Could you live in your car?

Have you ever lived in your car? Could you live in your car? If so, for how long? What would you consider essential? What could you learn to live without? Where would you feel safe?

I’ve been watching a curious trend in reporting throughout the past few recessionary years: while some people are giving up their cars, more people are living in them.

There’s a two- pronged discussion here: those who live in their cars due to homelessness, a growing problem in Canada and especially the U.S. as the recession sinks in its teeth and refuses to let go, and those who end up exercising the choice as a lifestyle. In some cases, an unstable employment scene means setting down roots, especially for someone unattached and unfettered by kids, means stop-gap car living is an option for short term impermanence. Overall, the U.S. has a higher rate of both types, due to both the economy and the climate. Living in your car in North Bay or Saskatoon in January is not a great option regardless of what instigated it.

There are endless anecdotes on the Internet of car-living experiments. It echoes that earlier rite of passage of hitchhiking across the country – not for everyone, but always interesting to hear the stories. Wal-Mart jumped into the discussion decades ago in the U.S. by allowing RVs to stay overnight in their parking lots, a move that negatively affected campgrounds in a big way. The retail giant knew that RVers would spend money in their stores. The fact they sell everything except human organs guaranteed that.

Twenty years ago, you’d drive past a Wal-Mart in Pennsylvania or Michigan and think you’d stumbled into an asphalt RV campground. But of course, all good things must be abused, and more and more stores have yanked the privilege; it seems too many travellers seeking peace and tranquility in the wilderness decided that a Wal-Mart parking lot was close enough, and they were staying for days and days.

The young and carefree have always done silly things on purpose, but now they can tell everyone about it. Austen Allred, a young entrepreneur in Silicon Valley looking to save money for his start up company, lived in his 2002 Honda Civic EX Coupe for 3 months. The experiment was quite civilized, and involved knowing where he could shower (YMCA), how to time his day (up with the sun) and how to sort out that time (everything takes longer). He related his story in Slate, and opened himself up to the usual volleys of being called an idiot but he planned it, he did it, and he saved what he had to.

I don’t know that I could live in a Honda Civic for a whole day, let alone 3 months. I’ve slept in vehicles – poorly – but it was usually because of a messed up hotel reservation or to guard gear. Back in the day, the only alarm systems were humans. The most compelling factor for me? If someone could see into the car. A cargo van is practically the Taj Mahal of urban wheeled living spaces.

Local laws in every jurisdiction never say “feel free to park anywhere and sleep”, and most trespassing laws and parking bylaws will keep people moving along to an accommodating Wal-Mart or a church outside of peak hours, though even churches are rightfully not required to be sympathetic. Posters trade tips (“watch out for indecent exposure charges if you get changed in your car”) but the element of danger would make me squirrely. I’d rather pay a few bucks and camp and get a shower than lie there wondering what I’m going to see when I open my eyes.

Purists will get into arguments about converted vans and RVs. Another experimenter, a writer, had an RV and moved it around New York City, something that would have me screaming if he’d parked in front of my (imaginary) brownstone. I’ve slept in a small car; I’ve slept in a tent; I’ve slept in an RV. RVs don’t get to be considered remotely the same thing.

My neighbour had a visitor for a few weeks who is travelling the country in his converted Sprinter. He’s actually travelled all over North America for months at a time, and prefers it. There is absolutely a personality suited to this lifestyle, and while the myth is often more romantic than the method, the notion of being rootless is hardwired into some niche of every culture. Some are simply nomads on wheels.

Done successfully and intentionally, it is here the most important trait of car dwellers is revealed: organization. Immaculately designed, stripped to essentials and as choreographed as a ballet, living in a confined space – sanely – means attention to detail. It’s also probably why it tends to be the solitary souls who embrace it.

For those who have had the experience out of necessity, the tales are harrowing, but for those who opt for the challenge, it’s an interesting what-if game of possibilities.

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2 responses to Could you live in your car?

  1. Pat says:

    I’m afraid at this stage in my life my needs are more 4 star. If I don’t sleep well I’m in big trouble. I’ve slept in cars too, but I was forty years younger. I like my own bed and all the comforts of home.

    • Kerry says:

      There were times in the past a car would have been a luxury . Anybody’s car . 30 years later i’m with Pat , I like having all the comforts of home .

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