Vanlife in NYC

guys hanging off the back of a van in new york city


I’ve lived in a van on and off since 2011, when I first moved to California.

I paid rent for 3 months before deciding it was a waste of money.

If you can tolerate the hardships that naturally accompany living in a van, the benefits are obvious. No rent, no landlords, and the ability to take off for a surfing or climbing trip whenever you’d like.

What if you want to live in a city though? Is it possible to live in a place such as, say, New York City? Yes, it is.

You will have to deal with a few things that are unique to the city, though. Temperatures, parking, and the accessibility of services that are typically easy when in the natural outdoors. I believe though, that any adventurer can figure it out.

Before diving into the wilds of living in N.Y.C. in a van, I want to paint a picture of my particular vehicle.

I have a 2005 Dodge Sprinter 2500. This is one of the most common vans that people live in. It’s worth mentioning that I outfitted my van in a fairly primitive way. Since the outset of the COVID pandemic, I’ve seen an impressive spike in the popularity of #vanlife, with most people’s vans featuring incredible builds.

However, it is possible to live in a van that isn’t equipped with the most state of the art solar, water, toilet, heating and A/C. In fact, my van has none of that because I chose to live in a van to save money. Of course, I’ve got nothing against fancy vans, and I envy those who are able to design them. The common person though, may only have limited funds.

I bought my van for $5,500 with a bank loan and was only able to afford wooden floors and cabinets. All of the wood I used to build my cabinets was scrap wood from my grandfather’s wood shop, and I couldn’t even afford to insulate my van. So essentially, I was living in a metal tent with cabinets. All of that is to say, whatever sort of van you can afford, it can be converted into a home if you’re willing to rough it a bit.

Editor’s Note: That is absolutely true, but definitely do your research so you don’t freeze…no, seriously.

the inside of a van kitted out for living within

Onto the story. I moved to N.Y.C. in 2016 because I’d fallen in love with someone. After two years of living indoors, my relationship ended and I found myself in need of another place to live.

I still owned the van I’d lived in before, but it was being used as a storage unit on the streets of Brooklyn. Of course, I began wondering if I could live in my van but I’d never considered doing so in a metropolitan area. I had a full time job as a teacher in Queens and didn’t plan to quit, so I knew I wanted to stay in the city, and I didn’t want to pay rent. This time however, I wouldn’t be next to a river or on a road trip, I would be in the most densely populated city of the U.S.

For the first few nights I slept near the school where I worked, which was unnerving. I remember opening the door one morning to see some of my students walking to school. Luckily they didn’t see me and I was able to wait until they passed before stepping out.

At this point in time, I’d taken a shower at my friend’s house a few times and shaved in the bathroom sink at work every morning. I needed a place to shower and charge my phone in the evening. I basically needed a place to do nearly everything aside from sleep and cook.

I started searching and finally found a rock climbing gym only blocks away from where I was parking. Ironically, N.Y.C. has many rock climbing gyms. Luckily, these rock climbing gyms usually inhabit what used to be industrial buildings, which means they’re located in places that are easy to park. After getting a tour of one of the gyms closest to my job, I decided it would be perfect. My monthly membership was $130 a month. The gym had showers, a sauna, a microwave, multiple bathrooms, lots of people to become friends with, and last but not least, rock climbing!

In situations like these I find it best to just be honest about your situation. I immediately told the people in the gym that I lived in a van so they wouldn’t question why I was in there for so many hours at a time.

I had to figure out a new place to park that wasn’t near my work, and preferably didn’t require me to move my van every few days for street sweeping. After paying a few $45 parking tickets, and having my van towed, I became vigilant when reading parking signs. It’s difficult to find parking anywhere in New York and sometimes you’ve got to contend with information from 3 different parking signs and maybe a hidden driveway. Moving a Dodge Sprinter van could easily mean an hour of hunting for another parking spot. Even so, the spot I would finally find might often be in a place I definitely didn’t want to sleep.

So, one Saturday when I had ample time, I started methodically driving around Queens until I found an area beneath the Queensboro Bridge that had no parking signs. In case you’ve never been to New York City, finding a place with no parking signs is almost impossible. However, this was an industrial area that had no apartment buildings nearby, making parking less of a commodity.

At the time, it was September so I had some time before the temperature truly dropped. I soon learned that dealing with the cold in New York City requires meticulous planning, especially in January and February when nighttime temperatures can easily fall below 0.

My memory foam mattress was like a sheet of ice each night when I laid down. I had to wait for about 20 minutes before my body heat would soften the bed enough for me to sink into it. Even then, the mattress would remain rock-hard around me all night. There were mornings when I would wake up to find that my hair, wet from the previous night’s shower, had frozen if it wasn’t tucked inside my sleeping bag. To make things worse, there were nights when I would wake up to drink water that had frozen through and through in the matter of a few hours.

a Mr. Buddy heater
Mr. Heater

I eventually ordered a -15° sleeping bag and a propane heater online. It’s dangerous to run a propane heater while you sleep because it burns the oxygen in the air, and could burn your van down while you sleep. So, I would only run the heater for an hour or so before going to sleep. I learned to fill bottles with hot water in the gym to place inside my sleeping bag to keep them from freezing. This was the only sustainable way I found to ensure that I’d always have drinking water. I would also sleep with the next day’s outfit inside my sleeping bag because it’s brutal to change clothes in freezing temperatures.

Even though my issues with weather and temperature were resolved, I still had to constantly contend with life on the streets. Parking a van in N.Y.C. presents endless issues, but some of them are entertaining. One of the most bizarre things about sleeping in a city is what I like to call the “phantom push”. This phenomenon would begin with me believing there was an earthquake in my dream. I guess that’s just how my mind chose to animate the situation. I would wake up, grasping at the walls. Trying to save my life in a panicked, sleepy, stupor. I never got used to waking up to the world floating around me.

If you haven’t guessed, this movement was caused by someone lightly tapping the bumper of my van while parallel parking. Despite eventually learning what was happening, I can’t even count the number of times I would wake up to my van rocking back and forth. After sleeping in a van for so many nights in a row without driving it, I sort of forgot it was on wheels, or even a vehicle at all.

I came to learn that the practice of nudging another vehicle while parking in the city is so common that many people drape a rubber bumper-cover over their regular bumper. Despite this startling nudge waking me up upwards of 100 times, my van was never damaged. Needless to say, I couldn’t exit through my back door when a vehicle was only an inch away, so I spent many mornings awkwardly climbing over the front seats to leave for work.

It’s not all bad though! There are a few good things about living in a perpetual refrigerator on the streets of the city that never sleeps.

The first is how easy it makes storing food. You simply throw it in the van! There are times when my food would be frozen and I’d have to take more time to cook. This is, however, better than food spoiling from heat. The convenience of having a 24 hour corner store, or a “bodega”, as they’re affectionately referred to in New York, is helpful. Anywhere in N.Y.C. a bodega is usually less than one block away. Almost all bodegas sell hot sandwiches, coffee, medicine, umbrellas, trash bags, vacuums, blow up dolls, stolen electronics and nearly anything else you can fathom. Most bodegas even have a cat living amongst the shelves. I think this is to mitigate the presence of mice, but it’s nice to see a kitty once in a while!

I also find that it’s so much easier to sleep in cold temperatures than in the heat. Anyone who regularly sleeps outdoors knows that you can always put more clothes on, but you can only remove clothes until you’re left with your birthday suit. The freezing temperatures of winter makes the fall and spring seasons a dream for living in a van.

Participating in the city’s music and arts scene is also a major benefit of parking there. I would often get off work, sleep until 9 p.m. and then wake up to go see a jazz band. The clubs in the city are usually open until 4 a.m. Besides this being fun, it also provided me with a place to use the bathroom until 4 a.m. During the day, there are literally hundreds of unique coffee shops to visit in every corner of the city. The train system in N.Y.C. isn’t perfect, but you can get anywhere if you’re patient, and you never need to move your van.

The last benefit of living in the city that I never could have guessed, is that no one cares. N.Y.C. is filled with people from all social classes and parts of the world. People in New York have seen everything and nothing surprises them.

For example, I frequently went to a gas station owned by several brothers originally from Pakistan. Those men had overcome such hardships to move to the U.S. that they found my living in a van to be slightly interesting, but mostly inconsequential. I eventually divulged my situation with these men and would often use their bathroom in the middle of the night. I became such good friends with them that they stocked my favorite iced coffee and would hug me when I came in.

Similarly, I became buddies with the police officers that were assigned to the area where I parked. This is a stark contrast to my experience in L.A., where police officers often harassed me for sleeping in a vehicle. Frankly, the N.Y.P.D. have much bigger fish to fry. At first I tried to hide that I was living in a van but soon realized that the police just don’t care.

One evening when I stepped out of my van I began talking to the police and they started asking me how I used the bathroom, etc… The conversation progressed to the point that they got into my van for a tour! They were kind, and thought it was cool to see how I’d made a folding desk and bed. Eventually the police officers would even notify me if temporary parking restrictions were to be posted in the near future so that I wouldn’t be ticketed or towed. This left me feeling less nervous about hiding, and safer!

In general, New York City is a tough place to live. Whether you’re homeless, in a van, or even in an apartment. It is, however, one of the most beautiful places in the world; bursting with culture and convenience. In my opinion, the cold temperatures work in favor of life in a vehicle if you’re prepared. I would say it’s also the easiest place to blend in with your van because New York City is simply wild. After I figured out how to navigate the difficulties of van-life there, I realized it was one of the most fulfilling places to park. In fact, I highly recommend it.