Surviving Poverty: How to Live in a Van

By Joshua Krause

There have been a few news stories floating around over the past few weeks with a common theme. In San Francisco, a city with some of the highest rental costs in the nation, it seems that more and more people have been choosing to live in their vehicles. That may not sound very surprising, but what is odd is that these stories don’t involve struggling low-income workers.

Instead, these people are fairly well-paid tech employees. The one that’s really been making the rounds on the Internet, involves a Google employee who bought a box truck and sleeps in his company’s parking lot. It’s not that he couldn’t afford to rent an apartment per se, it’s that he couldn’t stand the thought of paying so much money for a place to sleep. If he decided to rent, he’d probably be close to breaking even.

You know there’s something very wrong in this country, when an employee for one of the most profitable companies in world would rather live in a truck than pay rent. It suggests that in some parts of America, you don’t have to be poor to be homeless. Just imagine what it’s like for the folks who really are poor, of which there are many?


On any given night in America, there are over a half a million people living on the streets or in their vehicles. As you can imagine, that’s not a good place to be in your life, but it happens. If you think that this is something that might happen to you one day in the near future (and who are we kidding, it could happen to anyone these days) here’s a word of advice: Don’t wait until the last-minute, hoping for that next job interview to come through as you burn through your savings. If homelessness is a real possibility in your life, it’s something that you should be preparing for, not waiting for.

The more money you have at your disposal when you decide to leave your home, the easier your life is going to be without a house. If you have no money, you’ll be living on the streets with little more than the clothes on your back. It’s better to put your savings towards a van or a truck that you can live in. Unlike living on the streets, you can actually maintain a fairly decent standard of living with very little money. Here are a few basics that you need to know to get started.

Choosing a Vehicle

The box truck chosen by that Google employee isn’t necessarily the best vehicle for the job, nor is it the most affordable. It is roomy, but it isn’t very discreet. Our society is incredibly fearful of homeless people, and depending on where you live it may be illegal to sleep in your car (check your local municipal codes; there may be a neighboring town that allows it). You want something that flies under the radar.

Camper vans are a pretty good choice since they’re already designed for living in, but they also look the part. Anytime a camper van is parked somewhere, it could raise a few eyebrows. An ordinary cargo van with at least a 6-foot bed may be a better choice, because you can convert it to a camper van without it looking like a camper van. And, unlike a box truck, nobody will notice you moving from the driver’s seat to the back when it’s time to go to bed. Try to avoid white vans since, again, our culture has deemed white vans to be “creepy.”

Ideally, a reliable van will be worth at least $5,000, but obviously you may not have that kind of money. Fortunately there are plenty of really cheap vans from the ’90s on Craigslist that can get the job done for less.  Even the ones in the $1,000-$2,000 range still have some life in them. Just don’t plan on doing any long-distance driving.

When you’re looking for a van, think of it this way: How many more miles does it have left? That cheap van may only have 10,000 miles of life before it craps out, but if you keep your lifestyle local that might last you a couple of years. That’s a lot longer than most people stay homeless. And look for taller vans over longer vans. You’ll have more storage space, and it’ll be easier to find parking in urban areas. Something with a shell top is even better.

Parking

The best place to keep your van while you sleep is probably in a Walmart parking lot. Walmart will let you park there indefinitely (though this usually only applies to their retail outlets, not grocery stores), because they know you’ll shop there. Otherwise you can also park on residential streets, but you have to plan ahead by looking for spots that are inconspicuous.

You have to find spots that look more public than private, and your van will likely go unnoticed on a street with lots of parked cars. It’s also a good idea to change spots every other night. And while we’re on the subject of going unnoticed, you should consider getting some curtains for all of your windows too. Not only will this keep the sun out, but it will also prevent people from seeing you inside.

Preparing For The Elements

Vans are notorious for being very hot in the summer and very cold in the winter, and you shouldn’t completely rely on your vehicle’s heating/AC unit (more on that in a moment). Insulating your van is a must. Most people with little money may insulate the walls, ceiling, and floor with cardboard or blankets (magnets and paracord are a good idea). Others will go the full mile and deck out their van with some combination of fiberglass, foam, and foil backed insulation.

Electricity

A good battery will be the backbone of your electrical system. You’ll have to find a deep cycle battery, because your car battery will quickly burn out if you keep charging and draining it (like using your vehicle’s AC all day when you’re not driving). You’ll probably need one with at least a 100 amp hour capacity, though you’ll have to consider how much power you’ll be using on a regular basis, and how often you’ll be able to charge it. Keep in mind that you’ll have to run AC and heating devices through this, as well as your computer and cell phone. (Consider turning your smartphone into a WiFi hotspot.)

And remember, these batteries are super heavy, so you may need to buy several smaller ones and connect them in parallel. AGM batteries are probably your best bet since there’s no off-gassing, they last a long time, and they’re maintenance-free. After that, you’ll have to find an inverter to convert the DC batteries to AC for your electronic devices. Add the total wattage from all of your devices, and buy an inverter with a capacity that is at least 1.5 times higher.

If you have any friends who are willing to help out, you shouldn’t have any trouble charging the batteries at their house. The amount of power you’ll be using will be negligible for them, and it only takes a few hours to charge them (plus you’ll need an address for paying bills and ordering packages). Otherwise, you might want to consider mounting a solar panel on the roof.

Food and Water

Obviously, you don’t want to be eating fast food for the duration of this experience. Fortunately it’s not that difficult to prepare your own meals in a van. For starters you’ll need a really good cooler and, if it can be helped, it shouldn’t be one of those cheap plastic ones you see in the grocery store. A small Yeti Cooler will maintain a cool temperature for a really long time.

As for cooking, you should probably avoid electric stoves and microwaves. They will probably eat up your electricity at a faster rate than any other electronic device. Contrary to popular opinion, you can use those little camper stoves that run on butane or propane without coming close to asphyxiating in the tight quarters of a van. You just shouldn’t use those stoves to stay warm. Keep your cooking time to less than a half hour for each meal, leave a window cracked, and you should be fine. If you’re really paranoid you can put a carbon monoxide detector in the van, but I’m willing to bet that it will never go off.

And for water, you should probably store it in a mini water dispenser, or at least jerry-rig an ordinary container to dispense water. Just make sure it’s made of plastic and not glass, and secure it when you’re driving. And since you’re no longer connected to the grid, that means you’ll have to find water by other means. Unless you want to be seen taking a large jug to a public water fountain, just go to the grocery store. Most grocery stores have a water dispenser of some kind, and it usually costs far less than bottled water.

Bathroom Business



This is probably the most controversial subject for van living, and for good reason. Dealing with your waste while living in a van sounds really unsanitary. You could set up a composting toilet and pee in bottles, but depending on your situation it may be best to simply rely on public facilities. If you want something that is more reliable though, you should sign up for a 24-hour gym. Depending on where you live it’ll cost you anywhere between $30 and over $100 a month. It’s probably worth it though, since that will be the best place for you to take a shower and shave as well. Overall, it will make your van living experience a lot easier (and cleaner).

Security

Though van living may sound incredibly dangerous since you’re not in the comfort of your home, it’s not as bad as it sounds. People who break into cars generally aren’t the kinds of people who are looking for a fight. If they were, they’d be breaking into houses, mugging tourists, or robbing banks. They’re looking for something easy, and if they know somebody is inside they’re probably going to run.

However, it’s still a good idea to have something you can protect yourself with like a bat, knife, tire iron, or heavy flashlight. Keeping a firearm at the ready in a vehicle is not recommended for legal reasons, though I’m sure the laws vary from state to state. Even where it is legal though, it’s going to be frowned upon by most cops you come across since society really doesn’t trust homeless people. And rest assured, this lifestyle will attract the attention of the law from time to time.

So there you have it. Those are a few of the basics for living in a van, though it is by no means a complete guide. Whole books have been written on the subject, and there are plenty of websites dedicated to vandwelling. If this is something that interests you, there is an abundance of research that is available, and you should take advantage of that. This isn’t something to take lightly, and you need to know what you’re doing. Hopefully now, you at least have an idea of what you’re getting into.

Image Credit

Joshua Krause was born and raised in the Bay Area. He is a writer and researcher focused on principles of self-sufficiency and liberty at Ready Nutrition. You can follow Joshua’s work at our Facebook page or on his personal Twitter.

Joshua’s website is Strange Danger.

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8 Comments on "Surviving Poverty: How to Live in a Van"

  1. Good article. More thorough than I initially expected. Years ago I suddenly became homeless and was certainly not prepared and pretty much lost everything. As I was planning my comeback I was gonna do whatever it took not to end up in that situation again and so like this article suggest I got a vehicle with which if need be could serve as a home. The main thing is you need a vehicle that has the room inside for you to be able to comfortably lay down and sleep. That is the key. It does not have to be huge. Personally I got an explorer suv which was the perfect size for my needs and with the back seats down I had enough room for a queen size aero bed in the back. Once you have that covered then you need to ensure you can be comfortable regardless of the temperature. I highly suggest getting the millitary modular sleeping system as it is called. It is a set of sleeping bags. It has 3 different mummy bags. One for cooler weather, one for much colder temps, and a outer gore-tex waterproof bag. All together it is rated to about -50 to -60 degrees farenheit. Actually with this setup you could sleep outside on the ground in just about any weather including rain and be fine because that’s what it’s designed for. I also suggest getting a gym membership so that you can shower as needed. In my area I found a very nice and clean gym and the membership was 20 a month. As far as food goes I personally don’t suggest doing too much eating in the vehicle itself and certainly not preparation and cooking of meals. Neither do I suggest storing any food besides things that are individually sealed like protein and granola bars. You don’t really want the problems that the food will bring and also it is absolutely key to create as little garbage and waste as possible. It is pretty much inevitable if you’re living in your vehicle you will be approached by the police at some point. If you show that you are a respectful individual and that you are not making any kind of mess and impact on your surroundings they are much more likely to be sympathetic and leave you be. This article is right on about the battery setup. With the right car battery you can power alot of your electronics with no problem as long as you are running the vehicle daily. Otherwise you definitely want to get some solar panels to recharge your battery. It’s also a good idea to have smaller and portable solar panels on hand as a back up power source for your electronics. Really that’s what it comes down to is having the right gear. After I got back on my feet I ran into some more hard times and if I had not set all this up I would have been totally screwed again. Like the guy at google I actually stayed in my vehicle even after I technically did not need to just because of how much money I saved. And once others saw my setup some of them got prepared to do the same should they have the need. It never hurts to be prepared.

  2. No, no, no! NEVER put curtains up in any window of a vehicle if you want to be inconspicuous – that only attracts attention. Better to have them blacked out with the darkest legal tint or have an ordinary van with no rear windows at all. As for parking in residential areas, try to park in front of a tall wall or open green space rather than actually outside someone’s house.

    • tinted windows will do nothing for privacy at night when youre inside with a light on…

      • Cover the entire inside of the window with black opaque material. From the outside it looks like the inside of the vehicle is dark.

  3. when i was homeless i knew a guy who bought and lived in a white windowless van that looked like a common business van. he said it worked beautifully. i would maybe even attach some fake business name and number on the side to complete the illusion…

  4. it’s true. bolshevik forestry agents are coming for you. they’re coming tonight.

  5. Obviously whoever wrote this knows nothing about how a vehicles air conditioner works. It isn’t run off the battery, but the running engine. If you expect to run the air, you’ll be needing a full tank of gasoline

  6. I cut a 12″x12″ hole in the floorboard, and covered it with a milk-crate sized wooden box with a toilet seat top, then over that, a hinged wooden lid that doubled as part of my bed platform. That 12″ x 12″ size holds plastic grocery bags on small nails for easy clean up to a dumpster. (No need to go to Taco Bell for a toilet!)

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