We spent a few days with car dwellers Megan + Michael back in November, and it feels good to be catching up with them again. We are inspired by their travels and hopeful that there are people out there making it work in something they might already own. Not only might a car get you places faster, but you also won't have to go out and buy a van and spend time converting it into an adventure mobile.
These friends of ours are not only living this lifestyle; they are sharing easy-to-prepare recipes and encouraging others to eat off-the-grid meals. Their blog is designed to minimize the amount of stress, time and ingredients you have to bring when you're camping in order to fully enjoy the experience outdoors. We love the message they are spreading and can't wait for them to show up at our home or meet up on the road.
Square Feet: 11
Make, Model, Year: 2000 Ford Focus ZX3 Hatchback
Currently Living: California
Months living mobile: 6
However, while we sleep in the car at the end of the day, I think it's more accurate to say that we live in the world.
What were you doing before you went mobile?
Before Michael and I hit the road full time, we were just another young couple living and working in Los Angeles. I worked in business administration for a community nonprofit, and Michael worked in marketing for an outdoor apparel company. In the three years prior to our trip, we were living in a small rent-controlled apartment in Silver Lake as the neighborhood rapidly gentrified around us.
Why did you make the change?
Both of us had been working full time Monday to Friday, 9 to 5 since we left college. The only economy we've ever known is the post-2008 recession, so once we found decent paying jobs in our mid-20s, we became very risk-adverse. We were playing a very defensive game, and the fear of unemployment guided a lot of our decisions. But while we were able to pay the bills and afford a reasonable lifestyle, we couldn't escape the feeling we were just treading water. Not getting ahead, not falling behind, just floating along.
We had both fallen out of love with the work we were doing at our jobs but felt compelled to carry on with them anyway to make ends meet. We had real passions we wanted to pursue—photography and writing, respectively—but could never devote any time to them. We also wanted the ability to travel, to see the world, and to experience new places. But again, our time—and it seemed, our lives—had already been spoken for. From our perspective, it looked as if our schedules were full from now until 65.
At a certain point, we decided this wasn't a game we felt like playing anymore. We were tired of working at jobs we didn't like, to make money so we could keep on living, in order to continue working the jobs we don't like. So we decided to find a new game, one in which we actually enjoyed playing, one in which we had an optimal chance of winning.
We no longer have the option of holing ourselves up in a private four-walled apartment. Instead, we spend most of our time in public spaces. Whether it's a national forest, a city park or a public library, these spaces have become an essential part of our lives.
What was the process like to move into your mobile home?
While we thought we lived a minimal lifestyle before, attempting to downsize our one-bedroom apartment into a two-door hatchback proved otherwise. We had a lot more stuff than we even knew!
We decided against getting a storage unit early on. Not only would it be a continual drain on our monthly budget, but it just didn't make sense to pay to store stuff we didn't even know we had in the first place.
So we had only three options: keep, sell, or throw away. We had a bunch of yard sales and listed nearly everything on Craigslist. What we couldn't sell, we donated. Toward the end, we even hosted a "Pillage Party" where we invited our friends over to drink our booze and to carry something off from the apartment. After a month, we had gotten rid of most of our possessions. It was difficult to start, but with each item we got rid of, we felt lighter and lighter.
How do you fund your trip?
To make this trip happen, we saved—a lot. The very first thing we did to prepare for the trip was to develop a detailed monthly budget. We wrote out every conceivable expense, from fixed expenses like health insurance to variable expenses like gas mileage. Since hitting the road, we've been fairly strict about keeping to it.
How do you balance work and living in a small space?
Living and working in a small space is a constant balancing act. Our workload is never even, so we are continually readjusting. In the beginning, we made a lot of mistakes, the chief of which was taking on too many projects at once. We had a very difficult time saying no to anyone. After learning the hard way (multiple times), we have become a lot more selective about what work we take on.
What are your hobbies on and off the road?
On the road, our hobbies are usually dictated by what is around us.
When the weather is cold, we'll search high and low for hot springs. Hikes through the woods or just a long walk around a town are wonderful ways to experience an area. If we're eating out, we like to go to the highest reviewed, lowest dollar sign restaurant in the area. We have uncovered a lot of great ethnic food this way.
When we're off the road, you can often find us in the kitchen by making elaborate, multistep meals that use as many dishes as possible. After cooking as simply as possible out on the road, sometimes it's nice to go wild.
What are your top three go-to items in your tiny home?
Dutch Oven: This is our most versatile piece of cooking equipment. It can be used on a campfire or on a gas-powered camp stove. It can steam rice, cook stew and bake bread. It is hard to think of a meal that can't be cooked in a Dutch oven.
Insulated Mugs: We agree that steel enamelware cups look much cooler, but we got tired of having to gulp down our coffee before it becomes freezing cold. Since switching to insulated mugs, we've never looked back. Now we can casually sip our coffee all morning long.
12-Volt Inverter Box: This inverter box plugs right into our cigarette lighter and allows us to power two laptops and two cellphones at the same time (when the car is running of course). We would love to get a solar setup at some point, but for right now, this little inverter is the only thing powering our business.
When did you become interested in cooking?
While we didn't know each other at the time, we both became interested in cooking for the same reason. In our early 20s, after leaving the all-inclusive college meal plan ecosystem, we found ourselves faced with a dilemma. Either we could muddle along on a diet of fast food, ramen and Marie Callender's frozen dinners, or we could take some responsibility and learn how to healthily feed ourselves. We both chose the latter path and developed a proactive approach to our diet.
How has your cooking experience changed since living on the road?
The biggest change we've had to face is the lack of refrigeration. We both hate dealing with coolers (constantly melting ice, strange meat juice water swirling around in the bottom).
What are your top three go-to meals on the road?
While we do run a camp cooking blog, we're not eating gourmet campfire meals all the time. Sometimes it’s freezing cold outside, or raining, or windy, or all three at once, and we just need to make something.
Here's our list of non-glamorous last-resort camp food:
Oatmeal: It's cheap, lightweight and open to endless adaptations. When we are in a rush in the morning, nine times out of 10 we'll be making some form of oatmeal.
Rice and Beans: We like that it's open to a wide range of interpretations as well. Mexican black beans and rice? Indian chickpeas and rice? Cajun red beans and rice? The list goes on and on.
Hot Toddies: It's not really a meal, but they have become a staple on our trip. Most traditional cocktails require ice, which we don't have. So this warm whiskey drink has become our go-to nightcap. If you want to make your own, check out this recipe below:
Maple Apple Hot Toddies for Two
- ½ large apple, cut into ½ inch cubes
- 2 cups water
- 2 tablespoons maple syrup
- 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 1 teabag black tea
- 3 oz. whiskey
Add the apple, water, syrup and cinnamon to a pot and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to a brisk simmer for 3 minutes.
Remove from heat, add tea bag and steep for 3 minutes.
Discard the tea bag (and apples if desired— we leave them to enjoy sangria-style). Add the bourbon, split between two mugs and enjoy!
What has been the most rewarding thing about living small?
There are a lot of rewarding aspects about living small. There's a feeling of lightness and agility that opens a whole world of possibilities. If we don't like the weather where we are, we can always drive someplace else. If we find a place we love, we can stay for as long as we like. We are free to make our own schedule, because everything we need is with us at all times.
Living small has also allowed us time and space to figure out what is really important to us. Before the trip, we let our stuff define us. This was not done consciously, but in the back of our minds we viewed ourselves as the sum of everything we owned. The nicer the things we owned, the better we felt about ourselves. This, of course, is a terrible way to live your life.
What is the most challenging thing?
Interestingly enough, we don't miss any of our old stuff. In fact, since downsizing, we haven't thought about anything we use to own. However, removing the clutter of things has revealed a variety of challenges, some new and some that have always been there.
Lack of personal space means we have had to become better communicators. There's nowhere to hide in a compact car, no place to sulk. So it's critical we are able to have an open and honest dialogue with each other at all times.
Lack of privacy means we've had to become a lot more comfortable with ourselves. Going to the bathroom under less than ideal circumstances, cooking off the back of the car and taking a shower in the woods are now just things we do.
Lack of community is not something we considered when starting out, but it has had a real effect on us. It's true you can always make new friends on the road, but you can't make new old friends. Thankfully we've been able to use social media to develop relationships with the new people we meet. Being connected online has also allowed us to keep in touch with our family and friends back home.
What is your advice to people who want to live small or hit the road?
Living out of a compact car is obviously not a long-term living situation (or at least it's not for us). It is, however, a practical, low-cost way to see the country. Before the trip, we spent a long time deliberating whether to get a Westfalia, Sprinter van or a proper RV; however the cost of entry always seemed too steep. After buying the vehicle, fixing it up and building it out, we could have spent nearly our entire year's budget.
For us, traveling was always the priority. We didn't need to have the coolest rolling apartment on four wheels; we just wanted to be able to experience new places. Under that mind-set, the car seemed like a very viable option. So our advice to anybody thinking about going on a road trip would be to consider what is important to you. What are your goals?
What's next? Any news you want to share?
We're planning on heading east, seeing the south and getting to New England, but that might not happen very quickly or even in that order. At the moment, we're letting opportunities guide our path. Instead of pressing forward to specific geographical destinations, we're allowing ourselves the space to detour when doors open. Our unscheduled trip to Cuba is a perfect example of the unknowns that await us.