This article was originally posted in 2014. Some of the specifics are out of date, but the general principles still apply. I apologize for the photos and their captions being very small. They are all that’s available at this date. 

Suzanne Carlson is the director of Homes on Wheel Alliance (see the links in the menu bar above).

FIRST, I WANT TO SAY THANKS TO BOB for asking me to share how I live out of my car. I referenced this site ( a lot when I was in planning mode.

For me, living out of my car is about travel, balanced with safety, comfort, and a tight budget. In 2010, I took 6 months to explore many of the National Parks in the contiguous 48. I especially loved meandering on the back roads, scenic drives and mountain passes. The journey beckons as much as its destinations. 

Why a Prius?

While planning, I had considered several options which included tenting, vandwelling, or using our teardrop trailer. Finally, I decided to live out of my current vehicle. My 2004 Toyota Prius works well for many reasons:

  • great gas mileage with low emissions,
  • nothing to tow,
  • functions as a hard-sided tent,
  • room for a cot-sized bed,
  • room to lounge,
  • room to do personal hygiene,
  • no modifications required,
  • built-in security system,
  • overnight use of air conditioner without constant engine noise,
  • built in GPS.

In 2010, I traveled almost 30,000 miles, averaging about 45 miles per gallon. Good gas mileage is the biggest reason the Prius is a great choice for me. The lower emissions level helps to minimize my carbon footprint as well. I don’t tow anything, nor do I have a hitch or roof-rack. The windows are tinted. So, from the outside, it looks no different than any other Prius. I didn’t make any modifications to the inside either. That is, I didn’t remove any seats or build any shelves. Instead, when I lay down both passenger-side seats, it naturally creates enough room for a cot-sized bed. (See pictures) For storage, I used duffel bags and 2 sets of plastic drawers, one under the hatch and the other on the front passenger’s seat. Although its payload limit is only 780 pounds, a Prius can still hold an alarming amount of stuff.

How do I fit my stuff in there?

Heavy items, like extra water, kitty litter, and tire chains, are stored below the front passenger seat (providing a little lower center of gravity for stability, and a bit more forward weight for better traction). Items with a scent, such as food, toiletries and cleaning agents are stored on the front passenger seat (to easily move to a bear locker, if available). Other items are stored on the floor behind the front passenger seat and under the hatch, including outerwear, Reflectix, a bucket, stove, utensils, fire extinguisher, tools, spare tire, and much more. A couple of duffel bags with 10 days’ worth of clothes are stored directly behind the driver while traveling, then moved to the driver’s seat when sleeping or lounging. Even fully loaded, the Prius has enough power to get over the highest mountain passes. (See pictures of the Prius loaded above and empty)

My car functions as a hard-sided tent

Because I can overnight at free places (BLM, NFS, rest areas, etc.), sleeping in my “Prius RV” helps to stretch my traveling dollar. 

As a retired woman traveling solo, safety is a concern. Primarily, I want to guard against humans who would do me harm. With the car’s security system set, I can lock myself in to sleep. Second, its hard sides keep me safer from animals who might consider me prey. Mostly, I use common sense and listen to my gut. Yet, sleeping inside something which drives away provides some peace of mind. I understand that nothing is fool proof and I’m taking some risks. But, in my travels to date, I’ve not needed to take any defensive action. 

Built-in climate control

Since the Prius is a Toyota hybrid, I’ve taken advantage of its ability to efficiently heat or cool during sleep. That is, I leave the car on, in park, with the heater or air conditioner running. The engine only comes on intermittently to keep the batteries charged. Although I’ve slept in sub-freezing temperatures, I’ve yet to use the heater. I have used the air conditioner during some very hot and muggy nights. The engine ran about 4 minutes during each 35-minute cycle. 

I kept a couple of windows cracked for venting. My rear passenger windows are covered with No-See-UM Mosquito Netting. I glued Velcro to the base of the window sills and to the bottom of the netting. When installed, bugs cannot get underneath. The top and sides of the netting are tacked to the door frame, making the interior bug-tight when the doors are closed. I also installed exterior visors which look like eyebrows over the windows. When it is raining, I can roll down my windows about an inch for ventilation and not get any water inside.

Keeping clean and such

Hygiene items used daily are in a separate tote. I brush my teeth and wash my face with plain water from a spray bottle. “Sponge baths” use a second spray bottle of witch hazel (an astringent), a little rubbing alcohol and water. I bathe in the passenger seat area before sleep to keep night clothes and bedding as clean as possible; and I wash again in the mornings. I keep my hair pretty short and wash it about once a week. Usually I’m able to find a shower; if not, I wash it outside over a bucket. I use only conditioner to keep my hair clean. 

While traveling, I use public restrooms. During the night, I pee in a liquid laundry detergent bottle which I dump in a toilet the next day. While hiking I use a female urinary device called a Freshette that allows me to pee standing up. Only once have I needed to do #2 in my car using a bucket and a Luggable Loo seat cover. It was both awkward and uncomfortable, but it worked. I lined the bucket with a Double Doodie Bag which is designed to hold human waste without leaking. I use Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer.

The Prius is my generator

I have an inverter in the jockey box that I use to run or recharge my laptop. Other 12v devices include a phone charger, flashlight and mugs. Just in case, I also carry a weather radio, small solar recharger, and a SPOT GPS Messenger (that calls for help if no cell reception). For navigation, I use the Prius’ GPS. I connect online using a smart phone or WIFI. My Motorola CLIQ smart phone is my camera as well.

Room to live

My bed is very comfortable. The bottom layer is a Therm-A-Rest pad wrapped in sheep fleece. The top layer is a regular foam cot mattress. I use flannel sheets and a king-size down comforter. When in driving mode, the bed remains clear of stuff for mid-day naps.

I move the driver’s seat as far forward as possible, then use the rear seat for lounging, reading, computer use, dressing, bathing, and bathroom needs. For curtains, I cut black fleece to fit each of the back windows. I also hang a large fleece curtain just behind the front seats. The curtains attach to the headliner with Velcro. While driving, the curtains are stored in a stuff sack behind the driver’s seat. (see pictures at right)

What about food?

I don’t have a cooler, but go to the grocery store when I want something that needs refrigeration. Except for an occasional restaurant meal to taste the local fare, I rarely eat out. A typical day’s meals include a protein drink & banana for breakfast, PB sandwich & apple for lunch, and beans & rice w/veggies for dinner. None of these require more than hot water to prepare, heated using a 12v Travel Mug, butane stove, or Kelly Kettle.

It’s not all sunshine and roses, but…

I also want to list a few features that make the Prius less than perfect for travel. The biggest downside is the need to go outside to go to bed. In an emergency, I could climb over the stuff on my front passenger seat if I needed, but that would be awkward at best. On a similar note, I can’t easily go to the bathroom in privacy while in driving mode. To do so requires me to move duffel bags and hang curtains. Finally, I would love a higher clearance car to explore more back roads. But, a vehicle with all these features would also lower the number of miles I could travel on a gallon of fuel. So, for now, I’ll just rack up more miles in my trusty Prius RV.

Finally, even though I appreciate my Prius, the experiences of travel are way more important to me — the beautiful vistas, wildlife sightings, quiet respites, shooting stars, and lasting friendships. For that reason, I don’t say that I live in my Prius, rather, I live out of it.