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How to Live Out of Your Car and Why You Should Want To

Cold weather car life.
Cold weather car life.

This is the eighth full month that I’ve been living out of my car, and what a crazy experience it’s been. I’m currently considering getting an apartment because my car is nearing the end of it’s life and I don’t want to buy another. Before I do that though, I thought I would share the pearls of wisdom I’ve acquired during my months in my home on wheels.

Why Live In a Car?

This is a valid question, and everyone will likely have a different set of reasons. I’ll share my personal rationale with the hopes that you can discover your own.

  • My work schedule has me in the wilderness (away from home) for 8 days at a time followed by 6 days off. If I had an actual apartment I wouldn’t even be able to use it for over half the time.
  • Being able to travel and hike is my main priority in life. Since moving into my car in January, I’ve gotten to explore about ten different states and make two international trips. It would have been financially difficult to make all of these trips happen if I had to pay rent and utilities. This is a big way to readjust my present priorities in order to achieve my long term goals.
  • I feel more motivated to get things done. I wake up in the morning and make some coffee on the hood of my car. I feel ready to start my day and get out into the world. I found that when I used to have an apartment, it would often take me hours to feel motivated to leave and seize the day. It’s much easier to make things happen when I’m already sitting in the driver’s seat (literally and metaphorically).
View from the inside.
View from the inside.

Now that we’ve established the “why” of living in your car, let’s move onto the “how”.

How to Live Out of Your Car:

Step 1- Get a set up that you like. One of the main purposes of living in your car is to save money, so don’t go buy a new Sprinter van. Find a way to make it work with what you’ve got. So you have a small car? Can you take out the back seats or open the trunk up to the front? Problem solved. If you have a truck, then get a camper cover so you can live out of the back. If you have a SUV (like me) just fold the backseats forward.

Being able to sleep comfortably is important. I have to be able to stretch out all the way and have something soft to lay on. Luckily, the back of my car is roomy. I have an inflatable sleeping pad that I also use when I’m backpacking. Some car dwellers will build a platform to sleep on and have storage space below. I don’t have a platform, but it is something I’ve considered.

I like having a view with my morning coffee.
I like having a view with my morning coffee.

Step 2- Figure out the details. Get your curtain situation down. I bought fabric and velcro at Jo Anne Fabrics and sewed my own curtains. They are by far the best and most useful personal touch I’ve made to my car.

How do you want to cook? I have a backpacking camp stove I use for coffee, hot water, and basic meals. For those who like to get more elaborate with their cooking, you might want a two-burner camp stove, pots and pans, and a cooler.

What else can you add to make your car feel like home? While you probably don’t want to keep every piece of memorabilia in your car with you, one or two things won’t hurt. I have a t-shirt quilt that I made myself and my childhood teddy bear that I keep in my car. I have a dashboard collection of all the cards, notes, and photos people have given me.

I’ll break Step 3 up into two parts, having a home base and traveling. Finding an established system for parking and self-care will vary depending on if you’re road tripping or sticking around one town.

Step 3 (road tripping)- Living out of your car on the road is surprisingly easy and will save you lots of money by not staying in hotels or eating at restaurants often. First of all, you need to find places to sleep. One of my favorite resources for this is freecampsites.net. You type in your current location and they find free camping close by, usually on Forest Service or BLM land, and give you detailed directions to get there. Most Wal-Marts will let weary travelers sleep in their parking lots for a night. I try to avoid sleeping at rest stops since they are typically right off of the interstate and countless cars come and go all night.

As far as showers go many truck stops, state parks, and local aquatic centers will have coin operated showers. Keep change in your car and find a shower a few times a week (or less, if that’s your style).

Enjoying summertime desert life.
Enjoying summertime desert life.

Step 3 (home base)- What about when you want to live in your car in one specific area? This is interesting and challenging because you can establish more creature comforts and you have to stay on your toes. As far as sleeping goes, put effort into finding a few spots where you can sleep overnight legally. National forest or BLM land is ideal. Bonus points if any of the locations have bathrooms.

Since southern Utah is my actual home, I have more belongings than I would if I was just road tripping for a few months. I have outdoor gear for both summer and winter conditions, regular clothes for summer and winter, and all of my backpacking gear. This is too much stuff to comfortably keep in my car, so I also have a storage unit for $30 a month. Sometimes I need to order stuff online or my family wants to mail me things. For these occasions I have a PO Box, which costs $30 for six months. Not a bad deal!

As far as showering goes, I have a gym membership. This works out for me because I also like going to the gym, and I would likely pay for this whether I lived in my car or not. My membership is $35 a month, which would be a lot if I was only going there to shower. If you have no interest in working out, try a $10 a month gym like Planet Fitness. I have a friend who lives out of her car in Durango, Colorado , and she keeps a punch pass for the YMCA. It’s $4 a punch (which is an entrance fee to use anything, essentially), which is a lot for just a shower, but she tries to pair it with a yoga class when she goes. Then it’s worth the $4.

For laundry, I go to the laundromat. I don’t have a lot of clothes and I’ll wear the same outfit a few times before washing it, so I usually do laundry every other week.

For wifi, I like to utilize the public library. Everybody always seems to forget that those exist, but I go there all the time. Once you’ve worn out your welcome at coffee shops, try out a McDonalds. They generally have really fast wifi and the employees don’t seem to care in the least bit if you only order one coffee and stay there for five hours.

Step 4- Take care of yourself. When I first moved into my car, I had a phase where I didn’t shave my armpits or eat very healthy (for the record, I think it’s totally valid if you don’t want to shave your armpits, my intention was laziness though). Not caring for your body is the quickest way to get burnt out on the home on wheels lifestyle. Now I try to nourish myself, mentally and physically. I keep a supply of fresh fruit in my car and I keep a gallon jug full of water so I’m never dehydrated.

Try to find ways to occasionally bring the comforts of an apartment to your car. No, I can’t stream Netflix for hours from my campsite. But I can download a TV show during the day, charge my laptop up, and watch it at night. I have some van dwellers friends who used to park beside the grocery store, stream shows with the grocery store wifi at night, then drive somewhere else when they were ready for sleep. They also did all of their shopping at that grocery store, so it morally balanced out.

Make sure you feel taken care of, so you can actually sustain your car life long term.

 

 

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