How to Live Out of Your Car: 16 of Our Best Tips

Want to start living in a car? Here are 16 tried and true tips and tricks, from how to cook to where to use the loo.

trunk bed platform in the back of a car

In a world that constantly seeks unconventional experiences, living full-time in a car has emerged as an intriguing option for those looking to break free from traditional norms. I know this personally, as I started living out of a Toyota Prius back in 2015 with my boyfriend to help us pay off debt and save money.

We’ve since transitioned to splitting our time between a converted Sprinter van and our sailboat, but many of the concepts of living in a car still apply to our daily lives.

Whether you’re looking for financial freedom, an affordable alternative to traditional travel, or someone who craves the fresh air and a change of pace that comes with the nomadic lifestyle, I’ve put together some great tips to help you learn how to live out of your car.

*This post may contain affiliate links. Please read our disclosure policy for more info.

1. Choose the Right Car to Live In

prius parked in the mountain area
Kristin of The Wayward Home’s Toyota Prius camper

This may seem painfully obvious, but the right vehicle is crucial when planning to live in such a small space. Consider your lifestyle, needs, and preferences as you make this decision.

A compact car like the Prius I lived in has its advantages. It had incredible fuel economy, could fit in any parking spot, was easy to drive, and no one expected us to live in it, so we felt super stealthy all the time. A super compact car like that is perfect for city camping and for someone who doesn’t need to bring a lot of gear with them.

However, opting for something larger like an SUV camper or minivan would definitely give you more living space and storage space for all of your hobbies. You will also have more parking options on public lands since a larger vehicle typically has more clearance and may even have four-wheel drive.

Here are some articles that might help:

Our Tip: Fuel Efficiency, Comfort, and Stealth

You’ll want to prioritize what is most important to you: fuel efficiency, comfort, or the ability to camp stealthily. You might be able to have all three, but when living in a smaller space, you may have to give up one to have the other two.

An SUV doesn’t get as good gas mileage as a Prius, but it may be more comfortable while still allowing you to stealth camp in cities. Whereas a Prius will have great gas mileage but might not be as comfortable to live out of.

2. Figure Out What to Bring

dodge grand caravan minivan camper showing the interior
Dodge Grand Caravan minivan camper

When transitioning to living in your car, downsizing and choosing what to bring can be challenging. Car living essentials might look a little different than you expect. Here are some tips on downsizing and a list of some items you should consider adding to your new home on wheels:

Car Living Essentials

  • Important documents such as your passport, insurance card, or medical card should all be kept in a safe, inconspicuous place in your car.
  • If you take any medication or need specific medical supplies, be sure you have enough for the time you are out, and have a plan to refill them as necessary.
  • Clothing and footwear should be versatile, comfortable, and weather-appropriate for your traveling climate.
  • Basic toiletries like a toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, deodorant, etc. are a given. You might consider using travel-sized items to save on space. Don’t forget a towel and a washcloth!
  • Keeping wet wipes and hand sanitizer on hand will help you feel clean in between showers.
  • A camp stove or Jetboil so you can cook your own meals.
  • Cookware and food storage containers that fit in small spaces. That big frying pan you currently use probably won’t work as well when living in a car.
  • A few good books are always nice to have. Many cities have “Little Free Libraries” where you can trade in your book for a new one as you travel.
  • Keep a spare charger for your phone in case you accidentally lose one.
  • A portable power station like a Jackery will be useful if you need to charge something other than your phone.
  • You’ll appreciate having a headlamp and flashlight when you live in your car more than you realize! (BTW, I can’t live without my USB headlamp – it lasts forever and doesn’t require batteries!)
  • If you’re averse to outside noise that comes with city camping, truckstops, and even campgrounds, you might benefit from a battery-operated noise maker to give you ambient background noise while sleeping.
  • A road atlas is helpful for planning long trips.
  • Car wipes will help you keep the inside of your car clean, which gets dirty much quicker when you live in your car.

Want to learn more about our campervan essentials? Check out this article on my top 60 van life essentials I can’t live without.

Tips on Downsizing

Transitioning to a minimalist lifestyle is a crucial part of successful car living. Here are some tips to help you downsize effectively:

  • Prioritize Essentials: Focus on items you genuinely need. What you need vs. what you want can be very different, and your needs can change while living on the road. Consider the practicality and frequency of use for each item.
  • Have Multipurpose Items: Opt for items that serve multiple functions. For instance, a camping pot can be used for cooking and eating.
  • Digitize Your Life: Scan and store important documents digitally to minimize paper clutter. Use apps for notes, calendars, and task management.
  • Mix-and-Match Wardrobe: Keep clothes with versatile pieces that can be mixed and matched for various outfits.
  • One In, One Out Rule: Consider removing something else for each new item you acquire.
  • Sentimental Items: While it’s important to cherish sentimental belongings, be selective. Consider taking photos of sentimental items before letting them go.
  • Reduce Duplicates: Avoid carrying duplicates of items you can easily find on the road or at your destinations.
  • Regular Evaluations: Regularly assess your possessions and reevaluate their necessity. Over time, you may find that what you thought you wanted and needed on the road is actually different.
  • If you’re nervous about downsizing completely, you can rent a storage unit temporarily and decide later what you want to keep or get rid of.

3. How to Sleep Comfortably in a Car

Learning how to live in your car means you'll have to choose a bed, like this platform bed
This couple built an affordable bed platform in their car. Photo: https://www.tripofalifestyle.com/

Crafting a way to sleep in your car comfortably is incredibly important to ensure you get a good night’s sleep, every night. There are a variety of ways that you can transform your car into a comfy, cozy bed.

  • A simple air mattress can be a great solution for a smaller car. You can quickly fold down your back seats, blow it up with a 12-volt inflater, and deflate it when not in use, giving you more room for daily living space in your car. We love the car camping mattresses from Luno Life.
  • If you want a fixed bed platform, you can either build one yourself or purchase a pre-made kit that can be installed in minutes. This is a great option if you don’t want to make your bed daily and want additional storage underneath the platform. Check out car camping platform bed kits here!
  • If your car is very small, you might throw a memory foam mattress topper down as your bed and use a sleeping bag.
Trunk Bunk Bed Platform

Looking for a simple bed to add to the back of your car? The Trunk Bunk is a modular sleeping platform appropriate for a wide variety of vehicles.

Setting up this trunk bunk is a breeze! Just grab an electric screwdriver and a couple of hours, and you'll be ready to hit the road.

4. Organizing Your Car to Live in

Bins full of stuff in the back of a van - staying organized while living in a car
We use a variety of bins and packing cubes to keep our vehicle organized

When you’re about to live out of a car, you’ll need to learn how to keep things very organized. With a few DIY modifications, you can transform the back seat of your car into a cozy home on wheels.

Organization and Storage

  • I’m a huge fan of packing cubes, and they help me keep my clothing organized and clean.
  • A cargo net on the inside ceiling of your car can be a great place to store extra bedding or a clothes rotation.
  • Storage bins throughout the car will help you keep things organized, accessible, and clean. (We love these storage bins by Radius Outfitters)
  • Seat organizers over the driver’s seat and passenger seat are great for providing additional storage in an otherwise unused space in your car.
  • A canvas hanging shoe storage solution can be fixed to the rear doors or even the side walls of your car, depending on the space available. You can cut them down to size and use only the storage pockets you need.
  • Consider keeping your toiletries and shower items in a single bag that you can grab and go when you’re heading to a gym or recreational center for showers.
  • There are small organizers that fit on your sun visor that are perfect for storing things like sunglasses, a car charger for your phone, earbuds, and parking passes.

5. How to Have Privacy When Living in Your Car

No one wants to feel like they are in a fishbowl where everyone can always see inside their home. Luckily, there are many options for making your home on wheels a private sanctuary.

  • There are many window covers on the market that you can buy for your specific vehicle type, or if you’re handy, you could make some yourself! Or you can click here to learn how to make your own on the cheap!
  • Sunshades are great for not only blocking out the sun, but also for blocking your windows so people can’t see into your car.
  • Window inserts with Reflectix insulation can be very helpful to help regulate the temperature in your car. Again, these can be purchased pre-made, or you can buy rolls of Reflectix and make some customer inserts yourself.

6. Where to Sleep when Living in Your Car

where to sleep living in your car
Sleeping bags inside the car

Safety when learning how to live out of your car is always top of mind, including not parking in illegal parking spots overnight to sleep. Finding secure parking will help you have a worry-free experience.

You can use apps like iOverlander or websites like freecampsites.net to help you identify safe and legal parking spots to rest without disruption. Different lands and cities have varying laws and regulations regarding camping and sleeping in a car. For example, some cities have laws against sleeping in a vehicle overnight within city limits.

  • Research the area you plan to stay in thoroughly to ensure you comply with local ordinances.
  • Always obey signs that state what hours parking is permitted or if it’s even permitted at all.
  • Consider getting a steering column lock like this one to help deter anyone from breaking into your car, whether you’re grocery shopping or taking a nap inside.
  • Be respectful of local businesses and city ordinances – even if someone told you it’s okay to park in a Walmart parking lot, call ahead to ask if they allow overnight parking. Some cities have ordinances that don’t allow it, regardless of if the business owner tells you it’s ok.
  • If stealth camping in a residential area, be mindful of where you park. Arrive late and leave early so you’re not taking up parking spaces that residents might need.
  • It seems crazy, but not all rest stops allow overnight parking or sleeping in your vehicle overnight. Always check ahead if you’re planning on sleeping at a rest stop.
  • Truck stops are another viable option for safe parking. Again, not all truck stops allow cars to park overnight in their parking lots due to space constraints, so always check ahead.
  • Only park in designated areas when free camping on public lands like National Forest or BLM land. Never make your own campsite – look for areas worn down more, often with a campfire ring or other indications of use for camping. Some places have markers starting that is a designated campsite.
  • Some forest service campgrounds can be reserved ahead of time, and some have first-come, first-serve spots you might be able to snag in a pinch! (Read our article about sleeping in national forests here)
  • Never park on private property without permission from the owners.

7. Personal Hygiene: How to Stay Clean when Living in Your Car

Maintaining basic hygiene and having appropriate amenities on hand can be a learning curve when you’re first learning how to live out of your car, but it doesn’t have to be difficult! Here are a few tips to help you ensure you stay healthy and feel clean, even when living in such a small space.

  • A gym membership to a nationwide gym is worth its weight in gold when living on the road! Planet Fitness and Anytime Fitness are popular choices because they have extended hours, and you can get a hot shower in their locker rooms.
  • Recreational centers, public pools, truck stops, and even some public campgrounds often have public hot showers for a per-use fee. You can easily use The Dyrt to filter and find campgrounds that offer showers. Get a 30-day FREE TRIAL of The Dyrt Pro here.
  • Between showers, you can use wet wipes for a quick refreshing wipe-down and hand sanitizer to keep your hands clean and germ-free.
  • Using laundromats makes washing your dirty clothes super easy since you can do all of your laundry at once in larger washers. (Here’s our article about washing clothes in a campervan!)
  • A spray bottle with a vinegar solution can be used to clean and sanitize dishes and eating utensils after simple meals.
  • We love using a solar shower to take the majority of our showers on the road. The Sea to Summit is our favorite solar shower yet.

8. Where to Go to the Bathroom

woman holding toilet paper near a campervan who doesn't have a portable toilet for camping
I prefer going to the bathroom out in nature when possible!
  • A portable toilet is a great option if you won’t have access to a flush toilet daily. Many portable toilets on the market these days are compact enough to fit in a small car if you want to have something on board.
  • For #1, you can use a sealable jug in a pinch. Ladies, if you’re concerned about aim, try a pee funnel like a Go Girl. I suggest practicing in the shower the first time you use one!
  • When you’re in cities, you can plan your day around your needs for a toilet: Plan a few hours of work and get your morning coffee at a coffee shop or plan your workout around the time of day you usually need a restroom. End your day at the gym to shower, brush your teeth, and relieve yourself.
  • Try not to drink liquids within 2 hours of sleep so you don’t have to get up at night to pee.
  • If you’re camping in nature, you can dig catholes when needed. Always ensure you never dig a cathole near water sources, and check that there are no restrictions in the area you camped in. Some wilderness areas have strict pack-out requirements for human waste due to the delicacy of the ecosystem. Always pack out your toilet paper.
  • WAG bags are an option for areas where you can’t dig catholes.

9. Managing Everyday Life

Meet the family of five living in a van full-time
Family of five living in a van full-time

Living full-time in a car doesn’t mean sacrificing structure and routine. Establishing a daily rhythm and staying connected is totally possible when living out of your car.

  • Keeping a routine, especially for your sleep schedule, can help you manage everyday tasks when living in your car. Try to plan your days so you have ample time to “wind down” and get plenty of rest before moving in the morning.
  • Schedule calls with friends and family members to help you stay connected to your community.
  • Maintain a budget and track expenses to learn where your money is spent most and where you can cut back if needed. Always try to set aside some savings if you have unexpected expenses, such as mechanical repairs.
  • Check your car insurance to see if it covers things like theft, and make sure you have good roadside assistance for peace of mind.

10. Eating on the Road

picnic table with food
Eating on the road

It’s easy to default to fast-food and unhealthy snacks when on the road, but eating well while living in a car is entirely possible with some planning and creativity.

  • You can cook hot meals on a portable camping stove or even use a Jet Boil (but never cook inside your car!).
  • Camp cookware and utensils are traditionally smaller, lightweight, and pack well in small spaces, so they make perfect cooking kits for your car.
  • Of course, camp cooking supplies aren’t required – you can opt for simple, inexpensive cookware, plates, bowls, and eating utensils.
  • Reusable containers with lids that snap closed will be helpful for food storage. You’d be surprised how much space food packaging can take up!
  • Pro tip: prep all of your groceries right in the parking lot when you go shopping, and throw out all unnecessary packaging right then and there!
  • Craft a meal plan that combines non-perishable foods with fresh produce.
  • Opt for foods that are easy to store and require minimal preparation.
  • Only keep healthy snacks in your car. If you don’t have it, you can’t eat it!
  • Cooking hacks like pre-cut vegetables, canned goods, and/or pre-cooked rice packets can simplify meal preparation.
  • Plan your shopping days around when local farmer’s markets are running to get the freshest food possible and support local businesses.
  • Get a small, good-quality cooler or a portable fridge to keep perishable food from spoiling.

11. Internet Connectivity

woman using Wifi to Work while Living in a car
Kristin using Wifi to Work while Living in a car

We live in a world where we must be connected to the internet to do almost anything. You can’t even get coupon deals at some grocery stores anymore without an app on your phone to track your purchases.

When you live in your car, you will be just as reliant, if not more, on connectivity. From using Google Maps to route your trips to looking up local coffee shops to work in, to checking weather conditions, you’ll want the best connectivity options for your specific needs.

  • Ensure your cell phone plan offers things like unlimited data. (We use Visible and love it!) You’ll be using more since you won’t be connected to WiFi as often as if you were living in a house with the internet.
  • Determine if you need an additional hotspot for internet connectivity to your cell phone plan. If you are working on the road, this might be necessary if you need internet and aren’t near a coffee shop or library where you can use their WiFi.
  • Places like libraries, Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and Starbucks often have free WiFi available that you can tap into from their parking lots. Keep in mind these sources aren’t always reliable or fast.
  • A cell phone booster might be a good investment if you plan to be outside of cities often. They don’t provide cellular service where there is none, but that can make otherwise bad or unusable service usable.
  • If you need to work a lot, you might want to invest in a Starlink satellite internet system, which we also use in our campervan
Our Pick
Visible Wireless Unlimited Data, Talk and Text

Visible is a really affordable, unlimited phone plan that is popular among van lifers. I started using it and so far, have been happy with the plan and service. Visible's base plan is just $25 for unlimited data, talk and text in the United States, or you can upgrade to a $45 per month plan to use your phone in Mexico and Canada. I have been using mine in Mexico and it works great!


12. Charging Your Electronics

Jackery Portable Power Station connected to an ARB portable fridge
The Jackery Explorer 500 did a great job charging my 37 quart ARB fridge

If you need charging capacity that goes beyond what your car battery can provide, you’ll want to have alternative methods to charging things like your cell phone, laptop, and any other electronic devices.

  • Gyms, libraries, and coffee shops sometimes have outlets by tables so you can charge your items while working.
  • A portable power station with solar panels can make all the difference for your power needs while living in your car.
  • A small rechargeable power bank that you can charge with your car’s cigarette lighter can help you keep your phone topped off when your car isn’t running.

13. Preparing for All Seasons and Events

couple sitting inside a campervan during winter
Couple during winter season

Living in a car requires adaptability, especially when facing extreme weather conditions. Be prepared to tackle both cold and hot weather with the right strategies.

  • Keep a heated electric blanket or sleeping bag in your car in case you end up in unexpected cold weather.
  • Pro tip: you can use a pillow case to stuff your spare planet in and it can double as your pillow to save space in your car!
  • A small battery-powered fan will help keep you cool on a hot summer night when sleeping in a stuffy car.
  • Invest in bug screens for your windows so you can have them open without letting insects in.
  • Consider getting rain deflectors so you can keep your windows cracked without having rain come in.
  • Have clothes you can layer up/down in. Instead of having separate clothes for different conditions, you’ll save space by having multi-purpose clothes that you can use year-round.
  • Consider clothing and blankets like wool that helps regulate temperatures better and is naturally antibacterial.
  • If it’s really cold, sleeping with a hot water bottle will help you stay warm overnight.
  • If there’s a chance you will be driving in snowy conditions, always keep a set of tire chains or cables on hand.
  • Always keep an emergency preparedness kit in your car that includes a safety flare, first aid kit, car jack, and jumper cables. Check your spare tire to make sure it’s usable and accessible.
  • Practice changing your tire and make sure you have the right jack, tire iron, and any other tools you need to complete the task.
  • Turn on the weather notifications on your phone, and check the weather often to keep up to date on any shifts you should be aware of.

14. Getting Mail on the Road

traveling mailbox is a great way to get mail when living in a car
Traveling Mailbox displays your mail in an easy-to-read interface

Most administrative tasks can all be completed online these days, but there will still be times you have to receive physical mail. It takes a little planning, but there are lots of ways you can receive mail while living in your car!

  • You can utilize Amazon lockers for most package deliveries from Amazon that fit within the size constraints of the lockers.
  • Most UPS Stores will receive packages for you and charge a fee per package upon pickup. Always call ahead to ask.
  • US Post Offices allow receipt of “General Delivery” mail. Not all post offices accept general delivery, so always call ahead to ensure they will accept your package. The USPO also does not accept packages from UPS or FedEx, so you must know what method your package is being delivered before shipping it to a USPO.
  • If you’re having something shipped via FedEx, you can have it shipped to any FedEx access point and pick up your package there.
  • You can sign up for a virtual mailbox like Traveling Mailbox that can receive all mail and then ship it to you anywhere in the country.

Want to change your residency state like we did? Check out our article on how to move to South Dakota.

15. Taking a Break from Living Out of Your Car

woman walking dog on a trail
Woman walking dog on a trail

While the car-living lifestyle offers freedom and adventure, it’s also important to recognize that taking breaks can be beneficial for recharging and maintaining connections. Fortunately, various options allow you to step away from your car for a while without giving up your nomadic spirit. Here are some alternatives to consider:

  • Trusted Housesitters is a platform that connects you with homeowners who need reliable house and pet sitters while they’re away. It’s an excellent opportunity to experience living in a home, caring for pets, and enjoying the comforts of a more traditional living arrangement.
  • If you’re an animal lover, Rover allows you to offer pet sitting and dog walking services. Oftentimes pet owners need someone to pet-sit in their home long-term.
  • Visiting friends or family members for a brief period can be a refreshing way to take a break from car living. It allows you to reconnect, enjoy a comfortable environment, and have a change of pace.
  • The Landing offers a unique “standby” program that grants you access to furnished apartments in multiple cities. This program lets you stay in a cozy space for a predetermined time, giving you a break from car living while maintaining a sense of adventure.
  • Consider booking short-term rentals through platforms like Airbnb or Vrbo. This allows you to experience different living spaces without committing to a long-term lease.
  • Staying in hostels can be economical to explore a new city, make new friends, and take a temporary break from car living.
  • Some platforms facilitate house swapping, where you exchange homes with someone else for a designated period. It’s a unique way to experience a new location without the cost of accommodation.
  • Engage in work exchange programs where you offer your skills or labor in exchange for accommodation and sometimes meals. Platforms like Workaway and HelpX facilitate such opportunities.
  • Participate in volunteer programs that provide housing in exchange for your time and efforts. This lets you give back and offers a place to stay during your break.

Remember that taking breaks from car living doesn’t mean giving up the lifestyle entirely. It’s about finding a balance that suits your needs, allows you to connect with others, and provides a change of scenery. These alternatives offer a taste of different living arrangements while still aligning with your adventurous spirit.

16. Knowing When to Transition

Considering living in a car? Here's are some tops on how to live in your car
Considering living in a car full-time?

While living full-time in a car can be incredibly rewarding, it’s essential to be attuned to your evolving needs and aspirations. Knowing when to transition to living out of your car, and the reasons for your decisions, are important to ensure you have a positive experience while on the road.

Transitioning to car living can take different forms. First and foremost, you’ll want to make sure you are mentally and emotionally prepared to take on this new lifestyle.

  • You might want to try it out part-time for a few months and keep your current home or apartment.
  • Maybe you keep the bulk of your belongings in a storage unit for peace of mind that you can transition back into a home quickly.
  • Talk to other people who live in their cars and ask what challenges they have had on the road. You can join Facebook groups or online forums to meet like-minded people.
  • Go to nomadic events to see what the vibe is like in the community.

Is Living in a Car Right for You?

Living in a car is a transformative experience that fosters personal growth, self-discovery, and resilience. It can be so much fun, with lessons learned, overcoming challenges, and creating memories you will cherish for decades to come.

You can confidently start your adventure by choosing the right vehicle, making essential modifications, and prioritizing safety, hygiene, and well-being. From budgeting wisely to connecting with local communities, each step of the journey holds opportunities for personal growth and unforgettable experiences.

Whether you’re looking to start saving money by not paying rent, or just wanting a fun new adventure, the key to successful car living is finding balance, embracing adaptability, and savoring the journey as much as the destination.

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14 Comments

  1. Intresting read. Thanks.

  2. Where do you store your your clothing etc?

    1. That’s a good point! When we lived in the car full time we kept everything in a storage unit. It was a like a huge walk in closet, ha! If you have a van, you can design storage spaces to put clothes, but that’s harder in a car. One of my friends just moved her stuff to the front seat when she would go to sleep.

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  7. I lived out of my hatchback and a tent for 6 months. I loved it. Finding a place to sleep was the most stressful part of that, but I got over that in about a month.
    I’ve tried sleeping in a sedan. I do NOT recommend it. They just aren’t built to lie flat, and there’s no hip room to turn over at night.
    I have a tiny house, and a tiny teardrop trailer now. I’m living large!

  8. Donna Fruscella says:

    Hello again. How much money do you recommend to have available when living in a vehicle? I am afraid to break down and not have enough funds to fix it or ditch it.

    1. This happened to me. In the end i lost everthing and ended up riding home from montana to georgia o a four day greyhound trip. It was a grand experience. At 58 it was the best learning experience of my life. Loosing everthing is very freeing. Lol

  9. Great post. Definitely relevant info!

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  12. What about health insurance? Where do you get it if driving around?

  13. ReviewsandBuyingGuide says:

    I need someone to recommend the best product among those listed on this site?

  14. I may have missed it in the article but where do you wash your clothes?

    Thanks 😊

    1. Kristin Hanes says:

      Hey Lisa. At a laundromat 🙂 Still doing this now even though I live in a van. You can also get a Scrubba wash bag.

    2. Kristin Hanes says:

      At the laundromat 🙂

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    Get more details at https://driver.pk/

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