Dirty little secrets from someone who did it for a year
(photo by author)
While it might be taboo to sleep in your car, even after the whole van life craze, it had become second nature to me by the time I graduated high school.
During my sophomore year, I got into the habit of going on odd adventures on the weekends to get away, be alone, and take photographs. I started sleeping in the back of my truck on these 1?3-night trips because I was not yet old enough to buy a hotel room, nor did I want to spend the money for one when sleeping in the back of my car was so much more convenient.
One weekend I could be driving along the Mississippi river, the next I?d be at the northernmost tip of Wisconsin, or trying to find abandoned farmhouses in Iowa.
The catalyst behind this roaming was the camera. I was addicted. Here are some shots I took in those days traveling and sleeping in my car:
(photos by author)
By the time I graduated high school, I did not want to go to college and thought that the road was the best place for me (god, that sounds so cliche, but it was really how I felt).
I figured I would get a job freelancing as a writer and a photographer and somehow find a way to support myself on the road. How wrong I was.After I graduated, I packed up my old 2004 Ford Explorer with all the essentials, my camera gear, camping gear, clothes, food, and headed south. First stop, the Great Smoky Mountains, which in turn lead me to the East coast, then to Michigan, out West, back to the South, and then to Florida. I traveled and lived out of the back of my truck off and on and between odd jobs for close to a year, the longest stretch being 3 months straight in Florida.
Here are some things I learned.
Showering Is Difficult
(self-portrait by author)
Look at that greasy hair.
Wearing a hat helps a lot, especially when you need to go to the grocery store and even more so when you have a mop for hair like I did back then. I thought it looked flowing and wild, but it looks like a motorcycle helmet, and I was close to developing a mullet.
The best and most obvious way of getting a bath is to jump into a body of water. Large lakes, oceans, or even small shallow streams are a great place to bathe. In Florida, I went for a swim in the ocean every morning, which was by far the best scenario.
As you can imagine, showering is even more difficult in the winter.
I was not brave enough to bathe in icy river water. In some cases, I cracked, bought a motel room, and took a long hot shower. Other times, I?d strip down to my skivvies while in my car and towel myself down a bit.
If I felt particularly dirty, I?d find a clean bathroom with a mirror and would towel off in there.
There?s no easy way around showering. If you?re living in your car, you could go weeks without taking a shower. You?re going to smell ? end of story.
Finding a Place to Sleep for the Night Can Be Easy and Very Hard
(photo by author)
When you?re in a National Forest or park, it?s pretty easy to find a secluded place along some dirt road to park and sleep/camp for the night. Many so-called ?camping spots? will only cost you a couple of dollars for a night.
It?s the norm that you find people camping in these places. No one will hardly ever bother you or ask for a permit of some kind.
It?s when you?re out of these nature areas that finding a place to park overnight without attracting unwanted attention gets a little complicated.
Walmarts are both a wonderful and horrible place. Many are open 24/7, and you can park overnight with no worries in the world. It?s not unusual to find RVs and truckers parked for the night in Walmart?s parking lots across the country.
Some Walmarts are not open 24/7 and will have a patrol car with a little blue light on top constantly circling the parking lot at night. If you try to sleep there, some stocky lady will knock on your window in the middle of the night and tell you to beat it, with a rather confused, angry, and sad look on her face. Why is this boy wearing Patagonia but so smelly and maladjusted?
Hotel parking lots are another option, though some require customers to put a note on their car to make sure they?re customers. I noticed that some hotels had people check the parking lot at night, but they never monitored closely. I found in those cases; it?s best to cower in your sleeping bag and hope that nobody sees you.
Lowes parking lots are another option, really any big store like that has workers in it at all hours. It?s not unusual to see cars parked there 24/7, so people will not bat an eye if they see a car parked overnight.
Another advantage of sleeping in parking lots is that many of these stores have public wifi that stretches out to the parking lot.
Some people park their cars on the side of any street and sleep for the night. As long as vehicles are allowed to be parked overnight, nobody can stop you. Most people who do this have curtains in their vehicles so that nobody can see inside. This is called Stealth Camping. I don?t recommend trying this without curtains unless you want random people roaming the streets at all hours of the night to stare at you sleeping.
Sleeping in Your Car Can Be Blissful and Horrible
(Photo by author)
Depending on how you choose to pimp out your vehicle, sleeping in the back of your car can be just as comfortable as your bed.
Many people who sleep in their car or van have built-in mattresses and their own heating and cooling systems independent of their vehicle?s heating and cooling systems.
The back of my Ford Explorer was just large enough to squeeze in a small inflatable mattress. Getting this mattress was a game-changer. My sleep system was an inflatable mattress, sleeping bag, and a pillow.
It was incredibly comfortable. (Coming from a kid who used to sleep on his bedroom floor with a pillow and a wool blanket.)
The only problem with sleeping in your car is controlling the temperature. If it?s winter, you?re going to be cold no matter how great your sleeping bag is. Sometimes, to take the chill out of the air, I?d turn on my truck?s engine and run the heat for a while. The trick is to do this but not to fall back asleep. I repeat, do not fall back asleep.
Summer is somewhat worse, especially when the nights are hot. You can turn on the car?s AC for a while, but that cool air goes away very fast, and you?re back to roasting in a tin can. Most of the night, you?ll be spread eagle, half-naked, and sweating.
A Dirty Little Secret
(photo by author)
What happens if you?re parked on the side of a road in a residential area, it?s 2 am, and you need to go to the bathroom? You can?t just walk to the bathroom down the hall.
And what happens if you need to pee, it?s 10 degrees outside, you?re all cozy in your sleeping bag, and don?t want to put on your pants, boots, coat, and hat to relieve yourself.
Well, you pee in an empty gallon container.
Many people who willingly live in their car are indeed addicted to convenience; that?s why they chose a life of little to no obligations and belongings in the first place. Many so-called van lifers use an empty gallon jug to do their business in.
But you have to be careful to distinguish it between the gallon of freshwater you have. With my beloved pee jug, I drew a large black X on the side. Don?t want to casually reach for your jug of water only to drink your lovely fluids.
If you?ve got to go #2 then you?ve got a couple of options depending on your circumstances. You can juggle it, try to sleep it off, brave the cold, or drive to a public restroom.
Here?s a Look at Some More Photographs I Took While Living in My Car:
(photos by author)
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