It’s time to write more about my adventures. I’ve been traveling and living in my car for nearly a year now, mostly full-time (excluding hotels on infrequent business trips, occasional friends’ couches, or AirBnB a few times I was sick or wanted a home). I’d love to share what I’ve learned over the past year.
Here’s how a typical conversation with someone who just learned I’m living in my car goes:
You live in that?
Yes I do. I think I need to start from the beginning.
About a year ago I wasn’t in a very good place emotionally. I’ve been going through a divorce, my dream company declined my job application (spoiler: I got the job this year, yay), and my landlord decided that 12 tiny houses on a property isn’t enough and it’s time to kick everyone out to build a more dense apartment complex. I didn’t do much outside of going to work and sleeping.
I think I saw an opportunity to do something drastic with my life, and I decided to take a leap of faith. I gave away everything I couldn’t fit in the back of the car, and set on a road trip across continental United States (after spending a month doing test drives and adjusting my setup dozens of times).
The experience turned out to be more enjoyable than having a house.
How do you even fit in there?!
Everyone I talk to thinks the space is really cramped up, and I have to sleep curled into a ball in the trunk (or something along those lines).
I’m 5’11”, and I have a flat twin-width bed in that’s around 7 feet long (it’s been awhile since I measured). I sleep on an inflatable pad wrapped in a sleeping bag, on top of another sleeping bag all wrapped in a silk sleeping bag cover - my composite mattress is about 3 inches thick. I use regular blankets and pillows, adding or removing a few depending on the temperature outside.
It’s one of the most comfortable beds I’ve ever slept on.
Poor soul, want to crash on my couch?
This is an offer I get as soon as somebody learns I’m living in a car (it’s right up there with “You must be saving so much money not paying rent!”). Most people are really nice, and offer a place to stay. I think it stems from an understandable notion that one probably would only live in a car because of being in a bad situation.
Oddly enough I really enjoy the lifestyle, and I always reject the offers (always appreciate them though). Sometimes I contemplate getting a small RV or a van, but I’m way to attached to air conditioning on demand and 50 mpg on the highway. But I probably won’t need to crash on your couch.
I think the TL;DR here is that majority of people are really nice, once you get out and get to interact with them enough.
Why on Earth are you still living in a car?
There’s more than one reason at this point. Part of it is that it has become a habit now. The biggest reason is probably all the fun things it has forced me to do.
I’ve met a lot of cool people, tried out so many things I would’ve never considered trying, and found exciting hobbies I would’ve never had otherwise. I’m also now in a great shape physically since I usually have to hit up the gym to shower.
It also made me confront my inner demons, since car living tends to consistently provide me with time to be alone with my thoughts - be it driving somewhere, or falling asleep in an area where I wouldn’t want to use electronics. I feel more in tune with myself, and I can close my eyes without being afraid of stream of thoughts keeping me awake at night.
That’s cool! What else is inside?
I try to keep driver’s seat and front passenger seat area clean and empty, with storing some low key items in passenger seat leg space – portable 12V vacuum, water jug, water boiler/thermos.
The front seats are separated from the back by a dark curtain. Unless you shine a (powerful) flashlight inside a car it’s almost impossible to tell the curtain is there.
One of the passenger seats is lowered to make a bed. The bed is extended with a wooden panel specifically made for this purpose which creates a flat surface about 7 foot long. A mattress with a blanket and some throws creates /a nice homey look.
Under the bed is “the basement” – large clear container where I store winter clothes and things I rarely use. If I’m camping extra water jugs go here as well. And some bicycle maintenance stuff, and extra pairs of shoes.
I use the other rear passenger seat as my primary relaxing area when I’m inside the car. There’s a little trashcan stuck to the floor in between the seats.
Cargo and the bike
There’s an old suitcase I use for organizing various cooking and camping supplies. It’s split into nine compartments by some separators I’ve put together. This is where I have some freeze dried veggies, spices, grains and pasta, cooking oils, camping pots and pans, equipment for cleaning the dishes, etc. On top of the suitcase is a backpack where I keep clothes. There’s also a propane burner, camping table and a chair, as well as a toiletry kit. Dirty laundry goes in a dry bag.
I also have a bike strapped to the outside of the car, exploring places by bike after arriving to a new city is very rewarding!
Isn’t it dangerous?
You often read stories of people suffocating in their own cars, and it’s something to be aware of. There are a few rules I follow to be safe, and there are three main dangers here:
- Carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Carbon dioxide poisoning.
- Extreme temperatures.
I sleep with carbon monoxide alarm not far from my head, and my car is a hybrid – meaning it only turns itself on once in a while when batteries need to be recharged. Sometimes I sleep with my car on, and sometimes not. The alarm never went off so far (it works, I check regularly).
Carbon dioxide (stuff you exhale) poisoning is not a silent killer (unlike carbon monoxide), humans are pretty good at detecting high concentration of CO2 – panic attack on par with a headache are a rather clear sign of this happening. I keep windows cracked open most of the time, plus my AC is often on.
I love sleeping at low temperatures (50-60F is my comfort zone for snuggling up under a blanket), but if local forecast suggests the temperature will drop below 50F at night - I make sure to sleep with AC on. If it’s below freezing - I roll up the windows, otherwise I still keep them cracked open a little.
And if it’s really cold and I don’t want to run AC all night, or I just feel like I want to stay inside for a bit - I can just get AirBnB for a couple of nights. Speaking of, by pure chance I stayed at Gayle Laakmann McDowell’s guest house few weeks ago, and I left with great memories and a signed copy of Cracking the Code Interview. Bonus point for meeting cool people.
How does Prius AC work anyway?
This question pops up often enough to address here (along with condensation concerns from seasoned vandwellers).
It’s a hybrid with two electric motors assisting the internal combustion engine. The electric motors power up from a ~1.3 kWh battery, which is recharged using the engine and regenerative brakes. That battery is connected to the 12V battery, and as long as there’s gas in the car – both batteries will be charged. In practice, if the car isn’t moving, engine turns on every half an hour or so for a little under a minute to recharge the batteries.
This allows one to keep the car on and use the AC throughout the night. AC also keeps the moisture level at bay, preventing condensation. I also noticed that when I don’t use the AC cracked windows help with condensation (I have rain guards for stealth and keeping the rain out).
Um, how do you do bathroom stuff?
If we’re talking about changing - there’s plenty of space in the back of the car to change.
For hygiene - I use gym showers (I take quite a lot of classes), or wet wipes if I’m out camping or shower is otherwise unavailable. I’m now kind of an expert on all sorts of wipes. Any restroom works for brushing my teeth at night, and in US it’s very difficult not to be within the vicinity of a public bathroom.
Where do you park at night?
Rest stops are the best when I travel, since everyone on a rest stop is just resting/sleeping in their car.
There are so many places to park: since this is just a passenger car, anywhere where cars can park is good. Usually somewhere with either a lot of foot traffic (or the exact opposite). Parking lots of 24/7 business, residential areas, anywhere and anytime.
What do your friends and coworkers say?
Most colleagues and acquaintances don’t know, since it’s not really a topic that pops up during a normal conversation. I go to work and social events well groomed, with clean clothes, and (I’d like to think) demonstrating a sense of style.
Few friends and colleagues that do know that I live in the car don’t see it as anything out of the ordinary (past the initial shock of course). I can’t remember the last time conversation got stirred towards car living with any of my close friends. A few are rather jealous but reluctant to make the move. I try not to preach.
My love life surprisingly didn’t suffer. Maybe it’s because I tend to pursue women just as odd as me, but me living in a car didn’t have any negative effects, and even got me a date or two. If someone doesn’t want to go out with you because of living arrangements - they would probably not make a good partner in a long run.
Do strangers bother you?
When you observe people you start noticing how much everyone’s concerned with what people think of them. In fact, most people so concerned with themselves - that they don’t look around. Encounters with people who notice I live in a car are nearly non-existent. Nobody cares to look inside one of the hundred cars in a parking lot or parked on the side of the street.
I’ve had a few rather friendly encounters with parking lot security, with people usually just demonstrating concern. Until I share my setup that is, then concern is often replacement with mild jealousy.
Most encounters with strangers approaching me happen at rest stops, since I usually don’t hide much – there are enough misfits and travelers. Every encounter like that I’ve had was positive, with people commenting on how amazing my setup is, how they wished they could do a similar thing, or sharing a story about their own travels.
How do you not go crazy?
This is where the fun part starts. You see, the thing about living in the car is how boring it is. There’s really not much you can do in a confined space. So I have to get out of my way to entertain myself.
I take a lot of classes like various martial arts or archery. I tried miniature painting, rock climbing, long distance cycling. There are numerous things I’m “forced” to do in order to keep myself entertained.
There are a lot of things I do inside the car too. Writing or coding (even though I prefer coffee shops), rare indulgence in video games (I recently picked up a gaming laptop for this), guitalele (it’s a ukulele-sized guitar), reading. Drawing, keeping a journal, or just relaxing.
And of course there are people. When I travel I end up meeting a lot of different people. I often get invited to join somebody at a campsite, and we’d cook a meal together or share some stories. Or somebody sitting next to me in a coffee shop works in the same industry and we grab lunch to mingle and share interesting ideas. Wherever I go I get lucky enough to make friends for a couple of minutes, hours, days, and sometimes months.
What’s next for you?
For now, I’m used to living in a car. I sometimes pop by AirBnBs or friends’ places for a couple of days, but I wouldn’t say I enjoy being tied down to a single location for a long period of time.
I’m contemplating getting an RV to be able to stand up inside and have more room and privacy, but potential difficulties with air conditioning at night, atrocious gas mileage, and inefficient and noisy generators for my power usage are a concern of mine.
Once in a while I contemplate getting myself an apartment. Since it’s now winter I end up staying in AirBnBs more often, but I feel like having a place to call home makes it harder for me to a fight a lazy person inside me. I like when that person is forced to learn, explore, and create.