Back in 2015 I started my journey into the tiny lifestyle by living in a car. For four months, I lived in a Toyota Prius with my boyfriend Tom just over the Golden Gate Bridge from of San Francisco. We did it to pay off debt and to save money in one of the most expensive cities in the United States.
So, what’s driving you to start living in your car?
Maybe you’re sick of paying rent and want more freedom and adventure.
Maybe you’ve been evicted and need to figure out how to live in your car until you can afford another place.
Maybe you work remotely and want to see national parks and spend more time in nature.
Whatever the reason for living in a car, there is an adjustment period at first, and lots to learn about feeling safe and comfortable.
Here are my best tips to get you living in your car in no time.
#1 Figure Out How You’re Going to Sleep
To be comfortable living in your car, you’ll have to think about your sleeping set up. Here are a few options to consider:
A bed platform
If you’re living in a larger car like a minivan, SUV or small cargo van, you probably have enough space to build a cheap bed platform. The benefit is that you can store stuff under the platform, which gives you more living space in your vehicle’s perimeter. You can most likely build a bed platform for about $100.
Fold down the seats
When we lived in the Toyota Prius, all we did to sleep for the night was lay down the back passenger seats. This created a “bed” of sorts where we put sleeping pads and sleeping bags. We also experimented with using a roll-up futon with sheets and a blanket, which also worked well.
It’s nice to get bedding that folds up really nice and tidy so you can still use the space when you’re not sleeping.
- My sleeping pad: Thermarest Pro-Lite
Get a camper cover
If you have a pickup truck, you can get a camper cover to make your truck a comfortable vehicle to live in. Just add a memory foam mattress and blankets to the back and it will be a cozy and safe bed.
For inspiration, check out this family of three’s DIY truck bed camper.
#2 Make Your Vehicle Stealth Before Living in Your Car
Privacy is essential if you’re going to be living in a car. No matter if you’re stealth camping on city streets or in a campground, you still don’t want people peering into your setup.
Here’s some of what I learned after living in a Prius:
Tint Your Windows
If you don’t already have tinted windows, you’re going to want to get that done immediately. Tinted windows are the first barrier into people looking directly into your car. Tom tinted all of his Prius’ windows, and I tinted the front two windows of my Astro van. It made a huge difference!
Get a Sunshade
We never go to sleep at night when living in a car without first putting in a sunshade to cover the front windshield. This gives us a lot of extra privacy, and it can help keep the car’s interior warmer if you’re sleeping somewhere chilly.
- Our favorite sunshade: EcoNour Car Windshield Sunshade
Consider rain deflectors
Rain deflectors are an awesome way to keep your windows cracked even if its raining outside! Otherwise, rain will come into your windows and get all your stuff wet. We used these so many times when living in a car.
- Window deflectors: Auto VentShade Side Window Deflectors
#3 Organize the Inside of Your Car
One of the hardest parts about living in your car is keeping it clean and organized. Just the smallest things out of place can make you feel like you’re living in a disaster zone.
Here are my best tips to keeping your car organized:
Use Packing Cubes
I am totally obsessed with using travel packing cubes to organize my clothes in our Chevy Astro van. This keeps me from having loose clothes scattered around my vehicle. You can use packing cubes for clothes, shoes, jackets and other random items you don’t want rolling around your car.
- Packing Cubes: 4 Piece Packing Cube Set
Invest in Bins
A few bins can be lifesaving when it comes to living in your car. We have separate bins for our groceries, cooking supplies, etc. Try to find bins in a number of different shapes and sizes depending on your car’s layout.
Some people prefer soft storage bags instead of hard bins because they are easier to shape and mold into your space.
Grab an Over-the-Seat Organizer
While I don’t personally use an over the seat organizer, I’ve read a lot about them in van life Facebook groups. These are great for storing your electronics and charging devices, or notepads and paper. Keeping things organized is key to living a happy life inside your car.
- Over-the-Seat Organizer: 2-pack backseat organizer
#4 Plan Your Cooking Setup
If you’re going to be living in a car, it’s important to know what you’ll do for cooking. When I hung out with my cousin recently, he had a microwave hooked up to a Goal Zero 1400, which he charged through the cigarette lighter when driving around.
I’d never seen anything like it!
Microwaves to take tons of power, so if you don’t have the option to buy a portable power station, I’d recommend using a simple camping stove.
This equipment allows us to cook both inside and outside our van, depending on the circumstances and the weather.
For camping stove options check this out: The Best Camping Stoves for Van Life.
Other people prefer using an induction stove system, but you need access to a power supply to run an induction cooktop.
David does have solar panels on top of his Prius that allow him to run this type of stove.
You also don’t absolutely need a camping stove to start living out of your car. A backpacking stove like this JetBoil Flash Cooking System also works for simple things like heating up water for coffee, freeze-friend meals or ramen.
Some people just take nonperishable foods and heat them up in microwaves offered at gas stations or grocery stores.
Need a way to keep food cold? Here are some options for you:
Eating out all the time becomes old quickly when you’re living out of a car. Keep healthy snacks on hand that don’t need to be refrigerated. These are items like peanut butter, canned tuna, even canned veggies.
We also keep a few Mountain House backpacking meals in stock when we’re living in a car. They are great emergency food as they only require hot water for a hearty meal.
#5 Charging Electronics while Living in a Car
Charging electronics like computers and cameras is a top consideration when you start living in your car.
Luckily, there are a few options to choose from.
Grab a Pure Sine Wave Inverter
If you don't want to go with a crazy expensive inverter, this 300 watt pure sine wave inverter is one of those perfect van life essentials.
This handy pure sine wave DC to AC power inverter can be plugged into your cigarette lighter and is powerful to charge things like laptops and tablets. The inverter also comes with a couple of USB plugs for your phone. It could be a life-saver if you're out in the woods and want to watch a movie or do some work on your computer.
A pure sine wave inverter will feed electricity equivalent to what you’d find in a house to sensitive electronics like a computer.
You can plug a pure sine wave inverter directly into your vehicle’s cigarette lighter. However, you do want to be careful not to drain your battery when charging your electronics.
One idea is to charge your devices only when you’re driving.
The Bestek Pure Sine Wave Inverter is a great, low-cost choice.
Invest in a Portable Power Station
If you also have larger electronics to charge and you have the budget, you may want to consider a portable power station.
Portable power stations, like the Jackery 500, can be charged using your car’s cigarette lighter, a 110-volt outlet, or solar panels.
What’s cool is you can use these power stations when your car isn’t running without fear of draining the battery. They can power devices like CPAPs, portable fridges, small fans and microwaves.
The downside is they are slow to charge. If you have time in a sunny place, though, you can set the power station up with a solar panel to charge for the day.
Or, charge it using your car’s cigarette lighter when your car is running.
Read our review of the Best Portable Power Stations for Camping.
Build a Solar System
A more advanced option is to build an entire solar setup when living in a car. You can do this with any size car, not just a campervan.
In fact, David Swanson put a bunch of solar panels on the roof of his Toyota Prius, which charge deep cycle batteries. Those are connected to an inverter, which can then charge devices like a portable fridge or an induction cooktop.
This is a more complicated option and takes more know-how than the other two options. We’d recommend it only if you need to constantly run a fridge or an induction cooktop.
#6 Get WiFi in Your Car
If you’re going to be living in your car full-time, you’ll need a way to access the internet. Sure, you can park outside public libraries and coffee shops to get internet, but you may also need a way to connect wherever you are.
Here are a few options:
Use Your Existing Phone Plan
Many phone plans allow you to use your phone as a hotspot. While I’ve tried this in the past, I don’t think it’s powerful enough for what I need to do on my computer.
However, if you’re doing simple things like surfing the web, responding to emails or doing creative work like writing, a phone hotspot is totally fine.
Sign up for Reliable Internet Solutions
If you’re going to be doing a lot of internet-heavy work when living in a car, it’s important to have a solid WiFi connection. I struggled with this for years and felt frustrated at the 15gig data cap imposed by Verizon.
A woman I know who lives in a campervan recommended Reliable Internet Solutions, and I haven’t looked back.
With Reliable Internet Solutions you’ll get unlimited data. I’ve used it to work on my blog, upload YouTube videos and watch Netflix. It’s often faster than a home WiFi connection!
The main downside is the expense, and you have to buy an additional router.
Sign up for Visible
Visible is a super affordable phone plan that offers unlimited data. This is a very popular plan amongst people living in cars.
Be aware that you’ll only be able to connect one device at a time to a Visible hotspot, which isn’t a problem if you’re traveling alone or if your partner doesn’t need internet.
Keep in mind that if you’re using your phone as a hotspot, you won’t be able to make any phone calls while also using the internet.
#7 Set Up Mail Forwarding
If you’re planning on living in your car and also traveling, you’ll need a way to get your mail.
I use Traveling Mailbox for my mail needs and so far, I love it!
With Traveling Mailbox, you choose which state you’d like for your mailing address. The company then scans your mail and posts it in your account so you can see the outside of the envelope.
If you want to see what’s inside, you can request for “Open and Scan.” Then, you can decide if you want to keep the mail or have it shredded.
Traveling Mailbox then forwards your mail to any address you specify. This can even be a post office in whatever city you’re in.
If you don’t want to use a PO Box or a mail forwarding service, ask family members or a friend if they’d mind taking your mail for a few months.
Here’s great article about getting mail on the road by GnomadHome: Mail and Packages on the Road: A Guide for Van Lifers.
#8 Figure out where you’ll shower when living in your car
Most people living in a car join a local gym in order to keep clean. When I was living out of a car in San Francisco I joined the Bay Club, which is expensive but worth it to me.
At the Bay Club, we got workspaces, showers, wi-fi, free coffee, happy hour drinks, sauna/jacuzzi/steam room.
But I know a high-end gym is not really convenient when living out of your car on the road.
Here are some van life shower options for life on the road:
- Take a shower at a truck stop
- Join a cheap gym with nationwide branches, such as 24-hour fitness, Planet Fitness or Anytime Fitness
- Buy a solar shower and take a shower out in the woods
- Use body wipes
- Stop by a YMCA and get a day pass
Check out this article for more info: 11 ways to find public showers when living out of a car.
This YouTube video from CheapRVLiving has some great tips on how to stay clean.
#9 Brainstorm places you can sleep in your car
When you just start living in a car, you’ll have to think about safe places to park. If you have to stay in a city for work or other reasons, this usually means sleeping on city streets.
However, in most cities, sleeping in a car in a residential neighborhood overnight is illegal.
Plenty of people do this anyway, but you have to be very cautious. Pull in late and leave early, and be sure to stay very quiet. Don’t get up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, and don’t move around a lot in your car.
It’s much better to find a legal place to sleep in your car.
You can spend the night in rest stops and campgrounds, or on private property at places like WalMart, Cabellas and truck stops. Many RVers and van lifers report sleeping in casino parking lots.
Boondocking is one of the best ways to live out of a car. That means camping for free on public lands, run by the Bureau of Land Management or the U.S. Forest Service. This is a peaceful and legal way to live in a car.
For more info, read this article: Is it illegal to sleep in your car?
#10 Where to Go to the Bathroom When Living in a Car
Going to the bathroom is a huge concern for people when they just start out living in a car. Suddenly, you’re wrenched away from your safe and secure flushing toilet.
However, there are options for going to the bathroom.
If you’re in a city….
When we lived in a car in San Francisco, we’d usually make one last stop at our gym to brush our teeth and go to the bathroom. Then, we’d sleep through the entire night without getting up.
Yes, this was hard at first, but we managed by not drinking any liquids within two hours of bedtime.
If you absolutely have to pee in the middle of the night, I recommend having some sort of sealable container or cup you can “go” in. Ladies can use a device like a Go Girl to aim into a cup if needed.
Then, in the morning, you can either find a gym or a coffee shop to relieve yourself.
If you’re in nature…
Going to the bathroom is a heck of a lot easier when you’re camping out in nature.
You can either dig a cat hole and go backpacking style, or you can invest in a portable toilet.
My dad, who just started boondocking, digs a deep hole and then puts this portable toilet over the hole. He’s camping out of a small minivan and stores the toilet beneath his bed platform.
If you want to go the potty route, check this out: The Best Portable Toilets for Camping
Why do you want to start living in a car?
Before you start living in a car, it’s good to think about the reasons why and what you want to accomplish. It can be a stressful and scary thing to do, especially if you’re going at it alone.
However, if you’re living in a car for the right reasons – to save money, to travel, to have adventures, to pay off debt, then by all means, go for it!
The good news is that now, so many people are living in cars and campervans that you’ll have no problem finding community wherever you go.
What are your biggest concerns about living in a car? Comment below and let me know!
OTHER POSTS YOU SHOULD READ:
- 40+ ways to make money from a van
- How to do an awesome campervan conversion
- The best campervan electric blankets to stay cozy in winter
Kristin Hanes is a journalist who founded The Wayward Home as a place to learn about alternative living. She currently lives on a sailboat and in a Chevy Astro van, and has written articles about alternative living published in Good Housekeeping, Business Insider, Marie Claire and SF Gate. Read more about Kristin here.