10 Great Safety Tips for Solo Road Trips
How to Stay Safe When Traveling Alone - In Car and at Campsite
Pat Tillman Bridge: Hoover Dam. Boulder City, NV - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue
Traveling alone, especially as a female, can seem like a rather daunting feat. Horrific stories can sometimes prevent us from going on adventures just because we are afraid to go by ourselves. On January 1st, 2021 I left on a 6 month journey to visit each and every one of the National Parks within the contiguous United States...alone. I was hesitant at first, but since none of my friends were interested in going cross-country while living in a car, the only way I was going to check this trip off my bucket list was to go by myself! Over the course of this journey, I learned to love the freedom that solo travel gave me.
Before and during my trip across the country, the most frequently made comment people said to me was “Wow, you are going alone?!” I assured them (and often myself!) that yes I was indeed going alone, and I would be just fine. Along my journey, safety was paramount and I quickly made several rules to live by - sure some may seem obvious, and not all are necessarily backed up by empirical science - but it doesn't mean they aren't important, and it doesn't mean they can't help! Although my trip was solo, these tips generally apply to road trips where friends tag along as well!
Route 34: Drake, CO - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue
Be vague with strangers!
Traveling is all about meeting new, awesome people - on the road or on the trail. However, be sure to keep it vague if someone asks you about the specifics of your plans, or where you are setting up camp for the night. I often told people I was meeting up with friends later (since it was pretty obvious I was alone) or was expecting to leave the area that day.
Look for other solo travelers!
Camp together, hike together, keep each other safe. This one might take some practice and some trust, but I met some amazing women out on the road that I still keep in touch with to this day. If you spot another fellow solo traveler - introduce yourself! They often have great stories, and usually would love to share a campfire or morning coffee.
Camp next to families!
The last thing you'd likely want to do on your camping trip in the solitude of the wilderness is to camp next to noisy kids, but if you roll into a campground late at night or just feel not so safe in a particular area - find a family or group and camp close to them. I did this a few times when I stopped for the night in campgrounds right outside of large cities, where I was camping for convenience rather than leisure. I think of kids as generally a sign of safety and I've found that parents tend to be more apt to help people in need, especially a young female. I also feel like it is less likely for something to happen to me when there is a larger group of people around.
Highway 1: Olema, CA - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue
This might be the most painfully obvious one on the list, but when you pull into a new area - this is the time to make judgments. See who's around you, and see what the area is like. Be aware of your surroundings at all times, and be sure to look out for any posted warnings. For example, when I pulled into my Rocky Mountain National Park campsite I was greeted with a sign that said there had been black bear activity at my site, so I made sure to use the bear box that was provided and store my food and garbage properly.
Make camp before dark!
Setting up your campsite before the sun sets can allow you time to survey the area and maybe see if there is someone camping off in the distance - or search for unwanted animal tracks in your vicinity. I felt more comfortable sleeping with no one around me when I was in remote locations. So, if I arrived and someone was camping in the area, I would just be extra aware of who it is and their actions as I was making camp for the night. If there are animal tracks - be sure to store food properly. Apart from these benefits - this is just good planning in general. It is far easier to set up your tent, cook, and do dishes while not holding a flashlight!
Share your location with a trusted friend/family member!
Oftentimes when out in the wilderness you can find yourself with just enough service to make a phone call, but not use the internet. When this happens, if you've already shared your location with friends/family back home, you can call them and have them help you search for a campsite, grocery store, gas station, etc. This is especially helpful because it can be difficult to describe exactly where you are if you're in the middle of a park somewhere.
Route 10: Dragoon, AZ - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue
Carry a Satellite Communicator!
Losing cell phone service when heading out “off the grid” can be a true sign you're deep in the wilderness. Oftentimes, the best trails and campsites don't have any sort of service. My Garmin inReach device went everywhere with me, and was my lifeline if I ever needed help on my trip and didn't have reception with my phone. I used my Garmin whenever I arrived at a location where I intended to stay for the night that didn’t have phone coverage. When I arrived at my campground in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, I was able to shoot a preset message to my parents that said “I am OK. Staying here for the night” - which would be sent directly to their cell phones along with the GPS coordinates of my location. I also used it to lay tracking points every 10 minutes on my longer hikes in case I lost the trail and needed to backtrack or call for help.
Camp under lights!
Sometimes open campgrounds are nowhere to be found, and you end up needing to sleep in your car in a parking lot. I usually opted for a Walmart or Cabelas parking lot and fortunately never personally had any bad experiences. Although both stores don’t have a very clear policy on overnight camping and length of stay, I always made a quick phone call or visit to the customer service desk inside to ask. I never had any employee tell me I couldn't stay. and sometimes I even had managers tell me I could camp regardless of the "no camping" signs in the parking lot - It never hurts to ask! I always parked under a light, and finding a light post with a security camera was a bonus. Although it can be tempting to park in the dark corner for a good night's sleep without being bothered, a well-lit area can help to deter unwanted visitors.
Related: Check out Pathloom's Guide to Boondocking for more ways to sleep your way across the country for free!
Highway 62, Chihuahuan Desert: Salt Flat, TX - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue
Pepper spray and/or alarm!
The goal of course is to never need to use them, but having both pepper spray and some sort of a handheld alarm can make you feel safer, and give you a first line of defense if needed. I carried pepper spray EVERYWHERE I went. I never carried a personal alarm, but I slept with my keys right next to me during the night to be able to sound my car alarm if I needed help during the night.
Trust your instincts!
The most important one for last. Your gut feeling is always right. If you have a funny feeling about something - trust it. When you're traveling through extraordinary places it can be hard to pass up experiences. But, not pushing the limits on safety and taking a step back, when I encountered things such as unwanted animal prints, snowy roads, icy trails and dinner invitations from strangers proved to keep me safe throughout my journey.
Route 12: Escalante, UT - Photo Credit: Bryan Donoghue
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