5 Things You Should Know Before Living in a Van (or Car)

5 things to know living in a car

A few years ago I got hooked on tiny houses. I wanted to build one but had no idea where to even begin. That’s when I stumbled upon vanlife. Instead of building a tiny house, I could convert anything on wheels into a dwelling space and live wherever I drove it.

There was one teeny tiny problem with this revelation. 

The #vanlife trend on social media took off and with it, prices. While there are a plethora of videos out there of ways you can frugally build out a van, it still isn’t cheap. Before you do any DIY interior designing a good van can run you tens of thousands of dollars right off the bat. 

If you don’t have that much cash in the bank, building out a full van conversion might seem out of reach. Rather than convert a van I opted to live in an unconverted Subaru Outback instead. I thought I could get the #vanlife experience and travel the country without the up-front cost of building out a van. I’m really glad I did this instead. 

There are a few things you should know before living in a van or car conversion. While a bigger van or better amenities might seem like the solution, there are some problems that are beyond your control. Social media only shows you snippets of what it’s like to live on the road. Behind the scenes, it’s less glamorous. You can save yourself time and a lot of money by first figuring out if van — or car — life is actually for you.

You Might Develop New Forms of Anxiety

One thing I was not expecting when I hit the road was coping with new forms of anxiety. Seven months into my journey I developed one of the worst psoriasis flare ups I’ve ever had. My diet had gone south and I was feeling stressed about money. These were contributing factors but I also think new forms of anxiety from living on the road played a role too.

Anxiety Trying to Find a Place to Park at Night

Unless you rent a campsite or are doing vanlife in an area you’re familiar with, chances are you’ll be searching for a new parking spot every single night. This gets old really fast, especially when you land in communities that aren’t exactly amenable to vehicle dwellers. 

Before I hit the road I didn’t pay much attention to municipal restrictions on overnight parking. I didn’t even know it was illegal to live in your car in some places (ahem San Antonio). Once I started traveling I quickly discovered my mere presence was a crime. Talk about anxiety inducing for a law abiding gal like me!

Every night I went to bed dreading being awoken by a cop knocking on my window asking me to move. Fortunately this only happened three times in a 9-month period. It wasn’t the fear of a cop literally knocking on my window that scared me, it was the likelihood said cop would ask me to move. If that happened, where would I go? In an unfamiliar place this is unsettling, especially if you have to drive around in the middle of the night looking for a new place to park. 

I used the iOverlander app to find many of my parking spots. The app is crowdsourced by other vehicle dwellers who create a log of their experiences. Some locations shared in the app aren’t legal — like parking in a pull out on someone’s property — and many locations on the map haven’t been updated in years. 

One night I used iOverlander to find a pull out near Sequoia National Park where a few other vans were also parked. Just before the sun set a park ranger with the Army Corps of Engineers pulled up and nailed a no camping sign into the pull out (the Army Corps conveniently managed a paid campsite right down the road and recommended we move there). In an area like this with limited cell reception, it can be anxiety-inducing to be forced to abruptly find a new place to park (fortunately I found one at a gas station a few miles away).

A ranger talking to a fellow van dweller after posting a no camping sign.

I wouldn’t try to find a new place to sleep every night. Instead, I would find a community where van dwelling is ok and hang out there for a while. I found this in Silicon Valley. It’s notoriously expensive and the municipal laws there allow overnight vehicle dwelling. I spent several nights parked next to Google’s campus along with several other RVs, vans, and cars. Finding a “designated” area to park in where you know you won’t be disturbed can mitigate the stress of driving into an unknown location every night.

Anxiety from New Sounds

When you live in an uninsulated vehicle there is only a thin layer of metal and plastic separating you from the outside world. There are new sounds you’ll hear that you’ve never had to deal with before. I became a lighter sleeper because I was anxious of all the new sounds around me.

One sound I could easily pick up was the sound of someone approaching my car. Phoenix is one of those places that isn’t very friendly to vehicle dwellers. I returned to a Cracker Barrel I had previously parked at thinking it would be a quiet night. Within an hour of parking I heard footsteps and voices outside my car. I unfurled my window covering to have a peak and sure enough there was a police cruiser parked in front of my car. 

When you stealth camp in cities or park overnight in parking lots, you expose yourself to people. I inadvertently parked next to drug deals without realizing they were happening and witnessed people do weird things at all hours of the night. Because I was more vulnerable in my car, I was subconsciously tracking sounds, even when I was asleep. Most nights were fine but there were a handful of nights where I didn’t get a wink of sleep.

Prepare yourself for new sounds that can trigger anxiety, especially if you are in an area with few other van dwellers. These sounds can come from curious people passing by, people looking to do you harm, or even animals who want any food you’ve got. One thing you should know before living in a van is that you’ll always be on alert and this can impact your sleep cycle, and thus, the quality of life you lead when you’re away.

Anxiety That You’ll Get Murdered (But Actually)

I listen to a lot of true crime podcasts. Like I’m an OG Unsolved Mysteries with Robert Stack kind of gal. I’m aware of a lot of people who go missing or get murdered in national parks and forests, but that realization didn’t quite hit home until I started camping in them.

Did you know that you can live in America for free? Most national forests and land managed by the Bureau of Land Management allow you to camp for free for up to 14 days. In theory you could bounce around publicly managed lands and never pay rent again. Van dwellers and RVers do this, as well people who desire to live outside of society.

When I was in Arizona I found a pin marked on iOverlander for a camping spot on public land. I took a dirt road a few miles off the highway to find the location just as the sun was setting. When I arrived at what I thought was the camping spot it was dark. I noticed a few other vehicles parked and thought I was good to go. I didn’t realize those other vehicles were semi-permanent structures that were part of a massive homeless encampment. 

After I locked myself into my car for the night a gentleman approached my vehicle. He started asking me questions about myself and if anyone was with me. He seemed harmless — and even said he was — but my spidey senses were tingling. When he hopped onto his ATV to go visit his friend, I got the heck out of there.

I developed anxiety around getting murdered on public land. It wasn’t out of the realm of possibility for a Zodiac wannabe killer to jump out of the woods. I stopped parking in desolate areas and started parking in open areas where I was near a road and in proximity to other campers.

This is something that shouldn’t deter you from hitting the road but it’s something you should know before living in a van on public lands, especially if you’re a solo female. As I write this the death of Gabby Petito on public land in the Bridger-Teton National Forest is currently being investigated. People like her are murdered or go missing on public lands for a variety of reasons. Check out the Missing 411 phenomenon for more information on some noteworthy incidences.

Anxiety is something you will likely confront as a vehicle dwelling nomad and you shouldn’t take it lightly. It will impact your quality of life and thus the experience you have on the road. While your anxiety triggers may not be the same as mine, you will likely come across something that induces your anxiety. Before committing to living in a van, spend some time learning about what makes you anxious and come up with a plan to mitigate it.

Weather Can Make It Hard to Live in a Vehicle

Before I hit the road I thought I could just open the hatch of my Outback and utilize the back of my car for cooking and working on my computer. In theory this sounds great, until a small wind gust picks up. Even the slightest breeze can make doing things outside of your car miserable.

I first experienced how wind would impact my quality of life when I camped at Guadalupe National Park. At the base of the mountain there is a sizable parking lot that is perfect for vehicle dwellers. For a small fee, you can camp overnight and have access to their facilities. Unfortunately, I visited in March when it was chilly and windy. A few wind gusts nearly broke my laptop and made cooking a miserable chore. The wind added a chill to the air that made it a little too cold to sit outside. I had nowhere to go but hunker down in my car.

My “office” at Guadalupe Mountains on a less windy day.

If the wind isn’t a problem then the sun surely will be. Traveling through the southwest there aren’t many trees to catch a break from the sun. Without an awning attachment, I couldn’t find sufficient shade to work or cook under. Rather than using the back of my car as a standing desk and working for free in random parking lots, I found myself ducking into any coffee shop I could find. I had to leave the southwest by early April because it was way too hot to handle.

One thing you should know before living in your van — or car — is how weather might impact your set up. I’ve seen a ton of build outs with cooking spaces that fold out of the back of a van and solar showers that attach to the roof. In theory these are cool and practical ideas but in practice, these things might not be usable in most weather conditions.

You’ll also want to think about the size of your vehicle. If you opt for a frugal build out with limited space, this is where you will spend all of your time. If it’s too cold or too dreary to venture outside, is your vehicle big enough to accomodate you? This is something you probably won’t think about before you go but once you’re on the road you won’t want to be stuck trying to work from a cramped space.

Read More: 8 things you’ll need to live in your car

Not Every Coffee Shop is the Same — or Friendly to Nomads

When I think of vanlife I think of traveling the country working from my laptop in cool hip coffee shops. That’s exactly what I did while living in my Subaru Outback. Not all coffee shops are created equal.

Some coffee shops are designed for nomads, freelancers, and entrepreneurs. In Flagstaff I stumbled upon the White Dove. This coffee shop doubles as a coworking space and has a full menu with bottomless coffee. A lot of other van dwellers seemed to have gotten the memo too because the parking lot was packed with vans. When you live on the road you spend a lot of time by yourself, it’s a nice reprieve to find a place where other people like you congregate.

Then there are coffee shops like Blackwood Coffee Bar in Hollywood. When I lived in DC I noticed a trend towards eliminating wifi in coffee shops. This seems to be the case in LA too. I stealth camped for the night in Hollywood and wanted to get some work done. Blackwood was the only cafe that was open so I checked it out.

When I walked in I noticed the cafe didn’t have any outlets. After I ordered my drink I inquired about the wifi and the barista let me know they had gotten rid of it a couple weeks prior to discourage people from lingering for too long. There are coffee shops out there, like this one, that are designed to be places of conversation rather than places for work. When you’re a digital nomad looking for a place to post up for a few hours in a new city, you can only hope that Google Maps will take you to a decent location.

This is something you should know before living in a van in case you plan to work remotely from a coffee shop. Not all coffee shops are created equal and designed to discourage work. If you’re a creator or have tight deadlines, walking into the wrong coffee shop can disturb your work flow and leave you feeling off-balanced for the rest of the day.

In big cities there are some ways to mitigate this. WeWork launched a day pass program that gives you access to the WeWork of your choice for $29 a day. I used this in Dallas, Austin, and Palo Alto and loved it. Not only do you get access to dependable wifi and free coffee, you get to meet some cool people along the way too. Alternatively, Panera has a $9/month coffee subscription program that is a great bang for your buck. There are hundreds of Panera cafes across the country so this is a trusty option as well.

Before I hit the road I wish I had developed a better plan for how I would work. Even though I’ve been out of the 9to5 workforce for two years at this point, I still struggle to manage my time. Stumbling into coffee shops that didn’t have the resources I needed disrupted my day and in the case of LA, made me leave a place much quicker than I had planned, changing my entire travel itinerary.

You Can’t Really Depend on Wal-Mart Anymore

I started diving into vanlife research around 2015. This led me to forums where people talked about stealth camping in cities and suburbs. One of the most popular places people recommended camping overnight was Wal-Mart parking lots.

At some point over the past couple years there’s been a shift. Wal-Mart is no longer a reliable place to park. More and more Wal-Marts have put up signs and imposed policies prohibiting overnight camping. You can actually see a change log of this in apps like iOverlander. This is one reason why I had a love/hate relationship with this app — many entries hadn’t been updated in years. 

Example of entries on iOverlander showing change over time.

I can see why Wal-Mart is doing this. I spent a few days in Bozeman, MT to do some car maintenance before heading to Yellowstone. The Wal-Mart was filled to the brim with RVs and vans. It was hard for regular shoppers to find a place to park. There were so many campers one morning that Wal-Mart employees went around to every vehicle leaving notices that vehicles would be towed if they didn’t move by noon. 

Not all Wal-Marts are located in safe places either. After a while traveling I started noticing a pattern: mobile police cameras positioned in the parking lots, certain items in the store locked behind plexiglass, and gates at the entrance to limit the flow of people. These little features let me know that theft was an issue and that this might not be the best place to park for the night.

When I left on my trek I expected to stay in a lot of Wal-Mart parking lots. In reality it felt like more than 80 percent of the Wal-Marts I drove to were either unsafe or had prohibitions against overnight parking. This was a big foil to my plan: if you can’t park at Wal-Mart where can you park? (Answer: Cracker Barrel).

Before you jump into living in a van, be prepared to find alternative parking options that aren’t Wal-Mart. When you do a quick Google search you might find articles that haven’t been updated in a few years. Many cities, like Los Angeles, are imposing laws that punish vehicle dwellers. And with a surge of new vanlifers due to the rise of remote working, I anticipate even more cities will start cracking down. Plan your route ahead of time so you end up in places where you can sleep peacefully without the fear of getting a knock on your window in the middle of the night.

Read More: 5 side hustles you can do as a nomad

Cell Service is Spotty, Especially in Parks and Forests

I, like you, followed a bunch of vanlifers on Instagram who posted images of themselves working on their computers in picturesque locations. They made it seem like you can actually work from anywhere. You can, so long as you have a cell signal.

I assumed that I wouldn’t have an issue with cell service. I have Verizon and it’s 2021 after all. On the east coast, Verizon has great coverage. That’s not the case everywhere. Once I hit my first national park in southwest Texas I realized cell service was going to be a huge issue that I definitely did not anticipate.

I rarely had a cell signal on national forest land or BLM land. The idea that I could camp for a few days and work remotely went out the window. While it’s doable, especially if you have a different cell carrier or multiple hotspots, it does require some planning. Many of your favorite social media personalities don’t show a lot of behind the scene action but they probably aren’t doing most of their work from the beach. They upload content and take calls from places like McDonald’s or Starbucks where the wifi is fast and outlets are plentiful.

If you plan to work remotely while living in your vehicle you’re also going to need to be disciplined in planning out your work schedule. Showing up to a camping area that doesn’t have good cell service can spoil your remote work plans real quick. 

Spotty cell service is also a safety issue. If you’re like me you’re probably thinking to yourself “I don’t need a satellite phone, I’ll be fine.” If you’re like me — a single female — planning on traveling alone, I’m here to tell you to get a damn satellite phone.

Most public lands are on roads that are ill-maintained. You could be one pot hole away from blowing a tire in the middle of nowhere without the ability to call for help. And as I mentioned before, creepy people live on public lands and people go missing in national parks all the time. You might be in a situation where you need help and can’t get it when you don’t have a cell signal.

I got very lucky on my trip. My only issue was driving over a nail outside Surprise, AZ. I was close enough to both a gas station and tire center to fix the issue. Looking back I can see instances where my luck could have ran out and I would’ve been in a real pickle.

If you’re planning to hit the road, don’t rely on your phone to save you. Have a back up plan in case you don’t have service or your phone breaks. You hopefully won’t need to use your back up plan, but it will give you some peace of mind that you have a back up plan to begin with.  

I LOVED living in my car. I would do it again in a heartbeat (but hopefully next time in a converted skoolie). Living in a vehicle comes with the freedom to go wherever you want. It allows you to wake up to the Pacific Ocean crashing along the shore and go to sleep watching the sun set over the desert.

What you see on social media, though, isn’t always what it’s like once you finally hit the road. A lot of it is curated to show you the best parts of the experience. Not everything is rainbows and butterflies. These are just a few things I wish I knew before I decided to live in my car. Hindsight is 20/20 of course. Before you try your hand at living in a van — or car — anticipate some of these challenges and come up with back up plans. A little bit of planning can go a long way and make your journey that much more enjoyable.