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How to Survive Living in Your Car


From August 25th 2012 until over a year later, I slept and lived in my car in Los Angeles, California.

In my last article, I told my story about moving to Los Angeles to follow my dream of becoming an actor, only to realize that the cost of living in the city made it nearly impossible for me to support myself on the wages I earned working as a security guard. Now I will share with you some of the tricks and tactics I learned that allowed me to live comfortably without the benefit of having a real home.

While I was living in my car, I began writing a book about the experiences I had and the things I was learning. In the end, living in my car did in fact help me achieve my goals of saving money and being able to live “on my own.” I learned that living in your car takes a plethora of survival skills. It truly is a “survival” experience.

I was doing this so that I could save money and get ahead in life. You have to sacrifice in life if you want to get ahead. That’s what I have learned. Especially in this economy today, you never know when hardship may hit and having these survival skills in your pocket may just save your life one day when you experience hardship.

I am going to go over a few key aspects it takes to successfully live in your car. Even if you never have to live in your car in your life, it’s good to be prepared. You never know what life may throw your way one day.

What to do for Food

When it comes to food, there are many options when living in your car. My purpose living in my car was saving as much money as I could. So I kept that in mind when thinking about food.

– Canned Foods: There are canned foods such as beans, pastas, and tuna. Have a can opener ready or preferably have an easy to open top. That makes things much easier. Canned fruits and fruits in plastic cups work as well. They store well too.
– Peanut Butter and Jelly: Sandwiches are easy to make in a car. Just have a plastic knife to use to put it all together.
– Homeless Shelters: Many homeless shelters give away free food to people without homes. Just look for the nearest shelter in your local area.
– Protein Bars: These pre-packaged bars are healthier than fast food, and they are easy to eat on the go.

In many grocery stores there is a bakery or deli section with pre-cooked foods that are somewhat affordable. I used to get 2 pieces of fried chicken and some potatoes and it was decently priced. It was nice to have some “real” food for a changes sometimes.

Where to Sleep

Where to sleep is probably one of the most important elements of attempting to live in your car. A good sleeping area can make or break your attempt to live in your car. You have to find a place that is safe but also a place where you can keep a low enough profile to not be noticed.

I personally slept at a 24-hour grocery store where I used to work. I lucked out. But I’d say if you can manage to sleep at any 24-hour store, that would be a good place. Otherwise try to find a neighborhood that is safe where you can stay under the radar.

Once you do find that place you have to make sure to do everything you can to not be noticed.

Your car has to be primed and ready.

I had dark tint on my windows some of the time I slept in my car. If you don’t have dark tint, you can put dark towels up in front of all windows. You have to be inconspicuous though and make sure no one is around when you put the towels up. Just go to your spot, park, shut the car off and set the towels up. That is what I did. Try to choose the same place for sleeping every night. This makes things a lot easier. Don’t tell anyone where you sleep.

Turn the radio off long before you get to your spot so you don’t draw any attention to yourself. Do not open your doors once you get to your spot or get out of your car at all. It only draws more attention to yourself.

Where to Take Showers

Maintaining good hygiene is absolutely critical to sleeping and living in your car and remaining unnoticed. The more you are noticed the worse it will be for you. You have to present the appearance that you are not homeless. If you appear homeless, you will be kicked out of a lot of places where you might otherwise be welcome. I took showers at a gym. I got a monthly gym membership. It was only $40 a month, which was affordable for me. I got to both work out and get clean. I recommend having a backpack with everything you need for the shower and a combination lock to lock up your belongings while you are in the shower.

Where to Spend Your Spare Time

There are a few options for places to hang out on your days off work and when you have free time.

– Fast Food Chains: Fast food restaurants usually have free WiFi for laptops. If you keep a low profile, it’s likely that you will go generally unnoticed. Just make sure to keep to yourself for the most part. I usually didn’t even buy anything and, to be honest, no one cared.
– Public Libraries: Libraries are great places to hang out in your spare time, especially if you have a laptop. There is free WiFi that does not have a time limit like the WiFi in many restaurants does. There are usually a good amount of comfortable seats. It is a nice quiet setting, and the space is typically air-conditioned or heated, depending on the weather.
– Shopping Malls: Malls are a decent area to hang out. Find a seat and read a book or just walk around. As long as you don’t have to pay for parking at a mall then it’s a good spot to spend time.
– Gyms: The gym is a great place. You can work out for a while to kill time and be inside.

Also, if you have made any friends or anything like that, then that will help a ton with finding ways to pass your spare time.

Key Items to Keep in Your Car

– Gallon of Drinking Water: It’s important to always stay hydrated when living in your car. You are always going, always on the move much of the time. There were many times it was after work and I hadn’t had any water. It was always nice to have my gallon of water in the back seat under a towel. It costs about $.25 to fill it up at a grocery store.
– Pain Medicine: This is useful to have, because living in your car comes along with plenty of aches and pains. There were many times while I was living in my car when it was late at night and my head was throbbing. It was nice to reach in my little soccer bag, take some pain medicine and be able to sleep peacefully for the night.
– Car Fan: At night time I found it tough to sleep without some background noise, so this came in handy. A good car fan costs about $20 at an automotive store. It is low enough wattage to be on all night and not kill the battery. Many nights it is too hot to sleep in a car without a fan. In the summer time, if I didn’t have a fan I would have suffered greatly.
– Power Inverter: This is a device you can plug into your cigarette lighter and charge your laptop, cell phone, and any other electronic device as long it is a low enough wattage. These cost about $20 at many stores. Be careful what you charge. Some things will kill the battery if you charge them too long. Try to charge things while driving when possible because that doesn’t use up the battery. The one I had was 100 watts, which means anything you charge has to generally use less electricity than that.
– Sleeping Bag: A good sleeping bag is key in any environment. Even in Los Angeles, in the winter and many times during other seasons of the year I needed it. If I hadn’t had a good sleeping bag, I would have frozen and been very uncomfortable the entire night.
– Snack Foods: It is important to always have some sort of food in your car. Preferably on the floor on the passenger seat side as I did. I always used that section for my food. It was easy when I got hungry, I could just reach over and grab a banana to eat when I needed it. It’s crucial to always have at least some stuff ready to eat anytime you may need it. Not eating can cause many problems. There were many times when I was extremely hungry when I left work. I reached for and ate a piece of fruit as soon as I got inside my car.
– Jumper Cables: Sometimes, for a couple of different reasons, I found that my car battery had died and I needed a jump. Most likely because I left the lights on or I charged my electronics too long without driving. It was a pain standing in front of a store asking people if they had jumper cables. I eventually got some jumper cables so when my car battery died, all I had to do was ask anyone who had a car around me if they could give me a jump, rather than also having to ask them if they had jumper cables.
– Vitamin C: Living in your car is obviously not a normal thing. There is more wear and tear and hardship on your body than if you had a permanent place to live. So it’s important to keep your immune system strong. Vitamin C boosts the immune system. Anything you can consume with a lot of vitamin C is great. Oranges or any drinks that have vitamin C in them are great. You cannot afford to get sick in your car when you already have enough other things to worry about.
– Spare Key Container: Having spare keys around is very important while living in your car. You never know when you may need them. I always kept a spare car key in my wallet. I also kept spare keys under my car. I purchased 2 containers for about $10 from an automotive store. The containers have a magnetic cylinder on the back so you can connect them to any metal surface at the bottom of your car. These are invaluable if you lose your keys or lock them inside your car. Make sure to put these containers where no one can see them. Make sure no one knows they are there. Only you.

There are many important aspects to surviving living in one’s car. These are a few of the key ones. The most important thing is keeping a low profile in all you do. That way, you can have the longevity to stay in your car as long as you need to.

You have to stay mentally strong and continually aware and focused of everyone and everything around you. Keep your head up. Always know it is not forever and is only a temporary situation.

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This post was written by JC

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