How to Prepare for Living in Your Car: Getting Started

Are you prepared for living in your car? Here's the quick rundown of everything you need to consider, from parking to hygiene.This post may contain affiliate links. See our disclosure for more information.

One of the biggest challenges with van dwelling is dealing with friends and family who think you aren’t prepared for living in your car. When I first committed to it, people inundated me with questions: where will you pee? Did you think about showers? What if you get robbed?

Yeah, of course I thought about those questions, but my answers were never good enough. My loved ones had their intentions in the right place, though; it’s true that the van dwelling lifestyle isn’t as easy as packing all your things in a vehicle and driving away. If you want to successfully prepare for living in your car, you need to understand the prep work involved and how your choices could impact your long-term comfort and safety.

The five key factors below are the most important to consider as you prepare for your journey:

Sleep

Living in your vehicle really comes down to sleeping in your vehicle. Generally, you will probably spend the majority of your day outside your car, either at school, work, the gym, the park, coffee shops or just exploring the world.

For that reason, you should put the most thought into this category. First, sleep largely depends on how comfortable you can make yourself. Sleeping in your back seat is fine for an emergency, but not good long-term. Follow these steps for more comfortable sleeping:

  1. Make sure your space is cool, dark and quiet.
  2. Allow yourself the space to sleep. This may involve modifying your vehicle, taking out a few seats to allow yourself to completely stretch out.
  3. Consider whether you need to invest in an insulating sleeping pad, cot or both to add comfort and warmth. An appropriate sleeping bag (http://amzn.to/2gHVdE5) for the temperature allows for versatility and packability over traditional blankets.

Stealth and Security

The first step to ensuring that you’re safe is to be sure people aren’t immediately aware that you are living inside the car. You will have to make your own custom stealth solution depending on what type of vehicle you have, whether your windows are tinted or not, where you park, and whether or not you emit lights from your vehicle. If you drive around in a van with no windows, or a very obvious campervan, you are already at a disadvantage because these vehicles arouse suspicion and people may be more apt to call the cops or disturb you. Keep these considerations in mind if you haven’t chosen a vehicle yet. Some general tips here are helpful:

  1. Tint your windows.
  2. Cover windows from the inside with a black material to give the appearance of tint. Bonus points if you use a material that light cannot pass through.
  3. Purchase a windshield shade with good coverage.
  4. Hide yourself with a curtain—hopefully black—that can be draped across the vehicle. I have a bungee cord holding blackout curtains draped from one “oh shit” bar to the other.
  5. Be sure that you are hidden from view at every angle.
  6. Have a “panic button” on your car’s key fob to use in emergencies.
  7. Do not have lights on in the vehicle, even a cell phone, unless your setup does not emit light
  8. Join a community watch through an app. Apple and android have several versions.

Parking

This is the single most difficult thing to anticipate, and takes careful strategy and common sense. In some states, you can sleep in your car as long as you are legally parked, so check the regulations where you live before spending time finding the best spots. Here are my top suggestions—be sure to keep these in rotation.

  • Hotel parking lots. These are great because the cars there are always changing and they stay overnight.
  • If you have friends with apartments, ask to use one of their parking spots for the night once a week, perhaps in exchange for cooking them a meal (which gives you a chance to cook real food once in awhile).
  • Rest areas close to town. You will be legally parked there, although there may be particular rules like time limits.
  • Parking in residential areas is possible but tricky. Stay away from houses with clear views of the parking spots you choose.
  • If your 24-hour gym is busy at night, you should be able to park there with little attention.In cities with 24-hour coffee shops, enjoy a coffee late at night and turn in.
  • Walmart—call ahead first
  • If you have a night job, you can probably get away with parking at work, or sleeping during the day anywhere.

Try not to cook or organize your vehicle where you park. If you must get settled, do so somewhere else. When you park for the night, be ready to immediately go to bed. When you wake up, try to leave and then get ready for the day elsewhere, so as to not draw too much attention to yourself. I like using my 24-hour gym for this purpose.

Hygiene

Clean clothes, clean body, clean car: these three things can make you feel like you never left the comfort of your own home. If you neglect hygiene, you may start to appear more suspicious in public, and therefore compromise you stealth and security.

For your bathroom needs:
Try to use the bathroom at your work or your gym. If you must, keep a clear plastic bottle with you for emergencies.

For showers:
Enroll in a gym, or purchase a portable shower (http://amzn.to/2iig9Qk) if you are out in the country.

For clean clothes:
Find a local laundromat! Some have wifi so you can get work done while you do your laundry. You can also buy detergent and do laundry in whatever bathroom sink you can find, but you’ll have a tougher time getting clothes dry quickly. My biggest laundry problem was traveling with a big fluffy cotton towel. The towel would take forever to dry after a shower and would always start to smell funny. The camp towels you can find at your outdoor goods stores were less bulky and dried faster, but would never seem to dry as well as a cotton towel.

Then I discovered linen towels. They are wonderfully compactable, dry my skin better then a synthetic camp towel, and dry quickly without leaving a smell. A single towel can cost you about 20 dollars, but for me they are worth the price. I bought two and it seems to be all I need.


Organization

This is what sets the professionals apart from the amateurs—and it’s my favorite part! I cringe every time I see a YouTube video of someone’s car and I see clothes scattered everywhere, pee bottles left in plain sight, and last nights dinner littering the floor. Just like fully thought out layouts make you want to take a vacation in their vehicle. Here are some tips:

  • Keep clothes organized! Instead of suitcases or bags, use packing cubes (http://amzn.to/2hwZyti) to compartmentalize everything (including a separate cube for dirty clothes). You can stack and organize them much more easily while keeping clothes compact.
  • Use the unused negative space your sleeping system may create. I store items and clothes neatly under my cot.
  • Add ‘homey” touches. I have a nightstand (http://amzn.to/2imtJ7p) that holds items that you would normally keep near your bed (alarm clock, phone, lamp, charger), secured with velcro.
  • Have a shoe organizer to neatly hold all your shoes and other small items. You may be able to drape one of these over the back of your seats.
  • Use small storage bins (http://amzn.to/2icuks2) to store loose, rarely used items.
  • Keep your driver and front passenger seat clear so you can mentally separate driving functions from living functions.
  • Make sure all your possessions can be neatly packed and placed in your trunk. This tip is optional, but helpful if you need to use your car for social purposes or if you make money with your car (driving for Uber, delivering, etc.).

If you’re like me and keep getting tons of questions from your loved ones, start preparing now and give ‘em the right answers.

How have you prepared for living in your car? Leave your tips in the comments!

Are you prepared for living in your car? Here's the quick rundown of everything you need to consider, from parking to hygiene.

12 Replies to “How to Prepare for Living in Your Car: Getting Started”

  1. I think the first thing was getting in the mindset. Realizing everything I’d have to give up and how I could either live without or find alternatives. I had to sell my Infinity for an old minivan cause I realized this was now my house and home. I wasn’t just traveling or camping…I was living. I spent four months ridding myself of most of my worldly possessions and unloading myself of my 7-room house. I also spent this time researching camping, traveling, boondocking, anything that might help, as well as cool places to see. And unless you’re independently wealthy…get an online job.

    Much of my preparation was trial and error, I prepared myself by taking a few weekends living in the van then a week then I finally did what I intended, I headed west. When I found some hack to make life easier I knew a
    Wal-Mart wasn’t far off. There were so many times finding a safe place to park was scarce. Wal-Mart became my home. I’d see that Wal-Mart sign and i’d get so excited, I knew I was home and safe.

    Unfortunately, my nomad adventure only lasted 2 years. the Jubilee-mobile broke down – twice. Good thing, I needed something to force me to stay put. I now have a grandson that nothing short of an act of God could separate me from. If one day my daughter doesn’t need me…well, I already have another van and plenty of plans to remodel. Better yet, I’m hoping when he’s older she’ll let him come with me.

    1. Purpose Ana ..you found purpose greater than yourself. Good on ya. And one day hopefully you can go again, for the fun of it.

  2. What about eatting? Is there anything like a community kitchen? Like being part of a group in the community where you can use there kitchen? Or is it just eatting out every day?
    I will have no sort of kitchen in my van.

    1. That’s a great idea Danica, I don’t know about any community kitchen where I was, but I basically lived in a hospital during the day so I mostly ate hospital cafeteria food. Eating out every day can get expensive and be unhealthy, so one thing I did was every once in a while I would go to a friend’s house who lived relatively close and offered to cook them dinner if they let me use their kitchen. They said yes every time, I was really making them an offer they couldn’t refuse 😛

  3. out of unfortunate necessity i lived in my Ford Flex, which was perfect size for me as im 5’1″ and fit very well in either the 2nd or 3rd row seat. i knew this was coming so did a lot of research and was very organized with my clothes in storage boxes with lids, blackout curtains with the window shades you put on the windshield to keep out the sun…they also keep in the heat in the winter. So I fit them to every window in the Flex, covered with black fabric, so they just fit right in the windows.

  4. I did these without acknowledgement lol… Heat sucked in the summer. I survived though.. Winter I have been spared. Rough but great journey from all the assholes in today’s world.

  5. For little over a week I have been living in my car. My lease was up and I sold what I could and gave everything else away and moved myself, clothes, linens and toiletries, oh and my 3 cats into an 02 Cavalier. I found it easier to put my clothes in bags instead of plastic containers. The litter box is in the trunk and back seats are folded down for the cats to have easy access. I started with a large cooler in the front seat but it got to be too much of a hassle. I drove over 1000 miles to a warm sunny state and found a rest area by the water that allows overnight parking and has clean restrooms. So I am trying to find a job and a new apartment as I do need some sort of income. Can’t be standing on the streets with a sign saying will work for catfood. Lol. My biggest issue is trying to find a hot shower. I use the outdoor ones and wear my bathing suit but would love a nice indoor one. I pretty much live on McDonald’s which is cheap. This is all new to me. I’m a 50 year old MBA graduate and felt the need to explore.

    1. I’m glad you are in a warmer state, it is getting cold everywhere else! As far as the indoor shower, it will cost you the price of a gym membership and that can range. If you sign up with a group at some gyms it can be even cheaper. A job will definitely help with this, even if it is a small one for now. I would look for a night job to start if you are able to sleep during the day. This way, it’s much easier and safer to find places to sleep during the day. McDonald’s is cheap, but it can add up in costs to your health and motivation. You can buy cheap produce at any grocery store that will keep you fuller and more energized and it will be just as much. Yes, it does not taste as good, but this is about survival, right?

    2. Good for you,, look for county parks or state parks for showers if down south,I’m a retired trucker,and want to start van camping ,living again,I just need to figure out how to have a physical adressGod bless all

      1. George, there is something called America’s Mailbox, out of Box Elder, South Dakota. It works as a permanent/physical address. For a fee, you can have all your mail delivered there, and they forward it to you where ever you are. Usually you can just have it sent to the local post office.

  6. My husband and I are just surviving staying in one spot. So I have been looking into RV living and traveling since he can get jobs on the road. Then I just happened to see that someone had transformed their car into a livable home. I have a PT Cruiser and have been looking and researching. What are the opinions of people who have been there and done that.

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