How To Live In A Vehicle; A Crash Course

There are increasing numbers of Nomads starting out their nomad life by becoming unexpectedly homeless, forced to live in their vehicle. With rents skyrocketing and inflation hitting hard, more and more people getting priced out of a decent living situation. Many of us are only one emergency away from homelessness.

Count me among them. After 7 years on the road, I’ve been priced out of apartment living. Thankfully I love nomad life!

The emotional toll of being forced into nomad life makes it especially challenging. It sucks, but you might eventually find yourself embracing the freedom and adventure of living as a nomad. There are already thousands of nomads just like you living in vehicles, thriving on the road!

It’s surprising how little we really need to live, and even thrive. Living in a vehicle isn’t always easy, but it can be empowering as we learn to meet our human needs in a new way.

I share a list below of 6 basic areas you’ll need to consider.

Virtually any problem that you encounter when you have to live in a vehicle has been solved by other nomads, and a quick google search will give you much needed advice. Information is power!  Bob Wells, one of the first to provide organized information on how to live in a vehicle, didn’t start out by choice. He learned to thrive on the road and now his website, CheapRVLiving is an invaluable source of education and inspiration. His story, and pages and pages of free information on his website, covers living in vehicles of all sizes, from compact cars to RVs. HOWA, Homes On Wheels Alliance, the non-profit organization that grew from Bob’s work, is another place online to find useful information for vehicle living, finding community and getting help.

I’ve also covered the topic of transitioning from a home to a vehicle extensively in my book, Wild Women On The Road; A Women’s Guide to Nomadic Living In Modern Times.

Book: Wild Women On The Road

Most people forced into unexpected homeless are in a PANIC, understandably so. Becoming a nomad is overwhelming even in the best of situations, but it can be done successfully!

It helps to frame it in realizing what physical needs you already meet every day. Shelter. Sleeping. Eating. Eliminating waste. Hygiene. Cleaning up after yourself. Safety. You’ll learn to meet those same needs, just in a much smaller space.

Although we’ve been conditioned to think we need a lot of “stuff,” when it comes to what we physically need, the human basics are few. The goal is to have the least amount of stuff to meet your immediate needs.

Ideally you’ll want window coverings at night to give you privacy and make it less obvious you’re a vehicle dweller. I made my own coverings with reflectix and black felt. Some nomads make curtains, or buy premade window shades. I saw a post recently on Facebook where someone made window covers out of black Dollar Tree poster board.

Easy ways to accomplish hygiene are with baby wipes, or one spray bottle with soapy water and one with plain water, a washcloth and towel. A “top and bottom” bath or “Field bath” is an acceptable way to keep clean. We actually need less showering to stay clean than society tells us we do. 

Many areas have local community centers, gyms or WMCAs where you can pay for a day pass and get a shower. Truck stops have paid showers for the truckers that are also open to the public. 

Will you be going stealth, which is parking on streets or parking lots, or finding free areas in forests or other public lands? There are many online resources for finding public and private land to camp on like Some Walmarts, and most truck stops will have no problem with an overnight stay. Some rest areas will allow 8 hours or more. In a pinch you can try a hospital or motel/hotel parking, but if there’s security you might get chased off. If you’re questioned just respond that you got tired driving and needed to rest.

Keep your vehicle and living space tidy, and don’t make it obvious you’re living out of your vehicle.

If possible, NEVER admit you’re living in your vehicle. If you get questioned by law enforcement, be prepared to say you’re traveling, where your next destination is and where you’ve come from. They’re likely to let you move on without problems if you’re polite and cooperative. The discussion of whether or not we should be harassed for sleeping in our vehicles is another discussion … at this point your goal is to survive this situation.

ALWAYS LOCK your doors, especially at night, and know where your keys are at all times.  Don’t open your door to anyone. As tempting as it may feel, don’t befriend or help strangers. Unfortunately, until you develop your road sense, you’ll be an easy target for opportunists looking to prey on an easy mark. I speak from experience, which I talk about here, and have had some close calls.

Park in a way that you can grab your keys and get out fast if you have to. Try to stay in areas that are well lit, where you have a cell signal, and keep your phone charged.

Learn to rely on your intuition, if a place seems sketchy you’re probably right. 

Before I learned to get organized!
After learning to organize!

Keep items you’ll use daily, like toothbrush, toilet paper, meds, wipes, in one dedicated easily accessible storage container or bag. Group items by usage. Keep food in one container, clothes in another, even if you just start out with bags for storage. It will reduce stress if you don’t have to dig through a bunch of stuff for one item.

Get smart with storage. Arrange your storage so that the things you don’t use often are tucked away. You’ll learn to use every nook and cranny in your vehicle,  and it will astound you what you can easily fit.

As time goes on you’ll learn what to keep and what to purge. There’s an entire chapter in my book on how to let go of material things when we become nomads, how we can learn to not be defined by material worth, and how to let go of belongings that carry our emotions.

Organize clothing so the items you wear more often are stored on top of other less worn clothing. Get in the habit of folding or rolling your clothes to keep things neat. I store socks in one zippered plastic storage bag, and underwear in another, saving the time I’d waste pawing through bins looking for those items. 

Your routine will evolve as you get better at organizing, but it helps to start out with good habits.

The more we can minimize, the more time and energy we’ll have to focus on solving other issues. It can feel tragic to leave belongings behind, but you’ll discover that most of the necessities for life we carry within ourselves. Whether we’ve planned it or not, as nomads we have to let go of material things. Minimalism In A Mini-van, shares my process and mess, to how I learned to thrive in a small space.

Other challenges are getting a physical address for mail, getting medical care, how to take care of your mental health,  how to get social services, how to support yourself, how to stay comfortable in too hot or too cold climates. This blog is too short to address everything, but I promise you every problem you face has a solution. With increasing numbers of successful nomads there are thousands of resources online to give you support. Facebook has many nomad groups, like Nomads Helping Nomads, dedicated helping nomads in need. HOWA, the organization that grew out of Bob Wells’ work, has resources to help nomads in need, and an application to their helping nomads program is worth looking at if you’re in a pinch.

My little home on wheels has taken me all across the country!

It’s understandable to feel overwhelmed and helpless if you’ve been forced to live in your vehicle, but know that in becoming a nomad we can also refine the skills we need to solve problems instead of becoming mired in them. There are ALWAYS problems starting out, as I talk about in Nomad Boot Camp, but learning to cope will strengthen our mental and emotional resilience.

Practice thinking outside of the box, and know that statistically, things always seem to work out.

~ Marianne Williamson

Being forced into living in a vehicle is a far from ideal situation, but so many of us have learned to thrive on the road! 

Many find they are more fulfilled once they become nomads, and find new meaning and purpose in their life. May you be one of them! 


Wild Women On The Road: A Women’s Guide To Nomadic Freedom In The Modern Age ~ Mary Ellen Telesha

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