partly because I hoped to one day get a camper and go on adventures and felt that having a dog would help protect me and make me feel safer. She is also a softie but has a bark that indicates otherwise!


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