How To Move In Your Car

This post was migrated from my Lifeblog.

Gen-Y has a lot of interest in the nomadic lifestyle, but I’ve not found many how-tos on the internet, certainly not about organizing a movable household. No doubt, this is because most nomadic techies are single men who eat out all the time, etc. … smile. I suppose the demographic “housewives married to a nomadic techie” is pretty small. But here I am nonetheless.

Believe it or not, I’ve been wanting to write something about keeping a nomadic household for about a year now. So why didn’t I write this sooner? Mainly because I didn’t feel qualified to at the time. A year ago, I’d only moved once and wasn’t really that minimalistic. Since then, I’ve put three more moves under my belt — one of them absolutely hellish — and I’m feeling much more ready to tackle this subject. So here goes.

Our Story

Apparently, moving on a dime is part of the job description for a “software contractor’s wife.” We’ve moved four times in the last 16 months. I’ve never met anyone with a similar track record, and I’ve only heard of a few.

Believe me, it wasn’t always this way for me. Growing up, I lived in the same college town for 15 years, and the same house for 9 of those years. The word “moving” conjured only distant memories of my parents shuttling a few carloads of stuff from our apartment to our new house across town.

All this changed when I got married. When I said “I do” at the tender age of 19, I thought I was marrying a Missourian farmboy with a computer hobby. It turned out I’d really married a Gen-Y techie who, to my great astonishment, whisked me off to Los Angeles right after college.

For that first move, I had a whole month’s notice (by far the longest I’ve had since then), and with a herculean effort, I managed to distill our apartment full of junk down to only what would fit in our Ford Taurus. 1500 miles later, we arrived in Los Angeles with no place to live, no city know-how, and no friends outside of an odd little startup that we knew almost nothing about. It was quite the introduction to the real world.

We made our second move six months later, this time to rural New Mexico. I had two weeks to prepare for this one and again, we did it in one fell swoop, throwing everything into our car and driving over. Our stay was temporary, and only two months later, we made our third move up to Los Alamos, NM. This one was much more gradual. Since it was only two hours away, we shuttled our stuff to our new apartment in three trips over the course of two weeks. For the first time, we hardly had to throw anything away, and that lured me into a complacency. Stuff started stacking up.

Then we moved to Boulder — the absolute killer move. Though I had only one week’s notice, it promised to be a peaceful transition at first — until our car died en route to Boulder, with half of our worldly possessions in it. What ensued was a hellish week during which we were homeless living in hotels, carless in an unfamiliar city, and creditless in a depressed economy, with our stuff scattered in four places across two states. At the end of it all, we ended up losing a third of our things. If I had only been half committed to minimalism until then, that experience threw me all the way in. It also cured my shopping habit really well. :)

So here we are four months later.

Extreme minimalism is not stylish — you won’t see our home featured on theNest.com anytime soon. It’s beauty comes from somewhere else, that place in the heart where wanderlust lives. It’s a different world and you have to adopt a different mindset before you enter it.

We’re not the bare bones of minimalism — not even close! There are many things about established living that I’m just not willing to give up. On the other hand, there are little habits that, once I adjusted to them, made my moving life much much easier. Those things I’ll share with you here. Everyone finds their balance in a different place. Here is a little taste of our way.

General Strategies

As is probably obvious by now, our favorite way to move is to simply pile all of our lasting possessions into our car. (Originally, that was a Ford Taurus; since then we’ve “upgraded” to a smallish SUV.) This little detail changes a lot. Moving in a passenger vehicle is a very different beast than moving in say a U-haul. Space is both limited and very non-rectangular. Forget traditional cardboard boxes and newspaper; you can’t afford to lose any space. The best way I’ve found is to pack your things into sturdy containers, like sterilite boxes. (They need to be sturdy because you’ll be stuffing them solid.) If you need padding, use clothing, towels, or something soft that you were going to bring along anyway. Pack the car as full of those rigid boxes as possible, and then start stuffing your other possessions into the cracks. It takes a little practice to find the right grouping techniques. Once, I bagged everything in identical opaque grocery bags — unpacking was a nightmare, let me tell you!

Notice that above I made a distinction between lasting and non-lasting possessions above. That’s because there are permanent possessions that I hold on to and transient things that I throw away and repurchase after every move. (I know, I’m probably horrifying the environmentalists — sorry guys!) My strategy is to gauge the space an item takes up against the price to repurchase. That means that if it’s cheap but big, it gets tossed — trash cans, hangers, bathmats, and consumables like toilet paper and paper towels, for example. This may seem expensive until you compare it to the price of renting a larger vehicle. I’d estimate that my restocking cost at a place like Wal-Mart or Target is about $100. That’s a huge savings over a U-haul.

In general, I try to do with as few possessions as “possible” (where “possible” means a satisfying modern life, not necessarily wilderness survival mode). When I do buy, I try to invest in things that nest or are collapsible. I hope that one is self-explanatory.

Believe it or not, that’s pretty much all there is to it in the general sense. In the end, everyone will approach the specifics differently. Here are a few tips that I’ve found particularly valuable.

Furniture and Organization

Honestly, the best way to deal with furniture is to not have any. We used to have a ton of conventional furniture, and I’ve been a lot happier since we ditched it all.

Of course, living without anything to sit on is pretty weird, and though I did just that for six months and was perfectly happy, we’ve since bought two folding tables and two folding chairs. Since they collapse, they move pretty easily and they make our life a lot nicer in between moves. So moral of the story, if you go for furniture, see that it folds.

My work table My work table

What about dressers and such? Actually, an excellent furniture solution I’ve found is Sterilite bins. Yep, I know, not stylish at all. But believe it or not, they’re just as good at organizing things and only a little less convenient. Their gigantic upside is that come time to move, you’re already half packed.

I lumped organization in with furniture because after you switch to using sterilite bins, the line between the two blur quite a bit. The last tip I have for you in this category are to use, use, use ziplock bags. Trust me, they’re not just for sandwiches! I have every size, from the 2” x 2” you get at craft stores to the 10 gallon, which can hold anything from a large blanket to an entire set of pots (which it did, during our last move). I used to use tins, boxes, and other “official” containers, but the ziplock bags do just as well (and sometimes better) in 97% of cases. Other benefits? They’re a fraction of the cost of corresponding containers and they’re clear, allowing you to see the contents at a glance. I use them to organize everything, from food to clothing to office and craft supplies.

Sterilite bin organization I find Sterilite bins both neat and accessible. Ziplock bags are handy for detailed organization.

Kitchen

Unless you eat out all the time or you’re a very minimalistic raw foodist, you’re going to need something to cook with. The one biggest tip I can give you for pots and pans and bakeware is make sure they nest!!! This is easier said than done actually. Stroll through any department store and you’ll quickly see that, aside from mixing bowls, nesting things are not the norm. I unfortunately don’t know of any nesting bakeware sets. I cobbled together my corningware from several other sets. (I gave the remaining pieces to my parents.)

For the stove however, I’m the proud owner of a crazy expensive set of nesting pots and pans from Magma, sold by companies that supply boaters. They come in either nonstick or stainless and are oven-safe, making them an all-in-one solution for the super-minimalistic. The only downside in my book is price. I got my set for $140, which is twice as much as I could’ve spent on a comparable non-nesting set. But I’d say they were worth it.

Magma nesting cookware Magma’s 10-piece nesting cookware comes in either stainless steel or nonstick.

Besides boating, the other promising area I found for nesting cookware is camping. It didn’t work for us because I like to cook in bulk and it’s difficult to find any pots larger than say 2 quarts for campers. (I guess when you’re carrying everything on your back, it’s not so practical to haul around gigantic stockpots, lol.) But if you eat small portions, there’s a treasury of nesting pots with folding handles and pop-out bowls at your local REI.

Silicone kitchenwares are something that I started using quite recently and have been very happy with. I swapped my stainless steel colander for a collapsible silicone one and truth be told, I get a bit delirious every time I see it. :) There are a ton of other silicone options, from pinch bowls to bakeware. The key here is to make sure they’re heatproof (at least 500 degrees; higher is even better). Other than that, go forth and experiment!

Knives are horrible to pack, which why I only have one. Let me introduce you to the most versatile tool you will ever meet in the kitchen: A Chinese cleaver. It can chop through bones; slice, dice, mince; and you can use the flat of the blade to crush garlic or move ingredients. I used to own a beautiful block of Chicago Cutlery knives, but I eventually gave it away because I hardly ever needed it. Now, besides my cleaver, all I have is a cheap set ($4 at Target!) consisting of a chef’s knife, a bread knife, and a paring knife that I’ll probably toss and repurchase when we move again.

Actually, the cleaver I own is not technically Chinese. It’s an ordinary 6 inch cleaver that I bought from Wal-Mart years ago. (I have small hands. Most of you will want a bigger one.) If I had it to do again, I’d probably buy a Chinese cleaver, but mine works so well, I’ve never bothered to replace it.

My knife collection My sparse knife collection

Another one of the many goofs I made in the kitchen at first was to buy a whole bunch of appliances. Since then, I’ve given away everything but a stick blender, a food processor, and a spice grinder. If I were to allow one more thing, it might be a slow cooker. But pot roasts are so easily made on the stove that even that seems excessive.

Bedroom

Another place where I have very unconventional recommendations. First and foremost: Learn to sleep on the floor. If you can’t bear it, try an air mattress. That’s actually how we started out. When it sprung a leak, we spread out a quilt on the floor and liked it so much we never bothered to fix our air mattress.

Our bed on the floor Our bed on the floor, in its usual state of disarray. :)

For those of you who haven’t walked away from me yet, let me justify this one. First of all, a bed frame is huge. It is one of the nastier pieces of furniture to disassemble and move, so getting rid of it takes a huge burden off of your hands immediately. Secondly, sleeping on the floor has surprising benefits. The floor, being perfectly stable, eliminates any bothersome bouncing from your spouse rolling over, etc. It also allows you an arbitrarily large bed — as big as the room you’re in. In fact, anymore, king sized beds feel small, simply because they have boundaries. I’ve also heard that sleeping on hard surfaces is good for your bones, but I don’t think there’s any scientific evidence for that.

There are a few downsides and it wouldn’t be fair if I didn’t mention them. The floor conducts vibrations much better than a mattress, so noises (i.e. snoring) are louder. Also, you will be a bag of sore bones for the first week or two. About three days into sleeping on the floor, I couldn’t find a single side of me to lay on that didn’t hurt. However, hard as it is to believe right then, it does go away.

This does mean that renting a place with nice-ish carpet is essential, but I’ve not had a lot of problem with that. In a pinch, an area rug isn’t nearly as expensive as a bed and will do the trick.

Recall that we don’t do furniture anymore. At first, I really had to rack my brains for a solution to the humble bedroom dresser. Where to put the undies, socks, and towels? It turned out none of that was very hard, and I was surprised at how little I was thinking outside the box. Nowadays, we keep all of our foldable clothing in two duffel bags; the different pockets make it easy to sort things out, and a drawstring bag or two helps separate things inside the main compartment. (Naturally, if more structure is desired, a sterilite box will do the trick beautifully. But I like my duffel bag.) As for our towels, I hang them up. In fact, hangers are another one those nifty little secrets that astonished me with its versatility. I found that everything made of fabric can be hung up — skirts, shorts, swimsuits, towels — everything can be slung over that hanger and stuck in the closet. That’s really easy because hangers are dirt cheap and every place we’ve ever lived came with a decent sized closet.

Towels Towels are easily hung up in the closet.

Blankets are another big chunk of space when moving. I’ve found that investing in an electric blanket really pays off space-wise. They’re small, but coupled with a quilt, they’ll keep you warm through the chilliest of weather. Also, blankets are terribly fluffy and can suck up a lot of valuable car space. Enter vaccuum seal compressor bags. I bought a package of these nifty cube bags from Target, and I’m looking forward to trying them out.

Library

One word: Kindle!

Kindle Kindle

I used to own three giant duffel bags worth of books — probably about 500 pounds. They were always a major problem in every move. This last move, I lost all but a handful of them. Let me tell you, I was absolutely devastated.

Since then, I’ve vowed to stick to ebooks. For me, it’s difficult because craft books are pictoral and do not translate well to the Kindle. Only a few of them are available as pdfs, and those are usually DRM-ed so that you can only read them on proprietary software. (I’m on Linux, so that’s not an option.) Of course, since I lost all my books, I’ve gotten really good at utilizing this neat little subscription service you can get called …

The Internet! Lol. I was pretty chagrined to find that most of what was in my $1000 worth of books, I could find with a simple google search. It’s not exactly the same, but seeing as I used my craft books mostly for inspiration, it’s 90% of the way there.

Benefits

What are the benefits of all these little optimizations? Well, I would estimate that I could have our entire household packed and ready to go on 48 hours notice … maybe even 24. That might seem crazy, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility.

As for the physical and spiritual benefits of minimalism, there are more than enough blogs and webpages discussing that, and I encourage you to read them! As for me, I’ve been much happier since we’ve whittled down our stuff. (Not to mention the tidying is a LOT easier, lol!)

So I hope this has been helpful, entertaining, or both. And as a connoisseur of minimalism, I’d be more than thrilled to hear about any clever innovations you’ve come up with!