I’ve locked myself out of my vehicle several times. It’s happened in the city, and it’s happened in the middle of nowhere. It’s bad enough when a person living in a conventional dwelling in a town or city locks themselves out of a vehicle, but those folks usually have resources to help them deal with the situation. They may have friends, neighbors, or family members available to assist. Even if they don’t have roadside assistance coverage, they may be able to find a reasonably priced locksmith to unlock the vehicle. If all else fails, they may be able to take a bus or walk to where they need to be, whether that’s work, home (where someone else who lives there might be able to let them in to get a spare key), or a friend’s house.
Nomads often find themselves in situations without a helpful local support network to turn to for help. Rubber Tramps often have to rely on themselves or the kindness of strangers. My tips for preventing, preparing for, and dealing with a lockout can help you get through this challenge of life on the road.
#1 Admit to yourself that a lockout if bound to happen. While some people are convinced that thinking about a negative event will cause that event to happen, I’m convinced that thinking about a negative event will allow me to prepare for it. Think about the ways you can prepare for a lockout. Think about how you will handle a lockout if it occurs in different locations. How you handle a lockout in the city will be different from how you handle it in a remote location. How you handle a lockout if you have roadside assistance will be different from how you handle it if you don’t have that kind of coverage.
#2 Know where your keys are. When I was a full-time vandweller, my first rule of van life was Always know where your keys are. I wore the keys to my van around my neck for years. I found them a lot easier to keep tabs on when they were on my person. The keys hung around my neck until I put the starter key in the ignition. As soon as I parked and turned off the engine, the keys went back around my neck. Before I got out of the van, I physically touched the keys to make sure they were where they were supposed to be.
If wearing keys around your neck doesn’t work for you, that’s fine. Just make sure when you exit the vehicle, you know where your keys are before you lock the doors. Don’t ever assume the keys are where they are supposed to be; physically check before you lock.
#3 Keep a spare key in something you always take with you. If you always carry your purse or backpack or wallet or case for your sunglasses with you, keep a spare key there. That way, if you leave your main set of keys on the dashboard or in the bed, you’ll have a spare with you. Of course, if you leave the purse or backpack or wallet or sunglass case behind, the spare won’t be able to help you if you lose your keys or lock them inside your rig.
#4 Hide a key under your rig. Some nomads swear by this trick, although I’ve never done it myself. Many department stores and hardware stores sell little boxes that hold a spare key. The boxes have a magnet on them to hold them to the metal underside of a vehicle or motorhome. I’ve always been afraid the box would bounce off on a bumpy road, and I’d be left keyless in my time of need. I’ve been assured the magnets on the boxes are very strong. If I were using this method of protection, I would determine the strength of the magnet before hitting the road and maybe add some additional magnets for added protection against losing the box and key.
Another way to hide a key under a rig is by taping it to the frame. If I were going to do this, I would use Gorilla Tape (the strongest I’ve found) to attach the key in an out-of-the-way place. I would use plenty of tape and make sure the key was firmly attached.
My biggest fear about hiding a key under my rig is that a knowing thief could come along, find the key, and steal my not just my ride, but my home too. When hiding a key under a rig, you’ll want to find the sweet spot between making the hiding place too difficult for you to get to but not making it difficult enough to thwart a thief. Find the best hiding place you can and don’t tell anyone you don’t trust completely where it is.
#5 If you stay in one area, leave a spare key with someone you trust. Maybe another nomad could keep a spare key for your van on their key ring or in their rig. Maybe you have a friend or relative in town who could hold onto a spare for you.
#6 If you’re traveling with other people, get one of those folks to carry your spare key. When I traveled with Mr. Carolina, I had copies of keys to unlock the van’s doors and start the engine made. I put those keys on a ring and had him carry them. Later when The Man and I began traveling together, I handed the keys over to him. I never locked myself out when I traveled with either of those guys, but if I had, the spare keys they carried would have made the lockout no big deal.
#7 Have roadside assistance that covers lockouts.Roadside assistance may not help you if you are in a remote location, but it can be a lifesaver if you’re in a city when you lock yourself out.
When I lived full-time in my van, I had roadside assistance through my insurance policy. Now that I drive a truck that I don’t live in, I still have roadside assistance through my insurance policy. I pay less than $40 a year for roadside assistance that covers towing, opening a locked vehicle, changing a flat tire, jump starting a dead battery, and delivering fuel if I run out.
Other organizations that provide roadside assistance, including lockout services, include the American Automobile Association (AAA), the Good Sam Club, and the Better World Club, and the Paragon Motor Club. (To learn more about the companies mentioned above and others, check out the RV Living Now article “Best Roadside Assistance Plans for RVs.“)
Compare plans before you sign up for service. Cost is not the only factor you should consider. Some plans only cover RVs, so if you’re a vandweller, be sure the plan you are considering will cover you. If you spend most of your time in remote locations, make sure the company you chose will actually dispatch a service person if you are far from a city. For example, AAA won’t provide services if the repair person has to drive on a dirt road to get to your rig. Before you spend any money, know what services the plan you’re choosing provides and how many times per year you can use the services.
#8 Know the phone number to your roadside assistance provider. Having roadside assistance isn’t going to help if you can’t contact the dispatcher. Keep the phone number to your roadside assistance provider in your wallet or program it into your phone.
#9 Keep your phone on you. On two occasions, I not only locked my keys in my van, but I also left my phone inside. Luckily the number to my roadside assistance provider was in my wallet, and I’d brought my wallet with me. I had to beg the workers at the Goodwill Clearance Center where I was shopping to let me use the office phone to make the call. I understand wanting to leave the phone behind sometimes, but it can be a huge help in the event of a lockout.
#10 Plan ahead for breaking into your rig. What would you do if you were in a remote location and had no phone service to call for help or couldn’t afford to pay the fee for a locksmith to make the long trip to where you were? What if you locked your phone in your rig and couldn’t call for help?
During our last summer working on the mountain in California, The Man managed to lock both his keys and Jerico the dog in his minivan. When I returned to the campground after work, he had been trying for hours to break into the vehicle. He tried using the radio antenna, a screwdriver, and a metal marshmallow roasting stick to unlock a door, but couldn’t get anything to work. We went back to the Mercantile and used the phone to call a tow service in the closest little town. The dispatcher said she could send someone to pop the lock, but charges would begin to accrue when the locksmith started the drive up the mountain. It was going to cost hundreds of dollars to get the minivan open, and The Man didn’t have roadside assistance on his insurance policy.
We returned to the campground, and The Man was determined to get into the minivan. Finally, he took the handle mechanism off of one of the sliding side doors and was able to finagle the latch to get the door to open. Jerico was happy to be free, but The Man was sad he’d damaged the door handle beyond repair.
On another occasion while I was traveling alone, I locked both my keys and phone in my van. I was on the brink of trying to bust a window when a good Samaritan used a hammer and chisel to remove one of my van’s side doors from its hinges. Once the door was off its hinges, I was able to reach in and unlock the door.
What I’m suggesting here is that you think about how you would get into your rig before you actually have to do so. Is there a window you could shimmy through if it were open? Is there a window you could pry open if necessary? Could you pop the lock with the right piece of long metal? Could you remove a door from a hinge if necessary?
Breaking into your own rig should be a last resort, but have a plan for doing so if it’s ever necessary.
So there you have it, ten tips to help you prevent a lockout or deal with it once it happens. Any other ideas? Please share them in the comments section below.
I took the photos in this post.