Having spent over 200 nights sleeping in his own car, LJ Strenio is a veteran when it comes to living and traveling frugally. Here, the Salt Lake City, UT transplant—by way of Burlington, VT—dishes tips on how you too can transform your vehicle into comfortable living quarters for your winter excursions.
Words by LJ Strenio
1. Be Organized
Stay on top of your cleaning—even minimalists can turn their car into a garbage pit. In high school, I let my car get messy, and when I finally cleaned it out, I found a half gallon of old, moldy apple juice with the crease for the handle bubbled out so wide the bottle looked like a football. It was pressurized from mold growth, so when I twisted the plastic cap, it shot off like a champagne cork and shattered against my windshield. As soon as fresh air came in contact with the inside, it began to fume like a smoke bomb and filled my car.
2. Expand Sleep Space
Come bedtime, store luggage on the driver’s seat to free up space in the back. Throw skis up on the rack, and be sure to lock it. Relying on years of Tetris skills, I was able to comfortably sleep my girlfriend and myself in the back of my Subaru with three pairs of skis, two surfboards and all our bags for a week. One winter, I owned an Accent, a compact offering from Hyundai, and spent a month living out of it while on the road. Even with the back seat down, I was too tall to lay flat in the back, so I slid the driver’s seat forward and stacked two backpacks on the floor behind the seat, effectively extending my bed the necessary two feet.
3. Keep Warm
A sleeping pad and zero-degree-rated sleeping bag are essential. Don’t waste space with extra blankets. Wear a hat, socks and a hoodie on the really cold nights. You can blast the heat before going to bed, but once you’re in your bag, the car stays off. Many people have died running the car to stay warm as a result of the exhaust pipes being blocked by snow.
4. Stay Dry
This is one of the most difficult tasks when shacking up in your car during wintertime. Keep your wet gear near vents and be sure to crank the heat whenever you’re driving somewhere. If you go out to eat, bring as much wet gear inside as possible and hang it on chairs, coat racks, etc. Don’t forget to crack a window while you sleep, or you’ll wake up to condensation on everything.
5. Park Strategically
You’ll never get first chair if you keep getting kicked out of your car camping spot. Walmart usually allows car camping, but hop on Google Earth first and try to find a residential neighborhood with a dead end street. It’ll be darker and quieter.
6. Entertain Yourself
Bring a book and a laptop with movies. Buy a power inverter—at least 120 watts—to charge everything. Find a McDonald’s or Starbucks for Wi-Fi. My sophomore year of college, I took a full load of online classes while driving around to skiing contests and photo shoots. The back corner of numerous McDonald’s, near the bathroom, was where I took my weekly tests while slamming double cheeseburgers.
7. Block The Windows
Whether you’re going for the backseat hookup after bar hopping or just want to avoid a cop’s flashlight, shades make your car feel like a private room. Tracing cardboard to the shapes of your windows is not only cheap, but also blocks out more light than curtains.
8. Car Meals
It can be tricky cooking meals without a kitchen, and eating out can be expensive. Bring a cheap camping stove and buy nonperishables. Oatmeal is a great, easy, energy-filled breakfast and any canned food or ramen will make a nice hot dinner.
9. Prepare For When Nature Calls
You’re not going to want to run outside to pee when it’s cold and snowing, so keep a bottle within reach. Also, always have a roll of toilet paper ready. If you find yourself needing to go a lot, factor in public bathrooms with your parking strategy. On really cold nights, after relieving myself, I seal the bottle super tight and bring it into my sleeping bag for a little added warmth.