How To Safely Explore America While Living in Your Van or Car

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In October of 2015 I moved out of my apartment in North Carolina and into a 1998 Dodge Ram 1500 Van. I was not evicted, just bored with the same old predictable way of suburban life, doing the same things over and over, seeing the same people over and over. Tired of paying rent month after month, year after year and having nothing to show for it. I’ve been self employed since 2008 so I was not leaving a 9 to 5 job situation. I’m not married and I have no kids. My lease was up and so it was a conscious choice. A close friend that I met through being an airbnb host took over the apartment home I had lived in for many years and also my sweet kitty who hated the van life and refused to travel.

“Oh The Places, You’ll Go…”

The one thing I will say up front – living in your van or car is more doable now than it ever was before, and I will explain why in future articles. Its amazing how many things have changed in as little as 3 years, but the gig economy is a real and reliable way to make money while living on the road. It was just starting out in 2015 and was not so great back then…

I had researched the idea of Van living for 2 years prior to actually doing it. I did not know many people outside of the Southeastern USA and I did not have anything lined up such as a job. Just reading other people’s stories and watching them discuss van life on youtube was enough to give me the courage to take the leap and trust my wits in the great unknown. I love adventure and pushing my limits as far as I can go. Every year I challenge myself by doing at least one thing that is totally next level, totally a challenge and something I have never done before. I will be sharing my adventures on this blog but the bottom line, I decided in 2015 that van life would be my next big adventure.

I declared bankruptcy in 2015 as well, discharging many old debts that I had incurred after losing everything in Hurricane Katrina. So 2015 was a totally fresh start in many ways. The amazing thing was that I was able to finance a van at all, mere months after my bankruptcy. I tried many places and was denied an auto loan by everyone, (even after offering half the money down) except by a somewhat shady used car dealer in a rural town of North Carolina who financed the van “in-house”. One got the feeling that they would be coming by to break your legs if you missed a car payment.

The van (I called her ‘Big Bertha’) looked and worked well enough (in the beginning), but I was kinda desperate to get a vehicle so I did the deal. In two years the van was paid in full. I paid about $4950 for it, not including all the mechanic bills & auto parts, but ended up selling it for 600 bucks because of a cylinder misfire issue that was a pure nightmare for mechanics to fix and really costly and stressful for me. The check engine light would constantly flash versus staying a solid yellow color. It would spit all kinds of shit out of the exhaust, and do a ‘chitty-chitty-bang-bang’ type of routine several times a day. Sometimes it would just die at the stop light, all 7 tons of it. Sometimes it would just refuse to start. Sometimes it would die on me at the worst possible times and in the worst possible places. It guzzled gas like mad…I had some really hairy, scary times in that van over 2 years but I also had some really amazing times which I will share in this blog… But I still cannot believe the van made it through all the things I put it through and I still cannot believe that I myself was able to endure all the things I was able to endure over the next 2 years…

Big Bertha at the car lot…

I realize there are many people who live in a car or van that have no choice. This article series is mostly for people that willingly, consciously choose this lifestyle for whatever reason: to escape the ghastly cost of rent, to explore the world, to have a fun adventure, to live like David Thoreau, etc. But those that are living in a vehicle unwillingly will still find these articles useful. Some may wonder, why not get an RV? Living in an RV is way more socially acceptable in America than the other options and likely way more comfortable, but it takes some of that stuff that apparently cannot buy happiness. Money, dinero, mula, cash, etc. You might manage to get a cheap RV but then comes the gas costs, insurance and the costs involved to maintain it and repair it which can be outrageous I’ve heard.

I recently overhead a gal working as a coffee barista gushing about her new apartment for “only” $850 a month (in a small shitty town 30 mins outside of Charlotte, NC). I thought to myself, wow what do you get for all that money? A cookie cutter apartment where you can probably hear everything your neighbors are doing, air pollution, the smell of nearby pig farms in the air, heavy traffic, no nice nature parks, strip malls with several stores gone out of business, a depressing mall with several stores out of business, extreme heat, humidity and bugs, high crime rate and high unemployment, homogeneous everything, hard-core fundamentalist churches on every corner, a population that is generally racist, no inspiring scenery and the only “fun” thing to do is go to the local bowling alley or the crappy movie theater with crappy movies (that are way over-priced) with crappy movie food (that is way over-priced). Unless she is getting government assistance or assistance from someone else, I’m nearly certain her barista job after taxes does not provide enough money to live comfortably in an $850 apartment plus utilities, etc. She might have had another job or two jobs just to make rent.

When the new “norm” is to work 2 or 3 jobs just to maintain a shitty apartment in a shitty area, that to me is a problem. That is not the America I grew up in, and that is not the idea that previous generations in America upheld as the “good life”. Our ‘pursuit of happiness’, has become just that….an endless pursuit but never actually finding it. The new “normal” is not sustainable, and so some of us are taking a different path now. However, most of the millions upon millions of people who are in this boat are not going to make a stink about things – they are too busy trying to survive.

Living in Big Bertha was a mixed blessing. Lots of good times and lots of scary times.
Sunset shot from my TT campsite on Puget Sound in the state of Washington.

One fantastic resource I recommend is free campsites dot net. There are tons of camping spots all over America that you would never know about otherwise. I have used this site many times, just be sure to read the reviews. Another resource to check out is Thousand Trails. T.T. is an RV resort chain that has been in business for 50 years. They allow tent camping if you don’t have an RV. The cost is really reasonable and you can camp throughout most of the United States for one low price. They don’t have much of a presence in the middle of the country but all the states on the west coast, east coast, south and north are accounted for. So you potentially have hundreds of campsite options at your fingertips once you join. Its like $44 a month at the time of this writing. You pay one price and campsite hop all you want the entire year, depending on which camping package you select. Most of the campsites are really nice, some are not so nice but every one I have been to is better than your run-of-the-mill campsite you will find in America for $40 a night. Most of the Thousand Trails resorts have a hot tub and heated pool, free wifi, a main lodge with cable TV, laundry facilities and more depending on the location. The bathrooms are always clean and you can always count on a nice hot shower. I have talked with several people who have been full time RV-ing for over 30 years and some 50 years with Thousand Trails. That speaks volumes to me. I have been waiting for some kind of “catch” with this great deal but the only real downside I have encountered so far is that you have to drive 5 MPH while going through the park which can be annoying. But it is a legit, affordable and solid option. You can stay a maximum of 4 nights at each campsite if you want to campsite hop willy-nilly with no restrictions. So you could literally camp out all year with TT for just one price. The other option is, you can camp in a tent for a max of 7 days or your RV for a max of 14 days at one particular campsite, and then you would have to be out of the system for 7 days before camping with T.T. again. The other “catch” is that you cannot sleep in your car with T.T. (you have to have a tent) but I have seen plenty of people sleeping in their van at Thousand Trails. So they will likely allow you to sleep in your van if you have one (probably not a mini-van though, it has to look like a camper-van).

Prius Camping? Loads of people are doing it, but at T.T. you must have a tent to use their facilities. You might be able to use a camper van there without a tent however.

If you have a camper van, I would say they will probably allow you to stay a max of 14 days at a campsite which is an outstanding deal. Thousand Trails would have been a life-saver for me when I was doing the Van life but I did not know about it at the time. If you have a Prius, you can get one of those Prius tents that attach to the car and you are in business. Thousand Trails is a especially great option for people who are concerned with safety and maintaining a sense of “normalcy” while solo traveling throughout the USA in one’s van or car.

What about making money while living on the road?? My #1 favorite app for this is Uber Eats, followed by Doordash. Food deliveries are simple. Bring the food from point A to point B and you will get paid for it. With Uber Eats, many cities across America have several promotions going on at any given day such as getting bonus money for doing so many deliveries or doing deliveries in a specific time frame of the day. You can get paid instantly the same day via direct deposit to your bank account if you need the money right away or you can have it automatically deposited once a week.

I recommend Uber Eats over other apps I have tried for the following 7 reasons:

The simplicity and reliability of the app itself. The Doordash app constantly has problems…it often crashes or freezes up and it has to work in tandem with Google Maps which can be annoying. Uber Eats has a state of the art map system that is only used for Uber drivers. I have often spent 20 minutes or longer in the middle of my shift talking to a Doordash support rep who is calling me from the Philippines somewhere with lots of static on the line. None of that happens with Uber Eats. I was one of the early adopters with Postmates and that app had lots of problems as well in the beginning but maybe they have got things worked out, I am hearing a lot of positive things about Postmates at the time of this writing.

Low bar to entry. It seems like Uber Eats typically takes on everybody that applies unless you fail the background check. Grub-hub is a more rewarding food delivery option but most of the positions are taken, and so there is a waiting list. Ditto with Amazon Flex and Shipt. If you can get in one of those programs you are set, but your mobility will be limited to the region you signed up with. I would avoid Instacart, that experience was pure hell and I truly hope that company does not succeed with the many insulting ways that they treat their delivery drivers. Also with Uber Eats the year of your car has to be at least a 1998 or something. If you were just doing Uber taxi driving then you would have to have a very recent year model of vehicle to be a driver with them.

You can do it from just about anywhere. Once you get set up, you can pretty much do uber eats from any place in the United States that has Uber Eats available in the area.

You don’t have to stay within pre-arranged zones. With doordash and others you have to stay within a prearranged zone within the city you are working in. A big metro area may have 6 or more zones and then the zone thing becomes a problem when you deliver food to someone in a remote area or to someone who is outside the zone that you signed up to work in. At that point you may have to drive 20 or 30 minutes or more just to get back to the zone you signed up in so you can resume making money. You wont be able to take any orders outside your zone. This happened to me when I did doordash in the DC metro area. It was kind of a nightmare. With Uber eats you can log in from wherever you are and start doing deliveries immediately

Minimal wear and tear on your vehicle. Just drive from point A to point B and repeat. That’s about it. I have driven for Lyft in the past and may do it again, however the wear and tear issue with Lyft too much for me. People routinely slam the car doors, leave litter and stains and generally treat your car like a garbage can. I have had some amazing conversations with people while driving for Lyft but its not the norm. If you start doing the late shift taking people home from the bar you will quickly understand what I mean. With Lyft, you cannot control who gets in your vehicle or how many people get in. I have had times where there were so many people in my vehicle that it did damage to my rear shocks. Another thing with an app like Lyft is your car must always be immaculately clean and you have to be sensitive to who you have in the car when it comes to music or talk radio. With U.E. you can blast your radio as loud as you want and although having a clean and organized car is always important, none of that matters when it comes to making $$ on Uber Eats.

No cancellations & eager customers await. With Lyft, cancellations are the norm. You could drive a good distance and then suddenly get notified that your customer has cancelled the Lyft. Not fun when you have your working hat on but it happens all the time. With Uber eats you never get cancellations. The people have paid for the food already and are hungry! In about 25% of the orders that come in, the customer will actually come outside to your car to meet you. Then you just roll down the window and give them their food.

Tax write-offs. When it comes to tax time, you have mileage write-offs galore and car depreciation write-offs. I recommend running a free app called Everlance in the background at all times for this purpose.

The food is already paid for and has already been called in. With Doordash, Postmates and others, you will have to use a company issued debit card to complete the order before you can get the food to the customer in about 50% of the orders. In many of these cases this will mean that the customer has not called in the order and so after you use that debit card, you will have to wait around at the restaurant as long as it takes for them to make the food. You may even have to wait in a long ass line during the busiest times of the day to get this done. So tack on 15 to 45 minutes hanging around and watching the paint dry on the wall. I would rather be out making money than dealing with all of that crap. Uber eats has none of these headaches. Every single order has already been called in or ordered online by the customer and totally paid for… With U.E. often times the food is already waiting for you by the time you get there.

You will not get rich doing Uber Eats, however you can make as much money as you want, it just takes logging in and working the hours until you hit your money goal for the week. It pays as good as or better than just about any run of the mill retail or restaurant job would pay, minus all the headaches, ass-kissing, brown-nosing, daily commute etc that comes with your standard 9 to 5 job. Uber Eats is totally liberating in this way. Back in 2015 when I was having some tough financial times I had to work some really brutal, soul-destroying jobs that take all your energy and time and give very little back. It would have been nice to have U.E. back then but that is a testament to the gig economy and what a game-changer it is, it has evolved very fast in a short amount of time.

How much can you expect to make with Uber Eats?? I would say $350 to $400 for every 20 hours that you work, and up to $450 or $500 for every 20 hours if the city you are working has lots of Qwest & Boost bonuses going on all the time. (Which typically means Uber eats is short on drivers in that area)

The other option I recommend for those that can do it is selling on eBay and Amazon. I am not as keen on these two giants as I have been in years past but real people are making real money in these giant online marketplaces. I have been an eBay seller since 2005 and an Amazon seller since 2006. After Hurricane Katrina my gig as a real estate agent totally dried up and I had to make some money. Ebay and Amazon worked really well for several years but now the marketplaces are saturated with millions of sellers, the associated fees and taxes are outrageous with both and there are tons of possible headaches with both. Ebay and Amazon each have their own unique advantages which I will not go into in this article, however if you have the right game plan / strategy you could get “rich” doing eBay or Amazon. But it ain’t gonna be easy like Uber Eats and you could just as easily lose money if you don’t know what you are doing. But both of those sites continue to be solid money making options while living on the road. For example you could buy things cheaply in thrift or department stores and sell them at or near retail price on Amazon or Ebay. I have done this many times.

I mentioned Doordash above as a secondary option to Uber Eats primarily because in certain cities, there seems to be more action on D.D. than U.E. This was the case in the D.C. Metro area – I made a lot more money with D.D. than U.E there. Some towns seem to prefer one food delivery app over the other is the bottom line.

OK, that about covers it. If you are a man or woman under 30 years of age, most people will think living in your vehicle is cute. For 30+, most Americans will likely feel sorry for you and think you are a loser and will not comprehend why anyone would want to do this lifestyle, just sayin. And some parts of the country are definitely better than others for this…I may get into that topic in a future article. Many Americans still have that Saturday Night Live skit in their heads with Chris Farley living in a van down by the river. Younger generations may not know about this because SNL is just so God-awful to watch any more. Interestingly, if you have a decent looking RV you will get a pass with most Americans in the “normalcy” area. Most Americans “get” the RV lifestyle…they don’t “get” the Vandwelling lifestyle or the Prius-camping Lifestyle because it messes with the structure of decent, every day society too much in their eyes. If I was a young dude or dudette, I would be getting my van or Prius ready right now. The world is your oyster and I have met many young folks doing this on the road that have impressed the crap out of me. Check out my article on “2 must haves” for the rest of my thoughts on this topic.

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