Shannon Across America: How to live out of your car

Camping out where both the temperatures and prices are falling

This is part of a series of posts chronicling my travels across the western United States over the course of several weeks, living on the road and randomly visiting places along the way. You can start reading about the journey from the beginning.

Now that I decided I was roaming the country, I needed to figure out how I was going to do it cheaply. Staying at hotels and motels every night of the week would have costed me a chunk of change, so that option was out. Besides, what is a motel anyway but a place to shower and sleep for the night?

Camping is always a cheap alternative, but the nightly fees still add up and campgrounds aren’t always to be found (especially around bigger cities). I didn’t want to deal with setting up and breaking down a tent on a nightly basis and my tent was buried away somewhere deep in my storage shed at that. I needed another way to get a good night’s sleep where I could do it quickly, discreetly and be well-shielded from the elements.

A bed on four wheels

That left the car. A van or truck with a topper would have been a no-brainer to set sleeping quarters up in, but I drove a Toyota sedan and I was going to have to get very creative on space.

I’ve slept in both the front seat and across the backseat of my car before, and neither are terribly private or comfortable. I decided the only way to comfortably sleep in that car was to take out the backseats and lay diagonally across the trunk / backseat area which would support my full height. With more time and planning I could have constructed a strong, level base from plywood to place across the open backseat area and gain more room, but all of my woodworking equipment was now in storage so I used blankets and comforters to level things out.

I purchased a memory foam mattress topper for more comfort and topped it off with my sleeping bag which kept me warm in the coldest of temperatures. The final touch was attaching a black sheet to the top of the backseat opening to create a pullover tent/curtain of sorts that I pull down in front of the bedding area to gain privacy. During the night, at a glance no one would be able to tell that someone was under there. This sheet also had additional benefits like keeping out some of the cold air from the trunk, keeping bright lights out and and offered a barrier against forming excess condensation on the windows (a dead giveaway someone is sleeping in a car).

This execution worked very well but the bed solved only one half of the issue: I still had to figure out where I was going to sleep AT.

Where to camp out

Probably the biggest aversion to sleeping in your car in this paranoid world is the fear of the imaginary nefarious person encountering you, and there’s always some naysayer or nerd on comments / forums that will scold you about the dangers based on some anecdote or story they’ve read. But here in the real world, you’ll be just fine provided you use that noggin of yours.

Choosing a safe town should be obvious; I found that rural communities between the major cities were the best. Regardless of the area, you don’t want to park somewhere too private or remote as your car will stick out like a sore thumb and at the very least you’ll be woken up by a nosy cop shining his flashlight in on you. Rather, I think the best strategy is simply to hide in plain sight in a public place.

Wal-Mart stores are a favorite amongst RV and truck drivers as they’re everywhere right off the highway and most of them allow overnight camping in their parking lot. (Apparently, Sam Walton was an avid RVer.) Not all of them follow this due to policies or local laws (especially where homelessness is an issue), but this can vary based on whom you talk to. We live in a society where it’s easier to say “NO” regardless of actual policy and you can’t always count on the word of the manager. They’re a non-factor anyway if you know how to blend in discreetly with your surroundings, and that is the greatest advantage my car had over a truck or RV: I could park and camp in places they couldn’t.

The best Wal-Marts to camp overnight at are the 24-hour ones as cars are on the parking lot all night and it’s very easy to blend in with those vehicles. I made sure to park as close to the store as possible in a well-lit area rather than some far, arcane location. When the Wal-Mart did close after-hours, I would simply park amongst the night crew which would be inside working all night long.

Unless I needed to go inside first, I would retire immediately to my sleeping bag in the back of the car and pull down the curtain, shielding me from the bright lamps and kept me out of sight. I also didn’t leave bags or other things of value out in plain sight as a thief magnet; I tossed them back in the trunk with me. I also made sure to leave as early in the morning as possible and didn’t stay twice at the same place. All in all, I’ve slept at many Wal-Marts over this trip and have never had issues at all.

Besides Wal-Mart, other places I slept were at truck stops and travel centers like Pilot, Flying J and Love’s. These were actually my favorite places to stay as they’re well equipped with creature comforts like showers and lounge areas with television and movies. Overnight parking is the norm at these places; in fact, you’re probably not the only one getting some shuteye in their vehicles and the locations are usually well lit. I also used these locations to do my laundry and work off my laptop.

With any of these places, noise is easily the biggest problem. Earplugs are absolutely essential and I was easily able to sleep over the noise of parking lot sweepers or trucks idling.

Ultimately, car camping at these places worked out very well and I saved a fortune in travel costs. Dare I say, it was even a little bit fun. But what’s not so fun is the idea of going for weeks on end without a shower, so I had just one more issue to solve.

Showering like a bum

You learn some creative ways to stay fresh when living like a homeless person moving place to place. The easiest places to find showers are at the truck stops and travel centers I had mentioned. The showers aren’t cheap – they cost anywhere from $8 – 12 bucks for someone who isn’t driving a truck – but they are usually very well kept and clean. I certainly didn’t do this on a nightly basis, but once in a while it was worth it to fully freshen up. I’d also camp overnight in the parking lot or taking advantage of other luxuries at the location in order to add value to the cost.

Campgrounds with showers are another way to get clean, and they’re easy to quickly get in and out of without paying for the nightly camping fee. The only issue is that they often lack hot water and you’ll probably want to wear a pair of sandals to avoid the grimy grounds.

If I had a membership to a gym with locations across the country, that would have been an easy way to take a shower. Some gyms even charge a per-visit fee that may have been cheaper than the truck stops, but I didn’t look around for them. Gyms are also harder to find in the desolate areas between major cities.

Otherwise when none of the above was an option, the best you could do was find private bathrooms with a lock in small public places and give yourself a sponge bath. I kept a small bottle of shampoo and hand towel to wash my hair quickly under the sink, throwing on a baseball cap to hide my wet hair. When I got out to the west coast, many of the public beaches have showers and the ones with private stalls were easy to take advantage of. If the showers were outdoors, I would just run under them in beach wear to tide me over until I got a proper shower later.

Other logistics

I tried my best to keep dining out at a minimum. I kept a small pan and propane tank/burner to cook food with, and ate other food that didn’t require cooking such as sandwiches. Pop-Tarts and peanut butter are simple and cheap but you get sick of them after a while.

When I wasn’t taking advantage of open power outlets in my various stops, I had a small power inverter in my vehicle to charge my electronic devices, my laptop and batteries. For nightly entertainment, I kept an iPad loaded with TV shows and movies to watch before falling asleep. Occasionally I even picked up free Wi-Fi from a hotspot that happened to be nearby.

Gasoline was the most major expense I had, but fortunately my trip was during a period where the gas prices had dramatically dropped and this helped when I arrived at the west coast. You want to stay filled up in more major areas; gas stations in the middle of nowhere know exactly how rare they are and often charge higher prices accordingly.

The journey begins

With all this planned out, I rolled out of my former place for the last time on Halloween night last year. After putting the last things in storage and leaving some things with a friend, I left the St. Louis area and started to make my way southwest.

Next time: Oklahoma grasslands with a tragic past and the canyons of Texas