BY MATT HOWE
O.K., first off, make sure you’ve got the balls in the first place, because living in your van 24-7 may sound like some romantic shangri-la, but it takes a lot of hard work, dedication and organizational skills. So if you’re the type who doesn’t like to pull out the old food and sludge from the bottom of your kitchen sink because it’s “icky” or “gross,” then van life may not be for you, because disgusting is measured on a whole new scale when your entire living quarters are six by ten by fourteen and a half.
PART 1: GETTNG READY
Get set up ahead of time if you can, as much vehicle living is rather impromptu (i.e., “Get out!”, or coming home to a padlock on your door), if possible, try to get the van ready beforehand.
Some things you’ll need to take care of first: Make sure the van is legal (registration up to date, no outstanding tickets)—very important for avoiding hassle. Then, get a P.O. box (you may not think you need one, but most jobs, schools, check-cashing places, whatever, need a mailing address). Next (this is optional but I found it helpful) get a voicemail service. You can get them through your local phone company; you don’t have to have a number, or a phone for that matter. They’re usually. about 25-30 bucks a month, not too bad with no rent to pay. Now the next part kind of depends on where you’re living—urban, suburban, or rural. I was stuck in the shithole suburban burg of Fremont, California during a year of vocational school and did not want to pay rents that were nearly as high as in San Francisco to live in someplace I really didn’t want to be. I opted for the van for the last nine months of my schooling.
Anyway, if you’re in a suburban area, I recommend joining a health club with 24-hour (or as long as possible) access. Shit, shower, and shave can be accomplished quickly; work out too if you want, it’s a good way to pass time sometimes (if you can deal with all the fitness types and fathead jocks screaming at their dumbbells ñ I’d advise going late). My membership was about 25 bucks a month, but it may be a lot more in some areas...look for specials.
PART 2: EQUIPPING YOUR VAN
Food will be your next concern. If you already have a camper-modified van, disregard the following ‘cuz you’ve already got a sweet set-up. You’ll want to get a propane-powered camp stove (I’d advise a two-burner). Coleman makes several easy-to-use models. What I did was bought a cheap duffel bag for my cooking bag .I got a halfway decent frying pan and saucepan from the thrift and grocery stores, as well as the silverware I needed and a couple of tupperware containers (one for the silverware)and kept them all in the bag for easy access. I’d also advise getting a couple of breakproof plates, bowls and cups from either the thrift or camping supply stores. It’s also good to have a supply of seasonings in there (you can go a long way with just salt, pepper, and garlic). Next you’ll need a large water container. They sell big three-gallon ones with handles at most of the larger grocery stores for about five bucks, and you can usually fill it for under a dollar ñ remember, water is life. I wouldn’t advise cooking inside the van unless you have some sort of ventilation system rigged up. If you don’t have a sink with an electric water pump, cleaning up can be a pain in the ass—sometimes I use two thirds of my water supply just cleaning. A good idea is to go to a park or a gas station with a seldom-used public bathroom, and just go to the sink there and go nuts. I’ve gotten more than a few weird stares cast my way when people walk in the bathroom and I’m doing a sink full of dishes, but fuck ‘em.
PART 3: BLENDING IN — DAY-TO-DAY LIVING
The best way to avoid all hassles is to not be noticed in the first place. Here’re some things that steered me clear of uptight neighbor and pork interference: First thing is picking your place to sleep and what you do when you’re there. You want a nice quiet spot, usually with a lot of other parked cars around so you’re not noticed. I wouldn’t advise parking lots... though I have used some at 24-hour places in the past. My friend (who also lived in his van) and I found a nice quiet side street in a sea of apartment complexes. All of the overflow parking was on the street, and people came and went whenever, so we blended in pretty well. One rule we always followed: Never get out of your van at your sleeping spot. This may sound ridiculous, but we never got hassled there. Do what you have to do (cook, brush your teeth, piss, shit, whatever) at some other place, then park at your spot and crash. If you have to piss at night, do it in a bottle (girls, they sell “female urinals”, handheld plastic containers that have an opening a little more suited to the female anatomy, that seal shut and can be dumped later). In the morning, get up and drive somewhere else before you start your morning routine (piss, toothbrushing, eating, whatever). Let me tell you, I’ve had my share of bad sleeping spots (noisy, brightly lit, waking up to cops) so take care of a good one if you find it. And still, it’s a good idea to switch your spots once in awhile so you’re not seen there all the time.
PART 4: OTHER RANDOM SHIT THAT MIGHT MAKE LIFE EASIER
One thing that I got a lot of use out of was my power inverter. They switch the van’s DC voltage to AC so you can use some regular household crap. I bought a little black and white TV at the thrift store, some rabbit ears at Radio Shack, and I had myself a stylin’ living room to watch the Simpsons or whatever. You can find them pretty cheap now, try Walmart or some such place. I think you can get one for 45 to 75 bucks depending on how much shit you’re going to run off it. I found the Radio Shack ones to be very overpriced. If you know a little more about wiring and the mechanical side of the van you may want to install a deep-cycle battery (an RV place could do it, but it’ll cost you), which is more set up for a longer, continual draw for things like A.C. units, refrigerators, long TV use, lights, whatever, and you can have a solenoid installed (or do it yourself if you know how) that will switch the power draw from the van’s main battery to the deep-cycle battery as soon as you turn of the key (I think Ford starter solenoids are supposed to work well). Just some things to think about. I would also advise a good system of window coverage, for a couple of reasons: so people can’t see all your shit when you’re not around and rip you off, and so you don’t draw any attention to yourself while you’re reading or watching TV at night. I had mine set up so no light escaped at night. Plus it’s just easier to sleep (sometimes too easy—I overslept for work or school more than a few times).
Another good idea is to keep something near your bed that you can beat somebody’s brains in with if they try to break in: It helps you sleep a little easier—you’re a little jumpy at outside noises the first month or so. It’s good to keep some little portable camp lights around too; they always come in handy.
Lastly, and I can’t stress this enough, stay organized. Nothing is more frustrating than trying to find something you desperately need and not being able to because your van is a mess. I’ve lost stuff for days that was two feet away from me the whole time. Organization is probably the most important part of smooth living in your van. Good luck, use common sense, keep an eye out for The Man and you’ll do fine.
P.S. I also found that a large selection of pornography was a great way to pass the time, especially before bed. Happy Jackin’!
PICTURED ABOVE: (Top to Bottom) Matt in his van, playing guitar and watching the boob tube. Newspapers to keep the light out... not a good idea if you are trying to blend in!