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How to Live In Your Car Comfortably for a Few Weeks

For many, van life has evolved beyond short-term escape into a legitimate way of living more minimally and sustainably.

If spending endless days traversing the country on four wheels sounds appealing, we’ve put together a starter kit of essential tips and gear. Here’s everything you’ll need to stay safe, sane, and happy when you choose to live out of your car for a little while, whether you’re trying to embrace the van life fully or just planning an extended road trip.

How to Get a Good Night’s Rest

We’ll assume that sleeping outside of your car isn’t really an option (if it is, then we suggest buying a tent). Maybe you don’t have the available space, you can’t afford nightly campground fees, or you just really hate bugs. The backseat of most stock cars is not made to sleep comfortably or quietly. They’re bumpy, lumpy, and the seatbelts are bound to dig into places seatbelts weren’t meant to go.

Your best bet is to invest in a decent camp mattress. There are two main options: inflatable or foam. The former is best for saving space as you can deflate and stow it out of the way during the day. The downside is that you’ll need to reinflate it every night and it’s as comfortable as sleeping on a pool float. A foam mattress is often softer and more comfortable. However, they tend to sleep “hot” (which is even more of a problem should you need to sleep with the windows up), and they take up space even when not in use. No matter the time of year, don’t forget a four-season blanket. The Rumpl Puffy Down Blanket is a duck-down-filled champ that’s just as comfortable in the heat of summer as the dead of winter.

Relaxing in the back of a car on a mattress
Getty Images

Spend any considerable time living out of your car, and you discover nighttime ventilation is as critical to a good night’s sleep as your mattress choice. Skeeter Beaters are vehicle window screens that attach to the exterior of your car’s door frame and allow you to keep the windows down overnight. Just keep in mind that they don’t protect against rain or theft.

Lastly, sleeping in your car can be surprisingly noisy, especially if you’re not set up in a campground with quiet hours and the like. Unless you’re an extremely heavy sleeper, we recommend investing in good earplugs. Mack’s Ultra Soft Foam Earplugs are a perennial favorite — they’re inexpensive, comfortable, and reduce ambient noise by up to 32 decibels when worn properly.

Tips for Cooking on the Road

Your camp kitchen is the one area that can quickly get out of control if you let it. It’s tempting to pack every conceivable pan, dish, utensil, and tool that you might need. Keep it simple. Take only one of everything, focusing on items that can pull double- or triple-duty. A decent mug, for example, can be used for soup, cereal, and coffee without the need to pack a separate vessel for each. Sporks are versatile and can replace a handful of utensils and other plasticware. The Titanium Spork from Light My Fire is lightweight, indestructible, and non-corrosive.

GSI Outdoors Pinnacle Backpacker Cookset Lifestyle
GSI Outdoors/Facebook

For cookware, we recommend two all-in-one sets. GSI Outdoors’ entire line of camp gear is ultra-portable and well-made. The Gourmet Kitchen Set 11 includes all the cookware — spoon, spatula, cutting board, scraper, whisk, and condiment containers — you need to cook almost any basic meal. The two-person Pinnacle Backpacker Cookset includes just about everything else. The compact, nesting set features a two-liter pot, a Teflon-coated frypan, a strainer lid, insulated mugs with sip-through lids, bowls, and a folding pot handle.

Of course, even more important than clean clothes and hot meals is access to a cup (or six) of morning coffee. For pure convenience, we like Starbucks VIA Instant Coffee. The single-serve packets require only hot water and a vessel to serve it in. Stir and enjoy. For a proper cup of espresso on the go, the Nanopresso Personal Espresso Machine is the closest thing you’ll find to homebrew. It does require a bit more work and maintenance, but the payoff is a good cup of espresso. So, there’s that.

How to Stay Clean on the Road

Showering is arguably more important when you’re living out of your car than at home. Not only is it key to, you know, staying clean, but it’s a simple way to refresh and feel human again. Road Shower is hands-down our favorite campside shower solution. It’s a 10-gallon, powder-coated aluminum tube that mounts to almost any automotive roof rack. The clever design relies on solar power to heat the water, and the attached hose delivers a pressurized stream wherever you need it. It’s ideal for up to six showers, washing dishes, keeping your pets clean, and more. The downside? It’s $500.

summer shower
Advanced Elements

For a cheaper option, invest in a solar shower. The Advanced Elements Solar Summer Shower holds five gallons of water and hangs anywhere reasonably sturdy like off your roof rack or an open hatchback. The gravity-fed hose doesn’t deliver the same ultra-cleaning blast of water as the Road Shower. But, at less than $30, it’s a solid alternative.

How to Keep Your Drawers Clean

Doing laundry while camping at a full-service campground can prove challenging, let alone keeping your drawers clean while living out of your car. The best solution we’ve found is Scrubba. It’s a purpose-built dry bag with a built-in washboard designed to give your laundry a machine-quality wash in less than ten minutes. As you might expect, it takes a little elbow grease (think Little House on the Prairie), but it’s a small price to pay for not smelling like an old-timey railway hobo. For go-anywhere, biodegradable laundry detergent, check out Campsuds (bonus: the concentrated solution is safe on dishes and your skin as well).

Stow Your Essentials

Even a full-sized car will start to feel cramped when you’re living in it. Storage becomes incredibly difficult, but keeping everything organized is the only way to ensure you don’t spend hours every day trying to find your snacks or socks.

Relaxing in the back of a car on a mattress
Mountainsmith

The Mountainsmith Modular 4 Hauler System is a deceptively simple set of packing cubes that keeps all your essentials right where you left them. Each cube in the set is color-coded, allowing you to sort, for example, clothing, kitchen, automotive supplies, and toiletries/first-aid gear into their own space.

The cheapest alternative — and one we’ve found surprisingly effective — is to use a few milk crates. They’re sturdy, ubiquitous, and stack neatly. Plus, they’re virtually free if you know where to look.

Get Some Fresh Air

If you have the outside space, setting up a makeshift “living room” can make all the difference in your car living experience. We love the Yakima SlimShady Awning. It collapses down into a tight roll that attaches to almost any roof rack. Once unfurled, it provides 42 square feet of shaded space — ample room for a couple to relax in a campground or even a parking lot. The lightweight nylon canopy is also sturdy and waterproof, so it’s just as useful in light rain.

The Neso 1 from Neso Tents is another great alternative. While they’re primarily billed as beach tents, the lightweight, stakeless sun shades setup easily just about anywhere. Plus, they stow inside a compact, 19.5-inch carry bag and cost less than half as much as the SlimShady.

If you’re planning on roughing it off-grid, it’s worth investing in a decent hatchet. Everyone’s favorite tool is often more versatile and useful than a traditional multitool.

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