As the old song says, there but for fortune go you or go I… and sometimes fortunes change swiftly. None of us are immune from the twists and turns of fate. When you lose the roof over your head, keep your wits (and your wheels) about you.

In a large-scale disaster such as wildfire, flood or hurricane, thousands may be forced from their homes with little warning, overwhelming shelters and hotels. Some may be ineligible for other temporary housing due to pets. Where do we go when all doors are closed? If we’re lucky enough to own a reliable vehicle, that little bubble of plastic and steel can become a precious refuge against the elements — closet, bedroom, and pantry, all rolling on four wheels.

Think of it like camping — only with greater flexibility. If you’re forced out of your home for any reason, you may need or want to stay local to continue to work, attend school, or be close to family or your home should conditions change. A car provides a more impermeable structure than a tent: lockable and usually weather-proof. You may already have your “Grab ’n Go” kit ready in case of evacuation (and if you have pets, make sure you’ve planned for them too), but how will you fare if your car becomes your home for days or even weeks? Once you get used to preparing for the worst, you may want to test drive your new shelter — try it out for a weekend road trip or music festival! No more late-night searches for motels or campgrounds — you might even enjoy the stripped-down freedom.

During the recent economic climate, with uncertain employment prospects and staggering housing costs, some have even chosen to live in their cars as a strategic lifestyle. Pay off debt, simplify and de-clutter, avoid the yoke of an endless mortgage… Living in my car, proponents claim, means maximum flexibility with minimum overhead. In Walden on Wheels, a recent university graduate details his adventures in repaying $32,000 in student loans through taking odd jobs while having the adventures of a lifetime on the road — but he had an Econoline van, a palace compared with many modern sedans and compacts.

With a little creativity, car living can be accomplished in almost any vehicle. The difference between thriving and barely surviving is in the details. All of us could benefit from the lessons of those who have been there: what is necessary and what should be jettisoned? How do we meet our physical needs without indoor facilities? How should we plan differently for various environments and climates?

Safety and privacy

Deprived of your usual four walls, it may take a while to relax. Some level of extra vigilance will serve you well; but some simple precautions, and faith in the basic goodness of those around you, will help you get some much-needed sleep.

A reflective sun shade for the windshield is a must: in addition to protecting you from prying eyes, it will reduce heat gain in summer and may provide some insulation in winter. You can also order these reflective shields for door windows. Tinted glass is helpful (department stores sometimes sell “press-on” window tints which are easy to apply), but you will feel more secure with a real privacy barrier such as a curtain. If you don’t have time to custom-make a velcro curtain for your car, consider simply cutting out cardboard to fit your windows and using tape to secure it. Finally, earplugs and an eyeshade will improve your sleep immeasurably, by helping you forget that the street is inches away. Even in quiet residential areas, the city can be a noisy place, with passersby talking, occasional sirens, and garbage trucks clanging by in the wee hours.

It goes without saying that doors should be locked at all times while you are within the vehicle. If all view into the car is blocked, you may choose to leave your keys in the ignition while you sleep, so you can easily drive away if any uncomfortable situation arises. Alternatively, keep your keys — and your cell phone — where you can put your hand on them in a moment, in the dark. Never leave your car idling without windows open: fumes can build up inside to dangerous levels. Warm sleeping gear and wool caps must take the place of the car heater at night: save your gas for necessary transportation only, and try to find other options for warmth and electricity.

If you are part of a large-scale evacuation, get in touch with neighbors and friends to find out if any of them are sleeping in their cars as well. If so, buddy up: there really is safety in numbers.

Where can I park overnight?

In your first few nights, you will likely feel very vulnerable and even uncomfortably furtive, with an unaccustomed sense of needing to “lay low” and keep out of view of the authorities. Luckily, there are some reliably hassle-free places to spend the night, provided you practice good-neighbor leave-no-trace habits. Drive to your camping spot when you are ready for sleep (having completed your nightly hygiene routine), cut the engine and settle in as quickly as possible, avoiding noise and excess lights. For best results, rotate your spots so that nearby residents don’t start noticing you and making complaints. Use common sense and local advice to steer clear of high-crime neighborhoods, as well as isolated urban areas where you will be more vulnerable. Having others around, in general, is good; though your earplugs will come in handy to block out voices, door-slamming, and loud footsteps.

  • Check out to see if your area has any designated camping spots with low or no fees.
  • Highway rest areas, truck stops, and carpool “Park ’n Ride” lots are all good bets. Truck stops often have the added advantage of pay-showers and convenience stores.
  • Walmart parking lots are known for being overnight-friendly. Their hospitality is mainly aimed at RVrs, but often security officers will tolerate at least one night of car sleeping, and the proximity of RVs may be comforting.
  • Public boat launch areas are good bets: boaters often launch at odd hours and leave vehicles overnight while on an excursion, so your car won’t stand out.
  • Bus and train station parking lots may be suitable if their regulations allow free overnight parking (check signs). There are often departures and arrivals scheduled though the night, which might increase noise but will also provide some security.
  • Those who don’t mind relying on the kindness of strangers can check out, an online network of friendly adventure travelers. After becoming a member, you may be able to find a contact in your area who can offer a driveway to park in, or even a shower in exchange for nothing but a little pleasant conversation. Written testimonials help you evaluate the trustworthiness of each potential host, though ultimately you have to choose your own level of risk-tolerance.
  • Local police may be friendlier than you expect: if they won’t let you park overnight near the station, they can probably give you advice about a safe and legal local spot. Ask them their experience of local parks and rest stops, for instance.
  • Try anywhere overnight street parking is common and unregulated. Avoid being the only car parked on a suburban block, where security and suspicion are likely to be high. In residential city neighborhoods, there are usually lots of streets where driveway-less locals commonly use street parking and you can easily squeeze your unassuming car in between two others. Check signs for any morning street cleaning or pay-parking hours, and set your alarm accordingly.
  • Consider asking a local business if they would consider allowing you to park regularly overnight, pointing out that you would be there to “keep an eye on the place” and report suspicious activity. For example, try a mechanic’s shop which keeps customer vehicles parked outside. It only takes one “yes” to make asking worth your while. If you are a member of a local church or other community organization, ask there.

Hygiene in the car lifestyle

This may be the most challenging element of car living: how do we keep clean and answer nature’s call? Where do we access toilets, running water, and showering facilities? Some long-term car-livers choose to maintain a gym membership for the daily showering benefits — this is a pricey if luxurious solution. If you go that route, try to choose one that includes towel service: drying wet towels in the car can create moisture and mildew problems.

On a tighter budget, we may forego the daily shower, and get more creative. If you find an isolated forest camping spot, a solar shower is wonderful, but it’s tricky to find sufficient privacy in an urban setting. Alternatively, learn to make do with a bucket-and-washcloth bath which you can accomplish in a gas station rest room or the privacy of your vehicle. Then stop at a hostel or truck stop once a week where you can pay for a shower — or pay a single entry fee at a swimming pool or YMCA, where you may even get a sauna or hot tub thrown in.

Fast food places, gas stations, and public parks all often have public toilets and running water available. Check around to determine which are clean and feel safe, and incorporate those into your daily route. If you are car-camping in rural wooded areas, you can use wilderness practices for burying human waste, but this can only be done 200 feet from any road, path, dwelling, or water source: a last-resort unless you are truly in the wilderness. Another solution is purchasing a personal port-a-potty, or chemical toilet — this is not odor-free, but you may find the convenience is worth it.

Weekly laundromat trips may be unavoidable, though for greater self-sufficiency you can try out the Scrubba™ Wash Bag “washing machine” which cleanses your garments electricity-free in under 3 minutes.

Always sequester food and dirty clothes away from the general airspace of your vehicle to minimize odors. Ventilation is important too: generally, you will need two windows open an inch to keep the air moving, even in cold weather. You’ll be amazed how much moisture your breath generates in a sealed vehicle: the fogged windows are conspicuous to passersby, and your air quality (including oxygen levels) will deteriorate.

Choose carefully: well-chosen gear will help you, clutter will slow you down.

hink of it as an exercise in minimalism: you can take the lessons back to your “regular house” life. Each object you take must serve an essential purpose, or it’s not worth it’s space.

  • Communication is key, so make sure you’re ready with a car charger AND extra battery for your cell phone. Your laptop computer or tablet will keep you connected — public libraries, motels, and fast food restaurants often offer free no-password wifi, which you can sometimes access from the parking lot.
  • A roll-up sleeping mat will smooth out the bumps or the surface, and a warm sleeping bag or bedding is especially crucial in winter.
  • Select packable, permanent-press clothing that can be layered. Choose clothing combinations that are both comfortable and appropriate for a variety of situations, planning to launder your clothes no more than once a week.
  • If you’re heading into the wilderness in your car-home (or want to be prepared for possible unsafe water in a natural disaster), a portable water filter saves you the trouble and cost of endless bottles of water: simply drink from any lake or stream — or questionable tap.
  • A flashlight or headlamp is an important cloudy day backup when your solar lamp can’t charge.
  • Don’t forget those earplugs — they won’t shut out anything you really need to wake up for, like a knock on the window.
  • Always have your car registration and insurance at hand, to ease any occasional police contacts. If you have everything in order, they will be better disposed to help you out.

Organization and comfort

Car with seats folded down

This model’s folding seats provide good sleeping space, but leave little room for gear.

How you set up “house” in your car will vary depending on the model of your car. First, choose your sleeping position: experiment with how all of your seats fold, and find a position you can stretch out at full length. Many front seats don’t fold flat, so often the better choice is to fold down the rear seats (as for stowing cargo) which will allow you to sleep with your feet essentially in the trunk, or cargo area if you have a station wagon. This may be diagonal, depending on your height, leaving the front passenger seat and rear floor areas for storage.

Keeping your car tidy and your stuff neatly stowed away serves two purposes. First, it makes your life in your car far more civilized and less like dwelling in a mouse nest. Second, your car will appear to outsiders more like a regular car, and you will avoid attracting unwanted attention with obvious signs of homelessness. Small plastic totes may be your best friend in the quest for car organization. Choose a size that you can stack six of easily in the available storage space area of your vehicle. A variety of colors will make finding your stuff more intuitive, though labels are also essential (use a permanent marker and big block letters). Sample labels:

  • Clean clothes
  • Dirty clothes
  • Non-perishable food
  • Medicine cabinet (First aid kit, laundry soap, all purpose biodegradable soap, and toiletries, including baby wipes, which can substitute for a shower in a pinch)
  • Cooking and eating gear (one small stainless cooking pot, one dish, fork, and spoon and cup per person, slotted spoon, dish towels, dish soap, bucket with tight-fitting lid.
  • Papers and books
  • Gadgets and chargers (extra cell phone battery and car charger, flashlight with extra batteries, solar lamp, tablet or laptop, etc.)

Eating on the road

It’s tempting to rely on fast food and restaurants when we don’t have the comfort of our own kitchens. Unfortunately, not only will that get expensive, but your health can begin to suffer from too much restaurant food. If you must, you can experiment with using your car engine to cook sealed packets of food, but the rest of us may prefer to keep it simple. A non-leaking cooler with working drainage helps you eat fresh, but you’ll need to focus on nonperishables as much as possible. Keep it simple, buying sturdy fruits and vegetables (citrus, apples, carrots, cucumbers and celery store reasonably well; lettuce and strawberries need to be eaten right away), nut butters and crackers, dry cereal, canned soups and beans. Cheese, bread, eggs, butter, and long-life tetrapacks of milk or non-dairy “milks” can last well in your cooler.

Public barbecues can be handy, but it’s quicker and more reliable to have your own camp stove, such as the easy-to-pack “Firebox”. Never attempt to operate any camp stove inside your vehicle for safety reasons. For cleanliness, try to do all food preparation and cleanup outside of the car as well, such as at a public park, where picnicking is encouraged.

For the sake of your mental and physical health, spend as much time out of your car as practical. Even if you’re there by choice, the anxiety, fatigue, and even shame of living in your car can lead to depression and reclusiveness. The car begins to feel like a security blanket, the only sure thing in a frighteningly uncertain world. But in order to move forward, it is essential to keep reaching out and taking steps to maintain your health and promote your future well-being.

It may be hard to imagine now, from the comfort and peace of your home, but an evacuation or other forced-homelessness scenario can undermine your basic sense of self. By preparing in advance, you can turn the experience around to create an affirmation of competency, resiliency, and a new understanding of what we really “need” — gifts to take back home with you.

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