Gabby Petito's death has female van lifers reflecting on their lifestyle, safety: 'Never be scared to move on'

·5-min read
NORTH PORT, FL - SEPTEMBER 20: A makeshift memorial dedicated to missing woman Gabby Petito is located near City Hall on September 20, 2021 in North Port, Florida. A body has been found by authorities in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming that fits the description of Petito, who went missing while on a cross-country trip with her boyfriend Brian Laundrie.  (Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images)
A makeshift memorial dedicated to Gabby Petito is located near City Hall on Sept. 20, 2021 in North Port, Fla. A coroner confirmed Petito's body was found in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming on Tuesday. (Photo by Octavio Jones/Getty Images)

Van life has taken social media by storm and glamorized life on the road — and the death of 22-year-old Gabby Petito has only turned more attention on the lifestyle.

On Tuesday, Teton County Coroner Dr. Brent Blue confirmed the remains found in Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming are those of Gabby Petito, who went missing on a cross-country road trip with her fiancé. Her death has been ruled a homicide. "The cause of death remains pending final autopsy results," FBI Denver special agent in charge Michael Schneider said in a statement. 

Petito's fiancé, Brian Laundrie, declined to provide information to the police and disappeared from his family's home in Florida last week. He has been named a person of interest and is actively being sought by authorities.

Petito's tragic story has raised a lot of questions about safety for van lifers, and Instagram is filled with stories from people who have had their own brushes with break-ins or just experienced weird gut feelings that led them to take extra safety precautions:

One of them is Josie Hartlin, who tells Yahoo Life that safety is a concern of hers. 

"At the beginning, I was far braver than I am these days," Hartlin, who started her van life journey four years ago in Canada, says. "I used to park anywhere and not think too much about it, but I have noticed a shift in how I feel about safety and van life. I honestly used to think there was no difference between men and women who do van life, but that was a combination of optimism, feminism and ignorance." Hartlin says she travels alone "quite often" with her dog. "I have taken my van across Canada four times alone, and often opt for parking in secluded wooded areas," she says.

Hartlin says that the longer she followed a van life lifestyle, "the more I became aware of other people, my surroundings and potential hazards." While the 25-year-old says that she doesn't stress about her safety on a regular basis, she does try to take certain precautions to ensure she'll be OK. 

Fellow van lifer Bionca Smith, who currently is traveling in the U.S. with her son, tells Yahoo Life that she's "never worried about our safety because I started doing van life before it became a huge trend, which meant that I felt more incognito." Still, Smith, 33, says she's created some "basic safety procedures" for privacy and emergencies to keep her family safe on the road.

Smith says doesn't put her social media handles on her van and has tinted windows, a screen and thick privacy blinds to block out prying eyes. "If someone was too close to my van, and I’d fear it was a possible drunk person, I'd turn the lights on immediately and make noise to run them off," she says. Smith also takes a moment before leaving her van whenever she parks at a new location. "I would never get out of my van immediately and I'd park on the side of a fence so when it came time for me to get out, no one could see me," she says. 

Smith also has a knife in her van and a can of bear spray "because it's loud and could be useful in many ways," she says. Those protocols have helped "tremendously" in allowing Smith to maintain her privacy and stay safe on the road, she says.

Hartlin says her biggest concerns are around when she's parked, "because when static and sleeping, I think that's when anyone is the most at risk." 

"Most of the time if I'm alone, I make sure I am parked in cell service," she says. "If I'm not, I have a SPOT device which allows me to communicate with parents or police wherever I am." Hartlin says she also has a mantra that she trusts "my gut and my mutt" and will leave an area if she or her dog feels uncomfortable. "Although my dog is small, I feel like he helps with safety because he will alert me if someone is around the van and his bark is bigger than him," she says.

Hartlin also keeps a metal flashlight and ax within close reach of her bed. She recently installed a security system in her van, too that will sound if a window or lock is broken.

Hartlin stresses the importance of having a good heating system after waking up one night in the winter of 2020 with no heat. "I learned it is essential to always have a backup plan for how you're going to heat your van and stay warm," she says, noting that temperatures had dropped so low on that night that her van wouldn't even start.

She also says it's "critical" for people to understand how their vans work and to have them regularly maintained, along with understanding how to change a tire and boost a battery. "You may be out of service or alone at night and get a flat that no one can help you with," she points out.

But mostly, Hartlin says that she tries to choose her sleeping spots carefully. "I am always prepared to move if I feel like I should," she says. "I feel that these precautions help because they are easy and often passive. I'm not spending too much energy being worried, I am prepared and I have systems already in place to help myself feel safe." 

Hartlin offers this advice for her fellow road warriors: "You really need to trust what feels right for you, and never be scared to move on, even if it is late and you're tired."

Want lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting