How to Live in a Car or Small Vehicle

Camping at Itch-Kep-Pe Park in Columbus Montana
Living out of a Toyota Camry

During the time that I lived out of a Toyota Camry, people often expressed incredulity that I was able to live in such a small vehicle. While this was not my first attempt at living out of a car, it was by far the longest period that I did so. It was also my most successful. (I am now living out of a minivan.)

People would often ask me if it was awful or how I did it living out of a Camry. The truth is that it was not a bad experience at all. To the contrary, I actually enjoyed the experience for the most part.

The most significant issues that I experienced living out of the Camry were not related to interior space. Instead, the issues that affected me were ground clearance and performance in mud. The Camry had very little ground clearance which was often a problem on poorly maintained BLM or Forest Service roads where rocks and ruts might prevent me from proceeding along a road. Similarly, while the car handled great in snow, it was terrible in mud. There were more than a few times when I had to either abandon a road or stay camped longer than planned because it had rained and the roads were too muddy to be passable.

It is worth noting that I am a minimalist, and have been for many years. I like to travel lightly and have at different times in my life lived out of only one bag. In this context, a Toyota Camry provided not only space for the essentials, but some luxuries as well.

One core idea, at least for me and other small vehicle dwellers that I know, is to think and pack like a backpacker. Approaching small vehicle dwelling as if you are moving into a small apartment will likely lead to frustration. Approaching it like a backpacker makes a lot of sense though. Imagine if you were backpacking a long-distance trail for many months or traveling internationally with only a backpack. Everything that you needed would be in your backpack. Thinking about it this way means that a car or small vehicle seems spacious. Your car pretty much replaces the tent that you would use as a backpacker.

Another core idea is to live “out of” the car rather than “in” the car. Spending all of your time in a small space can be claustrophobic. Sleeping (and possibly working) in a car while you spend the remainder of your time outdoors is much easier to manage. In my case, I slept and worked in the car (I am a digital nomad), but otherwise spent as much time outdoors as possible.

Keys to successfully living in a car

There are several keys that, in my experience, are essential to living out of a car or small vehicle. These are things that will make your experience more pleasant and less stressful.

Downsize stuff

Moving into a car or small vehicle will require downsizing. This is particularly true if you are moving from a house or apartment, but will also apply if you are moving from an RV or larger vehicle. While it may seem like this is obvious, it helps to prepare yourself mentally for serious downsizing. As mentioned earlier, thinking like a backpacker will make this process much smoother.

Organization

Organization is essential for anyone living in a vehicle. While it may seem like you could not lose something in a space as small as a car, it will still happen. Good organization makes it easier to find things, and also saves time and reduces frustration.

Most small vehicle dwellers rely on a combination of plastic boxes and duffel bags. Boxes or bins are hard-sided and can offer protection to items that might be crushed or damaged, but take up the same amount of space even when empty. Duffel bags do not offer much protection for the contents, but do collapse to take up less space when they are not full.

Have a plan for camping

You will need to sleep somewhere each day, and having a plan for where you will park is helpful. It is very stressful to be driving around trying to find a place to sleep while you are tired. Boondockers are often able to park for days or weeks at a time, but urban stealth campers often need to park in a new place each night. Planning ahead ahead as much as possible makes it much less stressful when it is time to move camp.

Meal preparation

We all need to eat every day. Planning for meal preparation and cooking is essential to keep costs low and to be able to eat at least somewhat healthy. Boondockers usually have an easier time with cooking because they are able to set up an outdoor kitchen. Urban stealth campers often are not able to cook outside unless they are at a park or similar location.

Restaurant meals are an option for urban stealth campers, but can quickly become expensive. Having a way to prepare meals at your vehicle (whether indoors or outdoors) is important. Those living in a car probably will not be able to cook inside and will need to rely on cooking outdoors or preparing meals that do not need to be cooked. In any case, it is a good idea to carry some food that can be easily prepared inside the vehicle.

Privacy

Privacy is an important consideration for all vehicle dwellers. Urban stealth campers need to be able to stay out of sight while they are sleeping. All vehicle dwellers also need enough privacy to be able to sleep and take care of personal hygiene. While privacy may seem unimportant for boondockers, there are many places (like the desert and prairie) where it may not be possible to park out of sight of other campers.

Window tint is a great tool for enhancing privacy. Tint is a good investment as it provides a good degree of privacy when you are inside the vehicle. Inexpensive film tint can be purchased at Walmart or any auto parts store and applied as a temporary measure if you cannot afford professional tinting.

Blackout curtains are an effective way to provide privacy. Black fleece is probably the most popular option for blackout curtains, but other fabrics can be used as well. Blackout curtains are particularly effective when used behind tinted windows as it just looks like the windows are very dark. Curtains are also essential if you plan to use electronics or lighting at night as the glow will still show though tinted windows.

Sleeping

Sleep is essential for health, comfort, and mental functioning. Unfortunately, most cars are not very comfortable for sleeping. Some car dwellers have successfully removed seats to build a bed, while other are able to fold seats flat to make a comfortable bed space. It is worth experimenting with different sleeping options before moving into the car to be sure you have a system that will work.

Personal hygiene

We all need to attend to certain matters of hygiene each day, whether we live in a car, van, or house. Planning for this is essential.

Public toilet facilities may not be available at all times - particularly for boondockers. Most vehicle dwellers end up using some sort of jug or wide-mouthed container for urine, while a bucket (two-gallon to five-gallon) with a plastic bag liner is commonly used for excrement. Cat litter or cedar shavings can be sprinkled in the bag to control odor until the bag can be disposed of in a waste receptacle. This may not be glamorous, but it does work for those times when you cannot access public facilities.

Bathing and changing clothes can also be a challenge in a vehicle. Showers at truck stops or fitness centers can help with bathing needs, but may be prohibitively expensive or not always accessible. Privacy tint and curtains make it easier to take care of these things inside a vehicle, but it is still worth experimenting in advance to be sure you have a system that will work in your vehicle.

Boondocking vs. urban stealth camping

These keys to successful car living apply whether you are boondocking or urban stealth camping, though with some obvious variations. Meal preparation may be less essential in the city while privacy may be even more important, for example.

Boondocking is much easier than urban stealth camping in almost every way. This is especially true if you are living out of a car or other small vehicle. Still, both styles of camping have advantages and challenges.

Boondocking

There are two considerations that make boondocking a more realistic option for some people than for others. The first consideration is income, while the second is location.

There are very few people who are able to live without money, and the percentage of car dwellers who have a sizable savings account is also limited. Most people who live out of a car will depend on having some type of income each month. Some of these car dwellers may receive social security, disability, or a pension. The rest probably need to work in order to earn money. Freelancers and those who are self-employed with businesses that can be operated from anywhere are able to boondock so long as they have access to needed services (electricity, Internet, etc.).

Location also plays a role in being able to boondock for long periods of time. The western U.S. has considerably more boondocking opportunities than does the eastern U.S. While there are certainly some places in the eastern U.S. where a car dweller can boondock, the options are much more limited. Anyone planning to boondock while living in a vehicle would do well to consider positioning in the western U.S. if at all possible.

Urban stealth camping

There are also considerations for those who rely on urban stealth camping. These considerations include access to jobs and medical care.

It is much easier to find a job in a city than it is in small-town America near many boondocking locations. Those who need to maintain traditional employment usually find it better to rely on urban stealth camping somewhere close to their job.

Access to medical care is another consideration that may prompt some vehicle dwellers to rely on urban stealth camping rather than boondocking. Those who have conditions that require frequent access to medical care may find that boondocking would be too inconvenient. Staying close to medical care may outweigh the other benefits of boondocking.

Success in a small vehicle

These ideas should at least provide a good starting point for anyone who is considering or just starting to live in a car or small vehicle. Some of these keys to successful car living will be more or less applicable depending on individual circumstances.

This article cover the same content that is found in my recent video, How to Live in a Car of Small Vehicle. The video is posted below.