There are many reasons for sleeping a night or even several nights in your car. Maybe you are doing it voluntarily because you are on a road trip exploring car camping, or you got tired and unable to continue your long drive, or it might be unplanned because you got stuck due to bad weather, breakdowns, or simply running out of fuel. Whatever the reason is, crucial is to be prepared for the experience – in advance.
Even if a car is not the most comfortable place to sleep, spending a night in your vehicle does not have to end in ache and pain. With a bit of prep, it can be reasonably comfortable. Safety, comfort, and creativity are the three significant factors for turning an extended stay in your vehicle into a pleasant experience.
Must-haves for sleeping in your car
- Safe parking spot
- Decent sleeping bag or warm blanket
- Comfortable clothes
- Sleep mask and earplugs
- Flashlight or headlamp (plus extra batteries)
- First aid including insect repellent (as needed)
- Prescription medication
- Cell phone for emergencies or for a wake-up alarm
- Sleeping pad
- Blindfolds or blackout curtains
- Gear repair kit
- Wool socks
- Wool hat, beanie or a bandana
- Hygiene wipes
If a night sleeping in your car is reasonably comfortable or turns out as a disaster depends on several factors but primarily on what climate you are exposed to and how well prepared you are. If it’s cold outside, the most important thing is to keep warm whereas if it’s hot, ventilation and keeping out insects are key.
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However, hot weathers can be more extreme than cold weathers, and you need to be cautious about the temperature inside the car. If you’re in a very hot area (such as a desert), this could result in serious problems. In intense situations, you could wake up not only feeling sticky and itchy from mosquito bites but critically dehydrated.
To get at least some kind of ventilation open the windows just an inch and place a mesh over your windows or sunroof.
Sleeping in extremely cold areas is always tricky. You are best off if you have a sleeping bag with an appropriate temperature rating. A blanket might be sufficient, just make sure not to forget to keep our head warm with a woolen hat or beanie. If you don’t have access to sleeping bags or blankets, then the next option is to wear an extra layer of clothing or even to sleep under a pile of clothes.
A bandana or head warmer will really help with the cold at night. You can also use it to cover your eyes for additional darkness if you don’t have a sleeping mask.
Prescription medication and also hygiene item are essential (be with your tissue paper and hygiene wipes). Wipe your hands after using the bathroom, eating or when you touch something dirty. Especially if you don’t have access to running water, these items can prevent diseases and will help you to stay reasonably clean.
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Apart from a first-aid box have always insecticides and sunscreens on you to prevent yourself from sun and bugs.
Headlamps or flashlight illuminate the interior of your car for organizing or can help light the way when nature calls in the middle of the night.
What to do before you turn in?
Important is to plan ahead. If you keep things in order by arranging them in the afternoon, your car will look less suspicious. This is very important, particularly if you don’t want to make it obvious that you are sleeping in your car.
If you need to get stuff out of your trunk, it is safer to do that somewhere else before turning in to your final parking location. Keep an eye on the time: As soon as it gets dark outside, it will be more challenging to find what your need for the night.
In case you cannot park close to a bathroom, make sure to visit a restroom in a gas station or restaurant beforehand. Also, changing into your comfortable sleeping attire will most likely be easier in a restroom than in your car.
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Avoid placing valuable items visible in the car, because it could attract thieves. Put them in bags or places that aren’t seen, like under the seats, or cover them with something like a book or blanket.
Place necessary items close to you, such as the flashlight, cell phone, and water.
Always keep your car as clean as possible. It easier to find things in a clean car at night, and a little more space can make a big difference in comfort. You will be able to fall asleep faster and stay asleep.
If your car looks presentable on the outside, it will also drag less attention and people will not really ask any question. However, they’ll always suspect something if the car looks filthy.
Where to park?
Where to park is the first thing a car sleeper should sort out. In many areas, it is illegal to sleep in your car, or you will be suspected by people around. Therefore, important is find a flat, shady place where it is legal to stay overnight, and that is secure and gives you some sort of privacy.
One way to find a location is using an app like Allstays. The app provides several free and paid places to sleep in the night.
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Otherwise, here are some possible places to sleep:
- Wal-Mart parking lots are a popular place to stay the night. The reason is that many Wal-Mart’s actually allow people to park their vehicles in their parking lots overnight. So you will always see RV’s or cars with people sleeping in them at night. They offer a perfect place to get food and supplies and to use the restrooms. However, it’s not every Wal-Mart that gives permission to spend the night. So call beforehand to find out. Most employees know that people use their parking lot for overnight stays, so this shouldn’t be a strange question.
- Businesses that run 24 hours, like gyms, shopping centers or movie theatre. It’s difficult to differentiate between cars that are just parked and the ones that have people sleeping in them. The parking lots a usually well lit and you will always find people walking around. This might be a bit disturbing, but on the other hand, it gives you some form of security.
- Rest stops are built for the purpose to park, eat and rest. You might even be able to get a shower. They usually are safe places to stay overnight because they are open all night and adequately lit.
- Residential areas where you don’t require special parking permissions. You can park your car unobtrusively between the other vehicles. Always check the area first, not all neighborhoods are the same. Many are quiet and safe, but there are some that can be dangerous, and you don’t want to find this out when you’re already set up for the night. Also, park away from front doors to avoid drawing attention to yourself or being a nuisance to the neighbors; park along the side where there’s a wall or fence under a tree. This way you are also protected from street lighting.
- Contact the U.S. Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management to find out which areas or roads are open to overnight parking and dispersed camping; these governmental organizations have all the necessary information about free camping sites throughout the United States which typically have no service and no amenities; however if you’re just looking for a place to sleep for the night this shouldn’t matter too much. Check out the government website to find out where these campsites are and the rules for each one.
Consider how the area where you stay will be at night and day – weekday and weekends. Some places may look quiet for one day and are crowded the next day.
Always consider safety. Unattended bathrooms are sometimes crime locations. A bathroom located in a 24-hour store or an interstate rest stop is probably more secure than a public toilet located in an urban park.
You can also try to use facilities of campgrounds, hotels, etc., or take a shower on the beach if one is available. It comes all down to smart planning in advance and checking out the area before you settle down for the night.
How to set up the car?
If you’re properly prepared, spending a night in your car can be almost as comfortable as sleeping in your bed.
Only park the vehicle once you are ready to sleep. If you waste time arranging things inside or outside your car, there is a high probability that you will attract much attention. Therefore do all preparations before you have parked – so that all you have to do now is just to hop into the back seat and go to sleep.
When deciding in which direction you should park your car, try to find a spot where it won’t be easy for people to see if you are inside. In a hot climate, it is also important to consider a place in the shade. Not only that the sun will wake you up too early in the morning, but as a car heats up quickly it is crucial to keep it cool inside as long as possible.
You don’t want to suffocate yourself; therefore, open the windows just enough for proper ventilation. This helps to prevent fogged windows and clammy clothes. Therefore, ventilation is vital. Crack your windows or sunroof only to an extent where animals or an individual can’t reach into the vehicle. If there are mosquitoes, use some mesh to cover the windows.
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Cover all of your windows and make it as dark as possible as this will make it easier to fall asleep. This is especially useful if your windows are not tinted and you’re parked in a well-lit parking lot where people are walking around all night.
You can use simple sun shades or some cordage or bungees to hang curtains on all windows, maybe even behind the front seats. If you are sleeping in the back that makes it for a nice, cozy bedroom-like feel.
Bring earplugs to prevent any late arrivals or early risers from disturbing your sleep. If you have tint on your car, perfect. Have the windows tinted at the darkest legal level. Sun shades plus tinted windows are going to be like feeling invisible.
Using a car cover might be a bit over the top, but it would provide additional privacy and protection against cold temperatures. If the temperature is too high outside, then don’t use them without proper ventilation. Furthermore, don’t start the engine as the car is covered and this could result in poisoning from carbon monoxide.
Safety should always be your top priority, and this is by far the most critical safety measure: always ensure that all doors are locked.
How to prepare yourself for the night?
Clothes: get into the appropriate amount of layers but stay in comfortable loose clothing and take off your shoes. If by any chance someone knocks at your window, you want to be wearing acceptable clothes. Workout clothes are most suitable. This way you can also get away fast in case it is needed.
Also, check out the weather. If it’s cold, wear several layers and cover your head. If it’s hot, a t-shirt and shorts should be sufficient.
Block out lights and noise with an eye mask and earplugs, depending on the type, earbuds might also work well.
If you have issues falling asleep in less convenient conditions or it’s likely you wake up with body pains, take some light painkiller such as ibuprofen or aspirin.
When choosing a sleeping bag or blanket, considering temperature is essential. Cars can get as cold as tents at night. If it is a warm night, then a summer bag should do the trick, but using a 3-season bag is more advantageous for unknown weathers. If you don’t have a sleeping bag, pack a wool blanket or an insulated blanket.
If you are sleeping in the back with your feet sticking into the trunk, you will need a sleeping pad. Good sleeping pads are similar to your mattresses on your bed. They will give you that extra comfort and their insulating properties prevent loss of heat. Sleeping pads come in different specifications. For sleeping in a car, you should choose a thicker pad with higher insulation value as it will be warmer and more convenient.
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The pillow: The biggest challenge to sleeping well in a car is the difficulty to find the right position, especially if you are sitting up. During deep sleep, your muscles relax, including your neck muscles. If you don’t want to wake up with terrible neck pain, make sure to use a pillow to support your head. Since you are not backpacking but traveling in a car I strongly recommend to bring a full-size pillow plus a neck pillow instead of only a small inflatable pillow. When you wake up in the morning, you know why. A neck pillow can also be useful during driving. I use it all the time, especially when driving long distances.
No sleeping bag or pillow? When it comes to setting up your bedding, and you are missing some of the basics, become creative! If you don’t have a pillow use a backpack, filled with clothes, or a sleeping bag in a stuff sack. If you don’t have a sleeping bag or a blanket, the next best thing is probably to cover yourself up with all the clothes (or even with paper) you can find.
What is the best sleeping position in a car?
The best sleeping position in a car depends heavily on the size and shape of your vehicle, whether you are traveling with cargo or not, your body type, and your personal preferences. Often it comes down to experimenting with different positions before you can establish your best possible car sleep routine.
These are the four most common positions for sleeping in a car:
1. Sleeping in the driver’s or front passenger seat is probably the fastest way to bed down. You put the seat all the way down, use your pillow to sleep resting back. The advantage of the driver’s seat over the passenger seat is that it gives you the ability to drive away quickly in case your parking spot is haunted. However, sleeping in the passenger seat allows you to switch between putting your feet down underneath the glove box and after a while move them up to above the glove box.
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2. Folding down the back seat and sleeping in the back all the way down with your feet sticking in the trunk is probably the most bed-like position you can get in a car. This is what most long-term car camping pros do and promote. And it is perhaps also the only position which allows you to sleep on your stomach. While it is true that laying down much better for rest is than sitting up, this position requires a bit more set up, and a thick air pad is almost a must. The bedding takes up a lot of space, so if your trunk is filled with luggage, it might not work for you. In case you can lie down, position yourself in a way that your head is above your feet. Generally sleeping with your head toward the front of the car is better.
3. The third option is to use the back seat row and to sleep either on your back while having the legs bent or lifted up over the corner of the backrest, or in a seated position with the legs extended over the seats. This position tends to be a little uncomfortable, especially if you are tall. You might end up moving up and down all night. However, one advantage is that sleeping in the back gives you a bit more privacy than sleeping in one of the front seats.
4. The L-Position: This position is basically like #3 with the difference that you are using additional space by moving the front passenger seat forward as far as you can and placing a box, some baggage or even a suitcase in the extra feet area of the back seat. The additional space allows you to stretch out your legs over the box while sleeping in an L-shape type position on your side.
How to keep clean when sleeping in a car?
Sleeping in your car means typically limited access to running water and showers. Improve your hygiene with a fully stocked toiletry bag, which should consist of things that work without water (e.g., sanitary wipes, dry shampoo).
Have your bath whenever you get the chance. This may include showers on public beaches, pay showers in rest stops, or paying for a visit to a public pool or gym where you can use the shower after your workout.
For a quick wash, you can also use a big water bottle to pour some water over your head and body. Otherwise, purchase a portable solar shower. That is a black plastic bag filled with water which heats up while the bag is exposed to the sun. Later in the evening you can take it to a place where you have some privacy, attach it to something above your head (e.g., a tree) and enjoy your outdoor shower.
Be aware that it is your appearance and behavior what often determines the reactions towards you. You want to look presentable and not dirty or scruffy. Therefore, keep clean and well dressed, and you won’t appear suspicious.
Your #1 priority: Safety
To find a place where you have privacy and a level of safety is not always easy. A quiet corner or a dark alley, not a person in sight, might be super private but it might also be a prime location for crime.
It is always a good idea to be extra cautious. Always scan the area to see who’s around. Minimize the time you spend outside of your car at night and always lock your doors as soon as you close them.
In general, keep to yourself and try to draw as less attention to yourself as possible. Sleeping in your car is nothing to be ashamed of, but you also don’t need to spotlight yourself.
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Put things away during the day to avoid clutter and to make your car look clean from the outside and hence less suspicious. Roll up your sleeping bag, fold your blanket and towels, and store everything in the trunk.
Follow Leave No Trace standards and make sure that you don’t leave any food or garbage out overnight as this can be an easy target for animals. Best is to keep food sealed up in plastic boxes stored in your car. If you are traveling in regions where bears live, be extra cautious because there have been cases where bears broke into vehicles.
Always be prepared to make up a good story – it doesn’t even have to be true. When confronted by agents like a police officer, park ranger, store manager, or any concerned citizen, it’s always good to tell them a simple and believable story about why you are there. For example, you could simply say – I got tired while I was driving and I can’t afford a motel.
Never sleep with the AC or engine working in your vehicle – this could be fatal due to due to carbon monoxide poisoning.
And, don’t forget to lock the doors!
Happy car sleeping!