I just came back from a trip to Death Valley. As with every time I return from a roadtrip, I was flooded with emails and texts from friends saying, “Thank God you made it back. Are you sure you should be doing this?” By which they mean doing this alone. It was a few years ago, after several decades of trying to convince my British husband to go camping in National Parks, that I decided I was just going to have to roadtrip to National Parks on my own. See the Brits tamed every last square inch of their little island and most of them seem to have no interest in traveling to isolated places full of wildlife. Finally, I put Andy on the spot: “Are you EVER going to do National Parks with me?” And he said, “Never”. But then he bought me an RV. So he is, at least, supportive. If I’m honest, I was never going to find anyone to roadtrip with me, because I am the most eccentric roadtripper in the world. I once drove fifty miles out of my way in Wyoming to see the actual geological feature that gave the Teapot Dome scandal its name. I’ve also routed one trip through the isolated desert highway called the Loneliest Road in America (it’s the part of the old Lincoln Highway that crosses Nevada.) I brake for historical markers. And roadside kitsch. And old diners with home-made pies where the waitresses call you “Hon”.
I’m actually happier roadtripping alone. But I have a lot of friends and acquaintances who seem to hold their collective breath every time I set out. So let me put your minds at ease. I’m very, very safe and careful on the road. I think I’ve developed a great protocol for the single female traveler.
1. I travel by RV — the safest RV for single women, a Class B.
When I first started roadtripping alone, I drove my car and stayed in motels. Especially when you visit National Parks, most of the accommodations are in the often seedy towns 20 or so miles outside of the park. That’s when I felt unsafe. Once I had an RV, I could camp in Park campgrounds, which are patrolled by Smokey Bear-hatted Park rangers and filled with the nicest people. Bad guys don’t tend to pay the entrance fees to National Parks, and drive the 20 or 50 miles to get to said campgrounds to rob or assault campers. I find my RV, which is technically a campervan, particularly safe. I don’t have to unhitch anything or wrestle with stabilizers. I park and I’m done. I sleep inside within steps of the driver’s seat. So if I ever thought there was a nogoodnik outside, I could literally leap up, turn the key (which I leave right by the ignition) and drive out of there. To make an escape even easier, I pack up my outdoor rug, my camp chairs and retract my awning before I retire for the night. For all the single ladies, I would strongly recommend a Class B. Mine’s a Roadtrek Agile — complete with small kitchen, bathroom, queen sized bed and all the storage I need. But at only a little over 19 feet, it’s technically a car and can be backed up or parallel parked in any parking space.
2. I plan obsessively.
Actually I plan joyfully. Planning up all the details of a trip is almost as much fun as the trip. Maybe it’s growing up an Army Brat that makes me approach every roadtrip like a military operation. I research all the routes and the back-up routes. I read maps and double-check elevations and road grades. I have every weather and road condition app loaded on my phone. I check all the campsite review sites to see if any of the campgrounds I’m planning to stay at have bad reviews or reports of problems. Many RVers like to just hit the road as if they are Dean Moriarty mindlessly heading West. They boondock wherever they happen to stop, many times in Walmart or Cracker Barrel parking lots. Not for me! I like to know where I’m going to be stopping for the night and I feel comfortable when there is a reserved spot for me. I can’t imagine any place I would be MORE open to crime than a deserted Walmart parking lot. And besides, on no trip do I want to be ANYWHERE that would have a Walmart! In addition to researching campgrounds, I fill my travel journal with the phone numbers of ranger and rescue/emergency sources in each place I’m visiting. If I need to call for assistance, those numbers are handy.
3. I always have back-up options and I leave myself time to use them.
Even with the research I do on campsites, there have been one or two times that I showed up and just didn’t like the vibe of the place. Not a problem. I’d scouted out a few alternatives, had their phone numbers handy and could snag a last minute reservation. This plan also involves a hard and fast rule to get to my campground with at least two hours of daylight left. (I try not to arrive later than 3PM.) In a pinch or when there are no spots available in a campground, there are always Pilot/Flying J truck stops. I find these very, very safe. They are well lit and operate 24/7. They encourage RVers to stop. Just ask at the front desk where they want you, so you don’t inconvenience the truckers. I’m usually given the option of a quiet spot at the edge of the lot or a spot right up by the door where the nice attendants usually say, “We’ll keep an eye out for you.” I go for the upfront spots. I roll down my blackout curtains and I don’t mind the Country Music they pipe out onto the lot. There is a great app that lets you find all the Pilot/Flying Js on your route. (Find it at the Apple App Store or Google Play for the Android version). Bonus: they have great private showers that are cleaner than the cleanest campground I’ve ever been in. It will set you back $12 bucks, but it’s free to stay in the lot. For the price they give you a fresh towel and a hotel guest soap.
4. I don’t hike or wander into the wilderness alone.
This rule probably has more to do with my terrible sense of direction than it does with a fear of being mugged in the wilderness or mauled by a bear. Besides, I’m a huge fan of outfitters and guided hikes. I’ve taken them from the Grand Canyon to Moab, Anza-Borrego to Glacier National Park. I’ve never had a bad one. Most are led by enthusiastic local hikers who can point out the flora and fauna, regale you with wild stories, make sure you travel the most scenic route, and get back safely. If I can’t get on a guided hike, I’ve had good luck asking my neighbors at the campground if they are interested in hiking together. I’ve had some great experiences and made some good friends with this method. One of the highlights was a couple in their seventies I met at Yellowstone. We were hiking through a grizzly area, but my new friends were in an acappella singing group. They kept up a steady concert that I’m convinced entertained the bears so much they decided not to eat us. Actually most of the enthusiastic hikers I meet this way do tend to be people in their seventies. This might be due to the fact that most of my trips are off-season. I could be wrong, but I think I’m pretty safe from being mugged or robbed on the trail by a married couple in their seventies.
5. I have loads of electronics.
Thanks again to my techie husband. I have one device that gives me cell service and Internet access through satellite. I have a handheld GPS device that plots my hike and waypoints, also connects to the satellite network, and is preprogrammed with a dozen pre-written emergency texts. (So I can push a distress button and send my exact GPS coordinates to my husband or a local rescue outfit.) Oh, and I have portable solar chargers to keep them topped up. Andy hasn’t fitted me for a low-jack device yet, but I suspect that’s coming.
So that’s how I roll. I’m a firm believer that preparation can protect you from 99% of the world’s dangers or at least the dangers you might encounter on the backroads of America. I do have mace and an emergency whistle, but have never felt even remotely close to wanting to use them. I could still be hit by a meteor or, like Aeschylus, have an eagle drop a turtle on my head. But that could happen in my own backyard.
Might as well go roadtripping.