How to Live Full-Time in a Van in British Columbia's RV Parks

Steering wheel and instrument panel of a van

Homeless and living in a car?

If you are homeless and living in a car or van in North America I would like you to add your own personal experiences as a vandweller to this website (http://vandwellers.usefuladvice.org/). There are several benefits (financial as well as other) to doing that.


Introduction

I am writing this page from my own personal experience of living in my van in BC's RV parks for two and a half years so far (June 2016 - December 2018). I am a 50 years old male and have lived in Vancouver in rented apartments for the last 20 years.

I currently have no fixed address, and my van is literally my home. It's a standard passenger van (i.e. not an RV) and to make space I have taken out one raw of back seats and put it in storage. Another raw of back seats I folded into the floor of the van.

You can read through the article, or jump to the section that interests you the most.

  1. Cost
  2. How to Choose an RV Park
  3. Some Advantages of Living Full-Time in a Van Inside an RV Park
  4. Some Disadvantages of Living Full-Time in a Van Inside an RV Park
  5. Sleeping in Your Van
  6. Arranging the Cargo Area
  7. Surviving Freezing Temperatures
  8. Some Other Essential Gadgets
  9. How to Clean Mold in Your Car
  10. How to Make a Cup of Coffee When You Live in a Van
  11. The Unspeakable: Shower and Washroom
  12. Charging Your Mobile Devices
  13. Great Things I Got to See and Experience at RV Parks
  14. Not So Great Things I Got to See and Experience at RV Parks
  15. Interaction with Police
  16. Legal Ambiguity When Being Homeless in British Columbia
  17. Appendix: Driving Around BC in Your Car

Cost

My regular monthly expenses when living full-time in a van in RV parks (Canadian dollars):

Total: $1850

Any "one-time expense" not listed above (e.g. new clothes, using the BC ferry) is on top of that.

Notes:

1. You need money to live. Before you start living full-time in a van in an RV park, you need to figure out how you will be able to pay the monthly expenses.

If you are considering to move to a remote community in BC and wondering what jobs may be available, please check my up-to-date job listings from small communities in rural BC.

If you are paying your monthly expenses using a credit card, please try my credit card debt calculator, designed especially for that purpose.

2. My monthly cost of renting a spot in RV parks, averaged over a year, is $700. The price varies between RV parks, but also between the six months of "high-season" (i.e. spring/summer) which may be $900, and six months of "low-season" (i.e. fall/winter) which may be $500.

During the low-season, RV parks have few visitors. During the high-season, RV parks may be fully booked in advance and have no vacancies if you simply show-up the night before.

3. You need a storage place to put all your personal belongings that you don't carry with you in the van. The cost may be $50-$150 per month, depending on the storage size. Optimally, if you do it right, you will need to access your storage place only once a month, or once every few months. Everything that you need for your day-to-day living should be in the van. Personally I have more space in my van to store staff than I actually need.

4. WiFi

You have three options:

4.1. Use free WiFi. Most RV parks have free WiFi for guests. You can also use a public library, coffee shops, etc.

4.2. Use your own mobile hotspot (from Rogers Communications, Shaw, etc.). The advantages are that your mobile connection to the web anywhere in BC is guaranteed, it's secure (e.g. you can feel safe to check your bank account), and it's fast. You generally pay per gig of data used.

4.3. The best option is to use a combination of both. When you need a secure connection, or when no free connection is available, use your own mobile hotspot. For all other things use the free WiFi.

How to Choose an RV Park

BC has hundreds of RV parks and campsites. Some are privately owned and others are public (municipal, provincial, or national).

The best way, by far, to find an RV campsite is by doing a google search; for example: "RV campsites in Victoria BC" (without the quotation marks).

But here are two other good sources for finding RV parks in BC:

https://gorving.ca/campgrounds/campgrounds-british-columbia/

http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/

Since you are living full-time in a van (also known as "van dwelling"), you want your experience to closely resemble that of living in a home, so you should think what is important for you to have. You may learn of new things that are important to you only after you start living in your van, but I have written some ideas below.

  1. Showers and flash-toilets (as opposed to pit-toilets)
  2. Laundry facilities
  3. Shade for your van, provided by trees in the campsite. In the summer, without shade, by 10 AM your van will turn into an oven. This may adversely affect rechargeable batteries of laptops, electric shavers, etc. (the batteries' ability to hold charge may be greatly reduced after being cooked in the sun), and it may also destroy food that you have in the van (I had a bottle of chewable multi-vitamins that melted into a single piece of "plastic").
  4. The RV park should be within 30km of your favorite stores (Walmart, Canadian Tire, coffee shops, etc.). You can find RV parks within few kilometers of these stores.
  5. Close to a waterfront (lake, river)

Some Advantages of Living Full-Time in a Van Inside an RV Park

Some Disadvantages of Living Full-Time in a Van Inside an RV Park

Sleeping in Your Van

Sleeping inside your van doesn't have to be different than sleeping in your own bed at home, and it can be just as comfortable.

Having taken out, or folded into the floor, all the back seats, you should have ample room to sleep.

Here is how to do it:

1. Start with a folding foam exercise mattress (picture below, from Walmart).

A folding foam exercise mattress, blue color

2. Use a bed sheet on the mattress.

3. Secure the bed sheet tightly around the mattress using sheet straps (picture below, from Bed, Bath & Beyond, and also Walmart).

White elastic straps, with clips at both ends, to hold bed sheets in place around a mattress

4. On top of the bed sheet, use your favorite pillow, and another bed sheet to cover yourself.

5. In the fall and winter, use a sleeping bag, with the zipper fully open (like a blanket), on top of the second bed sheet.

The advantages of using a sleeping bag rather than a blanket, is that it takes much less space, it's very efficient in preserving your body heat, and it always comes with a pouch to easily fold the sleeping bag into.

If you are buying a new sleeping bag, make sure it's rated for freezing temperatures, so that you can use it in the winter.

The advantages of using a bed sheet between yourself and the sleeping bag, is that the bed sheet provides another layer of protection to preserve your body heat (similarly to wearing a few layers of clothing), and it's much easier to put a bed sheet in the laundry machine, than a sleeping bag.

6. If you still feel cold in the winter nights you have three options:

6.1. Wear warmer clothing before getting into bed.

6.2. Take a hot-water bottle with you to bed ($10 at Walmart). If you can boil water easily using an electric kettle, a hot-water bottle is also very useful when sitting in your van in cold evening. A hot-water bottle will keep you warm for 1.5 to 2 hours before it cools to room temperature.
If you are using a hot-water bottle while you sleep at night, here are two tips:
- In addition to the hot-water bottle, fill up a thermos with boiling water. This will give you the option to quickly change the water (in the hot-water bottle) in the middle of the night.
- Even after the bottle cools down, keep it with you under the covers and close to your body. The rubber in the bottle will absorb some of the heat that is radiated by your body and keep your surrounding (under the covers) warmer. The effect is noticeable.

6.3. Get another sleeping bag, and cover yourself with a bed sheet and two sleeping bags. This is the ultimate solution for keeping warm in freezing temperatures. You can put the second sleeping bag in storage for next year when the weather gets warmer.

Arranging the Cargo Area

Everything inside your van (well, almost everything) should be inside storage bins, so that you can save space, find everything easily, and drive your van without things falling or shifting in place.

Having taken out, or folded into the floor, all the back seats, you should have ample room for storage bins.

The bins have to be colored and semi-transparent so that you can easily find a bin and see the content inside the bin without having to search for a label.

Canadian Tire, Walmart, and Staples carry a wide selection of sizes and colors.

As an example, here is what I personally use:

* Extra-large bins (picture below, from Canadian Tire)

A plastic storage bin with towels inside. The plastic is transparent and the lid is blue color

- Clothing (4 bins)

- Bed sheets, pillow (1 bin)

- Documents (paperwork, books, writing supplies) (1 bin)

- Bathroom staff (soap, toothpaste, electric shaver, etc.) (1 bin)

- Coffee/Tea (electric kettle, thermos, coffee mug, etc.) (1 bin)

- Hand tools (screwdriver, pliers, gadgets and chargers, items to clean the van) (1 bin)

- Shoes (1 bin)

* Two medium-size bins for food and eating gear.

* Two open bins (picture below, from Staples). One for anything I feel like putting inside, and one for a selection of clothes I currently use. These bins (Staples calls them "file crates") don't have a lid, and it's easy to put things inside and pull things out.

A black plastic container. The plastic has see-through holes, and there is no lid

* An extra-large laundry basket (picture below, from Walmart). It has to be stable on the floor as you drive your van.

A black plastic container for holding laundry. The plastic has see-through holes

* Backpack for laptop.


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Surviving Freezing Temperatures

I have lived in my passenger van for two months in temperatures that ranged from -22℃ / -8℉ at night (with -15℃ / 5℉ being very common), to the highest temperature during day time of 0℃ / 32℉ or lower.

With a little bit of preparation and knowledge you can live in your passenger van comfortably and safely even at such low temperatures and enjoy your life as you normally do.

Background

In the campsite I was in, there was no electricity. For example, I could not use my electric kettle to boil water for a hot-water bottle (to keep me warm at night), or for coffee. But I could go to a coffee shop or a grocery store to get warm food items. The campsite rules also did not allow campfires (though I had arrived at the campsite fully stocked with campfire gear from Walmart and Canadian Tire).

Your van

In addition to my advice above about sleeping in cold temperatures (e.g. cover yourself with two sleeping bags), there are two easy-to-do and non-expensive things that can infinitely improve your comfort level when you are inside the van at sub-freezing temperatures:

  1. Apply thermal insulation onto the windows (there are various types available). The one I got at a local Home Hardware store was very cheap and easy to cut with scissors to the size of the windows. It was the exact same material that is used to make sunscreens for the front windshield – a bubble-wrap which was sprayed with a film of aluminum. When applied to the car windows at cold temperatures, the bubble wrap provides a layer of insulation between the interior of the car and the cold windows, and the aluminum film reflects heat radiated by your body (in the form of infra-red radiation) back into the van. For about $20 you can buy enough insulating material to cover all the van windows, but in my case I used my "summer" sunscreen on the front windshield, and in the back of the van I only covered windows that were in close proximity to where I sleep at night, so I only spent $4 on window insulation (in addition to having my "summer" windshield sunscreen).
    When thinking how to attach the thermal insulation to the windows you need to know that adhesive tapes (including double-sided tapes) can only be applied at temperatures above 5℃ / 41℉, so you may need to be inventive and use other methods.
  2. Spread a mylar sheet ($4 at Walmart) under your sleeping mattress. The floor of the van, even if covered by a carpet, is going to be cold and you need a mylar sheet (or the bubble-wrap mentioned above) to provide thermal isolation for yourself and the mattress.

Food

Clothing

  1. Get two wool hats to cover your head – one for day time and one for sleeping. The importance cannot be overstated.
  2. Get long underwear (also called "thermal underwear") for both day and night use.
  3. In cold weather, when your fingers are frozen, it's much easier to put on and take off shoes with no laces, and shirts/pants with no buttons, so consider having these as part of your wardrobe.

Other tidbits to know

  1. If you have poor blood circulation in your fingers, wearing good quality gloves may not be sufficient and the fingers may start freezing and feeling sore when outside. A good way to instantly bring them back to normal is to take your hands out of the gloves and put the fingers/hands on your stomach. The stomach has a huge amount of warm blood circulating through it which will result in an immediate heat exchange: your fingers will warm up, and your internal system will warm the colder blood as it circulates through your body.
  2. If you are worried that your van might get stuck in the snow, consider to either change your tires or buy snow chains. Snow chains come in a package of two and they have to fit the exact size of your wheels. For my particular van, Canadian Tire and NAPA had snow chains for $130 but I found a small "tire shop" that had a different type of snow chains that fit my van for $40, so that's what I got.
  3. Be aware that batteries of mobile devices (and batteries in general) should not be charged when the battery is frozen as it may explode. But they can be used without a problem at lower temperatures. I have used my laptops (Dell and Asus) and smartphone (Samsung) at temperatures below -5℃ / 23℉ many times without a problem. However, when you bring your device from inside the van (where it's freezing) to a warm place (e.g. a coffee shop or public library) you should wait 15 minutes for the batteries to defrost before starting to charge them.
  4. At very low temperatures (e.g. -20℃ / -4℉), metals in your car may produce loud sounds as they contract and bend. I woke up in the middle of a night to hear loud bangs on the roof of my van. I was absolutely convinced that someone was hurling stones at my van but it was unthinkable to get out of my sleeping bags, dress up in layers, and get out of the van, very likely to find no one around. In the morning I examined the roof very carefully but could find nothing wrong. And similar sounds happened on other nights when the temperatures got to around -20℃ / -4℉.

Some Other Essential Gadgets

* Vacuum Cleaner (picture below, from Canadian Tire). It plugs into the cigarette lighter and is quite powerful. It even picks-up spilt liquids.

A hand-held vacuum cleaner with an electric cord

* Headlamp (picture below, from Walmart)

A lamp with an elastic band for holding the lamp on a person's forehead

Headlamp is useful both when you are inside the van at night and when walking in the campsite.

Some features to look for:

How to Clean Mold in Your Car

* Mold Cleaner (picture below, from Canadian Tire)

A bottle with a spray nozzle, containing mold control chemical

If you live in a car, especially in the winter, mold is a concern. You need to clean any dampness, and ensure airflow (through which dampness can naturally evaporate) to everything inside your car, whether it's your own belongings, or the car interior itself. This is especially important in the section of the car that you use for storage, that may not get airflow.
If mold does develop inside your car, the Concrobium mold cleaner will become your best friend in the world. It contains only safe ingredients (no ammonia or bleach) and is very effective. I had some mold develop on carpets, plastic and metal before I realized the problem existed, and this product solved the problem with very little effort on my part.

* Moisture Grabbers (picture below, from Canadian Tire)

A blue and green package containing moisture grabbers

The Concrobium moisture grabbers are pouches that absorb any molecule of moisture in the air that happens to pass through them, thus reducing the probability of mold in the close vicinity of the pouch.

If there are areas in your van that do not get daily airflow, and you are worried about mold growing there, you can place a pouch in that area to absorb moisture.

You can expect to replace a pouch every 2 months in the summer, and every 2-4 weeks in the winter. The package contains three pouches.

How to Make a Cup of Coffee When You Live in a Van

You can easily make a creamy, luscious, full-bodied cup of coffee using ingredients that you can store inside your van all year long:

To make great tea, replace the instant coffee with a bag of tea.

The Unspeakable: Shower and Washroom

No shower

If you live in your van for an extended amount of time you are going to get into situations in which you cannot take a shower for several days. For example, many campsites don't have shower facilities or you may arrive at a new urban area and not know where to take a shower.

The method that I use in such circumstances is to rub my entire upper body in the morning with sturdy paper towels after dampening the paper towels with water (i.e. pouring a little water over them). You can buy at the grocery store rolls of paper towels that are nearly as sturdy as a cloth, and you can just about exfoliate the outer layers of your skin by rubbing your upper body with them. You can do that each morning for several days and nobody close to you would know that you have not showered for several days.

No washroom

You may get into situations where you have to pee at night while inside your van. This may be a nightly occurrence or happen rarely, depending on your particular situation. For example, there may not be any open public washroom close to you at night or you may be worried about getting out of your van in the middle of the night.

The situation is not as bothersome as it might first appear. Get a sturdy (i.e. thick) plastic water bottle with a wide mouth/opening and a well-threaded cap (to avoid spillage when the cap is on). It should also be of large capacity, e.g. 1.5 or 2 litres. I got mine at a dollar store for $2 and it works nicely.

To avoid the smell of urine, after each time you empty the bottle in the washroom and rinse it, pour inside a dub of mouthwash liquid. Mouthwash is engineered to kill odour-causing bacteria and it works very well to eliminate the smell of urine. All you will smell when you open the bottle is the strong smell of the mouthwash even if the bottle is half full, and as an added bonus, the urine color turns to a pleasant blue or green.

Charging Your Mobile Devices

You can charge your mobile devices in RV parks: bathrooms and laundry rooms have electric outlets. You can also use coffee shops (Tim Hortons, Starbucks, etc.) and public libraries.

Great Things I Got to See and Experience at RV Parks

Not So Great Things I Got to See and Experience at RV Parks

You get to see, out in the open, how family members who don't like each other behave and talk to each other. It's painful to watch.

During the two and a half years of living in my van in RV parks I have been assaulted three times as I describe below. In all cases, the assailants were people I had never seen or met before the assault took place.

  1. A man who had just arrived at the RV park with his car had set up a tent close to my van. He then walked behind me into the washroom, letting his unleashed dog enter the washroom. (According to campsite rules dogs must be leashed at all times and cannot be inside the washrooms.) I asked the man politely and firmly, three times, to take the dog out of the washroom, but he pretended not to hear me. I finally opened the door myself and ordered the dog out, and the dog left. I then told the man that if the manager knew what he just did, she would throw him out of the campsite, but the man laughed and said that his dog was never inside the washroom. He then approached me very aggressively, as if he was about to hit me, but at the last second he diverted his body and "missed hitting me." He then left the washroom. About a minute later, as I was washing my hands in the sink, the man stormed into the washroom, literally running toward me as if to hit me, but again he diverted his body at the last second and "missed hitting me." After reporting the incident to the park manager, I moved my van to a location far from that person. He left the next morning.
  2. As I was walking on a trail near the campsite, a person passing me by (i.e. walking in the opposite direction) swore at me and spit on me and kicked stones at me, as I was standing in place, puzzled. He yelled at me that I was "following him around" even though, as far as I knew, I had never seen him before. I kept on walking on the trail, hoping that I had seen the end of this. A minute later the man came back, and the entire scene repeated itself (spitting, kicking stones, swearing, and blaming me for following him around). This time there was an old couple approaching us on the trail who saw the attack and used their smartphone to take a picture of the man. I asked the couple if they would be willing to give testimony to the police if I later decided to report it, and they agreed. It was my belief that the person was mentally ill, or perhaps he was over-the-top distressed because he believed that a person, who may have looked like me, was actually following him around. However, since this was an actual attack, I did report it to the police, and gave the police the address of the witnesses, but I told the officer I had no wish to press charges against the attacker and that I considered the incident to be minor.
  3. After going to sleep in my van at 10 PM, I woke up, as I sometimes do, to go to the washroom at 2 AM. As I got out of the van, I saw a major drug trafficking operation taking place close by. Two men followed close behind me to the washroom, and then back to my van. I made sure my head was turned in a different direction than the drug trafficking operation as I was walking. The rest of the night I stayed lying on the floor of my van afraid to raise my head and look outside. When I tried to drive away in the morning, I found that one of my back tires was flat and had been punctured during the night. I had to call a tow truck.
    For my own safety I cannot write more details here, but it was the kind of scene you see in the movies and, for me at least, always seemed disconnected from the world I was living in before I became homeless. I was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Interaction with Police

Once you start living in your van full-time there are no walls of a home to separate you from strangers, and it's guaranteed that police officers will get to your van and want to talk to you occasionally.

As examples of how that might happen in an RV park, in one incident I had, family members who had just arrived at the RV park started yelling at each other (perhaps there was a mental health issue) and someone at the campsite called 911. When the police arrived, they went through the park asking visitors to give testimony of what they had seen (which was basically people yelling at each other very aggressively).

In another incident I had, after nightfall a drunk man, who was apparently just being overly friendly, decided to start a conversation with me. Noticing that the stranger (in his 20s) was intoxicated, and being worried he might behave erratically, I quickly disengaged and went into my van. The man decided that my behavior was suspicious, and reported my van location and license plate to the police. When a police officer woke me up by knocking on the window of the van, and told me why he needed to interview me, I couldn't stop myself from laughing.

I had lived in Vancouver in rented apartments for 20 years and never had any dealings with the police. But perhaps when you are homeless and there are no walls to separate and protect you from other people, an occasional visit from a police officer is not a bad thing.

Legal Ambiguity When Being Homeless in British Columbia

I am homeless in BC. I have no fixed permanent address.

Whenever I go to a new RV park, I go to an ICBC office and tell them the address of the RV park and they print and put a new address sticker on my driver license.

Whenever I talk to a police officer beside my van, and they ask for my current address, I tell them: "I currently live inside this van, right on this spot." If they ask if I am homeless, I always say "yes."

I never had any troubles, either from ICBC employees or police officers. Standing near my van, police officers always express concern for my well-being and wish me better luck in my future.

Appendix: Driving Around BC in Your Car

Google Driving Directions

BC Ferries




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