5 outdoor survival tips with Birmingham’s Kim Waites

Wild South's Kim Waites has learned a thing or two about survival.
Wild South’s Kim Waites has learned a thing or two about survival. Photo from Facebook

Kim Waites decided two and a half years ago to move into a converted cargo van named “Big Bertha” and work to eliminate longstanding debt. Today, she can look back and see a big change in herself and her way of life:

“When you don’t have a home, it forces you to reconnect with people. I’m more confident . . . I’ve tackled my debt. I’ve learned how to be more self-sufficient and more accepting of challenges.”

“I don’t need that” is her new view on a lot of things she used to consider essentials.

Kim and I spoke from Wild South‘s office. She’s worked there for almost five years as their Volunteer Coordinator and Programs Manager.


Kim Waites’ story

Kim Waites has been working with Wild South for almost five years.
Kim Waites in her happy place—outside. Photo by Leah Clark Fountain

First, she stayed in the van on work trips. Then, she saw how she was “throwing away money on rent and utilities.”

Once she had a lower-cost place to sleep, she felt like she could take care of her debt. She moved out of where she was living, got a storage room and started sleeping in her van for real.

Curious, I asked her what survival skills she’s learned along the way. Here’s what she shared.


Survival tip 1: stay safe and protect your privacy

Kim Waites with her Common Ground Community family.
Friends from the Common Ground Community. Photo from Facebook

The first challenge is to find good, safe places to park, including:

  • homes of family and friends
  • campgrounds
  • the occasional well-lit truck stop, with “really good showers”

To stay safe and maintain privacy:

  • have good “situational awareness”—if you feel uncomfortable, go somewhere else
  • make blackout “partitions” with foam and craft paper to put into the window frames—move around freely “without worrying about peekers”

Survival tip 2: eat well

Kim Waites enjoys cooking for herself and friends.
Cooking and washing dishes become important—and satisfying— parts of survival on the road. Photo from Facebook

Eating on the road wasn’t easy at first, but she’s learning:


“When you just have a cooler, it’s tempting to get fast food. I’ve created some outstanding meals with very basic things. Putting together a bed of lettuce, some sun-dried tomatoes, sunflower seeds, and a can of organic chicken—it’s surprising how delicious something simple like that can be.”

Survival tip 3: stay warm in the Winter

Kim Waites has to work to make sure she stays warm in the winter.
Kim and fellow camper enjoying a fire outside. Photo by Leah Clark Fountain

Staying warm in an un-insulated van is a challenge. Here are some items that have kept Kim warm down to 28 degrees. Campers, take notes:

  • Camping mattress with an R-rating of 10—this is the highest level of insulation possible
  • Zero-degree rated sleeping bag
  • Sleeping bag liner—”adds 10 degrees”
  • Good base layers
  • Hand and body warmers—for environmental reasons, use sparingly
  • Warm water bottles—require heating water

Survival tip 4: keep cool in the Summer

Kim Waites got an awning and tent extension to help keep her cool in the Summers.
This tent extension has made Alabama Summers bearable in Big Bertha. Photo from Facebook

After nearly suffocating in the heat of an Alabama Summer in the van, Kim experimented with screens. They didn’t help. She got an awning with a tent that attaches to the van. This gives her 48 square feet of space outside. Best of all, it helps.

Survival tip 5: get creative with personal hygiene

Kim Waites hangs her socks to dry.
“Drying socks by a fire.” Photo from Facebook

Kim has a term for a “full, complete shower from head to toe—synchronized hygiene.”


Here are some of the creative ways Kim takes care of personal hygiene and laundry needs. Several will be familiar to all the backpackers in the house.

  • Wash hair in a sink
  • Boil water for a “hot spongedown”
  • Wear bandanas—cuts down on the need for hair washing
  • Use backpack towels—buy them in outdoor stores
  • Use a 3-gallon pressurized water tank with a nozzle like a garden hose—great for Summertime showers
  • “Pee in a cup”—Birmingham, meet the “feminine urinary director.” Here’s a guide. For the record, “SheWee” is now my favorite product name ever.
  • Learn how to deal with solid waste of the human kind. Hints: dig a “cat hole” in the woods. Cover it up. In a pinch, use a “WAG Bag,” tie it up and throw it away. Best case scenario=go to a gas station, a friend’s house, the office—anywhere with a flush toilet.

Learn more about Kim Waites’ journey and #vanlife

If you want to learn more about Kim, her van and her work with Wild South, check out this feature on Absolutely Alabama, with Fred Hunter. If you want to get a glamorized taste of the van-living subculture, complete with blondes in bikinis, follow these hashtags:

Kim Waites testing water quality with friends.
Water Chemistry Monitoring Workshop with friends from Common Ground Community, with Wetland Environmental Learning Projects, WELP, Inc. Photo from Facebook

Kim’s more of a #keepinitreal woman. “A lot of this is trying to figure out how to poop without being seen. There are leaks, flat tires, forgetting things on top of the van . . .”


And, she loves connecting with good people and spending a lot of time enjoying and protecting the great outdoors.

Now tell us, Birmingham outdoorsy types: what are your favorite survival strategies? Tell us in the comments below.

Author: Sharron Mendel Swain

Writer, Interviewer + Adventurer | Telling stories to make a difference