Safety tips for solo female travelers
My car isn?t ideal to sleep in, but it works. (Photo by Carmen K. Sisson/Cloudybright)
It?s a rainy summer night in Alabama, and I?m sleeping in my car at a truck stop. There?s a hotel across the street, but it?s too expensive and has a reputation for being sketchy. The good hotels are booked, so I?m making the best of it.
Last year, I began sleeping at truck stops regularly. It?s better than you think.
And no, I?m not a hardcore survivalist, hanging out in my oh-so-Instagrammable van with my bearded boyfriend, Sven. I?m a 45-year-old, single journalist driving a 2004 Pontiac Grand Am GT Coupe. It helps that I?m short. Unfortunately, I?m also wide. I make it work.
I adore nice hotels and think they?re safer for women traveling alone. Show me blackout curtains, plush carpet, and a down comforter and I?ll show you how a lifelong insomniac can get a solid 36 hours of sleep.
But sometimes your plans get derailed. Before you choose a Walmart parking lot or a rest area, consider bedding down at a truck stop. In some cities across the Southern United States, they?re a safer alternative.
But you have to plan well. This is the guide I needed when I began my truck stop adventures. Hopefully, I can help you avoid the mistakes I made.
Finding the right truck stop
Photo by James R. Martin/Shutterstock
Eventually, you?ll develop favorites. I prefer Pilot and Love?s, but Flying J and Mapco can work, depending on the city.
Large cities are not as safe for truck stop sleeping, so I get a hotel in places like Memphis, New Orleans, Houston, Birmingham, and Atlanta.
Before I decide on an area, I consult apps that show crime heat maps. When I?ve determined a safe location, I look for my favorite amenities.
One of the benefits of staying with one chain?? you get loyalty points for purchases and every truck stop feels familiar because Pilot is Pilot, whether you?re in Dallas or Knoxville, Tenn.
Other factors to consider
Size. I like truck stops with at least 75 parking spaces, preferably more. This allows a good separation between cars and trucks, an easier way to blend in, and plenty of traffic all night.
Lighting. The parking lot must be busy, clean, and well-lit. I won?t stay at dark, mostly vacant truck stops.
Shower facilities. Showers are not just for truckers. Anyone can get a shower for $7?10. They provide towels, and there is no time limit. Early morning and evening can be busy, so try to shower at slower times. This is a courtesy to the working drivers, and there?s a bonus for you?? you?re less likely to run out of hot water. There?s nothing worse than paying $10 for a cold shower.
Coffee. Most truck stops keep a wide variety of coffee brewing all night, and they?re usually well-stocked with flavoring, creamer, sweetener, and even tiny containers of concentrated caffeine. (Look for STOK. Be careful not to over-caffeinate. That?s a horrible feeling.)
Food. Most truck stops have attached restaurants, which are good for two reasons: You can eat if you?re hungry, and they will usually let you sit at their tables and work as long as they?re not crowded and you?re quiet. It?s also nice if the truck stop sells fruit. Try to eat healthier on the road. You?ll feel better, have more energy, and not have as many crave-inducing blood sugar drops.
Lounge. Nicer truck stops offer a truckers? lounge, which usually features comfortable chairs, a few tables, a television, and electrical outlets. Sometimes they also have arcade games. If it?s busy, leave that space to the men and women trying to relax between shifts. Late at night, the lounges are mostly empty.
Laundry services. This isn?t always a big deal, but if you?re going to be on the road a while, it?s nice to have a clean place to do laundry. Again, respect the needs of the truckers. I try to avoid doing laundry, but if I have to, I take care of it late at night or very early in the morning.
Free WiFi. This is nice, especially if your cell service plan offers limited data.
Figuring out where to park
Photo by Christian Chen on Unsplash
There are two lines of thinking here ? is it better to park near the front, where it?s bright and better trafficked, or is it better to park in the back, where it?s dark and quiet?
In the front, you?re immediately visible to everyone who comes and goes, including law enforcement. In some cities, it?s illegal to sleep in your car. You don?t want a ticket.
In the back, it?s usually darker, which isn?t as safe, and your car stands out among the big rigs. Truckers are usually no threat, but if you?re a woman alone, they ? or the cops ? might make unpleasant assumptions about why you?re there. Better to be safe than sorry.
If you must park among the big rigs, choose the end of a row, preferably alongside a pole or curb, and make sure your car is visible. You don?t want to be hit by a sleepy truck driver. If it?s foggy or rainy, don?t park among the trucks at all. Your odds of being hit are much higher.
I like the sides of parking lots, especially if they?re flanked by a wooden fence. I avoid parking alongside large shrubs, dumpsters, and storage sheds.
If a truly safe parking space doesn?t present itself, I park at the front, beneath a light but not adjacent to the entrance or exit.
- Avoid parking beside ?no loitering? or ?one-hour parking? signs. You can circumvent this rule by constantly changing places, but I?ve never had a problem with it.
- Avoid parking directly in front of or beneath surveillance cameras. They?re often on the corners of buildings or attached to light poles. It?s not that you?re doing anything wrong, you just don?t want a video camera filming you sleeping. That?s creepy.
- Back into the parking space so you can keep an eye on the overall surroundings. This also keeps your tag hidden, preventing others from knowing you?re not from the area.
- Take note of what?s behind you. Avoid parking anywhere a person could easily hide.
- Avoid parking beside a street/interstate facing sidewalk, because it presents a no-win choice: You want to face any direction from which people are likely to approach, but if you park facing the sidewalk, this leaves you nowhere to go if approached by someone with a taste for trouble. Yes, you could throw your car into reverse and back out, but this takes extra time ? if your safety is in jeopardy, you don?t have seconds to spare. It also puts you at a higher risk for a drive-by shooting, carjacking, or kidnapping, but if the area is that bad, you shouldn?t be sleeping outside at all.
- After you think you?ve found the perfect spot, test it. Kill the engine and lights. Keep your doors locked. Don?t play with your phone or tablet. Spend 30?45 minutes watching the traffic patterns.
- Keep an eye on random people wandering around aimlessly or panhandling. Also watch for signs of drug dealing, prostitution, and sex trafficking. If you see any of this, alter your parking position to a safer location or find another truck stop.
Inside the truck stop
Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash
Don?t give out too many details. It?s fine to make pleasantries?? it?s somewhat expected in the South?? but keep it generic. If anyone asks where you?re going, tell them you?re visiting family and change the subject. Don?t discuss your job, your residence, your plans for the night, or anything personal.
I generally avoid smiling or making eye contact. It feels unnatural and even rude, but it deflects unwanted attention and makes it easier to keep the chatter to a minimum.
Get everything you need so you?re not running in and out or repeatedly getting in and out of your car. You?ll likely want something to drink. Water is a good choice because it?s palatable at room temperature. If you travel often, you may want to pack a small ice chest.
Don?t buy or drink alcohol. In some states, you can get a DUI if you have access to alcohol, even if you aren?t drinking or you?re in the back seat of a parked car without keys.
Don?t buy a sleep mask, window screen, ear plugs, blankets, pillows, or anything else that calls attention to your sleeping plans. If you want these things, buy them elsewhere and keep them hidden.
Do not change clothes. If you know you?ll want to wear something more comfortable, change at a fast food restaurant before you get to the truck stop. Do not wear pajamas or sleepwear.
Don?t flash belongings. Keep your tech gadgets out of sight. Keep your wallet or purse close.
Do nothing that will attract attention to yourself or your car. You want to be invisible.
Getting ready for sleep
Photo by Vladimir Proskurovskiy on Unsplash
If you understand nothing else, you must understand this: Normal situations can become life-threatening in seconds. You must be able to see, hear, and escape from any real or perceived threat.
If you are in immediate danger, you must respond quickly and decisively. Avoid anything that puts you at a disadvantage.
If you wear contact lenses and have a current pair of glasses, consider removing your contacts. If you?re awakened suddenly, you won?t have time to re-wet your contacts and you don?t want blurry vision. If you can?t see without your glasses, don?t remove them when you go to sleep.
Don?t wear an eye mask or anything covering your face, and don?t block your windshield. Sunglasses may be OK as long as you can see well with them, but I don?t recommend them.
Do not wear headphones, earbuds, or earplugs. It?s fine to watch a movie or listen to music, but keep it low and stay safety aware.
If you take sleeping pills or other medications with a heavy sedative effect, don?t try any of this. Get a hotel. Please. Your safety is worth more than trying to save a buck.
Don?t drink. Don?t take drugs. Don?t chatter for hours on the phone. Don?t get into a text fight with your best friend.
Keep your head on straight.
When you?re sleeping in your car, your best weapons are your instincts, your reflexes, and your car itself.
I?m intentionally leaving out actual weaponry as it?s too involved to discuss here.
It may be tempting to sleep in the back seat, but don?t do it. You can recline the driver?s seat if you want. In fact, it?s a good idea, because you?ll sleep better and your head will be below window level, making it easier to escape detection.
Position your head so you can open your eyes at any moment ? without moving ? and check the rear view and side mirrors, as well as your windshield and side windows.
Throw a blanket or coat over your lap and keep at least one hand hidden. This may help you feel less vulnerable, and troublemakers may think twice since they don?t know if you?re holding a weapon.
Some say to sleep with the keys in your hand instead of the ignition. I always end up dropping the keys, so I leave them in the ignition. If someone is close enough to see my keys, I?ve already allowed them to get too close. It?s best to leave.
Do not untie or remove your shoes, and do not wear slippers.
Again, I can?t emphasize this enough: If you?re in danger, you don?t have time to find your shoes, put on your glasses, find your keys, or run through gears.
Hopefully, you?re in a safe place, and you will never need this. But you need to be mentally ready and physically able to sit up, crank the engine, and drive away before anyone can enter your car.
Your second best response, if you can?t drive away, is to engage your car?s burglar alarm, but people hear these so often that they?re mostly ignored. This would be my last resort. The best defense is a good offense. Don?t get yourself into a situation you can?t get out of. It?s harder than it sounds.
Photo by Simone Acquaroli on Unsplash
- Management asks you to leave. Apologize profusely and vacate the premises. Do not argue.
- Cops arrive. Put your hands on the steering wheel, and keep them visible. Don?t reach for anything. Don?t make sudden moves. Don?t argue. Apologize. Explain that you?re passing through but needed rest. Offer to vacate the premises.
- A stranger approaches your car. This is a judgment call, but understand this: Misjudging danger can cost you dearly. Generally, I drive away if anyone other than management or law enforcement approaches. I feel bad about this, because most of the time, the stranger probably had an innocent reason. I?m unwilling to take that chance.
- You?re trapped. You?ve backed into a parking place, but one or more cars hem you in, trapping you. Try to park somewhere this isn?t possible, watch your surroundings, and get the hell out of dodge if things feel weird.
Example: This happened to me tonight. I was parked in an open area to the side of the parking lot. There were lots of other parking spaces, but two guys parked their van alongside my car and sat in it with the engine running, drinking beer and playing music. I was uneasy but held my place. A few minutes later, a pickup truck with three guys pulled in on the other side of me.
This was all likely coincidence but trust your instincts. I didn?t like the way the cards were stacked, so I removed myself from the game. I casually cranked my car and parked in front of the building. I?m now writing this from the restaurant inside. No one is here, so I?m not in anyone?s way, and I feel safer.
Is it worth it?
Photo by Ty Williams on Unsplash
By this point, you?re probably thinking I?m either terribly fearful or a killjoy. Why would anyone go through this much to sleep in their car at a truck stop?
I wish we all had unlimited money to stay in beautiful hotels for as long as we wanted. I would live in a hotel if I could. But that?s not the world most of us inhabit.
Making do with less doesn?t have to be the end of the world.
I think everyone should sleep in their car at least once. It changes you. It makes you realize that if the world ended tomorrow, if you lost your home, if you couldn?t find a safe hotel, or if you were destitute, you could do this.
It?s incredibly freeing to realize you can take care of yourself. It might not be fun, but you will be alright.
In my case, sleeping in my car occasionally allows me to take more time on assignments without killing my profit margin. It allows me to work for publications that don?t have massive travel budgets. It keeps me from having to sleep in sleazy motels with cockroaches and bed bugs.
I?ve been in many hotels that made me long for the cleanliness of my car, and if you could see my car right now, you would raise your eyebrows over that.
But tonight (last night now) I couldn?t get a decent hotel ? for any price. It didn?t stress me, because I knew it wasn?t a problem.
You would be fair to point out that it?s 8 a.m., and I?ve written all night instead of sleeping. Yes, I?m tired. I would have slept well in a hotel. I will regret this later when I?m exhausted. But I?m mostly a night owl, and I?m a horrible sleeper, so it?s all OK.
Don?t be afraid of life, but don?t take chances either. I truly believe that most people are good; I prepare for the handful who are not.
It?s a big world out there, filled with wondrous things.
Go. Live. Be happy. Stay safe.