Self Defense For Road Trippers, Van Lifers, And Digital Nomads
It wasn’t until we witnessed a drug deal go bad at a border town truck stop that I stopped to seriously consider safety. Certainly, I had thought about it. We covered our windows at night to deter attention. I sleep with a hatchet and a bottle of bear spray next to my pillow and have yet to maim my driving companion. But are these practical safety precautions, or do they just make sense in my head?
These considerations prompted me to reach out to David Erath Jr. of Practical Self Defense to ask about safety considerations that matter to those who live on the road.
David: I’d like to start this interview with something I feel is very important. Questions and answers on self defense are a serious matter. They can come across as scary, causing people to have unnecessary anxiety. For the vast majority of people reading this, becoming a victim of physical violence is unlikely. And if you take basic precautions it is *extremely* unlikely. You are far more likely to die in a car accident or from eating unhealthy food. So for those of you who are traveling the world, don’t worry to much! Enjoy yourselves! From my point of view you’d be far better off maximizing your life experience instead of staying indoors because you’re worried about crime.
With that said, preventative knowledge is a good thing. Knowing what to do and what not to do will make you safer, and by taking a few precautions you can rest easy knowing you have done everything you can to minimize your chance of becoming a victim. My advice is to read this interview, internalize it, and follow the recommendations, but not to be overly worried about any of it. Happy travels!
Avoiding Dangerous Places
Since we are constantly traveling it puts us in many different areas, some of those are the “in between” spaces described on your website. Could you talk a little about what makes an “in between” space and the dangers of these places – particularly parking lots and deserted areas such as hiking trails or empty campgrounds.
David: One of the most important concepts in self defense is to avoid dangerous places. In my book I break dangerous places down into these categories: high crime areas, among violent people, among people who don’t like you, verbal escalations, in-between places, and lawless places. Different categorizations can also work, but I find these particularly useful.
You asked what makes an in-between place, and about the dangers of these places. An in-between place is a place that people pass through on their way to another place. They can be more or less dangerous based on a number of factors, particularly the number and frequency of people passing through them, the time of day/night, their proximity (how easy they are to get into and out of by criminals), and a variety of other factors.
A parking garage is a good example. Parking garages are always in-between places. But they aren’t always dangerous places. A shopping mall parking garage on a weekend where a big sale is going on at the mall, with people continuously coming in and out, is unlikely to be dangerous. But a parking garage that might have one person coming and going every 20 minutes, particularly if it is relatively close to other dangerous areas and there are no cameras or attendants, is different.
What makes an in-between place dangerous or not is how easy it is for a criminal to get into and out of it without being noticed, how likely it is that victims will pass through on a somewhat regular basis, and how likely it is that a criminal can reliably attack with no witnesses to see the attack. So an in-between place that has a continuous stream of people passing through isn’t going to be nearly as attractive to a criminal as a place where one or two people pass through every 20 minutes on average.
As far as hiking trails or empty campgrounds, one factor is how far they are from places where criminals are likely to live, and what kind of criminal we are talking about. Someone looking to rob someone for their wallet or purse is unlikely to drive 2 hours to a hiking trail or campground in the middle of nowhere, just to steal a wallet. They’d be far better off waiting in some in-between location in a city. On the other hand, a somewhat isolated hiking trail or campground could be a good place for a rapist or psychopath to find a victim, but I wouldn’t be overly concerned about that. Hikers and people camping tend to be in good shape and travel in groups, or at least in pairs. In general it would be easier to find a better victim elsewhere. One exception may be on hiking/jogging trails that are on the edge of a city or town, that single individuals use for exercise. These paths would be an ideal location for certain predators to find victims.
There are always exceptions, but in general I would be more weary walking at night down a side street in a city between a parking street and a tourist attraction than I would on any hiking trail. The key is to be aware of the potential risks in any given place, and to scale up your avoidance and awareness as the risks increase. If I were a single woman jogging on a path that people tend to pass down once or twice an hour, I would be *very* cautious if I saw a man who didn’t look like he belonged on the path, for example. I would probably turn around and run the other way, pepper spray in hand. But if I was a with another guy hiking on a trail and saw a couple of guys approaching who looked like hikers, I wouldn’t be concerned.
Crossing A Parking Lot: Increasing Risks & Decrease Rewards
In reading your site, it’s pretty clear that one of the most important parts of self defense is to not be a target at all. What are some pointers you could offer to people who are parked in a truck stop or other parking lot for the night? How can they increase risks, decrease rewards for potential assailants while crossing a parking lot?
David: I’m no expert on truck stops in particular, as I’ve never parked in one over night, but the same basic concepts apply as with anywhere else. In general you would be better off in a parking lot that is well lit, with a 24 hour service station or restaurant, cameras, with more people in it, and with more people coming and going. What you don’t want is to be the only vehicle in a semi-deserted lot that is poorly lit and with people passing infrequently.
Again, there may be exceptions. A parking lot in the middle of nowhere that takes a good bit of time to get to may be safer just because it is so far away. And a parking lot filled with drunk men isn’t going to be the best place for a lone woman to sleep in her car. Unfortunately there are no answers that are always 100% correct, but using a bit of common sense and relying on how you feel about a place will go a long way.
As far as increasing risks and decreasing rewards, on the increasing risks side I would always carry a weapon that I know how to use when traveling. This can be something as small and non-lethal as pepper spray or a tactical flashlight, or as much as a machete or firearm. But in order to carry any weapon you *must* know how to use it, and you must only use it when legally justified. The basic principles in my first book, also detailed on the awareness and prevention section of my website apply. To increase risks you should be as fit and aware as possible. An attacker will prefer to chose a victim that looks like an easier target.
As far as decreasing rewards, I would primarily try to avoid carrying valuables in plain sight, or anything that looks like valuables could easily be inside. When crossing a parking lot it would be better to have a single credit card in your pocket than an overloaded purse, for example.
Protecting Our Vehicles (And Our Homes)
Since our vehicles are our homes, we need to treat them the same way we would a house when it comes to security. We have valuable possessions inside, not to mention the car itself. Any thoughts on useful features that can help lower the risk of forced entry?
David: To lower the risk of forced entry I think hiding valuables and keeping the doors locked are essential. I had a hidden “kill switch” installed on a truck I had more than 20 years ago, back when they were perhaps easier to steal. That may be a good option if the vehicle is prone to being hot wired. Visual privacy in whatever area of the vehicle you are sleeping in is a great idea. Ideally you want to be able to see out, but you don’t want anyone seeing in. A car alarm that you can trigger yourself is also a very good option. Criminals don’t want attention, and the sound of a car alarm going off may cause many of them to leave in fear of it drawing witnesses to the area.
Inside the vehicle is a very particular self defense scenario. Often the area is incredibly tight. For example: we sleep on a platform with three feet of head space at the most and six feet wide. I keep a bottle of bear spray and a hatchet next to me and I’ve considered getting a baton or a taser.
Regarding someone attempting to break into a vehicle that you are in, physical self defense in such a scenario, and weapon use, my recommendations are similar to home defense in that you need layers of defense. First, breaking in needs to be as difficult as possible. Keep the doors locked and the windows up. Second, if you are in an isolated area, you may be able to rig up some kind of proximity alarm that gives you early warning when any person or animal approaches your car. Third, have the ability to trigger your standard car alarm. Many car alarms these days come with a unit that you can put on your key ring where you can press a “panic button”. Hopefully the sound of either your proximity alarm or the car alarm going off will cause the attacker to flee.
If the attacker does break through your window despite the alarm(s) going off, and continues to try to get in with you inside, you have a very serious problem on your hands! For this reason, just like with home defense, I would recommend having a weapon that you know how to use. This will dramatically increase your odds, especially if the attacker doesn’t see it coming.
You mentioned bear spray and a hatchet. Bear spray/pepper spray is fine in certain outdoor situations when an opponent is not armed with a gun, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it from inside of a car. It’s too likely that you’ll end up being effected by the spray yourself, having it bounce off a seat, the roof, the window frame, etc.. You could exit on the other side of the car and spray the attacker inside (not a bad move), or you could exit the other side of the car and spray the attacker outside. If you do exit the car I would use the car as a barrier between yourself and the attacker.
A hatchet is going to be a little difficult to use in a car or truck due to the way it needs to be swung. It’s not an entirely bad option, but you would be better off with something you can also “stab” with, like a pointed machete. In either case, you really have to know how to use whatever weapon you carry. You don’t want an attacker to take it from you and use it against you.
I’m hesitant to recommend a gun due to all the issues surrounding them. You have to know how and when to use them, taking innocent bystanders into account, proper/safe storage, legality, etc., etc.. But if I was sleeping with my wife in the middle of nowhere, in the back of a truck, and someone started breaking in despite my alarm going off, I would want to have the option of shooting them when they got through the door. When my wife and I did more camping in the US, we always brought a shotgun along. I know that’s not always possible or legal.
Self Defense & Martial Arts
For those not already studying some form of self defense, what next steps would you advise people to take who are interested in preparing themselves against worst case scenarios? Are there particular martial arts that you consider to be most practical for self defense?
David: Regarding martial arts or self defense classes, the unfortunate reality is that most martial arts are not geared toward realistic self defense at all, and most self defense classes are short term classes that don’t have enough depth to take a practitioner very far. Most classes are also very limited in terms of the material they cover…only stand up, only ground, only unarmed, only weapons, etc..
In addition, learning to physically defend against attackers that probably have an advantage in the first place (size, numbers, weapons, and/or the element of surprise) and are literally trying to hurt or kill you, takes a good deal of hard training and dedication.
MMA training is going to be the most realistic training in terms of dealing with a fully resisting opponent. And Krav Maga is probably the most widely available self defense focused system. Neither are 100% ideal for self defense for a variety of reasons, but MMA combined with Krav Maga and weapons training would be a good combination. Most people are unlikely to do all three!
I don’t want to come across as being self promotional, but my books cover just about everything a practitioner needs for both unarmed self defense and weapon use and defense. However, reading them is not enough. A person will need to train the material in order to be able to truly use it.
In the vast majority of cases just avoiding dangerous areas, parking and stopping in places that feel safe, keeping your doors locked and using an alarm, and maintaining a safe distance from suspicious people is going to take care of your self defense needs. If you are ever threatened, I would recommend giving the attackers what they want, as long as it isn’t you. None of your things are worth your life.
If you want to take it to another level, into physical self defense, weapon use, etc., then training becomes necessary. Even with training, I would highly recommend spending some time on my website to get a good understanding of what works and what doesn’t. It’s hard for a beginner to know what works under pressure, when everything in the cooperative environment of the martial arts school is set up to look like it works.
Thanks David for answering our questions. If anyone has further questions, how about adding them to the comments section below and we can see if we can do a follow up Q&A!