10 Things I Learned Living Several Years in a Van

I lost my job after blowing the whistle at Countrywide and Bank of America. From 2011 through 2017, I lost everything I owned that couldn’t fit in a few bags in van.

During that timeframe, I actually lived in two vans, along with occasionally couch-surfing with friends. What I experienced was homelessness, but it was also an adventure. In fact, it opened my life up to several adventures.

I drove around the west coast, camping in cities and towns across California, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Utah. I even spent time in Florida, Louisiana, and Texas.

Although it was one of the best times of my life (and quite a memorable experience I recommend anyone try at least for a year), it came with challenges.

Living in a van is serious. I can’t stress enough that any time you’re sleeping on the streets, you’re essentially homeless. Even if you store your stuff in a storage unit, you’ll eventually end up selling much of it and inevitably losing the storage unit one way or another.

Material possessions aren’t important, and what you think is “nothing” looks like a lot more to the passive onlooker. That’s just one of many valuable life lessons I learned living in a van.

1. Sleep is important.

Everyone wants to get a gym membership and use that to shower. That’s one way of living in a car, but it’s far from the only way. I never got a gym membership. What I did was spend the money on a hotel room for a weekend every month.

Yes, that weekend cost more than a gym membership, but the five showers I’d take over three days were worth more.

I wasn’t tethered to any location by doing this. I never had to go to a gym, which I never went to before I lived in a van. I did work at a yoga studio for six months and use that shower. For the years following, I avoided Walmarts, gyms, and any other place I noticed everyone living at.

The trick to sleeping well at night in your car is not being noticed. I have been woken up by police officers on several occasions. Those are easy enough to deal with. Worst case, you’re just asked to move on.

You never know who will try to steal your car, so you have to park in safe places. It’s also a bad idea to park in one place too long. The longest I ever stayed in a city was three months. The longest I ever stayed parked in one spot was one month.

Keep moving, and you can focus on sleeping better. Always sleep in the back. Even in a sedan (I’ve slept in several rental cars), it’s important to pull the back seat down and stretch out into the trunk. This way you can get a normal night’s rest.

Of course, if you’re sleeping like that and your car is hit, you’re pretty much guaranteed to get decapitated. But once you’re sleeping in your car, that scenario isn’t going to end well anyway.

I caught up on sleep while living in my van. I was able to take naps throughout the day and not exert much energy unless I wanted to. However, everything requires balance.

2. Being awake is important too.

Fuck Bedtime Protest Sleep Sign

It’s easy to just ignore the world when you have a house, apartment, or even bedroom to yourself. When you live in a van, you’re in public all the time. Once you get out of your car, you’re in the real world dealing with real people and have to be presentable.

And it’s important to go through that process to actively participate in the community around you. It’s important when you have a home, and it’s important when you’re homeless.

You’ll meet new people who see your situation as an adventure. You’ll find new job opportunities and ways to make money. You’ll get moral and emotional support.

Sleeping is a great way to kill time so you don’t have to think about living in a vehicle. But you can’t sleep forever. Get up and out there to either enjoy your freedom or work to make things happen.

I had contract work ghostwriting for clients. I also pitched articles to paying publications. Because my work was centralized to my laptop, it was easy to make money from anywhere.

Living in a vehicle freed my funds and I was able to afford attending some massive events like EDC, E3, CES, PAX, SXSW, the Sweets and Snacks Expo, the Cannabis Cup, and so much more.

I got some great photos, met some amazing people, and even got laid several times in each van. It’s not so far out these days.

With all the good must come some bad, though.

3. Refrigeration is a miracle.

One of the worst parts about living in a van (besides the constant threat of arrest or decapitation) is not having a freezer or refrigerator. Modern kitchen appliances in general are a miracle.

My parents were big about collecting kitchen gadgets. We had all sorts of machines to make ice cream, popcorn, bread, smoothies, jerky, etc. I took for granted that not everyone’s home was like this growing up.

In a van, you’ll have to stock up on non-perishable dry goods. The only way you’re getting a hot or cold meal is by paying for an individual serving at either a grocery store or restaurant.

It’s all about lifestyle choices – other blogs you’ll read about living in a car mention poor people foods like oats mixed with peanut butter and honey, etc. These foods are enjoyable, but I need culinary variety in my life.

I would had a ton of granola bars, nutrigrain bars, oats, peanuts, peanut butter, and spices on hand. Maple syrup and honey are fantastic all-purpose sweeteners.

I bought coffee or a large soda often at gas stations, especially while driving. I loved having a lot of fluids. Staying hydrated is important no matter where you live.

Since I was driving around (gas was a massive expense), I made a point to eat out at local restaurants. I didn’t mind spending the money because I didn’t have rent.

I just couldn’t take home leftovers, because I had no way of refrigerating them or reheating them later. But the food made the trip. I don’t regret spending the money to eat out, meet people, and enjoy life.

4. You’ll die without climate control.

If you ever spent any considerable amount of time in a parked car, you know it can get very hot inside. I spent my winters in Arizona and Florida, but I headed for cooler climates in the summer.

I had 3 computer fans and 2 small USB fans running almost nonstop during the day. At night, I used whatever juice I had left to run a desktop fan that kept air circulating in the van.

I used a solar panel on the roof of the van connected to an AGM deep cycle battery in the interior to keep things charged. Initially I only had a power inverter plugged into my cigarette lighter connector. I killed my starter battery several times because of this. It’s imperative to run your engine at least a few minutes every hour to let your alternator charge the battery.

Fans, my smartphone, and a laptop were basically all I ever used. I parked with the backend in the sun and the front in the shade so that my solar panel got charged while I stayed as cool as possible.

Vans are great because you can often open the windows without anyone noticing much. I especially loved my soccer mom minivan. It was stealth when parking, and where you park is everything when sleeping in a vehicle.

5. Location is everything.

This photo was taken in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. It’s a small town near Aspen, nestled among the Colorado River and Rocky Mountains. It’s a beautiful place everyone should visit, and there are plenty of places to park in the summer.

Waking up in a car isn’t bad when you wake up in a great place. When sleeping in your car, you can choose to either pay for a parking spot somewhere or find a free one. Either way, you’ll not want to make it obvious you’re sleeping in your car.

I already talked about sleeping and waking up, and the best part of both of those is the eating.

I love parking in hotel parking lots while on the road. Aside from major cities like Seattle, NYC, LA, Chicago, etc., it’s typically pretty easy to find a spot that doesn’t require a valet. Even if there’s security (which there almost certainly is at night), you’ll blend in with everyone else driving a car with an out-of-state license plate.

Hotel lobbies are typically locked from ~9pm-7am. But from 7am-9pm, you can use a clean bathroom (better than most public places) and often grab some free breakfast and even dinner.

I spent time sleeping in remote locations, but it’s not a permanent option. Park rangers will inevitably find you on public land, and the landowner will find you on private land. There’s no real “middle of nowhere” on this planet. All land is owned by someone, and you’ll always be on someone else’s land while living in a vehicle.

That’s why location matters, whether you’re in the city or boondocks. Public parks and libraries are great places to spend your days, then hotels at night. Get to know the area where you’re staying, and you should stay relatively safe.

6. You don’t have to shower every day.

swimming hole river versability Pacific northwest

I never showered every day, aside from temporary spurts here and there. When I got into the van, I found myself wearing the same clothes (or at least set of clothes) for weeks to months at a time.

I had about 50 shirts with me, 22 pairs of underwear, 24 pairs of socks, and 10 pairs of pants/shorts. It was enough that I only had to do laundry once a month and never felt particularly dirty.

You can wear the same outer clothes for up to a week so long as you don’t have any spills or accidents. If you smoke, I’d recommend changing every day and using a dedicated smoking jacket to absorb all the smells.

I invested in deodorant, wet wipes, dryer sheets, and laundry detergent to ensure I always felt clean on the road. Finding laundromats in some places was hard, but out in the woods, it didn’t matter much what you looked or smelled like.

When you’re in a city, however, you have to be well groomed. I’d routinely shave with battery-operated clippers. Brushed my teeth in public bathrooms, and showered whenever I had an opportunity, whether at a hotel room, at a friend’s house, or at a truck stop.

I showed up to business meetings and major events with nobody knowing I slept in my van out in the parking lot. Saved a lot of money traveling that way, and the only one who noticed was me.

7. Looks are important.

That’s actually a lesson I learned living on the streets. So long as you didn’t look homeless, people didn’t treat you like you were homeless. It’s important to be invisible.

The people who panhandle on the corners often have police officers called on them. People may even recognize you. It’s no way to live.

Appearance is everything, and if you want to blend in with the crowd, you have to focus on looking like everyone else. That’s why I groomed and focused on my smell. Febreeze and Lysol are amazing to feel less homeless.

When I attend a trade show, I have a media pass, which changes booth presenters’ perspectives of me. I have a carefully selected wardrobe designed for no other reason than to blend in throughout the years and create the illusion I want.

If I want someone to stop talking down to me, I wear my MIT shirt. At concerts or on dates, I wear one of a variety of exclusive graphic tees I picked up at places like E3. I use Dr. in my name for work purposes so people refer to me as Dr. Penny.

All of this changes perceptions of you, and that’s important when living in a van because people will target you at a worst case. The best case is they feel sorry for you.

8. Everyone feels sorry for you.

I never had an issue telling people I live in a van. It wasn’t a point of shame for me. I couldn’t help but notice the pity in people’s response when I told them though.

Many people were kind and simply offered a shower or hot meal. Others only offered company. As I traveled more, I started talking to the homeless people when I first arrived in a new town. I always shared some food with them, smoked with them, and talked to them like human beings.

It’s something I realize now that many homeless people don’t ever get. A dollar is great, but being spoken to like a human is worth more than all the gold in the world.

I always smile discussing living in a van. Even when I was living in it, I talked about it with a smile.

I made the decision to live in a car. I could have fought to keep everything in an apartment, but I would’ve been tethered to it. I wanted adventure and needed to afford work travel. Living in a van was the best decision I ever made.

There were months I only made $500. That would have devastated me when living in an apartment. Even now I would take a pretty hard hit earning that little in a month. On the road, it didn’t matter. It just meant I had to sleep more that month, which was fine by me.

Homelessness isn’t all doom and gloom. You’re free from bills and many of the worries you have now. They’re obviously traded for other fears, like being curb stomped or arrested for no reason, but the freedom of time is something you never get as an adult until you retire.

I think of my time living in the van as early retirement. I still make a fraction of what I did working for the banks, but I’m much happier.

Jeans days, two weeks of vacation a year, asking for time off…none of these apply to me anymore. I live in a much different world than most.

9. It made me experience life more.

Brian Penny Solar Backpack Adventure Travel on the Willamette River

I have a ton of pictures of sunsets and sunrises from around the world. I grew up as a military brat and used to hate that we had to move all the time right when I was making friends and getting comfortable. It’s fun to see the world, though, even as an adult.

Over the past 7 years, I’ve traveled to a lot of places and met a lot of people. It’s an experience everyone should have in their lives, but not everyone does. Americans are especially bad about not traveling regularly or taking time off.

Instead of hanging out at hotel pools and tourist traps, I traveled the real world. I took road trips people often don’t. I saw things happen like the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, Washington, and Oregon. I watched things change, businesses grow, and towns evolve.

People have different opinions and preferences in different parts of the world, but we’re all essentially the same.

I tried things I never would have normally, like jumping off that cliff into a swimming hole near Willamette. Oregon with my solar-powered backpack. I hung out with bands and roadies, met with online friends, and generally enjoyed aspects of life I took for granted slaving away for corporate America.

There were absolutely days where I cried. I broke down and couldn’t mentally handle my life anymore. There were times when things seemed like all doom and gloom. Regardless of the adventure, homelessness is still homelessness. It’s mentally taxing.

But I appreciate all those days, high and low, because as I sit in my room, writing this while staring out the window, I know I really lived. I walked (and drove) a path few have chosen. I learned, and I loved, and I danced, and relaxed, and I took chances, survived, and I lived.

10. Gatorade bottles have a wide mouth.

You’ll spend a lot of time peeing in bottles when living in a car. I find Gatorade’s wide-mouthed 32-ounce bottles to be the best to pee in.

You also replenish your electrolytes and they’re not hard to find for $1-2.

You’ll thank me the night you wake up in your vehicle and have to pee. Instead of frantically getting dressed and jogging to the public restroom, you can just roll over, pee in a bottle, and seal it to dispose of tomorrow morning.

Versability

Brian Penny is a former Business Analyst and Operations Manager at Bank of America turned whistleblower, troll, and freelance writer.

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