So, you want to be effectively homeless, smell terrible, eat a lot of oatmeal, and grow out your hair way longer than you probably should? Well, you’ve come to the right place. Last summer I got to live out of a pickup truck with my best friend Eric, driving around the country, doing whatever we wanted to do and going wherever we wanted to go. Living out of your vehicle is a very odd lifestyle in that it is very challenging but also extremely simple. It is uncomfortable but relaxing. It is frowned upon by many but praised by others. And it is one of the most amazing lifestyles I have ever lived. I admit, it’s not for everyone, but if you have aspirations to one day travel around, living out of your car, truck, or van (I would recommend one of the second two options if you have a say in that), here’s some tips and tricks I’ve picked up while doing it myself.
1. Stay organized
You’d be amazed by how much stuff you can actually lose in such a small space as a truck bed or the trunk of a car. Some of the things we lost in our truck, a Toyota Tacoma, included shoes, phones, hats, and even the keys to said truck once or twice. Past not wanting to lose anything, having a place for everything and keeping everything in its place is a good idea in general. Life on the road is unpredictable enough, so anything you can do to make things easier is a must. For example, if you know exactly where your cooking utensils are, it can help you get your cooking done much more quickly when you need to get back on the road or you’re losing daylight.
2. Take a good cooler.
I’ll tell you this right now: get used to warm water. You’ll learn to deal with it, then you’ll learn to not notice it, and eventually, once you’ve gotten back from a few 100+ degree hikes, you’ll learn to like it. Having said that, it’s still nice to have a cold drink every now and then, plus you’ll want to be able to keep things like lunch meat, vegetables, fruits, etc. cold. We had a cooler in the backseat of the truck that worked so well that we only needed new ice every week or so, and we used it for essentials plus a couple iced teas to keep cold as a nice treat every so often. If you want to spend the money and put in the time, you could even get a small refrigerator that operates off of a second battery (so your main vehicle battery doesn’t die).
3. Get a power inverter for your car charger.
This is a big one. Even if you’re traveling alone, a car-charger-to-outlet power inverter is extremely important to have, because it allows you to charge or use things that don’t have a car charger adapter. With more than one person it becomes a virtual necessity, especially when one of those people needs to charge three cameras at a time. Pair that with two phones and maybe a GPS, and there’s no way you can get by without an inverter that has multiple outlets.
4. Keep quick meals on hand.
You’ll probably want to take a camping stove and propane with you, and you may even have room for a two-burner stove, but chances are you won’t be cooking up many gourmet meals while on the road. It’s great to have some go-to options like oatmeal, instant mashed potatoes, and even things that require no prep like canned Chef Boyardee ravioli, applesauce, pop tarts, and granola bars.
5. Take lots of baby wipes.
I’d say over half of the “showers” I took during my time on the road were either from lakes or, you guessed it, baby wipes. They’re not a perfect substitute for a real shower, but in a pinch they can certainly help a little bit and its nice to feel a tad cleaner and more refreshed.
6. Take some air fresheners.
Using an air freshener in a car that smells awful is a lot like pushing all your dirty clothes under the bed when your mom tells you to clean your room. However, they’re better than nothing. Your vehicle is going to smell bad no matter what you do, especially if you’re extremely active and go hiking, biking, running etc. all the time and get sweaty and gross, but using air fresheners and replacing them often will make your nose at least a little bit happier, and every bit helps. Our personal favorite scents were black ice and forest pine, for the record.
7. Make a really really good playlist.
Listen, I’m all for contemplative silence every now and then, but you’re going to be spending a lot of time driving - I mean, a LOT of time. And trust me, it’s a lot more fun when you have some jams to sing along to, or a podcast to learn something from, or whatever it is that helps you pass the time. Regardless of what exactly it is, your road trip needs a soundtrack.
8. Sleep in national forests.
Obviously, one of the reasons you opt to live out of your vehicle is to save money, so naturally, you won’t want to have to pay for campsites. Luckily, all US national forests offer free range camping, so if you can deal with not having access to things like bathrooms or pre-built fire pits, you can just find a nice spot and set up camp for free. Most of the coolest places we slept were in national forests, and when it was all said and done, we only spent $27 per person on sleeping arrangements for the entire summer. You can also google free campsites by location, stay in most Walmart parking lots, and (you didn’t hear this from me) you can usually get away with parking in a hotel parking lot and sleeping right there for free if you don’t draw any attention to yourself.
9. Meet cool people.
This one is pretty easy; it requires pretty much zero preparation on your part. Just be open to meeting new people and try to meet locals and fellow travelers everywhere you go. One of the coolest parts of our trip was when Eric and I camped next to Mark, a 60-something-year-old handyman who, not by circumstance, but by choice, lived in a trailer in the woods outside of Lake Tahoe. He was an absolute goofball, and our time camping there was way more memorable because of him than it would have been otherwise. Don’t always opt for the coffee shop that Yelp or TripAdvisor told you to check out - ask a local, or try out the first hole-in-the-wall place you find. More often than not, that’s where you’ll meet people and discover great stories, and the thing you’ll remember most when it’s all said and done is the people you met along the way.
10. Live it up.
This applies to life in general, really, but especially life on the road. When I lived out of a truck, I felt more free than I ever have. Eric and I had virtually no responsibilities aside from keeping gas in the tank and food in our bodies. If we wanted to go to the Grand Canyon, we went. If we wanted to go to the Badlands, we went. If we wanted to bum around for a day and take a few naps, we did. When your entire immediate life is attached to four wheels and an engine, you go wherever you want, do whatever you want, and nobody can tell you not to. You answer exclusively to yourself. Very rarely in regular life (or, at least, what our society sees as regular) do we get this kind of freedom, so while you do have it, run with it. Run as fast and as far as you can until you can’t run anymore, and if you’re still not ready to stop, park in the shade, take a nap, and start running again. Meet all the people, see all the places, do all the things, and take some time whenever you can to appreciate just how lucky you are to live such a beautiful life.