Federal law does not make it illegal to sleep in your car, with a few exceptions that I will outline below. Despite this, some US cities have ordinances (local laws) in place to stop or control, overnight sleeping in vehicles.
Upon researching this complex subject, it appears these laws exist to regulate longer-term dwelling. As a road-tripper, it is important to be aware of legalities, so you can confidently navigate your way to legal resting places.
If you are tired on a long car journey, you must break from driving. Never drive when drowsy. My advice is to ‘catch up on sleep’ at rest stops, but have planned stays designated accommodation.
In this article, I will provide information on legalities, visiting highway rest areas, and the situation with parking overnight at Walmart. Finally, I will outline places you can legally sleep in your vehicle.
Let’s get started with the main question on your mind…
Is it illegal to sleep in your car?
No, under federal law, it is not illegal to sleep in your car unless you are trespassing, intoxicated (including engine off), or falling asleep whilst driving. That being said, some cities have local ordinances that do make it a crime. Some states also prohibit overnight stays at rest stops, to control loitering. Therefore, it is important to choose designated places for your vehicle, you can’t just park and sleep anywhere.
Federal law prohibits:
Sleeping in a car whilst intoxicated
Sleeping in your car if trespassing without permission
Falling asleep at the wheel
For information, Federal Law is US national law (the law of the land) and takes precedence over local law. Due to this, some road-trippers suggest sleeping anywhere if it is just for a break. Some travelers advise being discreet, and not getting hung up on ordinances. However, I suggest always find a designated stop!
Laws in cities that regulate sleeping in cars are a sensitive and complex subject due to the link to homelessness. I do think it is important to be aware of the context, whether you agree or not.
To ensure you comply with the law when needing sleep:
Stay off of the highway shoulders
Avoid busy city streets
Avoid sleeping in the caron popular tourist areas such as beaches
Don’t park and sleep in residential areas
Avoid private property (unless you have permission).
Why is it illegal to sleep in your car?
Many cities make it illegal for you to sleep in your car to prevent loitering and regulate homelessness. San Diego bans sleeping in cars and has ‘Safe Parking Lot’ programs, to move people out of vehicles, into permanent accommodation. Road trippers suggest that ordinances aren’t generally enforced in relation to catching up on sleep on a long road trip. Even so, obeying them is advised.
It is illegal to sleep in your car if you are trespassing on private property because you must have the owner’s permission. Being intoxicated in charge of a vehicle is against the law, as it is unsafe.
There are many different factors that make sleeping in cars illegal, but it mainly comes down to where you are parked, and what your intent is. If you obey signage, use rest stops, avoid restricted parking areas, and private property, you can’t go wrong.
In Hawaii, it is illegal to sleep in your car between the hours of 6 pm and 6 am. Other state laws impose time limits or bans on ‘overnight stays’ at rest areas. It is legal to arrive at a rest area 24/7 and sleep until you are safe to drive. The lines are blurry as to the difference between a ‘rest’ and an overnight stay in a rest stop. Yet, rest areas are always legal for resting, no matter what US state you are in.
To stay in line with the law, always obey times in parking zones, and sleep only in designated places. Use All Stays for detailed maps and information about rest stops, time limits, and their facilities.
Is it illegal to sleep in your car in Walmart?
It is illegal in some US cities to sleep in your car in Walmart if the municipality has local parking restrictions, and there is an ordinance in place. Sleeping overnight at Walmart was originally made countrywide to welcome RV customers on their road trips. However, many people over-used the offering, caused damage, littering, and disruption. Now, Walmart store managers have individual discretion.
In order to stay at Walmart:
Always call ahead, or go into the store to ask permission
Park away from street lamps so help you to nod off
Be respectful to staff and other customers
Leave a good impression of road trippers, to prevent managers banning it
Use the Walmart Store Finder, to find details of the nearby store, and then call them up. Ask the store manager whether there are spaces, whether you have permission, and if they can inform you about any local ordinances.
Location-wise, federal law doesn’t make it illegal to sleep in your car, unless you are on private property without the owner’s permission. State laws refer to rest areas and how long they allow to ‘rest’. Hawaii makes it illegal between 18:00 and 06:00. Some busy cities, including Key West, San Diego, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis, prohibit sleeping in your car on public roadways and private land.
Popular tourist destinations, such as beaches and busy cities, are known to be strict on parking policies, never assume you can just pull up for a snooze, or park overnight anywhere.
This brings me nicely on to the final part, where can you sleep in your car!
Where can you sleep in your car legally?
You can legally sleep in your car in rest areas, but pay attention to time limits. Walmarts are popular for road trippers, however, it is down to managers’ discretion. You can legally sleep in your car on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) public land. 24-hour establishments with parking lots, such as hotels and casinos may allow napping in your car, with permission! Finally, a friend’s private drive or yard, with their permission.
Rest areas (observe time limits and don’t stay for long periods).
Friends private land
Casinos/hotel parking lots with permission
Walmart with permission
Rest area, state-set time limits, vary from 2 to 24 hours. Although, if you are catching up on sleep to clear fatigue, it is highly unlikely you will get cleared off. Safe driving (and therefore breaking on a long drive) is encouraged; the limits are set to prevent people loitering, and long-term stays.
When it comes to safety at rest areas, make sure you take precautions. Some road trippers report that certain remote places don’t feel safe. All Stays (Pro) displays user reviews and star ratings, so you can judge which one you feel comfortable sleeping at.
In the US, there are 245 million acres of public BLM land. The BLM website allows you to easily search places to sleep, and often up to 14 days is allowed. Staying on this land is scenic, budget-friendly (often free), and legal. Take a tent with you for camping in the stunning scenery.
Overall, always obey signage and avoid inner-city public road parking. Choose rest areas for catching up on sleep in your car, and for longer stays, choose BLM land.