Everyone is watching me. It feels like all eyes are on you the first time that you park your car to sleep or brush your teeth in a supermarket bathroom. You’re alert, head darting about like a squirrel hiding a nut and some kind of excuse for your behavior is ever ready on the tip of your tongue. It only takes a few days to realize that, in fact, you’re practically invisible. Most people live trapped in their phones or their minds and even if they do see homelessness, it makes them so uncomfortable they just pretend not to. This is depressing but it’s also liberating; this is the key to your freedom. You can do almost anything you want and anyone, except for a cop, is barely going to notice.
It’s the reality of living in your van. One of many that you wouldn’t expect when your home is your main mode of transportation…or vice versa. Want to know some other things the glamorous instagram filtered, hashtag frenzied photos don’t show?
1. “Ma’am, you can’t sleep here.”
People might ignore you out in the world but when it comes to their neighborhood they do not want you there. In their minds, you pose either a danger to their safety or an insult to their housing payment. At the very least, they will report you, but more than likely they’ve already voted for a county law making it illegal to sleep in your car or a park overnight. Developed neighborhoods, especially near the ocean, are your worst bet. Looking for quiet spots on country roads or near state parks can make you stand out and arouse suspicion, but they are a better option.
It’s always legal to sleep in a Walmart parking lot, so if you’re ever really nervous about being disturbed that’s an option. However, overnighting in the heart of the city is louder and brighter, so even the heaviest of sleepers can find that it provides less than a restful night of sleep.
To avoid a ticket, here’s the key: if someone knocks on your car do not answer. A cop can’t write a vehicle a ticket for camping, only a person. They need you and your ID so just put on your headphones, ignore the knocking and flashlights, and go back to sleep.
If you don’t need to be close to the city for your job then you have some camping options. BLM and national forest land are almost always legal for you to sleep on. But out on the open road you can usually just pull off and sleep anywhere relatively unnoticed. If there are no people, there are no problems.
Always keep your eyes open for the features of a perfect parking spot: level ground, shade during the day, low streetlight at night, no parking time limits, and no nosey neighbors or cops.
2. “I haven’t showered in days.”
I do bathe, just with a bottle of natural soap and the five gallon water bottle. The hot car warms it, so I get a pleasant luke-warm “shower” after a cold California surf. Whenever the opportunity presents itself at a friend’s house, I take advantage of a very welcome hot shower.
When I’m working in a city, I make use of a gym membership. 24 Hour Fitness is the go-to of the van dweller; since it never closes, you can bathe whenever you need. And with locations everywhere, you can opt for a membership plan that gives you access wherever you may choose to roam.
Going to the bathroom is a real challenge at times. In the wild, you’re free to do as you please (but leave no trace! Carry out your tissue or other trash). In city limits and during business hours, you can use any café or market without a problem. But early in the morning or throughout the night, you have a challenge on your hands. There are a lot of giggle-worthy stories about incidents and solutions out there, but I recommend getting yourself some kind of small emergency bucket. Hopefully you don’t have to use it too often but you’ll be glad you have it at least a handful of times.
3. “I need to go outside.”
A van is a small space. You’re going to hit your head a lot. Changing clothes, making food, writing in your journal — every activity involves bumping into something and knocking it over. The best solution is to make use of your big, beautiful living room: the world. Work from a picnic bench, take advantage of the public library, cruise the neighborhood on your skateboard, and become attached to a particular table in your favorite café. Find yourself inspired to learn every nearby hiking trail, ocean lookout, and shade tree. Your vanlife is about creating more freedom; don’t let it box you in.
4. “What do I do with my surfboards?”
Perhaps not everyone craving to live in a van is a surfer, but since you’re reading this on The Inertia, it’s likely that this is a concern for you. Surfboards take up a lot of space and you don’t have much to work with. You’ve got roof racks (makes you an obvious surf bum, boards can get stolen), equipment storage boxes (expensive), attaching them to the ceiling (not as easy as it sounds), or snuggling your quiver in bed with you. I toughed it out with the latter before I built a bed platform to store my boards under. This makes for a much more comfortable night’s sleep — now your bed is level and there are no fins poking into your back.
5. “How do I relate to all the ‘street people?’”
Being connected to the streets means observing the people that pass through them, both the houseless and the housed, and gaining an intimate vantage on everything that happens. You’ll see couples fighting and watch meter maids write tickets, you’ll witness suspicious behavior and tender moments between families or lovers. You’ll also gain insight into the lives of the homeless, a provocative demographic of citizens that goes generally unnoticed.
From the perspective of the people who have brick-and-mortar dwellings, homelessness is often lumped into one general category. From the perspective of the people who live on the streets, it’s a social system as rich and complex as any other. There are the houseless, hobos, drifters, grifters, backpackers, couch surfers, rail riders, and your good ol’ classic street people — each with their own unique way of life and completely aware of their separation from each other. It’s a gift to learn from these people and hear their tales. Whenever you can, share some food and ask about their lives; the stories and advice you gain will be priceless.
6. “How do I relate to all the everyday folk?”
Congratulations: you’re a van dweller. You’re radical, inspiring, and impressive but you’re also unusual, unsettling, and un-relatable — yet you wouldn’t have it any other way. Once you’ve made it out there, despite all of the challenges, you never want to go back. How do you have a conversation with a person who still pays rent and untilities and doesn’t understand your life choices? It can feel like being sober at a kegger — how will you ever relate again?
Your experiences will uniquely shape you and how you relate to the world. My only words of advice are: be sensitive with others’ limitations, seek commonalities at all times and, when all else fails, tell them a tale of adventure.