If you need knowledge, read a book. If you want to really know something, experience is the best teacher. So it is when it comes to living out of your car, which is one of the fastest-growing forms of homelessness. The best advice comes from people who have actually done it for more than just a week or two.
For those who are doing this by choice, before taking the plunge, if you have time, try living in your car or van for a week or two. There’s no better test than to try out in reality what you’ve imagined only in theory!
The following tips come from two people, a single man and a single woman, who have lived out of their cars or vans for long periods of time and made it a lifestyle. If you are a woman, there are things more specific to females that you should know. This article goes over them.
Tips For Living In Your Car
No matter how you look at it, living in your car is going to be a challenge. Your vehicle must provide shelter from the weather, lodging, kitchen and eating facilities, and, of course, transportation.
That’s a lot to ask from such a small space that wasn’t designed for many of those tasks. These suggestions help you more readily meet that challenge.
- Never park in the same place twice in the same week. Stay away from other parkers in the same situation. Parking around 24-hour businesses is better than in residential areas. Apartment complexes offer a degree of stealth street parking due to the high turnover of tenants and friends. NOT in their parking lot, however! Same for 24-hour grocery stores.
- Sometimes your employer might let you park behind the business if you’re a good employee and they want to help you out. That’s always a personal call that depends on the boss’s personality and the particular job. Sometimes it’s better the boss doesn’t know your situation.
- If you find a place to set up a base camp of sorts (especially in an out-of-the-way wooded area) you can be semipermanent. Private property provides some legal security for living in your car. In this case, it’s possible to set up a tarp/hammock, which is super comfortable. Rigging up some more homelike comforts (potty/shower stall, etc) becomes more doable also.
- If you really do decide to build yourself a camp, Home Depot always has free 4′ wooden pallet supports that you can combine to make floor decking, a table/shower/kitchen setup, frames, or a bench. Lowe’s usually doesn’t keep things long enough for you to get them.
- I have a canopy area over my brick fire pit/rocket stove. I got them, as well as materials for a solar oven and parabolic cooker, free on Craigslist. The canopy also serves as a carport (and water catchment system that drains via water chain into a large bucket) which is very handy for living in my car.
Belongings when you live in your car
- As much as possible, keep your car clean, looking respectable, and well maintained. It attracts less attention and blends in better with other vehicles.
- Rent a mini-storage cubicle with 24-hour access for your spillover and items that might be stolen from your vehicle. If you’re a customer, this includes bathroom privileges.
- Organize, organize, organize! Have a place for everything and keep everything in its place. In addition to your sleeping items, keep a carry-on style suitcase for clothes, a laundry bag for clothes pending a trip to the laundry (with air freshener), a “chuck box” (your car camping kitchen supplies), a water storage container, and a cup/water bottle, a toolbox, a briefcase organizer for paperwork, a box with your camping supplies, a toiletry case (with a towel, washcloths, shampoo, soap/shower gel, hairbrush, other hygiene supplies), flashlight/LED lamp and candles. Packing cubes or stackable bins are a great solution for some things.
Cooking/Food and drink
- Oatmeal, dehydrated meals, fresh vegetables, soups, and small cuts of meat are easy to cook with just hot water and a pot. We’re fortunate to have access to dollar stores for a lot of cost-effective variety and options. Note: Large reclosable Monster cans are the easiest for quickly bringing 3 cups of water to a boil. They can last weeks before giving out.
- Secure potable water in multiple ways. A tarp canopy doubles as a water catchment system. Also, when in a store/cafe one can put a collapsible water container in a backpack and fill it with hot water in a restroom for use after you leave.
- Making a mini-rocket stove and having a shelter makes cooking easier, provides a way to heat water for cleaning up. For instance, use a copper coil heater in a large bucket to heat water while one is cooking or making a campfire.
- Add a flip-up roof vent to the van, if that’s what you have. Heating/cooking with propane produces water as a byproduct. The vent gets rid of the interior water buildup. It also exhausts hot air in the warmer parts of the year. A solar-powered fan in the vent is even better.
- Solar film or window shades on the windows keep things private, but you need a blackout curtain to keep light from being seen at night. I used a denim tube and lined it with high-density foam, hung from wire springs on both the top and bottom of the tube curtain. The curtain needs to cover the whole window. It provides a bit of insulation, too.
- Be selective about what you use to shield your windows, though. Nothing screams, “homeless!” like newspapers or blankets in the windows.
- Keep toiletries and a plastic mirror in a separate bag or small backpack for convenience and discretion. If you add a collapsible basin you can fill it with hot water and go into a large bathroom stall to clean up and change. Remember to keep a separate plastic bag for wet items.
- A folding, hanging shower stall and a shower bag with a nozzle make for a hot shower even in freezing cold, and one can get dry and re-dressed before even feeling cold. For a floor, a baby inflatable 1-ring mini pool makes a perfect shower pan floor and warmly cleans your feet as you shower. Otherwise, use something else to keep your feet off the ground.
- A health club membership is a golden ticket for street living. You can shower, steam, and work out, too. Municipal indoor pools are good, too. Learn to bathe in a sink, as in sponge baths. Always clean up your mess!
- Truck stops provide hot showers for a price. They’re generally safe and clean.
- Always dress and act middle class or better. The way you look determines how the police handle you when they come calling. That’s when not if. If you encounter law enforcement, be respectful and compliant; this improves the chances they are respectful to you for being ”clean, quiet, and low-key.”
- A solar charger for a cell phone/computer is a real lifesaver for times when you don’t have access to or choose to not go to a cafe or another free-wifi location.
- Learn which fast-food restaurants have free wifi. For the price of a small drink, you can check email, browse the internet, etc. If there are electric outlets to keep your electronics charged, that’s even better.
- While you can live in your car, you can’t use it as an address. A private mailbox that provides a street address (not a Post Office box) makes you look more like someone with a real address. This comes into play for driver’s licenses, state ID cards, car insurance, job applications, etc.
- A pay-as-you-go cell phone provides a telephone for job calls and if you need emergency services.
- Most libraries provide computer access. If you have a wireless laptop, then those businesses that let you surf on their wi-fi connection for a cup of coffee are helpful, too.
- A portable CD player with a radio is very handy for entertainment and news if you have to live out of your car.
Staying warm/keeping cool when you live in your car
- When living out of your car, staying warm and eating a warm meal morning and evening make all the difference in colder climate winters. In very cold weather you can preheat your sleeping bag with a bottle of hot water. By the time you need a drink, it will have cooled. Summer heat, on the other hand, is best handled by well-ventilated sleeping, cool baths/showers, and good hydration. There are plenty of places to stay cool during the day.
- In warm weather, raise your tarp sides to allow more ventilation and funnel breezes.
- Conversely, the colder it is the more you want the tarp to morph into a cocoon shape, closing the ends to stop the wind or blowing precipitation. Lowering the tarp sides forms an acute angle that minimizes precipitation build-up on your tarp walls (and less chance for damage by heavy rain/sleet/hail). In a blizzard or heavy snow, you’ll wake up surprisingly warm because of a lovely insulated igloo effect with natural snow walls on the lower half (at least) of your tarp cocoon. Below your hammock will be pristine ground. In the event of torrential rain, any water ends up on the ground and not in your sleeping bag as would happen with tent and ground camping. (I once awoke with 12″ of water under me. My feet got wet walking out but I was well above the flash flood water line and awoke dry. I just rolled up the pant legs and carried my dry shoes, which I keep in a zipped homemade gear bag that hangs on the ridgeline of my tarp, out with me.)
- When car camping, secure a car cover or tarp over you in really bad weather. In addition to insulating and giving better privacy, the covering keeps your car snow/ice-free and prepped for rapid travel if needed.
- Whenever possible, secure reasonable supplies of paper goods. Newspaper insulates well (e.g., next to the drafty door panel at night or under your sleeping bag if you are using a hammock) and makes super fire tinder. Cardboard box pieces cut into strips and coiled up into a can substitute for a Sterno (especially if you pour melted candle wax over the coil — check out these instructions). Even used cups can be turned into fire starters. Tissues, paper towels, and toilet paper are multipurpose.
- Keep windows open a little bit when your car is covered. While no car is actually airtight, more air circulation feels better and minimizes condensation. Also, vent your vehicle daily; the stench builds up fast when you live in your car and is hard to clear out.
- Whenever outside, I sleep in my hammock (it has a tarp covering it, too). Otherwise, I sleep in the car with my favorite pillow and sleeping bag. I’ve slept in both my car and more so my hammock through hurricanes, blizzards, tornadic cells (oops, that was a surprise), 106-degree heat, and 5-degree cold plus 50 mph winds. There are different hammock/tarp configurations for as many weather patterns. I’ve honestly never been wet or cold. Sometimes it’s been uncomfortably warm yet bug-free thanks to the integrated No-seeum Netting on my hammock.
- Insulate under your sleeping bag (thick newspaper or foam pad/thin air mattress) and hang a separate layer under your hammock as a waterproofer and insulator. In cooler weather, always keep woolen socks, hat (buff, beanie, or balaclava), and gloves in your sleeping bag as well as thermal pants and a sweatshirt to sleep in.
- When living out of your car, never go to bed dirty.
- Candles have come into disfavor as a safety hazard. Presuming you are an adult, use your best judgment. For the past 20 years, I’ve had a hanging candle lantern with an added rear reflector that I adore. It adds safety and light. I add the melted wax to coiled cardboard in pop cans for quick-fire starters.
- Energy-efficient LED lights are an excellent and inexpensive option for candles. For people choosing to park in a Walmart or other lot, you’ll generally be trying to KEEP OUT the light at night.
Jobs with the potential for included housing
- Try to find an apartment manager job if you have good people skills and some simple maintenance experience. The local Apartment Association may offer training so you can get that job. Once you’re in, you’re in for life. They like peeps with experience, so this is the route in. It’s much easier if you’re a couple.
- Mini-storage management is even better. Usually, small buildings only trade an apartment and light housekeeping duties for your time. You’ll need to work part-time to pay the bills.
- A steering column lock can prevent your car, and therefore your home, from being stolen.
- Know the laws for your area about living in your car. In some places it’s illegal.
- Consider keeping a spare key in a secure location in case you lose your key.
- Be aware of your surroundings by practicing situational awareness.
Other Reasons You Might Need To Live In Your Car
If there’s even a chance that you may be living in your car, being prepared is essential. Sometimes, disasters force people from their homes, and if there are no other options, that’s where your vehicle comes in handy.
Two of the most common reasons to evacuate your home are flood and fire. Could you and everyone in your home, pets included, get out fast when it matters most? Have you thought ahead to where you would go and do you have some funds set aside to pay for meals? Learn how to get yourself ready to evacuate in cases of a flood or fire.
Could your family evacuate in 30 minutes? Here’s an assignment that you can do together as a family this week. See how close you are to doing it within 30 minutes. Read these steps to get your evacuation plan streamlined and speedy. Preparing your evacuation plan can be done in five simple steps.
Have you thought of the different ways to get out of your town? If your usual road is flooded, and your second choice is destroyed, how do you leave? Your ideal evacuation route, first of all, needs to include more than one route. Read about how to plan to safely evacuate your town.
Final Thoughts About Living Out of Your Car
Don’t think you are depression-proof. Plan ahead for hard times and practice. You won’t be disappointed. Living hand to mouth eventually gives you a can-do attitude that can be a lifesaver. Even if you have to give up your home, you will still have one.Don't think you are depression proof. Plan ahead for hard times and practice. You won't be disappointed. Click To Tweet
This advice came from webbee, over on Survivalist Boards who granted his permission to re-post it here, and Survivor Mama, who left a lengthy comment to this post that was so valuable it was incorporated into this advice.
What other advice do you have for living out of your car?
This post was originally published on February 17, 2011, and has been updated.
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