How to Sleep in a Car

If you are thinking about bunking in your vehicle for a night or two, it may be worth learning how to sleep in a car.

By Sheryl Grassie

For spring break my sophomore year in college I drove with friends from Minneapolis, MN to Biloxi, MS to see the ocean. With four of us in a two door Chevy Chevette there was no option but to sleep sitting up when everyone was too tired to drive. Whether you are driving alone, with friends, or with family, knowing how to sleep in a car and planning ahead will get you to your destination refreshed and ready for the experience. Part of that planning is to have room for everyone to stretch out.

Why Sleep In A Car?

There are so many lengthy drives we have to make that sleeping in your car might be a great fit for. You and your spouse are discussing a road trip to see the fall colors, maybe the spring flowers, or even the summer splendor, but you have a limited budget. You might be thinking of attending that family reunion next summer and road tripping alone cross-country. Friends are discussing a spring break at the beach or maybe skiing in the mountains and don’t want to spend money on hotels along the way. You have planned that remote hike and want to hit the trail early, but there are no accommodations for miles around. All of these scenarios might suggest an occasion to sleep in your car.

Sleeping in your car or “car camping” as it is referred to, is simply sleeping in your car overnight or for an extended period in lieu of a hotel, motel, Airbnb, or hostel. Car camping is a very viable option if you get organized and cover the basics. With the right knowledge and equipment, it can be quite comfortable, save tons of money, and be an adventure. The essentials to understand, and prepare for, include knowing where it is legal to sleep in your car, how to stay safe while you are asleep, how to be comfortable, and how to manage hygiene.

Where Can I Park My Car?

The first thing to consider when planning to sleep in your car is where it is legal to park. With increased vagrancy and homelessness laws, you can’t just park anywhere, and the last thing you need is to find yourself too tired to drive with no idea where you can park. Even worse, you end up parked illegally with a police officer rapping on your window in the middle of the night.

With a little research regarding your route, and maybe an app or two on your phone, you can have access to legal overnight parking places across the US. In general, you can park in some parking lots and ramps, on some country roads, on US Forest Service roads a mile or more from campgrounds, some city streets without restricted parking hours, and some rest areas and truck stops. Looking for free or nominal charge places to park? Check out these resources.

Websites

Apps

  • Ultimate Campgrounds: An app for your phone as well as a map with locations for public camping in the US and Canada.
  • Allstays: There is a nominal cost (under $10) for this app, but it may be worth it, especially for a long trip. It covers more than just places to park, with locations like gas stations, stores, etc.

Staying Safe While Sleeping

Another important consideration when sleeping in your car is how to stay safe. Threats to safety include:

  • Intruders of both the animal and human kinds: Make sure the car is locked to prevent potential thief or harm while you are asleep. Windows and sunroofs should only be slightly open (not enough for a human, or a bear, to reach in). Place mesh or some kind of breathable fabric in window openings to prevent mosquitoes or other insects from entering the car.
  • Fresh Air: Leaving a window cracked and the engine off is imperative—even in winter; carbon monoxide can build up and become a real threat to life when a car is left running.
  • Temperature: If you intend to travel in colder temps, plan according. You can wake up and run the engine periodically, but you cannot sleep with it running. Have warm clothes, blankets, or sleeping bags.
  • Water: Once you have settled into a sleeping location, chances are you can’t just turn on a tap if you need water. Dehydration is a very real threat to health and safety while on the road, so make sure to stock sufficient bottled water for the trip.
  • Light: Have a source of light easily accessible during the night. Overhead camp lights or a flashlight within reach for a myriad of needs.

Comfort

Here are some tips on how to stay comfortable when sleeping in your car.

  • Stretch Out: The more room the better for sleeping in a car. Find the position that allows for the most room whether it is in the back with all of the seats down, across a back seat, or reclining in the front with the seat back as far as it will go.
  • Wear Loose Clothing: Wear bottoms with an elastic waist and tops that are big and comfortable.
  • Privacy: Sleeping with the potential for strangers to look in and see you is very uncomfortable for many people. Simple curtains can be affixed from the inside, use the window to secure them, or get cords to hook them in place. Windshield screens are low cost and can be used to deflect heat and or insulate depending on need.
  • Bedding: Mattress pads, in the form of air mattresses or memory foam, make a great foundation for sleep. Add a great travel pillow, sheets, or blankets relative to the temperature.
  • Food: Make sure to pack some basics for when food is not readily available. Energy bars, fruit, and ready-to-eat items like trail mix are great road trip snacks. Pack a cooler for perishable items.

Managing Hygiene

When sleeping in the car there is not necessarily anywhere to wash up, brush your teeth, or use the restroom nearby. You can plan for this by using a gas station before stopping to sleep, staying at a rest stop in some states, or bringing water to wash with and using the great outdoors to relieve yourself. It helps to bring wet wipes for freshening up, or looking for a truck stop that has showers for a nominal fee.


Summary

Whether you are traveling alone, with a friend, or with  a family member, sleeping in the car is something you need to prepare for. Spontaneously deciding after a long day of driving to pull over and sleep in the car can be reckless and uncomfortable. Plan ahead by knowing where you can stay; have supplies like food, water, and a flashlight; bring toiletries and wet wipes for cleaning up; and take along comfortable and temperature appropriate bedding and clothes. Even when you are just along for the ride, a little planning goes a long way towards comfortable sleeping in the car.


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