How to couchsurf effectively
May 10, 2013 2:40 AM   Subscribe

I am leaving my place shortly and moving into a new one, however there will be a period during which I will be camping out with various family and friends while the paperwork on the new place gets sorted and I get some work done to it. What is the minimum of stuff I should take with me in order to live comfortably on someone else's floor / sofa bed / guest room, while still not taking up too much of their space? Also, how do I deal with the lack of feeling settled / not having my own space? I haven't done this for a long time, so want to go in fully prepared.

I am planning to take with me only my Kindle, toiletries, towels, and a weeks' worth of clothing which I will just launder on the weekends and re-wear. I feel like I am forgetting some vital things here but I can't think what.

I have lived alone for a longish time and am used to being in my own place with all of my things about me. I fear that a couple of months of camping out on various people's floors is going to have me feeling rather unsettled, and I also feel very on edge about always being in other people's space.

I feel a bit silly asking this question, as it's only a few months, but if anyone has any tips on how to live out of a small suitcase, and cope with not having a room to yourself (in a way that causes minimum inconvenience to you as well as to the person you're staying with), that would be great.

I am nothing if not considerate and a champion over-thinker, so I am not worried about being a bad house-guest, but if you have any tips that I might not have considered, those would be welcome too. This similar question has been pretty useful though.

Thanks guys!
posted by Ziggy500 to Home & Garden (15 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
The things that keep me sane when I'm in nomad mode:
*bringing my own snacks/coffee/breakfast food so I can get out of morning grump mode without making a mess
*having clear expectations about bedtime/lights out and what time I should be in
*having a place to chill outside the crash space (work, coffee shop, bookstore, library, gym)
*my own pillow
*allergy meds
*enough clothing to layer/sleep comfortably regardless of temperature
*ear plugs/white noise app
*Find out where the hidden/spare key is in case you get locked out (experienced ADD traveler, here)
posted by Schielisque at 2:56 AM on May 10, 2013 [4 favorites]

Camera, phone, laptop, chargers, medications. Any special food or drinks you like to have on hand. If you're packing for your standard week, but are doing this for months, are there any particular clothes you should have handy just in case something comes up? I'm thinking like a bathing suit or a necktie.

A few months for this can be a long time, so it's good that you're thinking ahead. Make sure you get some time to yourself (daily, if need be) in a cafe or library or similar space.

Ask them up front about what they'd like for you to contribute: Utilities? Milk? Dishes? Making coffee every morning if you're the first one up? Weekly cleaning sessions?
posted by knile at 3:01 AM on May 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've been living like this for like 5 months now (officially homeless but technically living on couches, etc.). I have a large backpack with clothes and toiletries and a smaller backpack for the laptop and day-to-day stuff. What I'm going to say here might not be always relevant but then again:

1) Bring your own towels.

2) Adapt your schedule to theirs.

3) Have your own food but never turn down offers to share in meals (it's practical and social).

4) Sometimes you get lucky and get to stay in a guest room.

5) Local coffee houses, Starbucks, MacDonald's. You can stay in them for hours using their free wifi. Also libraries but they're often not as comfortable and you'll miss out on the social energy of a coffee house.

6) Maybe don't bathe quite as often? Obviously you need to be aware of any bad odors but the basic process involves: take a shower, then wash the clothes you were wearing (and any other garments) and towels. Doing laundry that frequently takes a lot of time which is a hassle. The point is, though, carrying around dirty clothes is an even bigger pain in the ass. It's hard to explain, but it's like this part of your backpack/suitcase that is being wasted, or something. So when I do shower, everything that needs to be washed, is.

7) Try to pin people down on what day they want you to leave as soon as you arrive or even before you get there. Otherwise I will stay way longer than what you want.

8) Not necessary but, I have my own flatware, cup, and bowl. I will use other people's things but for some reason, having my own utensils gives me a stronger sense of identity. Also, I happen to have super nice/expensive flatware so it's a pleasure to use.

9) I rarely have time to myself (and I need time to myself -- have always had it and still need it) and have that aloneness I crave. Oh well, it's the life I live. Sometimes the isolation of hanging out in a coffee shop does the trick. When people are at work and you leave in their home alone is nice but it's not perfect. One of my friends put me up in a motel for three days. Three days of heaven!

10) A tricky thing to get across to people, especially family, it seems, is that this is not a vacation. It's you living. In my case I have music and books to write. But whatever the case they need to respect the fact that you're just using them for a place to live/internet. I always adjust my schedule to whatever socializing they seem to need but it's not always a perfect match.

11) Get your hair cut really, really short. Makes life easier. If you're a dude, go ahead and either grow out a full beard or shave frequently. Dealing with half-grown beards when you don't have your own bathroom is a pain in the ass. Overall I think being clean-shaven probably makes you look more "together" and living this kind of lifestyle sometimes those little impressions go a long way (there was this small church in South Carolina ...).

12) People have weird TV habits and you don't want to download stuff illegally using their internet. Either pony up for some kind of proxy thing, get used to watching shows via official websites, or go to public places to do your downloads. Of course you'll discover that you'll trim back your own viewing habits because it's otherwise a huge pain in the ass.

13) People also have weird eating habits and the things they think taste good on a daily basis really don't. Adapt.

14) I'm sure there's more, but, you know....
posted by bfootdav at 3:29 AM on May 10, 2013 [10 favorites]

And to answer some of OP's specific concerns. You'll always feel a little unsettled but after you've been in a place for a week or maybe 4 days, you will settle into a routine that hopefully jibes well with your host. Things actually start to feel OK.

You are an inconvenience and there's nothing you can do about that till you leave. But they agreed to give you a place to stay so you can't worry too much about how it is affecting them. I mean definitely be considerate and thoughtful, but going overboard every hour of every day to be the "perfect" guest can be just as draining on them. People seem to gravitate toward routines (that word again!), so just allow it to happen and go with that flow. It's OK to be yourself and have your own routines but just be more considerate than what you might normally do but without being too nice.

Living like this is not ideal for the host but can be done in a way that works out OK for everyone involved. Also, sometimes you need to cut your losses and leave toxic situations. I've nuked one friendship that had lasted ten years (the person was always extremely difficult anyway, but staying with her for a week proved impossible).
posted by bfootdav at 3:40 AM on May 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Get out of the house as much as you can. Not only does this make you an easier guest but it shortens the time you are 'home but not at home'. Try and make yourself scarce at times so your host gets the alone time they need, don't join for every meal etc.
If you have a space other than a sofa, anything you can do to close it off will help, even if it is just at night, a screen or a curtain will make you feel less exposed and vulnerable. Also, if you can, keep your stuff as packed up as possible, even neatly spread out stuff can take over an apartment. When it feels like you cannot stand it any more, allot money for a few nights at a hotel and kick back and relax.
posted by InkaLomax at 4:34 AM on May 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Get a powerboard if you have a few different things that you need to charge so that you aren't hogging all the outlets. You say you are only planning to take your Kindle, but if you have other electronics, I would probably rather you took up a bit more space with your own than use mine (e.g. ipad, laptop).

If you aren't getting a whole room to yourself, make sure your bag isn't too small, so that you can easily find everything in it without pulling it all out each time. Compartments, stuff cubes or net bags for organisating the bag also help. Don't pack it all in plastic bags, the rustling drives people crazy!

A small selection of medication (e.g. painkillers) if you think you will feel awkward going through someone else's bathroom cabinet in the middle of the night.
posted by AnnaRat at 4:44 AM on May 10, 2013

Definitely a pair of pajamas with pockets; For some reason I feel more 'dressed' in those while being able to sleep. Also gives you a place to put your white noise phone/app. I strongly suggest you pack a comfortable sports/soft bra you can sleep in; some of your guests might be uncomfortable with you 'swinging free' under your jammies as you pad around the house in the mornings or evenings.

Another thing would be a small nightlight; depending on my anticipated need, I'll get one that is motion sensitive and turns on if the power goes out, or one that is on all night and can double as a hand torch.

A sleeping pill option if it seems hard for you to get to sleep for a number of nights in a row, if they work for you. If you'll have a car (or an office), have a change of clothes and a small nap pillow to power nap when you can.

I'd also learn to knit or crochet. You can make oodles of scarves very simply, and they let you do something with your hands and be sociable, if your hosts want to hang and watch something and you don't but you don't want to not to. You don't even need to spend a lot on this - a couple balls of yarn and some needles and keep "undoing it" because you're "not happy with it". Or conversely, ask the hosts their favorite color, and knit a square in that color. Do it at every stop, and in a few months you'll have a quilt as a self-housewarming gift.

Maybe find an amusing card game or other-small pack or fascinating game that can be played with two or more people for something different, a game night to break out of the routine.

While I have not couch-surfed that long, I have done it for extended vacations, and have used friends and families' homes when they were not there. I generally tended to bring with me on the first night a small gift (wine, flowers, fruits, dessert, houseplant) or left something behind (breakfasty foods, breakfast food kits).

Reading through your trend of posts ... I'd also make sure to have good walking/running shoes, and when you go out to walk and run or grab healthier food (to keep up your exercise and healthy eating routine), have the name, address, and phone number of where you're staying on you (hit by a bus precautions). If you aren't familiar with the area, have a rough sketch of the main streets by which you'd get back to where you need to go, and if it's some insane cookycutter neighborhood (very common in the US) where all homes seem identical, have something you can place by the front door or gate to spot the "right" house from the street. I live in a cookyhouse and have had visitors wander off and have no idea which clone I was in.
posted by tilde at 5:26 AM on May 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

My husband and I are couchsurfing right now due to a temporary housing crisis, so here is what I can share based on your questions:

We have indeed packed exactly what you did: kindle, toiletries, towels, week's worth of clothes. We also have our laptops for regular work, a power strip, our coats (as it's still cool here), medications, and an accordion file with all of our important documents (marriage cert, passports, insurance info, etc). If we'd had the time, we would have scanned all the important docs and put them on a thumb drive, but since we evacuated quickly, we just took what we could and ran.

I've found that the three things that keep me personally most on edge about living in someone else's space temporarily are:

1) Bathroom issues. We currently have use of a guest bathroom but I don't feel like I can really "set up" in there, so everything goes in and out with me, like in college. A tote like in college dorm bathrooms would be helpful here. You might consider one. If we were actually sharing a single bathroom with our host, I think I'd use the shower at the YMCA/YWCA often.

2) Cooking/kitchen. I love to cook, and am super happy to buy food, cook it for all of us, etc. But it's less nice to have to constantly ask where cooking implements are, or assuming that the friend hosting us has everything that seems obvious, and resisting the urge to go, "seriously, you don't own a spatula?!?" I've begun to cook things that require just a bowl and a pan. When you get the lay of the land at your new temporary home, ask if you can take inventory of the kitchen so you can take part in cooking without flailing later. Or, just order take-out for everyone one night a week. Contribute to the food.

3) Cleaning. The place we're staying at doesn't keep things as clean as I do in my own home. I clean up after myself, but resist the urge to clean up after our host. It's tough.

Some other thoughts: someone above mentioned packing cubes. That's a great idea. We have this thingy that attaches to a closet rod that looks like a little shelving unit, and it collapses when not in use. It's been very useful to us and it packs flat in a suitcase.

We've also found that an Amazon Prime membership has become invaluable. We can pretty much obtain anything we need in two days' time, without having to wander around an unfamiliar area.
posted by juniperesque at 6:05 AM on May 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Something else I just thought of.

Cabinet hooks; this gives you an extra way to have your toiletries handy without being in the way. I'm a big fan of these because they nest; I use it nested for a heavy lunch bag at work or split for a small lunch bag and small purse hanger.

This towel loop might be overkill, but, you never know. The bonus is that if your hosts like them, leave them behind and order more, or offer to get them some.

Even if you don't pack in your own dishes and cutlery, have a cup for tooth brushing and night-meds taking. Easier than rummaging around, as someone pointed out above, for something you don't wish to bother or intrude upon your hosts with/for at odd hours.

Might want to get a travel pack of stain wipes or a stain pen as well; you can treat something straight away instead of letting it sit for a week. Maybe a few plastic bags and clothes pins for emergency drying or stain treatment or even hand-laundring (item, soap, water. zip bag. Shake.).

One thing I found helpful to organize myself was to have a couple of pillow cases or laundry bag/collapsible laundry baskets, if only to keep the dirties from the clean. If you'll be using professional wear, I'd ensure I cart along enough hangers and a small hand steamer, or go to the expense of using a drycleaner to rotate your clothes and keep them fresh.

Cash stash for a hotel. Might be you are fed up with your hosts and you can't swap to another place quickly (or in the middle of the night or a fight). This can be stressful, not having you space/time. Maybe plan to indulge yourself every so often with a night or weekend at a hotel. Also, a roll of coins for a coin op laundry (they have those around you?) - I find most laundry soap stinky and gicky so I either wash at home or a laundromat if I don't like what my hosts provide and/or their units are full of caked on perfumey junk.

An old book or two you could read a thousand times, and/or a puzzle book. So your hosts don't feel as though they have to entertain you (I know, opposite of the knitting - my brain is running through all of my traveling scenarios and I've been through both).

A smallish sewing kit. Doesn't have to be more than a few safety pins, threaded needles, and a teeny pair of scissors.

A small notebook and pen/pencil for middle of the night ideas.

Honestly, if I were going to do this, I'd go out and buy a big flat sheet and pillowcase (not necessarily a pillow). I'd sew the sheet up part way and make my own "sleeping bag". Or buy one, I see they are pretty cheap! Also helps if they like perfuming their laundry and you don't. If you aren't madly in love with your towel and washcloth, or don't mind the loops, sew loops onto them. Can make it easier to hang dry.

Optionally, let everyone know in advance, maybe even put together a google calendar to share; folks may want to "book you" to stay at their place for an unexpected week away to water the plants and keep it not empty.
posted by tilde at 6:16 AM on May 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think you already touched on a really important point - your general feeling of unsettledness not having your own space.

I would take some time to think about how you can settle yourself and relax in the coming couch surfing time. What are things, places, mental space, emotional connections that you require to calm down.

Theoretically, you will constantly be trying to be 'not a bother' as a guest in other people's personal space. You won't have your own bed, routines, kitchen, bathroom, internet connection, tv etc... It is hard to reach a nice mental attitude in that case.

Some ideas might be:
1. Do you clearly communicate how many nights you are at a friends?
2. Do you know when your friend is in / out? So you can be alone?
3. Are you working? Are your friends working during this time? Do you know when to be out of the way for morning routines?
4. Do you have your next 'couch' lined up? No stress about your next bed could help.
5. Do you have other friends who you know are regularly out on a specific night? Even if you aren't staying there, you can go there for a relaxing evening alone.
6. Perhaps a meditation CD can be good to close your eyes and listen to.
7. I know people who are in tight spaces together who have arranged an evening quiet time (i.e. 6 - 8 pm) when there is no talking, even if they are close together.
8. Daily routines for you - walking, exercise etc... to maintain some groundness.

anyway... good luck.

Is it the right music, food, time alone, books
posted by jazh at 8:01 AM on May 10, 2013

Are you going to be in the same general area - like, all in the same metro area? Maybe you could cultivate having "your own space" somewhere outside the places you're staying. Maybe there's a quiet room in a museum somewhere nearby that you can make "yours" for the interim.
posted by mskyle at 10:43 AM on May 10, 2013

Oh man, I did this for over a year. And I've done multiple stints here and there. I am like, a 2nd degree black belt in this shit. A lot of the stuff above is solid, but...

* Some people will want you to mostly have your own food, some people will be really upset if you do and don't share. Some people switch from one to the other after say, two weeks.

* Anything more than one big backpack is a fucking albatross. However, having somewhere else where you can keep a big sack of clothes is awesome. You don't really need anything else, but being able to rotate out your wardrobe when you do laundry, or when you feel like it makes a huge difference. Trunk of your car would work for this, or another nearby friends house.

* the single most important possessions I had were a laptop, and a nice super comfortable set of headphones

* if at all possible, get up right when they do. It doesn't matter if you stay up later than them if you're really quiet/just watching something on your laptop or surfing the Internet or reading before you pass out, but them waking up to you asleep on their couch for another couple hours will become a source of tension. This never fails. If your work schedule or theirs means this will become a regular thing, make sure you check in about it casually. Ideally, sleep in the basement/TV room/a spare bedroom/walk in closet with an old mattress in it. I can't tell you why this is such a consistent thing, but someone getting up and seeing someone else passed out on their couch days in a row somehow gets to basically everyone(ironically, including me. I'm almost hypersensitive to it now)

* spending time out of the place is good, but don't spend too much time not at the place or they'll get the feeling that you're avoiding them, just using it as a flop spot, etc. don't be there all the time either, but definitely avoid never being there. I'd also avoid spending more than like, a night every week or something not at the place. Especially if the place you're going is the house of someone you're dating, or they're going to start going "so wait, why aren't you there instead?". Even easily explainable circumstances why sound a lot more like shitty excuses and personal preference/princess shit in this context. Trust me.

* don't buy anything you don't absolutely need. Not only because you won't have anywhere to really put/keep it, but it releases varying levels of contemptonin in the person whose place you're crashing at. Run light, keep it non obvious if you buy/replace/upgrade items in your core kit/backpack.

* if you can at all avoid it, don't do this without a roll of cash or savings account. I started with $1000 and ended with 0, despite getting a job a month in. I wouldn't want to do it again without more. A million aspects of it just suck up money unless you're going super far out of your way to save everything you can and be super frugal, which makes it 1000x as miserable(IE maximum saving for a place mode which means bare minimum food, no going out and getting a cup of tea at a cafe to get out of the house, no pub for the same, etc)

* everything you pack needs to be high quality. I had a metal shelled, business grade dell laptop that easily survived several serious drops but was really cheap to get and replace. I had nice, but not super expensive sennheiser headphones with a replaceable cord. Serious jeans(if I was doing this again, I'd want like the 15oz or so gap 1969 selvedge jeans I have now. They're $30ish new on eBay and last like $100+ jeans. They also have the bonus of looking very nice and well kept), quality shirts, button downs, undershirts. Lots of quality socks. A pair of good shoes and good boots(my go-tos for lasting amazingly well are Adidas sambas, Clark's/the sketchers fake Clark's, and doc martins industrials. All can be had for $100 or less. They're all classic and presentable too). I'd sell anything fancy I could part with to buffalo exchange or on eBay/etsy right now. Some of this is what lasted, some of this is stuff that failed and I regretted. Some of it I bought twice before I realized I was boning myself and switched to something like what's on the list.

* keep ALL of your stuff in one place. It's either next to your sleeping space, or some out of the way place like the basement you're going to stash it, or you're using it. Keep a very small footprint and low profile in this regard. Don't unpack.

* if there's some thing of yours you regularly use, get your own. Even if it seems like they don't care or are in the other room not using it, this adds to the footprint in their mind of you. The exception to this is big stuff like a TV, but just use your laptop for that. Another exception, obviously, is if you guys are watching a movie together or otherwise both simultaneously using the thing.

* if the place only has one bathroom, work your schedule around only showering/shaving/etc when they are at work. Trust me, this is a huge wrinkle you can completely avoid. Make it work even if it means doing that at some fairly awkward time. Don't do it before they get up since you could cockblock their morning routine, and avoid after they go to bed unless the bathroom is separated enough they'd never hear you. This can be tough, but trust me on this one.

* if parking is tight, don't park right outside their place. Park a couple blocks away if you can. This is part of the footprint thing, again...

* don't always watch TV shows on your laptop and stuff consistently when they're there, even if they're busy and you have other social time with them. Read, work on random projects. Teach yourself some piece of software like ableton live and make music. Go ride your bike. It's very easy to seem like a bum if you're just watching stargate after dinner every day. Don't overdo passive activies. which leads me to...

* no matter how nice, awesome, considerate and good at reading the situation you are, and how predefined this arrangement was beforehand... You WILL have a conflict. It will get to them. Basically every item on this list, and several in this thread have been points for serious blowouts. And even if you cover every base of being considerate and awesome, it just will happen. People get weird about other people being in their space. Think about how basically every set of roommates at the very least have passive aggressive conflicts with eachother, and multiply that by the fact that you guys aren't really sharing this space in that way and that there's an inherent level of awkwardness for everyone involved here, in different ways. This can go from 0 to shit sandwich very, very quickly in a best laid plans of nice and men kinda way. Count on it if the stay is for more than like, one week. At the very least you will have one serious uncomfortable awkward conversation that lasts longer than its expiration date.

* finally, be ready to pull the ejection lever at any time. Be ready to leave at 2am. Know where that $40 motel near all the shifty places off the highway is, that you could get to in 10 minutes. Figure the rest out the next day. People will go back on plans, people will tell you that you have until the end of the week if they're cool, and the end of the sentence if less so. Or they'll start doing weird shit like locking you out when they go to work at 5am until they get home at 7 after doing a bunch of random shit after work and not answering their phone. Be ready to take a hint. This doesn't necessarily mean have a plan B crash spot that isn't a motel or your car(because yea, sometimes thats not an option) but at least expect it, and mentally prepare yourself.

* if at all possible have a general evacuation plan if everything goes to hell in the handbasket variety. Like, going back to your parents house out of town/state on short notice type of serious, permanent backup plan. It doesn't have to be close by if its a definite place you could crash indefinitely(even if it isn't ideal, like your parents are assholes) and a solid plan to get there. Like an envelope with the price of a plane/greyhound/boltbus/train/whatever cheap ticket to there. Or the right amount of gas money, or whatever.

* this will drain on you a lot more quickly than you think. The first week is kinda fun unless it started on an unusually bad note like your house burning down. The second starts to feel the way it really will. After a month, the constant stress and having to tip toe/kid glove/miss manners your entire life and always be thinking "but how will this seem to them?" And such REALLY starts to drain on you. More than two months is like, psychological warfare territory. Beyond that settles in to a weird march where it feels like the new normal, but it's awful. Two months is the absolute outside amount of this I'd recommend. By the end, you will be VERY done with this.

I feel like I have hours worth of advice to get on this, but I got called in to work after 3 hours of sleep and my brain is leaning towards a more "tapioca pudding" consistency than usual.
posted by emptythought at 12:26 PM on May 10, 2013 [2 favorites]

Amazing, thanks guys. Love the idea of taking a powerboard and foldable storage thingy along! And I feel much better-prepared now reading through all your experiences!
posted by Ziggy500 at 10:57 AM on May 11, 2013

Oh, i missed a big one i didn't see anywhere else in this thread. Have a big backpack and central location in their basement or whatever for all your stuff, but have a small backpack just big enough for your laptop, charger, and maybe a book and flannel/light jacket/etc. Something with maybe two compartments that's just very minimal. I picked up a very nondescript bag like this at a thrift store for almost nothing.

You definitely, definitely need something that's a sort of "shuttle pod" for a small amount of your stuff that doesn't involve hauling around all your stuff.

Make sure it can roll up real tight/small too, because you want to be able to shove it empty inside your big bag. This relates to the whole "be ready to leave at 2am" thing. You want to be able to grab everything in one trip.
posted by emptythought at 1:29 PM on May 12, 2013

also, if there's some thing of yours you regularly use,

was meant to be "if there's some thing of THEIRS you regularly use"

sure makes a lot more sense that way, doesn't it.
posted by emptythought at 1:33 PM on May 12, 2013

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