How to Live In Your Car: The Beginner’s Guide

sleeping in your van

Maybe you dream of a nomadic life, seeing America’s natural wonders while living out of your tricked-out van. Or maybe the rent is just too dang high in your city, and you need a cheap place to crash. Either way, you’re beginning to consider living in your car. You’re not alone!

Now, some people take living in cars very seriously. They trick out their vans with custom-built cabinets and beds, solar panels, and even kitchens to create a super-cush (and Instagrammable) tiny home. In this article, we’re just going to cover the basics of how to live in your car while staying safe, clean and comfortable.

Safety and Security Tips

When you’re living in your car, you’re vulnerable — to bad guys, to bad weather, and other dangers. That’s why you need a strategy for keeping yourself safe.

First, make yourself inconspicuous. Having music blasting and string lights glowing inside your van will broadcast to the world that there’s someone living inside. Before you move in, tint the windows and/or install blackout curtains that can hang over the windows to give you privacy.

Think hard about where you park. You might be tempted to park your car on an empty, dead-end street to reduce your risk of discovery. But your lone vehicle will stand out, as neighbors wonder what that weird car is doing there, and you also may be a target for break-ins. Just remember: There’s safety in numbers. Look for a well-lit spot where cars are coming and going 24 hours a day, but is still quiet enough to get a good night’s sleep.

A popular choice for people living in cars is a Walmart parking lot or other shopping centers (especially if it has a restaurant, gym or other business that stays open 24-7.) Just do your homework first. Some Walmarts welcome motorhomes to stay overnight, which means you’re probably OK sleeping in your car.

Safeguard the air you breathe. You’re not likely to suffocate simply from sleeping in your car with the windows rolled up (although it might get stuffy inside). You do, however, need to be aware of the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide, which is emitted as part of your car’s exhaust, is an odorless gas that can rapidly knock you unconscious or even kill you.

To keep yourself safe, never run the engine while you’re sleeping, or if you’re parked in an enclosed structure, like a garage — even if the garage door is open! Also, don’t run the engine if your tailpipe is partially blocked (by snow, for instance) or if there are holes in the floor of your car.

One more safety tip: Never, ever keep a container of gasoline in your car if you’re living in it. The fumes can be deadly.

Protect Your Car with Reliable Coverage

When you’re living in your car it’s important to have good car insurance. If your car gets damaged in an accident, or ruined by a natural disaster, or broken into by a thief, insurance can save the day. But you’re on the tightest of budgets — so how can you find really cheap car insurance that will take care of you?

We can help! Quite simply, Compare.com is the best place to compare car insurance for the cheapest rates. In just a few minutes, you can see actual quotes from several insurers. All you have to do is choose the best rate. Why not give it a try?

Health and Hygiene Tips for Living in Your Car

Can you really live in your car without becoming rumpled, sweaty, stressed and stinky? Yes! Just develop your own routine for staying clean.

  • A gym membership is invaluable. You can stretch your cramped legs, get in a workout, enjoy a luxurious hot shower and spend all the time you want in the bathroom. Your best bet is a chain that’s open 24 hours and offers access to multiple locations. Some favorites include Planet Fitness and Anytime Fitness.
  • Clean your car like it’s your house. The challenge of living in a car or a van is that “all the mess, all the germs, all the dirt that typically accumulates within an entire apartment or house is now in the 6’ x 10’ box you call home,” writes filmmaker Zach Both, author of The Vanual. At least once a week, he advises, take the time to wash your bedding (and your clothes) and thoroughly clean all surfaces. Keep your things neatly organized in clear plastic bins, and if you eat in your car, throw away the trash promptly to avoid that old-French-fry smell.
  • Invest in a quick-drying towel. Even if you shower daily, drying off with a musty, mildewy towel will leave you with a lingering funk. Upgrade to a fast-dry microfiber or flax towel instead.
  • Never miss a chance to hit the bathroom. Where do you go to the bathroom when you’re living in your car? The answer: Anywhere you can. Restaurants, stores, gas stations, the gym, the library… Basically, always carry essentials with you (like your toothbrush, washcloth, face soap, a small towel) so that when you find a clean and private bathroom, you can make use of it. For a pee-mergency, Both recommends repurposing a laundry detergent bottle: “It’s discreet, has a wide mouth for minimum mess, a handle for holding, and liquid-tight lid.”

How to Find Happiness and Comfort While Living Out of Your Car

Even if you’ve established a nice routine for living in your car, making it work long-term requires certain investments.

Choose the right car to live in. You might not have a choice in the matter if you’re living in your car out of necessity. But if you do have the budget to buy a vehicle, it’s wise to research it carefully — the same way you’d research a home purchase! Here are a few of the best cars to live in:

  • Honda Odyssey: Removing the back seats from this classic minivan makes a spacious bedroom.
  • Honda Fit: Yes, it’s tiny, but the magically folding seats give you a surprising amount of space to sleep.
  • Subaru Outback: The ultimate adventure car is widely considered the best SUV to live in.
  • Mercedes Sprinter: The darling of all #vanlife enthusiasts, this extra-tall van can easily be converted to a tiny home.
  • Jeep Wrangler: Living out of a Jeep is sweet if you get an Ursa Minor pop-top, which lets you sleep in a rooftop tent. (We don’t recommend doing this in the Walmart parking lot, however).

Consider upgrading to a camper. If you’re just not comfortable living in your car, you might do better with a camper van, travel trailer or RV. While high-end RVs routinely cost six figures, it’s not hard to find an affordable used RV. A brief search on Craigslist around Richmond, Va. (where Compare.com is based) turned up a converted school bus for $6,000, a 2006 30-foot travel trailer for $6,900, and even a 1987 Chevy Allegro RV with some sweet wood paneling for $3,000.

Make time for self-care when you’re living in your car. If you’re living in your car to save money — that is, you’re doing it out of necessity, not a spirit of adventure — you might feel bad about your situation, and even worse about yourself. Don’t give into those feelings! Take time to eat healthy food, meditate, read and spend time with friends. Maybe you can use their shower while you’re at it.

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