Car Camping 101: The Ultimate Guide to Sleeping in Your Car


car camper relaxing in his van

Sleeping in a car can be a great way to not only enjoy the outdoors but to get the change of scenery everyone needs at some point. If you’re wondering whether camping in your car is a good idea then the answer is yes. Millions of people live in vehicles full-time or temporarily due to one reason or the other. And while you’ll need a bit of creativity to enjoy your stay, a great night of sleep is possible right from your car.

Why Do People Sleep in Their Cars?

Whether short-term or long-term, there are several reasons why car camping has become so popular in the last few decades. Here are the top reasons why a lot of people seem to be bitten by the car-sleeping bug.

Homelessness

Car sleeping is not always a choice. Sometimes people are forced into the lifestyle due to their circumstances. If you’re homeless and own a car, crashing inside it may be a better alternative compared to freezing to death under some bridge or park bench during winter.

According to McKinsey, there were 28,200 homeless residents in the Bay Area alone in 2017. And a large percentage of them lived in vehicles such as RVs, Vans, Trailers, and SUVs and even Sedans.

While car sleeping may look trendy in the movies, the majority of those who live that lifestyle only do so as a last resort.

Road Trip

Going on an extended road trip across the famous Route 66 or Pacific Coast Highway? It could come down as one of the most eventful adventures you’ll ever experience in your lifetime.

But have you considered where you’ll sleep as you explore the very best of what America has to offer in terms of scenery and experiences? Sure, you could choose cheap motels along the way every night. But unless you have a substantial travel budget, accommodation costs can quickly add up if you plan to spend a considerable amount of time on the road. 

But why go through all that hustle when you can just sleep in your car? After all, filling up your tank almost daily will see your bills running through the roof and you need all the savings you can get.

Adventure

lady smiling on a road trip

Whether you’re going camping, kayaking, fishing, or another outdoor activity, sleeping in your car can add a different dimension to your adventure.

The first night may not be the most memorable as you get used to the idea of lying down in such an enclosed space after a hard day. But over time, You’ll grow to love the whole car camping experience.

The good news is that most vehicles provide enough space for more than one person. This makes it an ideal solution for couples and buddies traveling together.

How to Find Parking Locations For Camping in Your Car

Finding the right location to park your car for an overnight nap can be hard. With so many cities and counties making it illegal to sleep in your car, it could take hours of driving around before you find a proper spot to retire to in the night.

Here are the best places to park your car for an overnight stay whether you’re homeless or road tripping.

1. Safeway or Wal-Mart Store Car Parks

Unlike RVs and Camper vans, sedans, and SUVs can blend in easily with legitimate shoppers when you pull up on the car park of a supermarket chain such as Safeway or Wal-Mart. It is even better if the store operates 24/7 as that means you can stay overnight like an ordinary shopper at absolutely no cost and zero disturbance.

In recent times, Wal-Mart stores in some states are banning overnight car camping so make sure to do a bit of research before pulling up in one of those no-parking stores.

Staying in the car park of a 24/7 retail store also comes with the added benefit of easy access to bathrooms whenever you need it.

2. Places of Worship & Small Businesses

Churches, synagogues, mosques, and temples offer car campers one priceless advantage – free parking. Many homeless folks and outdoor buffs turn to places of worship in cities where parking space for car camping is scarce.

Besides, a lot of small businesses close for the night, leaving their parking lots for you to stay in your car overnight. If possible try to arrive early before the business closes so you can seek permission from the owner in advance.

However, if you arrive after closing hours, be sure to leave early to avoid any awkward confrontations in the morning.

In situations where the business operates overnight, walking in while decently dressed and asking politely may help. Many business owners will be totally fine with you parked overnight as long as you don’t look and sound creepy.

Also, be sure to tell them how long you intend to stay and park in an idle spot that creates zero interference for the business or its customers.

3. Safe Parking Program

Vans and Vehicles in a city safe parking program

Churches and Not-For-Profits in Seattle, San Diego, San Jose, and Los Angeles have teamed up with city officials to create Safe Parking Programs. These programs provide safe havens for cars and RV owners to park their vehicles and sleep overnight.

If you happen to be in any of the cities listed above, a bit of research can help you uncover free parking for spending the night. A simple Google search for “safe parking locations near me” is the best way to find any spots close to your current location.

These parking havens usually feature toilets and bathrooms for warm showers to enable users to stay clean during their time on-site.

4. Car Camping Websites

There are multiple websites where you can find a nice spot to pitch your tent or park your car overnight on private property.

From Airbnb to Couchsurfing and HipCamp, you should face little problems finding a spot to leave your car. From scenic lakes to beautiful ranches, the possibilities are limitless. While these are usually paid options, you can end up spending less compared to sleeping in a hotel especially if you’re staying for a long period.

Road tripping across different countries? Gamping offers over 10,000 spots for parking your vehicle in 55 countries. This can enhance your safety while protecting you from accidentally flouting no-camping laws in foreign countries. 

5. Neighborhood Streets

Parking your car in a neighborhood street is not advisable. But that may be the only option when desperation sets in after all the alternatives have failed.

Note that getting away with spending the night in your car usually requires a lot of tactfulness. Firstly, you should try to park in an area where it is easy to blend in with other cars.

Looking well-dressed with a clean car can also prevent residents from thinking you’re some junkie or suspicious character.

Lastly, have a good story to tell if the cops pull up or one of the residents confront you.

Car Camping Checklist

Sleeping in your car can be a different experience to other types of camping. This is why you should take all the necessary items to ensure as much comfort as possible. Here are the essentials that should feature on your car camping checklist.

  • Sleeping cots/sleeping bags/air mattresses
  • Toiletries
  • Sleeping mask
  • Clothes and shoes
  • Bottled water 
  • Food/snacks
  • Cash
  • laptop/ iPad 
  • Smartphone 
  • Food bin
  • Pillows
  • Bedsheets/blankets
  • Over-the-counter painkillers
  • Bug spray
  • flashlight/headlamp
  • Garbage bags
  • Chargers
  • Solar shower
  • Power cords
  • GPS

How to Sleep Comfortably in the Backseat of a Car

Sleeping in your car can be an amazing experience that stays with you for a lifetime. However, it can be equally rough if you do not incorporate the necessary hacks and tricks. Here are some vital tips to ensure absolute comfort every time you spend the night in your car.

1. Block Out Noise and Light

Noise and light are the 2 biggest enemies of getting rejuvenating sleep in the outdoors. Once you figure out how to block them, a good night’s sleep won’t be far away. Earplugs are a must-have to block out the noise from other drivers and humans close to where your car or van may be packed.

Additionally, the sounds of the night are much more audible from your car than sleeping in the comfort of a room. This can get slightly scary during the first few nights of your expedition.

But, if you have a snoring partner or camping buddy, noise-canceling headphones are your best bet.

Once you survive the night, sunrise swoops in from nowhere to hinder your attempts to sleep in after a long hard day. It usually pops up just when you’re shifting into 5th gear but the moment you wake up, drifting back to sleep becomes a battle.

This is why a sleep mask should always be on your car camping checklist.

2. Sleeping Cot and Memory Foam Pad Combo

After driving hundreds of miles from early morning, the least you deserve is a good night’s sleep. The majority of car campers say they enjoy better rest on sleeping cots. Although there are several models of special car air mattresses, cots work best.

If you’re only spending a few days or weeks, a standard camper cot should be good enough. However, if you intend to live in your car for the immediate future or going for an extended road trip, a memory foam mattress pad can be a great addition to the cot.

The mattress pad should provide enhanced cushioning for your back and joints to ensure relief from tense muscles and pain.

Just don’t forget to add good pillows to the mix.

3. Get Some Curtains

Spending the night in your car? A bit of privacy can do you a lot of good. Whether you’re looking to get hot with your partner or simply want to prevent glaring eyes from staring inside your car, you should always find ways to cover the windows.

In most cases, curtains can work well. But in the absence of one, you can use a couple of clothes as temporary replacements. Many people view car residents with a lot of suspicions so you’d want to keep their eyes off as much as possible.

Also, in case you’re forced to park in an illegal spot, the last thing you want is for a police officer to catch you napping in your car overnight. The right curtains can trick outsiders into believing that it is an ordinary car with no occupants.

4. Use the Bathroom Before You Turn In

entrance to a public restroom

Congratulations on finding a safe spot to park overnight, just don’t forget to use the bathroom right before you turn in. It is no secret that many public restrooms close at some point. The last thing you need in the middle of the night is an emergency urge to pee or poo.

Visiting the bathroom before you sleep also minimizes the probability of loitering around in the middle of the night to find one. No matter which part of the city you park, staying in your van during ungodly hours is the smart thing to do.

5. Wear Appropriate Clothing

Failure to wear climate-appropriate clothing can make an overnight stay in your car a nightmare. Cars get much colder during winter and other chilly parts of the year compared to homes. Hence, it is important to bundle up especially during the night to stay warm and avoid catching any colds.

During summer, the temperature in your car can rise beyond comfort. This may increase the temptation to sleep naked if its something you do at home. Note that while the comfort of your bedroom gives you the freedom to sleep any way you want, your options in outdoor environments are limited.

Therefore, make sure to cover up with light and airy clothing. That should minimize the heat and resultant effects such as night sweats.

6. Inflatable Pillows

Pillows are non-negotiable when car camping. With the limited space in your car, cramping in additional accessories may be impossible. This is why many travel experts recommend that you ditch pillows and pile up some clothes for resting your head instead.

Unfortunately, the pile of clothes can be so uncomfortable that you wake up with neck pains and other issues.

But why go through all of that stress when you can just choose inflatable pillows? These pillows can be inflated and deflated whenever necessary to save space and prop up your neck while you sleep.

7. Roll Down Your Windows Slightly

Staying locked up in your car overnight is the safest way to sleep. However, the poor circulation of air due to the rolled-up windows and closed doors can be very uncomfortable. After a long day of being on the road, a stuffy car is the last thing you need to sleep.

A good tip is to roll the windows down just a bit to allow some fresh air inside the car. This should prevent stuffiness and allow you to breathe in and out well.

Another option is to crack a tiny bit of your windows to promote air circulation in your vehicle. For maximum results, don’t forget to crack windows on opposite sides of the car.

A battery-powered tent fan can also prevent your car from feeling stuffy and boost air circulation throughout the night. This should result in a good night’s sleep away from home.

8. Elevate Your Head

Achieving proper elevation for your head is critical during car camping. This is why you should always place your head in an angle that elevates it above the rest of the body.

For instance, if you park the car on a hilly spot, make sure your sleeping position puts the head at the highest end of the car. This can prevent nausea, stiff necks, and other forms of discomfort.

9. Choose Parking Spots With Showers Nearby

 

Sleeping in your car does not mean you should give up on cleanliness. With a bit of thoughtfulness, you can get regular hot showers in spite of the uncertainties on the road. The easiest option is to pick parking spots with public showers nearby. A great example of this is Truck Stops which are created to provide home comforts for truckers and anybody that spends a lot of time on the road.

Signing up for a local gym membership is another great way to get access to hot showers year-round. Even if you’re not a fitness junkie, the free showers alone should more than offset your membership fees.

The good news is that popular gym franchises such as Planet Fitness, Anytime Fitness, and Retro Fitness have local gyms available across the United States. So wherever you find yourself during travels, you can always walk into any of those gyms with your membership details to shower for free.

An alternative option for warm showers while you’re in any outdoor environment is a solar shower. Leaving it hanging by a tree heats it so you can stay clean while car camping or road tripping.

10. Have a Good Appearance and Be Friendly

Whether you’re sleeping in a car due to homelessness or to enjoy the outdoors, keeping a good appearance can be helpful in many situations.

The majority of people you meet will judge based on your appearance. This is why dressing up nice and clean is so important. Looking less threatening to strangers makes it easy to get help in your time of need.

Who do you think a gas station attendant will be more likely to allow into the restroom: a well-dressed guy in neat clothes or one who looks disheveled from several days of travel without taking a shower?

11. Keep Your Car Clean – Both Indoors and Outdoors

Regardless of where you park your car or van at night, the last thing you want is to attract unnecessary attention.

This is why keeping your vehicle clean inside out is so important. A clean car can help you stay under the radar when you pull up on the street of a residential area after struggling to find a legal parking spot. This can help you spend the night in peace without attracting a visit from the police.

Also, littering the interior of your car can attract rats and other rodents which can cause severe damage. Those uninvited guests can also disturb your sleep and cause several health hazards.

12. Adjust the Seats

Even the largest cars can feel cramped. Hence, you’ll need every bit of extra space to sleep comfortably without giving up on a few necessary personal effects.

Adjusting your seats is one of the smartest ways to create space during car camping.  But there’s no hard and fast rule to do that. Just take into account your preferred sleeping spot and adjust accordingly.

For instance, if you like lying down at the backseat, moving the front seats forward can create a lot of space. This should give you more legroom to operate comfortably. Of course, the extra space can be good for storing your car camping essentials.

13. Keep Medicines & Toiletries Close

One of the biggest mistakes you can make while sleeping in your car is the failure to keep toiletries and other essentials close by. Many newbies pack these essentials in unreachable areas, leading to frustrations just when they need them on hand.

Generally, good organizational skills are critical to a comfortable stay in a car. This means knowing where to find what at all times.

Can you imagine struggling to find your asthma inhaler at the exact time you’re struggling to breathe during an overnight stay in a car? This could be a matter of life and death.

How to Sleep Comfortably in a Moving Car

Sleeping comfortably in a moving car is an art. If you’re on a road trip with a partner or group of friends, taking turns to drive can allow everyone to get some shut-eye on the road. But not having the right skills can be bad for your quest to take a nap on the road.

 Here are the top tips to help you sleep better in a moving car.

1. Choose a Comfortable Position 

Trying to sleep from a seated position is never easy. But you may have little choice during a road trip. If the backseat is empty, reclining the seat down to replicate a bed can be a great option. This should improve your ability to sleep well especially with a small pillow under your head.

Keep in mind that sleeping in a moving car does not exempt you from wearing a seat belt. This is why it is advisable to choose a sleeping angle that makes it possible to wear your seat belt with reasonable comfort.

In the absence of a reclining seat or lack of space in the backseat, placing a pillow on your knees can help you catch some Zs peacefully. Leaning on a pillow against the front seat door is another option that can induce sleep while on the road.

2. Wear Sunglasses & Ear Buds

Sunglasses can help block the light from your eyes and help you sleep better during the daytime. Also, don’t forget to wear earbuds to minimize the noise from the car engine and your surroundings as you catch up on some sleep.

3. Keep the Driver in the Loop

Unruly driving can inhibit your ability to sleep in a moving car. If you’re traveling with a friend or family member, telling him or her about your desire to sleep can curb rough driving.

That should help you sleep better and wake up well-rested. Additionally, the driver is less likely to play loud music or make distracting noises when you’ve made it clear that you want to get some shut-eye.

How to Stay Safe When Sleeping in a Car

Spending the night in a car comes with more security risks than your house or apartment.  Taking the necessary precautions can help you stay safe and protect your property. Here are a few security tips to observe whenever you sleep in your car.

Turn Off The Engine

Turning off your car engine before sleeping is the first step towards a safe car camping experience. This can protect you from carbon monoxide poisoning in the event of a blocked exhaust pipe from the snow.

Car camping during the winter months can be extremely chilly. You may be tempted to keep the car’s engine running to enjoy the heating. However, the falling snow can easily block your car’s exhaust, leading to high levels of carbon monoxide getting into the car.

Many victims of Carbon Monoxide poisoning argued they were running the engine for only a short while only to fall asleep by accident.

This is why you should always turn off your car’s engine and find alternative ways of staying warm no matter how cold you may be feeling.

Lock the Car from Inside

Always lock the car from the inside at night when intruders are more likely to try to break in. Never compromise on your security whether you’re having a meal or watching a movie.

Also, check that all doors are locked before stepping out even if it is only for a minute. There could be intruders hiding around and watching your every move. 

Additionally, don’t forget to check for signs of attempted break-ins every time you return to your car. Once you spot any signs, moving away to another parking spot may be the logical thing to do. This is because whoever attempted to break into your car in your absence may try it again so finding another parking spot in a secure location should solve your problems.

Avoid Parking in Residential Areas 

car parked under a tree

Residential area streets are the worst places you can park your car for an overnight nap. It is illegal and residents are more likely to call the police on you.

Additionally, the noise from residents can be terrible for your sleep. Even if nobody calls the police, you’re more likely to get glaring stares from the housed population in these areas.

In most situations, arriving very late when everybody seems to be asleep and leaving before sunrise is the best way to get away with car camping in a residential area.

Just be aware of the disruptions to your sleep and possible fatigue in the morning.

Hide Gadgets and Other Valuables

Leaving valuable items such as cash, wallets, and Smartphones in plain sight while you sleep is a surefire way to attract a break-in. Even if your car is covered with curtains, always hide your gadgets and other valuables in secure compartments.

If you have books in the car, they can serve as a good hiding spot for valuable items. Also, choosing a camping cot gives lots of under-bed storage for hiding any personal effects intruders may be attracted to.

15 Best Cars to Sleep in for Camping

Different car models offer different amounts of space and other requirements you need to stay comfortable during car camping. Here are the best 15 cars to sleep in for camping:

  1. Chevrolet Equinox
  2. Subaru Outback
  3. Mazda CX-5
  4. VW Golf Sportwagen
  5. Honda Element
  6. Jeep Wrangler
  7. Toyota Landcruiser
  8. Jeep Grand Cherokee
  9. Nissan Pathfinder
  10. Honda Ridgeline
  11. Land Rover Discovery
  12. Toyota Sienna
  13. Nissan Xterra
  14. Mini Clubvan Camper
  15. Toyota Tacoma

Conclusion

There you go! We’ve shared everything you need to make your next car camping trip a success. While sleeping in your car may take some getting used to, our expert tips above can make your experience not only worthwhile but memorable too.

Are you ready to sleep in your car the next time you go on a road trip?

 

 

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