Advice regarding extended road trip or living out of a vehicle...
June 13, 2010 3:59 PM   Subscribe

Suppose I wanted drive around North America for 6 or 8 months and live out of the vehicle ...

1. What terms or phrases should I be looking for when searching online for such a vehicle? For instance, Vanagon, VW Bus, Camper Van, etc. What should I expect to pay?

1b. What are some makes, models, years, phrases, etc that should be searched for and are there also any specific ones that should be avoided.

2. Do I always have to go to a campground or can I park overnight in mall parking lots or on non-permit parking streets?

3. What are the general caveats of such a plan?

4. Are there any web sites or books about/by people who've done this that you can recommend?

posted by dobbs to Travel & Transportation (31 answers total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
There's a Survival Guide to Homelessness that is really a guide to living out of a car. With question 2, malls generally won't permit you to park overnight, though if accosted by security they might be nice and let you do so any way. You also can't generally sleep parked on a street. Police will wake you up and tell you to get moving. You can sleep in your car at 24-hr truck stops along interstates (Pilot, Love's, Flying J etc.). They have showers that cost a few bucks (well worth it in my experience) and are pretty secure. You should definitely bring ear plugs (big rigs coming and going all night) and make opaque curtains for your car's windows to block out the lights, and for privacy. I would try it for a couple nights before you set out. With an average 4-door sedan, it can be very hard to find a comfortable sleeping position if you're taller than 5'.
posted by mnemonic at 4:15 PM on June 13, 2010

In the US [I know you live in Canada but this is what I know...] you can sleep in rest stops in most states [there are some exceptions such as most of New England and I think Georgia last time I was through]. A road atlas will tell you which states. Please note that being able to park for eight hours does mean you can sleep in your car for that time, however you can not sleep outside your car, i.e. camp. What you get really depends on what you're aiming for. I've done cross-country sleep-in-car trips in everything from a Chevy Beauville van with a bed in the back, to a VW microbus, to a VW Jetta where I flipped the back seat down to a Chevy Blazer. You're going to have to balance what you're looking for versus cost. The cheapest of those options was the van and I did the work myself. It got crappy mileage though. If you had a Subaru Outback you'd get better mileage but you'd be sleeping in a car more than having a little home on wheels. I'd start with looking at "conversion vans"

You used to be able to park overnight in Wal-Mart parking lots, though that's starting to really depend on the region, some places totally disallow it. You can stay on Bureau of Land Management land for free as long as you move every two weeks. You need a one-time permit to do this so it's not technically free, but close enough. These rules are also changing [and have recently] so it's good to stay on top of.

My best options have been to stay near or with friends. Even parking in someone's driveway can get you a measure of comfort and security that you won't have in a rest stop. I've slept in rest stops, hotel parking lots and random fire roads but if your preference is not to get hassled by the police [some places let you sleep in your can on the street, some places don't] and have a place to pee/poop, it's worth paying for a campground. There are more rustic campgrounds in most states [get a CAA/AAA set of camp books] that are pretty remote and pretty cheap. They used to be nearly free but not so much any more. You'll have to think about where to shit/shower/shave. Many interstate truck stops offer this opportunity for small fees. You might also be interested in the zine Dweling Portably. They are more about dropping out entirely but their zine is full of tips and I've always loved reading it and YAY HOORAY it looks like they now have a website. Start there.

There is a good book called Vagabonding in the USA which is pretty outdated but also has pretty practical information on this subject. I recently read a book written by two canadian RVers called Over the Next Hill: An Ethnography of RVing Seniors in North America which cautions that you have to make sure you're staying within the residency requirements for maintaining your Canadian health insurance, just something else to keep in mind.
posted by jessamyn at 4:19 PM on June 13, 2010 [4 favorites]

1. I've done this out of a 82 Volvo GL station wagon (I had belongings packed in the back in such a way that I could sleep in the middle and not be easily visible from outside). It sounds like you're looking for a more easily sleepable vehicle, can't help there.

2. I've slept on the sides of freeways, in hotel parking lots (usually great), gas station parking lots, rest areas just outside major cities, it totally depends on the area. I wouldn't think malls would be that great - rentacops. I hear wal-mart is pretty forgiving.

3. Don't break the law. If it sounds like something sketchy is happening outside the car, get up and drive away, even if you're really sleepy.

4. Nope.
posted by doteatop at 4:19 PM on June 13, 2010

I remember seeing this a while back: The Chinook
posted by milkrate at 4:21 PM on June 13, 2010

I mean, there's a whole spectrum of possibilities here depending how many amenities you need. You could get an old panel van (or a minivan with the windows blocked out) and a sleeping bag and in principle that's all you'd need, and you would have a lot more freedom w.r.t. parking since it's not always obvious that someone is living inside one of those compared to an RV. You could even do this with a hatchback or sedan that lets you fold down the rear seats. You wouldn't necessarily be very comfortable and you wouldn't have much room for stuff, but then again you'd get much better mileage. Gotta say though the panel van is kind of a sweet spot since it will have plenty of space and if you get the right kind there will be no windows to block out so it would be good for sleeping on the down low. There was a story a while ago about a guy who did this while being a grad student at Duke.
posted by Rhomboid at 4:26 PM on June 13, 2010

Vehicle-wise, you sweet spot for comfort vs. cost is likely a used conversion van. If you want an awesomer vehicle that you'll spend a lot more money on, I'd look for a VW Westfalia.
posted by Nothing... and like it at 4:41 PM on June 13, 2010

There's a yahoo group called VanDwellers which I think is relatively active, although I haven't been reading it lately. It might be a good resource for information about types of vehicles, how to setup the van, where to park, etc.
posted by periscope at 4:56 PM on June 13, 2010

Can't talk about doing this without mentioning Blue Highways.
posted by johnnybeggs at 5:36 PM on June 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

If you feel like you're drawn to the VWs, then by all means get How to Keep Your VW Alive. While it's worth getting just for the illustrations there is also a very comprehensive section about inspecting and buying. After that it will guide you through pretty much ANYTHING that can happen.

That's for the older type IIs though. I would stay away from Vanagons because there is too much power draining smog equipment. EuroVans are beautiful, but good ones are pretty expensive...think over 12 grand.
posted by snsranch at 5:38 PM on June 13, 2010

I lived in a converted mail van (6'x8') for 5 years. I found a decal for a construction company that I pasted on both sides. I could park just about anywhere. Like a hunted animal you must not appear what you are. Of course no windows. Deception, misdirection is your friend.
posted by JohnR at 5:49 PM on June 13, 2010 [10 favorites]

Another option is a pickup with a camper shell on the back. I lived some months this way in a Datsun truck years ago. In addition to the other options I would sometimes park on city streets in residential areas--the trick was to come in late and find a neighborhood with enough density and rental housing that an unfamiliar vehicle would not attract much attention. As JohnR says, half the battle is not to look like a camper.

In the far west many small towns allow people to sleep in the city park this way. Country roads, particularly Forest Service roads, often have pullouts where you can steal a nights sleep. In all cases the key is to arrive late and leave early.
posted by LarryC at 6:05 PM on June 13, 2010

Here's a trick: park on the street in an expensive neighbourhood, and put a car cover over the vehicle.
posted by Paragon at 6:17 PM on June 13, 2010

I also suggest a van. I slept in one that looked the Scooby van and I never had any issues when I was parked discreetly on a city street, although I was pulled over for avoiding potholes and having out of state plates. In the Florida keys nobody bothers you if you are fishing. California state parks are also free to camp at. I personally feel as though I've failed if I sleep in a truck stop; a guy sleeping in a van is suspect and those guys are quick to call the cops.

Larryc's tip to arrive late and leave early is gold.

A National Park Pass is also a golden ticket to good times.

This may be obvious but head south for the winter.
posted by mearls at 6:25 PM on June 13, 2010

I did a road trip like this lasting about three months. I did it in a pickup truck with a cap, something like this. Sleeping in Wal-Mart parking lots worked well. I also slept in hospital parking lots - they were easy to find and they felt safe because police and ambulances were showing up at all hours of the night. I didn't sleep at any highway rest stops because it didn't seem safe to me but I've heard of other people doing that without problems. I actually was never once woken up unexpectedly during the entire trip though I thought I would be.

The biggest problem I had was that condensed moisture from my breath would build up on the inside of the truck cap. If it wasn't sunny and the humidity was high outside it stayed pretty humid inside, which I found a bit uncomfortable to sleep in. And the fogged-up windows can point out to observant people that there's someone sleeping in there.

It gets pretty cold obviously just like it would while you're camping. I brought a huge pile of multiple sleeping bags and blankets and wore a knit hat at night and stayed pretty cozy temperature-wise. I found I needed earplugs as mnemonic notes.

I liked T/A truck stops as a place to shower. You might want to grab a map/directory of them and other franchised truck stops.

One thing that was kind of cool to do was, in lieu of sending postcards, I would find places where there were public web cams, stop there as I was passing, and call people up and wave to them over the internet.

I had planned a second trip and though I never took it as research I experimented with how I could do it in a smaller and more gas-efficient vehicle. I had a Geo Prizm at the time. I removed the passenger seat and the rear seat's backrest (requiring only a socket set) and built a little plywood platform that made the passenger seat well level with the back seat. (Hinged so that I could store stuff underneath it.) I found that I could sleep pretty comfortably then with my head near the dashboard on the passenger side and my feet extending into the trunk. It didn't leave much room for cargo, though. (And obviously once you remove the seats you're unable to carry any passengers.)
posted by XMLicious at 6:29 PM on June 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

the yahoo group someone mentioned earlier - vandwellers, is extremely active and you can learn a lot just by reading the archives, or join and ask questions. ^_^

Also, check out There's a wealth of information on there about how to live out of a car (parking, food, how to build a camper from a van, etc...).
posted by patheral at 6:46 PM on June 13, 2010

Also, check out

That's the site I was trying to remember! That site is great.

Also people have mentioned this obliquely but it may be worth saying right out loud. What you are thinking about doing, depending on how you go about it, may be illegal in some places. No big deal, I think it's a worthwhile thing to do anyhow and more power to you and all that, but part of living in your vehicle for extended periods of time is dealing with people in positions of authority [and/or cranks and weirdos] getting in your business. Since you're just there in your car, these situations are not as avoidable as you might like. Having some sort of pat response to this sort of thing where you make clear that you're just a traveler from Canada and not a dangerous baby-snatcher is a good idea. You should also keep this in mind if you're a pot smoker, carry a weapon, or are on prescription medicine that might seem sketchy. I'm not trying to be all Easy Rider about it, I've met nothing but wonderful people, but some people aren't as lucky as me.

For better or worse, people will be suspicious of you possibly. You can decide what you want to do with this information, but it's a good thing to know it going into the whole deal. US cops can sometimes be dickish about people living in vehicles in some parts of the US and having a decent rapport with them could potentially keep you out of larger hassles. I travelled around a lot [and not for super long periods of time but I did stay at a lot of rest areas] and was able to avoid both creeps and cops totally successfully but other people I know seemed to get questioned a lot.
posted by jessamyn at 6:53 PM on June 13, 2010

I'm BC you can camp for free on most logging roads, they used to have a map for the whole province but now they are broken up by region so it's harder to get the info. You'll want something 4WD though unless you don't mind your car bottoming out on dirt roads.

In the US you can camp on feral land for free, pretty sure there are guides to some of the best places.
posted by furtive at 7:02 PM on June 13, 2010

Don't underestimate the importance of having access to a bathroom either. I go camping off the beaten path a few times a year and taking some "personal time" in a freshly dug pit or a bucket is doable for a long weekend or so, but for 6-8 months in a row it could get to be an issue. See if there's an inexpensive motorhome for sale in your area and if one's in your price range at least have a look at it to see if it's something servicable for your adventure.
posted by barc0001 at 9:21 PM on June 13, 2010

these people are willing to let strangers stay in their homes for free, i'm sure you could find some driveways to stay in with some bonus shower time
posted by swbarrett at 9:42 PM on June 13, 2010

I'm doing this right now. Yes, do check out VanDwellers; we are a great and diverse group and very friendly and helpful! My own van is not very stealthy but then again I avoid urban areas. YMMV, literally!
posted by The otter lady at 10:53 PM on June 13, 2010

If you're looking for vanagons for sale, then The Samba is one of the better places to go. Forums on that site also regularly discuss where to stealth camp.
posted by pappy at 9:11 AM on June 14, 2010

I did this for three months in 2008, in my 2-door Honda Prelude. I would sleep in church parking lots, rest areas, on residential streets, sometimes even just on the side of a highway if the area was rural enough. Nobody ever hassled me for sleeping in my car.

I learned quickly how to sleep in the reclined passenger seat of my car. Were I to do this again, I'd look at getting a Toyota minivan, like a Previa or Sienna, and just remove all but the front seats. As far as the "shopping for the right car" part of your question, I think you'll just need to dig around on car forums for a while.

"General caveats" of living like this are, in my opinion, minimal. You'll have an impressive amount of freedom, and still have access to all the conveniences of civilization. Showering is easy - find an indoor swimming pool and you can have a shower and get some exercise.

Good luck to you - my trip was by far the best thing I have ever done.
posted by seiryuu at 10:13 AM on June 14, 2010

Although intrigued by this lifestyle I've only actually done it a couple nights here and there, but this is what I've learned.

If you're in a sunny place you'll wake at dawn when the sunlight strikes your vehicle -- as it warms up, many little noises. And then it get's really hot, so you'll have to do something, at minimum rolling down the windows.

Many mention Paragon's car cover technique, which I've never tried (though I have used a car cover just to cover a car and the idea of being inside and underneath seems like it would feel claustrophobic).

A tip learned from the Ed Buryn book jessamyn mentioned is many travelers leave their motel room doors ajar, when they leave. You can scoot in behind them and get a free shower -- maybe even take a nap before housekeeping shows up. So the logical place to park would be motel or motor lodge parking lots -- some may have a security guard but I think they'll be the urban exception, not the rule.
posted by Rash at 11:04 AM on June 14, 2010

And vaguely related, a 1993 documentary called It Was a Wonderful Life followed several homeless women around LA who were subsequently living out of their cars.
posted by Rash at 11:08 AM on June 14, 2010

I'll suggest sites on housebuses and housetrucks.
posted by eclectist at 3:15 AM on June 15, 2010

Avoiding Arizona is my suggestion. GL
posted by omegar at 10:44 AM on June 16, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks to everyone for the wonderful answers!
posted by dobbs at 9:21 PM on June 16, 2010

A VW Bus is fun to drive around in, less fun to stand next to after it breaks down on the freeway in the middle of nowhere, and even less fun to attempt to fix on the road.

It is easier to find places to sleep in your car than to find places to disassemble bits of your car and put them back together. Many auto parts stores do not allow you to work on your car in their parking lot. Many auto parts stores do not have VW parts in stock.

The upside of traveling in a VW Bus is that you end up meeting a lot more people when your car is not functional, and you get a chance to appreciate the kindness of a gas station that will let you work on your car under the shade of one of their awnings when it's 126 F out. You end up with a lot of interesting stories to tell about your car, where it broke down, that guy who gave you a ride, what crazy thing happened to your engine, and colorful towtruck drivers. It makes the whole thing so much more exciting to look back on.

Oh, and I recommend you stay out of areas where it gets over 120 when trying to sleep in your car. Even at night, it's rather unpleasant.
posted by yohko at 12:17 AM on June 17, 2010

Forgot to mention:
If I was to buy a vehicle for this, I'd get a panel van, rear windows but no side windows. Get a white one, it will heat up less and look more like a business vehicle than a live in vehicle.
posted by yohko at 12:26 AM on June 17, 2010

Since you're in Canada, you might consider a used Mitsubishi Delica van imported from Japan. I know a number of people that have a nomadic lifestyle and use one of these. They 4WD so you can get places you wouldn't in most other vans, run on diesel, and can be converted to run on used veggie oil. Being from Japan, they're Right Hand Drive, but it actually doesn't take very long to get used to.
posted by Emanuel at 6:07 AM on June 17, 2010

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