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.
If you’re thinking about living in a car by choice, then read on. This is all of the wisdom I’ve gained from my time living in my car.
Why Live In a Car by Choice?
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.
- The number one reason for me is money. I don’t make that much of it, and I have other financial priorities in life beyond just paying the landlord and electric company. When I’ve previously rented apartments, most of my paychecks would go to bills and there would be hardly any leftover for things I actually cared about. I’m trying to get my student loans paid off and travel the world. I have to get creative to make that happen because getting a $1/ hour raise once a year isn’t helping.
- 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. In the morning I wake up and make some coffee on the hood of my car. I feel ready to start my day and get out into the world. 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).
Now that we’ve established the “why” of living in a car by choice, let’s move onto the “how”.
How to Live Out of Your Car:
Use What You Have & Get It Organized
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.
Consider building a platform in your car. You can sleep on top of it and have extra storage space below. I never built one because I don’t have tools for it or much know how. Also, I like to be able to sit all the way up when I’m hanging out in my car. Platforms usually stop you from being able to do that.
You will probably want some aspect of privacy while your sleeping and hanging out in the car. One suggestion is to sew your own curtains. I bought fabric and velcro at Jo Anne Fabrics and used my mom’s sewing machine. The whole project just took and hour or so. They are by far the best and most useful personal touch I’ve made to my car.
Make it Feel Like Home
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 by my sleeping spot. I have a dashboard collection of all the cards, notes, and photos people have given me. Just a few personal touches will really help it feel like your own space.
One of my favorite small things I have is a solar lantern. My car battery gets drained quickly so I don’t like using the overhead lights. My lantern is just a small, inexpensive touch that makes me happy.
Cooking & Meals
I have a backpacking camp stove that I use for coffee, hot water, and simple meals. I’m honestly not too great about cooking for myself while I live in my car. I usually just go to the grocery store and buy salads and sandwiches. I also stock up on snacks that I don’t need to cook, such as bagels, fruit, and bars.
However, I have car-dweller friends who love to cook and don’t let living in a vehicle hold them back. I’ve seen cooking set ups that are complete with a two-burner Coleman stove, cast iron pans, and a Yeti cooler. They’re hanging out at the camp spot frying up breakfast burritos in the morning. If you want to cook for yourself, you can definitely make it happen.
Showering & Hygiene
I live in my car in one place, so I have a gym membership. My membership is $35 a month, and I also work out while I’m there. But that 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. It’s 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.
If you’re on the road a lot, then you won’t have the luxury of a gym membership. 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).
Keep a gallon of water in your car for brushing your teeth, washing your face, and drinking.
Where to go to the Bathroom
I like to camp on public land, so I can pretty much just pee wherever. I keep baby wipes and a trash bag on hand for this purpose. As far as when you gotta do more than just pee, get used to using public restrooms for this purpose.
You can even plan your campsites around where there will be restrooms. Lots of trail heads and parks have them available.
This is an easy one: 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 only have to do laundry every other week. Keep a dirty laundry bag in your car, so your clothes are organized. Also, I like Tide Pods for detergent. They’re more expensive, but it’s worth it because they don’t take up much space and I wouldn’t want detergent to spill in my car.
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.
If you need to use lots of internet for work or school, you could get an unlimited data plan and just hotspot with your phone. I like Verizon because they have lots of plans to choose from and I can do pre-paid and not sign a contract.
Sometimes I like to download a TV show during the day, charge my laptop up, and watch it at night at my campsite. 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.
Finding Places to Sleep While Road Tripping
Perhaps the biggest concern while living in your car is where to sleep. One of my favorite resources 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. Sometimes it’s hit or miss, but I’ve found a lot of really great campsites via that website.
Most Wal-Marts will let weary travelers sleep in their parking lots for a night. You can also look for residential neighborhoods that aren’t too fancy. You don’t want the police knocking on your window. I try to avoid sleeping at rest stops when I’m alone (which is most of the time) since they are typically right off of the interstate and countless cars come and go all night.
Living in Your Car in One Place
Find a Few Reliable Sleeping Spots
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, but 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.
Get a Storage Unit & P.O. Box
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!
Stay on Top of the Boring Stuff
Make sure your car insurance is up-to-date and you have all the important documents on hand. I mostly camp in the middle-of-nowhere Utah, so I’ve never had a problem with police (I am a conventional-looking white girl, so there’s probably some privilege involved there).
Additionally, keep your car tidy looking. Throw away empty alcohol containers immediately. Don’t keep illegal drugs in your car. It’s easy to get lax once you’ve lived in your car for awhile, but remember that it’s not as private as you might feel it is.
Even though this is a cheaper than normal lifestyle, it’s still not free. You will need some money to put gas in the tank and pay for essentials. If you’re keeping your car parked in one town, you can maintain a typical job.
If you want to travel around, I would recommend doing seasonal work. I wrote an entire guide to seasonal jobs that you can read. It’s a good jumping off point to learn how to work and travel. Don’t think it’s just for 20 year olds either; I’ve met people of all ages and all walks of life while working seasonal jobs.
I would recommend watching the movie Nomadland. I found it to be a very realistic portrayal of what living in a car and working seasonally is actually like. The film shows both the struggles and the fun times. Most of the characters are 50+ years old, which I found to be refreshing. This lifestyle isn’t just for bright-eyed, young folks living an Instagram-worthy life.
I know lots of people living in their car do remote jobs as well. I don’t have experience with this and can’t really give advice on that topic. Just know that it is an option out there.
Car Dwelling Essentials List
Here are some of the things I like to keep on hand while living in my car. You might find some of them useful as well or you might not be into any of them. Don’t feel like you need to spend a lot of money to settle into your home on wheels, but also make yourself comfortable.
Be Kind to Yourself
It’s easy to get burnt out on this lifestyle. It’s not all Instagram photos and freedom. Especially if you’re doing this because of money struggles.
I felt the most down on myself when my car was having problems and I had to take it to the shop. I ended up on my friend’s couch for three days while I waited for it to be fixed, stressed the entire time. My car was literally my home, so I had to pay to fix it but didn’t know if it would be expensive to do so.
Sometimes living in your car is so much fun. I’ll go on road trips with absolutely no notice. I’m stoked that I actually get to keep most of my paycheck for things that are important to me, like my travel fund.
Then other times I feel like a broke bum. It’s a rollercoaster for sure.
My best advice is just to take care of yourself, physically and mentally. It’s the only way you can actually sustain your car life long term.