sleeping in the car guide

Sleeping in the Car: The Ultimate Comprehensive Guide

Sleeping in the car is a budget, flexible alternative to car camping in which you actually sleep in your vehicle instead of setting up a tent outdoors. It’s an adventure, but always consider the safety of your environment when relaxing in the back of the car for a good night’s sleep.

Road trips are an epic and enjoyable way to explore a new place. Having the option of a warm, cozy bed whilst car sleeping opens up a world of possibilities.

You might even find yourself settling down for the night in your vehicle whilst it’s on the driveway!

In this guide, I will cover top tips, where to park, equipment, safety, legal aspects, comfort, best vehicles, and much more.

Read this guide to learn how to sleep in a car whilst being as comfortable and safe as possible. Please use the contents to navigate to the section you need!

sleeping in the car infographic

Sleeping In The Car Top Tips

sleeping in the car
My road trip SUV!

Here are my top 5 tips for sleeping in the car.

  • Do not leave the AC/engine running as there is a risk of poor air quality or even carbon monoxide poisoning (worst case).
  • Cover the windows for privacy but leave a small opening for ventilation
  • Check out our equipment guide to make a cozy bed and have all the car essentials you need.
  • Follow our safety tips and info on where to park to sleep in the car
  • Always lock the doors and NEVER park on the side of a road.

A few other notes before we get started. Your aim whilst car sleeping is to be as discreet and respectful as possible.

Make sure your car is clean and tidy and that you are presentable. You don’t want anyone to give the car a second glance!

If you do get disturbed it’s better if it’s an authority figure than someone who might do you harm.

Safety always comes first.

Don’t leave rubbish behind and aim to use the bathroom before you get set up for the night.

Be respectful.

Is It Illegal To Sleep In Your Car?

If you are looking to sleep in your car in the USA then that answer is, it depends. The rules vary from state to state and many cities have specifically banned sleeping in your car.

Before you try it, it is important to know if it is illegal to sleep in your car.

I would recommend googling whether it is legal in the specific location you are in. You should continue to do so if you are planning to move from state to state.

It’s always important to remember that if you do choose to do this then you must park legally. In addition, do not sleep in the car whilst intoxicated as you may be charged with DUI.

Can you sleep in your car at Walmart?

can you sleep in your car in walmart

Walmart can be an excellent option for an overnight sleeping spot. Walmart is also a great place to go inside and pick up any essentials that you may have forgotten for your night in a vehicle.

Many Walmart locations allow free overnight parking. If you arrive at a Walmart near a national park it’s common to see RVs parked there. This is a good indication that there is free overnight parking.

However, you should always check the signage as rules may change from site to site.

You can use this page on Allstays to find a suitable location! They also have a downloadable app for your smartphone.

It’s also a good spot to go inside and use the bathroom/freshen up before you get your head down for the night!

Walmart also ranks highly in terms of safety because of security and lighting.

Always do your own risk assessment!

Can you sleep in your car in the UK?

Yes, it is legal to sleep in your car in the UK. That being said, this is contingent on you following rules regarding parking restrictions.

It is not legal to sleep in the car if you are not parked legally.

Can you sleep in your car in Europe?

Yes, you can sleep in your car whilst driving around Europe. As usual, make sure you are parked legally.

When searching on RentalCars you can filter for Estate cars and SUVs which will have the largest areas for you to sleep on. It’s also worth seeing if you can get tinted windows for additional privacy.

How To Sleep In Your Car Comfortably

how to sleep in your car

When you are thinking about how to sleep in your car your two primary concerns will be safety and comfort. We will cover both of those in this article but this section is centered around comfort.

Being comfortable when sleeping in the car is all about preparation and planning.

You need to make sure you have the right equipment but also follow the rules in this article to make sure you are set up correctly for a relaxed night’s rest.

This section will give you the rundown of all the gear you need to make it a pleasant experience.

Read on to learn how to sleep in your car.

How to stay warm whilst sleeping in a car

warm clothing
My sleeping bag and thermal clothing for sleeping in the car

There are three main ways to stay warm whilst sleeping in the car.

  1. Make a warm bed with a mattress, sleeping bag and pillow
  2. Wear multiple layers when sleeping (thermal in winter)
  3. Insulate the car by putting insulation material on the windows.

Sleeping Gear

Staying warm whilst sleeping in the car will involve having a nice cozy bed to sleep in at night.

For this we recommend:

  • A great quality summer sleeping bag or winter sleeping bag
  • A portable/camping pillow
  • An inflatable sleeping mattress or camping matt.

Warm Clothing

Even with a really warm sleeping bag, if its a cold time of year I would recommend wearing multiple layers.

you want clothing that is warm breathable. Thin layers are great as you can easily take one or two off during the night if you get too hot.

Insulating The Windows

You can buy this material off Amazon and cut it to size. You can use tape to stick it to the windows.

The insulative material doubles up as a great way to get extra privacy.

NOTE: Even if you insulate the car it will still get very cold in the winter! The absolutely most important thing is to have a warm bed and lots of layers.

Electronics chargers

car comfort accessories

It’s important to have the ability to charge electronic devices. The main options for doing this are:

  • An in-car charger that uses the car battery to charge devices
  • A power bank that you charge and use as an extra supply.
  • A solar panel which is used during the day to charge a battery/electronic devices.

Be careful charging devices up when the engine is turned off. If you overdo it you could have trouble starting the car the following morning!

Headlamps and Lanterns

A headlamp or lantern is a must-have for any road trip camper so you can see what you are doing both in the vehicle or in case you need to wander around outside.

They are also great if you want to sit and relax outside on a camping chair without lighting a fire.

Washing after sleeping in the car

If you are planning on sleeping in the car for multiple nights you will need to consider washing and keeping clean. Walmart is a great option as a place to use the bathroom to freshen up.

You can also go to a campground or even stay natural in a river!

This is a great in-depth article from outbound living.

Budget Options

  • Buy a gym membership that allows you to use the showers and gym. This is great if you are long term sleeping in the car.
  • Wash in the ocean
  • Use your network to stop off at a friend of families house and get cleaned up
  • Couchsurfing
  • Campgrounds
  • wet wipes, dry shampoo, and deodorant!
  • Public toilets such as Walmart or Macdonalds

Toiletries and showering

There are portable shower kits if you choose to do that. Dry shampoo is also a great item to bring along as well as some roll-on deodorant and wet wipes.

  • Pay to use the showers at a local campsite
  • Go old school and wash in a lake or stream.

Budget Portable Shower

It’s possible to set up a budget portable shower. Be prepared for a cold shower though unless you plan on boiling some water and adding it into the mix!

Equipment For Sleeping In The Car

sleeping in the car equipment

When you sleep in the car your main option is to put down/remove the back seats and sleep with your feet toward the back of the vehicle. This will give you more room due to the wheel wells.

It is far better to sleep lying down than on the front passenger seat, but that is also an option.

Equipment Quick List

Here is the equipment quick list with links to Amazon for each item.

  • Sleeping Bag
  • Inflatable mattress or camping matt
  • In-car charger and Bluetooth audio receiver
  • Anker Power Pack
  • Headlamp and lantern
  • Thermal under layer

Additional Quick List Items

Where To Park When Sleeping In The Car

where to park when sleeping in your car
Places like this are too secluded and potentially unsafe

Finding the correct location is the most important thing when sleeping in the car!

Cities are a great place to start as there are lots of locations. Make sure there are NO parking restrictions and that you are not at risk of another vehicle hitting you, or being towed.

If you are outside the city in the USA then consider taking a look at Allstays or Hipcamp for free and paid locations to set up camp for the night.

Here is a great list of apps by Allstays to help you find a location in the USA.

General guidelines for finding a location in or near a city:

  • Park on flat ground, not blocking anything/anyone.
  • Check signage to see if there are parking restrictions or permits/charges applicable. Avoid anywhere with restrictions.
  • Google if sleeping in the car is considered vagrancy in the country/state you are in.
  • Do not pull over on the side of a road or anywhere you are at risk of getting hit by a car.
  • Don’t park in a location where you may be vulnerable to people that may wish to steal from you or do you harm.
  • Always be respectful and don’t leave a mess
  • Don’t stay in a location for more than one night unless you have to
  • Don’t sleep in places where there is evidence of beer bottles

When sleeping in the car, it’s better to be disturbed by a cop than a criminal!

The Road Trip Expert

Good Parking Locations

Big stores like Walmart are great as they have massive car parks and often no overnight parking restrictions. Failing this you can check out a religious building.

Suggestions and Resources

  • Walmart stores – check this overnight list of locations
  • Rest areas
  • Casinos – occasionally offer free overnight parking.
  • Friends and family
  • Truck Stops – check for locations
  • Residential areas
  • Religious buildings
  • 24-hour business’
  • overnightrvparking.com – The largest online free database of locations!
  • Look for public lands where there is free overnight parking
  • Chat to the locals! If you are in a service station getting supplies you could ask if they know a place to park overnight.
  • Hotel or apartment parking areas
  • freecampsites.net is a great resource.
  • ioverlander is another option for finding places to stop

Parking on public lands

sleeping in the car on public lands

In some places, you will find that there are free campgrounds that you can park on. These can have bathrooms and the ability to get rid of the trash.

I recommend looking at this site public lands.

You can also check out

  • Bureau of Land Management (BLM) areas
  • National grasslands
  • National forests.

Parking in residential areas

residential area

Residential areas are OK as long as you are not blocking anyone and are polite. Try to leave fairly early so you are not disturbed.

A good place to start is googling “best neighborhoods in X city” before you set off for that location. You can also use Google street view to see if it looks like a good place to park up.

When your planning on sleeping in neighbourhoods there are a bunch of rules that are important to follow. It’s best to go unnoticed and arrive late, preferably after 10 pm. If someone sees you getting into the back of the car early in the evening you are more likely to get a knock on the window.

If you’re disturbed then its usually best to just move on. Be polite and have a reason for being there perhaps you will get some advice from the locals on another suitable location.

Parking in Walmart

check out this section of the guide on parking in Walmart.

Safety Whilst Sleeping in the Car

car camping safety

Your safety is absolutely the most important thing when deciding to sleep in the car.

This section details how to ensure you are safe, what the risks are, and how you can minimize them.

What are the dangers of sleeping in a car overnight?

When sleeping in the car most of the danger will arise from outside of the car itself.

The dangers:

  • Car rolling away or another vehicle colliding with you.
  • Issues with the police if sleeping in the car is considered vagrancy
  • Poor air quality from bad ventilation
  • Being visible to someone that may wish to rob you or do you harm
  • carbon monoxide poisoning

The solutions:

  • Read this section on how to cover the windows when sleeping in the car. This will prevent you from being visible.
  • Park in a secure location to avoid a collision as described in this section on where to park when sleeping in the car
  • Leave the window/sunroof slightly open for ventilation as discussed in this section.
  • Ensure you have a good sleeping bag or blanket as discussed in the equipment section, to keep warm.
  • DO NOT sleep in the car with the engine/AC running. More info in this article.
  • Try to make your car stand out as little as possible. Remove any stickers or markings and give it a good clean.

Is it safe to sleep in the car with the engine running?

NO, don’t do it.

If you sleep in the car with the windows closed and the AC on there is a risk of the same air being recycled and/or engine fumes entering the cabin.

This is a big risk because carbon monoxide is odorless and can cause death if too much is inhaled.

It’s also worth remembering that you would be paying for fuel if you leave the engine running overnight.

The solution

  • Keep a couple of windows slightly open whilst sleeping in the car
  • Use a sleeping bag or blanket to stay warm

Covering the Car Windows for Sleeping

It’s important to try and cover the windows/not be visible when sleeping in the car. This is for safety reasons and also because cars are terrible at blocking out light and sound.

You can cover the windows use string, bungees and some material such as cheap black bedsheets. You may also want to get an eye cover and/or earplugs so you can wake up when you want to.

Additionally, you can put your belongings against the windows or trap some material by closing the window on it, hanging it appropriately

Insulating the car for winter car camping

If you are sleeping in the car during winter then you may consider buying some insulative material and cutting it to size.

You can then use tape to cover the windows and keep the heat in during the night.

Opening the windows when sleeping in the car

windows open while sleeping in the car

In order to create adequate ventilation, I recommend leaving a few windows slightly open to allow airflow.

If you have a sunroof then this can be a great way to get some ventilation without attracting attention. It’s better to open a few windows a small amount each than attract attention with a big gap in one window.

Do not use the AC or leave the engine running.

Is it safe to sleep in the car with the windows up?

As temperatures drop at night, it’s difficult to stay warm when sleeping in the car.

However, to ensure there is good circulation of air you should still leave a small gap in the windows.

I would not sleep with the windows down too far as this is a security risk!

What is the best car for sleeping in?

sleep in car
SUV’s are an excellent choice for sleeping in the car

To get the best nights sleep it’s important you can lie down on a properly constructed bed. This is usually going to involve putting the back seats down flat.

If you are looking to buy a car for a road trip that you plan on sleeping in check out our article on the best cars to sleep in.

The key points are

  • Ability to lie down flat
  • Ability to block out the windows either with tinting, material or insulative material
  • Sunroof if possible for discreet ventilation

Best Rental Cars to Sleep in

The great thing about sleeping in a rental car is the flexibility to choose one with enough space to lie down as flat as possible.

If you are tall like me then usually it involves sleeping at an angle however some big cars can allow even me to lie flat.

Here are a few examples of rental cars you can sleep in which are available often on RentalCars.com

  • A large estate car such as a VW Golf Sportwagen
  • A large SUV such as a Chevrolet Equinox or Toyota Rav 4
  • A minivan such as a Toyota Sienna

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Entertainment Whilst Sleeping In The Car

Here are a few examples of things to keep you busy whilst having a night sleeping in the car

  • Download movies onto your smart device when you have wifi
  • Podcasts, audiobooks, and music
  • Pick up a Kindle on Amazon and download some awesome books.
  • Grab some camp chairs and a cooking stove from our camping gear page and have a cookout under the stars.
  • Take a few books to read
  • Meditate
  • Write a journal about your adventure
  • Get outside and do a workout

Check out our guide on Road Trip Entertainment.

Food Ideas When Sleeping In The Car

car sleeping

No night in your car is complete without some great snacks to enjoy whilst you watch a movie you downloaded in advance.

A good tip is to either visit the supermarket beforehand or pick up some snacks at the service station during your final bathroom break.

We’ve written an article on road trip food which may be of use to you if you are planning ahead.

If you are planning on cooking whilst on the road, we have a great camping packing list that includes advice about stoves and equipment.

Reminder List

Here is a reminder list of all the things to consider when planning to sleep in the car.

  • Purchase the required equipment
  • Final bathroom break
  • Plan entertainment
  • Plan food, water, and snacks
  • Find a safe location

Do you have any experience of sleeping in the car? Let us know in the comments section below!