Tips for Living in Your Car - How to Live in Your Car for Travel or Survival

Tips for Living in Your Car – How to Live in Your Car for Travel or Survival

How to Live in Your Car

There are a lot of different reasons that you may end up living in a car. You could be out of a job and living in the car is better than sleeping on the street, maybe you’re traveling across the country and living in your car is cheaper than staying in hotels every night, and maybe everything has gone to hell and living in your car just to stay alive.

How can you live in your car? Do the following to successfully live in a car:

  • Choose the right car
  • Keep the interior clean and organized
  • Buy a quality sleeping bag
  • Invest in a quality cooler
  • Choose where you park wisely
  • Keep your most needed items inside the car

Regardless of why you may be living in your car, there are certain things that you can do to make it a little easier and more comfortable. Keep reading to learn how to live in your car.

Tips for Living in Your Car - How to Live in Your Car for Travel or Survival

Living in Your Car

People end up living in cars for a variety of reasons. Some do it because they’re forced to and others do it by choice. Either way, we should look at the best ways to make living in a car as comfortable and practical as possible.

Car living kind of falls in between camping and staying in a hotel. You don’t have the same level of protection as a hotel, but you get more protection then you would if you were in a tent.

Living in a car actually has a lot of advantages. You can sleep place that would otherwise not be available to you, you have a place to protect you from the elements, you can stay in places that you otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford, there is no rent or mortgage as long as you own the car, etc. Some of these can feel like looking for the silver lining in what you may see as a  bad situation, and maybe they are, but you need to be able to look at the good side of things sometimes to make less than ideal situations bearable.

Start by Choosing the Right Vehicle

The biggest variable in this whole process is the type of car that you choose to live in. If you’re living in a car because you have to, then you probably don’t have much choice here, but if you’re doing this by choice then making an educated decision here will make the biggest difference in the results you get when living in your car.

Larger vehicles are the obvious winners when choosing a car. SUVs, vans, crossovers, station wagons, and large sedans are going to be the best vehicles to live in. Pickup trucks can also work if you have a large cab or you make some kind of living space in the bed of the truck.

Large vans have a lot of room that can be modified to make a pretty comfortable living space, if it’s done well, they can rival some small RVs! A pickup with a topper or a pop-up camper of some kind in the bed is also a great idea.

SUVs and things like a Subaru hatchback are probably next in order of preference. They should give you enough room to lay down pretty comfortably, and they normally offer things like power inverters and other extras that make living in them a little bit easier than common cars.

Crossovers and sedans fall a distant 3rd in the list of vehicle types that I’d go for if I was going to live in a car. They’re just too cramped to offer a good sleeping area other than reclining in the seat and the extras that are common in more “outdoorsy” vehicles normally aren’t there.

What is the best vehicle to live in?

1st – Vans and pick-ups with pop-up campers

2nd – SUVs and vehicles similar to Subaru hatchbacks

3rd – Crossovers and large sedans

4th – Other smaller cars

Buy a Quality Sleeping Bag

A good sleeping bag is going to make your nights in cold or cool weather much more comfortable. Even in temperatures as warm as the low 70s can feel cold when you’re sleeping in a vehicle at night.

If you have a sleeping bag, you even have the option to sleep outside and stretch out if you’re so inclined.

Keep the Interior as Organized as Possible

The inside of a vehicle is small! Even large vehicles have small interiors compared to what most of us are used to living in.

If you’re sleeping, cleaning yourself, eating, relaxing, and more inside of a car, trash can stack up fast. Make it a point to remove all trash and clean up spills right away.

It’s probably also a good idea to fold your bedding and store it as best as you can. This will keep it from looking like someone lives in the vehicle as other people pass by. A vehicle that’s lived in may seem like a good target to thieves if they think you have valuables inside.

Dirty clothes should be stored in a plastic bag and clean clothes should be folded and stored as neatly as possible. Do your best to keep toiletries and other hygiene items organized and stored away.

This may seem like overkill to some, but a clean car is going to feel better to live in that a car that’s covered in trash and dirty laundry.

Using cheap plastic totes is a great way to organize things in the trunk. Clean clothes, extra blankets, cleaning supplies, etc can all go into their own totes and moved around so they’re accessible when you need them.

Invest in a Quality Cooler

A quality cooler will make your ability to store food in a car much better!

It should go without saying, that buying a cooler is an investment you’ll want to make. If you’re from California, Arizona, Texas, Florida, or another classic hot weather state, you know what it’s like to try to drive when it’s triple digits outside and your car feels like an oven.

These Yeti Coolers are great, but they’re expensive. You could always go with something like this Coleman Cooler. It’s not as impressive, but it’s much less expensive.

There’s only so much you can do about the heat outside, but with a cooler, you can ensure that you have a supply of cool water, you can keep milk for a couple of days before it goes bad, you can keep leftovers for longer, and on and on.

Coolers are game-changers. With a cooler, you gain the ability to keep food for far longer than you might otherwise be able to do so, massively improving your lifestyle while living in your car.

Tips for Living in Your Car - How to Live in Your Car for Travel or Survival

Choose Where You Park Wisely

There are areas where it’s illegal to sleep in a vehicle overnight. There are also places where sleeping in a vehicle is completely normal and would never draw a second glance from passing people. Knowing the difference between these types of places is absolutely important if you plan to live in a vehicle for any period of time.

There are other things to take into consideration as well. Parking in a Walmart parking lot overnight gives you easy access to a bathroom, food, and other necessities. Parking at a truck stop has the same benefits but it’s also a lot less likely to draw attention and you can probably take a shower for a couple of bucks.

If you park at an RV park and some campgrounds, you’ll probably have access to electricity and maybe a shower.

These aren’t meant to be an exhaustive list of places to park, it’s just to get you thinking and stress how important it is to plan ahead when you’re trying to figure out where you want to spend the night.

Where can you park to sleep in your car?

You can’t just park anywhere and expect it to be okay. The good thing is it’s usually okay to sleep in the parking lots of stores, rest areas and truckstops.

Just make sure that you call ahead of time or stop inside and check with the manager before you spend the night. Make sure that you’re clean and respectful and you probably won’t have any problems getting them to let you spend the night.

This is a quick list where it’s normally okay to park to sleep in your car:

  • Cabela’s
  • Bass Pro Shops
  • Cracker Barrel
  • Camping World
  • Sam’s Club
  • Walmart
  • Pilot
  • Flying J
  • Travel Centers of America
  • Casinos
  • Rest Stops
  • Welcome Centers
  • BLM Land

These places usually don’t let you sleep overnight in a vehicle: 

  • Costco
  • The Home Depot
  • Kmart
  • Lowe’s
  • Target

Keep the Items You Need the Most Inside the Car

It isn’t always convenient, or even safe, to get out of your car so you should keep the things you need the most on the inside of the vehicle instead of on a roof rack or in the trunk.

Sleeping gear is probably the best example of this. If you don’t have it inside the vehicle and it’s raining you’re going to have to go outside to get it. You’re going to get yourself and possibly even your sleeping bag or blankets wet. It’s just easier to keep important things close and accessible.

Tips for Living in Your Car - How to Live in Your Car for Travel or Survival

Living in a Car Poses Hygiene Issues

Living in your car can be really convenient once you get used to it, but there is one area that you’re going to have to think about every day…hygiene! It can be tough to stay clean when you’re cramped in a vehicle and don’t have access to some of the accommodations that most of us have grown used to.

The good thing is it’s pretty easy to keep yourself clean as long as you plan ahead of time and know where to go.

Places like campgrounds and truckstops are often a great all-in-one place to stop and take care of all your hygiene items at once. Normally they have showers, washers, driers, bathrooms and even places to watch tv and just relax outside of the car for a while.

Keeping Yourself Clean while Living in Your Car

Keeping yourself clean while living in your car is important for a bunch of reasons. It keeps you from smelling bad, helps to keep you from getting sick and makes you look more presentable.

By staying clean and keeping yourself presentable, you’ll find that it’s much easier to interact with other people making it easier to find a place to park for the night, make any run-ins with the police much better and it will just keep you feeling better about yourself in general.

Places to shower while living in your car:

  • Gyms
  • Local Swimming Pools
  • Portable Showers
  • Boat Marinas
  • Truck Stops
  • Camp Grounds
  • Hotels/Motels
  • Air BnB

Dealing with Laundry While Living in Your Car

Laundry is going to pile up pretty fast when you’re living in your car, but it doesn’t have to overly difficult to deal with it!

Here are some tips to make it easier to keep your laundry under control:

Wear clothes until they start to smell. Most people won’t even notice that you’re wearing a shirt or pair of pants for several days. Once they start to smell, change your clothes.

Wear clothes that travel easily. This means having things that are sturdy, don’t bleed, don’t have special washing instructions, and can all be washed together. It’s much easier to be able to just wash everything together and not have to worry about separate loads when your access to washing machines can be limited. It’s even better when you have to wash by hand and can throw them all together in the tub, a bucket or a washing bag.

Keep clean clothes and dirty clothes separate. It sounds like a no brainer but it probably still needs to be said. Having a good wet/dry bag is great for keeping dirty clothes separate. They also help to keep the smell inside which will keep your car smelling better.

Build a laundry kit to help clean and dry your clothes. A Scrubba Wash Bag is probably the best thing you can ever get for cleaning clothes on the go. Grabbing a tote, like this, makes keeping all of your laundry detergents, drier sheets, Scrubba Bag, and other things all together and organized.

Places to wash your clothes while living in your car:

  • Hotels/Motels
  • Air BnB
  • Truck Stops
  • Laundromats
  • Hand washing in a sink or tub
  • Hand washing outdoors with a basin or wash bag
  • Use a dry cleaner/washing service

Have Wipes and Toilet Paper on Hand

Finding a place to go to the bathroom is pretty easy. Almost every gas station and restaurant out there will let you use the bathroom as long as you make even a really cheap purchase.

It’s when you’re away from civilization that going to the bathroom takes a little preparation on your part. Just make sure that you have some baby wipes and toilet paper available and you should be good to go.

Try to have baby wipes around at all times! Being able to clean yourself with a few baby wipes is a great way to keep yourself clean in between showers.

Tips for Living in Your Car - How to Live in Your Car for Travel or Survival

Have Easy to Prepare Food Available

It’s always good to have some kind of food that’s easy to prepare around. Eating out every day is expensive, and sometimes it’s just not convenient.

Canned soups, power bars, snacks and other food like that are great when you’re hungry and can’t (or don’t want to) find a restaurant.

Try out these Mountain House meals combined with a Jetboil for easy cooking in your car.

You’ll probably end up eating out most of the time, and that’s fine, but it’s also nice to know that you don’t have to if you don’t want to.

How to Live Out of Your Car in the Summer

Living in your car during the summertime can be tough depending on where you live. When it’s 100 degrees and humid outside, it can seem like the weight of the world is bearing down on you in a tight place like a car.

During the day, you can roll the windows down, run the A/C and try to wait it out. When you’re parked you should try your best to stay in the shade. It’s also a good idea to invest in window reflectors that you can put up in the windows whenever you’re parked. You can even put clothes or towels in the windows to keep the sun out if you have to.

At night it can get really tough and raises some questions. Can you sleep with the windows open, can you run the car and the A/C all night? There are some things to think about for sure.

There’s nothing wrong with sleeping in a car at night with the windows down as long as you’re in a pretty safe place. Try to park in an area that has a decent breeze and you’ll stay a lot cooler.

If you’re not comfortable sleeping with the windows all the way down then you should at least crack them. Even in a rough area, you’ll wake up before someone can get the door unlocked through a little crack. You probably shouldn’t be parking in that area anyway.

A battery-powered fan like this will go a long way to keeping you cool. You can also try running the A/C periodically during the night to cool the car, but it will probably heat up pretty fast.

Try to park somewhere that isn’t covered by asphalt. Asphalt stays warm for a lot longer than the surrounding areas and will make the car hot a lot faster than other surfaces.

Tips for Living in Your Car - How to Live in Your Car for Travel or Survival

How to Live Out of Your Car in the Winter

Living in a car in the winter can be just as miserable as living in a car in the summertime and it can be more dangerous if the temperatures are really low.

Wintertime car living is all about doing everything you can to keep heat in. This means insulating yourself and the inside of your car.

During the day there really isn’t anything special you need to do. Go about your day as you normally would. It’s when you need to sleep that you have take some extra measures to stay as warm as you can.

Wind will reduce the temperature of the inside of the vehicle really quickly. Try to park in an area that’s out of the wind to prevent the loss of heat through convection. It’s just the opposite of what you do in the summertime. Park in the wind to cool your vehicle and park in an area that blocks the wind to keep it warm.

Insulation is the key to keeping your car warm at night. Even though cars don’t do a great job of keeping heat in, the windows will let the most heat escape. Put blankets in the windows to help keep your body heat inside the car.

Try to insulate the roof of the car as best as you can as well. Heat rises and insulating the roof will hold in a lot of the heat that would otherwise escape.

Insulating the inside of the car is great, but it all begins by layering your clothing. Wearing layers traps your body heat and keeps you warm.

Before you go to sleep, run the heat until it’s warm then turn the car off. You can wake up every hour or so and do the same thing, but don’t go to sleep with the car running and the heat on. There’s a chance that carbon monoxide could leak into the vehicle and lead to death!

Common Questions About Living in Your Car

Can you sleep in your car with the air on?

Sleeping in your car is never recommended. There’s always a possibility that carbon monoxide can back up into the vehicle and displace enough oxygen to become toxic. If you ever feel light-headed, dizzy, weak, nauseous, chest pain or begin vomiting, you should get out of your car immediately and get fresh air. You may be exhibiting signs of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Can you sleep in your car with the heat on?

Sleeping in your car is never recommended. There’s always a possibility that carbon monoxide can back up into the vehicle and displace enough oxygen to become toxic. If you ever feel light-headed, dizzy, weak, nauseous, chest pain or begin vomiting, you should get out of your car immediately and get fresh air. You may be exhibiting signs of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Can I suffocate in a car?

Technically, yes you can suffocate in a car. If there is a problem with the exhaust system and it is venting into the inside of the car, you can suffocate since the carbon monoxide will displace the oxygen.

Is it likely? No, not at all.

Is it dangerous to sleep in a car?

Sleeping in a running car is potentially dangerous if there is a problem with the exhaust.

It can also be dangerous depending on where you try to sleep. Sleeping in areas that are high in crime isn’t recommended.

Can you sleep in a car overnight with the windows up?

Sleeping in your car overnight doesn’t pose any dangers as long as the vehicle isn’t running.

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