As a lifelong road tripper, sometimes my only option for the night is to crash in my car.
Whether I’m visiting a new city and hotels are too expensive or I’m on a road trip and couldn’t find a hotel, sleeping in my car allows me to save money.
However, is it safe, and will it damage the car?
Can you sleep in a car overnight?
In a nutshell, yes, you can sleep in a car overnight. As a general rule, it’s not illegal to sleep in your car under federal law, though some states and cities have laws against it. It won’t damage your car to sleep in it, and you can stay safe and get a good night’s rest by following some simple steps.
Here’s all my advice and tips for sleeping in your car overnight.
The Legality of Sleeping in Your Car
Under federal law, there’s nothing wrong with sleeping in your car. However, that doesn’t mean sleeping in your car is always okay, either.
First, some states and cities have laws against sleeping in your vehicle overnight.
For example, in Hawaii, it is illegal to use a car for human habitation between 6 PM and 6 AM on public roads, highways, and any public property.
In other words, you can’t sleep in a car overnight.
Similarly, individual cities and municipalities may have ordinances against sleeping in cars.
These laws are usually in place to combat homelessness.
That’s why it’s important to do your research before parking your car anywhere.
Laws can be repealed, and new laws can be put in place.
Just because you were able to park in a city a year ago, that doesn’t mean the laws have remained the same.
For example, San Diego has a long history of enacting and repealing bans against sleeping in cars.
Nevertheless, if you live in San Diego, some charitable organizations have safe parking spaces for overnight sleeping.
Finally, sleeping while intoxicated or trespassing (sleeping on private property without the owner’s permission) is always illegal, all across the country.
Can You Sleep at Walmart?
Walmart parking lots are popular places for sleeping overnight.
That’s because Walmart, as a general policy, allows people to park RVs and other vehicles overnight and sleep in them.
However, Walmart does give individual branch managers discretion whether to permit this or not.
So, in some locations, the manager might not allow sleeping overnight, especially if people abused that privilege in the past.
It’s always a good idea to call ahead of time and ask if it will be okay.
Tips for Finding a Good Place to Park and Sleep
If sleeping in your vehicle overnight is legal in your state, here are some tips for finding a good parking spot.
First, find a quiet place. A parking lot in front of a Walmart or another chain store is usually good.
Find a corner that isn’t normally busy, where people won’t notice you.
If you can’t find a parking lot, parking on the side of the road can work.
Find a peaceful road. Look for a safe area – you don’t want to park in a neighborhood known for high crime rates.
At the same time, you probably don’t want to sleep in an upscale district, either.
That’s because the residents may become suspicious and call the police on you.
While you might not be doing anything wrong under the law, you don’t need to make things difficult for you.
Why risk being woken up in the middle of the night and told to move?
In some states, rest stops welcome overnight sleepers. In others, there are laws against loitering at rest stops overnight.
Additionally, rest stops can get noisy, especially if truckers frequent them.
However, you may find safe parking spaces, set up by local organizations, where people can park safely at night.
If you are on a road trip, look for a camping site near you, where you may be able to enjoy a hot shower and use a clean toilet.
How to Get a Good Night’s Sleep When Sleeping in Your Car
Getting a good night’s sleep in your car is possible, as long as you set things up correctly. First, make yourself comfortable.
You can sleep in your front seat if you lean it back, or you can lie down in the back of your car.
Either way, invest in comfortable pillows, cushions, and blankets.
A neck pillow (like the ones they sell in airports) can help you avoid neck pain.
Good blankets are crucial in the winter, and you can also put them under you to make things easier on your back.
Consider investing in some curtains for your car windows.
They will help block out light, whether from streetlights or headlights.
A good eye mask is helpful, too – get one that’s comfortable and will block out most light.
Get a good pair of earplugs. They are critical if you park in a parking lot of a store that will remain open all night.
Also, get a portable white noise machine, or download a white noise app on your phone. It will help you fall asleep quicker.
Some herbal supplements or melatonin can also help you fall asleep.
Tea can help, but if you drink too much before going to sleep, you might need to visit the bathroom in the middle of the night.
Can You Leave the Car Running Overnight?
No. You should not leave your car running overnight.
Doing it once in a while won’t cause much damage.
However, if you do it every night, it will shorten your car’s lifespan.
The longer you leave your car running, the more it will cost you. You will be using up gas, which can be expensive, and it can slowly kill your battery.
Even leaving your keys in the ignition can be harmful to your car. In some cars (not all models), it will drain the battery.
So, what should you do if you need to stay warm or cool overnight? If you need to stay warm, get a lot of blankets and wear warm clothes, including gloves and hats.
Consider getting warming gloves – they have heating pockets that keep your fingers warm.
Wear warm winter socks, or even two pairs of socks, and keep the windows closed.
If you need to stay cool, wear light clothing.
A portable fan might help – you can recharge it during the day. Park in a shaded place if it gets dark late or bright early.
Will Sleeping in Your Car Damage It?
No, not if you don’t leave the car running or the key in the ignition. However, it might start smelling a little, especially if you eat all your meals in your car and keep the windows closed.
To combat that, make sure to clean out your car regularly.
Air out your car during the day, and use an air freshener to keep it smelling nice.
Sleeping in your car might be your best option if you are transitioning between apartments, working for Uber Eats in a new city, or taking a long road trip.
Either way, remember to stay safe – keep your car doors locked, don’t roll your windows down all the way, and keep your phone nearby in case you need to call for help.