It’s a common argument when families tell their friends and extended family, “We’re going to live in an RV!”
“But,” the response undoubtedly arises, “isn’t that dangerous?”
And it’s a valid question, often posed out of love. Grandma doesn’t want little Johnny getting snatched up by these evil border hoppers or Suzy Q. getting bitten by the countless rattlesnakes that roam every campground in America, just waiting for someone to forget to close the screen door before they bite.
In all reality, though, living on the road out of an RV is probably safer than doing so in a home. Of course, there is not a one-size-fits-all RV lifestyle, but let’s look at some of the more common situations we RVers find ourselves in to decide if it’s actually more dangerous to live on the road or not.
Where Are You Going to Stay?
Finding a place to stay every night may become one of the biggest “problems” (or at least takes up the most time) as far as RVing goes, and the good news is that the options are seemingly limitless. There are a variety of types of places, from private RV parks, state and national parks, or free camping in places like national forests or on Bureau of Land Management property.
When it comes to safety, private RV parks and state and national parks are by far one of the safest places you can stay.
Unlike your home, when you’re at one of these campgrounds, your name is on a piece of paper stating that you’re not only there, but exactly which spot you’re camping in. There is a paper trail specifically connecting you to a location. Likewise, most of these places don’t allow anyone who’s not on that same registry to just wander about the park. Sure, it can be lax, but in general, if you aren’t camping there, you aren’t supposed to be there. So most of your neighbors for the night will have a paper trail as well. Not only that, but you’re surrounded by other people. It’s kind of difficult to slip into an RV, rob the owners blind and then murder them all without being noticed by the other fifteen RVs within 20 yards of your location.
On the other hand, if you choose to camp in more remote areas like the national forest, you are definitely in a bit of a sketchier situation. This type of camping typically puts you far from any other campers, and there is no registration or monitoring of who is coming and going. Depending on where you live now, this may or may not be vastly more or less secure than your own home. Another valid concern is that, in many of these more off-the-beaten-path locales, there may not be cell phone reception should you need to call for help.
Still, crime statistics don’t actually follow this logic, and as we’ll cover later, the further away from people you are in general may make the biggest difference when it comes to your safety.
We have been staying in RV parks and free wild camping spots for over ten years. We have never had a problem. Most of our friends who live the same way have also never had a problem. That said, we know of one family who has lost someone while traveling — though it wasn’t specifically while in their camper. And we’ve all heard the horror stories that surface now and then. Family of five murdered at campground, young men camping get attacked by a bear, and so on.
These are scary, no doubt. But think about how often you’ve heard those, and then compare that to one or two nights watching your local news. Nothing about a house, or living in a specific town or city, excludes you from danger. Fear, on the other hand, can greatly decrease your odds at experiencing something new that you may really love.
So, RV Parks are Safer than Wild Camping?
Well, yes. I mean, when you’re camping way out in the woods, there is the chance that wildlife will want to eat you. It’s a pretty small chance, but could a bear come up to your camp and, upon realizing the trash you left outside isn’t going to fill him up, decide to peak into your rig and try and eat all of you. Or a snake. Or a wolf, cougar, or even a scorpion could wield significant damage, especially if you’re out of cell service range or far from anywhere you could seek medical advice.
Hell, a tree could all on your head or the world could open up and swallow you into the depths of Mordor, theoretically.
It’s never happened to us, or anyone we know in the full-timing community. But, it could happen.
Then again, a drunk driver could smash through the RV park’s fence and plow into your bedroom, instantly killing you but somehow giving your wife superpowers which she then uses to fight DUI for the rest of her life. I would say the odds of being eaten by a bear are pretty close to those of being hit with a car, unlikely and less so with the bear if you take a few precautions.
RV parks often have private security–a guy driving around in a golf cart–if that makes you feel safe. State and national parks typically have either a campground host or a ranger patrolling the campgrounds, even at night, and in national forests and BLM land it isn’t uncommon to see a forest service ranger or local police driving around occasionally, just to make sure teenagers aren’t out trying to have a little fun.
How Much Common Sense Do You Have?
We’ve camped in nearly every US state, parts of Canada, the majority of Mexico and Belize.
In every country, we’ve experienced things that made us feel sketchy. Of course, violent crimes and treacherous accidents can happen anywhere (if hospitals are the safest place to be, why do so many people die there? Huh? Did you think of that wiseguy. ;) ), but there’s nothing wrong with observing your surroundings and making a choice you feel comfortable based on that.
Boondocking (camping without hookups out in the wild) in New Mexico once, miles from any paved road, we found bullet casings and emptied shotgun shells near our campsite. We never saw another soul during the day, but around midnight a lone pair of headlights creeped down the dirt road and seemed to be coming right for us. Until they kept on going. Disaster avoided.
We have only felt so unnerved by a place a few times, though, enough to make us pack up and move on down the road. Once this happened in Louisiana, and the situation was so absurd and unsettling we have found it hard to put up our pop top in the state ever since. Sketchy situations in Northeastern Arizona, outside of San Miguel de Allende and in Belize have left us sleeping with one eye open.
We learned to judge a place by many factors, and a pretty view does not always equate to feeling safe. In general, just as you wouldn’t venture down a dark alley in some big city at 2am, you should show the same amount of common sense when choosing a campsite. Online reviews can help, local ranger stations and, if it’s a private RV park, a quick look around the place should give you some notion as to how safe you’re going to feel sleeping there.
Should I Bring a Gun?
As this is a sensitive topic, let me first clarify my position on firearms. They’re in the constitution, in theory they could protect you from others yielding guns (or just able to overpower you in a physical altercation) and I come from a family full of avid hunters. I am not against guns in general. Being able to walk around Texas with an AK strapped to your back seems a bit much, and the concept that we all need guns in case the government oppresses us seems a bit foolish (imagine a modern day militia armed with machine guns going up against the United States tanks, helicopters, fighter jets, drones…), but in general I grew up around many guns and no one ever got hurt.
On the other hand, the only story I know of firsthand which involves guns and campgrounds had to do with a little girl finding her father’s weapon and shooting herself. Is this the father’s fault? Sure, yes. Was it his daughter who paid the price? Absolutely. No one was saved in that situation and the only danger was that presented by the gun owner himself. “But he wasn’t taking care of the gun properly,” all gun advocates will say. I don’t see how a gun can be owned in a way that keeps a family safe from external harm and themselves, since it would need to be loaded and ready to go if someone did break in, and having the bullets separate from the weapon defeats that purpose.
“But what about the safety?” as in, the little button you have to push to make the gun work pre-trigger pull. I would argue that a small child who can operate an iPad could also figure out a safety, if it wasn’t the first thing they pushed.
“But why not teach them gun safety in general?” Sure, my kids always listen to everything I tell them, too. If your child is an angel who does everything you say, maybe this will work. Otherwise, you may have a completely different type of angel on your hands.
I would not recommend having a gun in a small space like an RV, or if you do make damn sure your kids are fully aware of what it is and how it should be treated, and then please don’t allow any other kids in your RV.
How About Some Statistics?
These are very hard to come by. It seems that the Forest Service doesn’t keep any publicly available records on crimes that occur in their jurisdiction. The FBI has some statistics on BLM land, though.
The Washington Post did a story on fatalities in national parks. Their findings? You’re most likely to die from drowning or a vehicle accident, things that are completely possible in your own town or neighborhood.
Dangers associated with wildlife or which are weather-related were uncommon. Simply falling or committing suicide were more common ways to die, the latter occurring nearly one hundred times more often than any type of natural disaster befalling you. Interestingly, men die in national parks more often than women, and foreigners tend to find themselves in danger (especially Germans) more often than us true blooded ‘Mericans.
According to National Parks Traveler, in 2006 there were 11 deaths investigated across the national park system — a year when 273 million people visited the parks as a whole. These violent crimes boil down to two women being pushed from cliffs, a knife fight that went the way knife fights tend to, a person killed by a drunk driver and a woman shot. Another shooting happened at Golden Gate National Recreation Area (not exactly “the wild” given it is located just outside of San Francisco), when a man attempted to shoot some hang gliders, was unsuccessful but then killed a passerby before turning the gun on himself. Another death was a suicide. On the Blue Ridge Parkway, a woman simply enjoying the view was killed by a madman on a crime spree, while another body found nearby during a different incident was not killed in the park, but taken there in hopes of hiding the crime. The remaining two deaths were caused by gunshot wounds.
Beyond purely deaths, that same year the park service saw 320 assaults without weapons and 1,950 weapons offenses (which include simply having a gun in the national parks as well as shooting a bow and arrow, both illegal in most of the NPS). The vast majority of crimes involve being drunk in public or some other liquor-related offense.
Even with all 11 deaths and the 320 assaults, even if we include all 1,950 weapons offenses, that leaves us with 2,281 violent acts in the parks. Out of 273 million people that year. You need five zeros to even get to that percentage of people, .000008% of visitors were affected.
I found a more recent report that covers crimes in national parks, from 2014, published by the FBI. It shows 360 violent crimes in the national parks that year, with six more on BLM land and 21 more on Fish and Wildlife lands. 293 million people visited the parks. We’re still in an incomprehensibly small percentage here, .000001%. The national average, by the way, is .00004% (with only four zeros.)
It also reports on things like robbery (threatening another person while committing theft), burglary (breaking and entering, typically without the physical attack or threat on another human), rape, assault and motor vehicle theft. The most interesting part of this? While thousands of crimes of varying degrees were reported in national parks, the total number of crimes that year on BLM land — where most people tend to boondock — was five. Five crimes, millions of acres of free camping area. That leads one to believe that, despite the security precautions in place in private RV parks and state parks, camping for free way out in the nowhere may be the safest place you can be.
In fact, looking at those numbers where over 10,000 people were the victims of a violent crime of some sort in the national parks that year, the National Park Service had 1,996 police officers. BLM land had 265. This leads one to believe that it is the number of people within a close proximity that serves as a greater threat than the remoteness of a location.
At the end of the day though, we know a few things:
- It’s very unlikely you’ll be killed by a wild animal or the desert sun.
- You’re much more likely to drown in a river or while boating.
- Violent crimes occur one thousand times less frequently when comparing BLM and national park lands to the national average.
I would like to acknowledge that for the thousands of people who were hurt or killed in the statistics above, and their families, yes, the danger is absolutely real. Our hearts go out to anyone, not just those living on the road, who’s lives are altered forever by one of these incidents.
We just don’t see any reason why living out of an RV is any more dangerous than living out of a house or apartment building.
If you toss in my anecdotal evidence, not just from my own family but the dozens if not hundreds of other travelers we’ve met on the road, it is absolutely no more dangerous to raise your children on the road than it would be to do so in a more traditional setting. In fact, the data indicates it’s actually safer.