Living outside of a car is never an ideal condition. In a perfect world, you would buy a truck, SUV, or a van, which you would change and customize to optimize the comfort and use of space. We do not live in a perfect universe, and your home on wheels will end up being whatever vehicle you are currently driving. So in the unfortunate event that you will be forced to call it ‘home’, what would you do to plan your current car?
A lot of articles are written about living out of a car. This one aims to have a couple of tips and items that might not have crossed your mind to think about.
Keeping your car well maintained and properly insured is number one on your to-do list. A simple tool kit, plus a set of spare fuses, a tire repair kit, at least one replacement bulb for each form of a bulb on your vehicle, a replacement fan belt, and spare oil and the air filter is a good idea.
If you have the space available, it is also not a bad idea to take a set of fluids for your vehicle.
Gather all the gear that you think you need to live out of your car, and then try it out for a night or two. It will show you what you have missed and what you do not need before you have to do it for real. Your bug-out bag might be all that you need to survive out of your car, depending on your ability level and attitude.
I like to think of it as setting up a car, but on a more permanent basis, for camping.
Your Number One Priority
Your number one priority must be safety. There are many dangers involving living in a car and you need to be prepared for them.
Whenever you sleep in an enclosed room, especially if you leave the engine idling, carbon monoxide is a concern. Battery-operated CO detectors and those that are specifically built for automobiles are on the market. A CO detector is invaluable if you plan on living in a car for some amount of time.
Since your car is now your home, if your car gets lost or stolen or you need to unexpectedly leave it you can keep all your valuables, essential papers, a change of clothes, toiletries, water, food, etc. in a backpack. This bag should be called your ‘bailout bag’ and it should be on your person and never left unattended while you are not in the car.
Lastly, when sleeping in a car in an urban area, you are vulnerable and it is important to protect yourself. First and foremost, as your first line of defense, it is always best practice to disengage from a threat. Know that you are driving a two-ton vehicle and your best course of action will probably always be to flee.
Second, note that even though your car is now your home, after all, it’s just ‘stuff’ and not worth protecting for serious bodily harm or death.
Choose the one where you keep breathing when given the choice between your life and your vehicle.
All this being said, you may be forced to protect your life, and you must choose strategies that are legal in your area and that you have the experience and temperament to perform successfully in that situation.
Open every door and your car’s trunk. Check for storage compartments for each door, inspect where the spare tire is, glove box, center console, and pockets for the bench. Plan out how you’re going to outfit your car once you have done this. Take into account how many people may also be staying with you.
In places like seatbacks and the pockets in the doors, keep items that you will need frequent access to. The bailout bag for every person should be small enough to fit on the floor between their legs.
The trunk will be the main area of storage and you need to think about organizational maximization. Buy containers that can be stacked on top of one another with tight-fitting lids. To minimize the dead space between and around them, try finding totes and containers that fit tightly together.
Label these containers with their contents, so you can easily and quickly identify what you are searching for. Keep similar objects or goods in the same containers that serve similar purposes (cooking, washing, entertainment, sanitation, clothes, etc.).
There is also a large amount of space in the area where the spare tire is, so you can store things that you do not often need ready access to. For tool kits and spare parts, this is a good spot.
Keeping It Comfortable
You’re going to find that sleeping in a car is not a lap of luxury unless you have a truck or van. A small backpacking tent and air mattress can make your sleep much easier were pitching a tent is legal.
Solar-powered fans are available that fit into a vehicle’s windshield. They’re going to expel the warm air and hopefully get the cool air in. It would also help to keep the interior of the car cool by using sunshades on the windshield.
Whenever it is possible, try to park in shaded areas. Otherwise, bring a tarp or two and some paracord and bungee cords to rig up some improvised shade while parking, or to create an outdoor area hidden by rain.
Number One for Survival
We need water to survive and it is important to have some on hand in your vehicle as well.
Fortunately, in urban areas, water is not difficult to come by so holding a 5-gallon jug with a spout in your trunk would be enough, given you have free access to water.
It is also a good idea to have a few reusable water bottles for each of the individuals staying with you in the car. For combining sports drinks, juices, protein shakes, etc., use one bottle for water and the other.
Cooking and Sanitation
For every meal, you can’t eat fast food, so you’re going to have to do some cooking. For most cars, a basic two-burner camp stove is compact enough and offers you the opportunity to cook a lot of meals. In your nearest camping supply shop, it is fairly easy to find pots and pans that nest together as well as bowls that fall flat, and cutlery.
Acquiring camping-designed cookware ensures it will be lightweight and portable.
Sanitation would be a concern. You can use your camp stove in a pinch to heat some water and to give yourself a sponge bath using soap and a washcloth. However, this is not a permanent solution, so you’re going to have to think about where in your area the most available showers and washrooms are.
Note that in areas like community centers and gyms, where one will usually be able to shower, COVID-19 has shut down or imposed limits. You can buy camp showers that are bags of water with attached showerheads, or you can wash in rivers or lakes. Another alternative is to rely on your social network to find some friends or family who will allow you to clean up using their washrooms.
Going to the bathroom at night is also a challenge that you need to remember in an urban setting while sleeping. One way to overcome this dilemma is to park outside a 24-hour Walmart or other stores that have washrooms open to the public. An empty gallon jug is another choice for storing liquid waste, making sure it is clearly labeled and securely sealed by the lid if this fails.
In 2020, GPS was omnipresent and most of us used either the GPS onboard vehicle or one of the handheld devices. There is GPS inside every smartphone and Google Maps is good at taking you where you need to go.
But in your center console or glove box, you need to have some paper maps and a compass.
More importantly, you need to learn how to read a paper map and orient it. Although this sounds like an ancient navigation method, it allows you to understand how the various streets and neighborhoods connect to each other by getting a paper map or a map book. Your ability to get around the city will significantly increase after you’ve used a paper map for some time.
I come from a period before smartphones and recall how I can get around traffic issues with a look at a map book. You would be better at getting around a city or finding an address than Google will ever be with a little practice.
We live in an electronic age and you will want alternative ways to charge your devices when parked, even though you will be living inside what is basically a two-ton generator.
On the car roof, large roll-out solar panels can be laid out to directly trickle charge battery packs or devices.
If your car is an older model and lacks USB charging ports, power inverters are available to plug into the 12V power outlet of your car that can provide hundreds of watts of power.
To save on data rates, locating public Wi-Fi is also something you’ll need to do. Such unlikely sites are organizations that serve the public, such as medical/dental offices, retail/grocery stores, coffee shops, etc to find some unsecured public Wi-Fi.
Some people enjoy living out of their vehicles, but calling a vehicle “home” for most of us is almost always the result of some kind of disaster. Although it is not convenient to drive around with a car that is always prepared to be home, it is never a bad thing to have totes, containers, and a bailout bag ready to fill up.