Living in (or out of) a car, whether by choice or necessity, presents many challenges. In fact, it is fair to say that this is not an adventure suited to the faint of heart. Living in a van is often hard; living in a car is even harder.
Despite the challenges, and frankly the hardships, of living in a car, we are encountering more people doing so every year. There are at least several reasons for this trend.
Living in a car out of necessity
The sad reality in the U.S. and many other countries is that housing costs are rising far more rapidly than incomes. This is no doubt frustrating to those with higher incomes as an increase in housing costs means less disposable income. For those at lower income levels the never-ending increase in housing costs is often catastrophic.
Rent costs in the U.S. hit record highs in 2018 with a national average of more than $1,400. The result of increasing housing costs and stagnating or sluggish wage growth is that nearly one third of U.S. households are considered to be “cost burdened” – that is, they are spending more than 30 percent of household income on rent. It is not a surprise in this economy that many people whose income is low find it difficult or impossible to afford rent. These retirees, disabled, and low income workers are, in effect, priced out of traditional housing.
N.B. Housing costs vary widely across the U.S. with some areas considerably higher than average and others considerably lower than average. Simply moving to an area with lower housing costs is often not a viable option for many reasons. Locations with lower housing costs also typically offer more limited earning opportunities for many workers.
Government subsidized housing is in short supply with waiting lists typically years long. At the same time, many government subsidized housing units and privately owned units that will accept housing vouchers are substandard and often located in crime-ridden areas. It is no surprise then that many people who cannot afford rent also either cannot access subsidized housing or choose not to do so.
Sadly, too many people in this situation end up homeless on the streets. Oftentimes this is a slow slide that may start with low-rent weekly motels, progress to couch surfing, later progress to unprepared living in a vehicle, and finally end with living on the street.
Still others who are unable to afford housing discover the nomadic lifestyle and find some breath of inspiration that they may be able to live more or less on their own terms with some autonomy and self-respect. Some of these new nomads are able to move into a van or RV while others have no choice but to try making it work in a car or other small vehicle.
Living in a car by choice
Many people who live in “sticks and bricks” are amazed that anyone would choose to live in a car by choice. After all, if people who live in vans and RVs that do not come with six-figure price tags are considered homeless – or only one step above homeless – anyone living in (or out of) a car must be even more destitute. Perhaps, but perhaps not.
There are more people each year who are adopting the nomadic lifestyle in various ways. Many more are actively making plans to become nomads. This subculture is growing and, at this time, shows no signs of slowing down.
There are many ways to be a nomad. At Two Meander we mostly focus on vehicle nomads, but even this is only part of the nomadic lifestyle. Some nomads travel the country or world housesitting or working short-term jobs with housing included. Others fly between destinations and stay in budget accommodations wherever they travel. Of course, many also travel in RVs, vans, and even cars.
Why live in a car instead of a van or RV? Some people choose to do so because of fuel efficiency, others prioritize traveling now instead of waiting for a mythical future that may or may not arrive, while yet others are still searching for their ideal larger rig.
Fuel efficiency is important for many vehicle nomads. Full-size vans often average only 10-15 mpg, while RVs are even worse. On the other hand, it is not difficult to find a modern car that averages 30+ mpg. Smaller cars – including the very popular Toyota Prius – may average 40+ miles per gallon. If the gas budget is a concern at all – and it is for many, many nomads – driving a car may allow them to travel at least twice as far each month.
Maintenance costs are also a concern for many people. A decent car will almost always be cheaper to maintain than a full-size van of similar value. RVs meanwhile have an earned reputation of being bottomless money pits when it comes to both fuel and maintenance. Living out of a car is often considerably cheaper than a van or RV.
Many people who live in cars also choose to do so because it is what they owned when it was time to start traveling. In some situations, upgrading to a van or RV may not be in the budget. In still other situations, the person may be actively looking for the right van or RV and just not found it yet.
There are many reasons why a nomad may choose to live in a car rather than a larger vehicle. As for me, when I hit the road full-time again in 2015 I owned a newer Toyota Camry that I had purchased two years previously. At the time I purchased the car I anticipated having no problem selling or trading it for a van when I was ready to travel full-time (which I knew was coming). Unfortunately, I was not able to make the numbers work to replace the car before starting to travel full-time so I went with what I had. As it turned out, I actually enjoyed the challenge and definitely appreciated the 40+ mpg as it allowed me to make many trips back to see family that I could not have done in a van or RV.
Several years ago I wrote a book to share what I had learned living in cars and other small vehicles. That book, Car Living, is available as an e-book from Amazon and other e-book retailers for those who would like to learn more about this topic.
We recently published a video on our Two Meander YouTube channel featuring Blainey who was living out of her car, a Honda CR-V. Blainey had a functional and comfortable setup and shared many great tips for anyone considering or currently living in a car or small vehicle.
We hope you enjoy meeting Blainey in this video and find value in some of her ideas for mobile living.
I’m planning a month long trip or so to Wyoming in my car this summer. Planning on staying in my tent. My concern is, what should I do with my good? Concerned about bears and was wondering if I’m worrying too much, and should I consider getting a bear proof container. Plan on being in Colorado and Wyoming from the end of June until early August. Thanks.
The mountains in western Wyoming and Colorado are incredible. You will enjoy that trip! (Eastern Wyoming and Colorado, on the other hand, are mostly prairie, though sometimes with some interesting features.) Medicine Bow National Forest in southern Wyoming is also incredibly scenic, and entirely different from the western mountains. The cover photo on Debra’s book, The Journey Begins, was taken in Medicine Bow NF near Laramie.
Bear safety is important in the mountains here for sure. It is worth noting though that actual bear incidents involving an attack on humans are quite rare – it’s just that like airplane crashes they generate a lot of attention. Still, it is worth taking some basic precautions.
Many (if not most) established campgrounds in the mountains around here will have bear-proof storage containers. They are large metal boxes with latches that are designed to be difficult or impossible for a bear to open. I always use these when they are available for the convenience; for security reasons I try not to sleep right next to a bear box just in case a bear does show up. A portable bear-proof container may not be a bad idea if you plan to camp in places that may not have storage containers available. It at least provides options for food storage, like hanging it from a tree. Otherwise, the best bet is probably securing food in the trunk of the car, but if a bear did want to find your food it might well damage the car trying to get into the trunk.
Other than keeping food locked up, the other big thing would be to consider bear spray. It has proven to be very effective at deterring bears. There was a teen hiking in the Montana mountains this spring looking for antler sheds that was attacked by a bear. He was able to scare it off with bear spray and suffered only minor injuries from being knocked to the ground.
My advice is just to be “bear aware” – lock up food, possible carry bear spray, and make some noise while hiking in dense areas where you might surprise a bear – and enjoy your time in the mountains!