Tips For Living Out of a Car, If You Must

Having spent the better part of 5 years “adventuring”, including during graduate school at a very prestigious University,  I have mastered year round hammock camping as well as living in a van, and also in a subcompact car. Vans are preferable. Honda Civics are more challenging. Knowing how to live and survive this lifestyle could come in handy in many survival scenarios.

Having a storage place (I have a shed at a family member’s property) is also helpful. While Walmart dry camping or in a corner parking lot with a car cover are options, finding a private place to set up a mini-campground is a great addition to either vehicular living option.

Here are a few tips:

1.  Organize, organize, organize! Have a place for everything and keep everything in its place. In addition to your sleeping items, you will need 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), water storage container and a cup/water bottle, a tool box, a briefcase organizer for paperwork, a box with your camping supplies, a toiletry case (with towel, washcloths, shampoo, soap/shower gel, hairbrush, other hygiene supplies), flashlight/LED lamp and candles.

2.  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.

3.  If you find a place to set up a base camp of sorts (esp in an out of the way wooded area) you can be semipermanent.  Private property will provide legal security. In this case, you can set up a tarp/hammock (super comfortable), and rig up some more homelike comforts (potty/shower stall, etc).

4.  Making a mini-rocket stove and having a shelter makes cooking easier, provides a way to heat water for cleaning up (a copper coil heater in a large bucket can heat while one is cooking or making a campfire to warm up for the evening.

5.   A folding, hanging shower stall and a shower bag with nozzle makes 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 showerpan floor and warmly cleans your feet as you shower. Otherwise, use something else to keep your feet off the ground.

6.  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 bench. Lowe’s usually doesn’t keep things long enough for you to get them.

7.  Water:  A tarp canopy can be set up to double as a water cachement system. You can secure potable water other ways. When in a store/cafe one can also put a collapsible water container in a backpack and fill it with hot water in a restroom for use after you leave.

8.  Cooking: Oatmeal, dehydrated meals, fresh vegetables, soups and small cuts of meat are easy to cook w ith just hot water and a pot. We are 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, and can last weeks before giving out.

9. Always use window shades in your car for privacy. It also helps minimize some radiant cold.

10. Whenever possible, secure reasonable supplies of paper-goods. Newspaper is a good insulator (e.g., nest to the drafty door panel at night or under your sleeping bag if you are using a hammock) and super fire tinder. Cardboard box pieces can be cut into strips and coiled up into a can for a good sterno-substitution (esp if you pour melted candle wax over the coil). Even used cups can be turned into fire starters, and tissues, paper towels/ TP are multipurpose.

11.  A solar charger for cell phone/computer is a real lifesaver for times when you do not have access or choose to not go to a cafe.

12.  I have a canopy area over my brick fire pit/rocket stove (got them free on CL as well as materials for a solar oven and parabolic cooker) that also serves as a carport (and water cachement system that drains via water chain into a large bucket) .

13. Temperature control:  Staying warm and eating a warm meal morning and evening make all the difference in colder climate winters. 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 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.

In warm weather, raise your tarp sides to allow more ventilation and funnel breezes. The colder it is the more you want the tarp to morph into a cocoon shape, closing ends to stop 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 will wake up surprisingly warm as you end up with 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 will be on the ground and not in your sleeping bag as you would have 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 — just rolled up the pant legs and carried my dry shoes out with me. I keep them in a zipped homemade gear-bag that hangs on the ridge line of my tarp.

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.

14. Sleeping Options:  Keep windows open a little bit when your car is covered. While no car is actually airtight you will feel better with more air circulation, and will minimize condensation.

Whenever outside, I sleep in my hammock (it has a tarp covering around it, too), otherwise, in the car with my favorite pillow and sleeping bag. I have 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 have honestly never been wet or cold. Sometimes it has 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. Never go to bed dirty.

15.  Lighting:  Candles have come into disfavor as a safety hazard. Presuming you are an adult, use your best judgment. For the past 20 years I have had a hanging candle lantern with an added rear reflector that I adore. It adds safety and light…The melted wax is added to coiled cardboard in pop cans for quick fire starters. Energy efficient LED lights are an excellent and inexpensive option to candles. For people choosing to park in a Walmart or other lot, you will generally be trying to KEEP OUT the light at night.

Why the alternative lifestyle?  I have been homeless for financial reasons in the past and came to learn that I actually enjoy self-sufficiency. I get excited when the hardware store gives me 100 8′ 2x4s they were going to throw out, and I use them to make things for my “retreat”. I recently built a wooden deck floor and fire reflector short wall, a bench, and a separate full shower stall/potty/changing room (wood framed with tarp walls and tented top secured to a tree branch) next to my tarp shelter and ‘carport’ area.

I am an otherwise mainstream healthcare professional. No one associated with work knows how or where I live. Divorced from my ex-husband, my money ultimately gets invested in my now-adult children. They seem to have many more needs than I.  Once in a while, when I can get a great deal (less than 50% rate) on a discounting site for my favorite hotel, I treat myself to a few days of a king sized bed, thermostatic heat, hot water on demand, free breakfast buffet and all the other accouterments. That is when I do the extra things like deep condition my hair, do my nails, iron my lab coats and dress shirts, work out until I am a sweaty mess 🙂  then go shower and do my hair, etc.

It is important that people who live in their vehicles stay organized, maintain excellent hygiene, and maintain a positive attitude. Appreciating what we have is a great blessing.

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