Bug-Out Van: Living In a Van When SHTF

What happens when disaster finally strikes?

We spend time preparing our bug-out-bags and survival gear, but a lot of preppers neglect their vehicle. Not only does a van help you get to your bug out location – it can be your bug out location!

camper van

In this post you’ll learn what your car needs… and what to expect when living out of a van.

You’ll also get tactics for hygiene, organization, and eating in your van.

Now some people actually choose to live out of their cars. Why? Well, for some it is the nature of their work that has them on the road for extended periods of time, so why not sleep there as well. After all, why have an apartment that you barely use?

Others lead a lifestyle that places them on the trail all the time for example hikers and backpackers. They can drive to their preferred hiking location and use their car as their base camp.

Others choose to live out of their cars as a strategic lifestyle. By being frugal you can avoid rent costs which are skyrocketing, and save enough to pay off loans like credit card debt or student loans. For others still, it is just a statement of rebellion against the status quo.

Bug Out Camper Van Build Part 1 | Insulation

The Hidden Homeless

Unfortunately, the percentage of people who live out of their car out of circumstance is much higher than that of those who do so willingly.

Being homeless or even just temporarily displaced leaves many people with no other option but to live out of their cars. A shaky economy and thousands of foreclosures have driven families and individuals out on the streets.

Roughly about one out of five homeless people in a given area live out of their cars. In fact, the sight of RVs and vans with people living inside has become a common occurrence in the largest cities of the world.

The trick to living in your car with relative peace is finding locations which can accommodate you for extended periods of time with relatively high security.

Consider the parking lots of 24-hour stores that have an unofficial policy of allowing vans, motorhomes, and off-grid trailers to camp overnight. The CCTV surveillance at these stores is usually a great deterrent for thieves, meaning you will be relatively safe. Other great locations include:

  • Hospital emergency room parking lots
  • Staff parking lots at hospitals
  • Top floors of parking garages
  • Truck rest stops
  • Construction sites
  • Manufacturing facilities
  • Car repair places
  • Police stations
  • Pub parking lots
  • Churches
  • Public boat launch areas

It is important to note that certain areas have time limits like rest stops that offer a 12-hour limit. Also, keep off gang turf and make sure your key is not in the ignition when using a pub parking lot as this is technically considered driving by the police.

The fundamentals – from a mechanical standpoint

The reality of living in your car is difficult but possible as long as you manage your expectations. The most important thing is to ensure the mechanical soundness of your van to ensure it can accommodate you for as long as you need it to.

The more serious mechanical considerations include:


Depending on the season you must ensure your car settings can be tweaked to keep the temperature ideal for you. In the hot season, you can use a portable fan that can be plugged into the cigarette lighter. Rolling the windows down is not an option for safety purposes.

During the colder months, you have the option of running the engine although this is an expensive option and you run the risk of calling attention to yourself.

However, by ensuring that you don’t have cracked windows or doors that do not close properly you can keep the cold from coming in. Of course, you must have warm clothing, a sleeping bag, some blankets and sheets and a curtain to stay warm.

Lockable doors

Not only can this keep the elements out, it also ensures your safety. It is untenable to live in your car when your doors cannot lock because you place yourself in mortal danger. In addition, lockable doors ensure you have your privacy.

Windows that can be wound up or down

Windows act like your HVAC system when you are living in your car. They let in fresh air and keep the car warm or cool. Having windows that cannot be wound up or down means that you need to use the car’s AC more often, which is not an ideal situation.

A fully charged battery

This is imperative for powering your essentials like your mobile phone, laptop, and perhaps a mini fridge or fan. Ensure you never drain your battery while taking care of the above by keeping it fully charged. Keep the use of such things at a minimum or else you may just find yourself with a damaged or dead battery.

A functional engine

One other thing to consider is the need to get away from a location or situation very fast. As such, your battery, engine, and other pertinent parts of the car need to be running at optimum. Since it is your home you must find a way to make this possible especially if you are sleeping in varied spaces.

Essentials accessories

A spare key for your car just in case you lose the original one. Just like you would do for your apartment, you need to keep a key outside of the car but in an easily accessible place.

A jump starter battery box is essential especially since you are constantly using your battery to charge your important everyday equipment. It is imperative, of course, to keep it fully charged. The advantage of a jumper starter battery box is that you do not need anyone to give you a jump start.

An inverter is an absolute essential as it converts the vehicle’s 12 volts of direct current power to an alternating current which is more palatable for household devices. Assuming you have any household devices then they are kept safe.

Electrical power jacks

Since most cars come with only the cigarette lighter or one accessory jack you need the three-in-one jack to accommodate all your charging needs. In some vehicles, the cigarette lighter shuts off once the ignition is turned off.

You can have a mechanic re-route the accessory plug to bypass the ignition or add a plug that doesn’t need the ignition to be on to be powered.

Cost To Build My Bug Out Van | Time Lapse of Van Build

The reality of living in your car

We have established that your car is a better option compared to a tent, a shelter or even sleeping on your friend’s couch. Now let us tackle how to manage this living space and make it comfortable.


Understandably, without the reassuring presence of four walls to keep prying eyes out it may take you some time to get comfortable in your new home. You will need to be extra vigilant of your surroundings but with simple precautionary measures, you will be able to settle in and even begin to have a restful sleep.

Now, speaking of those precautionary measures, do note that we said simple. Do not go overboard with bobby traps and military-style deterrents. You could hurt someone and land yourself in a worse predicament than already are in. Consider the below, more acceptable options

  • A reflective sunshade to place on your windscreen. This is great for shutting the world out and at the same time keeps the heat out during summer and acts as an insulator during winter.
  • Store-bought press-on window tints. These are great as a temporary measure although you may want to invest in something more opaque like curtains
  • Opaque-colored curtains. Using opaque curtains can create a sanctuary just like placing curtains on windows in your house would. They also give the space a cozy feel which is important when you want to rest.
  • Locking the doors. You can never be too sure of your surroundings so having doors with functioning locks is imperative. This way nobody, sinister or just curious, would have the opportunity to breach your privacy.
  • Use the buddy system. If you have friends who are in a similar situation, a buddy system is ideal to keep up privacy and safety as well. A lone car coming under attack stands little chance compared to two or more cars with inhabitants inside. In addition, it is much harder for peeping toms to muster the courage to look into your car if there you have friends nearby looking out for you.

If you are in a situation where you need to leave your bug-out vehicle for an extended amount of time you can set up a little additional security by installing a trail cam on a nearby tree.

If someone were to come snooping near your vehicle you will easily be able to catch them at any time of the day as most include night vision cameras.

If you have the capability you can use a trail cam that transmits footage directly to your phone through the internet which can give you the heads up on any suspicious activity.


The limitations to personal hygiene while living in a car are many. After all, you have no shower, brushing your teeth outside your car can alert people to the fact that you slept in your car, and going to the toilet becomes a scheduled affair.

Some people opt to join a gym and maintain a membership that allows them to access shower facilities that have towels.

Hanging wet towels in the car provides a great environment for mildew. Alternatively, take up a sponge bath which you can accomplish in your car or a restroom then pay for a shower at a rest stop or pay for entry to a swimming pool or the YMCA where you can also get shower facilities.

It is imperative to identify specific places in your vicinity that have clean and safe restrooms with running water. Incorporate them into your daily routine and ensure that you use the facilities responsibly. Another option is to have your own personal chemical toilet which although convenient is not the freshest option.

Keeping your clothes clean is perhaps the easier part of your personal hygiene when living in a car. Stacking loads of dirty clothes compromises the air quality of your car. At laundromats, you are able to take care of your weekly laundry at a reasonable price.


Living in a car is the real test of minimalist living. Only the crucial items need to be in the car as they are essential for your everyday survival. The essentials should include a communication kit which includes your cell phone, laptop or tablet, and the needed chargers. Consider a solar charger to ensure you do not discharge your car battery.

For sleeping arrangements, a sleeping mat that can be rolled up keeps the surface smooth and makes the sleeping bag even more comfortable. Keep your clothing in portable packing units like packing cubes from Amazon. These cubes act like a drawer system and can be stacked to create room.

Cooking facilities should be the bare minimum. A fork, spoon, plate, cooking pot, cup, dishwashing soap, and a drying cloth. All these can fit in a bucket with a tight lid to keep out dust and dirt. A little cooker that can fit neatly in the corner should come in handy as well.

Food should also be stored in airtight, well-closed containers. Do not stack up on fresh produce like meat and poultry unless you intend to cook it on the same day.

Work with dry foods like dehydrated beans and canned meats which are guaranteed to be safe if not consumed on the same day. Also, remember poor food storage will attract pests and vermin into your house.

Medical supplies are imperative so keep a “medicine cabinet” that features a first aid kit, toiletries, and other hygiene essentials like baby wipes.

If you have the means, rent a mini-storage cubicle to store your valuables and other important items that you do not need at the moment.


Eating in restaurants is not a feasible option when you have little to survive on. To keep yourself healthy choose to eat fresh fruits and vegetables which you can make into a salad in a heartbeat. Stock up on nuts, cereals, canned soups, cheese, eggs, long-life milk, and peanut butter and jams.

Food preparation must be done outside of the car. You can go to the local campsite to prepare your food outdoors and come back to your designated sleeping place afterward so that you keep the place clean. You wouldn’t want to be kicked out of a safe place because you are not able to keep the place clean.

Living life to the fullest from your car

Living in your car can be depressing. This is the harsh reality of losing everything and being homeless. The shame associated with such a loss can cause you to become a hermit or a recluse by choice.

Combat negative feelings by getting out of your car as often as you can. Go for walks, enjoy the park, and keep in touch with loved ones. This is an essential part of moving forward towards a healthy future.

Find yourself a portable radio for entertainment and news so you can keep up-to-date with the world around you.

Get a private mailbox with a street address which comes in handy for driver’s licenses, ID cards, car insurance and job applications, and emergency situations.

Find free Wi-Fi hotspots that allow you to keep using your internet-enabled devices.

This keeps you in the loop whether you are looking for a job or are already working and need access to your emails and other work-related documents. Public libraries are great because they have computer access.

You can also spruce up the car with portable solar panels to charge your devices. Alternatively, carry a small generator.

And since every time you may need to cook something you will not necessarily be close to a campsite, you should consider a small propane stove for those times. If you have this option, ensure that you have enough propane for your stove.

Fitting the van with a shower or bathroom is also a possibility. Some vans can allow you to stand and fit the shower head on the roof. You can also fit a rack on the rooftop of the van to keep your supplies and gear properly secured.

The Best Bug Out Van Types

When you think of the ultimate bug out vehicle a van most likely appears first in your head. They have a bare interior to make it easier for planning a camper build. Your bug out van should have strong road capability including having four-wheel drive.

Gasoline or diesel engines are a personal preference since the price fluctuates quite a bit.

Generally, diesel will get you further on a tank and can be cost-effective per gallon depending on where you get it. Keep in mind that both engines do require regular maintenance to keep them working properly.

Here are some of the best examples of bugout vehicles you can use as your daily driver too.

Ford Transit

These are a good choice if you want a vehicle that can be both a bug-out vehicle and able to be used for other purposes. They have a unique shape which is a cross between a cargo van and Sprinter.

Ford Transits provide a measure of stealth as they are quite small. If you outfit it with all of the basics you could travel around undetected and stay in some pretty small areas.

You can get a gasoline or diesel model depending on how much maintenance you want to keep up with. They both require regular maintenance but diesel engines require less engine maintenance to better overall efficiency.

Cargo Vans

A cargo van is the classic choice for off-grid mobile living. They are built to last a long time, can drive over various terrain, and are easy to keep the heat in for warmth in colder climates.

If you’re looking to build something from scratch inside, these are your top choice. They are effectively just a metal body that is ready to be wired, insulated, and built out.

Even if you include reasonably-sized living quarters, you will still have enough storage space for things like extra fuel, a fire extinguisher, and spare tires.

Volkswagen Westfalia Van

A classic camper also dubbed a “westie” was originally a Volkswagen bus, but for many, the Westfalia is the ultimate road-tripping vehicle.

These vehicles are not for the faint of heart as they are often expensive, hard to find, and can have a learning curve for some of their more notable quirks. But it’s been an icon for boondocking and camping alike since the 1950s.

Westfalia is a surprisingly good home on wheels. It has plenty of space and was designed to be modular so you could design the inside of the cabin yourself.

They can also be fitted with off-road wheels and enhanced suspension if bugging out into the forest roads is your idea of fun.


The classic Dodge Sprinter is the first thought that comes to most people’s minds when it comes to having a bug-out van.

These vehicles usually come with a bare interior which means you are in charge of the insulation and interior design. This leaves you in control of what your bug-out van will look like and how it’ll perform as a home.

They come in both diesel and gasoline models, the former being excellent for longer trips. A lot of people go with a diesel engine for these vans since the mileage is greatly increased over that of gasoline.

If you enjoy having a lot of headroom with the ability to customize the interior pretty much any way you want, then a Sprinter might be the best choice for your bug out van.

The Minivan

This one is last on the list but it is also an incredibly viable bug out van option. Minivans are low profile (people might assume you’re a soccer mom), have great space for a single person to sleep and have their supplies, and are generally low-cost to keep maintained.

Some models even come equipped with 4-wheel drive which makes getting off the grid a little easier.

If you are looking to make a useable living space, a minivan might not be the best option but if you just need something outfitted for a bug out emergency this would be right up your alley.

Is Van Living and Surviving for You?

There is nothing flippant about living from your car. It can be a terrifying experience that can leave you depressed and even suicidal. Be that as it may, it is a manageable situation as well that can make you stronger and more focused in pursuing better for yourself.

Whether it is a choice you have consciously made to live out of your car or hard times have pushed you there, a car can be a house much better than a tent can.

3 thoughts on “Bug-Out Van: Living In a Van When SHTF”

  1. I lived in my pick up truck, put on an insulated camper shell and did fine . I did this in the desert of Arizona. Truck stops for showers. 5 gallon water jug with spigot to wash dishes , brush teeth , and drinking . Filled it at coin operated water places. Small butane stove to cook on. Laundromat to care for clothes. Actually I enjoyed the peace and quiet.

  2. I have a Dodge high top window van that has been converted to great living quarters. I have 200 watts of solar power that charges a Group 31 AGM “house” battery. This provides power for my CPAP machine, powered roof vent, 12 volt compressor fridge, LED lights, and charges my smart phone and tablet. I cook with a small single burner propane stove and have a catalytic propane heater for cold weather. (with CO detector installed in van also)

    My bed is a 9 inch memory foam mattress and I have dark tint on all windows behind the front doors of the van. I also have reflectix to press into the windows for total light control and privacy.

    I have traveled all over the West coast, through Mexico, and into Central America. The rig is stealthy and reliable, not to mention very comfortable.

  3. Saltwater fishing piers are another possible location to have extended stays. Traffic is 24 hours and the dress code is pretty relaxed, giving the resident extra down time. And if LEOs show up and knock on the window, you can always offer the excuse that you are catching up on some rest before moving along. Can’t argue that staying safe on the road is discouraged.

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