IF YOU’RE GOING TO LIVE IN A CAR, there’s room only for yourself and the essentials. So, what are the essentials?
Suanne Carlson, the executive director of the Homes On Wheels Alliance, lived and traveled in a Prius for several years. Here she shares everything she had in her car-home. “About 80 percent of the things I have here came from thrift store, yard sales and such. And as often as possible, I want things that can serve several purposes.” You might already have many of these things.
Suanne’s bed is an insulated self-inflating sleeping pad like those used by backpackers. You open the valve and the sponginess of the inner material expands, sucking in air. Then you can adjust the the pad to the softness you want by lying on it and opening and closing the valve. Self-inflating pads come in various thicknesses and dimensions. Suanne’s is 72” x 25” x 3.5”.
If you can’t afford a self-inflating pad, an alternative is to get a thick queen sized foam mattress topper at someplace like Walmart, cut it in half, and stack one half atop the other. It’s what Suanne started with.
For bedding, Suanne uses cot sheets, as well as blankets of different materials—nylon, fleece and wool—depending on the weather. Suanne avoids cotton bedding because it can absorb moisture and make you cold instead of warm. However, in hot weather, a cotton sheet spritzed with water can help keep you cooler. Whichever blankets Suanne isn’t using are laid under the sleeping pad.
The Living Room
As they say, you don’t live in a car, you live out of it. So your living room is outside, in Nature.
You’ll want a chair. There are all sorts of folding chairs. It’s best if you can try them out first. You want the chair to fold easily and as compactly as possible, but you also want one that’s comfortable for your unique body. Some feel like you’re sitting in a hole, some poke at you, some seem like they’re about to collapse. Be like Goldilocks—find one that’s just right.
Unless you’re happy putting everything on the ground, you’ll want some type of small folding table. Some car dwellers maximize space and minimize expense by using their hood, trunk or tailgate as a table.
The more food you can prepare yourself, the more economically you can live. A single-burner camp stove, whether it uses propane or butane, will serve most of your cooking needs. There are also extremely compact backpacker stoves. Each type has advantages and disadvantages, which we have covered in this article.
Cookware is easy. A small pot and lid, a small pan and lid, perhaps a small kettle. If they can nest into each other, so much the better. Some hybrid and EV drivers exploit the electricity producing abilities of their vehicles and use electric cookers.
You’ll need dishes along with eating and food preparation utensils, of course, but probably not multiples of each. One plate, one bowl, one mug, a kitchen knife, a table knife, fork and spoon, a spatula, a can opener, and… that’s about it, really. In the spirit of multi-functionality, leather work gloves can serve as cooking mitts and hot pads.
Water for cooking, cleaning and drinking can be simple gallon jugs or repurposed liter bottles that can fit in various nooks around the car.
Our life with plumbing conditioned us into think we need a lot of water and a lot of soap to do the dishes. But you can get things clean and germ-free without all that. Besides, there’s no room for it in a car. Instead, wipe most of the residue from pans and dishes, spray with a mixture of vinegar and water, wipe clean.
A cooler is nice to have, but it takes up precious room (and you need to keep replenishing the ice). Shelf-stable foods—canned, dried, vacuum packed, grains, raw vegetables and fruits, farm-direct eggs, condiment packets, and such—are a workable alternative.
Lack of organization will make living in a small space a frustrating ordeal. So keep your things logically packed and stored. As much as possible, use soft containers that can flex to fit in the irregular shapes of most car interiors. Soft luggage, duffles, gym bags, backpacks, stuff sacks, net bags, zip lock bags, even trash bags. Store rarely used things on the bottom, frequently used things on top.
Rather than risk running down your car battery from using the overhead light, have some other light sources. There are a variety of solar powered or USB recharged lamps. And headlamps, providing hands-free illumination wherever you look, are very useful, both in the car and outside. Rechargeable ones save the hassle of replacing batteries.
The Entertainment Center
For most of us, our smart phone is our access to information, videos , music, streaming, ebooks and all that other good stuff. Have the best data plan you can afford. The same if you have a tablet or laptop. If you’re giving up a desktop or laptop computer but still want to use your phone or tablet for writing more than a few words at a time, you’ll probably want a wireless keyboard. It would also be good to have a USB power pack so you’re not totally dependent upon your car’s power outlets. There are small inverters that plug into your vehicle power outlet. They convert DC current to AC so you can use lower power devices that ordinarily plug into the wall. Try to find one that automatically shuts down when voltage drops to a certain level so you don’t accidentally use up your vehicle battery. Better yet, only use an inverter when the engine is running.
The smaller your car, the trickier it is to bathe and poop. But it can be done with a little ingenuity and practice.
If you don’t have access to free or cheap public showers, sponge baths work fine. Suanne uses a washcloth and a spray bottle of plain water for her face, and a spray bottle of rubbing alcohol for her “stinky parts.” You can try other cleaning combinations, like witch hazel, castile soap, vinegar, essential oils or rinse-free medical wash. You can warm your washing liquid in the sun, by your heater vents or on your stove (but keep alcohol away from open flames). Some people get satisfactory results with baby wipes.
Portable toilets and composting toilets take up too much room to use in cars. That’s why the vehicle-dwelling world uses the good old bucket method almost universally. There too many variations on this process to cover here. See this article instead. And this one.
Since living in a car means living closer to the elements, you should have clothing appropriate for any type of weather, even if you plan on being only where the weather is mild. Nature likes to trick us sometimes. (Ask Texans about the deep freeze of 2021.) Have a selection of layers, from light to insulating to wind and water resistant. Have a hat for warmth and one for shade. Also have seasonal footwear, including something for wet, muddy conditions.
Unless you’re going to be far from other humans all the time, you’ll want a way to cover your windows. Some people use Reflectix or cardboard, but besides those things advertising there’s someone living in the car, they’re bulky to store. It’s better to rig a way to use fabric. Clips, snaps, Velcro, safety pins, whatever. Various CRVL videos and forum posts present ways to do this.
Do you have what you need?
Depending on your expectations, the things listed above could be either more than you expected or less than you hoped. “Having what it takes” to live in a car is partly about the stuff and partly about yourself.
Suanne said, “The way I thought about it as I prepared for this lifestyle was, if I were a backpacker, that would be the minimal I’d need. So anything more than that is a step above, making it more than surviving and actually thriving.”
If someday you’re able to move up to a larger vehicle, you can take these ideas with you and expand on them.
But, really, how much can you fit in a compact car?
Here is a photo of everything Suanne had in her Prius. Note how she used a lot of soft luggage so there’s no wasted space.
And here’s everything loaded in the car. Some things have been moved to the front seats to make room for sleeping.
And if you’re willing to modify your car a little, as in this article, you might have more room or more comfort.
This was a most concise, yet thorough explanation of the necessities of car life and how to improve our situation with less than we may have been used to. Thank you so much Bob and Suanne. You’ve truly been lifesavers for me through dark times and have shown the way forward to a bright and adventurous future. Onward and above!
“Portable toilets and composting toilets take up too much room to use in cars. That’s why the vehicle-dwelling world uses the good old bucket method almost universally. There too many variations on this process to cover here. See this article instead (link).”
You forgot the (link)
Howdy everyone, I have been wondering ( since ever ) what to use & how to cut a foam mattress topping, it rarely fails every time I try cutting one the cut is all crooked :-(( .
Draw a line, and follow it with a serrated bread knife. If you can borrow an electric one, even better.
So happy to read about living in cars. I remember Suanne’s first interview with Bob about living in her Prius. Very long time ago. That is truly the most inspirational newsletter ever because I physically cannot drive anything bigger than a car/hatchback.
I love the comment about anything beyond backpacking gear means thriving not just surviving.
My favorite thriving gear is Crocs type shoes with wool socks. Good under any weather conditions including wet.
Hi Linda, exactly Crocs are the best for almost any situation, I have few pairs & love them, they are washable & come in various colors; mine are black, white, pink & navy. They last forever !!
Has there been a video showing exactly how one moves around in / positions the bucket, in a car or SUV in order to poop? I am planning to live in my SUV, which will involve removing unneeded seats, however it’s a smaller SUV. 2001 GMC Jimmy. As the vehicle is, I cannot sit up straight in the back with the seats folded flat. I am a bigger person. I imagine I will have the same ‘logistical’ issues as one who lives in a Prius, for situating myself on a bucket to poo. Any advice before I remove the back seat? That’s the only hope I have for bucket placement and pooing. I know the vehicle has enough room for me and this lifestyle, except that once my body gets in the back, I can’t figure out how to position myself to poop. Peeing with a female urinal will be a challenge but I believe it is doable. Thank you for your help!
I use a child’s toilet that I got at Walmart in my gmc. Luckily I had a third row so the toilet would go in between the two captains chairs in the middle. I have had to use it in a small Lexus IS350. I put the plastic potty on the backseat and went. It takes a bit to get used to going in a car. I try not to wait until I’m dying so I can be calm and not make any mess. Lol
I bought a Joolca brand small pyramidal style tent. It works perfect for the activity in mind. I also purchased the shower unit customized to fit the tent (propane fired), so showers are not an issue for me either. The whole thing fits in a tote & bag which both fit easily into my suv.