10 Tips for Car Living

Before I started rock climbing, my life was all about whitewater.  Three days after I bought my first used car (Beauty), I packed up and headed out west to Canmore, AB to a good paying raft guiding job and new rivers and creeks to kayak! Unfortunately, AB tourism was hit hard that year and trips were WAY down: instead of working 6 days a week I was lucky to do 1.  This gave lots of time to go on missions exploring rivers around AB and BC–which was awesome–but I was barely able to afford gas.


Beauty ready to run shuttle

With dwindling funds and an uncertain future in Canmore, I decided to give up the room I rented in a shared house and move into my car.  I figured I would probably be moving on anyways soon and it saved me a bunch of cash (Unfortunately, living in a tent wasn’t an option because there is no such thing as free/cheap camping in Canmore).

Now, Beauty is no tricked out Sprinter van, pick-up, caravan or Subaru station wagon (all luxury to sleep in).  She is a 2000 Chevy Cavalier with a cd player, manual doors and windows and seats that dont go completely down.  But I managed to make a pretty good home out of her, and thought I’d share some  tips on how to make the most out of living out of your car, whether you are on a road trip or just enjoy a simpler (dirtbag) lifestyle…..

10 Tips for Living out of Your Car 

1.  Curtains:  A necessity.  Not only do curtains give you some privacy, they also block out streetlights and the morning sun.  I tried a Velcro system that didn’t work very well and just ended up screwing some picture hooks into the roof.

2. Get Comfortable:  Try to find a spot where you can sleep as flat as possible and make sure you can stretch your legs out! My car seats did not recline more than 130 degrees, so for me that meant putting down the backseat and sleeping pretty much in the trunk.  (Trunks have more space than you think!)  Have lots of blankets and a sleeping bag handy: they will keep you warm and cover up seatbelts/armrests/other uncomfortable things that always manage to be in the wrong place.

3. Incognito Parking:  Just because you are sleeping in your car doesn’t mean people want you to do it in front of their houses or businesses. Some parking lots do not allow parking over night, and a car pulled over on the side of the road in the middle of the night in a remote area is somewhat suspicious… and may result in a visit from the cops to make sure there is no emergency (or drug deal).  My favourite places to park and sleep include: Walmart parking lots, the parking lot of hotels/hostels/motels, campground or recreation area parking lots, truck stops, carpool parking lots and remote areas that have houses close by.  I recommend avoiding crag parking lots (unless there is camping available there), residential side streets, apartment complex and bar parking lots because you are likely to get hassled. Have several spots and cycle through them rather than becoming a staple at one and risk getting asked to move along!

4.  Baby Wipes:  No access to a shower? Spill on your dashboard? Need to clean a dirty dish but ran out of water? These are lifesavers.  Wipe away smelly feet after a big day hiking or climbing or freshen up after some mobile-sexy-time.  (If baby wipes are not for you, I highly recommend Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap…it cleans everything.)

5. Power Inverter:  If you don’t have a solar panel, this is the next best thing for charging your phone, computer, camera and running electronics or whatever else plugs in.  Keep in mind, if something draws a lot of power it might not run off an inverter (like a kettle or toaster oven…I used one of these to boil water fast). Even if you are not using the inverter, unplug it at night to make sure your car still starts in the morning!

6. Showering: Gyms, recreation centres and campgrounds will usually let you use their shower facilities for a small fee.  I’ve found these are usually cheaper options than stores in resort towns that offer showers (which also usually have time limits and may not be as clean).  If you are staying in a place for a while it is worth looking into getting a gym membership to have regularly access to the facilities. If you are low on cash, I’ve been told if you wait until “off” hours (when the check-in desk is closed) you can casually just walk into campgrounds and use their showers.  And sometimes you can casually walk in and use the pool and pool showers at hotels.  But of course, I wouldn’t know this from firsthand experience…this is just what I’ve heard…

7. Wi-Fi Access:  Because even if you live in your car you want to stay connected!  Many businesses offer complimentary internet (that you can usually access from the parking lot) such as McDonald’s (who also have clean bathrooms and staff that don’t ask questions…), coffee shops like Starbucks or Tim Hortons and Laundromats.  If these places are not handy, many motels/hotels have wi-fi that is not password protected and signals you can pick up from their parking lots.  If all else fails, you can usually pick up at least one unprotected wifi signal while parked in front of an apartment building or find one by driving slowly through a residential area with your laptop open (umm….again, so I’ve heard….)

8. Compartmentalization: Keep your clothes neat and car organized and smelling good by putting your stuff in rubber bins with sealing lids.  I recommend a separate bin for gear and one for clothes so all of your things don’t smell like dirty feet or rotting river gear.  I usually throw a couple Silica gel packs into my bins to keep them dry and avoid that weird musty smell.

9. Out of Sight, Out of Mind:  If it looks like your living in your car, no matter how beater your vehicle is, someone will assume you must have something of value in it.  And even if there is nothing to steal inside (as was in my case…they took a $10 inverter and a Bob Marely cd), fixing a broken window sucks and is expensive.

10. Friends:  Friends can make all the difference: they have warm couches on cold nights, showers, kitchens with freezers, fridges and stoves, basements to store your stuff, backyards to leave your bike or kayaks and driveways to park in. BUT A CAVEAT! Friends also have their limits…which is why #1-9 on this list exists.  If living in your car means living off your friends, you should just move in and pay them rent. To keep your options open I recommend the following:

      • Call or ask first before you show up
      • Bring beer.  Baked goods are good too!
      • If making food, make some for everybody.  And dont leave a mess!
      • Use your own stuff (food, shampoo/soap, towels, laundry soap, etc.)
      • Offer to help (cleaning, cutting grass, chopping firewood, babysitting)
      • Leave no trace!

In the end, I stayed in Canmore for 5 more months.  I eventually moved out of my car/off of friend’s couches and into a friend’s garage:


Awesome low cost garage living

22 thoughts on “10 Tips for Car Living

  1. Excellent tips! The LNT principal while staying with friends is so key, no one wants to be THAT guy/girl. Cheers!

    • I’m on day 2 of being homeless. Luckily I had(have) a chunk of money in which I could purchase a conversion van. Last night(night 1) it got very cold in my van; it took a sleeping bag and two blankets to do the trick.. Today I bought a mr heater just in case. I’m in learning mode..

  2. Re. Curtains: I used a couple packs of black poster board (thick construction paper) for my van. Cut them to fit each window; leave them a little bigger than the window and they can slip into the gap between the glass and the trim (masking tape if this is not feasible). Takes up zero living space and blocks out all light/prying eyes.

  3. Aieee!! Being able to stretch your legs out is the biggie. Still haven’t figured that one out. And it sucks laying there fearful that you’re going to get a flashlight shined in your face at any time. And told to move on when you’re already dead tired.

  4. Thanks for the tips, I’m pushing 59, and love traveling across the country, I have a van. I love truck stops, safe, convenient. Big cities scare me. I am planning to get off the continent. Hawaii, maybe the Carribean. I’m going to go and van live in Florida for a while, I want to be by the water. I do a lot the things , I’ve learned from you van dwellers, thank you. Also will stop in Las Vegas, never been there. Soooo, if you think you would like to try it, go ahead, listen to your gut, use common sense, you can always go back home if not.

  5. Nice page. I’ve been living in and out of various cars for over 20 yrs. I’m 42. Started when I was climbing in Tucson. I hated the drive up and down the mountain everyday as it cut into my climbing time. I had an 86 buick century. not a great car to live in lol but it started my journey and since then have lived in more than 10 cars. I have also had houses and apt during my sperts of normality. haha what ever that is. Anyway, nice read, cheers and hope good things continue your way.

  6. I’ve been road tripping the country in my car for 4 months now. Durring the heat of summer in Colorado and Utah I would find a secluded place along a river and bath myself in a bathing suit. Rinsing my hair was chilling, the water is cold! But it’s was a humbling experience, always enjoyable. Also, most all truck drivers have more shower credits than they need at truck stops due to their fuel perks. They just give their phone number and it prints you out your free shower, which are usually a little over $10. So if your social, it doesn’t hurt asking. I’ve been standing in line paying for a shower and had the truck driver in line behind me offer his phone number so I didn’t have to pay. Helps out alot! Many of them sit in the lobby and chat while they wash their clothing or wait for their shower to be ready. This is a good time to spark up conversation, maybe offer the driver 5 bucks.

  7. About to start living in my car, seems practical for the current situation and mini-adventure so why not! Cheers for the tips! Unfortunately, we have UK weather…

  8. Awesome! Im from Australia and think Ill be spending alot of time in my car In the future…The reason being this capitalistic world really depresses me…people are not free…world run by banksters…I love the freedom of living in my mobile can drive and surf and not worry about a mortgage. All the best people!

  9. I’m in a hot muggy place with lots of mosquitoes. It’s way too hot to keep the windows closed, but I found that if you spray your window with bug spray then crack it, the mosquitoes stay out.

  10. Curious on ways to store clean clothes in a bag from sleepwear, how to easily find my medications, & toiletries. Do i hang my towel where my curtains are? Staring my car with my long hair chihuahua. Keeping water, a banana & crackers plus his dog food.

    • Good questions! After I shower I hang my towel over the back of my passenger seat to dry. I prefer keeping my clothes in plastic bins, but if you dont mind wrinkles then dry bags work well because they keep your clothes dry, away from most smells and take up a lot less space (but they are expensive which sucks). I use one for storing my particularly smelly/dirty laundry in! For meds and shower stuff I use a travel case so its easy to carry into the places I shower. I keep my toothbrush and a little toothpaste on my dash so its handy 😉 Bananas are tricky! If your car gets really hot or really cold they go black so I recommended putting them in a cooler if you have one. If you need to have a lot of water on hand you can get slim multi-gallon jug you can keep in the trunk and just syphon it out when you need it with some tubing (rather than lifting it in and out because they are super heavy and awkward!)

  11. Hi,
    Thanks for the nice tips..Can you tell me some places for night stay in my car in Canmore? I heard that sleeping in car is not allowed in national parks in Canada.. so i am wondering where to stay and find toilet place.

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