Help me live out of my car!
June 3, 2007 1:15 PM   Subscribe

I'm about to live out of my car for about two months. What tips or tricks should I know before doing this?

I'm going to spend the summer doing research and I'll be travel around and living out of my car. I have places to stay so I won't be sleeping IN the car, but my stuff will largely be stored in the trunk, and I'll be moving around pretty frequently (2/3 times a week or more). Essentially, I'm going to be a road warrior on wheels.

I've heard lots of really helpful tips and tricks for road warriors who fly a lot. Things like storing your travel toiletries in clear plastic bags so you can see what you have and so when something explodes you can clean it up easily. Taking certain things on board so that you can live if your luggage doesn't come through etc. But I'm wondering if there are any car specific suggestions. Because obviously I can carry more and I'll be traveling for longer.

Have any mefi's done this sort of thing? Car camping? Extended (several week long) road trips? Crazy researchers trying to get interviews all over the place?

How do I organize things? What do I need to be concerned about (theft/locking myself out of the car)? How did you balance the fact that you were carrying stuff for a long time but you don't want to bring EVERYTHING? Is there a good way to carry clothes in the trunk of a car (ie is a suitcase better than a box/duffel bag)? Laundry on the road? Any thoughts on buying groceries? Would a cooler be a useful or just bulky thing to have?

Any thoughts or advice would be useful! Thank you!
posted by mulkey to Travel & Transportation (23 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
well, don't pack much of anything you can replace along the way--toiletries, etc.

i imagine a suitcase will keep your clothes in better shape to wear than a duffel.

here's my super no-iron trick: bring an empty spray bottle, fill it with water at your destination, hang up tomorrow's clothes the night before, and spritz with water. smooth out the wrinkles with your hands and let hang all night long. in the morning, everything will look great.

you might want to bring a sleeping bag if your destination doesn't have desirable bedding.
posted by thinkingwoman at 1:32 PM on June 3, 2007 [1 favorite]

One tip I can provide for driving around is to keep a ziploc bag with maybe $10-$20 in silver lying within easy reach for toll roads and such, and to not touch that money for anything BUT tolls (no Red Bulls, no beef jerky).

Depending on the size of the wardrobe you plan on carrying with you, I'd suggest one of those Rubbermaid storage bins for your trunk where you keep the bulk of your clothes (large but shallow, so it's not taking up unnecessary trunk space), plus a duffel you can keep reloading out of that bin, plus a laundry bag in which you only keep the dirty clothes. It's easier to go from couch-to-couch on the road if you're just slinging a duffel over your shoulder, as opposed to bringing a gargantuan suitcase in and out of your trunk each time.

Just some thoughts - good luck, it sounds like fun.
posted by peacecorn at 1:34 PM on June 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

I do road trips where 5000 miles in a week is nothing. When I'm doing these solo, I keep stuff I need at a moment's notice - the camera, maps, CD wallet - on the front passenger's seat or the passenger's footwell. Almost all of these trips have been in vehicles with bucket seats, so I place something I don't need ready access to in the rear right footwell and place the mini cooler on top of that, so I can reach and grab a soda with ease. I sleep in the car, usually, so sleeping gear - bag, pillow, hat if it's cold - go directly behind me, and shove over a little when I tilt the seat back to prepare for bed.
The trunk is to lock the camera and such when I leave the car, and extra room for the cases of beer I usually bring home. I try to keep my clothes to one duffel bag, with everything stacked vertically.

Other things: Keep a towel handy- if you spill your drink; or take a bite of rotten apple, spit it out, and get slobber on your shades; or many other things arise, you'll need it quick. Have at least two flashlights, and one of those headlamp thingies. The headlamp should be hung over the rearview mirror so you can read maps at night.

Those Rand McNally atlasses are great. So are truck stops. So are wet-naps, which help you cut down on shower necessity. Make sure your spare tire is full and the jack tools are all there. Hell, practice changing a tire before you leave.

You can survive on string cheese, Clif bars, beef jerky, Red Bull and water for much longer than your taste buds can go without getting bored. Drink a lot of water (keep a couple gallons in the trunk, and fill up your Camel back or nalgene bottle as needed). Do a few pushups every time you stop. Make sure every electronic device you have can somehow be plugged into the cigar lighter, or pick up a power inverter. Cell phones make great alarms. Take two pairs of shoes, and some sandals that can get wet (then you can wash up, soapless style, in rivers).
posted by notsnot at 1:45 PM on June 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

Keep a towel handy- if you spill your drink; or take a bite of rotten apple, spit it out, and get slobber on your shades; or many other things arise, you'll need it quick. Notsnot is a frood who really knows where his towel is.

I really wanted to say that. But also, join the Auto Club.
posted by Methylviolet at 2:10 PM on June 3, 2007

posted by mendel at 2:26 PM on June 3, 2007

Rubbermaid lidded tubs are 10x better in your trunk than suitcases and conventional luggage, for staying organized, and still being easy to take into places when you need to do so. You can get them, or Sterlite or other brands, in various sizes, and in clear or opaque plastic. Clear is better for identifying stuff without opening tubs needlessly. They're dust proof, water proof, and clean easily, at any car wash, if something gets spilled or broken in them. Most stack, neatly and securely, if you want to drop them off for a couple of days, somewhere on the way. With some duct tape for closure, they even make decent bus shipping containers, if push comes to shove.

Bungee cords or cargo nets in your trunk make a big difference in keeping things where they are supposed to be, if you're dealing with lots of small stuff. And in a SUV, minivan, or station wagon, they're, literally, life savers.

Small coolers are great, by yourself. Big coolers only encourage buying more food and ice than the hassle they create is worth. I take two small six pack coolers on long road trips - one for drinks, one for sandwich stuff (small jar of mayo, cheese, pickles, lunch meat). Some bread and chips, a little fruit, and maybe some yogurt, and I've got breakfast, lunch and dinner out of any Quick Stop on the road, if needs be.

Take an hour or two a week for vehicle maintenance, and repack, intentionally. Try to lighten your load, whenever you can. Driving around with a ton of stuff you barely need is hard on your car, cuts tire life, and costs you gas and brake wear. Keeping your car clean, vacuumed, and windows washed, while living out of it, makes life a lot better.
posted by paulsc at 2:47 PM on June 3, 2007

I do motorcycle camping regularly. I've traveled for up to a week on a motorcycle, covering 500+ miles a day and typically camping.

Things I've learned from other motorcycle people: Compartmentalize. Have everything in a bag. And be neat, stick to your system. Bring more than you think you need, and do things like cleaning clothes ahead of when you think you need them. That way it's not absolutely essential to stop and wash clothes on day 5, you can go for a few more days.

Stop and take breaks during the day. Fatigue creeps up on you before you know it. Stop and make use of the picnic areas and scenic turnouts, especially on long roads.
posted by SpecialK at 3:13 PM on June 3, 2007

The key for me was to bring less stuff and keep it fairly organized. Those little camping towels that dry fast are great, and keep you from having to deal with a damp towel. If your shoes tend to stink, baby powder helps. I did laundry in the sink every night with Dr. Bronners soap, but I had to, since I only had three t-shirts.

Gatorade powder is a cheap way to improve water and keep from buying sodas. Dehydrated lentil curry soup and instant oatmeal can be mixed with free hot water from gas stations for quick, easy meals. But I recommend bringing a camping stove -- the year I didn't have mine, I spent more money at restaurants, more time eating in gas station parking lots, and less time eating at beautiful scenic overlooks. :)

I wrote a longer post about my car camping recommendations here.
posted by salvia at 3:14 PM on June 3, 2007

Get a membership to a gym that has many locations. You can get exercise and use the showers.

Buy lots of protein bars. No refrigeration required and they're healthy.
posted by HotPatatta at 3:19 PM on June 3, 2007

Compartmentalize. Group things not so much by purpose as by frequency of use. I had a pillow that I travelled with, for instance, that had my pajamas and toothbrush stuffed into it, so if I arrived someplace late and exhausted, I could grab it and get inside and crash without unpacking and repacking my bag. You want modular. Box of food, box of car equipment, box of ready-to-go stuff [like notsnot says -- important essentials], special event stuff (fancy outfit, hiking boots) and maybe one big duffel of clothes that you can decant into a smaller few-day pack. Have one set of camping dishes and wash them often. Bowl, fork, spoon, plate, mug, non-breakable. Keep a roll of paper towels for cleaning out the car or mopping up spills.

Get a small cooler (agree with paulsc, small is the way to go) and a freezer pack and bring the freezer pack in with you at night. Keep small tupperwares in it (cheese? salami?) and a drink or two. Have a ton of trash bags inside some little bag and toss them out as often as you can. NEVER leave food waste in the car overnight or over a hot day. Keep a few protein bars in the glove box or someplace in case you're miles form noplace and starving. Get a good atlas and tape blank pieces of paper over the front and back covers and use it for a calendar system or for taking notes.

Have a way to cover up or hide valuables when you're not in your car. Nothing says "hey there's loot in here" like someone with a car full of worldly posessions, try to minimize the hobo appearance and at the very least keep everything below the level of your windows.

Drink enough water so that you have to stop for pee breaks, but also make sure you keep your salts up so you don't sweat it all out (miso soup? salty crackers?). Take pictures and make sure you have some non-driving non-people time to sort of unwind, it's easy to make the journey the only destination and then you don't actually stop at other destinations. I've done this many times. Email is in my profile if you'd like to chitchat more. Have fun.
posted by jessamyn at 3:26 PM on June 3, 2007 [2 favorites]

> Get a membership to a gym that has many locations. You can get exercise and use the showers.

Hard to beat YMCA for this in terms of price and number of locations (2600).
posted by underwater at 3:30 PM on June 3, 2007

Response by poster: Awesome! Many of these I wouldn't have thought of otherwise. Great ideas.

Keep em coming!
posted by mulkey at 4:40 PM on June 3, 2007

I'd highly recommend using a blanket or tarp to cover everything up. Having lots of stuff visible will just entice someone to break into your car.
posted by lubujackson at 6:59 PM on June 3, 2007

This guy was homeless and lived out of his car for years and wrote up all his tips and tricks. I've read the blog a few times and found it very well written with many very intelligent tips and tricks.

Some examples, use dry cleaners as your closet. They'll hold your clothes for a month.

A car cover is an excellent idea. It'll prevent people from peeking in your windows at night and cops from hassling you.
posted by lockle at 7:18 PM on June 3, 2007

I lived out of a car for a couple of months. After a few days, you'll figure out the best configuration of your stuff for you. Bring a lot of books. After a while, watching TV in hotel rooms gets old.

AAA is a godsend. The maps, the guidebooks and the roadside services all came in handy.

If you're going to be in rural or remote areas, consider getting a full-sized spare tire. Many cars come with doughnut spares that are only supposed to go about 30 miles, tops. With a full-sized spare, you'll be able to get back to town from the middle of nowhere.

Make mix CDs or ipod playlists, lots of them, of your favorite tunes.

For laundry, go to laundromats. They exist in every town, city or village with a population of more than 1,000.

If you'll be in Oregon or New Jersey, don't pump your own gas. It's against the law.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 8:05 PM on June 3, 2007

AAA gold = free maps, free guidebooks, free towing to wherever, free roadside assistance, etc. I have absued my membership forever. They're like the proverbial friend-with-benefits. You get all the good stuff for very little ($75/year, I think) in return. OOh... Did I just make AAA sound like a prostitute?
posted by santojulieta at 8:18 PM on June 3, 2007

Get one of those bead things for the driver's seat that taxicab drivers love. You'll thank me at the end of summer.

Have the car detailed before you leave. Don't start out with a funny smell -- there will be plenty of that later on. Stay organized, don't let trash accumulate, clean up daily. Bring Febreze. Car seats just seem to be a funny-odor magnet.

Treat the windows with Rain-X before you leave, and get fresh rubber inserts for your windshield washers. Use an anti-fog mat on the inside windows, too. The more time you spend in your car the more humid it gets.

If you're going to be using the AC, make sure it works properly and doesn't smell funny before you leave. There are a number of remedies including bleach for malodorous ACs, depending on what your problem is.

Try to plan ahead for getting robbed, just in case. Use copies of your favorite CDs instead of the originals. Have an emergency kit at home a relative can send you. Back up any electronic stuff before you leave and during your trip -- losing "insubstantial" things like photographs or files can be much more grievous than losing the (replaceable) device itself. You can get lockable steel boxes that you can bolt into your trunk for things like computers and cameras. Yes, they can get into your trunk, easier than you think. I don't know that many trunk locks can really withstand a quick yank with a crowbar. Pay attention to where you park.

Have all your car, ID, and equipment information recorded and safe someplace, both at home and on the road. Be ready to make that stolen-credit-card series of calls.
posted by dhartung at 9:09 PM on June 3, 2007

Bring lots of socks and don't be afraid to throw them away rather than keep them around (stinking up the car, hotels, hosts' houses) until you can wash them. Seriously, you can find really cheap ones.
posted by GPF at 9:57 PM on June 3, 2007

On the lost wallet aspect: Color Photocopy the contents of your wallet: all cards, IDs, etc... Make them all legible and big, makes it easy to know who to call about what.

I used to always keep two hundred bucks in twenties stashed inside a seat (any hiding place) - both to keep myself from spending it until/when I really needed it, and to keep it from getting stolen.

Good luck.
posted by From Bklyn at 12:56 AM on June 4, 2007

I can't believe no one has mentioned this yet, but get a first aid kit. Target has one that's prepackaged for cars with everything you need. I believe Johnson & Johnson sells one too.

In addition to the first aid kit, bring a plastic dispenser of Wet Ones (those handi-wipe things), a box of alcohol swabs, and a container of toddler wipes. This is a grand total of about $7, but when you need them they are there.

Although you have a place to stay, you have no home base. You may be subjecting your body frequently to food it isn't used to, and idiosyncratic cooking. If you suddenly get diarrhea an hour into the Smokey Mountains or wherever you are going, you're screwed.

In addition, bring stuff your car may need. If you are going anywhere rural or travelling long distances between the places you are staying, you want to ensure you can get there before nightfall.

Get your car checked - fluids, oil change, battery checked, alternator checked, tires checked, spare checked.

Consider a GPS.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:56 AM on June 4, 2007

Since you mentioned locking yourself out of the car, one thing that occurred to me was having someone on tap who has a spare key (but not your only spare key!) and can overnite it to you.
posted by altcountryman at 10:54 AM on June 4, 2007

Don't cover a big pile of stuff in the back up with a blanket, it makes it look like there are valuable items under there.

Wire a key up underneath the car where you can crawl underneath and get it if you have to.

Bring plenty of water, extra fluids for the car, and a 12v air pump. Know what to do with these.

Hide some cash very well in the car, just in case.

Fill a small bag at the car with the things you need to bring in for the night, especially if you are a guest in someone's home. If you are a guest, bring small gifts to give to your hosts.

Get a cheap styrofoam cooler, if you don't find it useful give it away.
posted by yohko at 4:12 PM on June 4, 2007

Oh, yeah, and General Delivery mail. This might've changed since terrorism became a big deal, but when I was traveling, I got all my mail by figuring out the next town I'd be in and telling people to mail me at "My Name / General Delivery / City, State ZIP." They hold it until you get to the post office.
posted by salvia at 11:14 PM on June 4, 2007

« Older Gag me with a spoon, or with my own uvula   |   Slide guitar in that antipot add... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.