I remember making a long trip home one late night after an even longer weekend and needing to stop for some sleep due to safety concerns. Due to the circumstances, my only option was to sleep in my car, and I was worried about whether or not it was legal to do so. For various reasons, whether you’re on a road trip, homeless, were kicked out after a fight, or need to sleep off your night of partying, you may need to know whether it is legal to sleep in your car.
Dependent on a few factors, the answer is ‘Yes, it is legal to sleep in your car’. As I said though, it’s only legal to a point. You can’t sleep in your car on private property or city-owned property, which includes schools, daycares, and parks. You also can’t be inebriated, or you could be charged with a DUI, even if you’re asleep and the car is in the park. Be aware that many major high-rent cities (examples: New York, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Palo Alto) have been attempting to manage the homeless population by instituting restrictions on hours you’re allowed to sleep in your car parked on the street. For example, it is illegal to sleep in your car while parked on a public street between 10 pm and 6 am in San Francisco. (Compare, Next City, and The Wayward Home)
Where is it Legal to Sleep in Your Car?
Let’s go over a few options for where you can legally sleep in your car and not have to worry about that dreaded knock on the window during the night.
One of the first places that come to mind when considering sleeping in your car is a truck stop, and for good reason: this is an excellent choice. Truck stops expect people, typically truckers, to park overnight or for long enough to get some good shut-eye. They often provide services for those who wish to park overnight in cars or RVs, as they anticipate the needs of road-trippers. (FqF) Here are few truck stops known for accommodating overnight cars and RVs:
- Pilot and Flying J are both nationwide truck stop chains, collectively owned by Pilot Flying J LLC, that will provide free parking for up to 24 hours (first come, first serve), as well as primo parking for a fee. Majority locations offer free wifi, bathrooms with showers, and restaurants. (FqF)
- TravelCenters of America is another nationwide chain of truck stops with first-come, first-serve, free parking. They provide parking for up to 23 hours, with a check-in time of 4 pm and check-out at 3 pm. The stores typically have restaurants and convenience stores, too. They do have showers, but they’re only for professional drivers. (FqF)
- Love’s is a well-known, family-owned nationwide truck stop chain. They offer overnight parking, food, and showers. The locations do have wifi, but it’s only free for members; the cost is nominal for non-members. (Love’s)
Bear in mind, certain rules and courtesies should be observed when sleeping at a truck stop. You never want to take a truck spot; some locations offer smaller spots for RVs and cars, so be mindful of the type of space you’re taking. You also need to stay out of the way of the trucks. They have their lanes, and you must keep clear of them.
Beware, too, that some truckers are opposed to having non-truckers stay overnight, as shortages of trucker spots have been reported over the years. Truckers compete for the limited spaces available; some are advocating for laws to keep the spots for professional drivers only, after some were murdered in their sleep after being forced to sleep in unsafe areas due to the shortage of parking spaces at designated truck stops. (Do It Yourself RV and Real Women in Trucking)
To help find a truck stop near you, use The Trucker’s Friend website. There, you can refine your search based on location and any specific criteria you need while parked.
Rest Stops (Only in Some States!)
Another common thought is to sleep at a rest stop, but this is only legal in some states. In the majority of the states where it is legal, they only allow parking for up to eight hours (The Daily Dot), and you can only sleep in your car or RV; do not pitch a tent (Frugal RV Travel). The following is a list of states where it is legal to park for an extended period of time to get some sleep:
- Illinois (only on Illinois Toll Road)
- Indiana (only on Indiana Toll Road)
- Minnesota (only at the Manitou Rapids Rest Area and Pomme-de-Terre Rest Area; camping is allowed at these locations)
- Nevada (parking allowed for up to 24 hours)
- New Mexico
- New York (only in an emergency)
- Ohio (only on the Ohio Turnpike)
- Oregon (the state has a 12-hour limit; many have free hot chocolate, tea, and coffee)
- Texas (parking allowed for up to 24 hours)
- Washington (some locations provide free coffee)
(Frugal RV Travel and FqF)
Campsites or Public Lands
Campgrounds provide spots for people to park their cars or RVs and would be a great choice as you could better ensure a hassle-free snooze. Campsites often have restroom and shower facilities, too, and hookups available for RVs. The owners of the sites charge a fee per night, however; it’s up to you whether you find the benefits are worth the cost. (The Wayward Home) You can use HipCamp or AllStays, free online campsite guides, to help find a campground near you.
Similarly, you can park on federal land, at least 100 to 150 feet from the nearest road, and sleep or camp (called “dispersed camping”) for free. Of course, being an unofficial campground, you won’t have access to any sort of amenities. In the States, we have 155 National Forests and 20 National Grasslands, totaling 191 million acres, meaning you have a vast number of options if you’re looking for a free sleeping spot! Go to the US Forest Service website to search for federal land in your state. (Reids Guides)
Several chain stores around the nation have reputations for allowing overnight parking for one night, and some even have RV hookups. None of the stores have an official policy, so you need to check in with the manager to make sure the individual store will permit you to stay overnight. The following are stores that will typically accommodate you:
- Bass Pro Shops
- Cabela’s (many have dedicated RV parking with dump stations, some with hookups)
- Camping World (many have RV hookups, and some have dedicated campgrounds, which have a fee)
- Cracker Barrel (some have dedicated RV parking)
- Sam’s Club
(FqF, The Wayward Home, Free Campgrounds, and RV Blogger)
Other Places to Consider
Here are some additional options you could try. Whenever possible, you need to ask permission to stay overnight for these recommendations, as it isn’t automatically legal to sleep in your car at these places. (FqF)
- Religious buildings (churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, etc.)
- 24-hour businesses (a good option for safety)
- Police stations
- Casinos (a particularly popular option among RVers; many have campgrounds)
- Vacant buildings (the recommendation is that you can safely sleep in the parking lot of buildings with “for lease” signs on them)
- Shipping container or storage unit facilities
The writer of The Wayward Home recommended the last three on the list, the last two of which she states she’s used many times and are some of her “go-to” spots. She advises she’s unclear of the legality of sleeping in your car at these places but indicates success with the options.
You never know what businesses, companies, or other buildings may be willing to help you out for a night, so if nothing listed above will work for you, simply ask the places near you. As the saying goes, it never hurts to ask!
Sleeping Safely in Your Car
The thought of sleeping in your car can lead to concerns about safety. Here are some tips on how to stay safe:
- Never sleep on the side of the road; you run the risk of getting hit by another vehicle.
- Research the areas to find a safer neighborhood to pull into.
- Sleep at a 24-hour location where there are greater chances for other people to be around in the event of a crisis or emergency.
- Choose a well-lit location; unsavory events tend to happen in the dark.
- Camouflage yourself by sleeping under blankets and/or possessions. Tinted windows are also helpful.
- Never sleep with your car running; you risk carbon monoxide poisoning by doing so.
(The Daily Dot and Compare)
Sleeping Comfortably in Your Car
Maybe this is something you’re planning to do regularly, whether to save on road trip expenses or as a lifestyle. Here are a few recommendations for how to convert your car into a comfy place for catching all the Z’s you need:
- First thing’s first: figure out where you will fit best. Avoid sleeping reclined in the front. A popular option, if you don’t have a big vehicle with an open back end, is to fold down the backseats and sleep feet-first into the trunk.
- Get a sleeping bag, mattress pad, or air mattress depending on what fits and what you find most comfortable. Allow yourself as much padding as you need. I personally recommend the “SoulOut” Sleeping Bag, Better Habitat Sleeping Pad, or the Onirii Car Inflatable Air Mattress (all available on Amazon – check the current price to get the best deal). If you have an SUV, Truck, or Minivan I highly recommend the Onirii Air Mattress because it is the most comfortable by far! If you have a smaller car the “SoulOut” Sleeping Bag and Better Habitat Sleeping Pad also work really well.
- Stock up your trunk and back seat with all the essentials: pillows, blankets, eye masks, clothes, coats and warm clothes if needed, water, food, towels, toiletries, flashlight, extra batteries, camp stove, camp cutlery, and a lighter. These are some general recommendations, but tailor it for your needs.
- You’ll probably want privacy. When it’s time to go to sleep, put all your extra belongings on the dash, rear window, and along the sides to block as many windows as possible. Hang any towels, extra blankets, or fabrics to block any remaining visibility.
- You need ventilation. Again, DO NOT sleep with your car running for safety reasons. The best option, if you have one, is open the sunroof as wide as possible without being a big enough opening for a person or animal to get in. Buy some screen material and make a screen that you can fit into the opening to allow a bit more ventilation without letting bugs in. Otherwise, cracking the windows works, too.
(Compare and Travel Dudes)
Sadly, since 2014, more than 81 cities and towns have passed legislation to outlaw sleeping in cars, all in an effort to control the homeless population. Sleeping in cars has also become a way of life for college students (more than one-third of whom do not have stable housing) and for full-time working adults due to the increasing prices of real estate. (The Daily Dot) To make matters worse, the number of homeless individuals far exceeds the number of shelter beds available.
Whatever the reason is that you find yourself homeless or regularly needing to sleep out of your vehicle, you should move around as much as possible. (The Wayward Home) Ideally, you don’t want to stay in the same place two nights in a row to best avoid being noticed and hassled. Hopefully, you’ll be able to accomplish this with ease, especially with the above lists of options and additional tips.
Drink Too Much?
It happens, and that’s okay. But it’s never okay to drive after drinking. So what do you do? As I mentioned in the beginning, you could be asleep in your car with the car in park, and still get a DUI. While you can take some precautions to make it crystal clear you’re only sleeping and not planning to drive intoxicated, you still run the risk of a DUI due to the various state laws and their interpretations.
Courts have upheld convictions for DUIs for the following instances: a driver asleep at the wheel with the car running, a driver asleep in the front seat with their head near the passenger window, and a driver asleep in the front seat with the keys in their pocket.
My point is that your best option is to call a friend, a cab, or rideshare, and get your behind home to bed. The cost of fare is far cheaper than a DUI!
If you insist on trying your luck and sleeping in your car, your best bet is to sleep in the backseat if you have one, or passenger seat if not, and to put your car keys in the trunk. This will put you in the best position to convince an officer you were not planning to drive under the influence. I wish you the best of luck! (FindLaw)
Hopefully, you’re only sleeping in your car because you want to (it’s a thing… no judgments!), but either way, you’re now prepared. You need to research any city laws regarding sleeping in a car, and you can find an accommodating truck stop, rest stop, store or campground, or take advantage of federal lands. You know how best to stay safe and comfortable while sleeping in your vehicle. If it’s a regular thing you’re doing, move around frequently. Finally, make it your last resort to sleeping off a night of drinking. I do hope this article was helpful and provided the information you needed!