Imagine this: You’re in the midst of a five-day road trip through middle America. As the sun sets and your eyes get droopy, you realize you better stop for the night.
Unfortunately, finding a place for your respite isn’t as easy as you’d hoped. Motels flash “No Vacancy” at every truck stop and small town, mocking your exhaustion and forcing you to move on.
Panic sets in. What are you going to do? You know you’re too tired to keep driving. Where will you sleep?
Should You Sleep in the Car?
The obvious answer flashes through your mind: Should I sleep in the car?
As you ponder the dilemma, questions course through your brain. What will you do for a bathroom? Is it even safe? Where should I pull over?
Relax. Sleeping in your car during a road trip isn’t the end of the world. In fact, there are so many plusses to sleeping in your car on a road trip that some folks don’t even plan for hotels!
Of course, there are obvious limitations as well. Here’s everything you need to know about sleeping in the car on your road trip, so you’re prepared for whatever your next adventure brings.
How Do You Sleep In Your Car on a Road Trip?
Car camping doesn’t have to be difficult. However, there are a few critical questions to consider before embarking on this type of adventure.
First and foremost, you need to consider safety. Cars are easy targets for break-ins, and nefarious actors may be lurking in dark, abandoned places.
Next, you need to consider comfort. A bed is obviously more comfortable than a car, but if you plan ahead and bring enough gear, you will barely notice the difference.
Here are all the pros and cons of sleeping in your car on a road trip and the best tips for enjoying the experience.
Pros and Cons of Car Camping During Your Road Trip
Pro: Save a Ton of Money
With increased gas prices, you may be looking to save cash wherever you can on your road trip. Even subpar motels charge $100-150 per night, a cost that can quickly eat away at your budget.
You can avoid this altogether if you sleep in the car.
Most of the time, you can find a free place to sleep in your car overnight. If you have a tight budget but still want an epic adventure, consider spending your nights in the car rather than paying for a room.
A middle-of-the-road option is to sleep in your car at a campground. Small campsites are typically cheaper than motels and offer an additional layer of security.
Con: Is it Safe to Sleep in a Car?
The biggest challenge to sleeping in your car is finding a safe, legal parking place. Although campgrounds specifically designed for sleeping are the safest option, sometimes even those are beyond our budgets.
It’s completely safe to sleep in your car if you stay in the right places. Here’s what to look for when deciding where to stop for the night.
Car Camping at Truck Stops
Most truck stops allow overnight parking, which is common if you are on the federal interstate system (USA). Check out this handy guide for truck stops on your route so you can pre-plan where you will stay.
Opt for a truck stop that’s open for 24 hours, and park in an open area of the lot that’s easy to see from the front. With constant traffic overnight and a line of sight to the front door, you’re unlikely to be bothered.
Sleeping in the Car at Walmart
Finding free places can become tricky if you travel on state routes and back roads. Fortunately, most Walmart stores in rural areas allow overnight parking.
Walmart prefers overnight campers to park in the rear of their stores. You will often see RVs and trailers parked in that area as other weary travelers bunker down in the lot for the night.
If you’re in a sedan or SUV, you can get away with parking closer to the door. Make sure you park closer to the store than the big vans and trailers. Although most people wouldn’t bother you, you want to be sure you can escape into the store in case of an emergency.
No Walmarts or Truckstops
Walmart stores with overnight parking and truck stops are the safest places to sleep in your car, because there are often others doing the exact same thing. Sometimes there are no Walmarts or truck stops available.
If you’re in a pinch, you can sleep on roads with residential parking or in other parking lots with many cars. These are the least safe options, and often police or security will force you to move along if they see you.
However, if you’re too tired to safely drive, sometimes you have to do what you have to do.
Sleeping Safely in Hotel Parking Lots or on the Street
Many hotels and residential areas frown upon car sleepers. Nicer hotels take down license plates to prevent it, while many residential areas strictly enforce permit parking.
Avoiding detection is key to safely sleeping in a hotel parking lot or residential neighborhood. Opt for middle-class neighborhoods without permits and big name chain motels with large lots. Avoid fancy hotels, as they will likely ask for license plates and patrol the parking area.
Keep a low profile and try your best to make it look like no one is in the car. Wake up early and move out before any guests or nosey neighbors can spot you. Another tip is to ensure your car blends in. Don’t park your beater amongst a sea of luxury cars. That’s a surefire way for someone to complain.
Remember that even if you’re discovered, the worst thing someone can do is try to tow you. They will generally just ask you to move if you are in the car.
Please note that car sleeping is illegal in some places. Be sure to follow the local laws. If asked to leave, leave without an argument.
Although sleeping in a residential area or hotel parking lot isn’t ideal, it’s doable in a pinch. You’ll likely go undetected if you park near other cars and keep a low profile.
Car Camping at Rest-Stops
Rest stops have a bad reputation. In the 80s, many rest areas transformed into nefarious places at night. Although that was a long time ago, and rest areas are typically safer nowadays, they are still a last resort option, especially for solo travelers.
Rest areas are well-light but not well-traveled. Some along major freeways may get a lot of traffic at night, but in rural areas, you may not see another soul. Police officers or city officials may check in every now and again, but you won’t know their schedule.
Although it’s unlikely that something bad would happen at a rest stop, the solitude makes it riskier than the other options. Those traveling with a partner may feel safer staying overnight at a rest stop.
Sleeping in the car is a lot easier than setting up a new campsite every night or checking into a hotel.
Campsites are cheaper than hotels, but they take a lot of work. You must set up the tent, stake it, and prepare everything for the evening unless you opt to sleep in the car anyway. Still, you have to check in and out with an attendant.
Even checking into a hotel can be a hassle. You must wait for the overnight attendant, get the keys, find the room, and check the bed before nestling in for the night.
If you sleep in the car, once you find a safe, legal place to park, all you have to do is crawl into your bed. There are no forms to fill out, no lines, no tents to set up, and there are no beds to check for bedbugs.
When you’re exhausted after a long day of driving, the simplicity of simply falling asleep can’t be overstated.
The back seat of a car doesn’t offer the comforts of a hotel bed. Even a fairly short person can’t fully stretch out in the back seat of sedans and small SUVs.
How to Sleep Comfortably in the Car
Those with larger SUVs and roomy cars will be most comfortable sleeping in the car. Consider putting the seats down to make a bed out of the storage area or simply leaning the driver’s seat as far back as it will go. Tall folks may want to switch to the passenger side, as they won’t have to worry about the steering wheel getting in the way of a good night’s sleep.
Keep in mind that the seat doesn’t go all the way down in some models, resulting in an uneven sleeping surface. It’s best to test how you will sleep before heading out.
To improve comfort, bring extra pillows and blankets. More cushions can help even out an uneven surface and prevent seat belts that refuse to tuck into the seats from prodding you all night long.
Extra blankets placed over windows can help block out street lights. Your car interior won’t be completely dark, but it will be easier to sleep without the bright light shining in your eyes. Roll the window down slighty and put a tiny edge of the blanket through it, then roll it back up to secure the blanket in place for makeshift curtains.
Pro: Wake up time!
It is not easy to oversleep in the car.
Whenever I sleep in my car on a road trip, I wake up when the first rays of sunshine alight upon my face. The early wake up gave me a head start on the day, allowing me to jam more fun in and get to my final destination faster.
Sleeping in the car also limits your pack-up time. When at a hotel, you need to gather all your belongings, double-check to make sure you didn’t mess anything up, and waste time at check out. You already have everything you need in the car, so you can just pull out and be on your way.
All hotels and campsites have easy access to bathrooms and showers so you can do your business, brush your teeth, and keep yourself clean. Most cars don’t have these things.
The worst thing about sleeping in the car is ensuring your basic hygienic needs are met. Many people run to the restroom as soon as they wake up, so finding a location close to a toilet is ideal.
Walmart stores and Truckstops are the best options for keeping clean on a road trip. The restrooms are typically open all night, and you can borrow their sinks to brush your teeth and wash your face.
Many truck stops have cheap showers too. After a few days in the car, you likely need to at least rinse off, and a cheap truck-stop shower is far more cost-effective than a hotel room.
One pro tip is to bring some wet wipes, so if you are off on a state route or back road, you can keep your most sensitive bits clean if you don’t have access to a shower.
Con: Not Very Family Friendly
If you’re taking a road trip with your little ones, you may want to rethink car sleeping. It will be hard enough to survive a road trip with kids without sleeping on top of one another in the car.
Those with large vehicles like vans and SUVs can probably make car sleeping with the kids work, but if you have a sedan or small pickup, it may not be a viable option.
The number of people and the car’s size will help you decide whether sleeping in the car is a good fit.
Pro: Pet Friendly
Have you ever had to move across the US with pets? Although there are typically some pet-friendly hotels along your route, many will frown upon hosting more than two animals for a night.
You can’t leave your dogs and cats in the car without you, but you can sleep in the car with them. When I moved across the country, I spent the nights in my car because I couldn’t find a hotel that would allow me to bring the cats inside. Staying in the car with them gave me enough sleep to continue on my path and ensured they were safe all night long.
The Ultimate Pro to Sleeping in Your Car: Freedom
The freedom of car camping is unlike any other. Imagine not being glued to an itinerary. Envision not having to get to that pre-booked room or campsite. Think about how it would feel to be able to stop wherever you want and be able to change your plans at a moment’s notice.
Imagine being free.
Experiencing this liberty makes the small discomforts barely noticeable. Forget modern conventions and allow yourself to explore the world at your own pace.
Sleep in the car on your next road trip and go where the wind takes you.
Melanie launched Partners in Fire in 2017 to document her quest for financial independence with a mix of finance, fun, and solving the world’s problems. She’s self educated in personal finance and passionate about fighting systematic problems that prevent others from achieving their own financial goals. She also loves travel, anthropology, gaming and her cats.