You’ve probably read On the Road. Or at least been nudged by the influx of van lifers on social media. Maybe you did family road trips as a kid but haven’t considered the possibilities of bringing your life to the road for more than a spring break getaway. Living on the road can be exciting, no doubt, but also incredibly perilous. Don’t let the romanticism of the viral van life hashtag set the tone for your experience. After all, if you’re embarking on road trip, short or long term, you probably have a hearty sense of adventure and appreciation for the unknown.
While there’s a lot of value in discomfort and type two fun it’s also fun to, you know, get some advice on things you may not have otherwise thought about (like WHERE THE HECK AM I GOING TO PEE and ARE THE COPS GOING TO BUST ME FOR SLEEPING HERE). I have a feeling many of our readers…if not all of them…are competent when it comes to outdoor planning and basic survival skills. I could probably take a cue or five from all of you, but when it comes to navigating *everything* on the road, from the desolate to the urban and everything in between, I’d like to think I can offer some tips.
So without further ado, here are six things I wish I had thought about before I made the *very last minute, poorly planned* leap to become a full-time dirtbag in my Honda Element (aka: HotelElement). I hope it both inspires you to hit the road, like, right now…and in turn, save you some *unnecessary* discomfort both logistically and mentally (don’t worry, you suffer lovers; the sheer principle of minimalist* road life is uh, pretty uncomfortable).
*when you don’t have the luxury of an outfitted van, trailer, or otherwise.
Here are six tips on maximizing your life behind the wheel:
1. Get your beauty sleep
I was no stranger to sleeping in the back of my car thanks to collegiate mountain biking and being exceptionally unprepared and poor, but for anything more than a nap or one night of restless sleep, it’s worth it to put the seats down and get in a sleeping bag. Trust me.
You can build a platform super easily with minimal cost. For all you carpenters out there, you can get as fancy as you want but as long as you have a flat surface you can place a mattress or sleeping pad on, you’ll be good. Like all things in life, it comes down to preference. But when you forego *literally all of your furniture* you really want somewhere comfortable for sleeping and lounging. I’ve truly never slept better than in my quaint, comfy car bed.
2. Don’t be such a foodie
I’m not about to tell you *what* to eat…there’s enough dogmatism about diets. However, I will acknowledge that I am a food snob. Not a foodie, no, I eat sardines straight outta the dang can. Nutrition snob may be more accurate. Anyway, no matter your dietary preferences you can absolutely make it work, pretty much no matter where you are. But to keep it convenient, clean, and simple I have a few tips.
Gourmet camp cooking is fun. Gourmet car life cooking is not. Without a fire and limited space, setting up a stove is nothing more than a pain in the ass (and a fire hazard). Opt for cold (or room temperature) meals as much as possible. My go-to dinner almost every night was a salad in the greens container (bonus: no dishes!) with canned protein and nuts/seeds. Sandwiches are equally as easy. Keep some essentials (spices/oils/vinegars) and a small cooler. Don’t forget to take an ungodly number of hot sauce packets whenever you stop somewhere.
3. Don’t pay for camping
I don’t know your financial situation. Whether or not you have dollars to burn, there are far more exciting things to spend money on than camping. And if you are pinching pennies you need to be prepared for unforeseen circumstances (ie: the time I had to spend nearly $1k on new tires and brakes…) That’s the beauty of sleeping in your car…you’re foregoing the need for lodging and you’re not pitching a tent. So, why pay just to park your car?
The most obvious resource is freecampsites.net – like anything crowdsourced it can be hit or miss, but I’ve had good luck with it (the exception being the OHV area straight out of a horror movie where serial killers dumped bodies in the 90s BUT hey…follow your gut). Boondockerswelcome.com is like couchsurfing for van/car dwellers. Study Google Maps; forest service roads are fair game and you can often find some random roads, often dirt, that are acceptable. Just be aware of signage and as always: LEAVE NO TRACE.
4. Use those street smarts
I don’t lock my car doors, largely because my driver side lock is broken. And I am just too lazy to lock it from the passenger side. I have also never really been concerned about someone breaking in and stealing smelly socks, stray coffee cups, and whatever else I throw back there.
Don’t forget, you moved your life into your car. Even if you’re not living out of your vehicle full-time, you probably still have most of your essentials and some prized possessions. Don’t let your ‘house’ get burglarized! My HotelElement was broken into in a Whole Foods parking lot at 10am in Oakland, CA. I was in there for exactly 6.5 minutes. The ol’ driver side door was unlocked but they still broke my window! That’s all to say, be mindful of where you park especially in urban areas. Try to keep your stuff low profile and unload what you can when you’re going to be parked for a prolonged period (which is apparently six minutes and beyond).
5. Trust the magic of strangers
Being on the road puts you in places you would otherwise never find yourself. It also puts you situations you don’t expect. Bears might eat your underwear. Don’t be afraid to ask for or receive help. As much as the element of the unknown might excite you, it may excite someone equally as much to help an unfamiliar face in their community.
Solid advice from FERAL’S very own Jimmy Funkhouser, “Road life forces you to build unique connections with strangers. You will need help from time to time. Your phone will die. You’ll have car trouble. When these things happen you’ll rediscover how much magic the strangers around you have up their sleeve if you’re just willing to start a conversation.”
6. Let freedom reign
This sounds like a no-brainer; the road is a symbol of freedom. However, if you have Type-A tendencies (not speaking from experience or anything…) that can easily follow you on the road and diminish from the excitement in not having a rigid schedule. Of course, some routines are sacred (such as morning coffee) and many bring their job on the road if they have the luxury of working remote. But the rest is open to the unknown.
If you’re anything like me you speed by scenic overlooks, eat packed snacks behind the wheel, and just forget to stop and smell the roses. Pull over for a hike or run, even if it doesn’t *look* like there’s a trail. Pull over for a picnic Indulge in the beauty of your surroundings, take the road less traveled, and get off the beaten path. Those will be the memories that last longer than the interstate at 80mph.
About the Author
Addie is a cycling, bit-of-a-dirtbag, wordsmith with a thirst for adventure. She excels at planning insane routes in the mountains and backcountry, enjoys making mean snacks, and is an expert in sleeping questionable places.
Follow addie on Instagram at@addiemargaret.
About the Photographer
Brian J. Lewis
After growing up in upstate New York, I found my true home in the mountains of Colorado in 2005. I’m a visual storyteller, a four-season adventurer, an unapologetic coffee snob, a semi-competitive trail runner, a seasoned traveller and a new dad. Through it all is a never-ending quest to document the beauty of the world – from the wilds of my Colorado backyard to the far corners of the planet.