Help me live well in a van.
July 20, 2011 1:01 PM   Subscribe

I'm going to be moving into a van for awhile. What should I expect and what are some things I can do to make it as comfortable as possible?

Due to some strange circumstances, I'm moving into a van. It's a 1971 Dodge and it is equipped with a small kitchen, toilet and a shower as well as a bed and small couch type thing.

Because of the propane involved and the emptying of septic tanks, I'm going to try to use the amenities as little as possible in the actual van. I'll probably do most of my showering at work and try to eat things that don't require much cooking, etc. It will be parked in a driveway of a friend's house, though I won't really be able to use the house much.

Have you ever lived in a van? Do you have advice or suggestions on how to make it as livable as possible?

What is the best way to keep it cool in the summer months without running the van's AC?

What can I do with little or no electricity? Get a headlamp for reading?

What (good) foods can I keep in the van and eat that don't require much cooking or refrigeration?

Anything I'm not thinking off?

I will try to answer any questions that arise. Thanks everyone!
posted by Lutoslawski to Home & Garden (19 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Just for is the recent Van post on mefi.

Canned chili is surprisingly tasty in my opinion. Stagg chili has a bunch of flavors (website seemingly designed for the market overlap between chili fans and Axe bodyspray fans)

LED flashlights and lanterns last a long time.

Park it in the shade if you can. Use some 12V fans for good circulation.
posted by ian1977 at 1:08 PM on July 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have you read William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways? It's been a while since I read it, but I recall that among the (albeit significant) travel parts of the narrative, there's a fair amount of how the author rigged up his van as a living space for his cross-country journey.

Also, this website turned up while I was looking for the book--might be links of use there.
posted by stellaluna at 1:09 PM on July 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

I would make it cozy and nice with some bright textiles, curtains, and battery powered christmas lights. I'm assuming you don't have much cash, but investing a small amount (say, $50) in decorations might make the difference between "cozy and fun" and "claustrophobic." If you attain "cozy and fun," you might be able to live longer in the van, and hence save more money! You could always have a van warming party, too.
posted by yarly at 1:11 PM on July 20, 2011

Canned chili is surprisingly tasty in my opinion

idk how good an idea it is to eat spicy canned beany foods often in an enclosed space, though.
posted by elizardbits at 1:11 PM on July 20, 2011 [4 favorites]

Yeah, I've lived in a van for a while, I'm not sure what questions you have other than how to survive a summer, or summer months, living in a van. You don't say where you are so a location would help.

I would suggest getting a big lawn chair that you can set up outside of your van and maybe even a tent.
posted by TheBones at 1:12 PM on July 20, 2011

There are many good resources to rough/van/portable living. I always suggest the zine Dwelling Portably, enough so that just Googling that and my name and this site dragged up most of the other questions about a similar [though not entirely identical] topic. To summarize my advice

1. think about humidity
2. think about safety
3. think about hygeine and cleanliness generally

If you're in your friend's driveway you should offer to chip in for part of the electric and run a power cord to your rig. This way you can have a laptop, a light bulb and a little fan which will help with a lot of the other things. There is a BIG difference making this choice because you are broke and making this choice for other reasons as far as what people will suggest for you, so you might want to clarify somewhat.
posted by jessamyn at 1:14 PM on July 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

I had a friend that lived in a converted school bus for a while. It smelled...funky. And not in a good way. Food and cooking odors lingered forever. It was cold and drafty, and there were few flat surfaces, so it was never very comfortable. I'd recommend cooking inside the van as little as possible, and also spend as much time as you can outside of the van itself, shower as often as you can, and be very careful about mildew.
posted by mosk at 1:16 PM on July 20, 2011

Travels with Charley also has some interesting insight on how Steinbeck set up and lived in his home-on-wheels (and is a great read besides).
posted by mauvest at 1:19 PM on July 20, 2011 [3 favorites]

Is this, like, an indefinite thing or a bridge between more traditional places to live, and, like jessamyn said, is it something you're doing purely out of necessity or at least partly for the adventure of it? As she said, that will definitely change some of the answers...

Anyway, food-wise, I'd approach it like you're on a long camping trip. I don't mean get those stupid freeze dried meals because they're neither delicious nor cost effective (though this is actually a pretty decent deal if you can stomach that kind of food), but foods that behave like them. For example, couscous is great because it doesn't need to be refrigerated, and preparation is pretty minimal. A sample meal (and I'm assuming you're still mostly vegan and / or vegetarian here) could be, something like:

- Mix uncooked couscous + textured vegetable protein + a vegetable that requires minimal cooking (say baby spinach or fresh green beans or fresh peas or even fresh or canned tomatoes + olive oil + seasonings (salt, pepper, garlic powder, hotsauce, whatever the hell you want) together in some sort of dish or bowl with a lid.

- Boil some water on a camp stove or jetboil or something

-Pour boiling water over couscous mixture.

-Cover & let stand for 5 - 10 minutes.

-Uncover, carefully mix with fork, and voila, delicious, well-balanced one-pot meal.

So, yeah, think about the kind of foods you'd bring camping. For tips go to Powell's or (even better) the library and look at cookbooks aimed at backpackers.
posted by dersins at 1:36 PM on July 20, 2011 [2 favorites]

seconding jessamyn and the van dwellers website. an ex van dwellin' buddy of mine also was hooked up with the van dwellers' listserv which was helpful to him.
posted by beefetish at 1:38 PM on July 20, 2011

The Spartan Student made it through Duke grad school while living in a van, first secretly. He's since graduated and (gasp!) sold the van, but you can look back through his archives for lots of tips.
posted by BlahLaLa at 1:41 PM on July 20, 2011

Hey all! Thanks for the fantastic suggestions.

While I'm by no means financially well-off, this isn't completely a situation brought on by lack of means. It's more of a temporary in-between living situations kind of thing, and I expect to live in the van for 10-12 weeks.

I live in Portland, so it isn't too hot here...yet.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:45 PM on July 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

Is your van also your primary means of transportation?
You didn't mention if this situation will last into the fall or winter??

Try googling on solar panels for campers--you can run many things off them, including fans, lights, and even an electric blanket to warm up in the evening. We've done this during winter camping--although it won't last all night, it's wonderful to get into a warm bed.

Go to a camper store and see what they have for making things work better. A tent or canopy is a great idea, and you can use a camp stove to cook anything that can be cooked on a regular stove. Or if you want to be a bit more discrete under your canopy, you can use a BBQ grill and do most of your cooking that way. Use dry ice in your fridge, and buy small amounts of chilled things frequently.

Since you'll be at work most of the day, the heat shouldn't be as much of a problem during the worst part of the day. Evenings and weekends go to the library, hang out with friends who have AC, hit the park, and generally find interesting things to do away from home. Find a coffee shop and cultivate the barista who will let you buy the cheapest cup of joe they have and sit for hours reading and using your laptop.

Stay clean. Shower every day if possible, and wash clothes on a regular basis. Some laundromats even have AC. Bonus if you can find one like Suds and Duds. Since you do have a shower in the van, you can shower after the weekend to get ready for work. Use the turn on and wet, turn off and soap, turn on and rinse method. The shorter your hair, the better. If you can get behind using a large basin to stand in for your shower, (and your friend approves) you could dump the grey water on the lawn.
posted by BlueHorse at 1:48 PM on July 20, 2011

IT WILL BE COLD, metal is a poor container for the heat and nights will be an eye opener.
posted by Freedomboy at 2:05 PM on July 20, 2011

There may be zoning laws about living in vans, even if those vans are parked on someone's property, and if a busybody neighbor takes exception and calls in a complaint, you and your friend may get hassled. It's probably worth some peace of mind to look up any relevant regulations, and be discreet (so setting up a canopy, lawn chair, and Weber outside the van might not be a thing to do).
posted by rtha at 2:07 PM on July 20, 2011

Do the windows open, and do you have screens? Fresh air will make it feel less cramped, and also will air it out. An awning or screen house will extend the living space. The library will have books on camping, with resources for cooking and general niftyness. A doormat will make a vast difference in cleanliness. Good music helps any situation. Can you get wifi from the friend whose driveway you're using? You need 1 good reading light and a comfy place to sit. Make it as homey as you can, 12 weeks lasts a long time.

I'd make use of the mobility of your home to go to campgrounds on weekends. or different driveways, WalMart parking lots, wherever.
posted by theora55 at 3:17 PM on July 20, 2011

as an aside, van livin' pal referenced above did his van thing in portland, or, so feel free to memail if you have questions.
posted by beefetish at 3:26 PM on July 20, 2011

If you can get a long extension cord (100' is a good size and not too expensive) and run it from an outlet at the house or garage to a power strip in your van, you'll be much better off. I lived in a van for some time (and would like to get back to it) and having a power strip to run a fan, a light to read by, and power a laptop or charge a cellphone was excellent.
posted by The otter lady at 5:05 PM on July 20, 2011

Roger Ebert's The Pot and How to Use It is a cookbook for one-pot meals in a rice cooker. Whether you're leasing electricity from your friend or using a propane generator, that may be a very efficient way to cook.

If you have access to a freezer at work, use it. Cook early in the morning and take food to stash in the fridge and freezer there. Thaw dinner just before you leave work or eat it at work. Cycle out ice packs or freezer packs to bring home and put in a cooler for any overnight refrigeration (regular/almond/soy milk for cereal, for example).

An LED book light is comfortable for me to read by, and I find them handy for vacation/camping general moving around without lighting the room up (and advertising I'M LIVING IN THIS VAN to the neighbors). If you can grab a few LED tealight candles from a dollar store, that's even better for just enough light to move around.

Just like any other very small space living, extreme tidiness will make your life more pleasant. Make sure you can put as much of your stuff Away - a Rubbermaid bin for all your dry food and cooking accessories, one of those vacuum space bags but not necessarily vacuumed for dirty laundry, a suitcase or something for clean clothes, plus a spray bottle of all-purpose cleaner and some rags or old t-shirts. Drop $2 on a car wash vacuum every weekend if you can, to get the dust and general you-ness out. Do laundry as frequently as you can manage (and this is one reason to avoid a sleeping bag if you can - they're hard to wash - or at least get a liner or sew a sheet into one so that will be easy to wash).
posted by Lyn Never at 6:51 PM on July 20, 2011

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