What started as a fresh start in San Francisco turned into an exercise in proving to myself what I need… and what I don’t need.
When I first came to San Francisco in 2016, I didn’t have a renting situation set in stone (to put it lightly). Before making the 28-odd-hour trip from Austin, I had thrown everything deemed necessary in the back of my ’08 Prius and trashed the rest. While I had a job and somewhat of a soft savings pillow to fall back on, I wasn’t interested in too quickly surrendering it all to an Outer Richmond studio space while I was still finding my footing. At that time, too, San Francisco was in the midst of its Tech Bro era — and the nose-bleeding rents followed in tandem.
For those first three months in the city, I technically had a roof over my head, but that roof had a carpet-like liner and cardboard underpinnings. My first weeks of Bay Area living were spent embracing a half-hearted attempt at #VanLife—or, more specifically, an excursion into #HotelPrius.
Yes, I lived in my car. In a city with exorbitant rent prices, it can be a tempting move to make. So for those intrigued by the idea of swapping your rent check for the vehicular life, I’ve compiled all the most important quirks to know about when it comes to car living — or “stealth camping” as it’s known in some circles — in the Bay Area.
Your car matters
I couldn’t fathom doing this type of money-saving minimalism in, say, a Honda Civic Coupe or any other two-door car. Space is at a premium. Hatchbacks — or “liftbacks,” as a Prius is marketed as — work the best. Not only will you have ample space in which to organize your belongings, but also you’ll have perhaps the best luxury that car dwellers crave: sleeping on a flat and elongated surface. (Unless you’re four-foot-nothing, sleeping in the backseat of any car will contort your knees and torso in unnatural ways.)
Simply put the back seats down, line something plush along the flush back, and nod off. Trust me when I say that there are few things more disheartening, annoying or infuriating in life than trying to get a good eight hours’ night sleep at a 120-degree angle.
Pro Tip: YouTube is alive with tutorials on how to trick out your ride for living in it. Here, here and here are a few of my top picks. Also, keeping organized, via suitably sized storage bins, is a must; to get mail and packages, purchase a local USPS PO box or a UPS Business Mailbox.
A 24 Hour Fitness membership is a lifesaver
By far the number-one question I got asked during this entire excursion was “You don’t look ‘homeless,’ so how do you stay clean and dress well?” The answer was always my 24 Hour Fitness membership.
A premium membership — which runs about $40 plus tax per month — to the 24 Hour Fitness network gives you access to all the over two dozen 24 Hour locations here in the Bay Area; a basic membership at $29.99 drains that pool down to about four or five “Fitness Sports” clubs, the bare-bones 24 Hour iterations that boast filthy bathrooms and communal showers that could double as Petri dishes for ringworm.
Pro Tip: For those mornings when hauling yourself off to the gym might be too much of a hassle, reach for facial wipes. A quick scrub-down, followed by a misting of essential oils, will do the trick.
Dn’t fall prey to the Whole Foods hot bar
Admittedly, one of the major speed bumps of automotive dwelling is how you’ll feed yourself in a healthy and cost-effective way. Not having a working stove and countertop can be as financially crippling as it is troublesome.
But don’t let convenience cost you a pretty penny—which a trip down any hot bar will surely do.
I found myself in that expensive situation many times in the beginning. In fact, I tallied up my Whole Foods expenses one month, accounting for just salad-bar spending, and the grand total came to a staggering $427.13. My heart (and wallet) sank to my stomach, albeit a well-fed and GMO-free one.
Pro Tips: Invest in both a portable “hot lunch box” and a three-day cooler. These two can be ordered on Amazon and will save you literally hundreds down the road. Check out these healthy on-the-go recipe ideas that’ll keep your silhouette trimmed and your bank account full-figured. For those times when frugal fast food is calling, embrace Taco Bell’s dollar menu and order “fresco style.”
Park under the radar, and be a friendly neighbor
The laws around car living are blurred from state to state, but here in California, it’s generally perceived as a perfectly legal way of living—“it’s your car; it’s your home.” However, that doesn’t mean you can (or should) “park up” shop anywhere you feel like.
The rule of thumb boasted by other four-wheel-living ilk is to never park overnight along resedential streets, private businesses, or properties. Your best bet is to find evening respite at Walmart, 24 Hour Fitness, and uncovered shopping-strip parking lots. Streets that hug along parks, too, are often safe spaces for getting shut-eye.
Because your sleeping options are quite narrow, you’ll soon become acutely aware that you have “neighbors,” of sorts. You’ll come to find yourself as part of a small niche community of people who, either by circumstance or self-choice, chose to avoid the Bay Area housing crisis by taking up shop in their vehicles.
And just like any good neighbor, you should be considerate of your fellow stealth campers. Don’t blare your music, and never double-park. Just be a decent human being.
Pro Tips: No matter where you end up pulling the e-brake, be sure to get going at or before dawn. It’s pretty awkward when you’re woken up at 7:45 a.m. by the thud of a closing car door coming from the spot next to you. Set an alarm for around 6:00 a.m. to avoid any impromptu awakenings. Also, for privacy, save up for a good, professional window tinting, and purchase a windshield sunshade.
Some sage words
Now a renter in Nob Hill, I frankly miss those days of halfhearted #VanLife now years removed from them. As someone who has the fortune to work 100 percent remotely, it was a vocational quirk I was able to take full advantage of.
If I wanted to spend four days in Seattle or a long weekend exploring Mendocino, I could. Plus I saved money and made some phenomenal personal connections along the way.
All things considered, I’m quite serious about giving this way of life another round. So if you see Hotel Prius around town, occupied by a snoring, sprawled-out man, feel free to leave a “Morning!” sticky note on my window.