Guest Post: Car Life

Since I started my guest post series on those living small, I have always wanted to find someone who could tap into a lifestyle that everyone can relate to: Car Life. Most of us own one, yet when we go on road trips, we don't always use our vehicles to their fullest potential.
In June 2015, Kate left New York City and traveled 20,000 miles in five months. She spent most of her nights sleeping in a tent or in the car's reclined seats, taking in the sounds of nature around her.
Kate's car acted as her tiny home, but also her adventure mobile. It gives us a comfort knowing we don't necessarily have to go out and buy a van or camper to live on the road.
From my relatively structured place in the world, making a major life change always struck me as an impulsive behavior—until I decided to do it for myself.

I had made a few city moves in my life, sure. But they all seemed calculated to some extent. Making the decision to live out of my car for as long as my savings would last was an idea that a few years ago I would have thought was crazy. My life required stability and I thought I needed that to stay sane. In retrospect, it was a naive way of thinking and if I'm being honest, all that stability was probably driving me nuts.

There wasn’t some big moment of clarity that led to me packing it all up, but instead several tiny influences that eventually converged into a major life decision. There was the impromptu Sunday hike out of Brooklyn that started to make the city feel particularly claustrophobic, a three-day binge read of “Wild” that implanted a slowly growing need for adventure of some kind, a general unhappiness with my job—which afforded me a great life, but not much fulfillment—and the unknown of where I wanted to live after I left New York. There were others, too, but these were at the core of my impetus to get rid of everything that didn’t fit into a 7’x8’x5’ storage container and hit the road.

Finding a car

When some friends moved abroad and needed to sell their RAV-4, I jumped on it. Knowing that my time in New York was likely coming to an end, I’d been thinking of buying a car so that I could explore New England before moving. The RAV-4 was also a great road trip car and by that point, I knew I wanted to take a small road trip before moving to a new city.

Planning the trip

I started the money saving process and began researching places I might like to visit. It was around that point when I started to realize there were too many places to see in the initial month that I’d allotted for traveling.

As time went on, the length of the trip grew from two months to four to however long I was able to sustain myself traveling. That last part—the part about “however long”—that was new for me. I’d been a planner and one who didn’t always take chances without having some sort of safety net in place. But, at the same time, I envied people who were able to fly by the seat of their pants. So, working “however long” into the equation became a challenge I set for myself and an identifying feature of my trip. It made me decide to do things differently than I had in the past and use this opportunity to be more spontaneous.

Being Open to It All

During the summer of 2014, I took a 10-day road trip with my dad to a few places I thought I might like to move—Louisville and Nashville in particular. We had a great time together, and it was refreshing to get out on the open road after so long, but neither city felt right to me. It was frustrating until I decided to incorporate the search for my next home into my trip. I figured if I was about to see as much of America as I could, keeping an open mind about everywhere would allow me to get a feel for each place. The thread of spontaneity was starting to weave itself through more of my trip.

At the beginning of the year, with five months left before my departure date, I started sitting down on the weekends with a road atlas—my “Great American Road Trip” bookmark folder full of places I’d saved over the past year—and map out possible routes. This changed several times over the course of those months (some places became more appealing while others lost favor) and evolved even more while I was on the road. But this planning helped me get familiar with the layout of the country and where my must-sees were.

Getting It Altogether

When the idea of a road trip came about, I wasn’t tuned into traveler culture, so I didn’t know anything about living out of vans, campers or trailers.

Most of my family vacations as a kid involved camping and that hike out of the city made me realize how much I’d missed the outdoors. So, for me, there was never an alternative to living out of a tent while I was on the road. Since I lived in Brooklyn, having outdoor gear on hand had been unfeasible up until this point, mostly because of storage limitations, but also because, without easy transportation out of the city, there wasn’t much opportunity to camp. So I became a member at REI and began the acquisition process. This gear would be part of my “home” for months, so I spent a lot of time researching before pulling the trigger on each item. I definitely went down the gear research rabbit hole at times (it’s probably criminal how many hours I spent debating a Yeti cooler), but let’s be real, that can be a fun hole to crawl into.  


When I was packing up my apartment, I did several passes over the things I kept out to take on the road with me, trying to limit them as much as possible.

I still ended up taking way too much, but you never know what you’ll actually need until you get out there and start using only half of what you brought and wearing the same shirt four days in a row.

I took a page from my dad’s gear organization book and bought some higher quality clear plastic bins from Home Depot to store my kitchen, food, miscellaneous camping and personal items. My best friend had also suggested compression travel bags, which ended up being a godsend for reducing the space that clothes, blankets and bulky items can take up. The night before I left, I packed Rosie (a car isn’t truly yours until you’ve given it a name) as best I could on a busy Brooklyn street, but I waited until I got to my friends’ home in upstate New York to get down and dirty. A tarp was thrown down, everything was unpacked, and I really got to know the ins and outs of my car’s storage options. That was the first of many organizational go-rounds (while I was on the road, this was a constant process), but finally having everything in its place helped limit my anxiety over a mishmash of stuff strewn about in my car and also made the trip feel real.

A Home with No Zip Code

On June 1, 2015, I left New York City.

For the next 157 days, I traveled almost 20,000 miles and touched or spent time in 31 states.

When I wasn’t staying with friends or the very occasional motel, I pitched a tent and slept under the stars. I had a lot of stuff packed into Rosie, so I didn’t really have the option of easily sleeping there. There were a handful of times, though, when the weather was terrible or I had a quick overnight somewhere when I reclined the passenger seat and slept as best I could.

Knowing what I do now (i.e., I packed way too much stuff), I probably could outfit my car to be slept in, but I’m not sure I would have done it all that often anyway. It sure would have been helpful when it was pouring rain, when it dipped down to 25 degrees or when it was difficult to find a campground. Most nights, though, I loved zipping myself into my sleeping bag with the sounds of the wilderness around me—the howling coyotes being my favorite.

The experience of living out of a tent was incomparable, but what it did to my sense of self was unexpected. It required problem solving when I didn’t always have a campground lined up, necessitated fortitude when the weather didn’t cooperate and, most importantly, provided a constant sense of accomplishment from being a woman alone who could handle anything Mother Nature threw her way.

As silly as it might sound, it was in America’s campgrounds where I discovered how strong of a person I am.

Oh, The Places You’ll Go

The South has always held a sort of mysticism to me. It did so perhaps because of its twisted history, my familial ties or how its culture has maintained a distinct feel over the years. Regardless of why, it was the first place I wanted to get to know better. Between visiting friends, camping out, haphazardly exploring small towns and spending extended time in cities I loved and had returned to often on previous vacations, I traveled around for two months there. I spent a bit of time in the Midwest, but the western part of the country was really calling my name.  

Badlands National Park

Badlands National Park

When I arrived in Badlands National Park in the latter half of August, I knew that my trip was about to take on a different feel. It’s no secret that the West is America’s sweet spot for everything outdoors related and it fulfilled every need I had in that area. Even more than that, though, the landscape of the country out there changes you. I suspected that it might, but there’s nothing like standing in silence, surrounded by the tallest, most beautiful mountains you’ve ever seen to make you feel like you’ve just been baptized in the Sanctified Church of Mother Nature.

I spent another two months exploring this part of the country and it wasn’t even close to enough. Honestly, if I could have redone things, I probably would have cut a month off of my Southern Tour and high-tailed it West. There were a lot of places I wanted to visit that I didn’t get to, but it was important for me to fully experience the places I could rather than check more off my list.

What’s Next

After my savings depleted, I planned to move to wherever felt like home. But I realized that the road feels like home now, and I’m not ready to give it up just yet.

So for the next few months, I’m in Austin, Texas, to work and save money before venturing out again.

Taking this leap of faith was the best decision I’ve ever made. It provided me with a far deeper connection to and greater respect for the outdoors, the time to get to know myself without distraction and the ability to live life without a plan.

I’m really looking forward to getting back out West to explore some of those spots I missed and revisit the ones that made a lasting impression.

Yellowstone National Park

Follow Kate of Wonder the Road

Edited by Kate MacDougall.
All photos credit to Wonder the Road.