Living in a vehicle is pretty much the same, regardless of the vehicle. The biggest problems as soon as you leave your property and go mobile is where to park and how to get there.
Larger vehicles like RV’s, tour/school buses, and commercial box trucks and step vans (think U-Haul and FedEx) have a lot of room, but they’re more expensive to move around and park. With these larger vehicles, you’re limited in parking options, highway speeds, and often parking spots, as most cities and larger towns aren’t very friendly to larger vehicles.
On the open road, however, a larger vehicle is great to park by the side of the highway, though it gets expensive having to constantly move it. This is why I prefer commercial vehicles over RV’s, as they attract less attention. As a a general rule of thumb when parking, the nicer your vehicle looks, the longer you can park somewhere without attracting much attention.
Where to Park Large Vehicles
You can pay to park a large vehicle at any RV site, which will provide shore power, along with water, sewer, and bathrooms. Often coin laundry will be on site, and the more remote of a place you go (basically the further away from big cities) the cheaper it usually is to park. Often you can pay for Wi-Fi at these places as well.
If you’re driving a commercial vehicle, in addition to the remote places above, you can park somewhere a commercial vehicle wouldn’t look out of place within most cities. Even law enforcement and business owners will generally overlook a well-placed commercial vehicle, and with a bulkhead and proper ventilation, you can stealthpark near most businesses, whether commercial or industrial.
Be careful to read signs about overnight parking, and check outside the first night to stake it out. Trust your senses, and if it doesn’t seem like a good place to stay, move along.
Understand some businesses like Wal-Mart, grocery stores, hotels, and McDonald’s may be OK with you spending a night or two in their parking lot. After that, they’ll likely call the cops, who will tell you to move along as nicely as possible unless you act like an idiot. Places like Home Depot, Target, Lowe’s, and Barnes & Noble offer free WiFi, but they’ll call the cops if you’re parked in their lot when they leave for the night.
Many parking structures have height restrictions, and you’ll be best off avoiding large cities if living in a commercial vehicle or RV, but if you’re gonna do it, park away from residential, unless you’re sure you fit in. Don’t stay anywhere more than a week, unless you’re paying to park.
Where to Park Small Vehicles
Smaller vehicles, from a full-sized van to whatever car you happened to own when you found yourself without a place to stay, can be parked everywhere above, but with the addition of residential areas. Look for places along the sidewalk not in front of a house.
Be sure you’re not in a ghetto, which are generally near the southside of metro areas and cities. If the cars parked in front of the house cost more than the house, you’re in the wrong neighborhood, my friend.
Cover your windows, preferably with black solar curtains, which can be purchased at pretty much any Wal-Mart, Ross, Big Lots, etc. for under or around $10. Cut it to fit each window, and use duct tape to tape it on (or, if you don’t mind doing a little damage to the interior, buy a package of screw-in hooks for around $5 to fasten the curtains to the door or roof. Heat can melt any and all tapes, glues, and other adhesives in a vehicle, and you don’t want to wake up with all your windows open.
With a small vehicle, you can also park in hotel parking lots for an extended period of time. Look for extended-stay hotels like Residence Inn, Homewood Suites, etc. These hotels are everywhere in the U.S., and you can probably get away with parking in their lot for about a month undetected. By parking at a hotel, you can rotate around certain areas for a long time without being seen.
Where to Sleep
You have a few different categories of homeless. There’s sleeping on the pavement or in the wild, sleeping in a vehicle, crashing with friends, renting anything, and having a mortgage. Each level has a different set of bills, problems, costs, comforts, and opportunities. The great part of living in a vehicle is the money saved can be used to travel and see new places (if you have an income).
If you don’t have an income, you need to involve friends and family. It’s time to either couchsurf or park in people’s garage, backyard, driveway, etc. This gives you at least a safe place to sleep, as well as a few creature comforts, like a bathroom, fridge, Wi=Fi, electricity, climate control, lights, space to stretch out, etc.
Never stay with anyone more than a month, and a week is the longest you should really stretch it. A couple nights is always best before moving on to someone else. If they offer to let you stay until you’re back on your feet and you stay beyond a month, pay rent as soon as you gain employment and cash.
I have a job writing blogs like this, so I use the money for gas to travel around the West Coast throughout the summer, returning to Arizona in the winter. We’re called snowbirds back home in AZ, and we crowd up the desert in the winter, leaving it high and dry come spring.
During the winter, it’s best to head south if you’re sleeping in a vehicle. Places like California, Florida, Arizona, the Oregon coast, Texas, and New Mexico aren’t necessary terrible places to be homeless during the winter. In the summer, it’s best to be near the coast, and as far north as you can get to avoid the heat.
How to Eat, Drink, and Use the Bathroom
Living in Oregon made me aware of how much garbage I generate. It’s hard to notice in a house or apartment, because you have trash service. When you’re living in a vehicle, every wrapper, bag, napkin, etc. builds up quickly. Cooking isn’t an option, unless grilling at a park, and fast food or prepared meals of any kind produce trash quickly.
Even eating naturally, you’ll inevitably have some sort of package, nut shells, fruit cores, vegetable leaves, etc. Stock up on plastic shopping bags whenever you can, and store them under the seats.
Many hotels offer free breakfast from 6-9am (an hour later on weekends), so head over there for some free coffee, pastries, fruit, yogurt, eggs, sausage, oatmeal, tea, juice, milk, cereal, etc. The nicer the hotel – the better the breakfast will be, though not all have a free buffet anymore. You can also use the bathroom to wash up before you eat. There’s almost always a bathroom in the lobby. If there isn’t, it’s not a place you want to be anyway.
I buy gallon bottles of water and rotate it out every couple days. After emptying one, I pee in it until I empty another. Then I buy more water and toss the pee-filled one in a gas station dumpster. Yeah…I’m that homeless guy…
What I won’t do, however, is poop in the vehicle unless it’s an absolute emergency, which I have a stock of trash bags to make sure I’m always prepared for under any circumstances. I’ve not yet been sick while living solely in the van, but it’s happened a few times couchsurfing.
A loaf of bread and jar of peanut butter goes a long way, as do crackers, chips, pickles, olives, tuna cans (if you have a can opener), fruit cups, etc. If it’s in an Army MRE, it’s the type of food that’ll last a while. When travelling, I love stopping at out-of-the-way farmer stands to buy a couple day’s supply of fresh fruit, honey, and nuts. I’ll also try to check out at least a couple restaurants anywhere I spend more than a week in.
Eating out can get expensive (especially fast food) so, if you’re craving a hot meal, grab a hotel breakfast, but don’t spend money you don’t have.
What to Do While Living in a Vehicle
At no point in your life prior to death will life just suddenly stop, and, unfortunately, you won’t be alive to enjoy that when it happens. Living in a vehicle is just like living anywhere else – you have 24 hours to kill. No matter how many ideas or how much energy you have, you have time to spend, and it won’t speed up.
Meditation is a great skill to learn while living in a vehicle. Spending time just laying and staring anywhere really puts things in perspective.
With a power inverter (described below), you can run a tablet, labtop, and more. Without one, I’d stick to charging phones through the lighter port so as not to endanger the starting battery.
Find places to park where you can either stretch out or go for a walk. Hotels are generally safe places to leave your car if it’s from out of state. Parks are great during open hours, and most consumer-serving businesses will let you park and browse for a bit. So get to know a town in a new way.
If you have a job, spend extra time in the work parking lot and park over night every so often. People often hang out after work and carpool, leaving a vehicle overnight. Security usually won’t even bat an eye, so long as you have a parking permit and aren’t always there.
Vegas is always a fun place to spend time while living in a vehicle. Nearly every casino in the city has free parking, though larger vehicles won’t fit. In Vegas, any coin or bill on you can be turned into gold if you know what you’re doing or just have dumb luck.
I spend my time enjoying nature, meditating, and surfing the Internet while near WiFi to take care of business and download music, movies, and games to keep me occupied when I’m nowhere near WiFi.
Understand living in a vehicle doesn’t mean you’re in the middle of nowhere. There is no wild to be – all land is owned by someone, and you’ll have to get along with them.
How to Stay Clean
Deodorant, body wash, sponges, baby wipes, laundry – this is how you stay clean. Brush your teeth. Get a commercial painter sponge at Home Depot, and use that and some body wash, along with a luffa or scrubber of some kind every morning and night. A baby wipe rinse and some lotion makes you feel infinitely better.
If you need a shower, either phone a friend, go to a truck stop, or get a hotel room for a night.
There are sinks in most public bathrooms, and some are nicer than others. Find somewhere comfortable.
Apartment complexes with on-site laundry are easy to search online and are cheaper than laundromats. Also look for universities and colleges, which may have cheap gyms you can go to for a quick shower. People always say to get a gym membership, and that’s just a dumb idea that spread online like parking at Wal-Mart. Those are terrible ways to live.
If you smoke – keep the windows down, and use air fresheners, not just car ones, but real ones to fumigate the vehicle.
How to Outfit a Vehicle for Living Comfort
With a commercial vehicle, you’ll often be starting with an empty shell, while consumer cars will be decked out for driving comfort. Either way, find a way to insulate the interior, by at least covering all windows and (if in a commercial vehicle) installing insulation around the entire interior.
If there’s no way to vent the living area, install an RV roof-vent on the roof. Cracking all the windows will accomplish the same effect. You can purchase a USB-powered fan for under $10 at a lot of stores. Another $10-20 will get you a battery bank to plug it into. This gives you a day or so worth of climate control that’s not dependent on the battery.
Whether it’s hot or cold outside, proper air circulation can make a difference. On an especially hot day, you can even wet the sponge and wedge it behind the fan to create a homemade evaporative swamp cooler.
I have a 100w solar panel on my van, attached to an Optima red top AGM battery and a 480w power inverter. This setup is enough to keep the fan running 24/7 during the summer, while charging a tablet and two smartphones, along with a Nintendo 3DS. I also have an air filter that uses considerably more power, but I run whenever the battery is topped off in the morning to freshen and circulate the air.
I’ll soon be adding another laptop the equation because the heat is too much for a tablet, and my laptop cooling pad doesn’t help, because the CPU is in the monitor, not the keyboard. Computers don’t run well in high-heat environments, which a car interior becomes easily during the day.
A small twin air mattress and two sleeping bags keeps me sleeping comfortable throughout any conditions, and I’ll soon be upgrading to a larger van with another 140W solar panel, along with 3 more batteries. This will enable me to get a minifridge and run a desktop whenever I need real processing power.
Some blankets and a pillow are great to have, along with at least a week supply of food and water, and as many clean clothes as you can fit in the trunk. It’s always nice to have something clean to wear when going out in public.
In a larger vehicle, it was nice having a bike along with me, so I had more travel options.
Most of my clothes are in backpacks and luggage to keep them sorted without looking too trashy.
That’s about all I have to say about that..hope it’s helpful…
Brian Penny is a former Business Analyst and Operations Manager at Bank of America turned whistleblower, troll, and freelance writer. He’s a frequent contributor to Hardcore Droid, Main Street, Cannabis Now, Huffington Post, and more.