From one day to the other, you no longer have a home. Now what? Sleeping in a car is one option that can save you from being homeless. Here you find tips on how to turn a car or van into a home – quickly and cheaply.
It happens more and more often, especially with the skyrocketing costs of housing. People can no longer pay for their apartments. One way out is to move into the car.
Usually, there is not much preparation time left when you decide to take this step. It is now a matter of setting up a place to sleep that is dry and warm. We’ve been living in a van for over 2 years – by choice. Here we give you tips on how to make “Vanlife” work quickly and, most importantly, inexpensively.
Quick and Cheap: Convert your Vehicle into a Home
The most important thing is a comfortable place to sleep, personal hygiene, and something to eat. Spend your money at the beginning mainly on that. Everything else is luxury and will come gradually. Don’t be fooled by Vanlife pictures on social media. Here are tips for a low-budget camper setup:
A Car, Van, or RV
It doesn’t have to be a van in which you can stand upright. A minivan or car with rear seats that fold down so you can lie with your legs outstretched, will do it. But if you have a choice, the more space you have, the more comfortable you’ll be. The more vertical the sides, the more space. A used van is often cheaper than you think. An empty cargo or minivan can be bought used (in America) for 4,000. More expensive is an RV which comes already with most of what you will need to live in it.
If you plan to spend the winter in the van and you are about to buy one, look for vehicles that already have diesel heating installed. More about this later.
A place to sleep
It’s best to get an air mattress that fits in your vehicle. There are also mattresses that are specially designed for cars or back seats. A normal mattress will do as well, of course, but it will take up more space. A hammock is also a good option because it doesn’t take up space during the day.
If you are traveling in a car: Stow your belongings in boxes and put the mattress on top. This saves space and the boxes serve as a bed frame.
Water, Toilet, Shower & Laundry in a Van
Think about if you need two separate water tanks: One for drinking water and one for wastewater. To store it, you can get several canisters. It makes sense to have water canisters that you can fold. A more long-term solution to store water is a freshwater tank like this. In addition to a tank like this, you will also need a water pump, connections, etc. Where to get water is described further below.
Sink and Laundry
Get a foldable sink like this one. If necessary, you can also wash your clothes in it. We recommend normal laundromats if you have the money. This will make things a lot easier for you.
Here it depends on how much space and money you have. A “pee-funnel” can be enough (for women and men). Another cheap option is a bucket with plastic bags and a toilet seat. Chemical toilets can also be quite inexpensive. However, we advise using a separating toilet. They smell the least, can be emptied fairly easily, and don’t require chemicals. We have summarized more information here.
The insider tip when it comes to showering in the van is a pressure sprayer. To shower, fill it with water (boil some water on a gas stove and fill it up with cold water), pump a few times to build up pressure, and you’re ready to shower.
Outside, you can get some privacy by putting a shower curtain between the back doors or on the trunk, or by buying a shower tent.
In vans with a little more headroom, you can also shower inside. Get a small tub, like this foldable seat bathtub, and a shower curtain that you can attach to the ceiling.
Washing your body otherwise works well with a small spray bottle, soap, and a towel. If you have a gym membership, you can shower there too. And another insider tip for the women among us: dry shampoo!
If you live in a car, you will need to be efficient with your available electricity. You can charge power banks, your smartphone, etc. while driving. You can also charge your devices in cafe shops, public restrooms, or at work. Campsites often have power outlets that you can use – usually for a fee. Of course, this is only possible if you have a connector and a battery.
You are most independent in the campervan if you produce your own electricity. This can be done for example with solar energy or a generator. The easiest way to produce solar energy is to buy a plug-in system – a portable power station that can be connected to solar panels or charged from an electrical outlet. There are different sizes that produce and store more or less power.
It’s cheaper to install a solar system on the roof of your car yourself. On this page, you will find step-by-step instructions for different solar systems.
You can also produce electricity with a generator. Never run a generator inside your vehicle – the exhaust fumes are deadly.
To cook independent of electricity, we recommend a gas stove from the camping sector. You find gas cartridges in many stores when you run out. If you order several cartridges online, they are very cheap. If you have a lot of energy, you can also think about an induction stove. Here we report about our experiences.
Winter and Summer in an RV
For hot days in the car, we recommend you buy a battery-powered fan. Provide a breeze through the car with an open window in the back and front.
On cold days, you’ll need a heater. Here, the most efficient solution is a diesel parking heater. However, this must be installed in the car or van. If you don’t think you can do it yourself, ask a friend or a specialist.
A bottle with hot water under the blanket also helps. In a pinch, a gas heater can also help. However, windows must be open during use because of the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. If you are thinking about a stove, be aware of the danger. If you decide to do so, you must install fans and be sure to install a carbon monoxide detector.
Insulate your vehicle additionally – this helps against heat and cold: A thick carpet, for example, does a good job. You can also cut foam sheets from the hardware store for the sides and the ceiling. Window reflectors also protect from heat and cold.
Depending on how much power you have available, you can get a cooler with a 12-volt connection or without a power connection. With the latter, there is the disadvantage that you have to constantly refill ice.
Living in a car or van is pretty obvious. Others are aware that there might be valuables such as smartphones, wallets, laptops, and cameras in the vehicle. How to secure your car from burglary, we have described in this article.
That’s all you need. Everything else is a luxury and can be improved little by little.
What else is good to have in the van?
There are a few things that will make your life easier in the car or van. These include:
- Flashlight, headlamp (a magnetic light can be attached to the car ceiling)
- Small power banks for the smartphone and other USB devices and larger power banks that can charge laptops
- Hot water bottle
- Blackout for windows
- USB car chargers, for example to charge smartphones while driving
- Car charger with matching laptop port to also charge laptop while driving
- In summer: USB fan
- Small magnets – you can use them to attach anything to the car chassis, for example curtains!
- Repair manual for your car: If you repair small things in the car yourself, you save a lot of money!
How much does it cost to live in a car/van?
When necessity forces you to look for alternatives for an apartment, money obviously matters, too. We’ll show you what you’ll have to pay if you live in a van or car.
- Gasoline/diesel is probably the biggest cost factor. How much money you should calculate depends, of course, on how much you will drive. In winter, the bill will be higher if you use diesel heating. We budget additional 150 dollars for diesel for the cold winter months.
- Campsite: Here it depends on whether you are standing free or on a paid campsite. We always stand free or on free camping sites. In most European countries this is possible. If you always stand on paid sites, it can quickly become more expensive than renting an apartment. Expect to pay 15 to 40 dollars per night and more. You can also check out “permanent camper” options at regular campsites. Often these are quite cheap (a few 100 dollars per season).
- Water is relatively cheap and costs about 1 dollar for 5 gallons. Often, water is also available completely free of charge. The two of us get by with just under 190 gallons of fresh water a month (which we also drink).
- Electricity: If you generate your own energy via solar or wind power, it’s a one-time investment – after that, the electricity is free. With a diesel generator or if you are plugged in at the campsite, it is of course a different story. But the costs are also very manageable. On campsites, you can expect to pay up to 20 cents per kilowatt hour.
- Insurance, taxes & repairs: Depending on how long you live in the car or van, one or the other part will break and need to be repaired. In addition, the vehicle insurance (s) and taxes must be calculated. Definitely buy a Haynes Manual for your vehicle and read it. There is probably plenty of repairs you can do without much repair knowledge.
If you generate your own energy (0 dollars), have free parking (0 dollars), get by with 130 gallons of fresh water per month (26 dollars), factor in around 200 dollars in gas costs, and spend 1,500 dollars per year on insurance, you should expect to pay 350 dollars per month to live in the van. Calculate an additional 150 dollars in winter if you heat with a diesel heater. Depending on how much gas you need, the costs of living in a vehicle are higher or lower.
How do I find safe overnight parking?
- Apps like iOverlander, Campendium, Freecampsites.net, or Park4Night make the search for camping spots pretty easy. In particular, read other people’s reviews of the individual pitches before you drive to a site. This is where people report on broken water machines, the safety of the site, and how to get there. Whichever one you use, make sure it is up to date, since a couple of places have changed since Covid hit.
- Industrial areas. Sounds worse than it is. Between all the trucks you don’t attract attention in industrial areas. So you can stay there for several nights. Especially on weekends, you can find free places, dead ends are especially quiet. With a little luck, the place is located on the outskirts of a city, close to nature.
- Google Maps and Maps.me are other apps we like to use. Search for parking lots in the area and then look at the satellite image for it. That way you can get a first impression.
How often should I change the camping site?
It all depends on how comfortable you feel and how you are perceived by residents. You will quickly get a feeling of whether you are welcome or not. One thing is clear: Regularly changing your parking space will save you trouble. We often move on after just one night, or at the latest when we recognize people who were staring a bit too much at our camper the day before. On official motorhome sites, we stay a bit longer to relax and unwind.
Where do I dump garbage and wastewater, and where do I get fresh water from?
- On official RV parks, which you can find via app (for example iOverlander), there are often also so-called supply and disposal facilities. There you can supply yourself with fresh water and dispose of your waste water (gray and black water). Most of the time you will also find trash cans there.
- For drinking water, just buy it bottled in gallons at the store. You also can refill your gallon jugs at Walmart or Winco.
- Water for everything but consumption you can get at truck stops, gas stations, city parks, dog parks, beach showers, public restrooms, and gyms. In some laundromats, you might also find a deep sink to fill up your gallons.
- Insider tip: In industrial areas, truck parking lots, and rest areas along highways, there are usually large trash cans or trash containers.
How do I set up Internet in the camper?
To set up WIFI for your laptop, smartphone, etc.: Get a router, this one for example, and a sim card with unlimited data volume. You can use it to set up WiFi, which you can then use to log in with your laptop or smartphone – just like at home.
In Germany, we currently use Freenet.com. Unlimited data volume there costs just one euro per day. This is the best deal we know of and works very well. In Italy, we use Iliad, which is even cheaper.
Is Full-time VanDwelling legal?
Since US states have different laws, it is not easy to say if it is allowed to live in a van in the US. But if you follow some basic rules you should be getting along just fine.
Make sure to change your parking space regularly and avoid spreading out visibly in a quiet corner of a city. If you try and set up a campsite outside of your vehicle and use the bushes as a toilet, you can expect to be kicked out pretty quickly.
If the police confront you it’s best to just be 100% honest about your situation. If they want you to move on, then just move on. Usually, if the police come to speak with you, it’s because someone called them there. That means if you come back to this spot, someone will call them again, and now you’ll have bigger problems.
The best thing to do is to keep a legal address where you can receive mail. You might want to ask close relatives or trusted friends. As long as you store items at this address that belong to you and you are there from time to time, the address should be legal (that’s how we understand it). Also consider to ask the church, a shelter, or charity for options.
If you follow these rules, you will usually not get any problems. An exception is of course if camping is explicitly forbidden in a parking lot.
And what to do in winter?
In winter, when it gets colder, you do exactly what other people do. You turn the heater on. We have described the possibilities for this above. Another option for those who work remotely or do not work at all: Travel to southern, warmer climes for the winter. After enduring temperatures of minus 16 degrees Celcius in our the first winter in the van, we preferred to spend the following winter in Italy. There, the temperatures were much more comfortable, and our diesel heater ran much less often. If you’re spending the winter in a snowy area, it’s good to have a shovel with you. If there is a lot of snowfall, you can shovel your way out.
What if my friends and colleagues see that I live in a car?
If this thought weighs on you – by us it was like that: At the beginning, we told only a few people that we were moving into a van. The others didn’t even notice for many months. And even if it becomes apparent at some point – if necessity has brought you into this situation, that’s the way it is and it doesn’t have to be anyone else’s business.
Often people bombard you with questions like:
- Is that even legal?
- Where do you park your van?
- What about showers?
- What do you do in winter?
- Where do you poop?
You now know a good answer to these questions.
Final tips for living in a Camper
- Mail: When time in the van does take longer than expected: Find out about alternative ways to receive letters and packages. In Germany, we use packing stations from DHL and Amazon to receive packages. We also rented a post box from the German postal service to receive letters. Unfortunately, not all letters can be received via these post boxes.
- Housesitting could also be an option to get off the street at least for some time. Here you can find an article about it.
- Storage Box: If you need to store possessions without asking family and friends, find out about storage boxes. You pay per square foot and often even have access 24 hours a day Monday to Sunday. Remember, though, that the money for a storage box also adds up quickly. Owning less may make more sense.
Some people also buy an enclosed trailer to store things in. In Germany, however, a trailer can only be parked in one place for a few weeks at a time, so it has to be moved every now and then.
- Be a minimalist: Remember to bring only the absolute essentials with you in your car/van. Space in the vehicle is limited and too much stuff quickly becomes annoying.
- Security: Don’t attract unnecessary attention, but rather keep a low profile. Black out your windows or don’t leave anything valuable lying around when you’re not in the car. That way, you avoid being robbed.
- Emergency Fund: Set aside some money so you can afford a few nights in a hostel or hotel, just in case.
Conclusion: Vanlife also has good sides
The more you set up your car or van as home and learn to cope, the better it gets, day by day. Vanlife can also be beautiful and will provide you with lifelong memories.
If you’re comfortable in the vehicle, the lifestyle is also a great opportunity to save money. We’ve heard of people who have been able to pay off huge amounts of debt as a result. But especially in areas where apartments and houses are unaffordable, Vanlife has become a real alternative. Not only students, but people of all ages, even entire families and seniors have already taken this step. Not always just to save money, but also because vanlife makes many feel like they are living much more intensely.
Stay focused and persistent. You can do it. Enjoy the extra freedom!
Do you have any tips you’d like to share? Feel free to leave a comment 🙂
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