guide to living in a car

Wanna travel far? Need to travel cheap? Wanna be in control of your own destiny? The best way to accomplish this is living in a car. We here at Travelin’ Stiles aren’t afraid to say that our favorite travel has been when we’ve had our own vehicle. Getting your own wheels allows you to see parts of the countryside that most people fly over or blow past.

Traveling by car long term is a beautiful thing, but living in a car is not as easy as it sounds. Just as backpackers carry everything they need on their back, car dwellers have everything they need in their car. This may sound easier, but you have to remember, car dwellers also have to carry their ‘kitchen’, ‘bedroom’, ‘electricity’, etc. Like anything in life though, with a little know-how and a dash of effort, you can make living in a car an incredible experience.

Our all-time favorite home was a 1996 Mitsubishi Magna station wagon. There was absolutely nothing luxurious about that home, but it provided the greatest freedom of our lives.

Here’s the Travelin’ Stiles Big 5 Guide to Living in a Car:

Follow these 5 tips and you’ll be living the dream on the highways and byways of wherever you wanna explore!

1) Know what kind of trip you’re going on.

This might seem obvious, but it’s important to know where you’re going and what you’ll be doing so you can get the right kind of vehicle for your adventure.  What sort of activities will you be doing? What kind of terrain will you be crossing? How far will you be driving? Will you be sleeping in the vehicle? Will you be self catering?

These are some of the questions that will help you determine what’s in your “kit”. When I talk about “kit”, I’m talking about these 2 aspects:

Your car

guide to living in a car jucy NZYour car will become your everything – your transport, your home, the one thing you cannot live without. The type of car you get will define the type of trip you have. We’ve lived in a Jucy campervan, a station wagon and even a little hatchback, so we know the benefits and limitations of the full spectrum of vehicles. What’s most important to you? 

If comfort and space are most important to you, a campervan or motorhome is your best bet. But if you want to go off-road, you need to get a high clearance 4WD. Or if you are comfortable giving up some space and comfort in exchange for awesome gas mileage, consider a station wagon or even a hatchback (this may require some customization).

Know how much room you’ll need for your gear, what the sleeping configuration will be, and what you car’s capabilities and limitations are.

Your gear

What are you going to be doing? What kind of equipment do you need? Do you need a gear rack or roof storage? Don’t let your gear weigh you down – find out what you absolutely need and leave the rest at home.

Currently we have a tiny hatchback, so we sleep in a tent. In addition to the tent, we have sleeping bags, sleeping mats, and travel pillows. We’re traveling through places where eating out is cheap so we eat a simple breakfast, grab cold cuts from a market for lunch, then eat out for dinner. This means we don’t need kitchen gear. When we were living in Australia eating out was too expensive. We needed an ice chest, camp stove, pots & pans, utensils, etc. All that extra gear took up quite a bit of room and required a lot of organization.

**Bonus tip: You’re living in a car. Don’t start out loaded to the max! Save some room in case you realize you’re missing something. Like when we added folding scooters to our kit so we could get around cities quicker and cheaper.**

2) Everything must have its place & be kept clean

This is the only way to stay comfortable and stress free. I would have put it at #1 except first you have to know what you’ll have with you before you can decide where it should live.

The reason this is sooooooooooo important is because you’re working with a very small space, and everything in your “kit” is important in your daily life. If each precious item in has its own place, you are exponentially lowering the chance for misplacing anything. Besides, chances are you’re not going to be road trippin’ alone, so being able to clearly communicate where things are at any given time will lower frustration and keep you liking each other.

While traveling in our beloved station wagon, Paz (named for the huge peace sign☮ the previous owner had painted on the hood). We had a ‘kitchen’, ‘pantry’, cooler, a bedding bag, and our two pieces of luggage. Since we slept inside the car, we had two distinct setups – a day/driving mode and a night/sleep mode. The Transformers-esque turnaround was done the same way every single night and reversed the same way every single morning. Everything got moved to the front seats, we rolled out our sleeping mat, then busted out our sleeping bags. Every last piece of our “kit” was always in it’s place – otherwise we would have gone crazy searching for things or trying to make things fit correctly. Without the little bit of added effort at the beginning and end of each day, life would have been chaotic.

It’s important to remember that your car is your bedroom, your bedroom is your kitchen, and your kitchen is your transportation. Living in a car is a crazy life, so you can understand why it’s so important to stay organized. It’s just as important to keep things clean. You would be surprised how quickly a car/kitchen/bedroom can get dirty. No one likes living in filth, so do yourself a favor, clean your dishes right away, shake out your floor mats everyday, don’t let trash pile up, and give your new most prized possession a wipe down every once in a while.

3) Be prepared, but not over prepared

guide to living in a car preparednessIf you’re a budget backpacker like us, you’re probably not going to be cruising around in a fancy motorhome with every possible tool or amenity for all situations.  Unless you’re really delving into the wilderness, you probably don’t need jerry cans with extra fuel. Be realistic in your preparation. It’s frustrating to have things that never get used, but not as frustrating as needing something you don’t have. Be absolutely sure to have a good map and/or a reliable GPS. Google Maps is great, but they don’t always warn you when they’re sending you down a dirt path. Don’t be afraid to ask locals for road conditions and the best routes. Know the local emergency numbers. Have a working mobile phone – even if only for emergencies. This all sounds like “no duh!” advice, but you’d be surprised at how many people get themselves into bad situations, simply out of unpreparedness.

Being prepared also means keeping your car in working order. If your tires are balding, invest in new ones. If your brakes are bad, replace them. Make sure you have good wiper blades. I’m not talking about an entire engine rebuild, just the basics to keep things running smooth. And don’t be cheap about basic maintenance like oil changes. Keeping your car in good working condition will help give you peace of mind, and keep you moving.

Like any investment, you get out of it what you put into it. All this extra work of keeping the car clean and in working order becomes extra important if you’ve purchased a vehicle that you’re planning on selling at the end of your journey. If you’ve got a nice clean car, in working order (with proof of regular maintenance), you’re going to have an easier time selling it. We put a bit of money into making our car perform better and having a more comfortable sleeping and cooking situation. When it came time to selling the car, we made our investment back and then some. Think of it like flipping a house.

4) Kitchen and Cooking

How you are you going to cook? Where are you going to store food? Do things need to be refrigerated? 

guide to living in a car in new zealandThese are things that probably aren’t as big of a concern to those with a campervan or motorhome. But, for those living in a smaller car, that doesn’t come equipped with a kitchen, this can be a daily concern. When we traveled Australia by car, we had fill our ice in our cooler daily. We quickly learned that freezing water bottles (if you have access to freezers at caravan parks or hostels) stayed cold longer and without a watery mess.

Now that we’re in a tiny car, we don’t have room for a cooler, so we just shop for that day’s food each day. We have a few favorites things that won’t go bad fast and don’t need to refrigeration. Some of our favorite foods for living in a car include peanut butter-banana-honey sandwiches, spam-egg-cheese sandwiches, and salami & cheese. 

**Tip: Lots of supermarkets have a section or bin for items that are close to their sell by date. If you can consume it before it truly goes bad, treat yourself to the half price items.**

5) Travelin’ Tip: Take it Slow!

guide to living in a car USTaking it slow and allowing time for unexpected detours is the beauty of a road trip. This is, after all, the reason you’ve decided on living in a car in the first place. A huge advantage of having a car and carrying your home with you is that when you get to an amazing spot, you don’t have to rush off. On the flip side, if you get somewhere and you hate it, you can move on until you find a place you do like.

You’ve made your journey as important as your destination. Enjoy! Don’t be afraid to stop for little hikes out to waterfalls or viewpoints. Next time you’re driving down the highway and are like, “Hey, that’s a huge Mango – let’s get a photo with it!” Do it! Slow it down and take it all in! Literally stop and smell the roses. Enjoy the true freedom of living in a car!

Some of this guide to living in a car might seem obvious, but if you keep it simple and stick to these tips you’ll be on the road to a great trip…literally….on the road…get it?

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