How to Live Out of Your Vehicle in a Mountain Town
Considering living out of your vehicle? Check out Ski Expert Hailey Gilmore's experience living out of her truck along with some tips, tricks, and avoidable mistakes!
So, you’ve made it….you’ve scored your dream job, or just a seasonal job in the mountain town of your dreams! All that time spent looking at people’s Instagrams of their days skiing or rafting as their job and as their lifestyle, and now you’re here.
Your bags and car are packed to the brim with ski gear, hiking boots, and maybe even your trusty doggo sidekick. But there’s one last thing you forgot to figure out, or maybe you’ve been trying for months with no luck—housing. It’s no secret that housing in mountain towns have always been hard to come by. The high prices of resort areas, combined with the fluctuation of workers make it tricky to snag a reasonably priced place that isn’t crumbling to the ground or that you don’t have to share with 7 other people. So, you’ve tried and tried and there still isn’t anything popping up, but you have that dream job locked down, and you can’t turn back now. There's only one thing left to do. Like any good dirtbag, you turn to your trusty, and probably rusty, four-wheeled tin box and call it home.
This past summer I lived out of my slide-in camper on my Toyota Tacoma with my 5-year-old rescue pup, Colby. Living on the road was something I had wanted to do for so long, and I finally was able to due to lack of housing and a lucky Facebook Marketplace find a homemade, lightweight camper perfectly fit for my 4 cylinder, 5 speed Tacoma. Since I had years of dreaming and research leading up to this moment, there were a lot of challenges I knew to expect, but I also learned so much about this lifestyle and myself, that I was not ready for.
Here are some tips, tricks, thoughts, and funny stories of my time living out of my truck with a dog, in a mountain town.
Now I am someone who already has very few clothes, and wears an ever smaller amount of those clothes. But I am also known for being horrible at packing (what if I need this shirt I haven’t worn in two years, for this weekend trip?). So, I knew paring down my clothes and other essentials would be tricky for me. I was also lucky enough to have a storage unit, so I was really able to minimize what I actually had with me.
You really want to narrow down your must-haves, can’t-live-withouts, and the essentials. This is a process and will take some time, it will also take at least another 2 weeks once fully moving into your vehicle when you realize you still packed too many outfits and non-essentials. The way I started this process was by making a list of clothes, toiletries, electronics, books, and even food. My list for clothing looked something like this: T-shirts, 3 pairs of shorts, 2 (well, I only have 2) nice shirts, 2 pairs of jeans, and so on and so on. From there, once I was able to place these items into my actual camper, I could see where I needed to cut back, or where I could potentially add more. What I really found tough was that this was an ever-changing list throughout my entire time in my truck. I would use the same few outfits, and then randomly use another, so I ended up making a few trips to my storage unit throughout the summer to drop off more items I realized I really didn’t need.
When I first moved into my truck it was only the first of May. So, this left a lot of snow on the ground and a lot of campgrounds still inaccessible for about a month. Luckily, in my town, you’re able to park overnight on the street, and honestly, a lot of people do this. The biggest thing I found was trying to find that perfect street to camp on. This can be whatever makes you feel the safest while living alone. For some, it might be a darker street so it's harder to tell you’re sleeping there, meanwhile, others may prefer a street with bright lighting. Some may want a lot of people passing by so there are more people around, and others might want the quietest street available. For me, it would change periodically. However, I did have my favorite street to park on. It had some lighting, it was in-between a library and an RV park so that there were some people around that hearing noises didn’t scare me.
All this said and done, it took a lot of trial and error, and you really have to find what works best for you, in your town, and your situation. Figuring out what are your must-haves and can’t-live-withouts are is key.
Hygiene on the road, or just living out a vehicle is one area that can be tricky. Or at the very least, inconsistent. Your access to showers, toilets, and laundry machines are either limited, or just more of a chore to get to. If you’re lucky enough to have friends in town with actual housing, asking to use their facilities (usually only in exchange for some beer) is a huge help. I started off the spring showering at a friend's house fairly consistently, however, when this was no longer an option, I struck out to find my favorite swimming hole.
Something with still water, a little bit of privacy, and as warm as I could find in the Tetons. I was able to find a small “pond” only a few feet off of a very popular trail used mostly for dog walking (probably questionable now that I write that out). It had a little area with trees for some privacy and was never too deep to stand with my upper half out of the water. It was still very cold, but for a town that’s water comes straight from the high peaks, it was as good as I was gonna find. In this pond, I was able to dip my hair in enough to wash it, and quickly scrub some (eco-friendly) soap onto my ever dirty skin. It wasn’t perfect, and I certainly never felt 100%, but it did the job and the cold water usually felt nice after a hot day in the camper. I once realized that I had gone a full month without getting a real shower, only one from the river. Yikes.
Sometimes I wasn’t able to get to a shower or was too tired to find a freezing river to wash in. In these cases, I had a few steps I would take to simply get the layer of dirt from mountain biking off of me. These steps included three main things: water from my tank, face wipes, and deodorant. My first step was rinsing off my face quickly with my drinking water, if I could actually wash it with my face wash, I would. However, that depended on whether or not my pump for my sink was working—it usually wasn’t. Then, I would take a few face wipes and simply wash down the vital areas. Now, if you’re a woman living on the road, you want to be careful. Having limited access to laundry machines, and having to pee outdoors, you want to monitor your pH. Having spoken with other “mobile” women about this issue, yeast infections are much more likely in this environment. Please be careful!
The other aspect of hygiene on the road is washing your clothes! This is huge during the dusty summer months because clothes get gross quickly. If you’re not able to use a friends’ washing machine and you don’t want to wash them in the river the best option is, of course, the laundromat. However, these are expensive as well. My trick here is using only the washers while there and finding a place to park for the remainder of the day to dry your clothes. I would use the hood of my truck or run a string from my camper to a tree to dry my clothes. Of course, this takes a little more planning of your day (really committing to laundry day) but it will save you a lot of money on drying, which to me always seemed to cost more than the washing part.
Now, this last part might seem silly, but it is absolutely vital to find your favorite public bathroom. Of course, when you’re camping in the woods you can always pee behind a bush, or dig the appropriately deep cat hole. However, when you spend your nights sleeping on the street or when you’re in town running errands and cannot simply run home, you’ll need to find your favorite place to go. For me, it was actually the welcome center for my town. They were always clean, open late, and I always felt safe (that part is huge for solo women, or really anyone). The welcome center also had a family bathroom that was a singular room that you could lock, and spend a little extra time in if you didn’t want to always be peeing next to strangers. I even dried my hair using the hand dryers once when I needed to look a little nicer—pro tip!
Hygiene looks different for everyone, so you really have to figure out what works for you. Maybe you spend money on a gym membership so that you can use the showers more regularly. Maybe you check into a hotel twice a month to reset. I know my town’s Rec center and the local hostel had paid showers you could use as well, I just simply did not. Figure out what works for you, what you cannot live without, and make the most of this wild lifestyle.
For more on staying clean while camping or on the road, check out this major guide.
To be honest, cooking was something I struggled with while living like this. Mostly because for the first month of me living in my truck I wasn’t able to properly hook up my mini propane tank to my cookstove, so it was a nightmare to operate until I finally found a system that worked. Therefore, really dialing in your cooking setup is huge. If part of the reason you’re living this lifestyle is to save money, then getting your cooking set-up perfected will change the game. Otherwise, you will end up like me and buy too much to-go food which, especially in a resort town, will not save you money.
Another aspect of your cooking setup is food storage. Now, this will also depend on your dietary needs, restrictions, preferences, and what your living situation looks like. If you’re like me and eat a lot of dairy and vegetables, you’ll need something to keep them cool. Now, they do make small fridges that can be plugged into your car’s outlet, but for me, I simply used the amazing 45qt Rtic Cooler which when filled with two ice bags from any gas station or grocery store would usually keep for about 5 days. However, I kept my cooler in the back seat of my truck, which was probably the hottest place it could have been. If I had more room, I would have kept it in the camper, which would have most likely kept my food for a longer period of time.
To keep things light my cooking setup looked like this: one pot to boil water for pasta (a constant in my life), one small cast iron, a large one cast iron (I could have used just one, but oh well), a pair of tongs, a pasta scooper, one knife, one spatula, two bowls that came with two matching sporks and two matching cups, and lastly a smorgasbord of random cutlery I’ve accumulated throughout my days which were mostly spoons. I highly recommend, even if you’re not someone who normally cooks much when living inside, to get more comfortable with it. Not only will it save you a ton of money, but honestly, there’s something more fun about cooking out of your vehicle, even when it's on the side of the road. It brings you back to simpler times, and the looks you get from passersby are fairly entertaining. Is that girl cooking kale on a cast iron pan in the back of her truck? Yes, I most certainly was.
Doing This All With a Doggo
You might be reading this and think, “but I have a dog, how is this possible if I have to go to work? What about the heat?” This particular piece made me very nervous until the very last day living in my truck. My dog loves being in any vehicle, no matter how long or short, no matter where we are going, or even if he has to stay in it without me for a little while. The truck is his safe place. This was so lucky and made things so much easier for me living this lifestyle, as I know many dogs would not agree with Colby. I learned a lot about the importance of parking spaces, shade, fans, water, window screens, and foil insulation.
Honestly, a large part of why I wanted to do this was because of my dog. Living this way would mean I didn’t have any excuse to not be outside with him. It allowed him to spend nights exploring campgrounds while I cooked dinner, it allowed him to be ever vigilant of the squirrels and birds outside our window, and it allowed me to provide him a more fulfilling life. All that being said, it made certain things more difficult and took a few more minutes of planning. Luckily, I live in Wyoming. So, as long as you have some shade, you will also have a bit of wind, it’ll be about 5 degrees cooler there.
I had to begin really cautiously finding shaded spots to park in while I was at work. I bought 3 rechargeable fans, I always had the exhaust fan on in the camper, and I bought thermal insulation for every single window. They also make thermometers you can link to an app on your phone to check in on the temperature during the day. Having Colby with me also made sure I would always find a source of water for him to swim in at the end of the day. Unless it was cold or raining, there wasn’t a single day where we didn’t go to the river so he could cool down. Being some sort of mutt which I think includes lab, golden retriever, border collie, and who knows what else, he has a lot of fur, so making sure he could regulate his temp was vital. Also, he just really loves to swim. I would not suggest living this lifestyle with a dog in certain climates, unless you’re able to be with them most of the day. Otherwise, there is too much room for error on the temperature.
The joys of having a dog that loves to eat grass endlessly, while living in a camper are limited. However, they do make for a funny story. There was one week where Colby was really going to town on his grass-eating (something he does all the time, regardless). Normally, he doesn’t throw up because of this, but this week was different. As any dog owner will tell you, nothing will wake you up out of a dead sleep faster than the sound of your dog beginning to puke. As I shot up out of bed, I quickly unlocked the back (and only) door of my camper and positioned his head directly out into the street, hoping nothing would end up in our bed. I truly felt like a sorority sister holding her friend's hair back after one too many drinks at the bar—and I laughed at the thought of someone driving by watching this scene unfold.
Ultimately, I would make sure you are really prepared to do this with a dog. Being prepared means buying extra fans and foil insulation for your windows. It means having a friend on-call to take them into their house on extra hot days, or a go-to doggy daycare you can rely on. I would personally check what the temperatures are projected to be the next day, and plan accordingly. You begin to figure out what temperatures you can work around, and what you must take seriously. You also have to be aware that sometimes the forecast is wrong, and it may be hotter than initially planned. I had this happen and was stuck at work. I was lucky enough to text everyone I knew who might be in the area and find someone that could go and check on him since I was unable to leave work. This was not a mistake I would repeat again, however. The added planning and stress of another life relying on you even more than usual was something that took a bit of a toll. However, the benefits of having a friend always with you on lonely nights camping are worth every extra bit of planning.
Here is just a small list of tips and tricks I learned along the way: 1. This one is huge! If you’re able to find people that need someone to watch their house for a weekend, do it! This allows you a much-needed break, some time to do laundry, and to take a real shower. It may even be paid! I was able to house sit about 3 times this summer, and it was always a major reset for me. 2. As mentioned before, finding shade will keep your vehicle cooler once you’re back in it after work. I’ve read this before and did not take it seriously enough, or realize how big of a difference it really would make! 3. If you’re a lady, you probably understand this struggle. Waking up in the night and having to pee is something I realized I do a lot, but I also spent a fair amount of nights sleeping on the street. So, having a sealable Mason Jar (wide mouth of course) was a literal life-saver. This may seem gross, but if you haven’t realized that everyone has to pee, then I’m not sure what to tell you. Having this handy little thing along, designated solely for this purpose, of course, was an absolute game-changer. 4. Buying a portable charger on the days you don’t want to use up your solar power is a HUGE plus. Just make sure you don’t skimp too much on these, as there can be a huge quality discrepancy.
Mistakes I Made
If I were to do it over again, here are mistakes I made that I wouldn’t again! 1. Eating out too much—it may seem easy, cause it is, but it adds up quickly when out on the road! 2. Bringing too many clothes—I still had too many with me, which made my already limited space even more chaotic. 3. Not being organized enough—I wish I had spent the 2 minutes every day organizing and cleaning. With such a small space, it doesn’t take long, but feels overwhelming at the time. In reality, having a clean space when it's that small, makes a huge difference. 4. Not planning my days out well enough—I found myself just driving to places, then realizing I should have planned out my route better. When you’re living in a house, you have a starting and finishing point. With mobile life, you’re always moving. So, if you don’t plan out where you’re going to sleep that night, or your route for your errands, then you spend too much time driving around instead of relaxing. 5. Waiting too long to fix simple things—when your life is this condensed and minimal, fixing the little things makes a huge difference. If I had figured out my cookstove early on, it would have saved me money, time, energy, and much frustration. Also, figuring out a better organizational system and keeping it organized earlier on, would have saved me the same.
Ultimately, I am so glad I did this. I had wanted to for so long, and although I had moments where completing simple tasks were extremely frustrating, I wouldn’t change much. I was able to spend all of my time “outside,” I was able to wake up with stunning views more often than not, I was able to be with my dog all the time, and I was able to watch him reap the benefits as well.
It is messy and dirty. Certain tasks that would be simple at home require a few more steps, but it taught me more than I thought it would. It taught me how little I really need to live and be happy. It taught me how to adapt when you get locked out of your camper and only have one key, when your solar panel battery dies, or when your bike lock won’t unlock from the rim of your truck tire. It forced me to spend more time writing and reading on the nights without service. It taught me to be still on nights spent alone in campsites. It taught me to be more thoughtful with my actions, with my purchases, and how I spent my time. How to find free camping, how many times I could eat pasta in a week, how to properly care for another being when they cannot care for themselves in the heat of summer. I could write so many articles on every aspect of this topic, but I hope I hit the essentials, and that this provided you with some useful information! Even if you live this lifestyle based on necessity of an ever decreasing source of workforce housing, I promise you won’t regret it. You just have to learn how to work the system!
Thinking about moving into your vehicle? Have more questions about what gear you might need to do so? Want to run your packing list by a real life Expert? Hit up one of our Curated Experts and they'd be happy to chat all things outdoor adventure and gear. They can even offer a personalized list of the best gear for you based on your situation and needs!