Living in Your Car
Living in your car is a tricky subject. Some people end up living in their cars due to personal troubles, and others actually prefer living in their cars because of the freedom it grants them. The important takeaway here is regardless of whether you intend to live out of your car at some stage, that knowing how to do so is a survival skill worth learning. There are a lot of things to keep in mind when surviving in your vehicle.
Knowing how to live out of your car safely and comfortably could save you if your home is destroyed in a hurricane. It could come in handy if there’s an economic collapse. It could come in handy if SHTF and you need to get on the road, fast.
If you have ever slept the night in your car because you had a little too much to drink or had to pull over on the side of the road due to exhaustion, you know how cramped it is. You also know how nerve-wracking it can be hearing cars whiz by at high speeds or hearing approaching footsteps while you try to sleep. There’s a general feeling of exposure that can keep sleep from ever actually coming.
Today we are going to learn how to live in your car (for survival) safely. We’re going to cover how (and why) you might want to live out of your car if you’re ever stuck in a post-apocalyptic scenario, the differences between using your car as a shelter in urban and wilderness environments, and in winter vs summer.
We’re also going to teach you how to maintain good hygiene, how to keep yourself reasonably entertained, how to keep up appearances so you’re not judged or shunned by society, and a few things you can do to remain as comfortable as possible. So, let’s jump right into it.
Is it illegal to sleep in your car?
Broadly speaking, no. It is not illegal to sleep in your car from the perspective of Federal law in the US. There are some cities that have made laws about this, but for the most part you’ll be fine. What you need to watch out for is that you’re not trespassing or parking illegally – obviously both these things are against the law, so even if sleeping in your car isn’t technically illegal, if you’ve broken other laws you could still land in hot water.
That being said, in most cases, the most that will happen is someone will ask you to drive away. If for example you park in the parking lot of a store, and they notice that your car has been there a long time, chances are they’ll just ask you to leave. Even if you end up interacting with law enforcement, as long as you look reasonably presentable and don’t appear to be a threat, you can just tell a story about being too exhausted to drive and needing to park somewhere to sleep for a bit. Most people will be understanding of this because it’s safer for everybody (driving while exhausted is dangerous).
Some places you might want to consider parking if you’re living out of your car:
- Walmart (technically its private property, but staff generally won’t bother you)
- Casinos (it’s normal for cars to be parked all hours of the night, plus plenty of people probably end up “sleeping it off” before driving home)
- Rest Stops
- Information Centers / Welcome Centers
- Areas Managed by the Bureau of Land Management (free camping for 14 days and up to 30 days)
Living in your car for financial reasons
We will start out with the most common reason that people end up living out of their cars. For whatever reason, you’ve had a bad streak of luck. The rent’s due, you don’t have it, and now you end up with only your car. It’s not the end of the world, though it is going to be uncomfortable. It’s also going to take a little bit of getting used to. Maybe this happened due to a financial or economic collapse, or maybe its a just your own bad luck. The point is, while this is a bad situation, you shouldn’t make it worse than it is. There are ways to live out of your car where you can survive, save, and end up back on your feet.
You also might be living in your car just to save money on rent, which is totally OK too. There’s nothing wrong with pinching pennies.
But let’s talk about the big issues you’re going to face being in your car all the time.
You should know now that boredom and loneliness are going to be some of the toughest battles you’ll face. To keep yourself sane, it’s important to have some kind of schedule. If you aren’t going to work, start taking walks. Do anything you can to stretch your legs and feel like your days aren’t wasted. This will be a huge boost for your mental health. If you need access to the internet, public libraries are great resources, and you won’t run into trouble unless you really let your own standards drop.
Stay focused and stay out of your car during the daytime. If you have money for gas, go for drives. Hang out in different neighborhoods. If possible, hang out at a friend’s place during the day, go to the park, go to the library, or hang out down by the water and do some fishing. Even if you’re living in your car in an urban environment, it’s important to spend little time in your vehicle or you’ll get cabin fever and go nuts.
Try to treat your car like a bed – it’s the place you sleep and nothing else. You wouldn’t stay in bed all day, so even if you’re living in your car, there’s no reason to stay in it all day. Get out and do stuff, be productive. It’s a place to sleep, nothing more.
Staying clean & keeping up appearances
To stay clean and maintain decent standards in terms of appearances, you are going to need access to bathrooms and running water. The best restrooms are going to be public libraries, gas stations, and fast food joints. You need to know the lay of the land wherever you end up parking. Know where the nearest bathrooms are and what time they close.
Considering you’re living in your car, you probably don’t want to pay for an expensive gym membership to go and hit the showers. If there are more affordable gym memberships available to you, take them and use the showers. One tip to keep in mind is if there is a public pool near you, a pool can be a great place to catch up on a good shower without seeming out of the ordinary, and you can generally get into the pool for about $10.
If you don’t have time or money for the pool or the gym, and if you need a place to go clean yourself up every few days, follow these instructions.
You need somewhere to go at least once a day, preferably in the morning. Any fast food place is perfect. You want to have all your stuff for self-cleaning stored in your clothing and out of sight. By going into the same restaurant every day, people will begin to recognize you as a regular without knowing your name or who you are, and this is actually good for not being bothered. Try not to look like a vagrant or pan handler. If you look relatively normal and unremarkable, people will get used to you – but not in a bad way.
If you don’t mind spending one or two dollars on a morning coffee, or a few more dollars for a full breakfast, hit the register and buy your breakfast. Sit down, eat, drink your coffee, get the daily news using the joint’s Wi-Fi, then “hit the showers.”
Have your toothbrush, toothpaste, brush, and dry cloth hidden and ready. Find the private handicap bathroom and lock yourself in. Then use the sink. You don’t need to get naked or soak yourself. Use a few wad of paper towel or a clean cloth to gently scrub yourself with the provided soap in the restroom, washing without drenching yourself. Try to avoid getting the floor too wet as well. If you plan to wash your hair, bring a hat with you to hide the fact that you went in with dry hair and exited with wet hair.
If you can’t get into a handicap/private toilet, there’s nothing wrong with brushing your teeth publicly. But if you need to “shower”, its best to wait until you have a private stall to do so.
You should also take every toilet opportunity to fill up a water bottle or two, just do it discreetly. No point in paying for water when you don’t need to. You can also use this stored water to clean yourself after dark as long as wherever you’ve parked is quiet and empty.
Staying entertained in your car
This one is actually pretty simple. We already discussed moving around and not staying in your car all the time, so we won’t go back over that. But if you do find yourself trapped in your car for long stretches of time – and this applies regardless of whether you’re in the post apocalypse or if you just missed a few rent payments – you need to stay entertained.
The daytime is fine. Read magazines, have a stockpile of books to go over, practice urban survival skills like situational awareness or wilderness skills whittling wood, work on a Rubik’s cube, keep lookout, scrounge for food, find water, listen to the radio/music/audio books. But mostly you should be outside of your car during the day like we’ve recommended.
It’s the night that will be tough. At night, you should have absolutely zero light showing from your vehicle. In a survival situation, you don’t want anyone to know you’re in there. And sorry to say it, but you’re only entertainment at night is going to be your own imagination. At most, you might be able to justify a flashlight and a book. If the rest off the world is still normal, you might be able to park somewhere with decent ambient light. Otherwise, get some rest and prepare for survival the next day.
Survival Tip: Don’t Let Others Know Your Situation
This rule applies regardless of your reasons or motivations for living in your car. Whether the world as we know it has ended, or is whether society is limping along as usual, one of your goals is to remain “invisible” in your car. Ideally, nobody knows that you’re living out of your car. It’s not illegal to do so, but you’re definitely going to attract some negative attention if people walk by and see you curled up in a sleeping bag. You’ll might be judged for being “homeless”, or maybe someone with bad intentions will see you as an easy target. In all cases, it’s best that as few people as possible know that you’re using your car as a home.
Living in your Car in “Normal” Times
If your car doesn’t have blacked-out windows, ideally you’ll want to black them out yourself. Newspaper and black paint are out of the question; people will know something is up. The best thing you can do is use car shades. These are extremely common, and nobody will think anything about the car’s windows being covered in shades, especially if it’s sunny. There are various regulations that differ state by state on exactly what kind of shades are permitted for each window – check with the store when you buy them to make sure you’re not breaking the law. The last thing you need while living out of your car is unnecessary run ins with law enforcement.
You also want to keep your supplies and valuables out of sight. Anything you don’t immediately need should be kept in the trunk. Anything that you use at night should be kept under the seats where nobody can see your gear. If you have any kind of weapon, you should keep it close at hand, generally tucked in the inside of a door so that you can grab it easily if trouble shows up. The biggest danger here is car thieves – they might not see you and break in, which puts you into a dangerous situation with a criminal. Honestly, as long as your car isn’t particularly fancy and there’s no sign of valuable stuff inside the car, you probably won’t be targeted.
You always want to keep moving. If you’ve got your car parked in a residential area day after day, somebody will notice and call the cops. Park on one street, then drive to a different neighborhood and park on a different street. Keep moving and stay nomadic. The best places to park your car are going to be campgrounds, department store parking lots, at the edge of a busy gas station, 24-hour diner parking lots, and other similar places where people won’t notice a random vehicle parked outside through the night. Finding a free place to park where you won’t be bothered will be harder in more urban environments – on the other hand, the more urban the area, the more you’ll run into late night and 24/7 businesses, so there’s definitely a trade off.
Living in your Car When SHTF
Depending on the severity of whatever caused society to collapse, there could be abandoned cars everywhere. The highways could literally be full of abandoned vehicles. There will no doubt be cars abandoned in people’s driveways, at grocery stores, in parking garages, and everywhere else.
There will also likely be dangerous survivors roaming around and trying to scrounge supplies where they can get them. If you want to keep to yourself and stay out of danger while living inside your car after TEOTWAWKI, you still need to stay invisible living in your car.
For this reason, you can definitely pick the worst-looking car imaginable. Take a baseball bat to it and fill the body with dents. Just be sure not to damage the windshield or the windows. But really do a number on your car so it looks like total garbage. People are more likely to take interest in sports cars and other expensive luxury cars. Those folks might have valuables that are worth the effort. People typically ignore garbage. If your car looks like trash, you’ll fly under the radar more.
When it comes to parking, do it somewhere out of sight. An underground parking garage may sound great, but there are probably other people thinking about congregating in the darkness of the underground to stay hidden.
In this scenario, your goal is to stay out of danger. In any post-apocalypse, the biggest danger will likely come from other people, so your goal should be to avoid getting noticed by other people. Our recommendation is to find an above-ground parking garage, somewhere on the highest level so you have a clear vantage to observe your surroundings. Chances are pretty slim of last amounts of people going up there (especially anyone who doesn’t have access to a car – who would be bothered to climb five flights of stairs for no particular reason?).
Maybe you’re living out of your car because your home was destroyed. Or maybe because the region you lived in is no longer safe. Whatever the reason, in a post-disaster situation like this, it’s going to be a free for all. You can use your car as a temporary base, but your goal should be to scavenge for resources and supplies and scout for a more permanent shelter.
The only reason you’d want to live out of your car long term is if you’re constantly on the run for some reason. In which case, scavenging for resources and tools in each place you end up in will still be a top priority.
Living in Your Car in The Wilderness
Living in your vehicle in an urban environment makes sense as a way to save money or to get through a tough situation. You can “shower” at gas stations, you can hang out in cafes and libraries to use the internet, and you can get by scrounging for food and water by drinking tap water and, (if desperate), eating scraps.
But in an urban environment, you can’t cook inside your car. You can’t start a cook fire outside your car unless you want the police to come. There’s nothing to hunt. You can never relax. Cities are stressful and busy. Living your car because you have to go to work (or you have to find work) in the city makes sense. But if you don’t have to work, why are you still in the city?
The best place to survive in your car is in the wilderness. It doesn’t even need to be in the deep woods. Any place that is more rural is ideal. In fact, there are thousands and thousands of free campsites across the country where you can park your car and just live free. Nobody will bother you, people will probably not try to harm you, and you can actually set up a tent outside of your car.
Once you’re out of the city, you’ll face a different set of challenges. You’re not going to have easy access to food, you won’t have the ability to wash yourself in restrooms, you won’t have access to tap water, and you won’t have access to electricity.
You still need to remain invisible, so you should definitely still try to keep the windows blacked-out. You also want to stockpile food, so if society is still around you will need to make trips to the supermarket for grub. Stock up on toiletries (you’ll be going in the bushes), clothing, blankets, sleeping bags, instant meals (oatmeal, dehydrated fruits and vegetables, jerky, canned soup, etc.), magazines, and other bare essentials.
The plus side is there might be wild food all around you. You might be able to trap and fish (might be illegal, but it’ll be hard to catch you if you’re in the middle of nowhere). You’ll be able to bathe in rivers or lakes. There are a new set of challenges, but also a new set of luxuries that come with living out of your car in the wilderness.
The key to surviving in your car in the wild is to treat it like a camping expedition (check here for a list of essential camping gear). Ideally you’ll have a solar charger for electricity, have a spare tire, have an extra battery, extra fuel, cooking supplies so you can cook over a fire, a tarp for catching water, a radio, a tent, a thermal sleeping bag, etc. If you’re well supplied and you know what you’re doing, you can survive for a long time in the wilderness (see our entire section on wilderness survival here and the likelihood is that nobody will bother you.
How to Live in Your Car In the Winter (vs Summer)
If you’ve found a good spot somewhere in the wild, you’ve probably made yourself a little campground, there’s likely a stream or a river nearby for bathing and drinking, and you have lots of wood for a fire. Winters can be extremely tough, but you’ll survive – and if it gets too cold, as a last resort you can always use your car as a warm shelter.
The only thing you need to remember is your car must remain functional. Don’t leave it sitting when the cold sets in, as your battery will definitely die. Always run your car at least a few minutes a day to keep the battery charged and the oil unfrozen. Also, keep a surplus of gas. Hide a few canisters in your surroundings (somewhere safe). If there’s ever a major storm or a blizzard or something, the maneuverability could prove helpful..
Winter in the city will be a whole different ball game. If you thought sleeping in your car was already uncomfortable, wait till it’s freezing outside. Without the benefit of a fire, you’ll need very warm clothing and a warm sleeping bag. And don’t kid yourself, it’s going to be miserable.
You can keep up with the same routine you had during summer, bathing in restrooms and spending lots of times sitting inside diners and fast food places. In the right places, it doesn’t cost more than a dollar for a coffee and you can sit for as long as you want. The biggest issue is going to be keeping your car running throughout the winter, especially if you aren’t using it much. Do all the normal stuff you’d do to keep a car running in the winter. The last thing you want is to be unable to operate your vehicle because of neglect.
This is why you need to keep tools handy and you should ideally have some level mechanical expertise if you’re going to commit to living in your car for any extended period of time. Things freeze, things break, and batteries get drained. Warmth is easy enough with clothing, but you having some mechanical knowledge will be extremely valuable if you want to keep your car mobile.
But as we said before, if you’ve got no particular reason to be in the city, simply drive somewhere warmer. Stay in the country where it’s relatively sparse and safe, and treat yourself to a fireplace in the cold winter nights.
Living in Your Car for Survival: Final Thoughts
In our modern society, living in a car can be an absolute nightmare. That’s the hard truth. It’s cramped, uncomfortable, cold (to the point where it can be dangerous) in the winter, and dull. But it can be done. Stay warm with blankets, heavy clothing, and sleeping bags; take advantage of gas stations and cheap restaurants; remain hidden; and seek the wilderness when possible. Surviving in your car is all about being smart and using your resources properly. If you’re going through a rough patch and drowning, living out of your car for a few months can give you the financial flexibility to get back on your feet. For a post-apocalyptic scenario, living in a car can keep you safe, mobile, and under the radar. Unless you’re on the run, it shouldn’t be a long term solution, but you can use your car as a base while you get to know the lay of the land.
If you can build up the confidence in your ability to live out of your car for an extended period, then the prospect of not being able to pay rent or your mortgage stops being such an life-destroying prospect. Is it difficult? Yes. Is it impossible or wrong, or something to be embarrassed about? No. This site is all about survival, and if living out of your car is what needs to happen in order for you to survive, then it’s what you should do.