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Guest Post: How to Live in a Van on a College Campus

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Ken’s book, which I highly recommend!

Ken Ilgunas spent two years living in his van at Duke University to get his graduate degree debt-free. You can read about Ken’s adventures on his website,, or buy his book, “Walden on Wheels.”
I’m surprised more people don’t think to live in their vans at college. College is an ideal place for vandwelling, not only because college is expensive and living in a van will make it more affordable, but also because a college campus offers so many free and convenient amenities (showers, electricity, Wi-Fi).
But making the switch from being a homesteader to a vandweller can be tough. So for those students who are thinking about it, or for those readers who are merely interested, here’s my step-by-step guide to living in a van on a college campus:
1. Look up you college’s parking policies.
Most likely, your college will not have a policy allowing or prohibiting living in a van. But there are surely a few that do prohibit it. Duke University, for instance, created a law after they found out about me (see photo above). If there is a law, this doesn’t mean that you can’t still live in your van. You’ll just have to do so stealthily.
2. Buy a cheap van.
The author and his van on campus.

The author and his van on campus.

If the sole purpose of your desire to live in a van is to save money, then you should buy a cheap van. Normally I’d recommend that you buy a trustworthy, and more costly vehicle, but college vandwellers are different from normal vandwellers. A normal vandweller often goes on long, countrywide road trips. A college vandweller, rather, does not have to use his or her van for long-distance transportation since everything he or she will need will be on their college campus. In other words, you don’t need a trusty vehicle; you just need something you can park in the lot for the semester. Needless to be said, the less you drive it, the less you’ll have to spend on gas, insurance, and maintenance.
I bought my 1994 Ford Econoline for $1,500 and, for my first semester, I had no maintenance costs to speak of because I drove it so rarely. The only other thing to consider when buying a van is to get something that doesn’t “stick out.” If you’re going to live in a van secretly, don’t get one that looks like someone’s probably living in there.
3. Get a campus parking permit
SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAFirst of all, if you buy a vehicle in a state that isn’t the state of your permanent residency, you will have a couple of hurdles to jump. For one, to get license plates you will need to give the DMV your new address, which you probably don’t have. (And a PO box will not work.) Many states, though, will let you bypass this rule if you’re a student. All you need is to show them your student ID.
Once you have your plates, you need a campus parking permit. But before you do this, learn more about your college’s parking regulations. Can you park a vehicle in the parking lot overnight? Will you need an ID card to swipe to get into some parking lots? College campuses, especially big colleges, have plenty of lots, and are pretty relaxed about letting students keep their vehicles in parked lots after hours. If you have a parking permit, you should have nothing to fear.
A parking permit requires a college ID, a home address, and money. I had an ID, but I didn’t have a home address (or even a PO box at the time), so I simply looked on Google Maps, found a random home, and used their address. I don’t necessarily recommend this method—because you’ll be lying—but it’s a harmless lie, and it’s one that worked for me. My parking permit cost me $182 for a full year.
An alternative to a campus parking permit is to find a person or place nearby who’ll let park on his or her property. Craigslist is always helpful in these cases, but one should use discretion before placing their trust in a complete stranger.
4. Renovate your van.
Ken-6When I moved into my van, I had lofty ambitions. I dreamed of solar panels, a hammock, even a submarine periscope so I could see all around me. But truthfully, all that stuff was too expensive and unnecessary. I would spend most of my day at the campus gym and library where I had all the comforts and conveniences of modern living that I could ask for. I looked upon my van as simply a place where I could cook my food, sleep, and store my few possessions. In other words, I didn’t need to do much to renovate it.
But when you do, you, first of all, want to outfit it with the stuff you already have. Luckily, I had a lot of decent camping equipment. I’d say the crucial items are: a good sleeping bag ($200), a good pair of thermal underwear ($50), a headlamp ($45), and a backpacking stove ($50). You could probably get some of these items cheaper, but I don’t skimp on quality when it matters.
My list of the stuff I brought with me:
Ken-4 The day I bought the van, I spent the afternoon renovating it. I had someone from Craigslist store my middle pilot chairs ($30) so I could have more room in the van, and so I could get the chairs back if I ever chose to sell the van. I spent $20 on a cheap plastic drawer-set for my food and miscellaneous items, $9 on black sheet to hang behind my front and passenger seats (so no one could see me through the windshield), and $11 on pots and pans and linens at The Salvation Army. All in all, I spent about $46 on renovation materials. (Thankfully my Econoline came with tinted windows, blinds, and the back seat converted into a bed at the push of a button, saving me other renovation costs.)
5. Keep it secret.
I lived in my van for two years, and few people, if any, knew I was living in the van that they’d drive or walk past every day. It helps that I don’t snore and am generally a pretty quiet person. The key is to make sure that you’re van isn’t one that people will automatically assume someone’s living in. And you should take pains to make sure that no one sees you leave the van or get into it. This was easy for me because I stay up late, so when I walked to the van at night, there was no one to see me go inside. Also, never run your van at night for heat or electricity. That’s too obvious.
6. What about the heat and cold
Staying warm!

Staying warm!

In North Carolina, my coldest night was 10˚F, which was tolerable when I wore my thermals and squirmed into my sleeping bag. Again, you won’t be in your van all day; just at night when you’re sleeping—so the elements aren’t that big of a deal. The late summer and late spring (in September and May) were far more difficult on those 90˚F days. I simply spent that time indoors as well, where it was air-conditioned. (And I worked out-of-state during the especially hot summer months.)
7. You will save a ton of money.
A van that rarely needs gas or repairs is a major money-saving tool. Over four years, a parked van, like my own, costs $1,500, and it always maintains some value, so you can expect a lot of that money back if you sell it. However, a dorm or an apartment over those four years could cost as much as $24,000 ($500/month X 48 months). Plus, cooking your own food will save you tons of money, too. The average college meal plan costs about $4,000 for an academic year. I ate for $4.34 a day, or $1,100 for an academic year.
8. Be resourceful.
What about mail, showers, obtaining cooking water? These, again, are all cheap or free. Here’s a few of my fees over the course of a year at school:

  • Campus PO box: $41/year
  • Campus gym membership: $68/year
  • Parking permit: $182/year
  • Iso-butane cooking fuel: $30/year
  • Cell phone: $37/month
  • Car insurance: $46 a month (which has since been reduced to about $35/month)

Here’s the link to my book on Amazon
Walden on Wheels: On The Open Road from Debt to Freedom


  1. CAE

    Brilliant. Back in 1982 I had a friend that lived on campus in his Volvo wagon. He kept it in the parking lot next to the gym. Got up, went to the gym every AM for a shower and free coffee. Did it for two years and no one knew nor cared.

    • Bob

      CAE, sounds like cheap living on campus!

      • greenminimalism

        This sounds great. I wish that when I was at college I had the foresight to do this, but I guess it was so unconvential at the time that most never consider to do it.

        • Bob

          You and me both greenminimalism! One of my few regrets is not finding vandwelling earlier. That would have changed my life!

      • CAE

        Well, he’s famous. I just saw him come up on Yahoo’s news page.

        • Bob

          CAE, with the new book out he is doing a book tour promoting it and has made the national news several times. The book really isn’t about vandwelling, that is just a small percentage of it, in truth it is a biography. You might think he is too young to write a biography, but he really has lived an amazing life is a great read!

  2. Adam

    Too cool. I’m currently reading Ken’s book and just got to the part where he talks about contacting Bob for advice on campus living. Great read! I’ll be sure to link back to this site when I blog a book review.

    • Bob

      Adam, like you, I loved his book! Ken makes me feel like a total woosy when I read about his truly adventurous life!!
      He wrote me back in 2008 about how to vandwell on a college campus. Unfortunately I really couldn’t help him, but we have stayed in very sporadic contact since so I was glad to have him do a guest post and promote his book.

  3. Cyrus

    I also live in my van on campus. It’s the way to go for sure! Great blog man.

    • Bob

      Thanks Cyrus! You are on a great course!

  4. Cyrus

    I agree with you on almost every point, but I’m the opposite about keeping it secret. I don’t care who knows, except the police. My van is still stealthy, but I tell my classmates all about the virtues of van dwelling. My teachers know, my classmates know, and even the president of the college knows. But nobody cares. People think I’m strange at first, but after I give them my spiel about how I live they all end up saying that they envy my life.

    • Bob

      Cyrus, I think that is a common reaction many of us get! They say we are crazy, but it’s clear they are actually envious. As well they should be!

  5. Pat

    I’ve read Ken’s blog. He’s an amazing dude.

    • Bob

      Pat, he has lived an Amazing life. I’m envious that I wasn’t as adventurous when I was young.

  6. Charlene Swankie

    I returned to school in 2002 to get a degree in a two-year program. My husband died in 2001… and I needed to get my mind off my loss. I could not afford to maintain the apartment that we had rented together, I had lost my job six months after he passed, my only option was living in my van… but since I had camped out of it a lot, I didn’t feel it was a hardship, except for the cold Seattle winters. It made the degree program affordable, so other than my knees really being about shot… vandwelling helped to make my new life possible. I haven’t read this book yet, but plan to soon.

    • Bob

      Charlene, you are a remarkable woman!
      It’s a great read!

  7. Frank

    I tried college when i was a young man, but then i said, NO WAY!
    Too much money, work, stress, information overload, but the real reason for not going was because I alway hated school, couldn’t find anything that i liked, and I was also very lazy and now i’m more lazy then ever before.
    All I wanted to do was party and get layed. But soon i got older and getting layed required much more than just a bag of popcorn and a movie. Soooo, I made more money, got married but still not enough money, and even less money four years later after i got layed or more like lay-off from work, not sex. Awhile later got divorced and i never remarried.
    I figured what the $$$!. It’s to stressful, not enough money, too much work, was getting old and soon felt that life is too short. Anyways what the hell do i want children for. I wanted my peace, my rest, plus i was getting even more lazy so i also wanted my freeedom.
    So I sold my house, put the money in the bank, bought some gold, bought a new 6CYL REG. BDY. Chevy van to save gas and because I’m too lazy for a MONster size RV, then got the hell out of dodge. A hellish place called Seminole, FL. A place rulled by gangs of evil children and young bad punks.
    Got out just in time. It turned into such a sad sad place to live.
    The United States Of America and everywhere on earth is now a whole new WORLD we live in compared to the past. NOW, i have to worry about Soc. Sec. Medicare, Medicaid, Food Assitance, and God knows what eles.
    I hope i wont have to work until the day i die. Given more the fact that i have not only gotten more lazy, lazy, lazy, but most of all old, older, and then the walking dead.
    OH WELL, Just felt like sharring a thought.
    But for now I’m living way easier with far less stess and work. Thanks to my discovery of the Vandwelling Lifestyle. A God sent man who wrote a great and very very special book i read called Freedom Road. It changed my life and the way i think. Add to that my new found escape of the rat race. I feel like an elephant has been lifted off my back.
    I just hope i can retire without spending my savings and can rely on Uncle Sam. HA!
    If not, then i might have to go to COOLLLEEGEE AnD becoome annn OOLD old ??? ddDoctor… Will I get layed by an old sea hagg? Will i want to?
    I’ll start drinking Moon Shine thank you.
    Time to go stealth swimming at a nice resort hotel. What? Sneak in, of course not. I’ll pay for a drink. Sorry ??$$***, I ment thier rooms, silly me.

    • JohnNTx

      lol at Frank..nice post dude.

    • Bob

      Frank, that is quite a thought! Your story is very familiar, the details are different but it comes down to the need for freedom and breathing room without a boss breathing down your neck. Vandwelling is a huge piece to the solution to that puzzle.
      Us old lazy guys should unite!

  8. Martin Hamilton

    Awesome article. Ken the toughest thing to do, and the one thing that will blow all of our plans up, is to keep it a secret. Other people are jealous of our lifestyle. Few people are independent. They need someone to cry with and help them with the lizard brain tasks in life. Independence is comfort in our own skin and a faith that carries us through. Many people misuse religion so don’t confuse that with confident faith. Some Faiths destroy confidence. Happy vanning and Bob is good!

    • Bob

      Martin, the scary thing to me is I understood everything you said and agreed with it all! I’m not sure any of us are truly independent, but, some of us are a whole lot more independent than others!! That is a good goal to shoot for!

  9. Patrick

    Another option to live retire cheaply is to live in Thailand. You can live middle class with $1000.00 per months.

    • Bob

      Patrick, I’e heard that about Thailand. But it’s distance would discourage me. I think Belieze would be my first chocie of a foreign country. Two big reasons are that English is their first language and you can drive to it. It’s also very stable and has a very low crime rate.
      But I’d rather live like a pauper in the USA than middle class anywhere else!

  10. Linda

    Frank, you’re a hoot! Patrick, sorry, no offense, but who in the hell wants to live in Thailand; and, whats middle class? Really dude, I’m curious what does middle class, lower class, high class mean to people. Bob, great post!

    • Bob

      Linda, I understand his point really well. When I was on the cruise in Belize I asked my tour guide if I could live there comfortably on $1500 a month? She said I could live reasonably well on $1500 and barely survive on $1000 a month. I took that to mean lower-middle and lower class respectively.
      I do agree though, living in Thailand (or Belize for that matter) has no appeal to me at all!

  11. Patrick

    About 4 millions people from over the world live in Thailand. $1500.00 per month is upper class and live next to the beach with million dollar view. Have a beautiful young woman as a girlfriend and good foods. That’s Great life!

  12. Suzann

    Thoroughly enjoyed Ken’s post. My four day a week van dwelling in Gainesville, FL. has taught me more about myself, my fellow man and what my true needs really are than the past year of soul searching has!
    I dread returning “home” every Saturday to a life I no longer desire. Consequently, I bury myself in books, sketching, hiking or napping and 5pm Tuesday comes before I completely lose my mind! LOL
    Next week, a formerly homeless friend I met while working will remove my bench seat/bed and help me build a full size platform raised high enough to accomodate 8 storage containers. He’ll get the bench seat & have a “new” piece of furniture for his bare living room. Good deal for both of us.
    After three weeks of this new life, I’ve discovered where to park; where the best/most inexpensive coffee is; free Friday night concerts; and an excellent farmers market. I’ve established some routine and made a couple new friends. Only ONE person has been unfriendly – a woman cop. Otherwise, people are helpful, respectful and infinitly interesting. Gainesville is a university town & most of my time is spent near campus due to my job. It’s the best mix of comfort, access and culture I could have asked for and I’m more grateful each day for this opportunity.
    In time, as I save money, I’ll transition to full time van dwelling and enjoy the experience even more!

    • Frank

      What Florida? I’m from Florida. How do you keep cool inside your van, will you move, or become a snowbird?
      Just wanted to know if that’s ok.
      What, how do i stay cool? I bought a one year resident pass to Walt Disney Typhoon Lagoon and theme parks. I said the hell with becoming a snowbird, I’m too lazy to drive soo much. It’s soo cheap when the staying is free.
      The place was built with lots of tropical shady trees and i feel like I’m living on a very nice Island. It has misters for cooling, lounge chairs, and a huge man made stream that rides you all around the outer park. Also built with tropical shade. Unlike Blizzard Beach Park that has no shade.
      A very nice place to relax and for food i go out to my van. It also sits in a shaded parking lot and then I eat a nice meal at far less cost.
      At night, I stay out late in air condition places like Malls, Walmart, Starbucks, Libraries, using my laptop to play with. Then late at night when it’s much cooler. I sleep on a nice thin cool spring mounted cot that lets body heat pass through. Then i also run an ice air conditioner that shoots cool air through a plastic duck hose releasing it right on me.
      It really helps late at night for cooling. I can keep the van door windows closed and feel safe. But i can only run it between 12am to 6am my ice is gone by then. The machine will only spot cool you, not the whole van. I ran extra hose from the large ice chest and shoots directly over my cot, or wherever i point it.
      I built it myself and is very easy to do. The models sold on the internet cost too much.
      I just thought i would talk abouth this, maybe it might help other vandwellers that can’t move or don’t want to.
      For me, I just love theme parks and the only water park in the U.S. that is mostly shaded. Kissimee, Florida has the best and the most awesome parks of all the U.S. That along with the most awesome resort hotels, plus International Drive with its huge malls and food courts. Truly a great place to relax or have a blast with free Wi-Fi.
      Sure beats the hell out of Seminole, Fl

      • Bob

        Frank, it sounds like you have got it all figured out! You turned a hot hell-hole into a paradise!
        Great ideas on staying cool!

    • Bob

      Suzann, I am so glad to her you are thriving as a vandweller!! Some people who are forced into it hate it with their whole heart, but it sounds like you are loving it! That’s something we have in common!
      Life dealt you a bad hand, and you are turning it into a gold mine!!

      • Suzann

        Bob, I view my circumstances as a blessing in disguise.
        Not van dwelling full time yet, but I now consider it my home and my return to INglis a stopover for supplies, church, mail.
        Am now painting in oils on small canvases in my van – a real challeng given the humidity here, but it’s my preferred medium & what I have on hand. The creative process soothes me & transports me to a place where I figure things out without struggle.
        Have made a friend in Gainesville – former homeless man – who I’m bartering with to remove the 3-section bench seat & construct a raised platform. He will borrow his landlord’s tools, do the job in his driveway & receive the bench seat for his help.
        Not knowing a soul in Gainesville, other than my employer, it’s a blessing to make a friend!

        • Bob

          Suzanne, having friends is always a blessing, one of the few things in life you can’t have enough of!
          Do you have any photos of your oils work anywhere?

  13. Suzann

    I van dwell in Gainesville due to my job, so a theme park is out of the question for me; plus finances are very slim.
    I’ve learned to adjust my schedule by doing many of the things you mentioned: hanging in library, Walmart (where I park two nights a week) & a coffee/internet cafe.
    One of the least expensive keep cool methods I use is to strip, lay a moist bath towel over me and a wash folded wet wash cloth over my forehead. A bucket of water is next to me if I want to moisten the towels. Otherwise, I rely on my 12volt/battery powered fan.
    On rare occassions, I start the van for 5-10 minutes.

    • Suzann

      Above comment was in reply to Bob and Frank.
      I may move west this fall, but nothing is written in stone!

      • Frank

        Thanks for the reply Suzann, good idea the towels. I was just asking about how you stay cool since you live in Florida.
        I was wondering if you had some kind of secret alien atomic compact air conditioner, just joking.
        But you can also try a small spray misting fan from Walmart, really cheap and spray yourself with it.
        You can even put some ice in the bottle for cooler water.
        Well good luck with going west. The best part is that it’s far less humid.

      • Bob

        If you can be a snowbird, the weather is so much better here I think you will be glad you did. While there are many beautiful places back East, in my biased opinion they pale in comparison to the West!

    • Bob

      Suzann, those are very good tips! Keeping your skin damp and having moving air blowing over it are cheap and easy ways to stay as cool as possible.

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