It’s considered unsafe and dangerous in many places or countries, since at night is when things happen that you don’t want to happen. The night still is to many of us, scary. Fear results in more subconscious based decisions, but the secret of freedom camping safety lies in something very counter-intuitive for many people. This won’t apply to people camping in safe areas in generally safe countries, in a National Park in Canada for example. This is about camping in places where the general atmosphere is not so safe.
Considering camping anywhere but at a designated campsite freedom camping, or wild camping if you prefer. Whether this is in a vehicle or with a tent is less relevant, although a tent is more restrictive and more obvious of course. Since we’re overlanders travelling with a vehicle, this is mostly catered towards forms of vanlife, but it does apply to camping with tents too. During our travels through Central and South America we’ve seen many warnings on the iOverlander app about break-ins and robberies. When we drove past those locations we thought; How could somebody have thought this was a good spot for the night? In regards to safety, freedom camping is very counter intuitive.
This is what many people try, but fail desperately. Trying to hide and not be seen to avoid any issues. Because if you’re going unnoticed, you’re safe, right? Essentially correct. But they people forget that they’re visitors to a place and people that would potentially see you are most likely locals. That’s a game you’ll always lose unless there just is nobody else.
If you’re unseen for the big crowd, but not for a small number of locals knowing the place like their own pocket, you actually cover their potential crimes. Somebody who wants to do something illegal is more likely to act that way when their chances of getting caught are smaller. Trying to hide is not a bad thing, but people trying to do so mostly perform very poor and only create their own problems. Only follow this rule in a less safe environment if you’re completely sure you won’t be discovered.
In the spotlights
Rather counter-intuitive, it’s better to park up somewhere where everybody sees you. Strong in numbers. When many people see your vehicle during the night continuously it provides you safety. It’s also obvious to a potential criminal that they will be seen trying to break in your car. This makes it less likely they will decide to do so.
There are vehicles parked everywhere, and the trick is to park somewhere where everybody sees your vehicle, but nobody thinks; “That’s weird.” If you park somewhere strange, you tend to attract unwanted attention from authorities. Maybe not as much of a problem as criminals, but still unwanted attention. Park somewhere where it’s normal to see a car parked. You must make sure people do see you, but they don’t think anything of it.
An extra plus is of course when your vehicle is low-profile or stealth, when the outside doesn’t reveal what happens inside. Vans without windows are particularly good for this, nobody will notice it’s a camper. Whereas a big RV will leave no doubt, for this reason sleeping inside a vehicle is better than (roof-top) tents.
I have parked right in the heart of Moscow for free, on the parking lot of a McDonald’s. Zero problems, zero attention. They had about 10 parking spaces in front of the building right on the main road, I parked diagonally across from the windows. The employees giving out the food saw my vehicle every time they did that, as well as everybody passing the vehicle. But since it was a parking, nobody conciously thought anything when they saw the vehicle. And since McDonald’s is so international, seeing a car with foreign license plates wasn’t strange either. Free security, every potential criminal would have been seen. Inside though, behind blinded windows, I was hidden and had a perfect night.
On the other hand, I’ve been knocked out of my bed by a security warden in New Zealand. I stood with a very obvious rental camper, on the designated parking, but not in a designated parking space. In other words, I was one too many on the parking. I was obvious with the camper, and I was in a strange spot. Luckily I only got asked to move and there was no fine.
If you surroundings are sketchy and you opt to go freedom camping, act counter intuitive for your safety. Park where you will be seen by the crowd at night, unless you’re super sure you’re completely alone. Don’t park on the romantic deserted beach where you think there will be nobody else, or don’t park off the dirt road in the forest where you think you’ll be alone. That’s where you’ll get in trouble. Rather park in an area where there are many people living and/or there’s a lot of traffic.