Living in a car 101.

If you do find yourself suddenly living in your car, it is not the end of the world. Living in a car is a heck of a lot better than living on the streets. Your car provides you with security, transport, warmth, electricity and more. You can store your belongings in your car. You can sleep in your car. Your car protects you from weather to a degree. People have lived and even thrived when living in cars. This page is a basic tutorial on living in a car. Also see the VanDwellers FAQ

Video I made as an introduction to living in cars.

Before living in a car.

If you are in a situation where you have some warning that your financial situation is going to lead to you having to live in a car, or that your house is no longer going to be your home, then plan ahead. If you are struggling to make loan repayments despite a reasonable income and talking to the bank has failed, then perhaps it is better spending those last repayments on buying a van instead of paying off a hopeless loan? Even if you are laid off, is there anything you can sell that will get you enough money to buy a van or camper? If you are in a rocky relationship and about to face a divorce, can you buy a campervan / RV before it all goes sour?

If you do find yourself living in your car, the very first thing I'd be trying to do is to swap or trade it for a van or camper. If your car is worth $4,000 or more, you can usually trade it for a basic van. There is of course risk involved in this. You don't want to end up living in short term accommodation that eats up your money.

As soon as you find yourself living in a car, start looking at options for getting out. If you have a job, can you save up for a deposit on a flat, unit, shared accommodation? Can you get a better paying job? If the shit has hit the fan and it looks like the situation will be long term, can you at least better your circumstances? Can charities, social services or anyone else help you out? Can you swallow your pride, go to the media and ask them to do a "good news" story to help you out?

Living in a car has to be considered a short term solution. There is a lot of false economy about living in a car. You don't want to fork out for something like gym membership just to have showers, that money could be better spent on food or saving for a rental deposit. You don't want to be forking out for ice for a cooler every week. You also may not want to be forking out for wireless Internet when you can use the Internet at libraries for free. You don't want to get into traps that increase your cost of living but deliver no returned increase in quality of life or increased income. Having said that, you must wash, if you don't wash enough you are going to get smelly and people will not want to associate with you. You will become a classic stereotypical homeless person who people will treat like a pariah, they won't want anything to do with you. Similarly, access to the Internet is nice, so paying for Wifi can have benefits, especially if you are living on the road long term.

While you will save money from no rent, if you pay gym membership for showers, buy ice for cooling, pay extra for long life milk, pay for use of a laundry mat, pay extra for mobile phone calls instead of local ones, and then extra fuel because you have to drive around more, you may find your savings being eaten up. You have to weigh up if things are worth it. If the situation looks long term then you are better off spending a bit more for an electric cooler instead of one that you have to buy ice for. You are better off selling furniture than paying for storage. You are better off trading your car for a van that you can stand up in and has sleeping, washing and cooking facilities. If it is short term and you have a good chance of getting back on your feet again soon, then storage and spending as little as possible for in car comforts makes sense. Decide from the start if your aim is to get back into mainstream society and back into a home or if you want to live your life on the road. Plan and make decisions accordingly.

Storage is one of the costs which you have to weigh up. It is nice to be able to have some stability to hang on to the things you own, the things that have been with you for years. Storage gives you the freedom of not having to drag everything with you as you go. Some storage units have power points so you can plug your fridge into them and store food there. You can store furniture in storage. But there is the down side of cost. Storage costs money. You might want to consider storing your furniture in a trailer towed behind your car. It will make parking harder, and your car will stand out more, but if you lash a step ladder to the top of the trailer you may blend in as a tradesperson. Obviously a lock up trailer would be safest, as would be padlocking it to your car via a chain.

A post office box the other hand is an investment definitely worth having. It gives you a postal address for you to receive replies to job applications. It means relatives and friends can keep in contact with you. You can get business mail there, as well as letters from your employer if you still have a job. Post office boxes are cheap, useful and very practical for anyone sleeping in a car or van.

Sleeping in a car.

If you find yourselves with little choice but to live in a car, you still have options.

First, you will need to arrange a space to sleep. I strongly recommend that you adjust your seats to see which seat is most comfortable to lay down on. How far back can the passenger seats go? Is the back seat long enough to stretch out on? If you have a wagon, can you fold over the back seat and stretch out in the back? What is the best option for you to sleep comfortably? You really need to arrange your car around which is the best place for you to sleep. I would suggest avoiding sleeping in the driver's seat. You don't want to be accidentally pressing the peddles and controls of your car as you sleep.

One little tip that is bound to help you get a good night's sleep is ear plugs. These are cheap, but if you use them they will block out a heap of noise, like traffic noise, people speaking in the background, a lot of sounds of animals. These things will help preserve your sanity trust me. They won't block out loud noises, such as people tapping on your windows, or voices near by. But they will cut down on a huge amount of noise. Plus they are so cheap! You will be unlucky if you need to pay more than a dollar a pair. I buy them in 6 pair packs for $5.50. Even in Europe they were less than a Euro a pair. They are probably the best buy a car dweller can have. They will make sleeping in your car so much easier.

While sleeping in your car you will probably need to have two of the windows open just enough to let air in, but not enough to let some one's hand in. If you have a car with adequate vents, you may not need this. This is both to let fresh air in, and to let smells out. Living in a car can be rather smelly, especially if you try to eat smelly food inside it or you don't get the chance to wash up often. To help avoid smells, air the car out as much as possible, place dirty clothing in a sealed plastic bag in the boot, throw out all rotten food and use one of those little in car air fresheners.

Keep in mind that even in the cold, you will need some ventilation in your car. When sleeping in your car, you will exhale moist air which can get into everything, especially your bedding. It can be very hard to balance the amount of ventilation needed verses trying to keep the air in the car warm. I have found it is really not possible to keep the air in a car or van that warm unless you are hooked up to an external power line and have an electric heater, You are better off rugging up, using a good amount of bedding, a hot water bottle and wearing head cover such as a woolen beanie. A beanie does keep a lot of heat in and makes living and sleeping in a car a lot easier during the cold.

Privacy

Next you will need some privacy. This can be as simple as buying some cheap block out fabric and jamming it in the tops of your side windows then using sun shades for the front and back windows. You can even use towels on the side windows and front windows. Anything that will give you some privacy. I ended up getting some window curtains custom made for my car from a friend. It cost me $50 plus the material which I already had. But you don't have to fork out that much. Get some card board and cut out panels to fit your windows if you have to. Use sheets or blankets. Go to a hard ware store and get reflectix and cut that to size. It will provide good insulation as well as blocking out light.

Video on in car privacy.

You may find it a bit difficult to change clothes in the privacy of your car. You might want to consider changing where you shower, or where you go to the toilet, such as in a toilet block, public shower etc.

You may be tempted with the idea of tinting your windows for privacy. Sure, it is a great solution. You can see out, people can't see in. Only it is not exactly cheap unless you do it yourself. You're looking at a couple of hundred dollars minimal to have it professionally done. You can do this yourself, you can buy tinting film off of the Internet or suppliers. As I understand it the process involves really cleaning your windows, using a squeegee and some baby wash stuff. There are limits as to how dark the windows can be tinted, so get onto the Web and check these values. Or be sneaky, go to a tinting place to 'ask for a quote' and ask them how dark the windows can be tinted. Some tinting films, such as the one that turns purple with age, also dramatically increase the heat inside your car when in the sun. This though can be a bonus in winter.

Finding some where safe to park.

One of your most immediate needs will be finding some place safe to park. In Australia there are not too many laws against sleeping in your car. Generally I have found that local councils near surf beaches have laws against people sleeping in cars. If you are in the USA I highly recommend you check out http://www.parkfreeovernight.com/ It has a great searchable database of free places to sleep overnight for free. Some places I have slept in my car include:

Some bad places to park.

Getting to the parking site.

Take care of eating and going to the toilet before you park if parking in a residential area. You want to go to the toilet as close to the time you go to sleep, so it is best to use a toilet just before moving to where you park. Having to go to the toilet at night can be inconvenient and difficult.

It is best to arrive late in the day, park, and then remain silent and quiet. If you are parked in a residential street, don't do anything to alert the people there that you are living in you car. Mostly, don't do anything to annoy the residents like make a lot of noise. In places away from people, you can of course use your lights, play music but don't over do it. If you can get permission to park some where, then you should feel free to make reasonable noise and show reasonable lighting if you need to. I've heard of some planned parking arrangements in the US now as the number of people living in cars has risen due to the financial crisis and foreclosures.

When you park, think about which direction the sun is coming from. In summer, you may want to seek out a shaded spot to help keep cool. In winter, you might want to seek a sunny spot, and face the car into the sun to allow as much heat in through the windscreen. Generally though, you should face the car so that you can drive forward out of the place you are parked in. In an emergency, you don't want to have to back up to leave. Some people say it is best to leave the keys in the ignition while others say it is best not to. Me, I have found I have felt safer with the keys in my pocket, or close to the ignition where people can not see it. When I slept away from towns I did not always block out the windows, so the keys would be out of the ignition. When I sleep with privacy curtains I leave the keys in the ignition.

Staying clean.

This is not as hard as people might think. You don't need to have a shower to stay clean. I carry my in car cleaning kit. It contains a small bucket with sealable lid, two face washers, a pump pack of soap that contains antiseptic, hand / face wipes and deodorant. Tooth brush and tooth paste should be in there too. Usually I use one face washer to wash myself down, and another to dry myself off. Hand and face wipes are used before and after eating. Showers are a luxury. But even they are not hard to find. Many local councils will have at least one free or pay shower available. Many hostels or back packer places will let you use a shower for a small fee. Swimming pools often include a free shower in their entrance fee. More information on this can be found here. At a minimum you should wash at least once a day, this may not be a shower, but you need to stay clean and odour free if you want to be treated with respect. If you smell, people will avoid you and not treat you the same way they treat general society.

One thing I read about all the time by so called experts on living in cars is gym membership for keeping clean and having showers. I don't know about you, but gyms where I live are expensive. $35 a week is minimum. $55 a week is about average. Are you sure you want to pay $55 a week just to have a shower? If you want to stay fit go walking, do push ups and chin ups. Climb trees or do rock climbing. It is far better to use a single entry into a public swimming pool once a week than fork out for gym membership. Better still, check around for free access to water, hot water is even better. Use sinks in petrol stations, restaurants, libraries to wash down and shave in.

If you can find access to free hot or warm water, such as in a quiet, seldom used disabled toilet's sink, consider buying a small electric shower unit or a solar shower. Strip off, fill the solar shower with water, hold it up, and wash down. The area will obviously need to have a drain plug in the floor.

When it comes to using laundry mats, taking your own detergent will save you heaps of money over time. As will drying clothes on a clothes line, fence or tree. You can also wash your clothes in your car while driving.

Handy items.

Torch / flashlight. Very handy to have. It will help you to see at night. If you can, one of those night LED rechargeable lights that will plug into your car power outlet is handy. Don't forget to use a low voltage cut off switch with that.

First aid kit. Always useful. I have used the scissors in my first aid kit numerous times for various in car projects such as cutting out privacy curtains, cutting up fly wire etc. This is why I also grabbed a sewing kit. But band aids and bandages can come in handy.

Car registration and insurance. You have to have these. Driving around in an unregistered car is just asking for trouble. Sooner or later you will get pulled over and it will cost you big money in fines. You can't afford to be throwing away money on fines, particularly as the cost of registration will be about the same as the fines. Also, if your car is unregistered then it is uninsured. The cost of an accident can be thousands at the low end, and millions at the high end. Apart from anything, if you are pulled over by police, you will be all legal, so they will be less likely to hassle you over other stuff.

Essential items

Bedding

There are four main things that you will need to be able to do in your car. Sleep, store food, cook food and go to the toilet. There are a few basic items that will help you do this.

Apart from choosing the best seat to sleep in, you will need bedding material. Odds are on that your existing bedding, sheets, blankets and doonas / quilts will serve this purpose. If you live in a very cold area, then you may need to buy a sleeping bag. I'm lucky that living in a car and a van I've never needed more than a doona. You should use existing bedding where you can, and avoid paying extra for our bedding.

Food.

Yep, very essential. You need to eat. You need to stay healthy.
Don't get into the habit of eating out. Sure it is easy, pay some money and the food you want appears. But that money seriously adds up. I'm a big fan of Ali Babab's and Subway. Both have healthy food to eat. But even if I was to eat at them say three times a week that's about $25. For that same amount of money I could buy enough food to eat for a week. Yes, all meals for a week instead of three. It's the false economy stuff again. Don't spend more for less.

Storing food

Food can be stored in different ways, depending on if it needs to be kept cool or not. Canned and packaged food generally does not need cooling. You can store it in your car's boot / trunk. It can be put in boxes or bags. Generally, apart from protecting it from sharp edges, this sort of food needs no special storage requirements. Cold food on the other hand does. You may need to purchase a cooler or Esky to store this sort of food. This could be anything from a basic fold up cooler, to an electric 12 volt cooler. Personally I like the basic fold up coolers, but they are not so good for keeping food cool for days on end. For that you really need a polystyrene type Esky cooler. There's a bit of a false economy in using ice to keep food cool though. Unless you have free access to ice, it may end up costing you a fair amount of money to keep your food cool. You would probably be better off buying an electric cooler. Whatever cooler you do end up buying or using, it must be water proof. Cooling air and melting food can produce water. You don't want that water in your car.

Keep in mind that some food keeps cool better than others. Milk for example is notorious for stinking up fast in even moderate heat. You should always buy long life UHT milk. That's the milk that can keep on the shelf. Frozen foods like frozen veggies turn into mush if not kept frozen. Fruit, fresh veggies bread, some cheese and things that you buy from chilled but not frozen shelves should store okay.

Heating food.

This is pretty simple if you do it right. It is also pretty cheap. You can cook food on your car engine, or public barbecues, but for sheer simplicity, a camp stove serves best. They can be fueled from big gas bottles, to small gas canisters, butane tanks or even petrol, depending on what they are designed to use. These come in all sorts of shapes and sizes from little fold up ones barely the size of a soft drink can, to big whopping 4 or 6 burner barbecues. I can't imagine needing more than 2 burners though. I have a 3 burner stove in my camper, but when I've lived in my car I made do with a simple 1 burner stove. It had a screw in butane bottle and a stove like adjustable level knob. I used it just like a normal stove.

There were some precautions though. Cooking inside the car was not a good idea. There is the danger of finding a stable place to cook. The danger of setting things alight. The danger of carbon monoxide, and the smell of cooked food in the car. Cooking is for outside of the car. There's normally no issue with setting the stove on the boot / trunk of the car and cooking there. If your boot slopes, any stable flat surface will do. After cooking, allow the stove time to cool down before packing it away. If you don't cook regularly, remove the gas / fuel container between uses.

Going to the toilet.

This is something we all need to do. If you do it the wrong way, it will make your life a misery. I will say here and now that one of the BEST things to spend your money on if living in your car is a portable toilet. A portable toilet, or a chemical toilet. These days you can regularly buy them for under $100 new at discount stores and second hand on Ebay. A typical two section porta potty has an upper tank that contains a water tank and pump. The bottom contains a waste tank. You can buy them in all sorts of sizes and capacities. Usually the bigger the better because it means more uses between emptying. In reality though, you might need to empty it more often due to the smell. And smell they do. So you might want to use public toilets when you can, reserving your potti for night use.

One thing about porta potties and chemical toilets is the chemicals they use. Typically they use formaldehyde, which stinks. Some newer chemical mixes have less of a smell. I found though that chucking in ordinary dish washing detergent or laundry detergent in large quantities (about half a cup per tank) reduced the odour and prevented the effluent from fermenting.

If you can't afford a porta potti there are other options. A basic bucket half filled with water and detergent will serve as a potti. It will smell though. A layer of oil on top of the water will help keep the smell down. But that can be messy. You can use a bucket filled with sand, but that gets smelly too. A bucket filled with kitty litter works pretty good. You can pee into bottles, Gatorade bottles do well.

When it comes down to it though, if you are living in your car, a porta potti is going to make your life so much more bearable than almost anything else that you could buy.

More information on this can be found here.

Water.

You will need water to drink, cook with and wash with. I recommend you buy as large a plastic water jug / bottle / tank as you can carry and keep filling it up when you can. Sources of water are all around. Taps at petrol stations, taps in shops, parks, houses, restaurants, buildings, anywhere. I'd avoid using streams and rivers to fill water unless you have a water filter.

Storage.

Plastic containers are the best to store most things in. You can get big ones, small ones, ones in all sorts of shapes. They can be stackable. Also those self assemble plastic slide out buckets are very useful. I store some clothes in vacuum seal bags. Zip Lock bags are pretty useful too. I use heaps to store all sorts of things. They keep the moisture out of things too. One big thing I do to save in space is to remove extra packaging. Almost all boxed food stuffs come in a plastic bag within the box. You don't need that box. It is extra weight and takes up extra space. It is best to throw it out at the shop you brought it at. If needed, use a marker to write what is in the bags.

Try not to go out and buy these storage containers at random. Get an idea of what will fit in your car. It is beat to store things loose first, and then think about how to better store them. Your three main storage needs are likely to be clothing and bedding, food, food preparation equipment.

Video about storage in a car

Staying in contact.

Mobile phones allow you to stay in contact these days. In car chargers are usually cheap and simple to use. You can also use email if you know where to access free Wireless Internet, or if your local library has free Internet. I would suggest searching for "Wifi" or "free Wifi" in a search engine to find out more about how to use it and where it is. There is more on other pages in this site about using Wifi and mobile phones.

Tap into resources that can help you.

In Australia we have a good social security system. The money you get when unemployed is thankfully enough to live on. Yes, you can live in a small rented flat with a small degree of comfort on unemployment benefit. You can also get rent and bond assistance, so look into that. If you are living in your car, get yourself a space in a caravan park and inquire about board assistance from Centerlink. If you have a spot in a caravan park you can put up a tent in better weather and stretch out to sleep. Caravan parks almost always have showers and most I've stayed in have barbecues.

Saint Vincent's, the Red Cross and many local councils can help you. Being non religious, I don't like going to religious organisations myself, but they can help. Mind you, I refuse to use those that denigrate people, accusing them of sinning or making them prey in return for assistance.

Keep your car in good mechanical condition. Plan for things like registration and insurance renewals. Make sure you have the money for these annual costs. You do not want to end up getting fined for driving an unregistered car or have an accident and then end up in debt to your eyeballs for damages. I have to admit that insurance seems like throwing away money, until you need the insurance. There are a lot of free resources on how to maintain your car. I have some basic information on this site, but if you look on YouTube you're bound to find lots of videos on basic car maintenance. Some things you should learn to do are changing spark plugs, changing oil filters, changing your leads, changing air filters and finally, changing fuel filters. These are pretty easy. Learning how to do these things will save you a lot of money. Changing filters and oil will keep your car running well. The one thing I recommend that you never touch though is brakes. Leave them up to the professionals unless you really know what you are doing.

Move on to learning more tips and advice for living in a car.

I suggest you explore the rest of this site for advice and tips for living in a car or van. I've lived in cars for extended periods, and have lived in a van (well a small bus) now for several years. I've picked up tips that I have learned the hard way, and that I have picked up from others. I hope that some of them will make your life living in a car an easier one.

Read about keeping warm in a car, using electricity in a car and how to use computers in a car.


Links:

 

© 2007 - 2014 Romana S. This text is copyright. The ideas and concepts are not. Feel free to link to it, but if you want to put it on another web site ask for permission to do so in the forum. Not for release on commercial web sites or Wikipedia or Wikibooks.

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Better Living In Your Car So I'm sleeping in my truck now. I have a pickup with a fiberglass cap, I'm sleeping in the back. I have a long cushion from a chaise lounge and blankets, it's not too bad. My cap has sliding side windows with screens for some fresh air. The side windows are tinted but the back window isn't so I hung a towel over it. I may get fancy and install some curtains. I'm on a small dead end street so there's little traffic. One annoyance is the street lights, the other is I can't lock my cap from the inside. I'm in a decent area here so I'm not that worried about locking it. I got a little battery powered radio, a wind-up alarm clock and some snacks in there, I had a portable TV but I can't find it. I slept in there Saturday and Sunday night. Last night Veggie came home without any alcohol, I thought it might be a quiet night so I slept in my bed. It was a fairly quiet night but I still woke up like 10 times hearing him moving around all night. I'm going back to the truck tonight. It's just a lot less anxiety for me.