How To Live In A Car While Working In IT

How To Live In A Car While Working In IT

About eight years ago I was working as a UNIX sysadmin for a national Australian ISP and lived in my car for about six months. Here is a short description of that time with some tips for technical car campers who may find themselves in this position.

This is a guest post by Dylan O’Donnell of DNA Digital, an Australian hosting, web design and optimisation company. Republished with permission.

I wouldn’t consider myself wealthy now but I’m doing ok for someone who used to live in their car. There is a longer story about my own personal development, but this is an interesting chapter, so I’ll stick to the car story.

Truth be told, it wasn’t because I was hard up. I was just between leases. My boss at the time sold me a beat up old massive Toyota troop carrier for $5,000 which I bought with the proceeds from selling my other car, a tiny white Barina. These two cars could not have been any more different really.

Anyway, I decided to sell almost everything I owned over the course of a few months on Ebay, then fitted the 4WD with a mattress and a 2-stroke generator. I bought a nice DSLR camera to document this six month period of my life. (I credit my time living in the car to learning most of what I know about photography.)

My Tips

At the time, I was a sysadmin. I still had to come into work but at night I’d go off and find interesting places to “camp”. Here are my tips for living in your car while working in IT :

• Find someone who is happy to collect your mail at their address. The government don’t like vagabonds and they won’t accept a PO box on your drivers’ license.

• Get a nice laptop with long battery life. Even if you have a generator it’s noisy, smelly and generally inconvenient to run so having enough juice for an evening is ideal. I bought an iBook at the time which was great.

• Make sure your laptop has Wi-Fi. These day’s the 3G network is great, but at the time I had to wardrive for open hotspots.

• Don’t sleep in residential areas if you can help it. Rural / park type places are much nicer and private (especially if you want to run a generator) although commercial areas can be quiet after dark as well.

• Get a pool membership; it’s a nice place to get a shower and use the bathroom etc. Oh and a swim, if you like.

• If you have a van with windows, make sure you can cover them from all around so you can be inside with a torch or other light but still look like an empty van from the outside.

• In NSW there are blocks of land called “Travelling Stock Routes” or TSR’s which are a carry over from the days when stockmen ran cattle across the state. They are public land you can use and even have a campfire on. Just don’t take wood away.

• State parks are also good.

• If you are a web dev, run Apache locally on your laptop so you can dev offline and save network / power.

• After a while you will notice other car-campers as you get familiar with the best spots. It’s best you keep to yourselves, there can sometimes be a certain shame living in one’s car. For me it was a little adventure though.

• If you have a girlfriend to mooch off, ask if you can use her laundry once in a while, otherwise you’ll have no choice but to use a coin laundry in town.

• Sleeping on the side of any road is perfectly legal. Remember, you pay tax and the roads are public property. Police can ask you to move on and that’s fine but the roadside is ours to share. Besides, you are encouraged to “stop, revive, survive”, right?

• If you’re feeling lazy, just sleep outside your office. You usually have access to Wifi and a bathroom there anyway.

• Change location frequently. I slept near waterfalls, lakes, mountains, rivers and all kinds of interesting places that look beautiful against a sunset or a sunrise.

• Get a solar mobile charger if you can, but get a good one. I had a cheap one that blew up one day and started a fire on the bonnet of the car. Not good.

Appreciating What’s Important

I hope these practical tips help you should you ever need to car camp and work in IT at the same time. Having shed most of my earthly possessions during this period of my life made me appreciate that what was most important to me was my mobile devices and data (and a guitar). Once I had returned to normal life in a house I had saved a large chunk of money and generally spent less on everything. I required less. I hoarded less. Before long I had a deposit for my first permanent house + mortgage.

Maybe I’ll get into all the rest later. Hope you enjoyed reading.

Evolve is a weekly column at Lifehacker looking at trends and technologies IT workers need to know about to stay employed and improve their careers. This is definitely one of the more unusual angles we’ve ever featured — thanks again Dylan!


      • Tips for how to be a homeless person are useful? Really? We read lifehacker for very different reasons obviously. I’m glad others enjoyed it. I did not.

        • From a purely practical perspective, I did save enough to contribute substantially to my first mortgage. That property has since been used as leverage for business acquisitions and rental income and I now have a portfolio of 3 properties, the genesis of which I can trace back to this episode in my life. I certainly understand that it’s not practical advice for everyone though! Take care.

    • Well, Ryan, He isn’t homeless because he’s living in his troopcarrier – maybe not interesting for you, so maybe look beyond yourself and stop being such a narc.

  • This is about life, and how to live it in particular situations. How does this not fit into a Lifehacker philosophy Paul? The story is somewhat simple in content but made me think about how enjoyable a life of basics can be.

  • “• If you have a girlfriend to mooch off, ask if you can use her laundry once in a while, otherwise you’ll have no choice but to use a coin laundry in town.” Let’s be honest, if you are a IT worker living in your car, you probably won’t have a girlfriend!

    • Funny you say that. My girlfriend (now my wife) has no sense of smell. I’m fairly certain that may have saved our relationship after this episode.

    • That’s right, I had a little butane stove and a largish tupperware box to hold all my food. Nothing that would go off in a hot car. I really missed cheese.

    • Yes, I kept it quiet. After many years I thought it might be ok to write it up. I didn’t want anyone at work to freak out either.

  • Man, this article makes me miss my van so much. I used to take her for trips down the Great Ocean Road as often as I could. I would love to sell of my useless crap and live in my van for a good stint.

  • I don’t really see what working in IT has to do with the article, it could have just as easily been titled “How To Live In A Car While Working at McDonalds”. A more appropriate title would have been “How To Live In A Car”

  • This is the ultimate life hacking article! Well done Dylan, very inspiring. Did you pay much for fuel? Where did you park your car during the day while at work? I reckon most people secretly want to do this, but are scared of the stigma attached to having no fixe address.

  • go dylsy, i know i couldnt of done it, more power to you, i do recall you sucking down internet on my unsecured network the nights you parked on my front lawn in sydney, and as if jonny, you wish mate, your missus never be lettin you do that 😉

  • Thanks for sharing, I did the “sleeping in a car” thing too for a month. You learn to become resourceful. I used to go work out every morning before university/work so I could have a shower.

    • Not sure who your comment was directed at Anthony as most of the commenters supported the author who could hardly be described as conformist given that he slept in his car for 6 months. Also, how do you know who works in IT?

  • Few things I would do differently:

    By a Cigarette to USB Charger to charge your phone up and camera or other USB devices. I got one from aldi a few weeks ago that has 2 USB ports and 3 cigerette lighters, and it’s the best thing I could have purchased.

    I also purchased a Power Inverter from DickSmith for charging up your laptop while you drive.

    So now you can power everything in your car.

  • I have often thought that this would be a way to get by on low income in a City… tried to convince a mate once but he found a garage to live in instead.
    Great article gives a new perspective to life – and yeah you stilled paid your way through income tax etc and great to hear you are now in a better financial place!

  • Have not done this as much in the urban environs, but did work/travel around four states and a territory covering our remote sites and it was probably the best 8 months of my working career. I tended to avoid built up areas when I could….. when there I found some of the smaller factory areas were good for parking at night as well. Rural and remote you often shared roadsides with backpackers and grey nomads.
    Like you, Ryan, an old ‘Cruiser, small gen but also second hand solar panels, five old UPS batteries, underbody water tank and a few other oddemts worked well….. I did also have an old 12V fridge that allowed me to enjoy cheese and meat…. and like you I saved a neat cache of cash to buy my first place….. all worked out better than expected.

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