Where Should You Sleep if You’re Living Out of Your Car?

You might live in your car full-time, or you might be traveling, but there are many reasons why you might sleep in your car. It saves money over getting a hotel. But before sleeping or camping in your car, you should know the spots to pick and the ones to avoid to minimize trouble. Some spots are illegal, and others will help you ensure car safety.

Places you can sleep in your car

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It can sometimes be difficult to find a good spot to sleep in your car overnight. Road Trip USA suggests finding a private, safe place that allows cooking and has restrooms.

  • Walmart parking lots: A Walmart parking lot is a great spot to park overnight. It’s a nationwide chain, so you’ll likely come across one on your travels. Overnight parking, including with an RV, is allowed at about half of the nation’s 4,700 Walmarts, Drivin’ & Vibin’ reports, so call ahead to confirm. The parking lots are well-lit, improving safety. Some stores are open 24 hours, providing restroom access, and many offer free Wi-Fi. But light sleepers might have trouble with the bright lights and early-morning shoppers. 
  • Casinos: If you’re near a casino, especially in Nevada, they’re open 24 hours, so you’ll have access to restrooms and restaurants. Many also have security guards and cameras in their parking lots for improved safety. Because the casino assumes you’re there to gamble, don’t draw attention to yourself in the parking lot by cooking outdoors, walking around excessively, or playing loud music.
  • Rest stops: If you’re on the highway, you’ll probably pass several rest areas. You can legally sleep here in many states, so you won’t be asked to leave in the middle of the night. Many also have 24-hour restrooms and picnic tables. Some are secluded and not well-lit, though, so be sure to pick a spot where you feel comfortable.
  • Welcome centers: Often found near state lines, these spots offer larger parking lots that don’t get much overnight use. You can also get maps and info about local attractions. However, they aren’t open round-the-clock, so there isn’t overnight restroom access.
  • Bureau of Land Management sites: Dispersed camping is permitted on BLM land, so you won’t have trouble sleeping in your car or setting up a tent. It’s allowed pretty much anywhere except trailheads and designated campsites, and you can stay for 14 days (and sometimes 30) without paying. You’ll need to make sure you take all of your trash away with you. This is more of an option out West than in the East.

Where it’s illegal to sleep in your car

Some types of parking and even states are illegal to sleep in your car. It’s best to avoid these locations; otherwise, you could be asked to leave in the middle of the night or get a ticket. Also, your car should be parked while you’re sleeping, even if you’re in a Tesla with Autopilot.

Generally, it’s illegal to sleep overnight in the parking lot of a grocery store, mall, or restaurant. However, if you’re willing to take the risk, sometimes no one will notice you’re there. They are convenient in many suburban places. However, keep in mind that mall parking lots sometimes attract thieves.

Also, sleeping in your car on a city street overnight is relatively safe. It’s also often free because parking fees are generally required only during the day. However, sleeping in your car there overnight is usually illegal, so you won’t want to do anything that could get you noticed. Plus, there’s no access to public restrooms during the night.

Some states have stricter laws than others. Some places in Florida ban sleeping in your car. Neither the Sunshine State nor Georgia allows sleeping on a highway shoulder. You can sleep at Florida rest stops but only for three hours at a time, Direct Auto Insurance reports. Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee don’t allow overnight parking at rest stops and have some limits on how long you can park during the day. Walmart parking lots are good spots in these states, but call ahead to confirm the location allows it.

Staying safe when sleeping in your car

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Here are ways to stay safe when sleeping in your car:

  • Park near a light pole.
  • Park in the shade to help keep the car cooler.
  • Avoid sleeping on the side of the road because it’s less safe, and you could get hit while parked.
  • Bring any bikes or interesting belongings on an outside rack inside your vehicle if you can. Don’t leave valuables in plain sight.
  • Lock your doors.
  • Don’t sleep with the car running or the climate controls on. This burns gas and drains the battery. It could also force you to breathe emissions while you sleep. Instead, use a battery-operated fan.
  • Don’t leave your windows open more than a bit to keep thieves out. But leaving a small opening improves air ventilation.
  • The Drive also suggests texting your location to someone before going to sleep.

These types of accommodations aren’t for everyone. But if you choose good locations and plan ahead, you’ll be able to sleep in your car safely.