Nomadic Living in Unusual Spaces: The Kit

It started in 2009.

That summer I lived on a back porch with Libby, because it was cheaper. My alarm went off every morning one hour before hers and the air conditioner would hum hum hum and there were zero curtains for the wraparound full-size window panels that covered three walls. We lived inside of a glass box. We never cared. We smoked inside and I killed all the bugs and she and I did crafting projects together on her bed and eventually, I put a fridge next to my bed and filled it with 30 Coors Banquet cans at once.

That fall I moved into a new apartment for three days, living on a mattress on the floor and eating toast for lunch and dinner as I waited for my lease to go through. And then it didn’t. I moved into the sunroom of a group home filled with my friends that night and stayed on their couch for 30 days rent-free, sometimes worried about where I’d ever rest my head again and other times simply happy for the company. I stayed up late and waited for the last of the drunken herds to go home after parties. I gave money for utilities and parties and I bought many a six-pack for the crew. I was technically without a space, but I definitely had a home. I stayed there, moving at the end of the month into an open room for a year. (And now, as a rent-paying official citizen of the world.)

Next August it was time to move again, although I wasn’t able to at all. I had a new place, but it wasn’t empty, and my time in the big group home had come to an official end after I got chased out the front door by the new tenants, pile of magazines in hand. I had a couple days to bide my time with only 1/30th of my substantial pile of useless crap in tow, so I packed my Diane von Furstenberg suitcase and brought it to the house downtown where my girlfriend at the time lived. I spent a week there, living off of ramen I’d buy down the street and eat for dinner without any additions. I didn’t want to take up a lot of room, and I kept my suitcase in the hallway so that technically I was still free. Still roaming.

A year later, I moved into the upper back porch of a big house. I spent all of my time in the living room trying to assemble a future. “We move out September 30,” Carla kept repeating to me. But I had no job and I was depressed and all I knew was that I needed more time. When October 1 came, I was situated in my friend Amanda’s living room, where I set up a clothing rack and slept on a mattress on a box spring on a floor. And I was home.

I thought maybe I’d stop being a nomadic wandering kind after that, and especially after I secured a steady job and waved all my problems goodbye. But when my housing plans went awry earlier this year, my old ways came back to haunt me when I crashed at my friend Soph’s house, in a guest suite that had a tiny kitchenette and even a private bathroom, until the house we were moving into together was finally read for us.

It’s been six years since 2009, but I still find myself a perpetual houseguest who has a habit of landing in semi-private spaces when everyone else has a door that shuts on a room to call their own. I consider those spaces unusual spaces — they’re not quite rooms, but they’re not quite public space, and often not even communal space. I am the person who offers to live on the back porch. I am the person who would be down to live in the tiny guest room the dude who lived in your house before you used as a TV room. I am the person who can squeeze herself into any barrack, pack everything up on command, and feel at home simply by surrounding myself with my vintage suitcases.

If that sounds like you or someone you’re about to become, get ready for the wild ride with these tips, tricks, and product recommendations. Also, send me postcards.


1. A Set of House (Guest) Rules

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When you’re caught in an unusual space — a space not built for you, or a space not built for people, or a space not meant for long-term occupation — it’s important to remember that you have the ability to go home. That’s a privilege, you know. A privilege and an honor. Every night you will rest your head, however uncomfortably and however late at night after the last beers are consumed, at home.

It’s also important to remember the limitations of living in an unusual space: the lack of storage and, presumably, a long-term arrangement for where to put any unpacked belongings before swiftly packing them again. (At certain points in my life, I began simply refusing to unpack anything, ever. Everything seemed temporary. Everything seemed easier when I knew I could flee at the drop of a hat.)

When it comes to living in an unusual space, the only route to survival is to count your blessings and minimize everything else. Your goal as a houseguest is to be out of sight and out of mind; your goal when living in a private but transitional or otherwise unusual space is to be able to make a quick run for it. And so you scrunch.

This is where we begin.

  • Pack Light. When you’re getting ready to live transitionally or otherwise in an unusual space — when you’re moving onto a porch with absolutely no closet and you have no furniture, or you’re getting ready to live on a sofa or a couple of sofas for a couple of days — you’ll need, first and foremost, to pack. You will not be able to bring everything. There will be no way in hell you can bring everything. Use your absolute favorite suitcase and a sturdy, reliable, and slightly off-season backpack.
  • Pack travel size anything and everything, if possible. Know that you are prepared to make your own way, even if you’re in someone else’s house. Pack razors (or don’t), a toothbrush and toothpaste, a towel, shampoo and conditioner (or don’t), soap, etc. Use the smallest possible forms of these things: travel-size tubes of toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, lotion, lube. O.B. tampons and a travel-size bar soap in a cardboard box.
  • Bring only your favorite and most practical items of clothing. Nothing that requires dry-cleaning, hand washing, ironing or hanging. Bring stuff that accommodates a wide range of occasions but is also comfortable. And make sure you look damn good in it because it’s gonna be all you have to show for yourself.
  • Bring books you haven’t read and books you’ll reread for sure.
  • Bring with you things other people can benefit from, or that you can share. Bring leftover cookies from Grandma’s house, big blankets you used to keep folded by the bed, extra spoons and forks, money for the party this weekend, a big ol’ bag of solo cups, your L Word DVDs.

Now, sometimes you’re not in an unusual space because you’re a guest. Sometimes, you’re in an unusual space because that’s your motherf*ckin’ home. Got no closet? Got no furniture? Live on a deck? You can make it! I promise! But first, strategize and get the shit you need.


2. A Clothing Rack, Instead of a Closet

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Whether you go big or just buy the ten-dollar metal hot mess on wheels you can find at Target without trying, a clothing rack will become your best friend in a portable space. Depending on your space, some features will be better suited to your needs: There are clothing racks that adjust in width and height, clothing racks with covers and built-in shelving units, and so on and so forth.

If what your space is missing is a closet, buy something that resembles an armoire, but with fabric instead of hard material as a frame, and also collapses into a stack of tin sticks. If what you’re looking for is that model-who-just-got-to-town vibe, check out the basic one-rod adjustable clothing rack I refuse to throw out that saved my life for four years. If you have a lot of clothes, double up on racks.

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3. A Suitcase Collection, Instead of a Dresser

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I have a collection of vintage suitcases that I began to buy, earnestly, out of a straight-up desire to own vintage suitcases. These bags are my everything. In every room I’ve had since I left my college dorm, they’ve become a sort of decorative sculpture, stacked on top of one another in corners or pushed ever-so-slightly under my bed. Right now, since I have no dresser, I use the DvF to store my pajamas and keep it at the foot of my bed. All my clothes that don’t fit in my big IKEA clothing rack are stored in the rest, stacked behind a chair in my room.

Because I have these, I want for no furniture. My entire life is literally always packed and ready to go. I am legend, is what I’m saying. And you can, too.

Though you can’t buy vintage luggage through our affiliates (sad, I know), you can buy a tote-a-ton bag from Samsonite, wannabe vintage trolley suitcases, and this kick-ass Las Vegas luggage set. I fucking love Las Vegas.

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4. A Mattress That Doesn’t Weigh You Down

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I bought a foam mattress at IKEA this year that can roll up and be transported, then easily roll out and expand to be a dense four inches tall. And y’all, I can’t even with this shit. It’s comfortable, totally affordable, and amazingly easy to move around, fit into weirdo spaces, and use on different kinds of bed frames. 5 out of 5. Would recommend.

You can find similar buys on Amazon, though I can’t vouch for those!


5. Decorations That Travel Well

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The Things I Carry are easy to hang and place in every space, no matter what the walls are made of or how much room there is to display my belongings. When you live in an unusual space, that kind of stuff becomes key. I’m now a master at ledge decorating, considering I’ve lived in more than a few spaces where the windowsills were actually massive. And because all my stuff needs to hang is some masking tape, I can seriously take it with me anywhere.

If you were to go online right now and buy some candles, paper flags, and decorative things that are secretly just paper products with lots of ink on them, you’d probably feel like you were living your best life. And you could take that life anywhere, y’all.

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6. An Electric Blanket

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Unusual spaces are sometimes also, unfortunately, the spaces between Internet connections or without the best A/C or heating vents in the world. I once lived on an upstairs enclosed patio with no wi-fi or A/C, despite living in a house with a great router and central air. I also once slept on a mattress on the floor next to a central air vent that spit out cool air instead of heat in the winter, which was, um, stressful.

For a while, I relied on a space heater, but those are hella dangerous and my dog hated them. In response, I became a devotee of the electric blanket cult. I like curling up under an electric blanket on the sofa to watch a movie, walking around the house in an electric blanket that’s just been disconnected from its power source in the winter, and cuddling up under one when I have cramps or my back hurts. They’re lifesavers! They’re temperature equalizers! They’re something we should all know the joy of wrapping around our epidermis.

Buy one right now.

Carmen is the Digital Editor at Ms. , Managing Editor at Argot, a Contributor at Everyday Feminism, and Co-Host of The Bossy Show. She previously served as Straddleverse Director, Feminism Editor, and Social Media Co-Director at Autostraddle. You can find her on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr or in the drive-thru line at the nearest In-N-Out.

Carmen has written 925 articles for us.

20 Comments

  1. Hell yes to the electric blanket! My mum bought me one for Christmas in my second year of uni, when I was living in a drafty as fuck Victorian house with no double glazing and student heating (i.e. we only turned it on for a couple of hours each day because we couldn’t afford to have it on any more than that). And my room had a fireplace that was basically just a tunnel for cold winds to travel directly into my room. That thing is the absolute best and has moved house with me half a dozen times since.

  2. This came at the right time for me! Moving to Nashville in five days and that foam mattress is AMAZING. Curious to know more about being a queer nomad with a pup… I have a 40lb pit bull who is the sweetest but can’t be kept in small spaces like I can.

    • wait yes! i also have a pup! mine is a bit tinier and ok with tiny spaces, but we’ve lived together in living rooms and guest spaces and it worked out. there was a horrible no-good time in which my friend’s landlord found out about him and things got very serious, though, so the stakes are definitely a bit higher. i trust in your ability as a puppy parent to make it all work out, don’t worry.

      good luck in your adventure!

      • I was wondering about the pup, too! I adopted a lil guy this spring, thinking that I was going to be in my current living situation for a year minumum… that didn’t turn out to be the case and we moved four times in eight months :/ He did okay the first few times, but seemed kinda stressed out with the last one. Does yours not care at all? Did you get him as a puppy, so he’s more secure with you?

  3. I’m in awe with this article and you, Carmen. Also this is giving me low-key anxiety, because I’m the complete opposite. I am MISERABLE if I don’t have my space. I just got back from catsitting/housesitting for two weeks and I COULDN’T wait to get back to my apartment.

    I’d like to think I’m not a materialistic person but I do get attached to things. Like, not clothes or tables and chairs, but to the things that resonate as “home”. And since I don’t have friends yet where I am, and family is far away, and everything is so foreign, I have to have a steady place where I can feel like myself in a home I guess.

    But yeah what I meant is : WOAH. Thanks for opening my eyes to something completely different from my own experiences!

  4. LOVE this article ! Fun and informative too 😉 I have had a few nomadic periods, with unusual spaces as home. One part I spent most of a year in an unheated garage, including the entire winter – in Iowa. Two things that saved me: a union suit and a DeLonghi space heater. Those recirculating oil space heaters are very safe and very effective. Union suits are comfy and rad as {fill in cuss word}.

  5. Love this article.
    I lived this way for years!
    It is somehow validating to see tips for how to be that person
    who could live in a tablespoon.

    For years I was on the road on tour four months out of twelve as a traveling performer, and that rhythm made regular-job-holding rocky and housing precarious.

    I have lived in attics, in a ‘guest fort’, in living rooms and studies, in a tent across an arroyo from the Oddfellows Cemetery, and one time on a shelf high up inside a closet with a sliding door (it was winter and I could keep that small space warm).

    So everything I owned could fold up or be deflated, and got used a million ways.

    I identify very much with that sense that It All has to be kept packed, ready. Even now, after several years of good stability, I sometimes think that way. And I love the clothing rack + suitcase tower idea.

  6. Ah yes this! I have been periodically semi-homeless for the past year or so – finally I have a space of my own as of July – I’ve lived in the basement of a condemned church, in a windowless closet, a screened back porch, my sister-in-law’s couch and my friend’s home office. The thing I have found most helpful is making sure my clothing choices can do double or triple duty. My best find was this black cotton sundress that’s very comfortable for bumming around at home, but looks pretty enough with a silk scarf for a casual wedding, while simultaneously looking cute and laid back with a flannel shirt over it. Also, scarves & bandannas of various materials make tank tops extremely versatile and use very little room.

  7. This makes me miss the nomad life! I’ve done my fair share of moving this year, but with a partner in tow and a whole bunch of stuff. I miss the suitcase/backpack/cardboard box life. Life feels a little bit easier sometimes when you have nothing [material] to lose.

  8. This came at just the right time for me because I’ve just been made homeless.

    Except I haven’t because through the kindness of others I have a bed and a roof. So I’m lucky.

    I find it hard to feel vulnerable and rely on people so this was a hard step to take. But my dad told me about the Filipino concept of a ‘debt of gratitude’ and how I should focus on how lucky I am to have formed relationships with people where I can feel indebted to them.

  9. yes to the weird spaces club yes to having everything in a backpack ready to fuckin go and yes to ELECTRIC BLANKETS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! i got one for christmas last year and the whole world became so much easier

    • last summer i legitimately lived in a toolshed with no air conditioning so inside temperatures would get to be around 100, and there was colonies of spiders that the owner of the tool shed wouldn’t let me kill because of her religious beliefs and i feel like that wouldn’t have happened to me if i had this article in the back of my head

  10. This was interesting. Several things resonated with me, but then others didn’t. I have usually had a home (read: apartment), but they’ve always been tiny efficiency apartments, and I have moved around a lot and can’t afford moving services, so I’m used to packing my entire life into my tiny yellow Saturn and hitting the road. I’ve never owned a suitcase in my life- always having opted for the more compatible, basic trash bag to cover my packing needs. What doesn’t fit, goes to Goodwill or in the trash. For this reason, I’ve maintained very little, especially furniture. Typically, what furniture I do acquire is from Goodwill or left on the the side of the road for free, which I then return to the side of the road when I move again.
    I have a number of friends who don’t think they could handle living like this, but I love it!

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