How to Live in a Caravan
I wrote this page as part of my google ranking experiments, because I’ve gained this information and it can help others instead of just rotting in my head, because the internet is free and I like supporting that, and most of all, because everyone keeps asking me the same question when I tell them I moved into a truck: "Er, uh, so uh, like, where do you pee and take a shower?" So if you reaaaaaaaaally need to know…
But this page will be a lot more than where to pee and shower, because there is a lot more involved in living in a truck, tricks I have picked up constantly and continue to do so, and which I find rather fascinating.
After all, just because you live in a big house and cannot fathom certain details, it doesn’t discount the millennia of time that mankind has survived without a porcelain toilet and a leather padded and heated seat.
This page deals with the juicy, more human side of caravan survival. For the more technical side, such as power hookup, battery maintenance, electrical conversion and that sort of thing, refer to the caravan electrical connections page.
Toilet in a caravan
Okay, you were reaaaaaally fascinated. However, it is a necessary evil, and a very important and integral part of the survival. Perhaps a bit gory, so skip over this section if you are eating TV dinner or something.
Obviously, if you are in a camp ground, no need to speak any further. But sometimes you are not, or you just don’t want to get up out of bed and make the long trek past all the other caravans to do the obvious. In the wee hours of the morning, I personally like to label my giant tires. Doesn’t make any sound, and I feel like a doggy marking its territory. But even better than that (TV dinner eaters, beware!), I like to pee in a 5 litre bottle. I open one of the closet doors, strap my LED flashlight (yes, extremely important instrument for camping/caravan survival) to my head and fill up that little bottle. Often two of those a day and a person would really be surprised to find how much they pee in a day. Furthermore, you can look at the colour, and decide its time to drink less beer and more water. It’s healthy to flush your body out with as much water as possible.
So people walking by and looking into the interesting woodwork in the truck (because practically everyone does that) just don’t see me secretly hiding behind the closet door, doin my thing. Of course, I don’t like to discriminate and half thought about this a lot for my female counterparts. I don’t know, a big funnel perhaps, into the bottle? A bucket? Well, when travelling with one of these breeds, I find they are quite content making the long trek to do the obvious and past the long line of other caravans (at least that way they can flirt and get the attention they seem to need so much), or go to the restaurant or other establishment and get away with what us guys can’t seem to, or just don’t want to bother to.
Inevitably, one will want to be surreptitious about draining the bottle every time it gets filled. But if parked in a particular location for a long time, I find it can be useful to strategically empty the contents on neighbouring fauna. In time your little campsite will be more robust and beautiful. Amazing how useful pee can be!
Takin’ a Dump - Too Much Caravan Information
Hey, I told you it was gonna get gory! But it’s only mother nature y’know! And what does the majority of the planet do in this respect? If you’re not vain, you will realise that the majority includes animals, and where do the bears go??? That is my preferred destination, but definitely not always practical. So always keep a big wad of toilet paper handy in your pocket for emergency situations. You can keep it in a thin plastic bag if you ever get wet.
View from the local can. Keep the door open, as no one goes to the beach in the morning...
Anyway, the autocamp is the ideal. If that is not possible, a bar or a restaurant will do. Of course, showing up there every morning at the crack of dawn, ordering a cup of coffee and disappearing for half an hour (might as well brush my teeth and clean up as well) can get a bit obvious, old and tiring after a while, so some discretion is certainly called for. Maybe a strategic rotation of different restaurants? Or go for a nice long walk into the woods. I always bring a camera. You never know what wonders of nature you may find. But be respectful and hide the evidence! Don’t want any bad travel karma! Public toilets are an obvious alternative. And for real emergencies, in the truck I have a spare emergency bucket (actually, the same one I use for washing laundry), with plastic bags handy. The bottom line, with a little creativity, you’d be surprised what’s possible.
Takin’ a Caravan Shower and General Hygiene
As you may have noticed by this point, not only am I not interested in having a constantly running fridge, toilet, but now even a full fledged shower in my mobile home. Total waste of space and energy. Not to mention the potential stink. And showering really isn’t such a major problem. First of all, you can ask any dermatologist and they will tell you that your skin, according to medicine the largest and also a very important organ on your body (which breaths and performs all sorts of important functions), should not be washed obsessively with soap every five minutes, or at all for that matter. It is natural to have a thin coating of bacteria, and I actually almost never use soap. It dries up your skin. Which you might compensate by putting on a layer of moisturising cream after that, but for God’s sakes look at the ingredients on your moisturiser and don’t be surprised to have cancer in the later years of your life. This is no joke at all.
But it is uncomfortable to go to sleep a bit sticky, so a dip in the ocean does wonders, in which case I try to do that at least towards the end of the hot part of the day, after which I will be cooled down and hopefully not sweat anymore, after which I try to find a fresh water shower on the beach. This is absolutely ample for me. Otherwise, the autocamp should have a shower, even if a cold one, and you can train yourself not to be such a whiner and have a cold shower, which really is not that bad, especially shortly after a dip in the ocean, perhaps shortly after a short jog to heat up the body. Or just stand in the rain. Or like someone suggested to me, have a couple of 1.5L water bottles (be careful not to confuse with a certain other filled water bottle!) sitting on the dashboard over the day, so that the hot water could be filled into a squirty bottle and sprayed on yourself by the side of the road.
Maybe you could sprinkle a bit of perfume into the water and give yourself a nice aroma. An ample stock of underarm deodorant will certainly come in handy. Or you can get one of those 20L camping black bags which you can hang in the sun, or leave on the dashboard, and once again fill up the squirty bottle or use the shower hose directly while hanging the black shower bag from a tree, as per the picture on the package. Or even be more sophisticated by using a Coleman camping professional shower, pump plugged directly into the 12V system, feeder hose dipped into a neighbouring river, heated by internal propane mini tank, sitting on the roof of your truck and showering down, while you are inside the shower curtains on the outside of the vehicle, the shower curtains hanging off the extendible chin up bar, because one really needs to straighten one’s back after a long day of driving or sitting endlessly in front of the computer. But even though I have all these quadruple backup shower means, I have not used any of them yet and always managed to find a shower by the ocean, in the autocamp, be so bold and suggest it when visiting a friend, or just be lazy and survive a day or two without it.
While travelling, I’ve also learned to use the free sports facilities found at universities, possibly marinas, or cough up a little bit of cash and work out in some local gym. Heck, I’ve even found myself sauntering off the street into the local Hilton hotel and had a great free swim in their pool, with a perfect hot shower afterwards. In some countries the gas stations for truckers would have cheap showers as well. Or at your local pub, do a quick wash over the sink in a lockable bathroom, for which a hand towel can be useful with a bit of warm water and soap if desired. Just keep your eyes open, or get creative.
But once I was sitting around a fire one evening with some Gypsies, it was a warm evening, the moon was full, and one of them suggested a midnight dip in the Mediterranean Sea. I only knew a few words of the local language and gestured with my arms that I didn’t want to join them because I had already had my fresh water shower that day and don’t like to sleep with salt on my skin. They gave each other a peculiar look, like "Who is this cosmopolitan wanker?". I got the message so decided to join them anyway, which is when I discovered that the salt did not bother me at all, and from that point I no longer bother with fresh water showers if I do not have the option (although sometimes it would take a while for my skin to get used to it, so you may have to experiment). When you think about it, many people go to some expensive French cosmetics shop to buy sea salt from the Mediterranean and lie in that for an hour in the bath tub. Our bodies are made up of 85% water, and salty water at that - just taste your tears the next time you cry. So I’m sure the salt is good for your skin. Just make sure to give it a good wipe with the towel.
Dermatologists even argue that no water is better for the skin, and I find that I can go four to seven days without a shower no problem (if I am not sporting etc.). But my balls tend to get sweaty, which I resolve with a bit of Talcum powder.
For brushing my teeth, this can be accomplished in the morning with my dump, but as the 30 minutes often annoys the waitress and establishment, this while your coffee gets cold, I generally try to do this from the truck, if not at an autocamp. For which reason I carry with me several plastic bottles, which I can occasionally fill up with drinking or teeth brushing water, or buy such bottled water when such taps cannot be found. Only to casually throw into a big garbage bin something that looks like apple juice on my way to the beach, or otherwise to surreptitiously and quietly empty the contents under the truck or in a bush during the darker hours following sunset. But considering all these bottles you have, between showering, brushing your teeth, drinking and peeing, I always keep the same ones in their allotted place. Already happened at least once that I grabbed the wrong bottle when in my head I was thinking "thirsty".
Washing Caravan Laundry
For this it is good to have one or two plastic buckets, as I wrote below, and a very large metal pot for cooking for big groups, or for a larger load of laundry. But one day I was in a dry area without rivers, by the sea, and without much cash to pay for expensive laundry services. A lot of rural areas don’t even have such services!
So I looked up on the internet and was surprised to learn the many uses of salt, such as for laundry or bringing out colours. An amazing wealth of information which you can find here. Otherwise, in short, washing laundry in sea water has not posed a problem at all. Sure, rinsing in fresh water is better, but I do not see any effects from washing and rinsing with sea water.
The important point to remember is that the quality of soap is such that it separates grease from water. So you don’t necessarily need special dish soap for washing dishes, or special laundry detergent for washing clothes, etc. But if you do decide to make the transition to soap from laundry detergent, like I did and I recommend, the first one or two times you will want to wash items once with 1/3 cup (80 ml) washing soda only to avoid getting yellow stains. Then it is smooth sailing after that. I like to use regular or cheap shampoo, because whatever is kind enough for your hair will definitely be kind enough for any sensitive clothes or wool sweaters you might have.
Sun just rising in the morning
The one big advantage of laundry detergent is that it works quickly, for those with laundry machines and who live in the rat race and are used to running around with their heads cut off, stressed out in traffic and still jittering at home after a long day of work. But out in nature, what’s the rush? Over the daytime I can do a dirty load in a bucket, letting it soak for an hour at a time between rinses in the ocean, under the tap or in a river, before letting it soak in mildly soapy water for another hour. Or why not overnight? Certainly isn’t going to damage your clothes.
A tent on a jeep. Now THAT’s nifty!
Once clean enough, then, according to the great tips above, a little bit of vinegar and squeezed lemon for a long rinse cycle, a quick rinse after that, and hang out in the sun to soak in the breath of nature’s flowers. I must say I certainly smell nice after that! Better than all those fancy fabric softeners with their chemicals imitating the nature I used myself. And the sun is a natural bleacher, so don’t leave your colours hanging too long in that. Your bunji or other rope could come in handy too, strung out between my truck and the nearest tree, otherwise I just drape everything in the sun over the dashboard, steering wheels or seats. Even when it’s cloudy and cold and it took me up to three or four days to completely dry them, they seemed perfectly fine. Just turn them over from time to time.
This has worked well for me for a few years, but I found it is better to at least rinse the underwear with fresh water. Salt left in clothes attracts and holds water, and such clothes results in very sweaty balls in no time.
For this I’ll grab a 5 litre water jug that I emptied after drinking and fill it up at the local gas station, restaurant, or other place where you might do your duties. Also a good source of water to transfer into my smaller bottle for when brushing my teeth.
Cooking and Eating in a Caravan
Now that we’ve had a nice discussion of laundry and general hygiene, and far enough from the peeing and dumping part (oh, guess I shouldn’t have brought that up)…
As usual, yer regular city folk will be convinced that they need a full marble kitchen counter, with sink, electric fridge, and why not a dishwasher, diesel powered ice crusher and battery powered pencil sharpener, while we’re at it? Seriously folks, the bare minimum is more than plenty. At least if you are a seasoned camping lover like me. Or just get used to it. You will be surprised how little one really needs in this life to be happy. After all, I believe all those creature comforts one has in the city are there because city folk are bored and don’t know what to spend their money on, and need creature comfort to make up for the hell they have to deal with outside.
I don’t have any of the above. I mostly survive off vegetables and cold food, which I buy for that day only. You can make a sandwich, or just nibble on various veggies. Or buy a bunch of sardines and occasionally some fresh bread and beer. Or go to a restaurant or gyros stand. You’ll have to scope this out locally when you get somewhere. Although some great bargains can be had in certain local areas (dried sausages in Hungary, spices in the Czech Republic), so you can stock up on certain goods when in certain places (I will slowly be adding such local purchase tips to the travel Europe website).
Otherwise, when it’s time to cook, a little propane camping cooker can do wonders. Or be fancy like me and get a larger propane tank with a standup grill/stove/oven in one. I can pull out my lawnchair and cut the veggies on the cutting board lying on my lap. Eat food out of the pot on my lap. Rinse the veggies and salad in the ocean (does not everyone salt everything to death anyway?), throw in some vegetable flavoured salt and other seasoning and eat salad straight out of a big pot. When done, I give it a quick rinse in the ocean, with only a little bit of soap, and let the pots dry themselves within about five minutes in the sun. Or if I’m lazy, I’ll fill the pots up with water and let them soak overnight while under the truck, or under the front seat. Comes off real easy the next morning.
If cooking outside, it is a good idea to buy a big camping tarp so, if ever raining, you can make a patio roof jutting out the side of your truck/caravan (not installed on mine yet, boohoo). Or if you want to cook inside, once I just grabbed a wooden board and propped it up between the back of the driver’s seat and the steering wheel. I stood there with the clutch between my legs and had a full stand up kitchen at my disposal! With the dashboard by my side if needed.
For a fridge, I bought a cooler with an electrical fridge which lowers the inside temperature 20 degrees below the outside temperature, but I haven’t even used it yet! Why? So I can have some cheeses and milk in there for a week? Just buy what you need from a grocery store and eat it within a couple of days. Even cheese sitting in the sun on the front seat was fully edible the next day. No need to be so prissy!
Okay, so I’ll admit, many people simply are prissy, and maybe this lifestyle is only meant for such a tolerable pig as myself, but I think you can really go a long way with a little creativity, tolerance, and experimentation. If you don’t try, you’ll never know. If you want the works and live in total comfort, go all the way and reveal yourself as the total tourist dork that you are. I’ve lived for years in a small tent while tree planting and personally I feel I am in a royal mansion now.
Sleeping and Heating in a Caravan
Under the bed makes for good storage space, as you will see on my caravan design pages, using a wood frame, bamboo, string and a foam mattress to make it light and easy to lift. I find the 10cm thick foam very comfortable to sleep on. On top of that I have a colourful Mexican blanket to sit on during the day, like a couch, and on top of that a warm sleeping bag, which I can push aside during the day. I use a minus 25C winter sleeping bag, and inside that I bought three (so I always have a clean one handy) large sheets each of which I folded in half and sowed three of the edges together to make sleeping bag sheets, as I prefer to sleep without clothes on and it is easier to wash sheets than a sleeping bag. When it gets cold, layers is the key, for which I use special thermal clothes. When it gets to less than 20C, I’d be wearing my thermal long johns, thick wool socks, multiple layers on the top half of my body (warm sweater too, and sometimes my thermal Teflon windbreaker on top of that), and a warm thermal hat, as much of your body heat is lost through your head. I’ll cover my head with the thermal sleeping bag, breathing inside the bag occasionally to warm things up, otherwise leaving a crack open in front of my mouth to breath fresh air over the night. I can put a wool blanket over top of the sleeping bag, and for extreme colds, it occurred to me I can use my winter tent or some thick plastic to create a small tent and a warmer area. Otherwise, I certainly never intended to spend my time in such cold, but when I did (skiing etc.), I slept quite comfortably. Of course, during the day can be less than comfortable, working in my sleeping bag with my laptop on my waist while wearing thick wool gloves with the finger tips cut off so I can type, but in such cases one can often find a chalet or restaurant with toasty fire during the day (not to mention that using the battery in such extreme colds could shorten its life). So all in all, I’d say heating is an unnecessary expense which hogs up valuable space. If you decide to go for propane heating, make sure to get something professional, with proper ventilation to the outside, otherwise you might not find yourself waking up in the morning. Others have suggested a small wood fire stove, but generally I’m not interested in the fire risk, nor spending much time in such severe colds. To avoid that I like to refer to Yahoo weather (weather.yahoo.com) through their "records and averages" link. You can click on any city or region in the world and through that find out the average highs and lows, as well as precipitations, every month of the year.
In the summer it can get unbearably hot, with stagnant air making sleeping next to impossible. For this you can get 12V fans from your local marina or caravan shop. I plan to cut a small hole into the floor in the closet area to draw cold air from the outside and distribute it over myself during the evening. I might leave the window open a crack to help with circulation, otherwise because the interior is large enough, I imagine the incoming fresh air will seep out through various cracks to allow sufficient circulation. Because I heard that in some areas the locals could put a hose in your open window to gas you while you sleep so that they could rob you blind during the night. When I fear this, I sleep with the car alarm activated. The movement sensor I have attached to the ceiling with velcro, so that I can remove it during the evenings and throw it into the glove compartment. If I am being robbed, opening the glove compartment will activate the alarm. If I turn on the big headlights and the loud diesel engine, I am sure it will cause any band of thieves to run for their lives. One friend says he has some harmless fireworks handy which he uses as a gun to really scare the shit out of invaders, as a last resort.
Mosquitoes - a Caravan’s Potential Worst Nightmare
Those little buggers can be such a major pain in the butt they inspired me to write a story (still to complete and upload) and a screenplay for a mosquito movie. Citronella candles can be a good idea, but you won’t always want to keep those burning all night. Could be difficult to replace, and you wouldn’t want to wake up in a flaming barbecue yourself. I generally like to use those during the evening, for ambience, and to fill the place with the aroma to keep the buggers out as long as possible. But once that seeps out, you’ll definitely want to have some mosquito netting handy for you and your guests, when you do end up somewhere nasty. The nets are not that expensive, and they don’t take up much room, so once you do need them, have some means to hang them over you for when you sleep. You can also get certain sprays (both harmful and natural) for the walls and the net, to help keep them out in general. Mosquitoes can be a major pain in the arse when you are trying to sleep, not to mention that, in some places, you can get malaria!
And the last I can think about survival is where to park for the evening. Once again, the autocamp is the obvious. But if that is not an option, I can tell you that for one month I have survived without any problems whatsoever. Of course, the trick is not to get cheeky, or obvious, or disrespectful. I survived this way for 30 days along the coast of Croatia, where the police are really picky about this (or they used to be), and in Montenegro. Police? I don’t see any police. Except if I’m in the middle of a tourist trap. And even if I do decide for some God awful reason to park for the evening in the middle of a tourist town, being discrete, which is easier with my vehicle, goes a long way. Otherwise, I prefer to park on the outskirts of small villages, where the people are nicer and more relaxed, and the chances that they would bother to call the police are really negligible. And even if they do, do you think the cops are going to show up at 2am and surprise you, "Ah ha! Caught you!". You really think the police are going to get off their butt from the donut shop to drive way out to the edge of civilisation because some ranting grandma is perturbed by your presence and the fact that you are riding free in life? Again, discretion and respect are the key. Be nice to everyone, give a slightly above average tip at the restaurant, or just play the game right. The best is to show up not too early in the day, perhaps later in the afternoon, and scout around for the perfect spot. Hopefully with an excellent view, within easy walking distance of the beach, with its shower, and the grocery store. What more can you ask for? Easy as pie. And when morning rolls around, depending on your situation, you could pack up and move on, or do your errands during the day, or go to the tourist trap. The options are endless. Just don’t stay in one place forever, or leave toilet paper all over the place, peeing in broad daylight, climbing out of the truck in your underwear and scratching your armpits while yawning. Absolute simple logic is required and you will have no problems.
General Caravan Supplies
This may not be the favoured means of reading by most people, but since I’m such a computer geek and there’s not much room in my truck, I really do not mind reading from the computer, or from my pocketpc. When at an internet connection, I can download tons of stuff from wikipedia or gutenberg.org, the first one a free encyclopaedia and the second one tons and tons of classic literature free downloads.
Otherwise, I would suggest at least one bucket for laundry (you can always stack the buckets, so they really don’t take much room), a very large metal pot for cooking for big parties or for larger loads of laundry, and very importantly, TONS of bunji chords, electrical tape and crazy glue. Of course a handy toolkit and user manual for your car can definitely come in handy. I also have my first aid book (a first aid kit should be mandatory by law), but I had the fortune of taking an industrial first aid course back in the days when I was a tree planter. In any case, this is something you should also invest some time into. It does concern your, or someone else’s life, after all. Even the basics can mean a lot. 85% of such deaths can be saved with a 5 minute crash course in CPR, but I prefer to go all the way. This is something you may really regret not putting the time into if you are way out there in nature and something tragic happens to someone you love or a cool co-traveller you met recently. A shortwave radio can also come in handy, but make sure you get a half decent antenna for that. They are not expensive at all.
Dealing with Locals
I always like to show the greatest respect possible. Don’t reveal the slightest bit of arrogance, and if you have problems with that, you should learn humility for your own good anyway. Learn at least a few local words, like "hello" and "thank you". If not, you’ll just increase your chances of some local conservative and envious person, jealous of your free lifestyle, who will call the cops, or the word will get around and some local kids will slash your tires. Who knows. Just don’t push your luck. I find playing a nice local radio station can help, so people do not feel invaded by a foreign element. Definitely don’t leave garbage around or be seen throwing garbage on the ground, or taking a leak in broad daylight on someone’s hedges. And when you need some help, I find you can get excellent advice by combining your need with some purchase at an establishment where a respectable looking salesperson knows enough English. If people see you are bringing money into their community, they will always be willing to give you great tips, or direct you to where you should make your next purchase. And if people see that you are nice, respectful, and spending money locally, they might even take the initiative to help you out somehow. People in rural areas and out of the city are generally much more laid back and nice, but tend not to care too much for arrogant and loud city folk who don’t respect nature and think the money they are spending should gain them all the respect from these supposedly lesser country folk.
Well, had to do a little fun offroading to find this spot, and got a few grimaces from locals, but the pot drying action is discrete enough, no?
Synopsis of Surviving in a Caravan
So once you’ve taken your dip into the ocean, hung out at the local pub while working on your laptop, left your respectable tip (to pay for your 30 minute visit to the facilities), bought your groceries and you’re heading back to your mobile home during the dawn of sunset, perhaps you might walk past a couple holding hands as they went for a stroll on the edge of town, and hence be noticed as you enter a truck parked in this odd spot and in this odd hour. Or you might just be sitting there with your legs sprawled on the dashboard, the music cranked a respectable amount, with your notebook on your lap while you write personal letters, occasionally looking up to watch the sun continue to set – you will find that people really are not out to get you. They’ll even drop by and enjoy the music for a while. If you follow these simple tricks, you really won’t run into any problems.
Little piggie in the background. I guess I could always
walk the hundred metres
And if the police actually do show up at 2 in the morning and holler indignantly, "Aha, caught you!". My plan is to simply say, "Caught me what? Look, here is my pocket pc. You know what that is? Look, there is some reading material. It has it’s own light. I was simply reading by the side of the road before I move on." The only illegal thing is to sleep where you did not pay. For, my friends, it is a sad thing of this globulising world, that one now has to pay to sleep. But if you are not sleeping, you are not illegal. Did they catch me sleeping? (I know this argument sounds absurd.) No. Because I have my closet door open, maybe some thin sheets hanging, so they cannot see inside. And is there any law against reading at 4 in the morning in my underwear? Certainly not.
Then again, many people might lack the magic I dare to flirt danger with. Or lack the courage to try. But really, I do get into such extreme circumstances once in a while, and the police people look at me, calculate all the paperwork involved in trying to make an issue out of it, I do not provoke them but put on my innocent lamb face, at which point they just roll their eyes, wave their arm, and say good night!
As my sister used in her email signatures when we kicked off my travels:
Nice way to finish this page, but as I gain experience I tend to add to all my pages, and to this one, I can only say that I am often a bit scared when I’m on my way into new territory. A friend of mine once drove in a beat up old car into the heart of Africa. And everywhere he drove, the locals would warn him about going any further. But every time he drove further, he found the locals as friendly and warm to him as the previous ones. In any case, I still research things before doing such nutty things as driving around the Black Sea (one of my goals), and things do tend to be a bit uncertain whenever I enter a new town. But after a few days, once I’ve found the internet cafe which lets me plug my laptop into their network, an affordable laundromat, a restaurant where they are nice to me and a piece of beach where the police don’t hassle me, I start to get comfortable and feel like the town is somewhere where I grew up. In fact, after navigating a larger part of Europe and dotting my memory banks with such information here and there, while some people might say "The world is my oyster", I like to say, "The world is my town!".
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Published - July 2010