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drive, she said

Have you ever lived in your car? Could you live in your car? If so, for how long? What would you consider essential? What could you learn to live without? Where would you feel safe?

I've been watching a curious trend in reporting throughout the past few recessionary years: while some people are giving up their cars, more people are living in them.

There's a two-pronged discussion here: those who live in their cars due to homelessness, a growing problem in Canada, and especially the United States, as the recession sinks in its teeth and refuses to let go, and those who end up exercising the choice as a lifestyle.

Some American reports are finding that because of the nature of the unstable employment market, some people (usually young and unfettered by kids) are opting to live from their cars to avoid the high costs of moving until they're sure they'll be settling. Whether by choice or by circumstance, living from your car is still something geared to warmer climes.

There are endless anecdotes on the Internet of car-living experiments. It echoes that earlier rite of passage: hitchhiking across the country – not for everyone, but always interesting to hear the stories. Walmart jumped into the discussion decades ago in the United States by allowing RVs to stay overnight in its parking lots, a move that negatively affected campgrounds in a big way. The retail giant knew that RVers would spend money in its stores. The fact it sells everything guaranteed that.

Twenty years ago, you'd drive past a Walmart in Pennsylvania or Michigan and think you'd stumbled into an asphalt RV campground. But, of course, all good things must be abused, and more and more stores have yanked the privilege; too many travellers seeking peace and tranquillity in the wilderness decided that a Walmart parking lot was close enough, and they were staying for days and days.

The young and carefree have always done silly things on purpose, but now they can tell everyone about it. Austen Allred, a young entrepreneur in Silicon Valley looking to save money for his startup company, lived in his 2002 Honda Civic EX Coupe for three months. The experiment was civilized, and involved knowing where he could shower (YMCA), how to time his day (up with the sun) and how to sort out that time (everything takes longer). He related his story in Slate, and opened himself up to the usual volleys of being called an idiot but he planned it, he did it, and he saved what he had to.

I don't know that I could live in a Honda Civic for a whole day, let alone three months. I've slept in vehicles – poorly – but it was usually because of a messed-up hotel reservation or to guard gear. Back in the day, the only alarm systems were humans. The most compelling factor for me? If someone could see into the car.

Local laws in every jurisdiction never say "feel free to park anywhere and sleep," and most trespassing laws and parking bylaws will keep people moving along to an accommodating Walmart or a church outside of peak hours, though even churches are rightfully not required to be sympathetic. Posters trade tips ("watch out for indecent exposure charges if you get changed in your car"), but the element of danger would make me squirrely. I'd rather pay a few bucks, camp and get a shower than lie there wondering what I'm going to see when I open my eyes.

My neighbour had a visitor for a few weeks who is travelling the country in his converted Sprinter. He's actually travelled all over North America for months at a time, and prefers it. There is absolutely a personality suited to this lifestyle, and while the myth is often more romantic than the method, the notion of being rootless is hardwired into some niche of every culture. Some are simply nomads on wheels.

Done successfully and intentionally, it is here the most important trait of car dwellers is revealed: organization. Immaculately designed, stripped to essentials and as choreographed as a ballet, living in a confined space – sanely – means attention to detail. It's also probably why it tends to be the solitary souls who embrace it.

For those who have had the experience out of necessity, the tales are harrowing, but for those who opt for the challenge, it's an interesting what-if game of possibilities.

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