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As more people consider sleeping in their car instead of paying exorbitant rent, one key question always pops up: Is it illegal to sleep in your car?
When Tom and I were living in the Prius, we constantly wondered if it was illegal to sleep in your car in California. We always felt like were on alert, ready for that dreaded 2 a.m. knock on a window. We concocted stories we’d tell the cops, changed our location almost every night, thought of new and interesting places to park. I did research, read news stories, tried to figure out whether it truly was illegal to sleep, and found places to stay safe overnight parking.
Here’s what I found out.
It’s usually illegal to sleep in your car on city streets and city parks
Sleeping in your car on property owned by cities is usually illegal. And in cities where the wealth gap is growing, it seems government agencies are cracking down even harder on people who live in their cars. Here are a few sobering examples of places that specifically prohibit sleeping overnight.
- Results from a 2016 homeless count figured 7,000 people live in their cars in Los Angeles. The excess of cars and RVs parked on neighborhood streets at night prompted the city to completely ban sleeping in a car during the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. It’s illegal to sleep in your car at all times near schools, pre-schools, daycare facilities and parks.
- In Silicon Valley, the city of Mountain View recently cracked down on dozens of RVs that parked on a tree-lined street in the same city where Google built its headquarters. At last count, people were living in around 330 vehicles parked throughout the city.
- In San Francisco, there’s an ordinance that prohibits people from sleeping in their car between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., but you still see vans and RVs parked in outlying areas.
- In Portland, vans that parked on streets in the idyllic Lad’s Addition neighborhood were vandalized.
- But Berkeley, California seems a bit more lenient than other cities. Check out this guide on where to park and sleep in your car without being hassled.
One place that’s great to sleep is rest areas. According to the California Department of Transportation state law, people are allowed to park and sleep in rest stops for up to 8-hours, a law that’s similar in other parts of the United States as well. If you’re heading to San Francisco, I’d highly recommend the rest stop that overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge. I swear, it’s the most beautiful rest stop you’ll ever see.
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The bottom line is this: If you want to sleep in your car overnight on city streets, you have to be ultra-stealth. Sleep in a small car nobody would guess could be slept in. Have tinted windows. Park late and leave early. Crack your windows so they don’t fog up overnight. Keep the visible part of the interior of your car very clean. Change location frequently. Be prepared for that dreaded knock on the window.
It’s possible to park and sleep in city streets, but it’s not the most relaxing night of sleep you’ll ever have.
Sometimes, you can sleep in your car on private property
There are several big box stores where it’s not illegal to sleep in your car. Those stores include:
- Walmart, which even says this on its website: While we do not offer electrical service or accommodations typically necessary for RV customers, Walmart values RV travelers and considers them among our best customers. Consequently, we do permit RV parking in our store parking lots as we are able. Permission to park is extended by individual store managers, based on availability of parking space and local laws. Please contact management in each store to ensure accommodations before parking your RV.
- Cabellas, which sometimes has a designated area for overnight campers
- Camping World, but make sure to ask at that particular location
- Sam’s Club, but depends on location. Call ahead to make sure
Trucks stops are also a great place to sleep in your car, van or RV while you’re traveling.
In San Jose, California, officials are allowing the Winter Faith Collaborative to let people park and sleep in their cars at places of assembly like gyms and churches.
Sleeping in your car is legal in campsites or public lands
Camping is one option if you want to sleep in your car 100% legally. The unfortunate thing about this option is you’ll have to pay the campground fee, which is often up to $35 per night. The good thing about this is you’ll have access to bathrooms, showers, and hookups if you’re in a van or an RV.
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Sometimes, we could sneak into campgrounds late at night and leave early in the morning to avoid paying the camping fee.
Another option is boondocking, or sleeping in your car for free on federal lands, or what they call “dispersed camping”.
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Random other places to try sleeping in your car
- Marinas. We often sleep in boat marinas when we’re traveling by car. It’s most likely illegal, but many are completely empty and desolate with no security. We’ve gotten away with this in many states and its one of our go-to places to sleep in the car.
- Shipping container storage unit facilities. We’ve slept in our shipping container storage unit facility many times, and also slept outside another storage facility in the Bay area.
- Casinos. Read why one RVing couple loves sleeping at casinos.
Good luck and have fun!
Hopefully, this information will help you determine that one niggling question: is it illegal to sleep in your car?
Please let me know if I’ve missed anything.
Good luck on your journey!
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