So, You're Considering Living Out of Your Vehicle, and You Want to Know What to Expect?
It was pitch black out in the woods once the sun went down. I was sitting alone in the dark, in the driver's seat of my truck outside of Bend thinking, "this is it. I've done it. I took a job in a new town--and I did it without figuring out where I would live... other than camping in my truck. Technically I'm homeless. This should be pretty interesting." Behind the front seats, my clothes, food and water were sorted into cardboard boxes which shuffled around during bumpy drives and sharp turns.
I jumped into this lifestyle choice very suddenly--we'll call it a "leap of faith" of sorts. By no means did I have a nice setup that would fill other "vanlifers" with envy: no nifty platform bed with storage underneath; no sophisticated kitchen setup or solar panels; no Instagram-worthy, trendy framed view looking out from inside the back of my truck. Back then, I had no clue how long I would even try to keep up the mobile lifestyle. I legitimately could not afford to pay rent after all my other bills were paid--this much was true. That aside, living out of my truck suited me because more than anything, I was merely starving for the freedom to explore and pursue photography in nature, instead of just going back and forth between home and work in the city each day.
I certainly didn't think that two and a half years later, I'd still be rocking the mobile lifestyle. After many months of making small tweaks and upgrades to my setup, and downsizing my belongings to the bare necessities, you might think I have it all figured out now... but I absolutely don't; the learning curve is never-ending, and not without its challenges. However, I have lots of sage advice for people who are looking to get started!
First of all, don't over complicate how to go about it: just get rid of as much as you can, put the rest in a storage unit, move out, and stop paying rent. Make the leap, and start figuring it out as you go. You don't need to start with a state of the art recreational vehicle; besides, truck or van life is about embracing simplicity and minimalism, above all.
Having said that, you asked for it, so below is my advice about some other ways in which your life may change by choosing to ditch that condo and live out of your vehicle.
Importance of Minimalism/Organization
When your living space is the size of a vehicle, it's a pretty safe bet that you'll have much, much less storage space than you're used to. It's important to stay organized and be able to let go of things you don't need, in order to optimize what space you have. Compartmentalize your belongings into separate drawers/containers for food, clothes, and so forth; have a place for everything, and keep everything in its place. If your car can be equipped with a storage pod on the roof, you might be able to free up a lot of space inside your vehicle this way. It's also important to think about whether things will stay in place once you start driving. Bungee cords are very useful for strapping things into place.
You may have a lot of seasonal stuff like blankets, snow gear or summer sports gear, spare tires, or sentimental items that you can't bring yourself to part with for good. In this case, having an additional storage space might be really handy.
People who know me well will joke that if you try to gift me with any sort of physical object, I probably don't have room for it in my truck. It's true though, that I'm constantly trying to purge unnecessary clutter and acquire smaller versions of things like cooking tools and camp gear.
The shower situation can be a deal breaker for some folks, because you'll probably be using public showers and living out of a toiletry bag. I pay for a monthly gym membership that has 24 hour card access at lots of locations across the country (so, it's also useful when traveling to other big cities). Other places to shower include campgrounds, some state parks, private hot spring resorts, and travel center gas stations like Pilot/Flying J, usually for the price of a few dollars per shower. There are also gravity bags with shower nozzle attachments you can buy, which could prove useful during the warm season, as well as various other ways to take portable showers off the grid (including car-top shower fixtures) if you so please.
Both for privacy sake and for protection from extreme temperatures, you'll need to get blinds or covers for your rig's windows if you don't have any. This was one of my very first complaints, feeling like I had no privacy inside my truck even when I was all alone in the middle of nowhere, because I didn't have blinds to pull over the windows at night.
Reflectix insulation, available in bulk by the foot at Ace Hardwear, is a fabulous product for covering your windows. In the winter, it keeps the icy draft from coming through the glass; in the summer, it can help keep your car a little cooler while the sun is beating down. Moreover, with Reflectix on all the windows, you could have lots of lights on inside your car at night, but it will appear completely dark from the outside, so it's great for protecting privacy and being discreet.
Image: Staying warm in the winter with Reflectix insulation and hot cocoa
Eating without the Standard Kitchen
If you take away your traditional kitchen setup, then cooking, eating and doing dishes becomes a whole new challenge. It is all too easy to revert to dining out and buying prepared foods instead, but this can become extremely expensive, to the point that it nullifies the money you thought you were saving on monthly rent. I would hazard a guess that a lot of people give up the mobile lifestyle because this gets wearying.
In time, I've become fond of using a little propane stove and a cast iron pan to cook most of my own meals while camping. My food stash always has certain non-perishable seasonings and ingredients (e.g. soy sauce, hot sauce, dried pasta, broth, instant refried beans, and my favorite spices) which are the staples of most recipes. I also keep a small pot that is strictly for boiling drinking water for coffee, and the rest of my dishes includes one plate, one fork, one spoon, a chef's knife, a spatula, and one drink cup... no more than I would ever use for a single meal, since storage space is limited.
Image: soft tacos enjoyed during a lakeside picnic dinner (made using a cast iron pan over a propane burner). One of the perks of being able to cook while mobile is all the meals and great views you get to enjoy simultaneously!
Importance of Water
Living out of a vehicle will really make you appreciate the luxury that is free flowing tap water. We tend to take it for granted. I always keep six or seven gallons of potable water handy in a large jug; my normal daily consumption might only be one half to a whole gallon per day, but I always keep much more than I think I'll need because running out of water really sucks when you're in the middle of nowhere.
A lot of grocery stores have filtered water fill-up stations for a marginal price per gallon, but free water can be found at many state parks, public campgrounds and rest areas. Whole Foods also advertises that their filtered water fill-ups are free of charge with the purchase of your groceries.
In time, you're bound to become an expert at stretching your water to last as long as possible, i.e. by learning to wash a bunch of dirty dishes with just one cup of hot water, or reusing pasta water or shower runoff water to soak dirty dishes when you're trying to be conservative while off the grid.
Make a Dedicated Bed Space in Your Vehicle
Limited space is a recurring theme here, but I will also argue that keeping a wide open space for your sleeping area is very, very important when considering your storage setup.
Something I've noticed among friends who are short-term car camping while they're on the road is that they often have too much stuff with them... so much stuff, that they have to pile a lot of it into the front seats or outside of the car each time they're ready to lie down for bed. If you have to move things around every time you want to lie down for some rest, it's going to get frustrating and exhausting after a while. This is where minimalism and organization really come into play.
Ideally, you'll be able to avoid the frequent "stuff shuffle" before and after bedtime by maintaining a dedicated bed area where you don't store anything. As far as housekeeping goals/priorities go, this one is high up on the list if you want to protect your sanity in the long term.
Staying Warm While Sleeping
Everyone asks, how do you stay warm? For most of the year around the Pacific Northwest, it cools off significantly at night. Winters can be downright brutal, and I've endured two long winters in the high desert now. Call me crazy, but I actually do it without keeping a heater running while sleeping at night, because it would require a lot more gas or electricity. Plus, heaters often come with risks like fire, or carbon monoxide poisoning. Instead I take other measures to stay warm when it's cold: lying on a thermally reflective foam pad prevents heat loss from below, and I also rave about Pendleton Woolen Mill blankets (pictured above) as an extra warm layer.
In the winter I sleep "cocoon style" with my head covered under the sleeping bag. The winter nights have also sparked debates about whether it's warmer to sleep with or without socks, a sweater, or any clothes at all. I'm not sure yet about which is best. :) All I can say for sure is, even when it's really cold in the truck, it stays toasty inside the sleeping bag--and my sleeping bag is not a fancy, subzero-temp-rated model by any means.
It's definitely possible to stay warm without spending gobs of extra money on fuel to power a heater. In case of extreme emergencies, I keep hand warmer packets and a space blanket available--and there's always the "hot water in a Nalgene bottle" trick, as long as you have a propane stove to heat some water or snow.
Where to Stay
Of all things, it can be most difficult to advise people on where they can post up each night. I personally live in a pretty rural place with a lot of National Forest and BLM land, where there are free, dispersed campsites hidden in the many mazes of dirt roads and logging roads. However, regulations about access and usage can vary widely in different places, which is part of why it's so difficult to tell YOU where to park legally (and safely) every night if you're living out of your vehicle. Additionally, big metropolitan areas are typically void of those public lands, so the lifestyle may not be practical if you're permanently tied to a densely populated urban area.
If "boondocking" (posting up in the middle of nowhere without hookups) is not for you, this doesn't have to be a deal breaker. Some people have reserved long term stays in official campgrounds because it feels safer, there are shower facilities, and so forth. Others have made parking arrangements with friends who have the space on their property. There are definitely some other options. Be true to your priorities if you'd rather stay somewhere with hookups or closer to civilization! The mobile lifestyle is loosely defined when it comes to where you should stay and where you feel most comfortable.
If you have more suggestions for city folks who are considering the mobile lifestyle, especially regarding where to park legally and safely at night, I would love to hear from you!
Backup Plan for Electricity Usage, Car Battery Issues, and More
When you're camping out of your vehicle, you'll be spending a lot more time in it, and you're probably going to do things that involve charging electronics, turning on lights, or otherwise using battery power. That also means you're more likely to do something that accidentally (or slowly, unknowingly) drains the life of your battery, AND it means that having a good car battery is extra important. Waking up to, or arriving to a dead car battery is even more frustrating when it's what powers your home, because it probably means you're temporarily stranded as well.
Solar panels are the ideal way to have electricity while car camping, without draining your main car battery. There are a lot of different styles of panels at different price points. If you're like me, though, and you have limited finances and already have a million other needs and repairs on your "To Afford Someday" list, then maybe a solar powered setup is out of reach for a while.
There are, however, some great rechargeable battery packs--including ones with cables for jumping batteries (in the event of that dead car battery scenario) and a mini compressor to fill tires. I have an external battery with these features, made by Black & Decker and purchased from Home Depot for only about $100. There are even converters that turn your car's cigarette lighter into a standard three-prong outlet, so you can recharge your backup battery (and anything else) while you drive!
If you thought life would automatically get easier, simpler and cheaper by ditching your monthly rent/mortgage payments, landlords, roommates, yard work and house chores, well... that isn't necessarily the case. Trying to live out of a vehicle and/or off the grid implies a whole different set of challenges and hurtles, which you'll have to learn to diminish or resolve in a way that suits you.
Someone recently asked whether it takes a certain type of person to make the mobile lifestyle work, especially if you're on your own. I'd say yes: the Type B personalities who enjoy "Type 2 fun" (difficult in the moment, but a lot of fun in retrospect) are definitely going to have the advantage. You might be relying on public bathrooms and scavenging for water; you'll find that complacency is difficult because your favorite place to park for the night can get taken by other people, or weather can change for the worst, and so forth. It's... different. But, if you don't mind all of that, nothing can stop you from having fun and feeling more free. ;)
Please drop me a line if you have feedback. I would love to hear from you about questions or ideas you might have. Happy adventures!