Living in Cars

Toshiba Digital Camera

At some point in everyone’s life they should learn to live out of their car. Its an interesting experience and provides you the ability to have a bit of understanding when you hear about a family having to do just that.

Residing in your rig is both an art and a discipline. Not only have I racked up miles of road time in both Europe and North America, I have logged hours of sleep, prepared meals, and even relieved myself in a makeshift restroom in a 4-wheel castle…none of which were a van, nor did they have a camper.
In today’s climate, you never know if you will get laid off, lose your house, or have to live separate from your family  for a job. Spouses get crazy, road trips get delayed, stuff happens. Learning to live out of your car now can help you if you ever need to.

I will admit upfront that some of my rigs have not been the greatest to stretch-out in, much less entertain friends in…the Suzuki Samurai and my Jeep Wrangler are horrible for room on the inside. With the Zuke though, I was able to convert the back seat and passenger area into a bed by removing the back seat and passenger seat and building a flat “bed”. Note- at the time I was 5’6 so this was a bit easier—still cramped—but do-able. In the military I found I could travel a bit of the beaten path to see a few sites while enroute on a TDY to a school or enroute to a duty station. While stationed in Europe, I frequently traveled in my little Suzuki, and had even experimented with bolting ply-board to the roof that would fold out so I could put my Eureka tent on top. Germany constantly rains- so this was a great way to get off the ground. I claim title to the first dirt-bag RTT (roof-top tent).


I will drop everything in a heart beat, hop in my rig, and go see the sites knowing my rig will support me as a hotel and diner.

In 1994, I saw amazing country on my way from West Texas to the North East by using my rig as both transport and bed. In addition when I got to my duty station, the commander really wasn’t ready for me and the other NCOs reporting in (it was an Army-Air Force political thing), so I was basically sent off until they could hide me somewhere. Again, my rig proved valuable and cost-effective.

During my diving years, my rig served as both home and dive shop. It was great to drive a few hundred miles, live in my vehicle for a bit, dive, and then return to my rig for a meal.I saw some great places at a fraction of the cost.


I had some great divig opportunities because I wasn’t afraid to live out of my rig

Some of my rigs have been better for living in than others. My Jeep Cherokee was awesome while attending multiple fire-fighter schools in the North West. It had enough room for both me and my gear. The only issue was keeping it warm. My schools were in Oregon in the winter and early spring. Yeah…it sucked. But I stayed warm by burrowing down in an extreme-cold military bag and a using a hot water bottle I had filled with H2O heated on my camp stove. The money I saved on hotels and dining out provided a way for me to dive more. It was like being a surf bum. Dirt-bag diving at its best.


Ummm…you will get hassled if this is parked anywhere…

Where to Park

Safety is an obvious issue. When we were moving to Boise a few years ago, it looked as if Melissa was going to need to stay in San Antonio and sell our house and close her business. We took stock of the situation in the area and found a few areas where I could camp. It is important to not only do internet research, but also talk to locals. (BTW—do not tell your new boss you will be living in your car…)

We checked around to see if there were nearby camp grounds. I had initially scouted one right across from my new company, but unfortunately it was going out of business, though I was offered the “opportunity” to stay at night as long as I kept an eye on the place. Wasn’t sure I was ready to confront the kind of trouble that would be coming through there at night.

We also looked into businesses that have pre-designated parking lots specifically for people traveling. Wal-Mart allows people to camp overnight in their parking lots- but only if there isn’t an ordinace against it. In recent years, hotel operators and campground owners have worked with their local governments to ban “boon-docking”
What I have done in urban areas, is to look for streets that are well lit, have a bit of vehicle traffic in the area, without sidewalks, and perhaps lots of large retailers.

An interesting side-note…I have asked churches for permission to park over-night while in transit and more often than not been turned down. At the same time, I have not only been allowed to park at a nearby farm or ranch, but more than once, been either invited to have dinner with the family or had something brought out to me…now we know why Jesus was born in a manger…
National Forrest and other camp grounds are another option, but there is usually a cost (even minimal) to them and they usually have time limits. RV parks are almost as expensive as a hotel room, though I have worked out deals with them in the off-season. If they don’t have a shower available, remember the nearby truck-stop. Note…National Forests have some free camping with a limit of 14 days, here you just keep moving….

Back to my life as a diver, while diving shipwrecks in New Jersey, I found that my money could either go for hotel and meals, or I could dirt-bag it by living at the docs and using my pocket stove. Docks and harbors are easy pickings since most guys working on boats are either going to sea or just coming back and they leave their rigs parked while gone. Many of them stay in their rigs either a day before or after their tour. In addition, The marinas offer services like hot showers, bathrooms, even a cheap meal. I found that in these areas, the people around don’t know you…in fact…they simply don’t care.
I also spent time in a canoe shop in Pemberton, New Jersey for a bit as a self-employed recovery diver paying no rent and using the shop key to get into the showers and restroom.

What to Drive

If I had to plan for a future residence I would look at a few options such as a van. During the recent down-turn I have looked at the possibility of having to take a job in either Washington State or Arizona, while leaving my family in Idaho. I would try to find a 4WD windowless delivery van, preferably white. White is less conspicuous and there are so many, no one takes notice. Having room under a platform bunk for storage, a rooftop skylight, hatch for air, perhaps rooftop rack for storage and the ability to have a small table to sit at would be an improvement over the Toyota Starlet I once bivied in for a few weeks.

Where to Clean-Up
I mentioned the ability to shower above, but want to explore that a bit more.
I have taken my share of sink baths and bum showers. Baby wipes and witch hazel are wondrous, but you still need a shower to be presentable.

On our recon of Boise, we discovered that the company had a workout facility complete with lockers. The added benefit is that it helps me in beating cabin fever. There are other options such as the YMCA that if you are unemployed, usually have some kind of partial scholarship you can apply for. Just be sure to donate back when you are making money again. If you are truly out of work and have lost your crib, it is important that you don’t look like you are unemployed and homeless. When traveling in Europe, I could go to the gym on one of the military bases and get freshened up and since I looked presentable, never got questioned or hassled.

I also found that swimming pools have showers since it is required for entering the pool. This could be less expensive than a full gym. The pool is also a welcome relief in the summer time to your rig.

Where to Eat
You are dirt-bagging. This means simple meals. I cook pasta with my small stove, live on sandwiches (Tuna, PB and J, etc), or will occasionally hit a .99 cent value menu if I need to get out of the weather. Lipton cup of soup and Top Ramen are high in salt, but will fill your belly. When dirt-bagging it and still dating I found it important to take your girl out to a nice place to eat. Bringing her back to my place would probably get me labled as some kind of sociopath.

This is probably just the tip of the iceberg. Again, I recommend learning to live in your rig for a 5-8 day period to learn how to do it. You also might develop some compassion for a family who is living out of their car.

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