Welcome to the first installment of How We Live Now, a new interview series documenting the complexities of modern housing through the eyes of folks on the ground. You’ll see stories about people living in unusual spaces; stories about changing neighborhoods and rising rents; and stories that explore what home can look like in the 21st century.
Know someone we should feature? Send suggestions to email@example.com.
If you were to sit across from Laura Scullin three years ago, she’d tell you she’s never been camping and she doesn’t know how to ride a bike. Fast forward to this week and she and her 12 lb. dog (named Dog) are heading into the wild in the two-ton 1987 Toyota Land Cruiser FJ60 (named FJ) she’s retrofitted into a home on wheels.
Laura, a product strategist from Austin, Texas, knows what she’s doing. She tested the process last summer when she sold everything she owned, packed up FJ, and looped from Palo Duro Canyon to Vancouver to Big Sur over 80 days, hiking during the day and sleeping in her car at night. We sat down with her to hear what’s she’s learned about living in an ultra-small space (including how she handled both a bear and a deadly lightning storm at the same time).
Why did you decide to live out of a car? I guess I started following a lot of people on Instagram. There are a lot of people doing it. Climbers and skiers have done it forever. I dated someone who is still living in a van—a freelance designer who works on the road.
But you had never done something like that, right? I had never been camping or outdoors until two and a half, three years ago. I also couldn’t ride a bike. So, you buy a bike and you figure it out—because maybe biking is amazing and you would have loved it the whole time.
I borrowed some camping stuff and drove out to Guadalupe Peak and really liked being out there. I wanted to travel and I wanted to leave Austin, but I didn’t like any one place enough to live in it, so I told myself that I was going to look while I was on the trip. But what I realized was that being in a familiar place (ie. FJ) and exploring new places is the best thing you could possibly ask for. I can go into a new situation and it can be entirely foreign, but I have this home base. I know where everything is. I feel safe. I can leave whenever I want. It’s the ultimate freedom.
What does your day look like? I get up with the sun, which is fantastic. Then I find a bathroom somewhere—wherever that might be. Come back, make coffee, cook. I listen to podcasts. It’s real cool being the only one in a rural, primitive campsite listening to a podcast on the feminism of Taylor Swift or something. I might see what the weather’s like. Make sure I have what I need for that day’s hike. Then I pack up, fill up the water, and hike.
At night, dinner can be at a campsite with a fire or I’ll drive somewhere in town and have dinner there. If it’s a shower day—and not every day is a shower day—I’ll take a shower. I really thought I was going to pick up Spanish, or learn the harmonica, or get good at hand lettering, but I’m so tired at the end of the day that I end up just going to sleep or watching some trashy TV. This trip I’ll probably watch RuPaul’s Drag Race.
How much does this lifestyle cost? You live really cheaply. It took a lot of money to buy the gear, but after that it’s gas and food. When I sold everything, I didn’t live in a home anymore. I didn’t have expenses other than the phone—WiFi and data—and then gas and food. Couscous, salmon, and red pepper were the base of everything and then maybe if I hit a farmer’s market, an avocado and some eggs. Eggs are the food of the gods.
Were you afraid on your first trip? No.
Fair enough. What about space? How do you decide what you need and what you don’t? When I first did it, I packed too many clothes and too much kitchen stuff. I read an article about someone who brought a pasta strainer and I was like, “I don’t need that.” But there are also a lot of useful items that you still just don’t need.
With my clothes, I thought things would get dirty right away. But I wore some stuff over and over. I’d wear the same outfit for three days. If you have time, you don’t need as much stuff. I had time to cook and clean. If I only have so many items, I can clean them and they’re good again. I don’t need backups.
When you stay at campsites do you feel safe? I feel unsafe in the city. I don’t feel unsafe outdoors. One of the great things about this setup is that the boxes are high and they actually cover me. You’d have to walk right up to the window and look in to see me sleeping.
What’s the worst thing about living in your car? It’s really difficult when it’s hot. The worst night I had was in Nevada. I had to keep all the doors open. I had a battery-powered fan, but it wasn’t enough. I slept backwards that night. I put my head on the tailgate, just waiting for some air. I poured water on myself. It was bad. This time I have a backup battery jump kit, which has a plug and two USBs in it, so I can run the A/C if I’m desperate.
Most memorable moment? I was on the tailgate once at the end of a hike and I’d taken off my shoes and my trail vest, which had bear spray in it. I was super tired and was about to load up to go into town when the lightening storm that I’d been watching rolled in. And…there was a bear. There was both a bear and lightening storm at the same time. And so immediately I closed the tailgate from the inside and locked it.
You can close everything in FJ really fast. It’s like planning for a zombie apocalypse. Everything is so simple. It’s made out of steel. You just close, close. It’s base functionality. And in that situation I was able to be safe quickly. It was actually way more terrifying to be in a lightening storm on the top of a mountain in Wyoming than to see a bear outside. My teeth were buzzing.
Where are you going on this next trip and for how long? I don’t know. FJ is my first or second home forever, so I don’t feel the same urge to explore. On the first trip every day was moving, going on a new hike. I hit a lot of ground, because I thought I was looking for a new place to live. But this time I feel more comfortable, so there’s less urgency. I have less of a schedule because I know how everything works. Everything is really adjustable.
Follow Laura’s journey on Instagram at @elskull.