Considering a shift to the Colorado #vanlife?

by DGO Staff

Don’t jump on that ship until you’ve gotten prepared, goose. Very, very prepared.

The state of Colorado tends to attract residents who are looking for alternative living spaces, whether out of necessity or lifestyle preference. That includes residents who are opting into long term car camping — or #vanlife, if you’re interested in that sort of thing — which is just one reason why it’s so common to see decked out sprinter vans with blacked out windows in the parking lots of grocery stores or local parks. Those aren’t just expensive vans; they’re homes — literal mobile homes.

People opt to live out of their cars for various reasons, especially in our fair state, which caters to those who are looking for an outdoorsy, more transient lifestyle. But with the climbing cost of traditional homes, this type of housing is becoming even more popular — especially among those who aren’t able to swing high rent prices on one full time job. They could perhaps afford rent instead by working two or three jobs, but that lifestyle can be so exhausting that life in a car often seems better by comparison. (Plus, what good is it to live in Colorado when you’re working so much that you can’t take advantage of what it offers?) Others may opt into car living because driving back and forth from work is too exhausting, or because they simply want to drive everywhere around the country and experience different places without having to spend on a hotel room every single day.

Whatever your reasons to live out of your car, it can help to go in with a clear idea of the challenges involved, and the steps you need to take to overcome them. So before you make the full-time shift to official long term car camper, here’s what you should know.

You’ll need to make some serious arrangements to sleep well.

As you may have gathered, getting a good night’s sleep is one of the biggest challenges of living out of a car. To begin, most cars aren’t designed to allow you to lie down flat. If you have an SUV or minivan that allows the rear seats to be folded down to form a large, flat surface — such as the Honda CR-V, Subaru Forester, Toyota Sienna, Chevy Astro, or Ford Transit — you’re in luck. You’ll just need to plop down a mattress. The Toyota Prius is popular among car dwellers for the way the seats fold down flat as well.

Seats can be folded down in other vehicles, too, but the space that’s created can come with level differences. If you live in a less than ideal vehicle, it could be a good idea to build a wooden sleeping platform for the space that you clear up by folding the seats down. You could even build a box platform that you can store stuff in.

Sleeping in a parked car can be illegal in some jurisdictions, and it’s something to worry about. If you can afford it, it would be a good idea to buy an old panel van. That way, passersby wouldn’t be able to see you sleeping inside it.

You’ll need a list of good overnight parking spots.

Car camping isn’t exactly welcome
in some areas, and that’s true even for Colorado, where this type of lifestyle is anything but taboo. What that means is that finding the right place to park in your general area on different nights of the week is important. And, it’s a good idea to not use the same place more than once a week.

It’s safer to find a well-lighted spot rather than a dark area. Curtains over your windows could help make sure that it’s dark enough inside; you don’t want to use newspapers or blankets. These can announce to anyone passing that you are living in your car and get you into trouble. Tinting is also a good idea, both for the darkness and to make it hard for any jerks to look inside for stuff to steal.

Every state except Ohio and North Dakota, however, prohibits tinting the entire windshield. Other states have specific restrictions on how dark you can get and what areas you can cover. You want to avoid violating the law if you are to not call attention to yourself.

Accessible truck stops and parking lots set up by churches and nonprofits — like Safelot in Colorado — are good ideas, too. You might even obtain your employer’s permission to park in the company parking lot. Walmart parking lots are also notoriously friendly to car campers, so don’t overlook well-lit lots like those when you need a safe place to catch some sleep.

You will need to know where to access bathrooms.

Finding a quiet, safe spot to park overnight is one thing; having access to facilities is another. You may need to get a pee jar for when you need to urinate at some inconvenient hour. But you do need a real toilet and shower the rest of the time.

Many people living out of their cars, especially those in tourist-driven areas, will sign up for memberships at a 24-hour fitness center that has showers and toilets. Not only can such a membership give you access to bathrooms, but you also get access to all of the workout equipment, which can come in handy for a few different reasons — not the least of which is for working out. Staying fit can be especially important to get your circulation going when you spend a good part of your time in a cramped car.

You might also be able to find a 24-hour storage facility that offers members bathroom facilities.

Do whatever you can to avoid sleeping with the engine running.

This may seem like a more obvious tip for new car campers, but it’s not. It’s common for car campers to deal with issues from running vehicle engines consistently, in part because staying warm or cool is one of the great challenges that come with living in a car. The current heatwave (or any frigid Colorado winter night) might lead you to consider running the engine to power the heater or air conditioner, but it can be very costly to deal with. It can wear out your engine prematurely, and more importantly, it could lead to carbon monoxide poisoning. People do die sleeping in their cars with the engine running.

In winter, it’s a good idea to buy the warmest blankets you can find, get a zero-degree sleeping bag, run the engine to warm up the car for a few minutes, and simply go to bed early. A $25 car space heater may seem like a good fix, but it really wouldn’t be a very workable option, considering how much power they draw. You don’t need to crack a window for oxygen, because cars aren’t airtight and tend to have enough air, anyway.

To stay cool in the summer, cracking the windows and using a car fan are the first ideas to try. A 24 V portable camping air conditioner could be a possibility, but it can cost hundreds of dollars and require car batteries that you would somehow have to charge every day. It would make more sense to buy a portable evaporative cooler. These can be very effective in low-humidity conditions and use very little power. A cooling blanket made of special, ther-mo-regulating phase-change materials and a cooling mattress are worth trying as well.

Plan for food, which can be your biggest expense.

Unless money is no object, food needs to be carefully planned for. The cost of eating out for every meal tends to compound quickly, which is why so many people who live out of their cars will eat at restaurants with affordable $4 menus or live on canned food.

It’s also possible to cook with an induction cooktop when car camping, and it’s not terribly labor or cost intensive, which is sweet. For example, you could buy an inverter for your car to be able to plug one in, or you could go to a public park or picnic area that offers an AC outlet. Some people simply choose to work at a restaurant where they can get free food instead.

Saving money should still be a freaking priority if possible.

When you live an unusual life — i.e. you live in a camper van or another type of vehicle — it can feel as if the normal rules of life don’t have to apply to you. And, to be fair, some won’t. You don’t have to mow your lawn or weed a garden, and you don’t have to do basic maintenance on household appliances or other expensive gadgets. That can lead to justifying yourself frequent indulgences — but that’s often at the cost of being able to save money.

Saving a few bucks (or way, way more) is important, however. Depending on why you’re living in a vehicle, it can mean the difference between putting off necessary expenses and doing things like taking regular care of your health in a medical emergency, paying for repairs if your car should break down, buying a vehicle better suited to living in, and sustaining yourself. Having money to fall back on can be a great psychological boost as well, so you’ll be doing a lot for your mental health if you can carve out some spare cash to toss aside.

Make sure that your car is in perfect condition.

Let’s face it. There’s a stigma attached to this type of lifestyle, especially if you’re venturing outside of the confines of Coloardo. That means you’re more likely to get pulled over by the police and get into trouble for unpermitted car camping or other petty issues if you give the cops a reason to do it. And one of those automatic reasons is that your car is in poor shape. It can just make life easier to make sure that your car gives the police no reason to be suspicious.

That can mean anything from dressing up your van to making sure your car has the appearance of a working man’s vehicle can keep the cops away. Think about it this way: Pizza delivery cars and plumbers or handmen speed around town all the time and don’t get stopped, because the police tend to accept that working people are not a threat to society. Those who are camping out in cars, though? Well, that may be a different story.

Obtain a P.O. box.

Having a place where you can receive physical mail is important for a number of different purposes, not the least of which is getting access to your packages and mail. Since you need an actual home address to be able to get one, you’d need to obtain it before you actually began living in a car. Alternatively, you could use the address of a loved one to get access to a P.O. box.

Renter’s insurance is an actual, real-life option for vanlifers, so consider it.

There’s a real possibility that someone at some time will break into your car and steal your belongings. The good news is that while it seems a little unusual, insurance companies do offer renter’s insurance to people who live out of their cars. You simply need to make sure that you don’t hide the fact from them.

If you’re doing this out of necessity and not a lifestyle choice, it may also worth looking for a job that comes with housing included — like the manager of a storage facility, a staff member at a resort that caters to tourists, or even apartment building. And while living out of a car can be depressing if you have no other options, it’s important to remember that vehicle living isn’t considered particularly uncomfortable. Lots of people opt for this lifestyle, and truckers do something like it for a living — so aside from the obvious mental hurdles you may face if you’re stuck with no other choices, try to remember it’s a lifestyle that you don’t often hear those types of #vanlife people complain about.

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