Although living in a vehicle is fantastic, most aren’t equipped for living in. If you are willing to put a little bit of time and money into making your car or van a nice place to live while traveling then it’s surprisingly easy to do.

Of course, you don’t need to make any modifications to live in your car. I’ve lived in three vehicles, and I made no changes at all to the first one. It was a compact car that I only lived in for a couple of days a week and I slept in the front, with the driver’s seat reclined back, or “stretched out” in the back seat.

If you are willing to put a little bit of time and money into making your car or van a nice place to live while traveling then it’s surprisingly easy to do.

However, with my other vehicles, I decided a bit of modification was in order. I did my construction over one weekend (and it could have been a single day if I hadn’t kept getting distracted). It wasn’t expensive – I spent about $200 total outfitting my car for living in and that included the cost of getting the rear windows tinted.

If you’re inclined to spend more time or money there’s always more you can do, but if you want it done in a weekend, here’s what I suggest you need:

  • Tinted windows. This may be an expensive outlay, but it’s the most important thing to do if you’re planning urban (or stealth) camping — sleeping in city streets and in parking lots as opposed to campgrounds. It’s the number-one thing you can do to ensure your privacy. I’ve sat in the back of my car and watched people two feet away admiring their reflections in my windows and fixing their hair. Get them tinted as dark as you legally can. (In the US this depends on the state your car is registered in.) The cost will depend on the darkness of the tint and the size and number of your windows. With a local coupon, it cost me $80 for the back windows of my Prius.
  • Curtains for the back windows. Yes, the windows are tinted, but curtains will give you an extra measure of privacy. Even dark-tinted windows can be seen through if the light hits them right, and curtains keep that annoying light from shining right in your eyes as you’re trying to sleep. They close out the rest of the world while you’re in the back. Just because you know they can’t see in doesn’t make it annoying to have people walking by all the time. So, if you’re making curtains should you still bother with getting the windows tinted? Again, this is a matter of stealth. Without tinting, people can see that you have curtains in your windows. Velcro with the sticky back is a useful way to attach the curtains if you don’t feel like building some sort of a curtain rod. It should cost you about $15.
  • A curtain separating the front and back. Like the tinted windows this will give you more privacy. Instead of using one of those fold-up sunscreens for the windshield, take the time to make a curtain rod that runs right behind the front seats. In my van, I had a dowel that fit into two holes in the ‘wall’ of the car. In my current car, I have a curtain rod that’s flattened on the ends to fit into two cracks on the ‘walls’. For this curtain, nothing but black will do. Any other color draws attention to the fact that there’s a curtain there, but if you have a black curtain people won’t even notice they can’t see into the back. Will probably cost about $15.
  • A comfy bed. (Warning: This will take powertools. Or at least a friend who has them). It may seem strange that I list the bed third, but if you’re planning on doing urban camping privacy comes first. Step one: Take out all the seats. Step two: Stare at the space you have to work with until you’ve figured out the best place for the bed. No article is going to be able to tell you the best way to do this. I’ve outlined (with pictures!) the building process I went through in both my van and my car on my website. I spent $30 on a piece of plywood and $35 for a piece of three-inch foam for the mattress. The other construction pieces came from my dad’s garage. Total cost, about $90.

For the initial investment of a weekend and $200 I’m able to stay almost anywhere I want (see my previous article on where to park). I’ve cut out the cost of accommodation almost completely – I’ve spent much less than $200 total on campsites and hostels in the last year. This allows me to travel further, see more, and worry less about money while I’m doing it.

(Note: prices in this article are in US dollars.)

Your thoughts on "“Home, Sweet Home” in one weekend or less."

  • Hi Jessica, Thanks so much for sharing this. It's such a practical way of doing things and the prices are a helpful guide. Linda and I have often talked about converting a van and living in it for a few months. I don't know when, but one day...

    on November 26, 2008 at 6:07 pm Reply
  • that is one interesting and unique way to live.... heading over to your blog to find out more!

    on November 27, 2008 at 1:42 pm Reply
  • I definitely recommend trying it out. It's a great way to travel!

    on December 24, 2008 at 4:06 pm Reply
  • Great information. I'm planning on outfitting my minivan to do some stealth urban camping and the information comes in handy. Thanks!

    on January 4, 2009 at 10:24 am Reply
  • @guy - let us know how it all goes. We're just starting to put together the bones of our van-dwelling/living in a vehicle resource page so do let us know if you find any resources to add.

    on January 4, 2009 at 10:35 am Reply
  • Thought I would say thanks for bringing more attention to van dwelling. I might add that I have a 89 aerostar for a home, its the XL version making it as large a mini-van I have ever seen. This allow2 us taller people to have plenty of room to stretch out. Also, If you space your plywood up a a foot to 18", you pick up an amazing amount of room underneath for storage. My best piece of equipment is my Engel 12V cooler fridge. Costs a lot up front but I am in my 3rd year of trouble-free use. I hook it to a seperate battery to insure it does not drain my van battery too low. I am currently converting a older step van to a dwelling. Its huge but with its tint diesel, gets the same 18-24 MPG as does my mini-van. Yikes! Thanks again for the article on living in a van.

    on July 9, 2009 at 5:19 pm Reply
  • Hi Jerry, Sorry for the slow response, but thanks for the note about the fridge and second battery. I know very little about installing a second battery, though I know a lot of van-dwellers do it. Have you found any good internet resourses I can direct people to?

    on August 20, 2009 at 11:22 am Reply
  • Just thought that the Spaceship we're travelling around in at the moment has a second battery. It charges when the car runs and powers the fridge and DVD player. Nice to know the car's going to start after we watch a movie at night :) We've been keeping an eye out for some more killer resources and not found any. Might have to build it...

    on August 20, 2009 at 11:39 am Reply
  • I just couldn't live in a space that small, I would be so claustrophobic.

    on October 15, 2010 at 4:21 am Reply
    • I think that would be a bit tight for us too; we need a people-mover. But for one person - I think so. Depends how much time you like to spend outside.

      on October 16, 2010 at 1:32 am Reply
  • Spending time outside is a certainly a help, but honestly the space is pretty easy to get use to. The main thing is to pack carefully, (but not as carefully as if you were living out of a backpack). You do sort of have to rearrange your view of it and think of it more as living in a large, sturdy, movable tent rather than as a small room. I'm often amazed at how much I'm able to cram into my car without giving up any of the "living" space in the back.

    on October 16, 2010 at 10:24 am Reply
  • […] My article last month covered basic things you can do to a vehicle to make it comfortable for living in. These things focused on privacy, which is important if you plan on urban, or stealth, camping. In this month’s article I’ll go through some things to make your vehicle more comfortable to live in. There’s a whole range of things you can do, it all depends on how much time and effort you want to put in. […]

    on August 28, 2015 at 10:09 am Reply

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